The Unfortunate Monk, A Poem by Hilarion Ptochoprodromos (12th Century)

This poem is a satire of the life in a Byzantine monastery. The text survives in eight manuscripts, in full with alterations and in fragments, which shows the sensation it created. This poem is also addressed to the emperor Manuel I (1143–80), by the novice monk, or “rag-wearer.” In Suppl.1034 of 1364, the title is: “Other verses of Hilarion, the monk Ptochoprodromos, to the most revered emperor lord Manuel the Purple-born and Komnenos.”

Ptochoprodromos 1

In 665 verses of fifteen syllables, the narrator, a young monk, “illiterate” and “dressed in rags”, describes to the emperor how things are inside the monastery, his suffering and the greed of his priors, a father and son that illegally and excessively rule over the entire surrounding area. The many kinds of punishments imposed to the unfortunate monk without substantial reason are described in a satirical way. He emphasizes on the difference of living standards between priors and monks, describes how the former eat fish and let the latter eat a horrible slop, and generally how “they greedily collect coins/ and catechize us on avarice.” He describes very lively the luxury and privileges enjoyed by “them”, while he points out that for “us” there is suffering, mistreatment and hunger. As he has no one else to turn to, the monk turns to the emperor, asking him only a small piece of bread.

He is verbally and otherwise abused, while the hierarchs indulge in all conceivable (and inconceivable) delectations of bathtub, food, and wine. They get every fish and the very best of seafood “laid before them”, and drink from decorated cups of the best Samian and Chiot wines, while we are fed on what they baptize as “holy broth” in dirty clay pots. They get a “true baptismal font” of finest fish stew, we just get twenty onion rings, with a few stale crusts and three drops of holy oil thrown into boiling water in a massive old cauldron, green with verdigris.

Ptochoprodromos 3

The contents of the hierarchs’ repast, served in what is playfully but subversively termed a “baptismal font,” are described in detail tantamount to a recipe (III.174–94). But the “fish stew” is not as innocent as it may sound, coming as it does right after a full array of four rich courses—broiled, sauced, sweet-and-sour, grilled with spices—of every kind of fish the Black Sea could boast of (including turbot cooked with labrus, tender bream, gray mullet three palms long, and flatfish, or “citharus linguatula”). Prodromos has exploited Constantinople’s rich fish supplies to add to the range of sexual reference to “tasty bits of roasted meat” familiar from Attic comedy. What is more, he wishes a second “Akrites” (like Herakles) could enter their refectory fray and smash their heinous “dishes” into smithereens. Humor in this episode depends on wordplay and bilingual puns.

What is αγιοζουμι? It is frequently mentioned in the monastic typika as a fasting “holy broth,” meant to be simple but nourishing; but Prodromos puns on ιοζουμι (“viral swill”). He also puns on the twenty “rings of onions” thrown into boiling water, calling them καλολεοντας (“good lions,” throughout), which unimaginative editors have emended into κολεντας (“rings,” from the Venetian coleta, “ring,” “chain”). The suffix λιοντας suggests a champion wrestler or jouster. A few lines later he has “Good Lion” engaging with “Fat Thug” (Contro´”) in a wrestling match, with clear sexual connotations, as in the carnival games and jousting with his wife of poem I, with the difference that in poem III the connotations are homosexual; indeed, the filthy cauldron of “viral swill” reminds us of the bathtub in which, as a novice, he was forced to “rub up” the two fat hierarchs (III.107–16). We are back with the theme of games and play with a funny but sinister and obscene twist.


311 [They are eating frogs, we get the “holy broth”] . . .


  1. They feed on the best sea bass, and huge [red mullet] too,
  2. we get that stinking smokey “holy poison broth”;
  3. they get fat fish and seal steaks, truffles, dabs,
  4. while we were eating that old what’s-its-name:
  5. it does have a crazy name, it’s just a trifle strange
  6. and a man gets sizzled up before he hits on it . . .
  7. I’m drowned, I’m dead, let the worm cut it out,
  8. look, they say “Slow down!” just as you want to come.
  9. Come now, shit head, I think you are bewitched!
  10. If only mullet, dabs, and tit-bits had found their way down here,
  11. then I might hit upon the word, –Behold, a mystery ensues!–
  12. Lord, with my blessing, you know its name so well,
  13. it’s here upon my tongue tips, –Devil, curses on you!–
  14. Enjoy the leaky bag, I just got it in the mouth,
  15. so here’s its food and mess, while I was being sizzled.
  16. They were quite determined to shove it up me,
  17. but I was no village boy, not to puke it out with fire.
  18. Eh, how much sore chafing, lord, have I upon my soul,
  19. yet do we speak out all things as have been uttered in.

Ptochoprodromos 4

In this passage, Prodromos comes nearest to what Jeffrey Henderson has termed “primary obscenity,” in that it is hard to read “innocently.”1 Yet even here, the humor depends on double entendres, achieved through wordplay, punning, and above all by the metaphorical associations of food, wine, and sex. And beneath the games and play there lies a deadly serious purpose—to expose the filth, corruption, and abuse experienced by the lowly monks in the Philotheou monastery.2 He also wants to get transferred to another monastery (the Mangana), where Theodore Prodromos actually served. Read in the context of monastic reforms debated during the later twelfth century, poem III touches on issues no less topical than does poem I.30

  1. J. Henderson, The Maculate Muse: Obscene Language in Attic Comedy, 2d ed. (New York, 1991), 35–41. It is surely relevant to Prodromos’ revival of obscene humor in the 12th century that, as Henderson (ibid., 13) points out, with the exception of the Ionic iambic poets and the cults of Dionysos and Demeter, obscenity is not found elsewhere in the surviving literature of the time.
  2. The monastery, situated five miles up the Bosporos at Anaplous (modern Arnavutko¨y), was founded ca. 1022–53

Games and Play in the Ptochoprodromic Poems