“Bring the scales and weigh his act”: Medieval Justice in “The Cannibal of Qəmər”⚖️

Near the conclusion of “The Cannibal of Qəmər,” in an effort to determine whether the cannibal ought to be granted salvation, there is a moment where Mary acts as mediator and requests that the man-eater’s sentence be re-evaluated. In this moment, the text brushes up against ideas of justice and mercy through the symbol of the balance-scales:

“The Lord replied, “What did he do for your sake? 33 For what act should I show him mercy? Did he not eat seventy-seven [sic] human beings?”Our holy Lady, the two-fold virgin│259a│ Mary, bearer of the Lord, replied, “As a charitable act, he gave [someone water] to drink for the sake of my favor. [Remember,] you pledged to me, ‘Whoever does [something] in commemoration of you and calls out your name shall be saved.’”The Lord replied, “I will not break my word. Bring the scales and weigh his act.”34And when they weighed it, the handful of water prevailed over the [murder of] seventy-eight │259b│ human beings.”

The Täˀammərä Maryam manuscript in the Princeton University Library shows multiple images of this moment depicted by an angel holding balance scales (images from Wendy Laura Belcher’s article on the story):

Täˀammərä Maryam, image 187, Princeton Ethiopic Manuscript No. 65, Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

I’m thinking about this moment in relationship both to medieval ideas of cannibalism (which we’ve discussed briefly in this graduate seminar already) but also in relationship to medieval ideas of justice, and the judicial symbology of the balance scales. How did medieval people understand the metaphorical “weight” of deeds? Or, in other words, what are the medieval metaphysics of the relative “weight” of actions? These are not questions I have the answers to, but I think are key to understanding how this particular text works.

Belcher, in her analysis of the story, claims that Ethiopian texts were often concerned with survival, rather than communicating a “moral” like most Western Marian tales were. In this tale, then, the three methods of survival are either to be strong like the plowman, be undesirable like the sick man with lesions, or to align oneself with powerful mediators, like the cannibal does. In the context of the tale “Mary is the perfect mediator because the all-powerful patron Christ must love his mother more than he loves other human beings. As a result, the cannibal needs neither repentance nor goodness because salvation is more a matter of aligning with the powerful than with justice” (42).

So if the text is more concerned with survival and powerful mediators, what role do the balance scales play? In both images Belcher provides, the scales are held by a (presumably) unbiased third party, namely the angel, and yet they depict the water as clearly weighing more than the 78 murdered victims. There seems to be some symbolic effort at impartiality here; rather than just declaring that Mary is right and letting the cannibal into heaven (“I will not break my word”), the Lord adds “Bring the scales and weigh his act.” How do these scales and the symbol of “weighing” an individual’s actions contribute to or intersect with this ethic of survival that Belcher identifies? Is it because the cannibal’s charitable act enabled the survival of another? And how do these questions inform our understanding of the act of cannibalism itself – the act of consuming another human’s flesh for one’s own sustenance? Would the balance of the scales been affected if the “worst sin” being balanced here was one which in no way contributed to the survival of the individual being judged?

Again, these are all questions I do not have answers to. But medieval Ethiopic psychostasia is clearly central to this text, and parsing its metaphysical implications might help illuminate some of the interventions this text makes in medieval conceptions of divine justice.

(Featured Image, Täˀammərä Maryam, f. 144r, Princeton Ethiopic Manuscript No. 57, Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.)

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