Sixteenth century versions recounted how Phyllis, a wife or courtesan of Alexander the Great, was so beautiful that she charmed even his legendary tutor, Aristotle. Seeking to avenge herself for an earlier slight by the counsellor, Phyllis had Aristotle prove his devotion by agreeing to wear a bit and bridle, then be ridden around by Phyllis in a palace garden where he presumed (wrongly!) that they would not be seen. Silly Aristotle! Phyllis arranged for Alexander to witness her triumph and poor Aristotle was left to explain to the young king that if a woman could achieve this with a wise old man, how much more vulnerable were young men!
Sometimes when I teach early modern history, I begin the course sharing a selection of images from the time, including this one. At first, students mostly don’t know what to make of it. They don’t know the story. Some of them don’t know Aristotle! So I tell them the story and a bit about the significance of Aristotle, then I ask them to examine the image again, maybe picturing themselves as a sixteenth century woman or man, encountering this image. How would he or she react? What concepts and beliefs might this image challenge or reinforce? If they know the Wife of Bath’s Tale, how do these compare? What do they think might be a “good Christian” attitude about this story given what they know of the period? Would anyone have spoken for Phyllis (just as, not quite a century later, Montaigne pondered lighting a candle for St. Michael’s dragon)?
Then there are all the questions I don’t even know enough to ask of them or myself.
It’s a useful reminder of how much we have to know to get into the mindset of a historical time – we have to know about Aristotle, we have to know about this story, we have to know about sexual norms and there’s so much more. We can instinctively smirk when we see the world turned upside down, with Phyllis triumphant, but we should also think how much this picture reinforced quite the opposite.