conservative medieval women impeded progress toward gender equality

Pieter Bruegel, The Hay Chasing the Horse (engraving)

Whoever truly desires
Something is supposed to ask for it.
What? Shall I ask him to love me?
Never. And why? No woman
Makes the mistake of asking
A man for his love, unless
She’s totally out of her mind.
The world would know I was mad,
If I ever permitted my mouth
To speak such scandalous words. [1]

In addition to many other historical gender inequalities, men have long been disproportionately burdened with soliciting amorous relationships. Men are thus the gender that predominately experiences interpersonal rejection in love. Men’s disadvantage in love is deeply associated with sexual welfare inequality and men’s subordination to women. Chrétien de Troyes’s twelfth-century French romance Cligès shows the extent to which conservative medieval women resisted progress toward gender equality in love.

Gender inequality in love persists at least in part because it supports women’s rule. In Cligès, Fenice vigorously guarded the words of Cligès to her:

She kept rehearsing in her heart
Those moments when he’d said farewell,
How his color changed, and went pale,
His tears and his sorrowful face,
How he’d come before her, weeping,
And humbly fallen to his knees,
As if in adoration.

He’d told her he was hers to command.
How refreshing these few words!
They traveled straight from tongue
To heart; she set them in her mouth
To keep them forever safe,
Not daring to entrust this treasure
To some different hiding place.
Where could she hold them half
As well as deep in her heart?
She never allowed them out,
Fearing robbers and brigands. [2]

Where your treasure is, there your heart is also. Burying men’s subordination in love deep within women’s hearts prevents love from increasing.[3] That hurts women. As should also be said, that hurts men.

To achieve gender equality, the world must be set right. In Cligès, the narrator exclaims:

Tell me, oh Lord, where girls’
Timidity comes from, their frail,
Fearful, innocent silence?
I feel as if I’m seeing
Hounds fleeing a hare,
Trout chasing after beavers,
Lambs after wolves, pigeons
Pursuing eagles. Or peasant men fleeing
Their shovels, which earn them their weary
lives. Or ducks after falcons,
Storks after hawks, minnows
Splashing after pike,
Antelope hunting lions:
The world all upside down! [4]

Writers have long used the figure of the world upside down. In seventh-century BGC Greece, Archilochus imagined impossible reversals to marvel at the willingness of men to marry. In fourteenth-century GC Italy, Boccaccio used the figure of the world turned upside down as an opportunity to discuss women’s guile.[5] Chrétien de Troyes injected into the well-known figure of the world upside down a key figure of men’s oppression: peasant men fleeing from their burdensome physical labor. That’s a natural reaction of thinking men, quite unlike images of unnatural reversal such as pigeons pursuing eagles.

To perceive social injustices obscured under dominant ideology, one must distinguish between natural and unnatural impossibilities. Women desire amorous relationships as much as men do. Women soliciting amorous relationships and accepting rejection just as men do is a socially constructed impossibility. In reality, women pursuing men and being rejected is no more impossible than paternity certainty and reproductive rights for men. The gender system constructs men to be the rejected gender so as to support women’s command over men (women on top). Women on top was the preferred position of conservative medieval women and remains the preferred position of many women scholars today.[6]

Women pretend to live in “frail, fearful, innocent silence.” Men actually live that way. When men and women reject gynocentrism and insistently, to the point of raucous disorder, speak out about issues important to men’s lives, the world will be turned upside down. That will be all for the better.

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[1] Chrétien de Troyes, Cligès ll. 992-1001, from Old French trans. Raffel (1997) pp. 32-3. Sordamour is speaking about her love for Alexander. When citing Raffel’s translation, I cite the line numbers in his English translation. Those line numbers are close to line numbers in Old French editions (which have slightly varying line numbers by edition).

The mid-fifteenth-century Burgundian prose transmutation of Cligès seems to have recognized the injustice in Sordamour’s gender privilege. That prose account inserted the story of a young woman weeping sorrowfully in the woods. In solitude she cried out to herself:

I consider myself the most wretched and, among all those complaining about their misfortune and sorrowful life, the lady who most bitterly laments the loss of her dear beloved, who left her of late to go off in search of adventure. … Oh, if only he had know my desire when he left. Alas, if I had revealed it to him, he would not have gone away

Burgundian prose Cligès, Ch. 53, from French trans. Grimbert in Grimbert & Chase (2011) p. 125.

[2] Cligès ll. 4348-54, 4370-80, trans Raffel (1997) pp. 138-9. The text concerns Fenice and her lover Cligès.

[3] Cf. Matthew 6:21, 25:14-30.

[4] Cligès ll.3828-41, trans Raffel (1997) pp. 121-2. Id. has “Or peasants / their shovels, which earn them their weary / Lives.” The Old French text for the relevant lines (ll. 3834-5) is:

et si fuit li vilains sa maigle,
dom il vit et dom it s’ahane.

Ed. Harf-Lancner (2006) p. 268. These lines clearly refer to peasant men. I’ve made that explicit above. The verb fuit echoes the figure’s first verb foïr (“hounds fleeing a hare”). Making that echo explicit helps to indicate the importance of the lines about the peasant men.

Raffel insightfully translated ll. 3827-9 (the first three lines of the above quote). All other translations I’ve examined have obscured Chrétien’s critical subtlety. Here’s Raffel’s translation:

Tell me, oh Lord, where girls’
Timidity comes from, their frail,
Fearful, innocent silence?

In a recent authoritative edition, the Old French for those lines is:

Dex!, ceste crienme don li vient,
c’une pucele seule crient {tient A},
sinple et coarde, foible et quoie?

Harf-Lancner (2006) p. 266. While medieval manuscripts of Cligès differ significantly (see Sturges (1994) pp. 208-11), the above text captures all the relevant variation across manuscripts. Translators have wrongly assumed that the subject of these lines is Cligès. Some leading translations:

God! whence comes this fear, that he should shrink from a lonely girl, feeble and timid, simple and mild?

Trans. Owen (1987) p. 88.

God, whence comes his fear of a single maiden, simple and timid, feeble and shy?

Trans. Staines (1990) p. 133.

Dieu!, d’où lui vient cette crainte d’une seule jeune fille, modeste et peureuse, faible et silencieuse?

Harf-Lancner (2006) p. 267. These translations, while within the range of meanings of the text, don’t recognize Chrétien’s play with reversals across the text and the relevant context. They also don’t recognize reversal relevant to women’s dominant position within the men-degrading ideology of courtly love. Within that ideology, a woman ruled over the man who loved her. The man cringed in fear of her displeasure.

With fidelity to the text of the Old French manuscripts, a translation need not anachronistically add support for the currently dominant gender structure of amorous rejection. Rather than implying a prepositional phrase, c’une pucele seule is most directly translated as “She is a single young girl.” Both crient and the manuscript variant tient make sense as third-person intransitive verbs. The best literal English translation of the three lines seems to me to be:

God!, whence comes to her this fear,
She, a single, young woman, fears {holds back},
simple and timid, feeble and shy?

This translation is consistent with Chrétien’s subtle but significant critique of the degrading gender position of men. This translation is substantially the same as Raffel’s. He deserves credit for his superior insight.

Translations of Chrétien into English are relatively significant in education about medieval literature. Sturges observed:

Chrétien’s works, the first (and, for most readers, among the best) extant Arthurian romances, are taught in virtually every {U.S.} college and university-level course on Arthurian literature, whether it focuses on the Middle Ages exclusively or surveys the entire tradition.

Sturges (1994) p. 205. Id. provides a general review of English translations. For translations of medieval Arthurian literature more generally, Lacy (2006).

[5] Other ancient examples of the “world turned upside down” topos are Isaiah 11:6-8, Acts 17:6-7, and Virgil, Eclogues 8.53.7. On the “world turned upside down” topos more generally, Curtius (1953) pp. 94-8 and Kunzle (1978).

[6] See, e.g. Davis (1978). Kunzle appreciates “discontented, lower-class elements who sought or fantasized about the subversion of the existing order.” Yet he opines that, with respect to the domestic hierarchy, “there was no (male) popular desire to change.” Kunzle (1978) pp. 40, 42. That view reflects fundamental misunderstanding of literature of men’s sexed protest. Unlike such scholars, great medieval women writers showed generous and perceptive sympathy for men’s concerns.

[image] The Hay Chasing the Horse. Illustration of proverb. Engraving attributed to Pieter Bruegel, dated 1568/69. The circular caption (in Flemish) is in English translation:

For the hay to go after the horse, is perverted, mark this, you girls who offer yourselves up so shamelessly. It is not proper for you to court the young men; but it is proper for the horse to go after the hay.

Trans. Kunzle (1978) p. 69.


Curtius, Ernst Robert. 1953. European literature and the Latin Middle Ages. New York: Pantheon Books.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. 1978. “Women on Top: Symbolic Sexual Inversion and Political Disorder in Early Modern Europe.” Ch. 5 (pp. 147-92) in Barbara A. Babcock, ed. The reversible world: symbolic inversion in art and society. Cornell University Press.

Grimbert, Joan T. and Carol J. Chase, trans. 2011. Chrétien De Troyes in prose: the Burgundian Erec and Cligés. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Harf-Lancner, Laurence, ed. and trans. 2006. Chrétien de Troyes. Cligès: Édition bilingue, Publication, traduction, présentation et notes. Champion Classiques, Série Moyen âge 16. Paris: H. Champion.

Kunzle, David. 1978. “World Upside Down: The Iconography of a European Broadsheet Type.” Ch. 1 (pp. 39-94) in Barbara A. Babcock, ed. The reversible world: symbolic inversion in art and society. Cornell University Press.

Lacy, Norris J. 2006. “Translation of Medieval Arthurian Literature.” Pp.49-61 in Lacy, Norris J. A history of Arthurian scholarship. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Owen, D.D.R., trans. 1987. Chrétien de Troyes. Arthurian romances. Everyman’s Library. London: J.M. Dent & Sons.

Raffel, Burton, trans. 1997. Chrétien de Troyes. Cligès. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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

Sturges, Robert S. 1994. “Chrétien de Troyes in English Translation: A Guide to the Issues.” Arthuriana. 4 (3): 205-223.

Chrysorroi described Kallimachos as deserving her love because of his labors

man earning love

In the fourteenth-century Byzantine romance Kallimachos and Chrysorroi, a maid and three royal eunuchs caught Queen Chrysorroi having sex in the garden with her dragon-killing lover Kallimachos. Eventually Chrysorroi and Kallimachos came before the King for judgment and punishment. Kallimachos telling the story of his strenuous effort to gain the love of Chrysorroi saved them from being executed for adultery. The underlying romantic ideal is that men, but not women, earn love through their labor.

Chrysorroi, a strong, smart woman, led the case for the defense. She used the well-established rhetoric of setting out a hypothetical case (declamation) and questioning the judge (anacoenosis):

A man plants a vine with his own hands, hoes it, prunes it, puts a fence around it, weeds it carefully, tends it, spends the whole day with a sling frightening away birds who wish to destroy it, walks around by night to guard it. He suffers hardship and agony. At harvest time another man comes and seizes possession of it for himself. He harvests it and eats its fruit. As for the previous owner who planted the vine  and labored over it, the second man wants to kill him. Do you consider this just, or do you consider that the first owner should enjoy the fruits of his labor? [1]

The King responded:

I judge that the previous owner should enjoy the fruit of his toil and that the evil robber and thief should be beheaded to frighten others who might wish to do wrong or steal.

The audience applauded the King’s judgment and “praised the beauty of justice.” Chrysorroi then identified Kallimachos as a king analogous to the laborer in her hypothetical story. She analogized herself as the vine that he tended. The King hearing the case was the new owner of the vine, that is of his Queen Chrysorroi.[2] But she declared Kallimachos’s right to enjoy the fruit of his labor:

This {Kallimachos} is the king whom the witch rendered a corpse with her spells. This is the king who rescued me from my woes, who killed the dragon, who is my true lord. Whom did he wrong in enjoying the fruit of his labor?

The King was silent and shuddered in amazement. He asked about Kallimachos’s story. Having heard it, he generously disposed of Kallimachos:

The King then freed Kallimachos from his chains and gave him to Chrysorroi. The King, I think, felt pity because of Fortune’s cruelty and, bestowing on them a not undeserved favor, he ordered a detachment of the army to escort them wherever they wished.

While Kallimachos earned the right to love Chyrsorroi, she wasn’t given to him as property that he acquired through labor.[3] The King gave Kallimachos to Chrysorroi as if he were property. Men earning love doesn’t necessarily raise men’s social status.

The moral economy of love in Kallimachos and Chrysorroi parallels that of virtue. Virtue has as a root the Latin term for man, vir. Yet men aren’t naturally credited with being virtuous. Men must perform acts according to socially sanctioned criteria to be credited with virtue. For Kallimachos and his two brothers, virtue determined who would inherit their father’s kingdom. Their father said to them:

The one who shows great military valor, strength, intelligence, and proper wisdom, the one who acts the most kingly way, and gains a great trophy with his mighty exploits, to him shall I give the command of the empire, him shall I crown and make king in my place. [4]

Men must develop a sense of entitlement. Only very few persons can be a king or queen. But every man is entitled to love as a human being. Support men’s entitlement to love!

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[1] Kallimachos and Chrysorroi ll. 2450ff, from vernacular medieval Greek trans. Betts (1995) p. 85. Subsequent quotes above are from ll. 2460-2600, id. pp. 85-7, and ll. 60ff, id. p. 38.

The Greek text (Καλλίμαχος καὶ Xρυσορρόη) is written in unrhymed political verse. External evidence indicates that Andronikos Komninos Vranas Doukas Angelos Palaeologos (Andronikos Palaeologos), a nephew of the Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII, wrote it between 1320 and 1340. Kallimachos and Chrysorroi has survived in only one early sixteenth-century manuscript. Kallimachos and Chrysorroi engages in sophisticated intertextuality with Chariton’s Chaereas and Callirhoe and is now appreciated as a “highly learned text.” Van Steen (1998); Agapitos (2015) p. 77.

The figure of a woman as a vine or garden has biblical roots. See e.g. Song of Songs 4:12-15. James 2:2-4 provides an example of a hypothetical case and ensuing question. Judicial rhetoric was a major field of study in Byzantium. Angelo (2010) p. 304.

[2] Merely from the sight of her, the King was struck with terrible lovesickness for Chrysorroi. With the help of a witch’s tricks, the King abducted Chrysorroi. He then made Chrysorroi his queen.

[3] The idea that women have been men’s property up until recent decades of liberation is a misandristic myth. Wilson & Daly (1992) has been influential work in such myth-making. See note [4] to my post on Sexual Coercion in Primates and Humans.

[4] Kallimachos’s two brothers turned back from attempting to confront serpents at Dragon Castle. The second brother prudently and comically observed:

I too shall flee these serpents. Unnecessary fighting with wild beasts is forbidden by both convention and good strategy.

Kallimachos and Chrysorroi l. 225ff, trans. Betts (1995) p. 41. These considerations contrast sharply with social forces that promote highly disproportionate violence against men.

[image] Man earning love. Rice farmer in Sierra Leone showing a part of his harvest, 2006. Photo thanks to Laura Lartigue (USAID) and Wikimedia Commons.


Angelou, Athanasios. 2010. “Rhetoric and history: the case of Niketas Choniates.” Ch. 16 (pp. 289-305) in Ruth J. Macrides, ed. 2010. History as literature in Byzantium: papers from the Fortieth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, University of Birmingham, April 2007. Surrey, England: Ashgate.

Agapitos, Panagiotis A. 2015. “Contesting Conceptual Boundaries: Byzantine Literature and Its History.” Interfaces: A Journal of Medieval European Literature. 1: 62-91.

Betts, Gavin. 1995. Three medieval Greek romances. Garland Library of Medieval Literature, vol. 98. New York: Garland Pub.

Van Steen, Gonda A. H. 1998. “Destined to Be ? Tyche in Chariton’s Chaereas and Callirhoe and in the Byzantine Romance of Kallimachos and Chrysorroi.” L’antiquité Classique. 67 (1): 203-211.

Wilson, Margo and Martin Daly. 1992. “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Chattel.” Ch. 7, pp. 289-322, in J.H. Barkow, L. Cosmides, J. Tooby, eds. The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. Oxford University Press. New York.

translatio studii et imperii: Chrétien de Troyes’ Ovidian Cligès


Ancient books tell us all
We know of ancient history
And what life was like, back then.
And we’ve learned from those books that in Greece
Knighthood and learning ranked
Above all other things.
Ancient learning, like knighthood,
Passed from Greece to Rome,
and has reappeared, now,
In France. [1]

Just as the New Yorker provides readers everywhere easy means to imagine themselves as citizens of the capital of culture, courtiers in twelfth-century France enjoyed imagining themselves as heirs to the martial prowess and literary learning of ancient Greece and Rome. That idea of historical and spatial succession has come to be known as translatio studii et imperii.[2] Chrétien de Troyes invoked that idea in the prologue to his twelfth-century French verse romance Cligès. He meant to ridicule intellectual and political pretensions.

Knighthood as understood in the European Middle Ages was unknown in ancient Greece and Rome. Men in ancient Greece and Rome typically fought as part of well-organized, well-trained groups of foot soldiers. Individual challenges were fought on foot. The difference between combat in ancient Greece and Rome and combat in medieval Europe rested in part on a technological difference. Stirrups didn’t exist in ancient Greece and Rome. A rider lacking stirrups and carrying heavy-weight armor and weapons could easily fall off his horse.[3] Not surprisingly, the understanding of chivalry prior to the European Middle Ages concerned a husband worthily serving his wife sexually. Chrétien probably understood this historical difference. His invocation of knighthood in ancient Greece and Rome is best understood as ridiculing the idea of translatio studii et imperii.

Cligès more directly treated translatio studii et imperii comically. For example, in Constantinople, the knight Cligès urged his beloved Fenice to flee with him to Britain. He said to her:

Don’t say you won’t go: please!
When Paris brought beautiful
Helen to Troy, her welcome
Was joyous, but not so splendid
As yours and mine will be,
All through the lands ruled
by King Arthur, my uncle. [4]

Helen and Paris brought a terrible war to Troy. Many Trojans undoubtedly came to hate Helen. She later called herself a “shameless whore” for going to Troy. Paris was killed in the Trojan War. Cligès figuring himself and his beloved Fenice as Paris and Helen shows comic ignorance of ancient Greek history.

Fenice further underscored lack of learning from ancient books. Fenice’s primary ethical concern turned on the medieval romantic tale of Tristan and Iseult. She didn’t want others to talk about Cligès and her being like the adulterous Tristan and Iseult. She told Cligès:

They’d call me
A shameless whore, and you
They’d call a fool. It’s better
To remember Saint Paul’s advice,
And follow it: he teaches that those
Who can’t remain chaste should always
Carefully arrange their affairs
So no one knows what they’re doing
And no one can criticize. [5]

Saint Paul didn’t teach that if you keep an affair secret it’s not a sin. Paul embraced being called a fool for Christ. Moreover, Fenice being called a “shameless whore” invokes Cligès’s reference to Helen of Troy in his immediately preceding words to Fenice. Both Cligès and Fenice ridiculously misunderstand ancient literature, even biblical literature deeply infused in life and thought in medieval Europe.

In the romance Cligès, a siege on behalf of an adulterer is averted only by the husband’s death from pain and grief. Cligès and his German princess lover Fenice plotted to deceive her husband Alis, Emperor of Byzantine, by faking her death. They arranged for her to live in a secluded, underground palace where they could safely have trysts. However, a knight named Bernard, perhaps after the renowned monastic reformer canonized in 1174, inadvertently discovered them sleeping naked together. He informed the Emperor. Fenice and Cligès then fled to Britain. There Cligès pleaded for help from his uncle King Arthur. King Arthur prepared a huge fleet to sail east to Constantinople and besiege the city on behalf of the adulterer Cligès. Only the Emperor’s death from pain and grief from Fenice’s betrayal avoided war. That plot makes a mockery of the matter of Troy.

Cligès invokes wide-ranging spatial references. Both Alexander and his son Cligès, described as Greeks, travel west from the Byzantine capital Constantinople to seek honor in the British court of King Arthur. They marry British and German princesses, respectively. Alexander’s father, the Emperor in Constantinople, is described as ruling Greece. Alexander’s brother, Emperor Alis, takes up residence in Athens.[6] These plot elements connect East and West.

The places and identities in Cligès don’t cohere within translatio studii et imperii. Britain isn’t the same as France or Germany. The leading centers of learning and the most powerful empire in western Eurasia after the fall of the Roman Empire were Islamic.[7] Moreover, the Byzantines called themselves Romans, not Greeks. Athens had become a city of the Roman Empire. After the fall of the western Roman Empire, Athens remained a city of the Roman Empire in Byzantine eyes. Cligès most directly invokes Rome in Chrétien’s claim in the prologue that he translated Ovid. Ovid fabricated involuted, ironic myths. So too did Chrétien de Troyes. In Cligès, the most important genealogy associated with translatio studii et imperii isn’t the father Alexander, but his wife Tantalis.

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[1] Chrétien de Troyes, Cligès ll. 27-36, from Old French trans. Raffel (1997) p. 2. I use line numbers from Raffel’s translation. They are close to the Old French line numbers. The Old French terms translated as knighthood and learning are chevalerie and clergie, respectively. Those words are rooted in the English words chivalry and clergy.

Many Old French editions of Cligès are freely available online. So too is the English translation of W.W. Comfort (1914).

[2] For an introduction to the idea of translatio studii et imperii, see Debora Schwartz’s webpage. McLoone (2012) provides extensive discussion. McLoone observes:

The most frequently cited medieval passage on translatio studii et imperii is found in the prologue to Chretien de Troyes’ Cliges. His explication of translatio has become something of a benchmark for modern understandings of this medieval trope as used in vernacular romances …. Chretien’s reading of translatio has become the modern reading, especially as regards the vernacular romance and lay traditions; it emphasizes the continuity of the transmission of knowledge (clergie) and power (chevalrie).

Id. p. 4. For discussion of translatio focused on Cligès, Kinoshita (1996). Just as with respect to courtly love, modern readers have failed to understand Chrétien’s sophistication in addressing translatio studii et imperii.

[3] Horses in ancient Greek and Rome were more commonly used to pull chariots. Among the Greeks, Alexander the Great pioneered riding horseback into battle (see mosaic of the Battle of Issus). Armed horseback riders (cavalry) called cataphracts were probably known in Persia from about 2600 years ago. Nonetheless, in ancient Greece and in the Roman Empire before the fall of the western part, foot soldiers predominated. The cost of horses and armor was also a factor limiting cavalry among the large armies of Persia and the Roman Empire.

[4] Cligès ll. 5281-7, trans. Raffel (1997) p. 167. Subsequent references will be by line number and page in id. Haidu (1968) takes seriously the comic in Clegès, but doesn’t appreciate the extent to which comic irony extends to ideology of courtly love and translatio studii et imperii.

[5] Cligès ll. 5304-12, p. 168. For Paul on being a fool for Christ, 1 Corinthians 4:10. Paul urged all to refrain from sex. He added as a concession:

But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.

1 Corinthians 7:9. Fenice was acutely concerned about being people saying that Cligès and she were like Tristan and Iseult:

I’d sooner by torn apart
Than see Cligès and myself
Relive the love of Tristan
and Iseult, a shameful story
To tell, full of foolishness.

For however much I’ve suffered
For loving you, and being
Loved, no one can call you
Tristan or me Iseult:
Love is not worthy of its name
When it’s wrong, and people can say so.

Cligès ll. 3126-30, 5241-46, pp. 99, 166.

[6] For the Emperor in Constantinople ruling Greece, Cligès ll. 2374-5, p. 76. On Emperor Alis living in Athens, Cligès ll. 2429-31, 2449-50, p. 78. The Emperor is also described as ruling over “Greece and Constantinople.” Cligès l. 9, p. 3.

[7] Ninth-century Baghdad was the capital of the enormous, intellectually vibrant Abbasid Caliphate. Scholars in Baghdad drew upon Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Arabic, Syrian, and Indian learning. Consider, for example, al-Jahiz’s scholarship. In Central Asia in the eleventh century, al-Biruni had far more learning than anyone in Paris. Ibn Abi Usaibia surveyed vast learning in Damascus at the beginning of the thirteenth century.

Learning from the Islamic world entered western Europe through Sicily and Spain. Noting the importance of various cities around the Mediterranean in the twelfth century, Kinoshita observes:

At about the same time that Chrétien was narrating the Greek prince Alexandre’s chivalric pilgrimage westward to the Arthurian court, an English scholar named Daniel of Morley was setting out on his own pilgrimage — an intellectual quest, if you will, for the cutting-edge thinking of his day. Going first to Paris, he was quickly disillusioned by the quality of the scholarship he found there; then, hearing of Toledo’s reputation as a center for the ‘learning of the Arabs’ (doctrina Arabum), he hurried there ‘and was not disappointed’ — subsequently returning to England to share his enthusiasm with (among others) John of Oxford, the new bishop of Norwich.

Kinoshita (2008) p. 52.

[image] Tantalus. Oil painting by Gioacchino Assereto, 1630s-1640s. Held in Auckland Art Gallery. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Haidu, Peter. 1968. Aesthetic distance in Chrétien de Troyes: irony and comedy in Cligès and Perceval. Genève: Droz librairie.

Kinoshita, Sharon. 1996. “The Poetics of Translatio: French–Byzantine Relations in Chrétien de Troyes’s Cligés.” Exemplaria. 8 (2): 315-354.

Kinoshita, Sharon. 2008. “Chrétien de Troyes’s Cligés in the Medieval Mediterranean.” Arthuriana. 18 (3): 48-61.

McLoone, Katherine Ann. 2012. Translatio studii et imperii in medieval romance. Ph. D. Thesis, University of California, Los Angeles.

Raffel, Burton, trans. 1997. Chrétien de Troyes. Cligès. New Haven: Yale University Press.

gender in evolutionary understanding of violence against men

dead and wounded men

Interpersonal violence among adults in human societies is highly disproportionately violence against men. For example, four times more men than women die from interpersonal violence in the U.S. today. In western Europe about 1400, the life expectancy of men at age 20 was 9.4 years less than the corresponding life expectancy for women. Violence against men accounted for a large share of that gender inequality. Any reasonable understanding of the evolution of violence must consider disproportionate violence against males.

Study of warfare among Turkana nomadic pastoralists in East Africa indicates that disproportionate violence against men spans a wide range of socio-political structures. With life primarily organized around small herds of cattle, goats, camels, sheep, and donkeys, the Turkana don’t have large, formal institutions:

The Turkana are a large ethnolinguistic group with the social organization of a small-scale society. They are politically uncentralized, egalitarian, and economically undifferentiated. They lack formal or centralized institutions of leadership or coercive authority. They reside in nomadic settlements comprised of households that disperse and aggregate seasonally. [1]

Turkana men come together to form raiding parties of several hundred warriors without kin or day-to-day community ties. The raiding parties attack neighboring ethnic groups to acquire cattle and to deter those groups from intruding upon Turkana territory. Such warfare gender-disproportionately shortens men’s life expectancy:

Between puberty and the start of their reproductive period, 14% of Turkana men die in warfare, accounting for 45% of mortality during that life stage. During their reproductive period, 9% of men die in warfare, accounting for 60% of mortality during that period. …  Twenty percent of all male deaths (including infants and children) are a result of warfare. [2]

Social control, including that exercised by women, supports men’s deaths in warfare:

When a warrior’s behavior in a raid deviates from that of his comrades, he is subjected to informal verbal sanctions by his age-mates, women, and seniors. If there is consensus in the community that the act merits more serious sanctions, corporal punishment is initiated. Corporal punishment is severe: the coward or deserter is tied to a tree and beaten by his age-mates. One participant had scars on his torso from being whipped by his age group more than a decade earlier. During this process the violator is told not to repeat this mistake. Corporal punishment often culminates with the violator pleading for forgiveness and sacrificing an animal from his herd. [3]

Third-party sanctions, or more generally culture, explain both disproportionate violence against men and lack of social concern about disproportionate violence against men.

In many societies, violence against men is formally taught to boys. Boys are oriented toward combat through training in military skills, warrior apprenticeship, games and contests to establish martial skills, pain endurance and other endurance tests, and recounting legends and stories to reinforce martial attitudes.[4] Among the nineteenth-centur, North American nomadic hunting-gathering Apache:

Boys are warned that girls will not marry a cowardly or lazy person. Youths are particularly trained in endurance and in running. One test involves running a course with a mouth full of water which may not be swallowed (if the boy swallows the water on the way, the trainer sees that he doesn’t do it a second time). They match youths of the same age and have them engage in running contests and fighting. They were even expected to take on known superior fighters. They also engage in mock fights with slings to learn both attack and defense. Later they fight in teams with bows and arrows, and though the arrows are small, they can inflict severe damage. Later still, they are trained in handling horses, and in long cross-country journeys without food or sleep. [5]

The Jivaro, an primarily agricultural people of northern Peru and western Ecuador, inculcate military duties in boys:

when a boy is about the age of six, he is instructed each morning {by his father} on the necessity of being a warrior and incited to avenge the feuds in which his family is involved. Such admonishment “is repeated every morning regularly for more than five years, until the parent sees that the son has been thoroughly inoculated with the warlike spirit and the idea of blood revenge.” From the age of seven, boys are regularly taken on war expeditions with their fathers and, though they do not actually engage in combat, they get accustomed to the methods of warfare, and learn to defend themselves and not to be afraid. At the age of 15 or 16 the Jivaro youth undergoes an initiation during which he must observe numerous taboos and in which he is given a narcotic drink and tobacco to smoke in order to transfer the power of the tobacco to him. “This power will automatically show itself in all the work and occupations incumbent on him as a male member of society. He will be a brave and successful warrior and be able to kill many enemies….” [6]

In some societies, men can opt out of the duties of war. Yet the pattern of selective service for war that continues in the U.S. today has been prevalent historically in large, culturally elaborate societies.

A recent study of vervet monkeys indicates that females play a key role in generating and supporting violence against males. Intergroup aggression in vervets consists of vocalizations, charging, chasing, and biting. Both females and males participate in such aggression. Females usually take the lead in organizing and instigating intergroup conflict. Adult males, which are about 1.5 times larger than adult females, are stronger fighters. Adult females prod adult males in their group into fighting with both rewards and punishments:

During pauses {in intergroup aggression}, females selectively groomed males that had participated in the previous aggressive episode, but aggressed male group members that had not. In subsequent (i.e. future) episodes, males who had received either aggression or grooming participated above their personal base-line level. Therefore, female–male aggression and grooming both appear to function as social incentives that effectively promote male participation in intergroup fights. [7]

Vervets are socially sophisticated primates. Group members observe males being rewarding for fighting and punished for not fighting. Those actions plausibly have broader social implications:

Grooming and tolerance (i.e. the lack of aggression) are important services exchanged in the formation and maintenance of social bonds in primates, and it is possible that punishment and rewards have a disproportionate impact on male behaviour because these social interactions influence the quality of male–female social relationships. That is to say, receiving punishment could  damage the target male’s social relationship(s), either with the female actor(s) directly (i.e. experience based) or with other female group members who have observed the social incentive (i.e. reputation or information based). Conversely, receiving rewards could improve bond strength and potentially signal to other female group members that the target male is a valuable social partner.

More elaborate culture in humans plausibly enables such social effects to be more powerful. Greater cultural development seems to be associated with more disproportionate violence against males relative to violence against females.

Human culture provides significant, under-appreciated evidence of women’s social power and its relation to violence against men. The 2009 elite scholarly study Sexual Coercion in Primates and Humans and the current elite consensus that “violence against women is the most pressing human rights problem remaining in the world” cannot be understand apart from symbolic power. Pre-Islamic Arabic tahrid poetry and modern social shaming of men into combat provide close analogs to the behavior of female vervet monkeys. Given vastly increased human tools of violence, the fate of human civilization may rest on the possibility of developing sophisticated, humane self-consciousness of the social manipulation of men.

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[1] Mathew & Boyd (2011) p. 11375.

[2] Id. p. 11376. Id. defined “reproductive period” thus: “The reproductive period {for men} begins with marriage or the birth of a child and ends when a person no longer sires children.”

[3] Id. p. 11377-8. Inter-personal violence is much more common among humans than among other species of mammals and is deeply rooted in human evolution. Gómez et al. (2016). A set of human hunter-gather skeletons recovered from Nataruk, west of Lake Turkana, from about 10,000 years ago, indicates disproportionate violence against men. Out of nine securely sex-typed skeletons indicating evidence of having died violently, six were males. Mirazón et al. (2016).

[4] Goldschmidt (1988) p. 53. In Goldschmidt’s survey of the ethnography on 27 pre-state, non-literate societies, 12 reported pain endurance tests for boys.

[5] Id. p. 54, based on Opler (1941).

[6] Goldschmidt (1988) pp. 54-5, quoting Stirling (1938) p. 51 and Karsten (1935) p. 242.

[7] Arseneau-Robar et al. (2016) Abstract. The subsequent quote is from id. p. 6. The factual characterization of vervet monkeys in the above paragraph is also from id. On the social sophistication of vervet monkeys, Cheney & Seyfarth (1989).

[image] Gassed. Men killed and wounded in gas attack in World War I. John Singer Sargent, oil on canvas, 1919. Item Art.IWM ART 1460 in Imperial War Museum (UK). Thanks to Google Art Project and Wikimedia Commons.


Arseneau-Robar, T. Jean Marie, Anouk Lisa Taucher, Eliane Müller, Carel van Schaik, Redouan Bshary, and Erik P. Willems. 2016. “Female monkeys use both the carrot and the stick to promote male participation in intergroup fights.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 283 (1843): 20161817.

Cheney, Dorothy L. and Robert M. Seyfarth. 1989. “Redirected Aggression and Reconciliation Among Vervet Monkeys, Cercopithecus Aethiops.” Behaviour. 110 (1): 258-275.

Goldschmidt, Walter. 1988. “The inducement to military conflict in tribal societies.” Ch. 3 (pp. 47-65) in Rubinstein, Robert A., and Mary LeCron Foster, eds. The Social dynamics of peace and conflict: culture in international security. Boulder: Westview Press.

Gómez, José María, Miguel Verdú, Adela González-Megías, and Marcos Méndez. 2016. “The phylogenetic roots of human lethal violence.” Nature. 538 (7624): 233-237.

Karsten, Sigfrid Rafael. 1935. The head-hunters of Western Amazonas. The life and culture of the Jibaro Indians of Eastern Ecuador and Peru. Commentationes humanarum litterarum, 7. Helsingfors.

Mathew, Sarah, and Robert Boyd. 2011. “Punishment sustains large-scale cooperation in prestate warfare.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 108 (28): 11375-80.

Mirazón Lahr M, F Rivera, RK Power, A Mounier, B Copsey, F Crivellaro, JE Edung, et al. 2016. “Inter-group violence among early Holocene hunter-gatherers of West Turkana, Kenya.” Nature. 529 (7586): 394-8.

Opler, Morris Edward. 1941. An Apache life-way; the economic, social, and religious institutions of the Chiricahua Indians. New York: Cooper Square Publishers.

Stirling, Matthew Williams. 1938. Historical and ethnographical material on the Jivaro Indians. Washington: U.S. G.P.O.

wisps of hair and imaginary arrow whip great warrior Alexander

arrow womanThe bold Greek warrior Alexander was struck with love for Sordamour, the niece of King Arthur. Yet he didn’t dare to speak of his love for her. He imagined her as an arrow, especially fashioned for him. He thought of her notch:

The notch at the end of the shaft
And the feathers are so close, if you look
Carefully, that the space between
Is barely a knife blade thick,
So straight and even that it’s easy
To see how perfectly crafted
And without mistake it was made. [1]

Alexander described Sordamour’s eyes as like a pair of glowing candles. She had an eloquent tongue, a limpid complexion, and a lovely nose. Her laughing little mouth contained smooth, even ivory teeth, and her neck was eight times whiter than ivory. Alexander continued in thought:

from the base
Of her throat to the top of her bodice,
I see a bit of covered
Breast, whiter than snow.
There’d be no sorrow left,
Had I seen all of Love’s barb:
I could tell you, then, exactly
How it was made, and of what.
But I haven’t, so it’s not my fault
That I can’t fully describe
What I’ve never fully seen.

Most men find women’s bodies wonderfully crafted. Men shouldn’t be killed for gazing upon a woman’s body. For Alexander, the problem was lack of opportunity. He could imagine Sordamour’s notch and feathers, but not more:

Love has shown me only
Feathers, and the notch in the shaft.
For the arrow was left in its quiver —
That is, in the clothes the girl
was wearing.

If he had more Christian piety, Alexander might have prayed for intercession to Saint Marina, Saint Pelagia, or Saint Mary of Egypt. Alexander, however, found some comfort in a strand of Sordamour’s hair that she wove into a shirt given to him. That strand of hair was all he had to hold:

Lying in his bed, this thing
Which could give no delight delighted
Him, offered him solace
And joy. He held it all night

Such is the fate of men who don’t learn from medieval women’s poetry and medieval Latin love lyrics.

Alexander undervalued himself as a man. After being appreciated as a hero in King Arthur’s court, Alexander sought out Queen Guinevere to propose a marriage between him and Sordamour. When Queen Guinevere proposed to Alexander and Sordamour that they marry, Alexander said:

Your words delight me; I thank you,
My lady, for speaking them. And since
You know my wishes so well,
There’s no reason to hide them.
If I’d the courage, I’d have spoken
For myself, and long ago.
Silence has been painful. Still,
It may well be that this girl
Has no interest in making me hers
Or letting herself be mine.
But all the same, even
if she does not want me, I am hers.

Degrading men bodes poorly for men’s relationships with women. Sordamour and Alexander did marry. He envisioned her as “queen for the chessboard on which he’d be king.” About nine months after their marriage, she gave birth to a son. They had no further children. Alexander died young of a mysterious illness. Sordamour, too sorrowful to live, died shortly thereafter.[2] They probably suffered from sexless marriage.

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[1] Chrétien de Troyes, Cligès ll. 775-81, from Old French trans. Raffel (1997) p. 26. Subsequent quotes (cited by line number and page in id) are from ll. 839-49, p. 28 (from the base…); ll. 850-4, p. 28 (Love has shown me only…); ll. 1632-35, p. 53 (Lying in his bed…); ll. 2305-16, p. 74 (Your words delight me…); ll. 2356-7, p. 75 (queen for the chessboard…).

[2] Lacy concludes:

Chrétien never explicitly condemns courtliness in this romance {Cligès}, or in his others, but the heavily ironic presentation of character and event throughout and the equivocating conclusion of the work must at the very least throw doubt on the value and validity of things courtly.

Lacy (1984) pp. 23-4. The vast majority of modern medieval scholars have failed to condemn unequivocally men-degrading courtly love ideology.

[image] Isis-Aphrodite. Painted terracotta sculpture. Roman Period, 2nd century GC, Egypt. Item 1991.76: Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 1991. On view in Gallery 138 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City).


Lacy, Norris J. 1984. “Cligès and Courtliness.” Interpretations / Arthurian Interpretations. 15(2): 18-24.

Raffel, Burton, trans. 1997. Chrétien de Troyes. Cligès. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Byzantine bride-shows: mothers dominate sons in choosing wives

bride show in 19th-century Russia

A seldom-recognized historical antecedent to today’s beauty pageants is bride-shows that occurred early in the Byzantine Empire. Byzantine bride-shows selected from a wide-ranging search the bride for the Emperor or the Emperor’s heir. After becoming Empress, she sometimes went on to rule in her own right. The Byzantine bride-show thus provided a remarkably open opportunity for a woman to gain a place at the top of society.[1] In relation to ordinary person’s lives, Byzantine bride-shows suggest risks in a mother dominating the choice of her son’s wife even in a relatively tolerant society.

Men in pursuing intimate relationships are usually attracted to beautiful women. Today, that preference tends to be disparaged. For being attracted to a woman who was not fat, one young man recently was called bigoted and mean, and he was slapped. At a much higher level of social salience, the Harvard men’s soccer team recently had their whole season canceled because some team members were privately rating the attractiveness of members of the women’s soccer team. Simply stating that young, slender, warmly receptive women are much more sexually attractive than old, fat, bitterly men-hating women is well on its way to becoming a criminal offense in modern, democratic societies.

Compared to such societies, medieval Byzantine society was more tolerant and allowed greater personal freedom. In the fourteenth-century Byzantine romance Belthandros and Chrysantza, the King of Eros ordered Belthandros to select the most beautiful woman from among forty noble women. Belthandros told one that she had “flabby and superfluous flesh.” After she stepped forward for his judgment and stepped back from his rejection, her body was “drenched with much perspiration.” Belthandros rejected other women for having a frigid mind, red and bleary eyes, a unibrow, an improperly proportioned body, bad teeth and hairy hands. The woman Belthandros selected as the most beautiful he described as having fallen from the bosom of the moon:

Her hair is the color of gold and matches her figure. Its thickness is like that of the grass of Paradise or of celery in a garden. All the graces of the world seem to sit upon her and make her their dwelling. Certainly, beyond any doubt, her forehead bears your {the King of Eros’s} imprint of mottled gold. If a man casts a glance at her eyes, they immediately tear at the roots of his heart. In the depths of their lake tiny cupids swim, shoot their arrows and sport. Art created her jet-black eyebrows and with consummate skill made them bridges. The Graces forged the fair one’s nose and to the Graces belong her mouth and her pearly teeth. Her cheeks are rose-red, her lips have the color of nature. Certainly, her mouth is perfumed. Her chin is round in shape, she is tall and her arms are white and delicate, her neck is as from a lathe. Her waist is slender and shows the great skill of the one who fashioned it like a thin reed. As for the angle of her neck and her litheness! Indeed, her body is so perfect in composition that the Graces seem to come from her. Her bosom is a paradise of love. The apples {of her breasts} shine even on a casual glance. Her look and gait are miraculous. When she walks with confidence and glances up and down, she ravishes your senses and tears at discretion. [2]

This description strangely omits the women’s buttocks. Nonetheless, Belthandros and Chrysantza indicates that men in medieval Byzantium had considerable freedom of expression in judging women’s beauty.

The marriage of Sophia of Montferrat and John VIII Palaiologos in Constantinople in 1421 underscores the importance to men of a bride’s appearance. John agreed to marry Sophia, sight unseen, as part of a grand strategy to build a political alliance and gain military aid for Constantinople. However, aspects of Sophia’s appearance turned out to be unpleasant:

The young woman was extremely well-proportioned in body. Her neck was shapely, her hair blondish with braids flowing down to her ankles like glimmering golden streams. Her shoulders were broad and her arms, bosom, and hands well-proportioned. Her fingers were transparent. She was tall in stature and stood very straight — but her face and and lips, the condition of her nose, and the arrangement of her eyes and eyebrows were extremely unpleasant. In general, she may be described in the words of the vulgar adage: “Lent from the front and Easter from behind.” [3]

John never slept with his wife Sophia. After five years of sexless marriage, Sophia returned home and became a nun in the Dominican convent at Trino.

Byzantine mothers recognized men’s interest in women’s beauty. The Emperor’s wife Eudocia in 882 arranged a bride-show for her son Leo. She selected twelve beautiful women from her own native city. She interviewed them and then narrowed the group to three for closer examination:

All the rest she ordered to go home, after she had provided them with many presents and much money. Only these three she took with her to the Palace. Examining them in a bath and finding that the saint {Theophano} by far surpassed the other two in beauty, she dressed her in imperial garments, took her by the right hand and went in to see her husband the Emperor Basil. Throwing her at his feet, she proclaimed her a worthy bride for their son. [4]

At his wife’s behest, the Emperor forced their son Leo to marry Theophano. While Theophano apparently was quite beautiful in the nude, Leo found her unattractive in other ways. He complained, “{I} did not marry her of my own free will, but out of fear of my father, and greatly distressed.”[5] Soon after marrying Theophano, Leo took a mistress. About five years after their marriage, Theophano retired to a convent and lived as a nun. After she died, Leo promptly married his mistress.[6] Even if a mother makes a thorough inspection of a potential wives in a bride-show, her son’s marital pleasure isn’t ensured.

In Byzantine bride-shows, the royal mother dominated the selection of her son’s wife. For example, the Byzantine Empress Irene in 788 organized a bride-show for her eighteen-year-old son Constantine VI. Under her orders, envoys searched across the full expanse of the Empire for suitably beautiful women. The envoys carried an imperial measure, an ideal portrait, and a shoe to evaluate women’s height, facial appearance, and feet.[7] Thirteen promising candidates were brought to the Byzantine capital. Empress Irene and Stauracius, the head of government, reviewed the women. They judged Maria of Amnia to have the most beauty, intelligence, and grace.[8] Constantine VI, however, disliked the choice of Maria of Amnia for his wife. He soon came to hate her. He even claimed that she was trying to poison him. In 795, Constantine sent Maria and her daughters to live in convent. He then remarried in the following year.[9] In remarrying, he presumably chose his own wife.

Men deserve the right to choose freely a beautiful wife according to their own sense of beauty. In four out of the five historically documented Byzantine bride-shows, the mother of the groom organized the bride-show and either chose or effectively rigged what sort of woman became her son’s wife. In the remaining bride-show, the mother couldn’t dominate because she apparently was dead.[10] A leading historian of the Byzantine bride-shows observed:

bride-shows generally served the imperial parents well, even if they served the imperial bride-grooms rather less well. … In most cases the wishes of the bridegrooms were ignored. [11]

Today, parents who understand the extent of anti-men discrimination in family courts might well encourage their sons not to marry. But if a man wants to get married, he should be able to have a bride-show, judge the participants as he considers appropriate, and make his own free choice.

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[1] On the historicity of the bride-shows, Treadgold (2004). On women at the top of Byzantine society, see the highly regarded gynocentric scholarship of Judith Herrin, e.g. Herrin (2001) and Herrin (2013). Men’s opportunities to ascend to the top of society are much more tightly circumscribed than women’s are.

Today, beauty pageants privilege women who are already extraordinarily privileged in attractiveness. These beauty pageants are relatively insignificant gynocentric spectacles.

[2] Belthandros and Chrysantza, from Greek trans. Betts (1995) p. 18. The previous short quotes are from id., pp. 15-7. Belthandros went on to marry the woman he selected as most beautiful, but that marriage didn’t follow directly from the beauty pageant.

[3] Doukas (fifteenth-century Byzantine historian), Fall of Constantinople, from Greek trans. Magoulias (1975), quoted and revised by Gilliland Wright (2013) p. 135. The vulgar adage, “Lent from the front and Easter from behind” suggests the frigidity of death and Boccaccio’s sense of the resurrection of the flesh. A current, less cultured version of that adage is, “She’s a butterface {but-her-face}.”

[4] Life of Saint Theophano, excerpt, from Greek trans. Rydén (1985) p. 185. Treadgold (1979) p. 407 provides a similar translation. The Life of Saint Theophano was written after 900 GC, probably by Magister Slocacas, a relative of Theophano. Alexakis (1995).

The bride selection process described in Esther 2:2-18 involved the king sleeping with each candidate successively. That rather modern selection process goes further than having one’s mother inspect naked wife-candidates. Both procedures help to lessen a concern expressed in Theophrastus’s Golden Book on Marriage.

[5] Vita Euthymii, excerpt trans. Treadgold (1979) p. 408.

[6] Theophano died about 897. Leo VI’s mistress and subsequent wife was Zoe Zaoutzaina. She died about 899. Leo then married Eudokia Baïana, who died in 901. Despite strong church opposition, Leo married a fourth time (to Zoe Karbonopsina).

All of Leo’s wives were “immortalized by unofficial sainthood and by imperially sanctioned art.” Gerstel (1997) p. 707. A contemporary commenter related the popular adoration of Theophano to Lucian’s account of Alexander’s attempt to deify his close friend Hephaestion:

the same thing has also happened in our time and everybody is seized by a hysteria characteristic of women so as to proclaim the emperor’s {late wife} Theophano a saint.

Scholiast, attributed to Magistros Slokakas, from Greek trans. Alexakis (1995) p. 47.

[7] The specific characteristics of the imperial measure (βασιλιχóν μéτρον), the ideal portrait (λαυρᾶτον), and the shoe (τζαγχιον) aren’t known. The original Greek terms are given in Rydén (1985) p. 175.

[8] Women in the bride-shows were not judged merely on beauty. Treadgold (1979) pp. 409-10. Cf. Vinson (2004) pp. 105, 119: “the winner was chosen solely on the basis of physical appearance”; Byzantine bride shows defined “beauty as the sole measure of a woman’s worth.” Vinson nonetheless declares:

This heart-wrenching disparity between the fictionalised ideal of courtship and the lived reality of elite women should instill in us a healthy sense of caution as we approach the problem of Byzantine bride shows.

Id. p. 105.

[9] For the evidence on the bride-show for Constantine VI, see Treadgold (1979), pp. 397-400, and Rydén (1985), pp. 175-6.  The account of this bride-show indicates the challenges of maintaining solidarity among women:

The merciful man’s granddaughter {Maria of Amnia} suggested to the others, “My sisters, let us make an agreement among ourselves of the kind called sisterhood by adoption that the one of us who becomes empress should take care of the others.” But Gerontianos’ daughter, who was very rich and good-looking, answered, full of conceit, “I know for certain that I am the richest and noblest and best-looking and that the emperor will choose me.” Maria blushed and said no more.

From Nicetas of Amnia, Life of St. Philaretos the Merciful (dated 821/22), from Greek trans. Rydén (1985) p. 175. Rydén (2002) provides a full critical edition. Solidarity among women is more easily maintained in oppressing men.

jury for 1973 Miss Ansterdam beauty pageant

[10] On Stauracius’s mother apparently being dead, Treadgold (1979) p. 409. In three of the five bride-shows, the father was dead. Here’s a table of the bride-show participants and parents. Two facts underscores mothers’ dominance in organizing and running the bride-shows: a mother (Irene) organized the first one, and a mother (Eudocia Ingerina) dominated the bride-show in which the father was also living. Vinson (1999) discusses how bride shows affirmed traditional gender roles.

Having the father run the bride-show, which was less consistent with traditional gender roles, also didn’t serve the son’s interests. Nicephorus I, Stauracius’s father, organized and ran the bride-show for Stauracius in 807. Nicephorus reportedly debauched two participants. He married his son to Theophano, a less beautiful participant. Moreover, Theophano had already been betrothed and had already had sex with her betrothed many times. Treadgold (1979) p. 401.

[11] Treadgold (1979) p. 413, Treadgold (2004) p. 50. Serving to buttress dominate ideology, Vinson declares:

In creating the illusion of romance and equality, the accounts of the Byzantine bride shows conceal the darker truth that their focus on female beauty serves as a means of disempowering the bride and her family and placing the wife under the exclusive control of her husband. The marriages arranged in this manner can thus be seen as a reversion to a type of wedlock common in the old Roman republic

Vinson (2004) p. 120. For nineteenth-century American context relevant to Vinson’s perspective, consider Sanger’s influential work on prostitution and the Crabtree case.

[images] (1) Choosing a Bride for the Grand Duke. Oil on canvas painting by Ilya Repin, 1884-87. Held in the Perm State Art Gallery, Russia. The Grand Duke is probably Grand Duke Nikolay Nikolayevich Romanov of Russia (the Elder, 1831-91). Thanks to Wikimedia Commons; (2) Jury for the 1973 Miss Amsterdam beauty pageant. Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANeFo), 1945-1989, Nummer toegang Bestanddeelnummer 926-4364. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Alexakis, Alexander. 1995. “Leo VI, Theophano, a ‘Magistros’ Called Slokakas, and the ‘Vita Theophano’ (BHG 1794).” Byzantinische Forschungen 21 (Stephanos Efthymiadis, Claudia Rapp, and Dimitris Tsougarakis, eds. Bosphorus: Essays in the Honour of Cyril Mango): 45-56.

Betts, Gavin. 1995. Three medieval Greek romances. Garland Library of Medieval Literature, vol. 98. New York: Garland Pub.

Gerstel, Sharon E. J. 1997. “Saint Eudokia and the Imperial Household of Leo VI.” The Art Bulletin. 79 (4): 699-707.

Gilliland Wright, Diana. 2013. “The Brides of 1420: Men Looking at Women’s Bodies.” Ch. 8 (pp. 133-52) in Neil, Bronwen, and Lynda Garland, eds. Questions of gender in Byzantine society. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate,

Herrin, Judith. 2001. Women in purple: rulers of Medieval Byzantium. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Herrin, Judith. 2013. Unrivalled influence: women and empire in Byzantium. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Magoulias, Harry J. trans. 1975. Doukas. Decline and fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Rydén, Lennart. 1985. “The bride-shows at the Byzantine court: history or fiction?” Eranos: Acta Philologica Suecana. 83(1-2): 175-191.

Rydén, Lennart. 2002. The life of St Philaretos the merciful written by his grandson Niketas: a critical edition with introduction, translation, notes, and indices. Uppsala: Uppsala University Library.

Treadgold, Warren T. 1979. “The Bride-Shows of the Byzantine Emperors.” Byzantion: revue internationale des études byzantines
(Brussels). 49: 395-413.

Treadgold, Warren. 2004. “The Historicity of Imperial Bride-Shows.” Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik. 54: 39-52.

Vinson, Martha. 1999. “The life of Theodora and the rhetoric of the Byzantine bride show.” Jahrbuch Der Österreichischen Byzantinistik. 49: 31-60.

Vinson, Martha. 2004. “Romance and reality in the Byzantine bride shows.” Ch. 6 (pp. 102-20) in Brubaker, Leslie, and Julia M. H. Smith, eds. Gender in the early medieval world: East and West, 300-900. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

characterizing Mary at the cross in Byzantine competition for attention

Mary at the foot of the cross

In Byzantine culture, Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a central figure. Byzantine laments for the crucifixion sometimes directed more attention to the weeping Mary than to the crucified Jesus.[1] In sixth-century Byzantine kontakia of Romanos the Melodist, realistic, emotional dialogue set within Christian salvation history richly characterizes Mary. These imaginative developments are best understood as a result of the Byzantine church intensely competing for attention with secular theater.

In Romanos’s kontakion On Mary at the Cross, Mary is an ordinary mother in extraordinary circumstances. Jesus the Christ set his face like flint to Jerusalem and resolutely went to his death according to the will of God the Father. Mary wearily followed her son Jesus to the cross. She insistently questioned him:

Why do you follow this swift path?
Is there another wedding in Cana,
And do you rush there to turn water into wine?
Should I go with you, my child, or should I wait for you?
Give me word, O Word, some word, and do not pass me by in silence [2]

Where are you going? Should I wait for you? Why don’t you talk to me? These are common questions of mothers to their children. Mary’s subsequent exclamation, “Woe is me,” is also a common refrain of women in gynocentric society and in tragedy.[3] Mary reminds Jesus that his men friends have forsaken him:

Peter does not accompany you —
he who said to you,
“I shall never deny you, even if I die.”
Thomas has left you — he who said: “Let us all die with him.”
And again the others, well-known and intimate friends [4]

Implicit in Mary’s recounting of Jesus’s missing friends is Mary’s presence. Mary implicitly reminds Jesus that she is more loyal to him than are his closest friends.

Mary argues with her son Jesus and doesn’t easily relent. Jesus urges Mary to stop weeping, to banish her grief, and to be joyful. He figuratively reminds her that she is the center of the church and that all those in the church will serve her. Mary responds:

I rub the tears from my eyes,
And I rub my heart still more,
But my thinking cannot be silenced.

She then reminds Jesus about what he has done in the past, and questions why he is behaving differently now and putting himself in peril:

Raising up the dead, you did not become dead
nor rest in a tomb, O my son and my life. Why, then,
do you say,
“If I do not suffer, Adam is not redeemed?”
Command, O Savior, and straightaway the cripple picking up
his bed walks.
Indeed, even if Adam had been buried deep in a tomb,
As you have raised up Lazarus from the tomb with your voice,
do even so with him.
All things serve you as the Creator of all.
Why, then, do you hasten, my child? Do not
hurry to slaughter;
Do not court death

Understanding women’s preferential concern for other women, Jesus tells Mary that he also seeks to save Eve. Even then Mary persists in objecting to Jesus following God the Father’s way. If Jesus continues in that way, when will she see him again? Will she no longer be able to visit him? In response to these implorings, Jesus promises to Mary that she will be the first to see him risen from the tomb. He promises to her that she’ll see Eve risen to her former life. He also declares that he must suffer to redeem all suffering and fallen persons. Mary finally acquiesces with self-focus and self-concern:

I shall conquer, child, I shall conquer my suffering

Grant that I come with you, for it helps me to look upon you

In Romanos’s kontakia, Mary isn’t an idealized, abstract figure. She has numerous roles, including God-bearer, intercessor, and protector. She also has the character of an “ordinary woman of the people,” a “suburban mum.”[5] Her character is unbounded (“well rounded”) in the sense of requiring empathetic understanding. Mary reveals in Romanos’s imagined dialogue the complex, engaging emotions of a living mother.

Romanos’s characterization of Mary includes large emotional swings. In the kontakion On Mary at the Cross, the refrain “my son and my God” evokes the Apostle Thomas declaring “my Lord and my God.” Thomas sought simple, objective evidence of Jesus’s resurrection. When he touched the wounds of the crucified Jesus, Thomas jumped to the wholly different mode of encountering Jesus as a personal relation to the divine. Mary continually moves between mundane sense and divine sense with the refrain “my son and my God.” Underscoring emotional lability, Jesus tells Mary, “do not lament, Mother, but rather cry with joy.”[6]

Romanos’s kontakion On the Annunciation similarly characterizes Mary as a vital, unbounded person and evokes rapidly shifting emotions. Mary is the blessed virgin:

Hail, virgin undefiled, hail, maiden called of God,
Hail, chaste, and beautiful and delightful virgin,
Hail, virgin full of grace, who did not know a seed time, chaste,
Hail, mother who knew no man,
Hail, virgin wife. [7]

This characterization disparages men’s sexuality and idealizes Mary’s distance from ordinary sexual relations with men. Yet when the angel Gabriel comes to announce Mary’s forthcoming pregnancy, she responds with worldly suspicion and shrewdness. She declares to Gabriel:

Concerning what you have said, do not conceal from me where it was said.
Was this matter about me spoken of in Heaven?
Why, then, do you not tell me that you are an angel and not human?

Mary treats Gabriel as if he might be an ordinary man trying to seduce her. She questions Gabriel further. With figurative language, Mary shows keen appreciation for heterosexual functioning:

As for the sea that you mentioned to me, the prophet
cleft it with his rod.
This miracle did not happen without some intermediary:
At first it was Moses, then prayers, and the rod were intermediaries

She confesses to Gabriel that “your beauty, your appearance, your voice” frighten her terribly. Nonetheless, she ultimately recognizes that Gabriel is sent to her from Heaven, and she rejoices in their encounter. With a lovely touch of ordinary, personal psychology, Mary later blames her husband Joseph for the affair:

Where were you, my wise husband?
Why did you not guard my virginity?

Like those to whom Romanos addressed his kontakia, Joseph represents the ordinary community of Christian believers. He responds with his sense of Mary’s emotional range and lability:

Both terrible and sweet does she appear
to me now, and it gives me pause.
I gaze upon burning heat in snow,
Paradise in a furnace,
I gaze upon a smoking hill, upon a divine flower with young freshness,
Upon an awesome throne, on a pitiable footstool!

Persons difficult to categorize simply are engaging characters. In Byzantine culture, Mary the mother of Jesus was such a character.

Byzantine homilies had techniques in common with theater. A recent scholarly book entitled The Necessity of Theater defined theater and characters broadly enough to make theater and characters unavoidable in any human society:

Theater is the art of finding human action worth watching, and it mostly does this by finding human characters worth caring about. [8]

A more subtle, historically engaged study distinguished orthodox ritual in Byzantium from theater:

As a solo performer confronted with a virtual sea of hundreds if not thousands of people, some of them easily distracted, the priest relied on the principles of classical rhetoric to keep the laity both engaged and informed. … Of particular interest for theatre scholars is the use of ēthopoieia, “characterization,” by the clergy. In the context of an exegetical homily, ēthopoieia often took the form of a fictional dialogue involving two or more biblical characters. In the past, homilies with dialogue have been ideologically positioned as proto-dramatic on the naïve assumption that all ritual, being primitive, represented a lower-order of cultural development. But the clergy’s long acquaintance with theatre, their theological objections to play-acting; and above all the conservative mode of self-presentation assumed in classical rhetoric argue heavily against this theory. Even when reciting dialogue “in character” as it were, the clergy worked within a carefully constructed regime of diction and gesture, transmitted orally and visually for centuries, which they regarded as distinct from theatre. [9]

Orthodox ritual in Byzantium presented human characters worth caring about from a Christian perspective.[10] More generally, theatrical techniques have long contributed to Christian understanding. The biblical story of Jesus and the Canaanite women makes best sense when understood dramatically. De Maria Magdalena, written in Latin about 1200, is meaningfully interpreted as theatrical lectio divina. Using theatrical techniques while disdaining theater is eminently feasible.

Byzantine circumstances of reception plausibly drove emphatic characterization and emotional lability in Byzantine homilies. The extent of empathetic characterization and emotional lability is generally associated with the intensity of competition for attention relative to competition for acclaim. Christian ritual in Byzantium was heavily engaged in competition for attention:

most if not all of his {John Chrysostom’s} congregation came to {church} services after years of attending theatrical shows year-round, and lacked the training or appreciation for rhetoric Chrysostom took for granted. Chrysostom couldn’t help but notice how restless his flock was every time he stepped up to speak, competing as he did with everything from social climbers to the occasional pick-pocket. … competition between clergy and mimes for audiences was clearly intense. What developed throughout late Antiquity was the equivalent of a media war in which the ambo {platform from which clergy addressed the church congregation} served as the launching pad for anti-theatrical invective while the public stage responded with biting clerical critiques. Both venues enjoyed an avid following, and the popularity of Christian satire was so great that as late as the sixth century Emperor Justinian still had to remind his subjects that it was illegal to masquerade as church folk [11]

Empathetic characterization and emotional lability aren’t necessarily related to any specific medium or abstract form. Byzantine clerics could reject liturgical drama, yet embrace empathetic characterization in homilies. On the other hand, liturgical drama could present scripturally circumscribed, static, indicative characters rather than unbounded, dynamic, empathetic characters like Mary in Romanos’s kontakia. Byzantine icons plausibly generated a stronger sense of personal presence than did many conventional, realistic images.[12] In late eighteenth-century Europe, competition for attention in print was associated with empathetic characterization and romantic sensibility of the sublime in proliferating novels. The nature of symbolic competition, rather than the abstract form of expression, drives the extent of engaging characterization and emotional dynamics.

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[1] Alexiou (1974) p. 62. In the Epitáphios Thrénos, “she {Mary}, rather that Christ, is the central figure.” Id. p. 65. That lament is known to have existed from the fourteenth century. It continues to be performed within the liturgical calendar of the Greek Orthodox Church. Id.

[2] Romanos the Melodist, On Mary at the Cross, st. 1, excerpt, from Greek trans. Carpenter (1970) vol. 1, p. 196. In this and subsequent quotations, I have modernized the English of Carpenter’s translations to make the text more accessible to ordinary readers. Lash (1995) provides an alternate English translation.

On Jesus setting his face like flint to fulfill the Father’s will for him in Jerusalem, see Luke 9:51 and Isaiah 50:7.

[3] Alexiou has astutely observed:

when “religion” passes from church to hearth, from liturgy to dance and song, from Communion to family meal, women do not only mediate — they take over. … Through tales, songs, and dances, women have been at least equal partners in the transmission of Greek language, myth, and metaphor.

Alexiou (2002) pp. 406, 412. The phrase “at least equal partners” is consistent with seldom-discussed gynocentric dominance. On deep roots of gynocentrism in Jewish and Christian tradition, consider Genesis 2:24.

Tradition known from about the ninth century figures Mary as inspiring Romanos. On Christmas Eve, Mary gave Romanos a papyrus scroll and ordered him to eat it. The textual food from Mary inspired Romanos to preach and sing melodiously. Thus, on Christmas Eve, Mary symbolically gave birth to Romanos as a sacred homilist and poet. Gador-Whyte (2013) p. 77, provides an English translation of the relevant text. Cf. Revelation 10:9-11, Ezekiel 3:3.

[4] Romanos the Melodist, On Mary at the Cross, st. 3, excerpt, trans. Carpenter (1970) vol. 1, p. 197. The subsequent three quotes from this kontakion are likewise st. 7, p. 199 (I rub the tears…); st. 8, pp. 199-200 (Raising up the dead…); st. 15, p. 202 (I shall conquer…).

[5] “Mary reacts to her son’s theological arguments not as a woman who is divinely inspired, but as an ordinary woman of the people.” Alexiou (1974) p. 63. Romanos depicts Mary as an “ordinary, caring mother”; “ordinary human being”; “loyal mother.” Gador-Whyte (2013) pp. 77, 87, 90. Gador-Whyte attributes to Roger Scott the sense of Mary as “suburban mum,” but doesn’t provide a specific citation. See id. pp. 87, 91.

Men, most of whom are ordinary human beings, aren’t mothers. Men, however, are often caring human beings. Most men are also loyal to their families despite facing acute anti-men sex discrimination in family courts. Romanos’s characterization of Mary isn’t constrained by gender stereotypes. His characterization of Mary is more like describing an ordinary, caring, loyal father.

[6] Romanos the Melodist, On Mary at the Cross, st. 3, excerpt, trans. Carpenter (1970) vol. 1, p. 198. The refrain “my son and my God” occurs at the end of every strophe of the kontakion. For the apostle Thomas’s exclamation, “my Lord and my God,” John 20:28.

[7] Romanos the Melodist, On the Annunciation I, st. 1, excerpt, from Greek trans. Carpenter (1970) vol. 2, p. 9. The Akathistos, which Carpenter attributes to Romanos, alternates strophes with long lists of hails to Mary. For a translation, id. pp. 300-9.

Subsequent quotes from On the Annunciation are from st. 6, pp. 11-2 (Concerning what you have said…); st. 9, p. 13 (As for the sea…); st. 11, p. 13 (your beauty…); st. 12, p. 14 (Where were you…); st. 13, pp. 14-5 (Both terrible and sweet…).

[8] Woodruff (2008) p. 22.

[9] White (2015) pp. 59-60. For Byzantine homilies interpreted as proto-drama, see, e.g. Bogdanos (1976). On the sources and influence of Romanos’s dramatic techniques, Cunningham (2008).

[10] Romanos constructed himself within his homilies as one such person. Gador-Whyte has observed:

As a preacher, Romanos is concerned to make his congregation follow this call {to live according to Christ’s example}. One way he does so is by vivifying the Gospel events, creating dialogues for characters and presenting them as believably real and believably sixth-century characters. He makes the Gospel present. … The congregation is encouraged to identify with Romanos’ personae on a number of levels, so that he need only place himself within the story to make the congregation feel that they too are participating in it.

Gador-Whyte (2011) p. 36.

[11] White (2015) pp. 61, 74. Dialogue in homilies “seem to represent at least a ‘wake-up call’ to the audience.” It served the need to “engage the listener’s attention.” Carpenter (2003) pp. 112-3. White (2015), p. 72, states:

priests distrusted applause and regarded it as their duty to enlighten their congregations, not entertain them.

Priests may have supported such ideology, but surely they needed to get persons to attend church and listen to homilies in order to enlighten them. Disliking and distrusting competition for attention isn’t sufficient to free persons from it.

[12] On (eastern) icons in relation to (western) liturgical drama, Maguire (2003). Introductions to some medieval Byzantine vernacular Greek romances underscore the popular appeal of emotional lability. Here’s the introduction to Belthandros and Chrysantza:

Come! Attend a moment all you young people. I wish to tell you the fairest tale, a beautiful and usual story. Whoever wants to taste of its sadness and joy will also wonder at its account of daring and bravery.

Trans. Betts (1995) p. 5. The introduction to Kallimachos and Chrysorroi similarly declares:

Joy and grief are mixed, even blended together. … if you read this tale and learn the matter of its verses, you will see the workings of Love’s bitter-sweet pangs.

Id. p. 37. Likewise Livistros and Rodamini:

come now and hear with me of love’s passion in the fair story which I shall tell. … I am going to tell a wonderful tale of love and of the terrible sufferings endured by a man of many trials and woes whom Love persecuted.

Id. p. 95.

[image] Icon of the Crucifixion, Novgorod School, c. 1360. Held in Musée du Louvre, Paris. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Alexiou, Margaret. 1974. The ritual lament in Greek tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Betts, Gavin. 1995. Three Medieval Greek romances. New York: Garland.

Bogdanos, Theodore. 1976. “Liturgical Drama in Byzantine Literature.” Comparative Drama. 10 (3): 200-215.

Carpenter, Marjorie, trans. & ed. 1970. Kontakia of Romanos, Byzantine melodist. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Cunningham, Mary. 2003. “Dramatic device or didactic tool? The function of dialogue in Byzantine preaching.” Ch. 7 (pp. 101-13) in Elizabeth Jeffreys, ed. Rhetoric in Byzantium: papers from the thirty-fifth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Exeter College, University of Oxford, March 2001. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Cunningham, Mary B. 2008. “The reception of Romanos in middle Byzantine homiletics and hymnography.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. 62: 251-260.

Gador-Whyte, Sarah. 2011. “Self-Construction: ‘Auto-Ethopoeia’ in Romanos’ Kontakia.” Melbourne Historical Journal. 39(2): 23-37.

Gador-Whyte, Sarah. 2013. “Changing Conceptions of Mary in Sixth-Century Byzantium: The Kontakia of Romanos the Melodist.” Ch. 5 (pp. 77-92) in Neil, Bronwen, and Lynda Garland, eds. 2013. Questions Of Gender In Byzantine Society. London: Ashgate Publishing Group.

Lash, Ephrem, trans. 1995. Romanos the Melodist. On the life of Christ: kontakia. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers.

Maguire, Henry. 2003. “Byzantine rhetoric, Latin drama and the portrayal of the New Testament.” Ch. 14 (pp. 215-34) in Elizabeth Jeffreys, ed. Rhetoric in Byzantium: papers from the thirty-fifth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Exeter College, University of Oxford, March 2001. Aldershot: Ashgate.

White, Andrew Walker. 2015. Performing Orthodox ritual in Byzantium. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Woodruff, Paul. 2008. The necessity of theater: the art of watching and being watched. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kassia redeemed classical culture with repentance of fallen woman

By now the Huntress had reached Olympus heights
and made her way to the bronze-floored house of Zeus.
And down she sat on her Father’s lap, a young girl,
sobbing, her deathless robe quivering round her body.
But her Father, son of Cronus, hugged her tight
and giving a low warm laugh inquired gently,
“Who has abused you now, dear child, tell me,
who of the sons of heaven so unfeeling, cruel?
Why, it’s as if they had caught you in public,
doing something wrong ….” Wreathed in flowers
the one who halloos the hunt cried out at once,
“Your own wife, Father! The white-armed Hera beat me!
This strife, this warfare plaguing all the immortals —
Hera’s all to blame!” [1]

Artemis sought comfort in the arms of the Father. Perhaps she had been caught behaving in public in the manner of Mary of Egypt. Could that be, she who seemed impervious to Eros and despised men gazing on her? No matter. The Father God Zeus, infinitely merciful to women, wreathed her in flowers. He hugged her tightly and gently suggested that men had abused her. This Father, a master of deceptions, knew how to seduce women.

Artemis the Huntress spent her time hunting in the woods rather than studying the liberal arts. She lacked learning in the dominant ideology and was less easily duped. She inadvertently blurted out the truth: the ruling goddess Hera viciously perpetrated domestic violence and incited war. The Father God, on his throne in the ethereal heights, laughed deep in his heart. While carrying out his many amorous affairs, he delighted in seeing female and male gods engaging in all-out conflict.

Among mortals, the gender structure of violence was less just than among the gods. The harlot Helen of Tory incited men and gods to seek to kill each other in the long and terrible Trojan War. In intense fighting, the goddess of wisdom Athena struck the god of war Ares in the neck with a huge boulder. Helen merely watched men kill other men. So it has long been in earthly violence, as if a matter of divine indifference.

Kassia repented for Helen and Trojan War

Deeply engaged in classical culture, Byzantine intellectuals pondered the Judgment of Paris and the Trojan War. An account of the bride-show for Emperor Theophilos in Constantinople in 830 alluded to these events. Theophilos’s mother instructed him to give a golden apple to the woman with whom he was most pleased. The beauty of the young, noble woman Kassia struck Theophilos. With acute awareness of the matter of Troy, he said to her:

Through a woman the common evils flowed.
{διὰ γυναικὸς ἐρρύη τὰ φαῦλα.} [2]

Byzantine culture combined classical Greek culture and Christian culture. Kassia responded:

And also through a woman superior things well up.
{ἀλλὰ καὶ διὰ γυναικὸς πηγάζει τὰ κρείττω.}

Utterly shocked by what Kassia said, Theophilos passed by her and gave the golden apple to another woman. Kassia used the present tense in describing a woman’s effect. Superior things cannot begin in merely recalling the events of ancient Greek epic.[3]

A highly learned woman and a leader of a convent, Kassia reformed classical culture and repented women’s role in violence against men. Among Kassia’s maxims:

I hate the one who does everything for the sake of vainglory.

It is better to be defeated than to win unfairly.

It is better to possess grace from the Lord, than beauty and wealth that does not gain grace. [4]

Ancient Greek men competed for glory and strove to be heroes. Kassia hated classical men heroes. Drawing upon the celebrating cunning of Odysseus, the Greeks defeated the Trojans with the trick of the Trojan horse. Within Kassia’s values, it would have been better for the Greeks to have been defeated. While Kassia recognized that a woman’s bodily beauty provides consolation, she regarded that beauty as less important than a woman being an instrument of grace from the Lord.

Most importantly, Kassia utterly re-figured the relation of women to God. Invoking terms from classical Greek tragedy — woe to me (Οἴµοι) and lamentations of my heart (στεναγµοὺς τῆς καρδίας) — she recognized women’s culpability in the tragic fate of men. She recognized that women, like men, cause harm through desire for wrongful behavior (ἔρως τῆς ἁµαρτίας). She appreciated a man’s sacrifice for her, to the extent of his giving up his life for her. With specific acts of love, the woman repents of her behavior that has caused so much harm to men. Rejecting the privilege of special paternal solicitude for women, she humbly appeals for mercy in the judgment of God.[5]

Lord, the woman fallen
into many sins,
recognizing your Divinity,
rises to the status of myrrh-bearer,
and mourning brings to you myrrh
before your burial.
Woe to me, she says,
for night holds for me
the ecstasy of intemperance
gloomy and moonless,
a desire for sin.
Accept the springs of my tears,
you who with clouds spread out
the water of the sea:
bend down to me
to the lamentations of my heart,
You who made the heavens incline
by your ineffable humiliation.
I will tenderly kiss your sacred feet,
I will wipe them again
with the hair of my head;
the feet whose sound
Eve heard in Paradise
in the afternoon,
and hid in fear;
who can delineate
the multitude of my sins
and the depths of your judgment,
my Redeemer, savior of souls?
Do not disregard me, your servant
you, whose mercy is infinite. [6]

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[1] Homer, Iliad, 21.577-90, from Greek trans. Fagles (1990) p. 536. The line numbers are for Fagles’s English translation, but are close to the line numbers of the Greek text.

[2] Kassia’s name occurs in numerous variants, including Kassiani and Cassiane. This and the subsequent quote are from the chronicle of Symeon the Logothete, Greek text of Kazhdan, Khronika Simeona Logofeta, Viz. Vrem. XV (1959), as cited in Afinogenov (1997) p. 11. The twelfth-century Byzantine historian Ioannes Zonaras provides a nearly identical Greek text (see 3.354 in Ioannis Zonarae, Epitomae Historiarum, libri XIII-XVIII, ed. Th. Büttner-Wobst, Bonn 1897). The translation is mine, drawing upon Rydén (1985) p. 187, Afinogenov (1997) p. 11, and Silvas (2006) p. 21. The phrases occur in a homily written between 431 and 530. Afinogenov (1997) p. 11, citing Patrologia Graeca 50.791-6 and 10.1171-77.

An alternate text for the exchange between Theophilos and Kassia is:

Through a woman evils came to man.
{Ἐκ γυναικὸς τὰ χείρω.}
Through a woman better things began.
{Kαὶ ἐκ γυναικὸς τὰ κρείττω.}

Greek text of Leo Grammaticus (Bonn ed., (1824), pp. 213-4), trans. Treadgold (1979) p. 403. Id., n. 29, notes comparison with the Greek text of Pseudo-Symeon (“Symeon Magister”), Bonn. ed (1838) pp. 624-5. The above text seems to have been relatively influential. It appears in Bourboulis (1953) pp. 3-5, the Wikipedia entry for Kassia, and McLees (2011) p. 57. Treadgold (2004) p. 43, n. 17, observes that the text “is still not properly edited.” The couplet may have become well-known in variant forms. The form cited above seems to me more classically poetic.

[3] Scholars have facilely associated the couplet with the contrasting figures of Eve and Mary, the mother of Jesus:

In the dialogue Theophilos refers to the story of the Fall in the Old Testament. Kassia, on the other hand, reminds him of the incarnation through the Virgin Mary, and thus reveals his primitive state of mind.

Rydén (1985) p. 188. “The references, quoted in verse, are of course to Eve and the Virgin.” Treadgold (2004) p. 43. From a Byzantine perspective, the incarnation through the Virgin Mary was a specific event in history and would invoke the past tense. Cf. the rationalizing effort of Silvas (2004) p. 21, n. 10. Moreover, there’s no apple, no less a golden one, nor a beauty contest in the Genesis account of the serpent seducing the innocent Eve. The matter of the Trojan War deeply infused learned Byzantine culture. The Judgment of Paris and Kassia’s troparion on the woman’s repentance are the most relevant contexts for interpreting the dialogue.

[4] Kassia, Maxims and Gnomic verses, from Zugravu (2013) pp. 210, 216. Id. provides a slightly modified version of the Greek texts and translations of Tripolitis (1992).

[5] Literary scholarship, along with culture in general, has tended to obscure men’s distinctive gendered being. One result has been terrible misunderstandings. Consider, for example, the obfuscation of men’s being in an influential interpretation of Kassia’s troparion on the fallen woman:

the individual expectation of salvation becomes extended to all mankind; the specific vice is blurred, and Mary’s cry of the heart is the expression of everyman’s {sic} psychological suffering: I am a sinner but God is merciful.

Kazhdan, Sherry & Angelidē (1999) pp. 319-20.

[6] Kassia, “Κύριε, ἡ ἐν πολλαῖς ἁµαρτίαις” (“The Fallen Woman”) sticheron idiomelon sung presently in Orthodox liturgy for Holy Wednesday, from Greek trans. Zugravu (2013) p. 234, following Tripolitis (1992). Here’s an easily accessible online Greek text, an alternate English translation, and performed versions in Greek and in English. Kassia’s tetraodion on Holy Saturday was still in liturgical use in the Eastern Church in the first half of the fourteenth century. Simic (2014).

[image] “Great deeds! Against the dead!” Los desastres de la guerra, plate No. 39 (1st edition, Madrid: Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, 1863). By Francisco Goya, 1810-20. Thanks to Museo del Prado (Spain) and Wikimedia Commons.


Afinogenov, Dmitry. 1997. “The Bride-show of Theophilos: Some Notes on the Sources.” Eranos: Acta Philologica Suecana. 95: 10-18.

Bourboulis, Photeine P. 1953. Studies in the History of Modern Greek Story-Motives. Thessalonike: Etaireia Makedonikōn Spoudōn.

Fagles, Robert, trans. and Bernard Knox, intro. and notes. 1990. The Iliad. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Viking.

Kazhdan, Alexander P., Lee Francis Sherry, and Christina Angelidē. 1999. A history of Byzantine literature. Vol. 1. 650-850. Athens: National Hellenic Research Foundation, Institute for Byzantine Research.

McLees, Nectaria Mother. 2011. “Byzantine Bride-Shows and the Restoration of Icons: A Tale of Four Iconophile Empresses.” Road to Emmaus 51:34-69.

Rydén, Lennart. 1985. “The bride-shows at the Byzantine court: history or fiction?” Eranos: Acta Philologica Suecana. 83: 175-191.

Silvas, Anna M. 2006. “Kassia the Nun, c.810-c.865: An Appreciation.” Ch. 2 (pp. 17-39) in Garland, Lynda, ed. Byzantine women: varieties of experience 800-1200. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Simic, Kosta. 2014. “‘Senseless and Old’: A Note on the Nachleben of Kassia’s Poetry.” Ephemerides Liturgicae 128: 238-248.

Treadgold, Warren T. 1979. “The Bride-Shows of the Byzantine Emperors.” Byzantion: revue internationale des études byzantines
(Brussels). 49: 395-413.

Treadgold, Warren. 2004. “The Historicity of Imperial Bride-Shows.” Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik. 54: 39-52.

Tripolitis, Antonia, ed. and trans. 1992. Kassia: the legend, the woman, and her work. New York: Garland.

Zugravu, Gheorghita. 2013. Kassia the Melodist. And the Making of a Byzantine Hymnographer. Thesis (Ph.D.) — Columbia University, 2013.