dogs and priests: the amazing power of medieval allegory

dog savior looks to heaven

Gesta Romanorum, a thirteenth-century Latin collection of stories for preachers to use in sermons, includes a story about a parishioner’s response to a corrupt priest. When that priest was scheduled to celebrate Mass, the parishioner would skip the service. One day while so skipping Mass and walking in a meadow, the parishioner became desperately thirsty. The parishioner found a tiny stream of pure water from which he drank. Seeking to better allay his thirst, he sought for the tiny stream’s source. A wise man pointed him to a fountain:

He {the parishioner} there beheld a putrid dog with its mouth wide open and its teeth black and decayed, through which the whole fountain amazingly gushed. The man regarded the stream with great terror and confusion, ardently desiring to quench his thirst, but apprehensive of poison from the fetid and loathsome dog carcass that apparently had infected the water. [1]

The wise man explained that the parishioner had already drunk of that water and that it was indeed good. The wise man explained:

See now, as this water, gushing through the mouth of a putrid dog, is neither polluted nor loses any of its natural taste or color, likewise celebration of Mass by a worthless minister. Therefore, although the vices of such men may displease and disgust, yet you should not forego the services that they are ordained to provide.

In short, God can work through corrupt priests, and through other corrupt persons, too.

Figuring the corrupt priest as a putrid, dead dog has considerable scriptural support. Dogs in the bible are associated with vicious, worthless, foolish, and evil beings. Consider:

Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evildoers has encompassed me.

Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.

It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.

Like a dog that returns to its vomit is a fool who repeats his folly.

Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!

Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying. [2]

The story of the pure water flowing through the putrid dog carcass makes good sense as an allegory for receiving sacraments from a corrupt priest.

The application of this story provides a far more sophisticated allegory. After wryly noting that Scripture associates priests with dogs more frequently than with any other animal, it quotes Latin poetry:

In cane bis bina sunt; et lingua medicina,
Naris odoratus, amor integer, atque latratus.

{In a dog are twice two aspects; a medicinal tongue,
a keen-smelling nose, complete love, and being always ready to be roused to bark.}

The text then allegorizes those four good canine aspects to priests:

  1. Priests with their tongues possess the power of a physician in healing the sick of heart and probing the wounds of sin. They are careful also to avoid too rough of treatment that would exacerbate rather than cure wounds. It is likewise the nature of dogs to lick the body’s wounds.
  2. As a dog, by keenness of scent, distinguishes a fox from a hare, so a priest, by the quickness of his perceptions in confessions to the ear, should discover what pertains to the cunning of the fox; that is, to heretical and sophistical perverseness. Also, what to internal struggles and evil or hopelessness of pardon, and what to the unbroken ferocity of the wolf or lion, originating in a haughty contempt of consequences, as well as other distinctions of like character.
  3. The dog is of all animals the most faithful and ready in defense of his master or family. Priests should also show themselves staunch advocates for the Catholic faith and zealous for everlasting salvation, not of their parishioners alone, but of every denomination of true Christians. …
  4. As a dog by barking betrays the approach of thieves, and doesn’t permit the property of his master to be invaded, so the faithful priest is the watch-dog of the great King. He is one who by his bark, that is his preaching and his watchfulness, doesn’t cease to defeat the schemes and machinations of the devil against our Lord’s treasury, that is the soul of his neighbor, which our Lord Jesus Christ has redeemed with the mighty ransom of His precious blood.

Medieval Latin literature regarded a dog as man’s best friend.[3] Redeeming scriptural disparagement of dogs and allegorizing priests to dogs as a positive exemplum shows the amazing range and creativity of medieval Latin literature.

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[1] Gesta Romanorum, Tale 12, from Latin trans. Swan & Hooper (1876) p. 23. Subsequent quotes are from id, pp. 23-6, unless otherwise noted. I’ve made some minor, non-substantive modernization of the English.

[2] Psalm 22:16; Matthew 7:6, 15:26; Proverbs 26:11; Philippians 3:2; Revelation 22:15. The bible does, however, credit dogs with attacking a vicious, evil woman:

The dogs shall eat Jezebel in the territory of Jezreel, and none shall bury her.

2 Kings 9:10.

[3] Writing early in the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin accounted reasons to marry and reasons not to marry. Among his reasons to marry a woman:

Object to be beloved and played with. Better than a dog anyhow

Evolutionary thinkers are just beginning to recognize the importance of culture. In the legal and cultural circumstances that men face today, getting a dog almost surely is more rational, at the level of the individual man, than getting married.

[image] Saved. Painting of Milo, the dog of the Egg Rock Lighthouse in Massachusetts, with girl he rescued. By English painter Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, 1856. Thanks to New England Lighthouse Stories.


Swan, Charles, and Wynnard Hooper, trans. 1876. Gesta romanorum: entertaining moral stories. New York: Dover Publications Inc. (reprint edition of 1969).

Arthur and Gorlagon revises John the Baptist’s beheading

tale of King Herod beheading John the Baptist

Like King Herod on his birthday, King Arthur held a magnificent banquet in the medieval Latin tale Arthur and Gorlagon. Enraptured by a girl’s dancing, King Herod made a foolish oath that caused him to order the head of John the Baptist served on a platter. No dancing girl, just abundant food was enough to make King Arthur lose his head. Arthur threw his arms around his queen, hugged her tight, and kissed her. Among the learned, what Arthur did is now called sexual assault. So what happened after that hug and kiss in the medieval Latin tale Arthur and Gorlagon?

The queen responded angrily to her husband’s action. She demanded to know why he had kissed her at an improper time and place, to say nothing of not securing her affirmative consent. Arthur tried the lovey-dovey parry. He responded:

Because nothing of my treasure delights me more, and of all my pleasures nothing is sweeter than you. [1]

The queen, ruler of her husband the king, responded that he had presumed to know her mind and will. Arthur abjectly pleaded, “your will for me is obvious.” She in turn declared that he never understood the disposition and mind of woman.[2]

Arthur then made a foolish, impious banquet oath like King Herod did. Arthur declared:

I swear by all the divine powers of the sky, that if this be hidden from me until now, I will offer work, and sparing no labor, I will never taste food, until by me is obtained to be enlightened about them. [3]

Arthur’s oath assumed his acceptance of his wife’s sovereignty over him. He transformed his concern to understand her mind and will into a grand quest for enlightenment about women. The childish fixations of leaders like King Herod and King Arthur reveal psychological foundations of gynocentric culture. In such culture, striving to please women captivates men.[4]

Arthur and Gorlagon then revises the beheading of John the Baptist and narrates breaking the spell of gynocentrism. Urgently seeking enlightenment about women, Arthur immediately left his guests at the banquet. He rode his horse continually for three days to reach a neighboring wise king’s court. That king, King Gorgol, was eating dinner when Arthur burst into the dining hall on his horse. Acting as if he hadn’t lost his mind, Arthur, without dismounting from his horse, inquired about the craft, disposition, and mind of woman. In the original understanding of chivalry, the uxorious knight was always ready to ride. Arthur on his horse in a neighboring king’s dining hall during dinner shows the ridiculousness of men urgently seeking wisdom about women.[5] Too much thinking about women is folly.

Arthur had sworn not to eat until he obtained enlightenment about women. King Gorgol, who knew nothing of Arthur’s oath, sensibly urged Arthur:

Dismount and eat and rest today, because I see that you are worn out from the stress of the journey, and tomorrow I will tell you what I know.

Although Arthur initially refused that request, he eventually yielded to the entreaties of the king and his guests and companions. Arthur, despite his oath, reclined at table and ate. The next day, Gorgol confessed that he had never acquired knowledge of the craft, disposition, and mind of woman. Gorgol urged Arthur to journey to inquire for such knowledge from Gorgol’s older brother, King Gorleil. Gorgol played Arthur for the fool he was. Too much thinking about women is folly.

Arthur’s interaction with King Gorgol’s older brother King Gorleil paralleled his interaction with Gorgol. Arthur’s interruption of Gorleil’s dinner thus ended with Arthur riding off to speak with King Gorleil’s older brother King Gorlagon. Arthur evidently was a slow learner. Too much thinking about women is folly.

King Gorlagon of course was dining when Arthur arrived on horseback in his dining hall. Unlike his two younger brothers, Gorlagon failed to persuade Arthur to violate his oath by eating. Gorlagon resolved to tell Arthur a tale by which the craft, disposition, and mind of woman can be understood. Yet Gorlagon declared, “what you learn will be of little use … when I have told you, you will be but little wiser.”

Gorlagon told Arthur a tale filled with vicious feminine betrayal and plaintive claims from literature of men’s sexed protest. Yet Arthur refused to dismount from his horse and eat until Gorlagon answered another question. That question was about a specific woman:

Who is this woman sitting opposite you with the grief-stricken face, who has in the dish before her a human head spattered with blood? She has wept when you smiled and she has kissed the bloody head whenever you have kissed your wife during the telling of your tale. [6]

Herod’s wife conspired to have John the Baptist beheaded and his head served on a platter. Gorlagon’s ex-wife was the woman kissing the severed head on the dish before her. Her weeping and kissing the bloody head on the dish corresponded to Gorlagon smiling and kissing his new wife. For Arthur and all other men urgently seeking to know how to please women, Gorlagon’s story is like a voice crying out in the wilderness.[7]

Gynocentrism will pass. A new dispensation, in which husbands need not ask their wives for permission to smile and kiss, will come.

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[1] Narratio de Arthuro rege Britanniae et rege Gorlagon lycanthropo (Narrative of Arthur King of Britain and King Gorlagon the Werewolf) from Latin trans. Day (2005) p. 209. Hereafter this text will be called Arthur and Gorlagon (as above). All the Latin text and English translations of Arthur and Gorlagon are from Day (2005) pp. 208-35, with my changes noted.

The queen isn’t explicitly named in Arthur and Gorlagon. King Arthur’s wife was well known to be Queen Guinevere. She probably was also known for appallingly cruel behavior.

Arthur and Gorlagon survives only copied into a single manuscript, Bodleian Library Rawlinson MS B 149. That manuscript dates to the fourteenth century. For the Latin text (available online), Kittredge (1903). Arthur and Gorlagon probably dates from the second half of the twelfth century. It’s stylistically and linguistically closely associated with Welsh literature. Echard (1998) pp. 204-14.

[2] The queen says to Arthur: agnoscas te nunquam ut ingenium mentemue femine comperisse. Day translates that as “you reveal that you have never understood the nature or mind of a woman.” Other similar phrases occur throughout the text. In order:

  1. mentem et uoluntatem (queen speaking of herself to Arthur)
  2. mentem…beneuolam…uoluntatem (Arthur speaking of the queen to queen)
  3. ingenium mentemue femine (queen speaking to Arthur)
  4. artem et ingenium mentemque femineam (Arthur speaking to Gorgol)
  5. ars ingenium et mens femine (Gorgol speaking to Arthur)
  6. artem et ingenium mentemque femine (Gorlagon to Arthur)
  7. mentem et ingenium femine (Gorlagon to Arthur)

Day translates ingenium as “nature.” In English today, “nature” in reference to humans carries a biological-essential connotation. The behavioral sense of the medieval Latin ingenium seems to me better translated with “disposition.”

Day translates ars as “wiles.” In English today, “wiles” has a somewhat derogatory connotation, especially in reference to women. Ovid’s Ars amatoria was a well-known, intellectually sophisticated, widely respected work in the Middle Ages. Given the appreciation for skill associated with ars in medieval Latin, “craft” seems to me a better translation of ars.

The phrase ingenium mentemue femine raises a particularly interesting and important philological issue. Day translates that phrase identically with ingenium mentemque femine. The word mentemque seems to be a straightforward compound from mentem que; mentemue could be an associated variant form. Variant spellings of the names Gorliel and Gorlagon exist within the manuscript. Day (2005) p. 262, n. 1. However, an intriguing possibility for mentemue is a double-consonant-assimilated compound formed from mēns + mūtō. Recognition of women’s superior mental capabilities is an important strand in literature of men’s sexed protest. See also Virgil, Aeneid 4.569.

[3] The Latin text of Arthur’s oath:

Omnia celi obtestor numina, si me actenus latuere, dabo operam, nec labori indulgens nunquam cibo fruar, donec ea me nosse contingat.

Day translates that as:

I swear by all the gods of heaven that if this be hidden from me until now, I will search these out and, sparing no effort, I will never taste food until it is my chance to learn them.

Within the Christian context of the European Middle Ages, the oath’s elevated, convoluted, non-Christian diction is significant. Above I’ve adapted Day’s translation to be more literal and to bring out the elevated, convoluted, non-Christian diction (particularly me nosse contingat).

King Herod publicly declared to the beautiful dancing girl:

Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it. … Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.

Mark 6:22-3. That oath disregards pious limits implicit in God’s law. Underscoring Herod’s folly, his oath evokes the devil’s temptation of Jesus. Matthew 4:1-11.

[4] Feasting commonly figures in Arthurian romance. Delaying eating until he has heard a tale or seen a marvel particularly distinguishes Arthur in the feasting motif. Arthur thus delays eating in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Byrne (2011) p. 63. In Arthur and Gorlagon, Arthur will see a marvel that transforms the beheading of John the Baptist. The grotesquely unappetizing direct sense of that marvel, apart from its more abstract righteousness, underscores the parodic form of Arthur and Gorlagon.

[5] Echard aptly observes that Arthur and Gorlagon “is nothing if not funny.” Echard (1998) p. 214. Day declares, “Arthur and Gorlagon is possibly the funniest tale of Arthurian literature….” Day (2005) p. 46. The text’s obsessive concern for eating obviously makes fun. The text more subtly evokes wry self-consciousness of men’s foolish behavior.

[6] Massey (2012) insightfully describes Arthur and Gorlagon as a text for theatrical performance, in particular, as an early English interlude. De Maria Magdalena, a Latin text written about 1200, similarly has considerable theatricality.

Gesta Romanorum includes a tale of a banquet in which a prince has his family and his guests served meat from a human skull held on a silver platter. The skull was the head of a duke whom the prince beheaded for committing adultery with the prince’s wife. The prince explained:

To remind the woman {the prince’s wife} of her shame, each day I command this memento to be placed before her, in the hope that her repentance and punishment may equal her crime.

Gesta Romanorum, Tale 56, from Latin trans. Swan & Hooper (1876) p. 95.

[7] Brady (2012) describes some of the motifs in Arthur and Gorlagon that are common in literature of men’s sexed protest. Those motifs include women’s strong, independent sexuality, men’s vulnerability to women’s highly active social communication, wives’ oppressive control of their husbands’ social lives, men’s inability to comprehend women’s social ingenuity, women’s dominating curiosity, women’s drive to know everything, and the overwhelming power of women’s tears. Adhering to long-established, oppressive ideology, Brady misandristically refers to literature of men’s sexed protest as misogynistic and antifeminist.

In further work, Brady comically declares that Arthur and Gorlagon “is not wholly misogynist.” She explains:

While it has been claimed that all Arthur learns about is the evils of women, it is equally possible that his new knowledge is precisely what Guenevere has implied: the sexual desires of women should remain private. The tale’s message is Guenevere’s: a wife who does not wish to put her private desires on public display is something for which to be thankful. Arthur’s queen simply appears to understand that feminine sexual desire is properly displayed only in the private realm.

Brady (2014) p. 27. Arthur and Gorlagon begins with Arthur kissing his wife the queen with all observing at the feast {The phrase cunctis intuentibus (“all observing”) Day omitted in her translation. For its theatrical importance, Massey (2012).} Arthur and Gorlagon ends with Gorlagon kissing his new wife. The frame narrative is about men’s behavior toward women, not about women’s sexual desire. Through to the present, social control of men’s sexuality is much harsher than social control of women’s sexuality.

By failing to recognize the final tableau’s relation to the beheading of John the Baptist, scholars have failed to recognize its significance for the overturning of gynocentrism. Echard describes Arthur and Gorlagon‘s final scene as “simply bizarre” and declares that the text “refuses to offer enlightenment.” Echard (1998) pp. 212, 214. Wilson calls the ending “preposterous punishment,” yet she sees in the work possibly a ritual plot of purification. Wilson (2008). Hopkins fantastically argues that Arthur exists in the text “to palliate the heinous sin of bestiality.” Hopkins (2009) p. 95. Medieval Welsh literature tolerated much more explicit depiction of sexual sin, as did medieval Latin literature. Archibald declares that Arthur “learns that women are dangerous, but does not take action to control his queen.” Archibald (2011) p. 142. What Arthur learns through the revelation of Gorlagon is like the prophecy of John the Baptist.

[image] The Feast of Herod and the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. Painting by Florentine Benozzo Gozzoli, 1461-2. Samuel H. Kress Colection 1952.2.3 at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.


Archibald, Elizabeth. 2011.  “Arthurian Latin Romance.” Ch. 7 (pp. 132-45) in Echard, Siân, ed. 2011. The Arthur of medieval Latin literature: the development and dissemination of the Arthurian legend in medieval Latin. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Brady, Lindy. 2012. “Antifeminist Tradition in Arthur and Gorlagon and the Quest to Understand Women.” Notes and Queries. 59 (2): 163-166.

Brady, Lindy. 2014. “Feminine desire and conditional misogyny in Arthur and Gorlagon.” Arthuriana. 24 (3): 23-44.

Byrne, Aisling. 2011. “Arthur’s refusal to eat: ritual and control in the romance feast.” Journal of Medieval History. 37 (1): 62-74.

Day, Mildred Leake, ed. and trans. 2005. Latin Arthurian literature. Cambridge, UK: D.S. Brewer.

Echard, Siân. 1998. Arthurian narrative in the Latin tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hopkins, Amanda. 2009. “Why Arthur at all? The Dubious Arthuricity of Arthur and Gorlagon.” Arthurian Literature. 26: 77-96.

Kittredge, George Lyman, ed. 1903. Arthur and Gorlagon. Boston: Ginn and Co.

Massey, Jeff. 2012. “The Werewolf at the Head Table: Metatheatric ‘Subtlety’ in Arthur and Gorlagon.” Pp. 183-206 in Tracy, Larissa, and Jeff Massey, eds. 2012. Heads will roll: decapitation in the medieval and early modern imagination. Leiden: Brill.

Swan, Charles, and Wynnard Hooper, trans. 1876. Gesta romanorum: entertaining moral stories. New York: Dover Publications Inc. (reprint edition of 1969).

Wilson, Anne. 2008. “Arthur and Gorlagon the Werewolf.” Online at

rescued Lancelot hinted at men's resistance to love servitude

bog pony

In twelfth-century Europe, did men unquestioningly accept love servitude to women? Today, many men don’t protest men being deprived of all reproductive rights whatsoever. Men say little about acute anti-men gender discrimination in family courts and child custody decisions. Men maintain stoic indifference to being smeared as rapists and being targeted on college campuses for absurd sex regulations. Perhaps men enjoy love servitude to women, relish working as slaves, and cherish being imprisoned. Yet Chrétien de Troyes’s late-twelfth-century Arthurian romance Lancelot hints at a different answer. Men apparently resisted love servitude to women with the same tactics subordinate workers resist orders around the world today.

In Lancelot, a girl rescued the knight Lancelot from his imprisonment atop a tall tower. In popular romance, usually the white knight in shining armor rescues the damsel in distress from imprisonment atop a tall tower. The white knight Lancelot, however, was a manlet. That helps to explain some subsequent events. After the girl rescued Lancelot from the tower, she took him to her favorite retreat, a country house, safe, secluded, and well stocked with provisions. There servants removed Lancelot’s cloths, which were filthy from his languishing in prison. Then:

the girl put him to sleep
In a tall, magnificent bed,
And later gave him a bath
And such wonderful care that I couldn’t
Tell you half if I tried:
She treated him as sweetly
As if he’d been her father.
She brought him back to life,
Completely renewed and restored. [1]

An earlier Latin romance, Apollonius King of Tyre, presented a much different account of a young man-doctor reviving a beautiful young woman. If the girl in Lancelot was receptive and not ugly, a manly knight might have expressed his gratitude to her in a more exciting way. Perhaps she noticed something lacking extension. That would explain why she gave him a bath and treated him as if he were her father.

Urging the girl to rescue him, the manlet Lancelot swore to be her obedient servant. He implicitly promised to be not like other men in servitude to women. Lancelot declared:

I swear I’ll be yours to command
For all the rest of my life

there’ll never be a day
When I won’t do what you ask.
Whatever you ask, if it’s in
My power, will be done — and done
as quickly as I can do it. [2]

Most women who order their man-servant (husband, boyfriend, etc.) to do something resent the response “not today.” Lancelot swore that there would never be such a day. Another standard man-servant response is “later.” Lancelot swore that he would obey the woman’s orders “as quickly as I can.” Lancelot, of course, hedged and qualified with words about his potency. Those reservations about potency probably were relevant when the girl gave him a bath.

From the commanding heights of culture, influential institutions and voices teach men to be subordinate to women. But boys aren’t stupid, and men aren’t stupid, either. Overpowered in social communication, men resort to passive resistance. Such passive resistance, however, isn’t sufficient to advance men’s liberation.

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[1] Chrétien de Troyes, Lancelot ll. 6670-8, from Old French trans. Raffel (1997) p. 210.

[2] Lancelot ll. 6597-8, 6001-5. The ideal of men’s love servitude to women has come to be widely celebrated as courtly love (amour courtois).

[image] Kerry bog pony stallion. 6 September 2008. Thanks to Heather Moreton and Wikimedia Commons.


Raffel, Burton, trans. 1997. Chrétien de Troyes. Lancelot, the knight of the cart. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Henrich on cultural success, silence on cultural failure

Cleopatra and Caesar

Culture has made human beings who they are. Leading human evolutionary biologist Joseph Henrich compellingly makes that point in his recent book, The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. Henrich declares:

The answer to why humans are different is that we crossed the Rubicon. Cultural evolution became cumulative, and then both this accumulating body of information and its cultural products, like fire and food-sharing norms, developed as the central driving forces in human genetic evolution. … Having crossed the Rubicon, we can’t go back. The impact of this transition is underlined by the fact that, despite our long evolutionary history as foragers, we generally can’t survive by hunting and gathering when we have been stripped of that relevant culturally acquired knowledge. … So, yes, we are smart, but not because we stand on the shoulders of giants or are giants ourselves. We stand on the shoulders of a very large pyramid of hobbits. The hobbits do get a bit taller as the pyramid ascends, but it’s still the number of hobbits, not the height of particular hobbits, that’s allowing us to see farther. [1]

Henrich’s explanation draws upon an ancient Roman rhetorical figure involving Julius Caesar, J. R. R. Tolkien’s influential fictional creation of hobbits, a reference from a twelfth-century Latin text of Bernard of Chartres, and perhaps an allusion to the Great Pyramid of Giza, a monument of bureaucracy. No other organism creates such linguistic figures. Yet that reality differs subtly from the claim that culture is domesticating us and making us smarter. Human cultural evolution doesn’t support a master narrative of inevitable progressive enlightenment. Cultural evolution can make humans more brutal and more stupid.

In Henrich’s view, humans get smart in evolutionary and development time through social learning. Human toddlers outperform chimpanzees and orangutans not in cognitive tests concerning space, quantities, and causality, but only in social learning.[2] Social learning depends on making sense of presence of another like oneself. Long duration, broad bandwidth, synchronous, ephemeral communication, e.g. in-person communication among associates, supports sense of presence and social learning more than does short, narrow bandwidth, asynchronous, stored communication, e.g. short text messaging. Cultural evolution in which communication time shifts to the latter makes persons dumber.

Henrich associates greater population size and greater interconnectedness of individuals with greater cultural development. Those mechanisms suggest the importance of concentrating persons in factories and in cities in spurring the industrial revolutions of the past two centuries. However, England and Wales (and probably other European countries as well) over the past two centuries has experienced a significant cultural change: a massive flattening of the given name distribution. In contrast, symbolic markets in which a larger number of individuals can communicate with each other more cheaply and more quickly tend to promote blockbuster economics. Blockbuster economics involves social success that undermines objective justification for status and exacerbates wealth inequalities. Blockbuster economics also favors cultural homogenization and concentration of symbolic power. Masses who are more easily manipulated are less likely to advance collective intelligence. If the secret to our success is acting like sheep, crossing the Rubicon points to how charismatic leaders like Julius Caesar or Hitler can greatly change human societies.

A good case study of cultural evolution is twelfth-century Europe. That century experienced elite promotion of men’s subservience to women in love (“courtly love”). Some scholars have even interpreted knights brutalizing other knights in service to idealized women as a means of civilizing and domesticating men. That cultural development remains influential in competition for prestige. Thus a best-selling author recently credited feminization of civilization for contributing to the long-run historical decline in violence. That author approvingly proclaimed an astonishing cultural development:

At the top, a consensus has formed within the international {elite} community that violence against women is the most pressing human rights problem remaining in the world. [3]

In the U.S. today, four times more men than women die from violence. Around the world, violence overwhelmingly occurs against men. Elite consensus that violence against women is the most pressing human rights problem in the world today shows that social learning can powerfully promote stupidity.

For social learning to develop a humane, rational collective mind, human societies need intellectual counterbalances to gynocentrism. Henrich promotes ideals of elite intellectual culture:

It’s the willingness and ability of large numbers of individuals at the knowledge frontier to freely interact, exchange views, disagree, learn from each other, build collaborations, trust strangers, and be wrong. [4]

As the recent persecution of Nobel-prize-winning scientist Tim Hunt has made clear, any deviation from the narrow path of social propriety in speaking about women can today cause anyone enormous harm. Men’s biological inferiority to women in social communication has been well-established in scholarly literature. Cultural cognition and the structure of current academic prestige competition has produce comically tendentious experiments, mind-numbing academic “scientific” rhetoric, and wide-spread dissemination of grotesque, highly damaging falsehoods about men.

Preventing the collective mind from going insane requires supporting recalcitrant masculine voices like those in medieval Latin literature. In medieval Europe, men writing in Latin freely expressed outrageous views about wives, the church, and women in general. Latin provided a language for views that couldn’t be expressed in commonly spoken languages. Medieval Latin literature addressed violence against men in ways far more intelligent than currently fashionable anti-men bigotry (talk of “toxic masculinity”). Medieval Latin literature played a crucial role in limiting the damage to the collective mind from vernacular gynocentrism.

With U.S. universities leading efforts, within existing conditions of mass incarceration, to criminalize men for ordinary sexual interactions, the future of the collective mind looks grim. But the die is not cast. Joseph Henrich’s new book The Secret of Our Success underscores the importance of culture. From an economic and political perspective, the most important cultural issue today is collective understanding of women and men in relationship to each other.[5] Under particular human biological predispositions, the twelfth-century European cultural inheritance, imperatives of collegiality in academic competition for prestige, overwhelming mass media patronage of women, and particular national-political circumstances, cultural evolution is making us less humane and less intelligent. To become more humane and more intelligent, our culture must embrace medieval Latin literature of men’s sexed protest and similar recalcitrant masculine voices.

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[1] Henrich (2015) pp. 317, 323.

[2] Id. pp. 13-5.

[3] Pinker (2011) p. 414. For related claims, see note [2] in my post on violence and enlightenment.

[4] Henrich (2015) p. 325. Underscoring his emphasis on techno-elite culture, Henrich further states:

It bears emphasizing that once the body of know-how becomes sufficiently complex, cultural evolution will often favor an increasingly complex division of labor (really, a division of information). In this new world, the size of the collective brain will be influenced by the size and interconnectedness of people at the knowledge frontier {emphasis in the original}, the place at which individuals know enough to have any chance of making improvements on existing forms.

Id. Persons in their teens have written highly successful mobile phone apps. Persons who dropped out of college have founded and led enormously powerful, high-tech corporations. The most important and most difficult aspects of culture concern human relations. Life experience and broad literary study contribute greatly to thinking about the most important aspects of culture.

Henrich briefly recognizes that cultural poetic sophistication is more important than factual knowledge:

The framing of the message and the messenger are crucial, but the mini causal models (the “facts”) are merely secondary — only necessary to support any acquired practices or social norms.

Id. p. 328.

[5] Marsupials, once a gregarious species, are now solitary mammals. The significance of that development shouldn’t be minimized. Human pair bonding is being challenged by social promotion of female promiscuity (celebrating slut walks) and men’s opportunistic response to that development. In addition, Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW) is one of the most significant social movements of our time.

[image] Cleopatra and Caesar. Painting, detail. By Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1866. Thanks to Mezzo-Mondo and Wikimedia Commons.


Henrich, Joseph. 2015. The secret of our success: how culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species, and making us smarter. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Pinker, Steven. 2011. The better angels of our nature: why violence has declined. New York: Viking.

De amore & Gesta Romanorum revised Seneca's Controversiae


Seneca the Elder’s Controversiae documents ancient Roman orators developing attention-grabbing stories like those of the Greek and Roman novels. One of the most important of these stories tells of a strong, independent woman rescuing a man from incarceration. Since Rome’s founding men married Sabine wives, Rome and subsequent civilizations have suffered under the disproportionate criminalization and incarceration of men characteristic of gynocentric society. The late-twelfth-century De amore incorporated only the sophistic form of Seneca’s Controversiae. The mid-thirteenth-century sermon story-collection Gesta Romanorum directly incorporated Seneca’s story of the woman freeing a man from incarceration. Gesta Romanorum depicted the woman’s keen intelligence, celebrated her compassion for the man, and interpreted her as representing Christ.

Seneca’s Controversiae presents stories for orators simply as factual narratives. The story about the woman rescuing the man from incarceration lacks any moral consciousness of the social devaluation of men’s lives:

A man captured by pirates wrote to his father about a ransom. He was not ransomed. The daughter of the pirate chief forced him to swear to marry her if he were let go. He swore. She left her father and followed the young man. He returned to his father, and married the girl. An orphan appeared on the scene; the father ordered his son to divorce the daughter of the pirate chief and marry the orphan. He refused. His father disinherited him. [1]

The story begins with reference to a backstory of violence against men. Being captured rather than killed commonly characterizes female privilege. Yet as a captive, the man apparently had the socially disposable status of men in general (his father didn’t ransom him). The man traded freedom from imprisonment for the prison of marriage. In Chaucer’s The Franklin’s Tale, a woman’s oath has great social importance. In this case, the father without concern ordered his son to break a sworn oath and marry a different woman. When the son refused to break his oath to the woman who rescued him from impersonal incarceration, his father disinherited him.

Seneca records orators speaking on behalf of different parties in the story. One orator cruelly ridiculed the woman as a daughter of a pirate:

She should be banned from dry land. [2]

He also ironically suggested that she hated her father, a bad omen for a wife’s relationship with her husband and with her father-in-law:

Here is a promising wife, a promising daughter-in-law — she can love even a prisoner, hate even her father.

Defending the daughter, another orator speculated that her mother was a victim of the pirate father. The orator praised her mother and declared the daughter was nothing like her father:

She is called the daughter of a pirate chief: but her mother, I think, was some captive. Certainly her character set her apart from her father: she showed compassion, she made intercession, she wept, was moved by everyone’s perils. There was nothing of the pirate detectable in her.

Pirates weren’t regarded as being noble. The orator, however, pointed out that if you look far enough back in the family of any noble person, the family was once not recognized to be noble. Moreover, if a man shrewdly marries a rich woman (the orphan was assumed to be rich from money she inherited from her father), she may leave him and take her wealth away from him (divorce courts catered to women even in ancient Rome). This is all typical sophistic word play. The orators showed no deep compassion for imprisoned men.

Andreas Capellanus’s twelfth-century work De amore reflects the spirit of Seneca’s Controversiae and similar texts of the Second Sophistic. It explicitly includes sophistical cases:

A certain lady had a lover who stayed away on an expedition overseas. She had no expectation of his early return — in fact everyone despaired of his return — and she sought another lover. Now a confidential aide of her first lover was quite indignant at the women’s changed loyalty, and opposed her new love. The woman was reluctant to accede to his advice, and put forward the following defense of her conduct. She said that if a woman widowed by the death of a lover can seek a fresh lover after a period of two years, this concession ought to be granted all the more to a woman bereft of a living lover, a woman who had not been given the pleasure of the arrival of a messenger or a letter sent by her lover since he departed — especially as there was no shortage of messengers. [3]

The lover who fails to return timely from a long voyage is a conventional topos of romance. The case moves from serious issues of mourning norms to the common complaint about a distant friend, “Why haven’t you written me?” The trailing note about “no shortage of messengers” is a wry, rhetorical flourish. Another case:

A certain young man adorned with no honesty of character and a mature knight pleasantly endowed with every moral attribute sought the love of the same woman. The young man’s counter-argument was that he should be preferred to the mature man, because if he obtained the love he sought he could thereby gain worthy manners, and the woman would win outstanding praise if through her his wickedness was transformed into sterling worth.

This case contrasts personal, passionate love with more abstract ideas of virtuous love and love as seeking the other’s good. Women’s typical passionate preference for a young man over a “mature” man and a jerk boy over a nice guy adds emotional color to the case. While Seneca’s cases invoke agonistic oratory among men, Andreas Capellanus connected the cases directly to gynocentrism by having one woman-judge render the decision for each case. In this case, the woman judge concluded with an epigram alluding to sexual intercourse and raising children:

the mere casting of seed does not always harvest breed

That sort of epigram has been updated into wisdom for ambitious career woman today: have sex with the bad boys, but marry the dull beta man who will support you by vacuuming and dusting.

The mid-thirteenth-century Latin sermon story-collection Gesta Romanorum re-interpreted Seneca’s case in accordance with the medieval idealization of women. As in the story in Seneca’s Controversiae, pirates captured a man. The man’s father refused to ransom his son. But the ideal woman intervened:

Now, he {the pirate chief} who detained him in chains had a daughter of great beauty and virtue. She was at this time in her twentieth year, and frequently visited the young man with the hope of alleviating his grief. [4]

The captured man refused consolation from the woman. He instead asked her to set him free. She promised to do so if he would marry her. He agreed. She then freed him, and they both fled back to the man’s country.

Back in his home country, the man introduced his woman-savior, his betrothed, to his father. The father told his son that if he went through with the marriage, he would lose his inheritance. That threat echoes the outcome of Seneca’s case. The father also warned that the woman had deceived her father, and that she sought marriage only to gratify her lust. Those are claims brought up in the discussion of the case in Seneca. Hearing those claims, the woman argued against them with impeccable medieval scholastic reasoning:

To your first objection, that I deceived my own parent, I reply that it is not true. He deceives who takes away or diminishes a certain good. But my father is so rich that he doesn’t need any addition. When, therefore, I had maturely weighed this matter, I procured the young man’s freedom. And if my father had received a ransom from him he would have been only a little richer, while you would have been utterly impoverished. Now, in acting thus, I have served you, who refused the ransom, and have not injured my parent. As for your last objection that an unworthy passion urged me to do this, I assert that is false. Feelings of such nature arise either from great personal beauty, or from wealth or honors; or finally, from robust appearance. None of these qualities your son possessed. For imprisonment had destroyed his beauty, and he wasn’t sufficiently wealthy even to liberate himself. Moreover, much anxiety had worn away his strength and left him emaciated and sickly. Therefore compassion was what persuaded me to free him.

The father yielded to the woman’s well-reasoned argument. She and his son had a fancy wedding and lived the rest of their lives peacefully together.

The moralization of the story in Gesta Romanorum identifies the woman with Christ. It explains:

The daughter who visited him in prison is the Divinity of Christ united to the soul, who sympathized with the human species, who, after His passion, descended into Hell and freed us from the chains of the devil. … Christ, moved with compassion, came down from heaven to visit us, and took upon Himself our form, and required no more than to be united in the closest bonds with man.

The moral with the woman as Christ sympathizing with the man has continuing relevance today. Men are now vastly disproportionately incarcerated. In a major effort to exacerbate further that fundamental social injustice, colleges and universities are now spearheading efforts to criminalize men for ordinary sexual behavior. Women today should act in the person of Christ as the medieval woman did to liberate the man from incarceration.

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[1] Seneca the Elder, Controversiae 1.6, from Latin trans. Winterbottom (1974) p. 135. I’ve changed some verbs in the historical present tense to the past tense for consistency in modern English. Latin text is available online.

Seneca the Elder (Lucius Annaeus Seneca) was a Spaniard from Cordoba. He lived from about 55 BGC to 40 GC. His son, Seneca the Younger, was a well-known philosopher and playwright. Laird (2008), pp. 212-3, notes the close thematic connections between the Controversiae and ancient romance.

[2] Seneca, Controversiae, trans. id. pp. 135, 137. Like the English translation, the source Latin line jingles: Prohibeo domo terra prohibendam. The subsequent two quotes above are from id.

[3] Andreas Capellanus, De amore 2.7.14, from Latin trans. Walsh (1982) p. 263. The subsequent two quotes are from De amore 2.7.6, trans. id. pp. 255, 257. The second of those quotes (the epigram) is in Latin non semper iactata producunt semina fructum.

[4] Gesta Romanorum, Story 5, from Latin trans. Swan & Hooper (1876) p. 8. The subsequent two quotes are from id, pp. 9-11. I’ve made some minor, non-substantive modernization of the English. A new English translation is forthcoming in Stace (2016).

An English Franciscan probably compiled Gesta Romanorum shortly before 1274. Harris (1995), p. 169. Some scholars regard it as from the early fourteenth century. Gesta Romanorum was a highly popular and influential medieval work.

Gesta Romanorum includes eleven stories apparently taken from Seneca’s Controversiae. Cited as Controversiae citation -> Gesta Romanorum story number, these are  1.1 -> 2; 1.3 -> 3; 1.4 -> 100; 1.5 -> 4; 1.6 -> 5; 2.2 -> 6; 2.4 -> 7; 3.1 -> 73; 4.4 -> 134; 6.3 -> 90; 7.4 -> 14.  Friedlaender (1909) p. 297 (I’ve corrected one mis-citation). In addition, Gesta Romanorum story 266 (in printed Latin edition) is apparently from Seneca, De ira 3.39. Herrtage (1879) p. 539.

Other than his Epistles, Seneca the Younger’s works attracted substantial attention in medieval Europe only from the early-twelfth century. In the Middle Ages, the Controversiae were known as a work of Seneca the Younger. Mayer (2015) pp. 277-8.

[image] Bust of Seneca the Younger. Anonymous, 17th century. Item Cat. E144 in the Museo del Prado in Madrid. Thanks to Jean-Pol Grandmont and Wikimedia Commons.


Friedlaender, Ludwig, trans. by Alfred Bradly Gough. 1909. “Appendix LV: Borrowing from the Controversiae of the Elder Seneca in the Gesta Romanorum.” Roman life and manners under the early empire. London: Routledge.

Harris, Nigel. 1995. “Review of Brigitte Weiske, Gesta Romanorum, 2 vols, Fortuna Vitrea 3-4 (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 1992).” Medium Aevum. 64 (1): 168.

Herrtage, Sidney J. H. 1879. The early English versions of the Gesta Romanorum. London: Pub. for the Early English Text Society, by N. Trübner & Co.

Laird, Andrew. 2008. “Approaching Style and rhetoric.” Ch. 12 (pp. 201-17) in Whitmarsh, Tim, ed. The Cambridge companion to the Greek and Roman novel. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Mayer, Roland. 2015. “Seneca Redivivus: Seneca in the Medieval and Renaissance World.” Ch. 21 (pp. 277-88) in Bartsch, Shadi, and Alessandro Schiesaro, eds. 2015. The Cambridge companion to Seneca. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stace, Christopher, trans. and Harris, Nigel, intro. 2016. Gesta Romanorum. Manchester Univ Press: Manchester.

Swan, Charles, and Wynnard Hooper, trans. 1876. Gesta romanorum: entertaining moral stories. New York: Dover Publications Inc. (reprint edition of 1969).

Walsh, P.G., trans. 1982. Andreas Capellanus on love {De amore}. London: Duckworth.

Winterbottom, Michael, trans. 1974. Seneca the Elder. Declamations, Volume I: Controversiae, Books 1-6. Loeb Classical Library 463. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

crapping crows, laying eggs & medieval masculine difference

medieval Viking excrement

Excrement and sex are fundamental aspects of human bodies. The recent, acclaimed scholarly book Excrement in the Late Middle Ages: Sacred Filth and Chaucer’s Fecopoetics explains:

There is one thing that all medieval bodies have in common — the male body, the female body, the transgendered body, the eunuch body, the bisexual body, the feminized body, the masculinized body, the sodomized body, the sodomizing body, the chaste body, the celibate body, the married body, the lecherous body, the heretical body, the devout body, the Christian body, the Jewish body, the Saracen body, the visionary body, the lay body: they all defecate. This is not to say that these bodies may not defecate in different socially constructed ways. … Defecation as a ritual is a process of relations that constructs a series of tensions. If, every time we defecate, what we produce is utilized on a dunghill, our excrement is validated; if it is hidden in a cesspit and regarded as the source of filth, pollution, and horror, our bodies disgust and alienate us. [1]

Like humans and human work generally, excrement is produced in a particular time, place, and culture. A medieval Latin story of men’s sexed protest invoked crapping crows. A later, closely related medieval French story replaced the masculine figure of crapping crows with a more feminine one of laying eggs. As that literary development suggests, cultural space for recalcitrant masculine voices is tenuous within the development of gynocentric human society.

The medieval Latin story of crapping crows expresses concern about wives betraying their husbands’ secrets. The social process of evaluating offenses is gender-biased toward punishing men. That makes men particularly concerned about keeping secrets.[2] The Latin story comes from a mid-thirteenth-century collection of stories apparently designed to provide material for sermons. According to the story, a husband resolved to test experimentally the maxim that wives divulge their husbands’ secrets. The husband said one night to his wife:

My dear wife, I have a secret to communicate to you, if I were certain that you wouldn’t reveal it to anyone. If you should divulge it, that would cause me the greatest uneasiness and vexation. [3]

The wife responded:

My lord, fear not; we are one body, and your advantage is mine. In like manner, your injury must deeply affect me.

Accepting his wife’s assurance, the husband then told her:

Well, then, know that my bowels being oppressed to an extraordinary degree, I fell very sick. Having gone to the privy to perform a call of nature, I defecated a crow. It flew away and left me in the greatest trepidation and confusion of mind.

A crow has coloring like feces and the size of an impressive pile. To the husband’s outrageous story of his bowel movement, the wife responded:

Is it possible? But, husband, why should this trouble you? You ought rather to rejoice that you are freed from such a pestilent tenant.

The next morning the wife hurried off to talk with a neighboring woman. She secured a promise of secrecy from her and then told her:

a marvelous thing has happened to my poor husband. Being last night extremely sick, he voided two prodigious crows, feathers and all, which immediately flew away. I am much concerned.

That neighboring woman then told another neighbor that the man had set three crows to flight from his posterior. That neighbor told another that it was four. The story spread “until it was very credibly reported that sixty crows had been evacuated by one unfortunate young man.” The husband gathered his neighbors He explained that he hadn’t actually crapped crows, but had merely validated wisdom about husbands revealing secrets to their wives.

A treatise compiled in French about a century after the Latin collection included a rewritten version of the story about crapping crows. The French story, like the earlier Latin one, addressed wives betraying their husbands’ secrets.[4] But for the empirical test of wisdom about telling wives secrets, the French version has the husband tell his wife that he laid two eggs. The wife then tells that secret to a neighbor, who tells another neighbor, and so on. In the French version, what the whole country came to know was the husband laid five eggs. Laying eggs is distinctly feminine action. Masculine stories favor crudeness, singularity (“lone ranger”), and extremes. That’s reflected in crapping a crow, a single crow, that is then gossiped into a massive pile of sixty crows. Feminine story-telling tends to be more social and more respectful of conventional behavior. That’s reflected in the husband claiming to have laid two eggs, and the two eggs becoming only five. In short, a masculine story of men’s sexed protest became more feminine in its vernacular translation. Not surprisingly, women’s social dominance shaped Latin culture less strongly than it did vernacular culture.

Cultural development has largely determined the collective intelligence of human societies. Men being imprisoned without the benefit of counsel merely for having sex of reproductive type and being too poor to pay the subsequent state-imposed financial extractions is a gynocentric culture development. Within the context of existing mass incarceration, strong efforts to punish and criminalize men for a wide range of ordinary human sexual interactions is a gynocentric cultural development. So too is elite prioritization of violence against women in the context of much more frequent and harmful violence against men. Historically, medieval Latin literature of men’s sexed protest has been one of the most vibrant intellectual currents contrary to gynocentric culture. Even with respect to fundamental aspects of human bodies such as excrement and sex, recalcitrant masculine voices are crucial for questioning social-intellectual idiocy and promoting collective intelligence.[5]

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[1] Morrison (2008) pp. 2, 7. Morrison explains:

Fecal discourse can be read as a culturally coded and determined event. We might say we are exploring the ideology or metaphysics of excrement.

Id. p. 7. The rest of Morrison’s paragraph quotes Andrew Shail, Gillian Howie, Elizabeth Grosz, Judith Butler, and Jonathan Dollimore. A subsequent section of her book invokes Bataille, Freud, Deleuze and Guattari, Kristeva and Mary Douglas among academic cult figures, as well as quoting many others with more obscure positions in academic status citation networks. Morrison is Professor of English, Texas State University-San Marcos. She authored Women Pilgrims in Late Medieval England: Private Piety as Public Performance.

Among blurb statements for Morrison’s book:

  • “In this fine and comprehensive study of that which we mark off as different from us, excrement become the necessary stuff for understanding identity, desire, and history.” Michael Uebell, author of Ecstatic Transformation: On the Uses of Alterity in the Middle Ages and co-editor of The Middle Ages at Work.
  • “In a truly fearless and foundational work, wide-ranging and adventurous in scope, Morrison draws from new and pertinent critical approaches (ecocriticsm, waste studies, green studies) and some of their source disciplines (psychology, anthropology, sociology) to invent, define, illustrate and examine the practice of fecopoetics – the ‘cultural poetics of excrement.'” Jeff Persels, French Department and Director of European Studies, University of South Carolina and co-editor of Fecal Matters in Early Modern Literature and Art.
  • “Morrison schools us in the nuanced meaning of medieval excrement, whose position in medieval culture was in fact ambivalent and various.” Kathy Lavezzo, English Department, University of Iowa.
  • “Susan Signe Morrison makes the case that we cheat both the authors and ourselves if we fail to look at the full range of medieval poetic expression. After this rigorous, astute, and insightful book, no one should doubt her. Using both theory and close textual analysis, Morrison has produced a persuasive argument for the fact that we should take these matters as seriously as Chaucer did. This book will turn thought about medieval vulgarity on its end.” Martha Bayless, English Department, University of Oregon and author of Parody in the Middle Ages.

Morrison’s book is part of The New Middle Ages book series. That series has “particular emphasis on recuperating women’s history and on feminist and gender analyses.” The New Middle Ages book series “has become notorious for offering little copyediting or proofreading.” Bildhauer (2010) p. 389.

[2] Stories of men’s concern about women betraying men’s secrets existed in ancient Roman. In a story attributed to Cato the Elder, Papirius Praetextatus revealed to his mother that the Roman Senate was considering allowing one man to have two wives or one woman to have two husbands. Papirius’s mother told that secret to many other women and caused an uproar. Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 1.23. That story was widely disseminated in medieval Europe as Tale 126 of Gesta Romanorum, from Latin trans. Swan & Hooper (1876) pp. 227-8.

Men’s concern about women betraying secrets is expressed three times in Book 3 of Andreas Capellanus, De amore (written c. 1180): para. 70, 87-8, 102-3. The final instance states:

no woman can keep a secret. The more she is bidden to keep something in confidence, the more eagerly she strains to tell it to everybody. No woman to this day has been found to keep any secret undivulged, no matter how important or even likely to cause someone’s death. Any secret confided to a woman’s trust seems to burn her up inside if she does not first expose the confidences so disastrously reposed in her. You could not prevent women acting like this by bidding them to do the opposite, the rule of thumb which I stated earlier, because all women take the greatest pleasure in gossiping about something new. So be sure to keep your secret from every woman.

De amore 3.102-3, from Latin trans. Walsh (1982) pp. 317, 319. Book 3 of De amore is a subtle dialogical manipulation of men’s sexed protest.

Men’s protest of  women divulging men’s secrets exists in many subsequent medieval works of men’s sexed protest. Leading works are Jean de Meun’s Romance of the Rose and Liber lamentationum Matheoluli. See notes [3] and [5] in my post on Marie de France’s Bisclavret. Marie de France’s Bisclavret is itself an poignant and powerful work underscoring the importance of respecting men’s secrets. In Chaucer, Wife of Bath’s Prologue, the wife states about her close friend:

To her I revealed all my secrets.
For had my husband pissed on a wall,
Or done a thing that should have cost his life,
To her, and to another worthy wife,
And to my niece, whom I loved well,
I would have told every one of his secrets.
And so I did very often, God knows it,
That made his face often red and hot
For true shame, and blamed himself because he
Had told to me so great a secret.

ll. 533-42, modernized by Larry Benson at his Harvard Geoffrey Chaucer site. See also the Wife of Bath’s retelling of Ovid’s tale of Midas and his donkey ears, id. ll. 945-82.

Sexual betrayal has particular significance to men and is commonly addressed in medieval literature of men’s sexed protest.

[3] Gesta Romanorum, Tale 125, from Latin trans. Swan & Hooper (1876) pp. 226-7. I’ve made some minor modernization to the translation. Id. translated paraphrastically the Latin text:

Cum ad privata accessissem ut opus naturae facerem, corvus ingerrimus a parte posterorii evolabat.

I’ve included above a more direct translation of that Latin text. All the subsequent quotes above are from id.

[4] The French version of the crapping crows story is from Livre pour l’enseignement de ses filles du Chevalier de La Tour (Book of the Knight of Tour Landry) Ch. 74. Geoffroy IV de la Tour Landry, a knight, compiled that book about 1372. An English translation of that text, written in the mid-fifteenth century, is available online in Wright (1868), pp. 96-7. A modernized English version of the translation that Caxton printed is available in Gregg (1997) p. 119 (W9). The story is no. 1359 in Tubach (1969).

[5] On the importance of culture to humans’ capabilities, Henrich (2015).

[image] The Lloyds Bank coprolite: a nine-inch (23 cm) long stool that a Viking defecated at Jorvik (present-day York, England) early in the tenth century. Image thanks to Linda Spashett and Wikimedia Commons. Here’s more information about Vikings living in tenth-century Jorvik. Most men are much stronger than almost all women:

In terms of upper body muscle mass there’s less than a 10% overlap between the two distributions. The vast majority of men have more muscle mass than all women. 99.9% of females have less upper body muscle mass than the average male. The 61% greater average muscle mass in male upper bodies translates into 90% greater average strength (the respective values for the lower body are 50% and 61%).

However, Michael Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti insightfully reported the nickname of a Penobscot Indian women in colonial America:

Mali me’sadwədjan, “Mary big-faeces” (identity omitted), derived from advertising her ability to surpass the tribal cannon {an old iron cannon that the Penobscot Indians acquired} in capacity of discharge.

Despite men generally being much stronger than women, one should not assume that a man produced the massive Lloyds Bank coprolite.


Bildhauer, Bettina. 2010. “On Farting: Language and Laughter in the Middle Ages, and: Excrement in the Late Middle Ages: Sacred Filth and Chaucer’s Fecopoetics (review).” Studies in the Age of Chaucer. 32 (1): 386-389.

Gregg, Joan Young. 1997. Devils, women, and Jews: reflections of the other in medieval sermon stories. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Henrich, Joseph Patrick. 2015. The secret of our success: how culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species, and making us smarter. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Morrison, Susan Signe. 2008. Excrement in the late Middle Ages: sacred filth and Chaucer’s fecopoetics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Swan, Charles, and Wynnard Hooper, trans. 1876. Gesta romanorum: entertaining moral stories. New York: Dover Publications Inc. (reprint edition of 1969).

Tubach, Frederic C. 1969. Index exemplorum; a handbook of medieval religious tales. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia.

Walsh, P.G., trans. 1982. Andreas Capellanus on love {De amore}. London: Duckworth.

Wright, Thomas. 1868. Geoffroy de La Tour Landry. The book of the Knight of La Tour-Landry, compiled for the instruction of his daughters. London: Pub. for the Early English Text Society, by N. Trübner & Co.

internal monologues of Chrétien de Troyes and Walter Map

Medieval romance flourished in the twelfth century through elite interests in propagating ideology of men being ennobled through brutal suffering in servitude to women (“courtly love“).[1] The most widely read source of Arthurian romance in the twelfth century was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Latin tale of British kings. However, to reach a broad readership and audience, romances were most frequently written in the natively spoken languages of medieval Europe.[2] Latin, in contrast, was the learned, pan-European language that held secure the most subversive, satirical, irreverent, bawdy, and funny literature.

Chrétien de Troyes and Walter Map wrote romances in Old French and Latin, respectively. Both were brilliant twelfth-century European authors learned in Latin and familiar with tales of ladies and knights in local languages. The subversive potential of Chrétien de Troyes’s Old French work is concealed beneath a smooth surface. Walter Map, in contrast, wrote an obviously raucous and disorderly Latin text. Close comparison of internal monologues in Chrétien’s Lancelot and Walter’s tale of Sadius and Galo shows knightly romance in Latin outrageously capping knightly romance in Old French.

Arthurian monologues upon Latin romance

Although Chrétien de Troyes knew well subversive Latin literature, he chose to serve elite power. Chrétien translated from Latin into Old French Ovid’s Art of Love and Ovid’s Metamorphoses.[3] Ovid, the great teacher of love, was regarded as so threatening that he was exiled, castrated, and called a misogynist for defying the goddess Cybele. Chrétien sensibly turned his literary skills to less dangerous work. He superficially presented in French romances the subjects and interpretations that gynocentrism desired. For example, Chrétien took up an assignment from Countess Marie de Champagne, the oldest daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine and nominal King Louis VII. In the prologue to Chrétien’s Lancelot, The Knight of the Cart, Chrétien explained:

Because my lady of Champagne
Wants me to start a new
Romance, I’ll gladly begin one,
For I’m completely her servant
In whatever she wants me to do [4]

Chrétien then signaled his sophistication by flattering Marie de Champagne with the rhetorical figure of apophasis. He added:

What I have to say is that this
Story has been better polished
By her work and wisdom than by mine.

Chrétien understood gynocentric values (“All my success is due to my wife”). Like a good bureaucrat, he fulfilled his job assignments with modesty and cheerfulness. He could have written a Latin romance about a new civilization overcoming the disastrous destruction of men’s lives in a foolish war over Helen. He could have written a Latin romance of men’s friendship and solidarity in the face of oppressive control by the church and women. But such subjects are risky and dangerous to address, in medieval times and even more so in our day, especially in common language that unsophisticated persons think they understand.

In Chrétien’s time, monologues were a well-established literary practice particularly associated with women. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Colchian princess Medea discussed with herself leaving her father and her father’s kingdom to elope with the Greek foreigner Jason:

Will I betray the kingdom of my father,
only to have the stranger whom I save
set sail without me for another’s bed,
leaving Medea to her punishment?
If he could do that, leave me for another,
let the ingrate die!
But no: that isn’t in him,
not in his face, not in his noble spirit,
not in a man as beautiful as he,
that I should fear duplicity from him,
or his neglecting what I am deserved.
Besides, he’ll give his word to me beforehand,
and I will call the gods as witnesses
of our compact. Why fear, when all is safe?
Prepare for action now, without delay;
you will have Jason’s gratitude forever,
he’ll join himself to you with solemn vows,
and you’ll be praised as his deliverer
by throngs of women throughout all of Greece!
So shall I then sail off, abandoning
my sister, brother, father, gods, and homeland?
My father is cruel and my homeland crude;
my brother is no more than a mere child,
and my sister sides with me in this affair.
Within my breast the greatest of all gods
has found his residence! I do not leave
greatness, but elope with him to seek it! [5]

The Old French Roman d’Enéas, written about 1160, includes twenty-two monologues, twelve of which are about feelings of love. Women speak almost all the monologues about love. Chrétien followed the use of monologues in the Roman d’Enéas, but turned them inward. In Chrétien first romance Erec and Enide, written about 1170, all eight of the monologues the woman Enide speaks to herself.[6]

Chrétien’s subsequent romance Lancelot, The Knight of the Cart thoroughly developed the courtly ideal of men’s subordination to women, while subtly, too subtly, ridiculing the manlet Lancelot. Consider one of Lancelot’s internal monologues:

I should have killed myself
The moment my lady the queen
Showed how deeply she hates me.
There’s got to be some reason;
She wouldn’t have done it for nothing —
And yet I can’t understand.
For had I known what was wrong
I’d have moved heaven and earth
To amend it, however she liked [7]

In medieval Christian understanding, killing oneself is wrong. Suicide was a mortal sin. Today, husbands contemplate suicide and wonder what they did wrong when their wives unilaterally file for divorce. Even the loss of custody of a father’s children and his financial devastation in deeply gender-biased family courts wouldn’t justify a man’s suicide in medieval Christian understanding. Yet men’s suicides generate relatively little social concern. Despite its medieval Christian context, Lancelot has been interpreted as an admirable hero of courtly love.

Lancelot’s beloved Queen Guinevere similarly has a subtle, too subtle, internal monologue. After Lancelot had suffered brutal bodily wounds in successfully rescuing Guinevere, she walked away from him without a word of thanks. Speaking to herself later, she lamented her appalling behavior:

To deny him every attention
Was absolutely mad!
Mad? Better, by God,
To call me cruel, and a traitress.
It was only a joke, a whim,
But he took it deeply to heart
And never forgave me. I know it,
It was I who killed him, who gave him
The mortal blow: I know it!

Could I have dealt him a blow
More mortal? Denying him even
A word was like cutting out
His heart and killing him, then
and there. And so I killed him:
Why hunt for other assassins?
Oh God! Can I ever redeem
This murder, this mortal sin? [8]

Anything is possible with God. Yet if the gynocentric cultural complex didn’t rule medieval Christian society, Guinevere would be remembered only among non-believers and tax collectors. Displaying women’s freedom and license within medieval Christianity, Guinevere, who was married to King Arthur, then relished thoughts of adultery with Lancelot and rationalized not committing suicide:

How good it would be, once —
Just once — before I die,
Were he wrapped in my arms again!
How? Why, both of us naked;
That’s when I’d be the happiest.
But since he’s dead, to go on
Living would simply be wicked.
And why? To be alive
After he’s dead: would that
Injure my beloved — nothing
To delight in except my sorrow?
And yet how sweet that sorrow
Would be, had he been able
To see it when he was alive.
Would it not be wicked
To prefer death to such suffering?
Living as long as I can,
And enduring this pain, will be pleasure
Enough: I should live and suffer,
Not die and be at peace. [9]

Chrétien lacked the freedom to write like Juvenal and retain his commission in the court of Marie de Champagne. He had a job to do for the dominant ideology. Yet he was no mere literary apparatchik-scholar. The wit and subtlety of Chrétien’s monologues can’t be fully appreciated within the elite purpose for the new, vernacular Arthurian romances, nor within the associated dominant ideology of men’s subservience to women.

The long-established, subversive Latin tradition of romance provides necessary context for appreciating Chrétien’s monologues. The story of Apollonius of Tyre, known in Latin probably from no later than the sixth century, included a young man doctor resurrecting a beautiful young woman through erotic treatment. In the middle of the eleventh century, a Germanic poet writing in Latin created Ruodlieb. That courageous, transgressive, and entertaining work explicitly described the workings of gynocentrism and strongly challenged the well-established Greek novel’s sexual symmetry. Close to the time and place of Chrétien de Troyes, Andreas Capellanus writing in Latin outrageously described natural dread game as superior to supernatural dread game and questioned the new understanding of chivalric love in framing a mock-Arthurian romance. Andreas Capellanus also daringly challenged suppression of men’s sexed protest, as did in different ways leading women writers of the Middle Ages. Much of the most outrageous Latin story-telling from the early Middle Ages undoubtedly has been lost. But the diversity and creativity of medieval Latin literature should not be doubted.[10]

Walter Map provides an important, under-appreciated Latin internal monologue for literary comparison with Chrétien de Troyes’s monologues. Walter visited Marie de Champagne’s court at Troyes about the time that Chrétien is thought to have written Lancelot. Walter, who apparently lived on the border of England and Wales, probably knew Celtic legends that went into Arthurian tales. Two poems in the French Lancelot prose cycle were attributed to Walter. He may have written further popular French verse. In any case, several stories in the Latin De nugis curialum, which is securely attributed to Walter, are thematically in the mainstream of Arthurian legends.[11]

Walter’s Arthurian Latin romance of Sadius and Galo includes an internal monologue that outrageously caps Queen Guinevere’s internal monologue on her relationship with Lancelot. In Walter’s story, the queen fell madly in love with the foreign knight Galo. From her position of authority, she pressured him for sex. Galo suffered at length from the queen’s sexual harassment. Desperately seeking to be free from the queen’s sexual harassment of him, Galo conspired that his friend Sadius try to convince the queen that Galo was impotent. The queen resolved to put the matter to a sexual test with a beautiful court girl. After ordering the court girl to pursue the affair, the queen was tormented with jealousy and conflicting thoughts. She threw herself on a bed and said to herself:

Sadius is faithful and truthful: he lost his genitals. The more fool is he, to conceal his disgrace from me, that he cannot be touched, to spurn me that I might not spurn him in return! Truly if he had favored me, I would have been his most closely joined and clinging friend, and if there were a delay in discovering him, a hand could stray that certainly would be able to detect whether he is female or male or neuter.

O, it is not as I believed! Sadius lies, he is a man, the signs are certain that he is a man, intact, without defect. O what a wretch and fool I am to have sent the cleverest of girls on my own errand! … I do not believe, I do not think, I am sure and without doubt, that already she is where I should have been, but for the consecration of my head, but for my being a spouse: but there was his loyalty to keep him back. With her, where is the obstacle? What of this concerns her? Nothing. The damage is done. …

But can Sadius have spoken the truth? No, no! There is nothing in it. It’s obvious that he is potent, or she would have returned long ago. All the good signs are clear: that charming downy growth upon his cheeks, no flabbiness of limb, no jaundiced eye or coward heart. Could an effeminate man have pierced through so many armed phalanxes, outshined the glories of all men, raised his own repute to such a pinnacle of praise? I am sure that Sadius lies. [13]

Compared to Chrétien’s French monologue of the queen, Walter’s Latin monologue of the queen has greater psychological depth and more personal specificity. Chrétien’s monologues generally are closer to a figured conflict between abstract ideas. Walter’s monologue is more realistic and novelistic, more bawdy and transgressive. Given that Chrétien figured Lancelot as a manlet, Walter’s theme of impotence can fairly be interpreted as a wicked Latin capping of Chrétien’s monologue in the French Lancelot.

Vernacular Arthurian romance widely disseminated in late twelfth-century Europe contributed significantly to institutionalizing and naturalizing men’s servitude to women in love. Vernacular Arthurian romance built upon a rich, diverse inheritance of medieval Latin romance. But vernacular literature was more closely tied to socially dominant gynocentric interests. Vernacular literature lacked the diversity and freedom of expression possible in Latin. Emancipating men and women from gynocentrism requires bringing into vernacular romance marginalized medieval Latin literature. Welcoming into vernacular literature scintillating medieval Latin work such as Solomon and Marcolf and Lamentationes Matheoluli is a path to social, cultural, and sexual renewal.

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[1] C. Stephen Jaeger has thoroughly developed this terrible idea. See, e.g. Jaeger (1985) and Jaeger (1999). Here’s a critique of Jaeger’s thinking with respect to Marbod of Rennes’s Liber Decem Capitulorum.

[2] Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his Historia regum Britannie (History of the Kings of Britain) about 1138. Its prologue declared that it was a historia (history) based on a book in a British tongue. The prologue also warned about other, non-bookish tales of British kings. Latin, the language in which Geoffrey wrote, was the language of learned books. Echard (2011) pp. 1-2. Geoffrey’s Latin Arthurian tale “was an immediate best-seller; it survives in over 250 copies, and was translated and adapted throughout the Middle Ages.” Archibald (2011) p. 132.

Chrétien de Troyes made a similar assertion in the prologue to his Old French Arthurian romance Cliges:

The story I wish to recount to you, we find written down in one of the books in the library of Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Beauvais. The fact that the tale was taken from there is evidence of the truth of the account. Hence its greater credibility.

From French trans. Staines (1990) p. 87. A book from the library of Saint Peter’s Cathedral suggests a book written in Latin, the language of church bureaucrats (clerics). While Chrétien claimed Latin authority, he actually wrote in the commonly spoken language French. Writing in French better served the interests of his royal patrons in broad dissemination.

[3] Chrétien de Troyes stated these facts in his preface to Cliges. He probably translated both Ovid’s Ars Amatoria (Art of Love) and Ovid’s Remedia Amoris (Remedies for Love), as well as several stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Transformations). Staines (1990), Introduction, p. xii.

[4] Chrétien de Troyes, Lancelot, the knight of the cart ll. 1-5, from Old French trans. Raffel (1997) p. 1. The subsequent quote is from id. Countess Marie de Champagne apparently had difficult reading even the Bible in Latin:

Unlike her husband, Marie apparently did not read Latin well and preferred texts in the vernacular. Her requests for biblical translations are among the earliest in French.

McCash (2005) p. 16.

[5] Ovid, Metamorphoses, Bk. 7, ll. 1-73 (Medea’s monologue), excerpt from Latin trans. Martin (2004) p. 225. Tony Kline has generously made his translation freely available online.

[6] Duggan (2001) pp. 140-50.

[7] Chrétien de Troyes, Lancelot ll. 4343-53, from Old French trans. Raffel (1997) p. 137.

[8] Chrétien, Lancelot ll. 4208-16, 4221-28, trans. id. p. 133. The subsequent quote is from ll. 4231-51, trans. id. p. 133-4.

[9] The queen instructed the courtly girl to embrace nakedly Galo. Andreas Capellanus, De amore 1.6.471, advocated chaste contact of that sort. For discussion, see note [3] in my post on Sadius and Galo.

[10] Brooke (2004) and McCash (2005) pp. 20-1 discuss Walter Map’s activities. McCash states:

Walter’s name has long been associated with the prose cycle of the Lancelot, which claims to be ‘translations of a Latin original preserved at the abbey of Salisbury, made “by Walter Map at the request of King Henry his lord”’. Some scholars argue that Walter had little interest in these matters and that it was merely customary for authors to claim such sources. However, given the persistence with which Walter’s name was associated with these materials from the thirteenth through the nineteenth centuries, coupled with the known interest of the Plantagenet court in Arthurian legends, it is logical that Walter may indeed have collected such tales for the court. Whether he ever wrote them down is another matter, but, as a well-known teller of tales, he may have been partly responsible for their dissemination.

Id. p. 20. See also Webster (1940). Archibald, however, states:

It seems particularly ironic that Map was named as the author of parts of the French Vulgate Cycle, an early thirteenth-century compilation that tells the story of the Arthurian world in a way that does not suggest parody or the need for deep interpretation. No modern critic accepts this attribution, which recurs at the end of the Queste del Saint Graal and the beginning and end of the Mort Artu.

Archibald (2015) p. 185. Walter is more plausible as the author of the prose Lancelot cycle than Mary Shelley is as the author of Frankenstein. Walter’s securely attributed Arthurian tales from De nugis curialum are, in addition to the story of Sadius and Galo, the story of Resus and the story of Raso.

[11] Archibald (2011) and Archibald (2015) discuss the literary history of Latin romance and its contribution to Arthurian romance. Archibald’s useful studies, however, work within the dominant gynocentric ideology that has devalued and suppressed men’s literature of sexed protest under the disparaging label “misogyny.” Field insightfully queried:

Why are we so dismissive of clerical culture? … by comparison with the interest lavished on audiences, patrons and women, the clerical writers as a group seem to suffer from the Victorian disapproval of ‘monkish writers’.

Field (2011) pp. 187-8. If the dominant gynocentric ideology weren’t so dismissive of clerical culture (“monkish misogyny”), it would have to recognize scintillating medieval Latin clerical literature of men’s sexed protest.

[12] Walter Map, De nugis curialium 3.2, trans James (1983) pp. 217, 219. I’ve made some changes to the translation to make it more literal and explicit.

[image] Illumination on folio 40v, Yale Beinecke MS.229 Arthurian Romances. Made in France, 1275-1300. Thanks to Manuscript Miniatures (Yale manuscript viewer defunct / useless).


Archibald, Elizabeth. 2011.  “Arthurian Latin Romance.” Ch. 7 (pp. 132-45) in Echard (2011).

Archibald, Elizabeth. 2015. “Ruodlieb and Romance in Latin: Audience and Authorship.” Ch. 12 (pp. 171-86) in Duys, Kathryn A., Elizabeth Emery, and Laurie Postlewate. 2015. Telling the story in the Middle Ages: essays in honor of Evelyn Birge Vitz. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Brooke, C. N. L. 2004. “Map, Walter (d. 1209/10).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.

Duggan, Joseph J. 2001. The romances of Chrétien de Troyes. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Echard, Siân. 2011. “Introduction: The Arthur of Medieval Latin Literature.” Pp. 1-5 in Echard (2011).

Echard, Siân, ed. 2011. The Arthur of medieval Latin literature: the development and dissemination of the Arthurian legend in medieval Latin. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Field, Rosalind. 2011. “‘Pur les francs homes amender’: Clerical Authors and the Thirteenth Century.” Ch. 13 (pp. 175-88) in Rhiannon Purdie and Michael Cichon, eds. Medieval romance, medieval contexts. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Jaeger, C. Stephen. 1985. The origins of courtliness: civilizing trends and the formation of courtly ideals, 939-1210. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Jaeger, C. Stephen. 1999. Ennobling love: in search of a lost sensibility. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

James, M. R. trans., C. N. L. Brooke, and R. A. B. Mynors, eds. 1983. Walter Map. De nugis curialium {Courtiers’ trifles}. Oxford, Oxfordshire: Clarendon Press.

Martin, Charles, trans. 2004. Ovid. Metamorphoses. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

McCash, June Hall. 2005. “Chrétien’s Patrons.” Ch. 2 (pp. 15-25) in Lacy, Norris J., and Joan T. Grimbert, eds. 2005. A companion to Chrétien de Troyes. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Raffel, Burton, trans. 1997. Chrétien de Troyes. Lancelot, the knight of the cart. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Staines, David, trans. 1990. The complete romances of Chrétien de Troyes. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Webster, K. G. T. 1940. “Walter Map’s French Things” Speculum. 15 (3): 272-279.

Andreas Capellanus depicted shifting meaning of chivalric love

chivalric love, manlet tests

In twelfth-century Europe, understanding of chivalric love shifted from sexual readiness to manlet tests. Andreas Capellanus, writing about 1180, depicted this shift in an Latin Arthurian romance occurring in his work now sometimes ironically called De arte honeste amandi (On the Art of loving with dignity). The new understanding of chivalric love placed men in abject love servitude to women. Andreas’s Latin Arthurian romance reveals his contempt for the new understanding of chivalric love.

The new understanding of chivalric love required men to follow rules of love. Andreas’s Arthurian Latin romance explains how thirty-one rules of love were established. Rules for love function as manlet tests, more popularly known as shit tests. The original understanding of chivalric love required only sexual readiness. That’s natural to manly horsemen, just as farmers must plow to plant seeds.

The beginning of Andreas’s Arthurian Latin romance immediately associates King Arthur with a peculiar womanly action. Consider that unusual element in the context of typical Arthurian motifs:

A certain British knight was roaming alone through the royal forest hoping to see Arthur. When he had been drawn to the interior of the forest, a girl endowed with wondrous beauty, seated on a caparisoned horse and binding up her hair, suddenly met him.

Why was the woman binding up her hair? In the original understanding of chivalric love, a woman binding up her hair indicates she no longer feels passionate sexual desire.

The beautiful girl who no longer felt passionate sexual desire administered manlet tests to the British knight. She explained to the knight:

When you were seeking the love of a certain British lady, she told you that you could never win it unless you first brought her the victorious sparrowhawk which is said to sit on a golden perch in Arthur’s court.

The knight confirmed her assertion. When his beloved lady said she wanted the victorious sparrowhawk sitting on a golden perch in Arthur’s court, the knight went in search of Arthur and his court. He should have offered her the medieval version of skittles.

The beautiful girl then piled on the manlet tests. She declared:

You could not take the sparrowhawk you seek without first proving by combat in Arthur’s palace that you rejoice in the love of a lady more beautiful than any possessed by those who dwell at Arthur’s court. Moreover, you could not enter the palace without first showing to the guards the gauntlet for the sparrowhawk. That guantlet you cannot get without winning it by engaging two of the bravest knights in a double contest.

Those are tasks of violence. Such tasks explain why medieval men had much shorter life expectancy than did medieval women. The gendered pattern of violence continues to be ignorantly misunderstood: violence kills more than four times more men than women. Keep repeating that fact until the violence stops, or at least until the vagina monologues stop.

As a benighted knight, the man put himself under the direction of the girl. The knight declared to the girl:

I realize that I cannot succeed in this hard task if you do not offer me the help of your hand.

Only obtuse readers don’t perceive witty mocking in the knight seeking the help of the girl’s hand in succeeding in tasks of violence. The knight earnestly expressed his desire for the girl’s direction:

I wish to subject myself to your direction, and ask you humbly to give me your help in this task. Grant me your consent, that under your directing eye, I may boldly claim for myself the love of a lady more beautiful than all others.

Most men are easily made subordinate to a beautiful girl. Men, of course, naturally seek sex with beautiful young women. But the behavior of a manlet drys up a girl’s sexual desire. The beautiful girl gave the knight the kiss of love. That, like the kiss of peace, was meant to be purely without lust. She then gave him her horse to lead him. Only a man who’s a poor rider would literally ride such a horse, instead of the girl herself.

The knight then rode off and accomplished his woman-directed manlet tasks of violence against men and acquisition. Just as in the story of the manlet Lancelot, a bridge-keeper sought to keep the knight from crossing a bridge. They then fought. The knight seriously injured the bridge-keeper, suffered a serious bodily wound himself, but managed to cross the bridge. On the other side of the bridge, the knight killed a man who had attempted to drown him. Seeking food, the knight fought a palace guard, of course also a man. The knight suffered huge blows while the guard lost his hand. To get the sparrowhawk, the knight engaged in a brutal fight with another man. As a result of all this violence against men, the knight secured the sparrowhawk that his beloved lady desired. With the sparrowhawk came a scroll containing rules of love. Men fighting men is inevitably a losing activity for men.

The knight missed an opportunity for love with a beautiful girl because he failed to understand the game. When the beautiful girl gave the knight his manlet tests, she said:

If your heart proves so bold that you don’t fear to seek out the things I mentioned, you could obtain from me what you propose.

The knight returned to the girl to show that he had done what she required. She responded joyfully. She flirtingly said to him:

You have my permission to depart, dearest one, because sweet Britain demands you. But I beg you not to accept your departure reluctantly, because whenever you wish to approach this region alone, you will always find me here.

Societies have long demanded men’s bodies. Men, in contrast, have been reluctant to demand their entitlement to love. The beautiful girl said that she would be there for the knight. She right then was there for the knight. He happily left to fulfill the demands of sweet Britain and help to instruct all men in the rules of love. Benighted, sexually deprived men have been following oppressive, brutalizing rules of love ever since.

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The quotes above are from Andreas Capellanus, De amore / De arte honeste amandi, Book 2, Chapter 8, from Latin trans. Walsh (1982) pp. 271-85. That chapter, entitled “The Rules of Love,” begins with the Latin Arthurian romance above, commonly called the Sparrowhawk episode.

I’ve made some minor changes to Walsh’s translation, mainly to track the Latin more closely. For in capillorum ligatura inopinate sibi occurrit, Walsh has “binding her hair, suddenly confronted him.” Recognizing the context of this gesture and the non-confrontational context, I translated the Latin as “binding up her hair, suddenly met him.” The sparrowhawk (accipiter) Walsh translates as “hawk.”

In her reading of the Sparrowhawk episode, Echard perceives two competing systems of conduct: courtly behavior and fairy romance. Echard also recognizes the importance of Book 3 of De amore for interpreting the Sparrowhawk episode, which comprises most of the last chapter of Book 2. Echard (1998), pp. 112-21. Book 3 of De amore develops men’s sexed protest dialogically. The purgatory of cruel beauties in De amore similarly exists in relation to an alternate presentation of natural dread game. Andreas commonly developed themes with thematic contrasts.

[image] Knights (men) engaged in violence against each other. Illumination on folio 339r, Yale Beinecke MS.229 Arthurian Romances. Made in France, 1275-1300. Thanks to Manuscript Miniatures.


Echard, Siân. 1998. Arthurian narrative in the Latin tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Walsh, P.G., trans. 1982. Andreas Capellanus on love {De amore}. London: Duckworth.