Gulinus tortured knight for love in misandristic, unfruitful vineyard

In a stunning medieval vision in Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, King Gulinus ordered his ministers to torture brutally a knight in love with Gulinus’s beautiful daughter. The torture of the knight proceeds significantly from torturing his penis to bathing him in boiling water, then in frigid water, and then to batting him around until his members are torn and his head bashed open. This medieval vision represents Gulinus and his ministers as wicked, misandristic tenants in the unfruitful vineyard of gynocentric society.

In 1170, the knight entered Saint Patrick’s Purgatory on Station Island in Lough Derg {Red Lake} in Ireland. The knight then found himself in King Gulinus’s large, lavish palace. Gulinus, who apparently had been out hunting, returned in a bustle of clanging chariots and neighing horses to tumultuous cheers of the people. Gulinus had a young, beautiful daughter. The knight was merely an ordinary knight. Yet when he saw Gulinus’s daughter, he immediately burned in love for her. She seemed to him more beautiful than any other woman in the world.

The knight explained to Gulinus that he had come to purge his sins in Saint Patrick’s Purgatory. But the knight’s experience seemed to be developing in a different direction:

Then Gulinus asked the knight if he had ever seen such a beautiful young woman and if he wanted to enjoy her embraces. He immediately replied that he had never seen such a beauty and that he would most gladly marry her. Then Gulinus gave his consent and ordered a minister to prepare a bed for them. That indeed was done.

{ Quesiuit autem Gulinus a milite si unquam talem et tam pulchram puellam uideret et an uellet uti amplexibus eius. Ille autem respondit se nunquam tam pulchram uidisse et quod libentissime uteretur connubio illius. Tunc concessit ei Gulinus, et precepit ministro ut pararet illis in camera stratum. Quod et factum est. }[1]

What Valerian heard from Cecilia on their wedding night was a minor annoyance compared to what this knight then experienced:

And behold, when the knight believed he was about to consummate marriage with this young woman, his eyes were opened and he saw a most ancient, arid, and misshapen trunk lying between his arms. His penis itself was squeezed into a certain hole made in that trunk. A minister, deputed to the task by Gulinus, shredded and weakened his penis by striking a nail into it with a hammer with manly force and very frequently. The minister thus confined the knight’s penis in that hole. The knight desired a hundred times to incur death, if it were possible, rather than sustain such agony even for a brief while. The minister very frequently repeated the blows on the nail with the hammer and more narrowly compressing the knight’s very penis, dashed, smashed, battered, and pounded it. This knight suffered these dire straits of agony and cried out and wailed for most of the day. He was tortured to the point of death. Gulinus then said to his ministers, “How’s that knight, our son-in-law, doing?” And they responded, “He’s fine.” “Go,” he commanded, “and bring him to me.”

{ Et ecce cum crederet se miles uti connubio illius puelle, aperti sunt oculi eius et uidet truncum uetustissimum et aridissimum et deformem iacere inter amplexus eius, et uirilem ipsius uirgam in quodam foramine facto in illo trunco coartatam, quam minister ad hoc deputatus a Gulino contriuit et eneruauit percutiendo uiriliter et sepissime maleo clauum stringens in illo foramine uirilem uiram illius, ut miles desideraret centies si fieri posset incurrere mortem magi squam talem cruciatum uel ad modicum horam sustinere. Cumque predictus minister sepissime claui cum malleo percussiones iteraret, et uirilem ipsius uirgam arctius stringendo collideret, confringeret, quassaret, et contereret, et miles ille per multum diei tempus inter has angustias crutiatuum laboraret, clamaret, eiularet, et usque ad mortem fatigatus esset, ait Gulinus ministris suis, “Quomodo se habet miles ille gener noster?” At illi responderunt: “Bene se habet.”. “Ite,” inquit, “adducite eum ad me.” }

A mother-in-law in medieval Verona caused a wife considerable distress. But that mother-in-law didn’t directly torture her daughter-in-law’s vagina. When the knight was brought to his father-in-law, he might have hoped for emergency first aid, a quick grant of divorce, and a fast horse to flee from that place:

When freed from penal punishment, the knight was placed in the presence of Gulinus, who asked him: “How are you?” The knight described all his pain. Gulinus asked him: “Do you wish to enter into a warm bath so that you can revive your broken and aching members?” And he replied: “Very gladly!” Immediately he was thrown into boiling water, which was hotter than any fire. In that bath, all his members were consumed, liquefied like wax in fire. The previous agony he counted as minimal in relation to this one. In this bath the knight was tortured for a long time. He was screaming and complaining all the time. Then Gulinus asked his ministers: “How is our son-in-law doing?”

{ Qui cum laxatus a penis stetisset coram Gulino, ait ei: “Quomodo te habes?” At ille omnem dolorem eius exposuit. Cui Gulinus: “Vis,” inquit, “intrare calidum balneum, ut in eo refoveas confracta et dolentia membra tua?” Qui respondit: “Libentissime.” Statimque proiectus est in aquam bullentem, omni igne calidiorem. In quo balneo, tamquam cera in igne, liquefacta sunt omnia membra illius et depasta. Cruciatum priorem iam pro minimo reputabat respectu sequentis. Cumque diu in hoc balneo fatigaretur et semper exclamaret et eiularet, ait Gulinus: “Quomodo facit gener noster?” }

As King Gulinus knew, his son-in-law was suffering brutal bodily torture. That means, in a common-sense understanding, that his son-in-law was doing very badly. But these circumstances weren’t a matter of common sense:

From this, like the prior misery, the knight was pulled out into the presence of Gulinus. The knight was scarcely able to speak. Gulinus said to him, “Do you wish, just for tempering the heat that you have in your members, to enter into cold water?” The knight responded, “Very gladly!” Immediately he was thrown into an extremely cold bath, a bath whose coldness exceeded that of snow and ice. Now he was plunged under water, now propelled upwards onto sharpened points of ice, sharper and harder indeed than all iron spikes. On all sides his body was thrown back, penetrated and perforated and torn apart. After his life was pulled into the most miserable misery for a very long time, he regarded all the previous penal punishments as having no importance in relation to this one.

{ Ab hac autem sicut et prius miseria miles eductus coram Gulino uix loqui potuit. Cui Gulinus: “Vis,” ait, “ad temperandum calorem istum quem habes in membris tuis, intrare in frigidam aquam?” Cui cum respondisset: “Libentissime,” statim proiectus est in balneum frigidissimum, quod frigiditate sui omnem niuem et gelu superaret. Quandoque sub aquis mergebatur, quandoque sursum proiectus, super acutas cuspides glaciei, acutiores et duriores omni acuto et clavo ferreo, que undique corpus suum intrabant et perforabant et laniabant, reiectus est. Cumque diutissime in hiis miseriis miserrimam uitam duxisset, omnesque penas precedentes respectu istius pene tamquam nullius momenti reputasset }

After burning with passion for King Gulinus’s daughter, the knight first had his penis smashed and pounded, then he was thrown into boiling water, and then into a cutting ice bath. No knight would want such an adventure, no matter how game he was in love:

Finally, just as from the first penal punishment, the knight was pulled out from this bath and placed in the presence of Gulinus, who asked him, “How are you?” The knight responded by describing all his pains. Gulinus said: “I lament for all the miseries that you have endured. Hence I have deliberated: to the extent that you wish to relieve your pain, you should play a certain game that men usually use to relieve their pains.” The knight responded that he greatly need to have such a game. Gulinus then said to his ministers: “Lead him into our game house and make him play there to satiation.” So the ministers led him into a square house constructed from four stone walls. Pointed stones protruded slightly everywhere all around in the walls of this house. On top of the walls a beam went across the house. To that beam was tied a single rope that hung downwards. The ministers bound to the rope the knight’s feet so that his head was hanging downwards. They pulled him upwards a little. Then they threw him and batted him back from side to side like a ball. The ministers didn’t cease from playing this game until all the knight’s members were torn and cut from the sharp stones and his head was bashed, broken, and pulped such that his brains poured out. The knight said that this torture was incomparably more intolerable than all the previous penal punishments.

{ tandem ut prius eductus de hoc balneo stetit coram Gulino. Cui Gulinus: “Quomodo te habes?” Cui respondenti et exponenti omnes dolores suos, ait Gulinus: “Doleo de miseriis tuis quas passus es. Vnde consulo, uolens releuare dolores tuos, quatinus ludas de cetero quodam ludo quo solent homines releuare dolores suos.” Quo respondente se tali ludo, opus habere, dixit Gulinus ministris: “Ducite illum in domum ludi nostri et facite eum ibi ludere ad satietatem.” Duxerunt igitur eum ministri in domum quadratam super quatuor muros lapideos constructam. Erant autem undique per girum domus istius in parietibus acuti lapides aliquantulum prominentes. Et erat trabes quedam sursum super muros in transuersum posita, ad quam funiculus unus alligatus deorsum dependebat. Ad hunc autem funem ministri alligabant pedes militis, capite deorsum dependente. Sursumque illum paululum trahentes proiecerunt et repulerunt eum quasi pilam de pariete in prietem, nec unquam ab hoc ludo ministri cessauerunt donec omnia membra militis predictis lapidibus acutis excerperentur, desecarentur et caput eius collideretur, confringeretur, contunderetur usque ad effusionem cerebri. Hanc autem miseriam dixit predictus miles omnibus predictis penis suis incomparabiliter fuisse intolerabiliorem. }

That was no game of love. The knight’s situation would have been worse if he had been brought before Gulinus and that psychotic father-in-law had again asked, “How are you?” as a prelude to further torture. But the chilling horror that began with the knight’s burning desire for Gulinus’s young, beautiful daughter ended abruptly:

After the knight had been thus violently played with for a long time and the morning of the next day had already come, all those ministers of evil along with their king Gulinus disappeared. All of the knight’s penal punishments and his vision vanished. The knight found himself at the entrance of the purgatory that he had previously entered. He no longer saw any of what he had seen. But he then suffered such infirmity in bodily debilitation that he entirely expected to die.

{ Cumque sic diutissime illuderetur, mane iam die adieniente, disparuerunt omnes illi ministri iniquitatis cum rege suo Gulino, et omnes pene eius euanuerunt cum ipsa uisione sua, et inuenit se miles in introitu purgatorii a quo prius in purgatorium intrauerat, nichil eorum que uiderat uidens. Tantaque infirmitate seu corporis debilitate tunc laborabat, ut se omnino deficere estimaret. }

The knight’s bodily debility testified to the veracity of his vision. The authenticity of his vision is also attested in its written text through explicit citation of a chain of authorities leading back to this knight.[2]

The knight’s vision of penal torture in the palace of King Gulinus is no mere folk nightmare. The Latin text is filled with sophisticated verbal echos and allusions.[3] The four instances of torture are clearly patterned. After feeling burning sexual desire for Gulinus’s beautiful daughter, the knight undergoes tortures that progress from penal pounding to a burning bath, then to the allopathy of an ice bath, and then to a torture game that’s the end-game for a knightly game of love radically re-interpreted.

Jesus’s parable of the vineyard-owner and his wicked tenants, itself a re-interpretation of prophetic verses from the Hebrew Book of Isaiah, seems at least in part to have inspired the knight’s vision. In Jesus’s parable, a man planted a vineyard, protected it with hedges, dug a pit for a wine press, and built a tower. He leased all these assets to tenants. He expected the tenants to manage the vineyard fruitfully:

When the right time came, the vineyard owner sent a servant to the tenants to obtain from them some of the fruit of his vineyard. But the tenants seized the servant, beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent to them another servant. They wounded that one in the head and treated him shamefully. He sent yet another, and that servant they killed. So, too, with many others. Some they beat, others they killed. He had still one other to send, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, thinking, “They will respect my son.” But those tenants said to one another, “This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.” So they seized him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard.

{ καὶ ἀπέστειλεν πρὸς τοὺς γεωργοὺς τῷ καιρῷ δοῦλον ἵνα παρὰ τῶν γεωργῶν λάβῃ ἀπὸ τῶν καρπῶν τοῦ ἀμπελῶνος καὶ λαβόντες αὐτὸν ἔδειραν καὶ ἀπέστειλαν κενόν καὶ πάλιν ἀπέστειλεν πρὸς αὐτοὺς ἄλλον δοῦλον κἀκεῖνον ἐκεφαλίωσαν καὶ ἠτίμασαν καὶ ἄλλον ἀπέστειλεν κἀκεῖνον ἀπέκτειναν καὶ πολλοὺς ἄλλους οὓς μὲν δέροντες οὓς δὲ ἀποκτέννοντες ἔτι ἕνα εἶχεν υἱὸν ἀγαπητόν ἀπέστειλεν αὐτὸν ἔσχατον πρὸς αὐτοὺς λέγων ὅτι ἐντραπήσονται τὸν υἱόν μου ἐκεῖνοι δὲ οἱ γεωργοὶ πρὸς ἑαυτοὺς εἶπαν ὅτι οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ κληρονόμος δεῦτε ἀποκτείνωμεν αὐτόν καὶ ἡμῶν ἔσται ἡ κληρονομία καὶ λαβόντες ἀπέκτειναν αὐτόν καὶ ἐξέβαλον αὐτὸν ἔξω τοῦ ἀμπελῶνος }[4]

The injuries against the vineyard-owner’s successively sent servants for the most part increase in severity. The second servant being handled shamefully {ἀτιμόω} suggests in context sexual abuse.[5] The incidents of injury culminate in killing the vineyard-owner’s son and treating his corpse disrespectfully. The vineyard-owner in this parable, like the knight in Gulinus’s palace, suffers a terrible injury to fruitfulness and generation.

The parable of the vineyard-owner and his wicked tenants is an allegory for God and his wayward people in salvation history. The vineyard-owner (God) sends servants (Hebrew prophets) to receive what is due to him from his tenants (God’s people). Yet the wayward tenants / God’s people only increase in their waywardness. Finally the vineyard-owner sends to them his son. In Christian understanding, the sending of the son represents God incarnating himself in the Virgin Mary’s womb as his beloved, fully masculine son Jesus.

The knight’s vision similarly represents men’s love for women under misandristic gynocentrism. From a Christian perspective, loving, conjugal heterosexual intercourse of reproductive type follows the pattern of God’s love for his people. It’s potentially an act of creation and incarnation. Yet in today’s rape-culture culture, leading organs of the public propaganda apparatus proclaim that nearly a quarter of husbands rape their wives. Men have been criminalized in criminalizing their gender role in seduction. In defining crimes and administering criminal justice, penal punishment is predominately aimed at persons with penises. Just consider the gender composition of persons locked up in prisons and jails. Those locked-up men have have little opportunity to love women and incarnate new human beings. The wicked tenants of the world’s unfruitful, dying vineyards don’t care about having babies.

Persecution of the penis is worse than just criminalization. In addition to penal crimes and punishments, men endure civil burdens like those of indentured servants. If a man encounters unplanned parenthood and his woman-partner doesn’t choose to have an abortion, he has no choice but could be legally compelled to pay about a third of his income to her for 18 years or more as so-called “child support.” He then becomes an indentured servant who must produce his assigned monthly financial quota or be incarcerated. Few even bother to ask, “How are men doing?” The wicked tenants of the world’s unfruitful, dying vineyards don’t care about men.

Across the long span of civilization, men’s situation with respect to women has continually worsened. Men have long suffered dire consequences from false accusations of rape. Punishment for adultery has long been gender-biased against men. Now misandristic, totalitarian gynocentrism has developed to the extent that an academic has declared that castration “gifts men with wholeness and a better maleness.”[6] Men are smeared as rapists for seeking burning passion with women rather than act-by-act negotiation and contracting. Men are castigated as haters for expressing icy disinterest in women today. Both men and women leaders favor women. Inventing new ways of pandering to woman and bashing men is a common media game of our age. Most women are less happy living with cats or yes-dearing men than living with strong, self-valuing, fully human men. The wicked tenants of the world’s unfruitful, dying vineyards don’t care about women.

You can perceive gender reality through an underground vision like that of the knight in Gulinus’s palace. While medieval men didn’t endure gender injustice as oppressive as that which exists today, medieval women and medieval men protested men’s gender subordination to women. Most academics have rejected Matheolus’s brilliant medieval lamentations as being unworthy of serious study. Read and ponder Matheolus. Study medieval Latin literature. Through this special journey, you will gain a vision of the misandristic, totalitarian gynocentrism that threatens men in ordinary life today.

medieval sexual abuse: woman riding and beating man

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[1] Peter of Cornwall, Liber revelationum, vision in St. Patrick’s Purgatory, sentences 32-5. Latin text from Easting (1979) via Maggioni, Tinti & Taviani (2018), my English translation, benefiting from the Italian translation of id. Subsequently quotes are seriatum from this vision and are similarly sourced. For the Latin text, with English translation, Easting & Sharpe (2013). I have unfortunately not been able to access that book.

Peter Cornwall’s Liber revelationum has survived in only one manuscript: London, Lambeth Palace Library, MS 51. This manuscript is Peter’s own and includes annotations in his hand.

In Liber revelationum, the anonymous knight’s vision in Saint Patrick’s Purgatory follows a copy of the Treatise on Saint Patrick’s Purgatory {Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti Patricii}. The latter transmits, among other important stories, the knight Owein’s vision in Saint Patrick’s Purgatory.

Peter of Cornwall directed the compilation of his Liber revelationum in 1200 and perhaps for a few years afterwards. He intended this work to document revelations and spiritual visions in which souls of persons continue to live after their body’s death. Liber revelationum is a massive book of 1,105 chapters and about a half-million words. Three scribes wrote it under Peter’s direction.

Peter compiled Liber revelationum as prior of Holy Trinity Church, Aldgate, London. Peter lived from about 1140 to 1221. A widely learned man, he also participated in high ecclesiastical politics in England. On Peter’s life and books, Barbezat (2013) pp. 16-27.

The story of the knight being tortured for love in King Gulinus’s palace is not elsewhere attested, nor is King Gulinus known. Gulinus is plausibly an Irish name. Yolande de Pontfarcy associated Gulinus with Culann and the forge Slieve Gullion {Sliabh gCuillinn} near Newry, Ireland. Haren & de Pontfarcy (1988) pp. 43-8, as cited in Sharpe (2016) p. 200. Sharpe doesn’t find that attribution convincing.

Sharpe interprets Gulinus to be the Irish name Guile with an added Latin suffix -inus. He associates the story with the early modern Irish story “The complaint of Guile’s daughter {Ceasacht inghine Guile}.” An earlier version exists in Middle Irish, “The excuse of Gulide’s daughter {Erchoitmed ingine Gulidi}.” Here’s the Irish text (from Ms Rawlinson B 512, f. 114c – 115c) and an English translation by Kuno Myer.

A woman having sex with a guest visiting her home is common in literary history. It’s a typical structure in stories of men being cuckolded. But of course sex with guests isn’t limited to cuckolding, e.g. a young, unmarried princesses falls in love with a visiting knight and sleeps with him. For a slightly different class of Irish examples, see “sex hospitality” (motif T281) in Cross (1952), cited in Steel (2016) p. 10, n. 32.

The knight’s vision in Gulinus’s palace in Saint Patrick’s Purgatory has been mischaracterized as “a barely Christianized account of the dangerous hospitality of the fairy folk.” Green (2016) p. 183. Christianity has always coexisted with folk myths, including those of academia. What’s most interesting about the “dangerous hospitality” that the knight received in Gulinus’s palace isn’t its relation to folk myths, but its relationship to social reality. The story is similar to other stories in Walter Map’s De nugis curialium.

[2] According to Liber revelationum, the knight recounted his vision to Bishop Lawrence of the Church of Downpatrick, whose episcopate encompassed Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, and to the monk Walter, who was staying with Bishop Lawrence. After Lawrence died, Walter returned to his abbey at Mellifont in County Lough, Ireland, and told the story to Bricius, the Cistercian abbot of the monastery of Saint Patrick in Ireland. Bricius, visiting London in 1200, told the story to Peter of Cornwall, a scholar and prior of Holy Trinity Priory in London. Peter immediately recorded the knight’s vision in his Book of Revelations {Liber revelationum}. The knight’s vision has survived to the present only in the one known manuscript of Peter of Cornwall’s book.

Bricius’s abbey of Saint Patrick is thought to have been in Newry, near Belfast. Sharpe (2016) p. 199. The modern Cathedral of Saint Patrick and Saint Colman is now located in Newry.

Documenting an authoritative chain of transmission is also a feature of Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti Patricii. Hadith studies of Islamic scholars developed sophisticated methods for analyzing the reliability of transmitted historical accounts. That aspect of Islamic learning may have influenced learned scholars in twelfth-century Europe.

[3] This include poena / pena {punishment} in relation to penis {penis}, membrum (meaning both “limb” and “penis”), truncus (meaning both “tree trunk” and “torso of a human body”), virga (meaning both “twig” and “penis”), and various Latin verbal forms for enter and withdraw.

[4] Mark 12:2-8, Greek text from BlueLetterBible, my English translation, based on standard English biblical translations. Similarly, Matthew 21:33-46 and Luke 20:9-19. This parable re-interprets Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 118:22-23.

[5] Cf. Romans 1:24.

[6] Steel (2016) pp. 6-7. Steel embeds that declaration in an even more fulsome paragraph:

Castration delivers a sense of newfound wholeness, a newly unified self, undistracted and in control, and suggests that it was the burden of the penis that stymied self-mastery. If, in the logic of medieval misogyny, the female body was disordered desire incarnated,22 and if excessively practiced sexuality, with whatever partner, effeminized men,23 then the genitalia was the most female part of a man’s body.24 Unmanning thus paradoxically gifts men with wholeness and a better maleness.25 Castration becomes the surest route to bestowing on men the illusory gift of the phallus, male power’s mythical thing, which should never be confused with the actual, always inadequate genitalia.

Id. The footnote texts, referenced with the superscripted numbers, both signal academic authority and flatter similar quality academic work. Imagine Professor Steel lecturing undergraduates with this paragraph. A typical student might scribble in her class notes: “Genitalia = female part of male body, castration = better maleness. Male power mythical -> inadequate genitalia.” This is how today’s universities educate students into castration culture and oppressive idiocy.

Perhaps to demonstrate his academic merit, Steel solemnly affirmed the absurd. For example, castration “sought to make the (male) self whole.” Steel (2016) p. 2. Steel explored “the ethics of interpreting literary accounts of torment.” Id. p. 1. He forcefully imposed meaninglessness on the knight’s genital injury:

What may be strangest of all is a story of injury to a man’s genitals that just takes it as one among many injuries — a bad one, to be sure, but not the one. The knight suffers the genital injury first; afterwards, he is boiled and frozen, thrashed about, his whole body hideously damaged, but with no sense of order or purpose, without any hint that he gradually learns anything. Juridically and morally speaking, this is parataxic punishment, without the subordination of one injury to another, because things just happen, and then more things happen, horribly, but without any one injury taking absolute precedence over the others. Then he’s expelled and everything stops.

Steel (2021). Steel then offers a disciplined ethics (no apophasis allowed) of meaninglessness in interpreting the knight’s penis being tortured:

it may be just a strange injury, something that just happens. … genital injury is just something that happens. … the very meaninglessness of the knight’s suffering should be preserved as meaningless, and that the best response to his pain may be to refuse to interpret it.

Id. pp. 1, 13, 14. To face down those lacking his ethical sophistication, Steel deploys a mendacious rhetoric of truth-telling: we must interpret the story “without denying the bizarre hilarity of what the knight undergoes.” Id. p. 13. Is it any wonder that about twice as many women as men are earning advanced degrees in literary and humanistic fields in the U.S. today? See note [8] in my post on Peter Dronke and medieval Latin literature.

Other have readily found superficial meaning in the tortures that the knight suffers. Those tortures have been interpreted as love tests: “a certain King Gulinus tests the knight’s love for his daughter.” Flechner (2019) p. 183. No specific textual support exists for that interpretation. Alternatively, the knight undergoes these horrible tortures “to purge him of the sin of Lust, and cause the sin to have associations with a more demonized memory.” Kuykendall (2020) p. 41. That interpretation recognizes the patterning of the tortures, their allegorical associations with love (hot, cold, game), and a plausible allusion to demonic torturing. The story of torturing the knight in Gulinus’s palace has, however, broader significance in relation to castration culture and gynocentrism.

[image] Medieval woman riding and beating a man. Illumination from a fifteenth-century manuscript of Aristotle’s Politics translated into French by Nicolas Oresme. Detail from illumination on folio 1r of Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Français 22500. Via Gallica.


Barbezat, Michael. 2013. Doubt, Faith, and the World to Come in Peter of Cornwall’s Book of Revelations. Ph.D. Thesis. Toronto: University of Toronto.

Cross, Tom Peete. 1952. Motif-index of early Irish literature. Bloomington: Indiana University.

Easting, Robert. 1979. “Peter of Cornwall’s Account of St. Patrick’s Purgatory.” Analecta Bollandiana. 97 (3-4): 397-416.

Easting, Robert and Richard Sharpe. 2013. Peter of Cornwall’s Book of Revelations. British Writers of the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period, 5. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies. (review by Eileen Gardiner)

Flechner, Roy. 2019. Saint Patrick Retold: The Legend and History of Ireland’s Patron Saint. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Green, Richard Firth. 2016. Elf Queens and Holy Friars: fairy beliefs and the medieval church. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press. (review by Cathy Hume, by Krisztina Ilko, by David Russell Mosley, by Alastair Minnis)

Haren, Michael, and Yolande de Pontfarcy, eds. 1988. The Medieval Pilgrimage to St Patrick’s Purgatory: Lough Derg and the European tradition. Enniskillen: Ireland.

Kuykendall, Victoria. 2020. Wonderland: Myth or Fairy-Tale? M.A. Thesis. Texas State University.

Maggioni, Giovanni Paolo, Roberto Tinti, and Paolo Taviani. 2018. Il purgatorio di San Patrizio: documenti letterari e testimonianze di pellegrinaggio (secc. XII-XVI). Firenze: SISMEL, Edizioni del Galluzzo. (review by Robert Bartlett, by Marie-Céline Isaïa)

Sharpe Richard. 2016. “Varia III: Gulide, Guile and Gulinus: an Irish type for a twelfth-century Latin story.” Ériu. 66: 199-201.

Steel, Karl. 2016. “Logsex in Hell: What a Body Can’t Do.” Paper presented at the conference The Body Unbound: Literary Approaches to the Classical Corpus, Brooklyn College, Oct 7-8, 2016. Expanded / revised into Steel (2021).

Steel, Karl. 2021 (forthcoming). “Nothing to Lose: Logsex and Genital Injury in Peter of Cornwall’s Book of Revelations.” In Katherine Lu Hsu, Brian P. Sowers, and David Schur, eds. The Body Unbound. Palgrave MacMillan. (preview of first part)

faithful translator Hunayn ibn Ishaq promoted Galenic understanding

How should a text be translated? For readers who have no interest in textual sources, translation is merely manufacturing machinery, and all that counts is the end product. That tends to be how most persons value texts in our modern economies of goods. Yet historically, particular source texts — the Iliad, Hebrew scripture, the Gospels, Galenic medical knowledge, the Qur’an — have been highly valued. Translation trades reduced effort required from a reader to communicate with a valued source text for loss in connection to the source. Translation also enlarges the social influence of a source text and allocates value from that enlarged social influence between the source text and the translator. The ninth-century Baghdadi translator Hunayn ibn Ishaq addressed these allocations of value as a faithful translator of the second-century Roman physician Galen.

Hunayn worked within a tradition of Syriac translations of Greek texts. Most of the Greek New Testament was probably translated into Syriac by early in the fourth century. Many Christian theological texts were translated into Syriac in the fifth century. Sergius of Resh‘aina, who died in 536, apparently was the first person to translate Greek philosophical and medical texts into Syriac.[1] In the preface to his Syriac translation of pseudo-Aristotle’s letter On the Universe {Περὶ Κόσμου}, Sergius told the person (“elect one”) who had ordered the translation:

I urge you, dear sir, that if another copy of this letter is found, in which is anything more or less, please, elect one, do not blame our weakness. That which I have found in the copy that was sent from you, dear sir, I have taken care to preserve completely, neither adding anything to those things written here by the philosopher, nor on the other hand taking away from them according to my ability.[2]

Sergius invocation of “our weakness” expresses a modesty trope standard in Syriac literary prefaces since the fourth century. That modesty trope is consistent with the apostle Paul’s declarations of his weakness. Sergius’s preface to On the Universe also echoes the concluding warning in Revelation not to add or subtract anything from its words.[3]

Sergius described On the Universe as a letter from Aristotle the Philosopher to Alexander the King. Aristotle and Alexander were highly honored historical figures. In translating this letter, Sergius apparently proceeded as he would with a sacred text. He didn’t translate according to the rigid, word-for-word translation practice of seventh-century Syriac translators. He translated both with great respect for the source text and with concern to have his Syriac translation be hospitable to readers accustomed to Syriac literary language. Sergius was a scholar-translator and a Christian priest. Sergius translated Aristotle’s letter to Alexander faithfully.[4]

Within what modern scholars in their ignorance and bigotry have called the Golden Age of Latin literature, eminent authorities disparaged the “faithful translator.” Writing for the Roman elite, Horace in his Art of Poetry {Ars Poetica} counseled the reader against an unprofitable practice:

you take care to render word for word as a faithful translator

{ verbo verbum curabis reddere fidus interpres }[5]

In rendering this disparagement of such translation, the Loeb edition translated fidus interpres as “slavish translator.” In a letter to Romans about the year 55, Paul of Tarsus described himself as a “slave of Jesus Christ {δοῦλος Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ}.”[6] Paul meant that he was a faithful servant of Jesus Christ. The ancient Greek historian Polybius described the Aetolians, failing in battle against the Romans, acting according to the sense in which Paul was faithful to Jesus:

The Aetolians, after some further observations about the actual situation, decided to refer the whole matter to Manius Acilius Glabrio, committing themselves “to the faith” of the Romans, not knowing the exact meaning of the phrase, but deceived by the word “faith” as if they would thus obtain more complete pardon. But with the Romans to commit oneself “to the faith” of a victor is equivalent to surrendering unconditionally.

{ οἱ δ᾿ Αἰτωλοὶ καὶ πλείω λόγον ποιησάμενοι περὶ τῶν ὑποπιπτόντων ἔκριναν ἐπιτρέπειν τὰ ὅλα Μανίῳ, δόντες αὑτοὺς εἰς τὴν Ῥωμαίων πίστιν, οὐκ εἰδότες τίνα δύναμιν ἔχει τοῦτο, τῷ δὲ τῆς πίστεως ὀνόματι πλανηθέντες, ὡς ἂν διὰ τοῦτο τελειοτέρου σφίσιν ἐλέους ὑπάρξοντος. παρὰ <δὲ> Ῥωμαίοις ἰσοδυναμεῖ τό τ᾿ εἰς τὴν πίστιν αὑτὸν ἐγχειρίσαι καὶ τὸ τὴν ἐπιτροπὴν δοῦναι περὶ αὑτοῦ τῷ κρατοῦντι. }[7]

When the ancient Roman historian Livy translated into Latin Polybius’s account of the Aetolians’ surrender, Livy wrote that the Aetolians resolved that their best choice “would be to surrender themselves into the faith of the Romans {in fidem se permitterent Romanorum}.” When the Aetolians subsequently perceived the Romans to be treating them unjustly, the Aetolians protested, “we entrusted ourselves not into slavery, but into your faith {non in servitutem … sed in fidem tuam nos tradidimus}.”[8] Horace’s adjective fidus in fidus interpres is cognate to the Latin noun fides. In ancient Roman understanding, faithful translators entrust themselves completely to another.

Who was Horace’s prototypical faithful translator? Writing perhaps a half-century before Horace’s disparagement of the faithful translator, the classically revered Roman orator Cicero declared:

It is not necessary to squeeze out a text word by word, as ineloquent translators do, when there is a more familiar single word that would indicate the same overall meaning. Actually, for what the Greek text puts forth in one word, if I am unable to do anything else, I tend to use several words. However, I think we are obliged to concede to employ a Greek word when no Latin one will muster for use.

{ Nec tamen exprimi verbum e verbo necesse erit, ut interpretes indiserti solent, cum sit verbum quod idem declaret magis usitatum; equidem soleo etiam, quod uno Graeci, si aliter non possum, idem pluribus verbis exponere. Et tamen puto concedi nobis oportere ut Graeco verbo utamur, si quando minus occurret Latinum. }[9]

Cicero’s low-status “ineloquent translator {indisertus interpres}” apparently became Horace’s scorned “faithful translator {fidus interpres}.” Horace perhaps picked up a subtle allusion in another of Cicero’s descriptions of his translation pragmatics:

Indeed, I transferred the most famous orations of the two most eloquent Attic orators, Aeschines and Demosthenes, orations that they delivered against each other. I did not transfer them as a translator, but as an orator. I kept the same ideas and forms, or figures, so to speak. However, I used language that conforms to our usage. In doing so, I did not hold to be necessary to render word for word, but I preserved every category and the force of the words. Indeed, I did not think I was obliged to count words out to the reader, but to pay them by weight, so to speak.

{ Converti enim ex Atticis duorum eloquentissimorum nobilissimas orationes inter seque contrarias, Aeschinis et Demosthenis; nec converti ut interpres, sed ut orator, sententiis isdem et earum formis tamquam figuris, verbis ad nostram consuetudinem aptis. In quibus non verbum pro verbo necesse habui reddere, sed genus omne verborum vimque servavi. Non enim ea me adnumerare lectori putavi oportere, sed tamquam appendere. }[10]

In describing translation, Cicero repeatedly used “language of monetary exchange and correct (aristocratic) payment of debts.” He described “the interpreter’s process of translation as resembling an individual counting out of coins.” Cicero distinguished translations in terms of broad distinctions in social status:

Cicero is no petty merchant clinking coins together; unlike the fumbling interpres, he works in a large-scale economy and knows that true debt must be paid out in a grand manner, not coin by coin.[11]

While Cicero disparaged Catius, Amafinius, Rabirius and other Epicurean translators as pandering to the masses, elite Romans greatly respected Lucretius’s magnificent Epicurean epic, De rerum natura.[12] Epicureans weren’t a low-status Roman group associated with distrustful, coin-testing merchants. Jews, however, were such a group in the eyes of the Roman elite. Horace’s faithful translator is a Jew translating or interpreting sacred Hebrew texts while entrusting himself in faith to God.[13]

Jerome pondering translation

Faithful translation came to be practiced far beyond Jews. Jerome of Stridon (Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus), a Christian priest and theologian, translated Hebrew scripture and the New Testament into Latin at the end of the fourth century. Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible (the Vulgate) was used in Western European liturgy for more than a millennium. Christians around the world came to regard him as a saint. Jerome surely should be called a faithful translator.

Jerome was also a highly sophisticated writer. In a letter to his dear friend and fellow monk Pammachius, Jerome vibrantly and memorably explained his practices of translation. He ridiculed those whom he claimed charged him with criminal mistakes in translating from Greek to Latin a letter from Pope Epiphanius to John, Bishop of Jerusalem. Jerome declared:

Now my enemies, ranting against me, preach among the unlearned that I have falsified, that I have not expressed word for word, that I have written “dear friend” in place of “honorable sir,” and that — more disgraceful still! — I have maliciously translated by omitting to convey “most reverend father” into my Latin text. These and similar trifles constitute my criminal acts.

{ deditque adversariis latrandi contra me occasionem, ut inter imperitos concionentur, me falsarium, me verbum non expressisse de verbo: pro honorabili dixisse carissimum, et maligna interpretatione, quod nefas dictu sit, αἰδεσιμώτατον Παππαν, noluisse transferre. Haec et istiusmodi nugae crimina mea sunt. }[14]

Jerome confessed that he doesn’t translate word for word:

I indeed not only admit but freely announce that in translating from the Greek (except of course in the case of Holy Scripture, where even the order of words contains a mystery) I squeeze out not word for word, but sense for sense.

{ Ego enim non solum fateor, sed libera voce profiteor, me in interpretatione Graecorum, absque Scripturis sanctis, ubi et verborum ordo mysterium est, non verbum e verbo, sed sensum exprimere de sensu. }

Jerome then quoted in his defense the above-quoted statements of Cicero and Horace. With his great sense of humor, Jerome also aligned himself with the comic poets Menander, Plautus, and Caecilius:

Do they ever stick merely to words? Do they not rather attempt to preserve the beauty and elegance in translation? Such as you call truth in translation, learned men call “pestilent minuteness.” Such were my teachers about twenty years ago, and even then I was wronged by a similar erroneous charge

{ Numquid haerent in verbis: ac non decorem magis et elegantiam in translatione conservant? Quam vos veritatem interpretationis, hanc eruditi κακοζηλίαν nuncupant. Unde et ego doctus a talibus ante annos circiter viginti, et simili tunc quoque errore deceptus }

In his actual translation practice and in his letter to Pammachius, Jerome didn’t actually endorse literally translating scripture word for word.[15] He in fact put forth quotes from Holy Scripture highlighting the non-literal translation practices of Christian scriptural authorities:

The apostle Paul has not expressed his original word for word, but with “paraphrase” he has indicated the same sense in different phrasing. … From all these examples it is clear that in translating the Old Testament, the apostles and evangelists have sought for the sense rather than for the words. They have not with great effort ensured the word order and phrasing, so long as they could make clear the matter for understanding.

{ Apostolus non verbum expressit e verbo, sed παραφρασικῶς, eumdem sensum aliis sermonibus indicavit. … Ex quibus universis perspicuum est, Apostolos et Evangelistas in interpretatione veterum Scripturarum, sensum quaesisse, non verba: nec magnopere de ordine sermonibusque curasse, dum intellectui res pateret. }

In many different contexts, Jerome argued vigorously and robustly for what he regarded to be right. He, however, was modest enough not to assume that he had fully the same freedom in translating Holy Scripture as did the apostles and evangelists. Jerome was not a literal translator, nor a free translator, nor a person without a playful, vibrant sense of the fullness of life. Jerome was a faithful translator.

Nicole Oresme writing

Like Jewish translators in Cicero and Horace’s Rome, like Sergius of Resh‘aina and Jerome of Stridon, Hunayn ibn Ishaq was a faithful translator. A recent study categorized Hunayn ibn Ishaq relative to text-oriented translation and reader-oriented translation:

To assist us in the task of determining how Ḥunayn transformed Galen from Greek into Arabic, a scheme for classifying ancient translations, introduced by the Syriac scholar Sebastian Brock, will be employed. This scheme reflects the attitude of the translator to the source text. If the translator attempts to convey every textual detail of the source text into the target language, as if the revered source text were not to be changed, this is a ‘text-oriented’ translation. On the other hand, if the translator has the reader in the target language as his primary concern, and uses intertextual commentary, definition, or exposition of the cultural context in the target language, to convey the meaning of the source text and to render it as useful as possible, this translation is ‘reader-oriented’. The latter description applies to the translation activities at Baghdad by the mid-ninth century, when translators and scholars, such as Ḥunayn and al-Kindī, approached the Greek corpus with a robust confidence and, although accuracy was their aim, their own research agendas took precedence over strict one-to-one translation. Ḥunayn’s translations certainly fit the latter category, since he occasionally ‘corrected’ his originals, whether Greek or Syriac, and his pervasive textual ‘intrusions’ can be construed as aids for the reader.[16]

“Reader–oriented” and “text-oriented” should be understood not as a binary translation choice, but as a spectrum of choices in connecting the reader to a valued source text. Moreover, that spectrum of translation choices co-exists with the personal interests of the translator and the value of his translation not just to a single reader, but also to the whole social field of potential readers. Just as one might seek to make justice and mercy kiss, a faithful translator both seeks to meet readers where they are and transform their understanding for the better. As a flesh and blood human being who needs material sustenance, a faithful translator may consider how to acquire value for herself in doing her work of translation. But a faithful translator also entrusts himself in faith to a larger project of social good and evangelizes the value of studying a text not of his own making.

Hunayn ibn Ishaq exemplifies characteristics of a faithful translator. He was a Christian Arab from al-Ḥīra (al-Hirah). That was the capital of the Arabic vassal kingdom of the Lakhmids under the Persian Sassanid Empire. Hunayn thus lacked ready connections to the elite Syriac Christian physician-scholars or to the Abbasid court of the ruling Muslim Caliph in Baghdad. He had to make translations that would satisfy readers better than other translators could within a competitive ninth-century Mesopotamian market for translation. At the same time, Hunayn believed deeply in the importance of Galen’s medical learning. Hunayn studied Galen extensively and himself practiced Galenic medicine as a physician. Hunayn entrusted himself and his readers in faith to Galenic medicine, not to medicine of Hunayn’s own creation.

As a faithful translator, Hunayn identified with the evangelic practices of the apostle Paul and Galen. Hunayn strove to make Galenic medical knowledge accessible to all readers. At the request of the Syriac physician Salmawayh ibn Bunān, Hunayn translated Galen’s On Habits from Greek into Syriac. Hunayn recognized in his prefatory letter to that translation that Salmawayh was an expert reader of Galen. Hunayn, however, made a translation that would serve all readers. He explained:

with books, one should not merely aim at what the minds of one or two men from among the people can grasp, but rather out of his love for benefiting people a book’s author should endeavor that the minds of many men grasp his work. This being the case, I decided it was necessary to add a translation of a commentary explaining the meaning of each of the quotations which are included in the book by way of analogy and exemplification. That way, anyone who has not applied his intellect to one of the books from which Galen drew these quotations will be able to understand its meanings rapidly and with ease.[17]

For quotations from Hippocrates, Hunayn translated and added commentary from other works of Galen. For a long quotation from Plato’s Timaeus, Hunayn translated and added commentary by Proclus. These changes to the source text weren’t “reader-oriented” relative to the reader who had ordered the translation. According to Hunayn, Salmawayh had no need of additional commentary. But with the additional commentary Hunayn demonstrated his own expertise and thus enhanced his competitive position as a translator. His additional commentary also served his larger social project of making Galenic medical knowledge readily available to all. Hunayn translated Galen’s On Habits not as a literal translator, but as a faithful translator.[18]

Faithful translation necessarily involves difficult circumstantial judgments. No abstract formula exists for meeting readers in their actual life circumstances and bringing them as close as possible to the valued source text. While prudently serving her own material interests, a faithful translator strives not to have her interests control her translation. Moreover, in making a popularizing translation, the faithful translator seeks to avoid replacing or even devaluing the source text.[19]

Alternatives to faithful translation are unfaithful translation, free translation, or no translation at all. Unfaithful or free translation by definition is easy for anyone to do. No translation is even easier. That latter choice doesn’t necessarily indicate indolence.[20] A very highly valued text  — a sacred text, a text thought to represent the word of God — might be regarded as too precious to risk making the circumstantial judgments necessary for faithful translation. That’s how Muslims view translating the Qur’an from Arabic. An Italian proverb from no later than the nineteenth century declares, “translator — traitor! {traduttore, traditore}.”[21] Those who attempt faithful translation tremble at the thought of betraying their source texts.

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Read more:


[1] Brock (2004) pp. 3-4. Syriac translations of Greek Biblical and patristic texts in the fourth and fifth centuries were relatively free and in some cases amounted to expanded paraphrases. Id. p. 6, Brock  (1979) p. 75.

[2] Sergius of Resh‘aina, Syriac translation from Greek of pseudo-Aristotle, On the universe {De mundo / Περὶ Κόσμου}, translator’s preface, folio 108r in British Library Add. MS 14,658, from Syriac trans. McCollum (2011) p. 167. In citing Syriac and Arabic translations here and elsewhere, I haven’t included the source texts because they aren’t readily accessible in electronic form.

In translating the index of plant names in Galen’s On simple drugs from its original Greek into Syriac, Sergius maintained the Greek collation. About half of the plant names, typically the more rare or obscure ones, Sergius merely transliterated into Syriac. In some cases where he translated the plant name into Syriac, Sergius added the adverb “perhaps,” apparently to suggest his uncertainty about the proper Syriac identification of the plant. Calà & Hawley (2017). For study of a recently recovered copy of Sergius’s translation of Galen’s On simple drugs, Hawley et al. (2013) and Afif et al. (2018).

[3] On the apostle Paul’s declaration of weakness, 2 Corinthians 11:30-12:10. On not adding or subtracting, Revelation 22:18-19.

[4] On characteristics of Sergius’s translation of De mundo, McCallum (2011). With respect to his translating Aristotle’s Categories from Greek into Syriac, Sergius wrote in a preface to Theodore, Bishop of Kark Juddan:

When, therefore, we were translating certain books of the doctor Galen from Greek into Syriac, I, on the one hand, was translating, you, on the other hand, were writing after me while you were amending the Syriac words in accordance with the requirements of the idiom of this language.

From Syriac trans. Bhayro (2017) p. 139. For a similar translation, McCollum (2015) pp. 22-3. See also Brock (2004) p. 4. Late in the seventh century, Phocas bar Sergius of Edessa described Sergius’s translation of pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite as lacking fluency in Syriac. McCollum (2015) pp. 25-7. On Sergius’s translation of that text, Perczel (2000) and Perczel (2008).

Sergius did not always follow practices of a faithful translator. In translating Alexander of Aphrodisias’s On the Principles of the Universe, Sergius apparently omitted large portions and Christianized the parts that he translated. He may have been working from a Greek text in which those alterations had already been made. Id. p. 176.

[5] Horace, Art of Poetry {Ars Poetica} vv. 133-4, Latin text from Rushton Fairclough (1926), my English translation. Id. is the Loeb edition cited subsequently above. In translating this and subsequent Latin quotes, I distinguish between various Latin words having meaning within the domain of “translation.” On Latin words for translation, McElduff (2013), Appendix.

In the past, scholars of Arabic literature referred to a Golden Age of classical Arabic literature. The concept of a Golden Age of classical literature has now been largely discredited among scholars of Arabic literature. See, e.g. Cooperson (2017).

[6] Romans 1:1. Similarly, Philippians 1:1, Titus 1:1. Paul was like Galen in his dedication to his great project.

[7] Polybius, Histories 20.9.11-14, Greek text and English translation from Paton (2012).

[8] Livy, History of Rome 37.28.4, Latin text from Yardley (2018), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. The previous short quote is similarly from id. 37.27.8.

[9] Cicero, About Good and Bad Ends {De finibus bonorum et malorum} 3.15, Latin text from Rackham (1914), my English translation benefiting from those of id. and McElduff (2013) pp. 114-5. McElduff provided the translation of indisertus as “ineloquent” and comments, “Indisertus means ineloquent in a particular sense, namely, uneducated in rhetoric, the final stage in a Roman education.” Id. p. 115.

McElduff sets out three stages of Roman education: literary play {ludus litterarius}, the school of the grammarian {schola grammatici}, and the school of the rhetorician {rhetoris schola}. Cicero’s practice of translation favors elite Roman learning: rhetoris schola relative to schola grammatici. Id. pp. 115-9. Copeland argues that in antiquity, grammar and rhetoric shaped different understandings of the translator’s task. Copeland (1995) Ch. 1.

[10] Cicero, On the Best Kind of Orators {De Optimo Genere Oratorum} 14-16, Latin text from Hubbell (1949), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. and McElduff (2013) p. 112. For a freely available version of McElduff’s analysis of Cicero on translation, McElduff (2009).

[11] McElduff (2013) p. 114. The two previous short quotes above are from id. p. 113.

[12] Cicero was concerned about low-quality Epicurean translators in the competitive Roman market for translations. Cicero staked out a distinctive position in that market:

Cicero’s control over his sources is absolute — he takes what he wants, as he wants. And this is the point of having Cicero translate, after all: you get the value of his taste and literary ability. If that doesn’t interest you, then you might as well pick up a text translated by Rabirius or Amafinius.

McEldulf (2013) pp. 109-10. Lamenting about faulty philosophical views in bantering correspondence with Cicero, Cassius referred to “all these Catiuses and Amafiniuses, bad translators of words {omnes Catii et Amafinii, mali verborum interpretes}.” Cicero, Letters to Friends 215 (15.19) 2-3, Latin text from Shackleton Bailey (2001), my English translation. Cicero noted the popularity of such Epicurean translators. Cicero, Tusculian Disputations 4.6-7. Cicero and Varro regarded Amafinius and his associates as unsophisticated translators. Cicero, Academica 1.4-6.

[13] As a small minority living within Roman culture that privileged Greek and Latin, translation was of considerable practical importance to Jews. Classicists have trended to view Roman culture in terms of “both tongues {utraque lingua},” meaning Greek and Latin. Copeland (1995) and McElduff (2013) scarcely mention Jews and Hebrew. A considerable record exists of ancient Hebrew literature and Jewish literary activity. Nonetheless, McElduff declared:

Despite the multiplicity of languages in the Roman Empire, it is difficult to discuss linguistic matters there without straying into a binary discussion of Latin and Greek, with a few references to Punic or some other nonclassical language. This is a legacy of our literary sources, which the issues under debate revolved around speaking or writing correct Greek or Latin, both of which were critical to elite identity; these sources ignore other languages unless they cause exceptional problems or the author wants to make a point.

McElduff (2013) p. 17.

[14] Jerome, Letter {Epistula) 56.2, To Pammachius on the Best Method of Translating {Ad Pammachium de optimo genere interpretandi}, Latin text from Patrologia Latina 22, my English translation benefiting from those of Freemantle (1892) and Carroll (1956). Jerome wrote this letter in 395 GC. The three subsequent quotes are similarly from Jerome’s letter to Pammachius, paragraphs 5 (I indeed not only admit…; Do they ever stick merely to words? …), and 9 (The apostle Paul…).

[15] How to characterize Jerome’s translation of the Bible (the Vulgate) is a matter of some controversy. The Vulgate can reasonably be characterized as a fairly literal translation. Marlowe (2010). In medieval Europe, translations from Greek to Latin tended to be quite literal. Vaiopoulos (2016).

[16] Cooper (2019) p. 182. On Brock’s distinction, Brock (1979). With respect to his Syriac translation of Galen’s Fullness, Hunayn explained:

I recently translated this for Buḫtīšūʿ in the manner that I usually adopt when translating, namely what I think is the most elegant and expressive language, and closest to the Greek, without, however, violating the laws of Syriac.

English translation from Overwien (2012) p. 167, which also supplies the Arabic text that comes from one of Hunayn’s epistles. For more on Hunayn’s translation style, Overwien (2015).

[17] Ḥunayn Ibn Isḥāq’s Letter to Salmawayh ibn Bunān C.9-11, originally written in Syriac, Arabic text and English translation (presentation simplified slightly) from Connelly (2020) pp. 187-8. The Arabic text is preserved uniquely in MS Aya Sofya 3725, folios 193v-194v (Süleymaniye Yazma Eser Kütüphanesi, Istanbul). Galen’s On Habits is also known by its Latin title De consuetudinibus.

[18] Based on close study of Hunayn’s translations of Galen’s Crises {De crisibus} and Critical Days {De diebus decretoriis}, Cooper judged, “Ḥunayn was generally an accurate translator, and sometimes even an exceptional one.” Cooper (2016) p. 6. At the same time, Hunayn “added whatever he thought necessary to help his reader understand the text and its complex subject matter.” Id., from abstract.

In translating Galen, Hunayn filled in gaps or smoothed our contradictions or mistakes in his source text based on his knowledge of the subject matter and closely related Galenic texts. He omitted passages that wouldn’t benefit his readers. He also occasionally added substantial explanations of obscure terms. In short, “the Greek original was not sacrosanct to Ḥunayn.” Overwien (2012) p. 155, drawing upon Vagelpolh (2011).

[19] Cicero argued for elite translation of Greek texts so as to make Greek libraries unnecessary in Rome. Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 2.5. For discussion of this aim, McEldulf (2013) pp. 103-4, 119-20. The Latin reception of Parthenius of Nicaea’s Greek text Sufferings in Love {Ἐρωτικὰ Παθήματα} regrettably lost vital insights into love and gender.

Medieval authors invoked “faithful translator” in sophisticated ways. In translating Porphyry’s Isagoge from Greek into Latin, Boethius, an early sixth–century Christian theological author and public figure, ironically embraced Horace’s “blame” for being a faithful translator and claimed that he, like Cicero, was eliminating the need for the Greek source text:

I indeed fear that I have incurred the blame of the faithful translator, as I have rendered it word for word, plainly and equally. The reason for that begins with this: for writings in which knowledge of the matter is sought, it is necessary to express, not the charm of a sparkling oration, but the uncorrupted truth. About this I would see myself as very successful, if with philosophical texts composed into the Latin language by complete and genuine translations, Greek texts are no longer desired.

{ quidem vereor ne subierim fidi interpretis culpam, cum verbum verbo espressum comparatumque reddiderim. Cuius incepti ratio est quod in his scriptis in quibus rerum cognitio quaeritur, non luculentae orationis lepos sed incorrupta veritas exprimenda est. Quocirca multum profecisse videor, si philosophiae libris Latina oratione compositis per integerrimae translationis sinceritatem nihil in Graecorum litteris amplius desideretur. }

Boethius, introduction to his translation of Isagoge {Εἰσαγωγή} (introduction to Aristotle’s Categories), Latin text from Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum (CSEL) 48, p. 135, and English translation (modified slightly) from Copeland (1995) p. 52. Boethius made this translation c. 508.

In his preface to his translation of the mystical and obscure neo-Platonic corpus attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite, the Christian poet, philosopher, and theologian John Scotus Eriugena also embraced blame as a faithful translator:

If one would judge the before-said translation series truly obscure or lacking explicitness, let that person regard me not as this work’s expositor, but as its translator. In that I greatly fear that I run strongly into the blame of being a faithful translator. And if one supposes that something superfluous has been added, or that something is lacking in the integrity of the Greek constructions, let him refer to the Greek codex, from which I have translated. He will perhaps discover, whether or not it is so.

{ Sin vero obscuram minusque apertam praedictae interpretationis seriem iudicaverit, videat me interpretem huius operis esse, non expositorem. Ubi valde pertimesco, ne forte culpam fidi interpretis incurram. At, si aut superflua quaedam superadiecta esse aut de integritate Grecae constructionis quaedam deesse arbitratus fuerit, recurrat ad codicem Grecum, under ego interpretatus sum: ibi fortasse iveniet, itane est necne. }

Latin text from MGH Epistolae 6, no. 14, 24-32, p. 159 (PL 122: 1032C), my English translation benefiting from that of Copeland (1995) p. 52 and Rorem (2005) p. 49. John Scotus Eriugena wrote this prefatory disclaimer at the Carolingian royal school at Aachen about 860. On this work, Budde (2011). To his nearly word-for-word translation of the Greek Eriugena added his own paraphrase / commentary. Rorem (2005) p. 49.

[20] A variant of the “no translation” alternative is academic self-fashioning. The status market in academic humanities favors grandiloquent claims. Academic competition particularly rewards deconstructing true-false and related binaries, condemning power and domination, and emphasizing the liberating importance of academic word-work in constructing all of reality. Implicitly playing to dominant academic values, Robinson thus argued:

Certainly the importance of asceticism for the history of Western translatology cannot be over-emphasized. ‘Normal’ translation as it has been imagined in the West for sixteen centuries, and continues to be imagined today, is hegemonically ascetic (although humanistic strains from Cicero and the other classical theorists survive even within Christian asceticism, encouraging the translator to develop, to grow, through translation). Indeed it is difficult to recall (or even to imagine) a Western definition of translation, simple or complex, old or new, that does not immediately betray its ascetic aims. Consider only the ‘renunciations’ that are now and have long been expected of the translator: the renunciation of source-language syntax and ‘colour’ or ‘feel’ or ‘mood’, in the reduction of the source-language text to an abstract ‘sense’; the renunciation of personal biases, predilections, preferences, and opinions in the education of the translator into a neutral transfer-machine. Consider the diatribes launched at ‘word-for-word’ and ‘free’ translations, and the temptation good translators feel and resist to indulge those pleasures: to cling ‘too’ closely to the source-language text, to trace its contours lovingly in the target language, by translating word for word; or to strike off ‘too’ boldly in a new direction, to sever ideologically-controlled ties with source language meaning, by translating freely. Consider the discipline required of the translator to renounce all this, to resist such temptations, and the institutional support (translator training, translator organizations and conferences, legal and financial sanctions) provided to back up that discipline. The history of Western translatology is many things, but above all it is a history of ascetic discipline. After Jerome and Augustine, even the worldly rebels against ascetic translatology typically only modify the prescribed ascesis.

Robinson (1992) pp. 5-6. Concluding his many vigorous words against ascesis, Robinson revealed:

But this is simplistic. Translation remains normatively a cenobitic discipline; but in the repressive dualism of Western thought, norms are predicated upon deviations, and therefore depend on them for their impact. Cenobitic translation, bound as it is by the subtracted self’s dialectics of success and failure and of the familiar and the alien, is built upon the repression of eremitism. Eremitic translation, bound as it is by the isolated self’s dialectics of brilliance and heresy, mystical oneness with the source-language author and audience response, is built upon the repression of cenobitism. Ascetic translation itself, eremitic and cenobitic, is built upon the repression of classical humanism, which was bound by the created self’s dialectics of passive reception and anxious appropriation, other- and inner-direction.

And the key to the complexity of Western translation theory is this: what is repressed in each successive theory does not thereby vanish, but survives in the resistance that maintains the repression, survives in a vital enough form to anticipate and in some sense engineer its own return. Cicero and Luther sound in Jerome. Quintilian and Goethe sound in Augustine. Repressed echoes striate each theory, every voice. It is only by listening to those echoes and tracing those striations that we can begin to move beyond the hegemonic repetition – Cicero and Jerome and Luther and Dryden and everybody between and since calling for sense-for-sense rather than word-for-word translation – to which the history of Western translation theory has conventionally been, and continues today to be, reduced.

Id. p. 24. Such work ultimately reduces thousands of years of human culture to facile dismissal through indolent self-assurance of one’s own ideologically superior, totalitarian vision.

[21] On the textual history of “traduttore, traditore,” Davie (2012). The Italian phrase benefits from very similar-sounding words (a near-pun). An Italian proverb of men’s sexed protest, “Who said woman, said damage {Chi disse donna disse danno}” has a similar linguistic structure.

[images] (1) Saint Jerome pondering translation. Detail from fresco that Domenico Ghirlandaio painted in 1480 in the Church of the Savior of All Saints {Chiesa di San Salvatore di Ognissanti} in Florence, Italy. Source image via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Fourteenth-century philosopher Nicole Oresme, who translated Aristotle, writing at his desk. Detail from illustration on folio 1r of instance of Nicole Oresme, Treatise of the Sphere {Traité de la sphère}, Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Français 565.


Afif, Naima, Siam Bhayro, Grigory Kessel, Peter E. Pormann, William I. Sellers, and Natalia Smelova. 2018. “The Syriac Galen Palimpsest: A Tale of Two Texts.” Manuscript Studies: A Journal of the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies. 3 (1): 110-154.

Bhayro, Siam. 2017. “Galen in Syriac: Rethinking Old Assumption.” Aramaic Studies. 15 (2): 132-154.

Brock, Sebastian. 1979. “Aspects of Translation Technique in Antiquity.” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies. 20 (1979): 69–87.

Brock, Sebastian. 2004. “Changing Fashions in Syriac Translation Technique: The Background to Syriac Translations under the Abbasids.” Journal of the Canadian Society for Syriac Studies. 4 (1): 3-14.

Budde, Timothy R. 2011. The Versio Dionysii of John Scottus Eriugena. A Study of the Manuscript Tradition and Influence of Eriugena’s Translation of the Corpus Areopagiticum From the 9th through the 12th century. Ph. D. Thesis, University of Toronto. Ottawa: Library and Archives Canada = Bibliothèque et Archives Canada.

Calà, Irene, and Robert Hawley. 2017. “Transliteration versus Translation of Greek Plant Names in the Syriac Medical Writings of Sergius of Reš ʿAynā: On the Tables of Contents in BL Add. 14,661.” Aramaic Studies. 15 (2): 155-182.

Carroll, Paul, trans. 1956. The Satirical letters of St. Jerome. Chicago: Gateway Editions, distributed by H. Regnery Co.

Connelly, Coleman. 2020. “Ḥunayn Ibn Isḥāq’s Conception of his Reading Public according to a Previously Unpublished Letter.” Arabic Sciences and Philosophy. 30 (2): 159-189.

Cooper, Glen M. 2016. “Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq’s Galen Translations and Greco-Arabic Philology: Some Observations from the Crises (De crisibus) and the Critical Days (De diebus decretoriis).” Oriens. 44 (1-2): 1-43.

Cooper, Glen M. 2019. “Ḥunayn Ibn Isḥāq and the Creation of an Arabic Galen.” Ch. 9 (pp. 179-195) in Bouras-Vallianatos, Petros, and Barbara Zipser, eds. Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Galen. Brill’s Companions to Classical Reception, 17. Leiden: Brill.

Cooperson, Michael. 2017. ‘The Abbasid “Golden Age”: An Excavation.’ Al-ʿUsur Al-Wusta: The Journal of Middle East Medievalists. 25: 41–65.

Copeland, Rita. 1995. Rhetoric, Hermeneutics, and Translation in the Middle Ages: academic traditions and vernacular texts. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature, 11. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Davie, Mark. 2012. “Traduttore traditore.” OUPblog. Online, September 30, 2012.

Freemantle, William Henry, trans. 1892.  The Principal Works of St. Jerome.  Philip Schaff, ed. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, vol. 6. Oxford: Parker.

Hawley, Robert, Bhayro, Siam, Kessel, Grigory, and Pormann, Peter. 2013. “The Syriac Galen Palimpsest: Progress, Prospects and Problems.” Journal of Semitic Studies. 58 (1): 131-148.

Hubbell, H. M., ed. and trans. 1949. Cicero. On Invention. The Best Kind of Orator. Topics. Loeb Classical Library 386. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Marlowe, Michael. 2010. “The Literal Character of the Vulgate.” Online.

McCollum, Adam. 2011. “Sergius of Reshaina as Translator: The Case of the De Mundo.” Ch. 10 (pp. 165-178) in Josef Lössl and John W. Watt, eds. Interpreting the Bible and Aristotle in Late Antiquity: The Alexandrian Commentary Tradition Between Rome and Baghdad. Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing.

McCollum, Adam Carter. 2015. “Greek Literature in the Christian East: Translations into Syriac, Georgian, and Armenian.” Intellectual History of the Islamicate World. 3 (1-2): 15-65.

McElduff, Siobhán. 2009. “Living at the Level of the Word: Cicero’s Rejection of the Interpreter as Translator.” Translation Studies. 2 (2): 133-46.

McElduff, Siobhán. 2013. Roman Theories of Translation: surpassing the source. Routledge Monographs in Classical Studies, 14. London: Routledge. (review by Chiara Battistella and by Christodoulos Zekas)

Overwien, Oliver. 2012. “The Art of the Translator, or: How did Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq and his School Translate?” Pp. 151‒169 in Pormann, Peter E, ed. Epidemics in Context: Greek commentaries on Hippocrates in the Arabic tradition. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Overwien, Oliver. 2015. “The Paradigmatic Translator and His Method: Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq’s Translation of the Hippocratic Aphorisms from Greek via Syriac into Arabic.” Intellectual History of the Islamicate World. 3 (1-2): 158-187.

Paton, W. R. ed. and trans., revised by F. W. Walbank and Christian Habicht. 2012. Polybius. The Histories, Volume V: Books 16-27. Loeb Classical Library 160. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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Perczel, István. 2008. “The Earliest Syriac Reception of Dionysius.” Modern Theology. 24 (4): 557-571.

Rackham, H., ed. and trans. 1914. Cicero. On Ends. Loeb Classical Library 40. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Robinson, Douglas. 1992. “The Ascetic Foundations of Western Translatology: Jerome and Augustine.” Translation and Literature. 1: 3-25.

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Shackleton Bailey, D. R., ed. and trans. 2001. Cicero. Letters to Friends, Volume II: Letters 114-280. Loeb Classical Library 216. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Vagelpohl, Uwe. 2011. “In the Translator’s Workshop.” Arabic Sciences and Philosophy. 21 (2): 249-288.

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Yardley, J. C. ed. and trans. 2018. Livy. History of Rome, Volume X: Books 35-37. Loeb Classical Library 301. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Alfonso X’s 13th-century song on the dean of Cádiz & his books

On the thirteenth-century Iberian peninsula, Christian, Hebrew, and Islamic cultures interacted closely. Islamic culture, drawing upon a half millennium of extraordinary development, arguably was the most advanced. Alfonso X, King of Castile, León and Galicia, a king who came to be called “the Learned {el Sabio},” sponsored extensive translations from Arabic and Hebrew into Castilian and Latin. These translations included Kalilah wa Dimnah and Sendibar, magical works such as Lapidario and Picatrix, the composite Universal History {General Estoria}, The Book of Games {Libro de los Juegos}, and many other texts. Alfonso himself directed and helped to write Songs of Holy Mary {Cantigas de Santa Maria}, a collection of 420 songs in praise of Mary, the mother of Jesus.[1] Benefiting from the relatively liberal and tolerant intellectual circumstances of medieval Europe, Alfonso X also wrote “songs of scorn and ridicule {cantigas d’escarnho e mal dizer}” that probably would have gotten his public standing canceled if he were any Western man politician today. King Alfonso X the Learned has been rightly called an “emperor of culture” and a “marvel of the world {stupor mundi},” not just for the thirteenth century, but for all time.[2]

King Alfonso X, the Learned

Alfonso X’s medieval songs of scorn and ridicule include songs both sexually themed and poetically sophisticated. Like U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson, King Alfonso X attended to the characteristics of a man’s johnson:

Johan Rodriguiz went to take Balteira’s
measure for her to receive his stud,
and he said: “If you want to do well,
you have to get an exact measure,
neither more nor less in any way.”

And he said: “This is the right stud,
and in addition I don’t give it only to you,
and I have to bring it in straight and fully.
It has to be of such right length
to fit between the stairs’ legs.

To great Moniz I’ve already given another great one,
and she received its measure without displeasure,
and Mari’ Airas was another who did the same,
and Alvela, who strolls in Portugal,
and they have already taken it in the mountains.

And he said: “This is the measure of Spain,
not that of Lombardy or Germany,
and, although it’s thick, don’t be troubled.
A small battering ram has no value.
That I know well, being well-endowed.”

{ Joan Rodriguiz foi esmar a Balteira
sa midida per que colha sa madeira;
e disse: “Se [a] ben queredes fazer,
de tal midida a devedes a colher
e non meor, per nulha maneira.”

E disse: “Esta é a madeira certeira,
e, demais, non na dei eu a vós si[n]lheira;
e, pois que s’en compasso á de meter,
atan longa deve toda [a] seer
per antr’as pernas da [e]scaleira.

A Maior Moniz dei ja outra tamanha,
e foi-a ela colher logo sen sanha;
e Mari’Airas feze-o logo outro tal,
e Alvela, que andou en Portugal;
e ja i as colheron na montanha.”.

E diss’: “Esta é a midida d’Espanha,
ca non de Lombardia nen d’Alamanha,
e, porque é grossa, non vos seja mal,
ca delgada pera gata ren non val:
desto mui máis sei eu ca boudanha.” }[3]

This song conflates home construction with heterosexual intercourse. Balteira (Maria Pérez Balteira) was a famous Galician woman sex-worker from a relatively wealthy family. She served men soldiers in their camps as they traveled on Crusade to engage in brutal violence against men in the Holy Land.[4] Johan Rodriguiz, a proud Spaniard, apparently worked for many women with his internationally impressive equipment. Unlike Balteira, Rodriguiz almost surely wasn’t paid money for his sex work. Alfonso X’s song drew upon a medieval Hebrew tradition of earthy biblical puns, including “to sacrifice the battering-ram,” where the Hebrew word ‘ayil means both “ram” and “battering-ram.”[5]

medieval peasants warming their genitals

Displaying his cosmopolitan learning, Alfonso X depicted a Moorish knight within the deeply entrenched literary tradition of brutalizing men’s sexuality. The Moorish knight engaged in one-on-one combat with the Spanish lady Domingas Eanes:

Domingas Eanes had her fight
with a Moorish knight and was badly wounded.
She, however, was so ardent in battle
that after she had to be conquered for certain.
In truth, she conquered a good horseman.
But he was so agile with his lance
that she had to endure some hurts.

The blow that she received was in a hole
in her chain-mail, which was displaced.
I regret it, because at this thrust,
although she also took others (I value God),
she conquered. But then the horseman,
because of his weapons and his skillfulness,
ensured that she would be forever marked with change.

This Moor carried along with his rod
its two companions throughout the battle.
He is also known for never failing
to strike a great blow with his spear.
And he tumbled her onto her back
and gave her such a blow from above
that now the wound will never be closed.

Doctors experienced with it say
that such a wound can never be closed,
even with all the wool that this land has,
nor with oil can it be soothed.
Because the wound doesn’t go straight in,
but spirals like a screwing,
it becomes established as a passageway.

{ Dominga Eanes ouve sa baralha
con ũu genet’e foi mal ferida,
empero foi ela i tan ardida
que ouve depois a vencer sen falha,
e, de pran, venceu bõo cavaleiro;
mais empero era-x’el tan braceiro
que ouv’end’ela de ficar colpada.

O colbe colheu-[a] per ũa malha
da loriga, que era desmentida;
e pesa-m’ende porque essa ida,
de prez que ouve máis, se Deus me valha,
venceu ela; mais [pel]o cavaleiro,
per sas armas e per com’er’arteiro,
ja sempre end’ela seera sinalada.

E aquel mouro trouxe con o veite
dous companhões en toda esta guerra,
e demais á preço que nunca erra
de dar gran colpe con seu tragazeite;
e foi-[a] achar come costa juso,
e deu-lhi por én tal colpe de suso
que ja a chaga nunca vai çarrada.

E dizen meges que usan tal preit’e
que atal chaga ja máis nunca serra
se con quanta lãa á en esta terra
a escaentassen, nen con no azeite,
porque a chaga non vai contra juso,
mais vai en redor come perafuso,
e por én muit’á que é fistolada. }[6]

Culturally advanced for his time, Alfonso X depicted Domingas Eanes as developing strong, independent sexuality after her first sexual experience. The double sense of the song evokes the classical understanding of chivalry. The song’s intercultural intercourse represents centuries of ordinary experience on the Iberian Peninsula. At the same time, with ambivalence in describing who conquers whom, Alfonso X hints at both medieval gynocentrism and the medieval Christian ideal of conjugal partnership.

Perhaps the most brilliant of King Alfonso the Learned’s songs concerns a learned man and bookish study. This song praises learned lust:

I noticed a man carrying books
from Vejer that he got from Cádiz’s dean,
and when I asked to take a look,
he said, “Sir, with the two books you see
and others the dean has just like these,
he’s able to fuck as much as he pleases.

And that’s not all I will tell you:
although in the Law he often doesn’t read,
from what I know of the dean of Cádiz,
his books enable him to get
them all excited until they seem
like eagles, cranes or crows in heat.

When it comes to the art of fucking,
his books have all one needs to know,
and he does absolutely nothing
but read them day and night, and so
in the art of fucking he’s very wise
and fucks every Moorish dame he desires.

These are things that he can do
with his books like no one else:
he leaves them open while he screws,
and should some woman be possessed,
he fucks her with such skill and flair
the demon doesn’t have a prayer.

With his books this clever dean
can even cure St. Marcoul’s fire.
If a woman has this disease,
by his fucking he can charm her
until the fire begins to seem
merely snow or frost or sleet.”

{ Ao daian de Calez eu achei
livros que lhi levavan da Beger,
e o que os tragia preguntei
por eles, e respondeu-m’el: “Senher,
con estes livros que vós veedes (dous)
e con os outros que el ten dos sous
fod’el per eles quanto foder quer.

E ainda vos end’eu máis direi:
macar na lei muitas [vezes non quer]
leer, por quant’eu sa fazenda sei,
con os livros que ten non á molher
a que non faça que semelhen grous
os corvos, e as aguias babous,
per força de foder, se x’el quiser,

ca non á máis, na arte do foder,
do que, [e]nos livros que el ten, jaz;
e el á tal sabor de os leer
que nunca noite nen dia al faz;
e sabe d’arte do foder tan ben
que con nos seus livros d’artes, que ten,
fod’el as mouras cada que lhi praz.

E máis vos contarei de seu saber
que con nos livros que el[e] ten faz:
manda-os ante sí todos trager
e, pois que fode per eles assaz,
se molher acha que o demo ten,
assi a fode per arte e per sén
que saca dela o demo malvaz.

E, con tod’esto, ainda faz al
con o[s] livros que ten, per bõa fe:
se acha molher que aja [o] mal
deste fogo que de San Marçal é,
assi [a] vai per foder encantar
que, fodendo, lhi faz ben semelhar
que é geada ou nev’e non al.” }[7]

While Alfonso X might rightly be faulted for his song brutalizing men’s sexuality, in this song he at least recognizes benefits that men’s sexuality provides to women. Medieval authorities understood that husbands’ sexual obligation to their wives is vitally important. This song describes men’s sexuality as being capable of exercising demons from women. Moreover, men’s sexuality can heal St. Marcoul’s fire, a skin infection that produces a painful and dangerous red rash.[8] Why do benighted authorities today with acute gender discrimination persecute men’s sexuality and deprive men of any reproductive rights whatsoever?

Scholars have pondered the identity of Cádiz’s learned dean. Cádiz is a Spanish port city close to the strait of Gibraltar. Alfonso X retook Cádiz from Moorish control in 1262. In 1264, Cádiz’s dean, a senior church official ranking just below a bishop, was Rui Dias. He was one of the royal officials who carried out the redistribution of houses and lands (repartimiento) after Alfonso X retook the city Jerez from the Moors in the province of Cádiz in 1264. In 1267, Alfonso X dealt with fiscal problems in the church administration of Cádiz.[8] That may have motivated Alfonso to ridicule Rui Dias as learnedly devoted to illicit sexual activity.

Christian church officials were less devoted to bookish study than were Hebrew or Muslim scholarly officials. The word for dean, daian, could be interpreted as a transliteration of the Hebrew word dayán. A dayán was a scholar-judge of a rabbinical tribunal. A rabbinical scholar-judge devoted to studying erotic texts and having sex with Moorish women would be a figure of ridicule among Christian royal officials.[10] Such a song would convey a Christian sense of cultural superiority despite having less scholarly learning.

The dean of Cádiz might refer to an Islamic scholar-judge. Arabic texts were by far the leading source of erotically explicit works.[9] Compared to a Christian or a Jew, a Muslim is more likely to have a collection of Arabic erotic books. Moreover, the poem refers in a matter-of-fact way to the dean of Cádiz having casual sex with Moorish women. The Christian church official or a rabbinical scholar-judge having casual sex with Moorish women in thirteenth-century Andalusia would be regarded as outrageous and wildly implausible. An Islamic scholar-judge having causal sex with Moorish women is much closer to the realm of actual possibility.

Moreover, Cádiz is close to the Arabic term for a judge of an Islamic court, a qadi {قاضي}. Under Moorish rule from 711 to 1262, Cádiz was called Qādis. The “dean of Cádiz” may have been a humorous reference to a senior judge among the qadis.[11] The song declares “his books have all one needs to know” and “these are things that he can do / with his books like no one else.” Alfonso X satirizing the learning of an Islamic scholar could be interpreted as defensive humor relatively to Islamic / Arabic superiority in learning implicitly acknowledged in Alfonso’s extensive translation program.

None of these possible identifications of the dean of Cádiz addresses an interpretive problem in verse 2. That verse uses the word beger / berger, thought to be a toponym for Vejer de la Frontera in the province of Cádiz. Vejer, however, was repopulated with civilians only in 1288. Prior to that time, it was a Castilian castle outpost subject to frequent raids from Moors.[12] Alfonso X died in 1284. Many Arabic erotic books wouldn’t plausibly be found in Vejer prior to 1284.

A better reading of beger / berger could contribute to identifying the dean of Cádiz. In one of the most influential medieval works of men’s sexed protest, the brilliant, twelfth-century author Walter Map wrote:

Canius of Cádiz, a poet of a light and jovial wit, enjoyed the loves of many women. The grave and uxorious Livy of Carthage scolded him with these words: “You cannot share in our love of learning because you share yourself with many women.”

{ Canius a Gadibus, poeta facundie leuis et iocunde, reprehensus est a Liuio Peno, graui et uxorato historico, quod multarum gauderet amoribus, his uerbis: “Nostram philosophiam participare non poteris, dum a tot participaris” }[13]

With complex poetic rhetoric, Canius of Cádiz in response brought together love of women and love of learning:

The alterations of night and day make them happier, but a perpetual shadow is like Hell. So the first lilies of the spring’s sun delight with various temperatures if they enjoy winds both from the Southeast and from the Southwest. But a single blast of air from the South makes them fall over. Hence Mars broke the cords and reclines at the Heavenly banquet, while from that banquet the uxorious Vulcan is restrained by his long rope. Many threads bind more lightly than one chain. Love of learning is to me pleasure, but to you solace.

{ Vices noctium dies reddunt leciores, sed tenebrarum perpetuitas instar inferni est. Sic lilia primeua uerni solis deliciata teporibus uarietate tum Euronothi tum Zephiri leticia effusiore lasciuiunt, quibus uno spiritu fulmineus Libs occasum facit. Hinc Mars ruptis resticulis in mensa celesti recumbit conuiua superum, a qua uxorius Mulciber suo fune longe religatur. Sic leuius ligant multa fila quam una cathena, suntque michi a philosophia delicie, tibi solacia. }[14]

The perpetual shadow and the single blast of air from the South seem to figure a wife. The man who loves many women enjoys the freedom and variety of a Heavenly banquet. He gets from studying books similar pleasure. The married man suffers like the uxorious Vulcan and turns to learning for solace, like Cicero or some Christians studying the Bible. The dean of Cádiz similarly reconciled love of many women with love of learning.

Canius of Cádiz employed pastoral themes in bringing together love of women and love of learning. In the ancient Roman world, Cádiz was a well-known city called Gades. Canius of Cádiz apparently refers to Canius Rufus of Gades. He was an eminent Latin poet who flourished in the first century. Nothing has survived of his poetry, but he was described as always smiling.[15] Perhaps he wrote pastoral poetry similar to that of the man trobairitz Gavaudan. In Alfonso’s song, beger / berger might be read as a Galician-Portuguese analog to the Middle / Old French word berger / bergier, meaning “shepherd.” The dean of Cádiz might thus be reading books of the shepherd, alluding with a slant pun to Canius of Cádiz. The dean of Cádiz is a worthy follower of the smiling classical poet Canius of Gades.

Alfonso X the Learned deserves his name and his fame. With freedom of expression scarcely imaginable today, he drew upon the rich heritage of Hebrew, Arabic, and Latin literature to depict the fullness of life in thirteenth-century Iberia. That fullness of life should still be possible in lands of the free today.

I’ll never again be cheered
by the chirping
and delicate songs of birds
nor by love or great riches
nor by weapons (whose perils,
I confess,
have come to make me tremble),
but only by a seaworthy vessel
to carry me with all good speed
away from this land’s demon
heart, full of scorpions,
as my heart knows, being sore
from all their stinging poison.

{ Non me posso pagar tanto
do canto
das aves nen de seu son,
nen d’amor nen da misson
nen d’armas (ca ei espanto
por quanto
mui perigo[o]sas son),
come d’un bõo galeon
que mi alongue muit’aginha
deste demo da campinha
u os alacrães son,
ca dentro no coraçon
senti deles a espinha. }[16]

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Here’s an overview of translation under Alfonso X. Patrick (2015) provides detailed analysis of three works of translation: Kalilah wa Dimnah (Calila e Dimna), Sendebar, and Libro de los doze sabios {Book of the twelve wise men}. Attrell & Porrecam (2019) provides a scholarly edition and translation of Picatrix. On the Cantigas de Santa Maria, Ferreira (2016). In addition to the General Estoria, Alfonso also supervised the production of the influential History of Spain {Estoria de España}. On the close relation between these two histories, both written in Old Spanish, Fernández-Ordóñez (1999).

The Cantigas de Santa Maria indicate Alfonso X’s ardent Christian piety:

Alfonso X, king of Castile and León, sings mightily of the pure love he feels for Mary, a love far exceeding the love possible with earth-bound ladies.

Snow (1990) p. 132. Alfonso chided other troubadours for not praising Mary, the mother of Jesus:

Tell me, oh troubadours:
the Lady of ladies,
why do you not praise Her?

If you know well your art,
she is through whom you have God:
why do you not praise Her?

{ Dized’, ai trobadores,
a Sennor das sennores,
porqué a non loades?

Se vos trobar sabedes,
a por que Deus avedes,
porqué a non loades? }

Alfonso X, Cantigas de Santa Maria 260, Galician-Portuguese text and English translation from Ferreira (2016) p. 325. Complete text of this cantiga; musical performance, without the poetry.

[2] Burns (1990a), Burns (1990b). Alfonso X’s epithet “el sabio” is often translated as “the Wise,” but Alfonso wasn’t wise as a political leader. Burns (1990b) p. 3.

[3] Alfonso X {Afonso X}, Galician-Portuguese text of Universo Cantigas 479 (B 481, V 64) (see also Cantigas Medievais Galego-Portuguesas), English translation benefiting from those of Lazar (1989) p. 269, Keller (1967) pp. 104-5, and the Galician paraphrase and glossary of Universo Cantigas. In parenthesis is the number of the cantiga in the song-book {cancioneiro} manuscripts B (Cancioneiro da Biblioteca Nacional) and V (Cancioneiro da Vaticana).

[4] Maria Pérez Balteira was a famous soldadeira. A soldadeira literally means a woman of soldiers’ camps. A soldadeira, like the singing slave-girls of the Islamic world, was often skilled in singing and dancing as well as in providing soldiers with sex in exchange for money or material goods. For more on Balteira, Corral (2015). Balteira is regarded as so imporant that the Equality Commission {Comisión de Igualdade} of the Galician Cultural Council {Consello da Cultura Galega} recently published the texts of all songs referring to Balteira. Iconos (2014) celebrates Balteira for having strong, independent sexuality like that of Messalina and Empress Theodora.

[5] Lazar (1989) p. 269. Other such phrases were “to open a window in the ark” (to have sex with a virgin woman) and “there is good taste in the sciatic nerve” (the sciatic nerve, which is prohibited for consumption by Jewish law, was a euphemism for the penis). Id.

Afonso Lopes de Baião’s cantiga beginning, “Em Arouca ũa casa faria,” also uses construction as a metaphor for heterosexual intercourse. In this song, new wood apparently refers to a young nun warmly receptive to sex with the poetic voice:

Oh, dear friends, by Saint Mary,
if only I got new wood,
I now would build a house
and cover it and uncover it,
and turn it around if necessary,
and if the abbess would give me
new wood, I would do that with her.

{ E, meus amigos, par Santa Maria,
se madeira nova podess’haver,
log’esta casa iria fazer
e cobri-la e descobri-la ia,
e revolvê-la, se fosse mester;
e se mi a mi a abadessa der
madeira nova, esto lhi faria. }

“Em Arouca ũa casa faria,” stanza 3, Galician-Portuguese text (B 1471, V 1081) from Cantigas Medievais Galego-Portuguesas, English translation benefiting from that of Lazar (1989) p. 271 and Arias (2017) p. 91 (which provides an English paraphrase of the whole song). The first verse refers to a monastery at Arouca, Portugual. That apparently was the place where the sexual construction would occur.

[6] Alfonso X {Afonso X}, Galician-Portuguese text of Universo Cantigas 493 (B 495, V 78) (see also Cantigas Medievais Galego-Portuguesas), English translation benefiting from those of England (2017) p. 269 and Arias (2017) p. 108, and the Galician paraphrase and glossary of Universo Cantigas. The Galician-Portuguese text is substantially identical to the reading of Ferreiro (2010), except for v. 23. In that verse, Ferreiro follows V (Cancioneiro da Vaticana), while Universo Cantigas follows B (Cancioneiro da Biblioteca Nacional).

Some scholars assert that Domingas Eanes’s wound is literally venereal disease. E.g. Lazar (1989) p. 270, and the note to v. 28 in Cantigas Medievais Galego-Portuguesas. In its allegorical erotic context, the “wound” seems to me to represent both some tearing of Domingas Eanes’s hymen and her subsequent eagerness to have heterosexual intercourse. Medieval literature of men’s sexed protest frequently addressed men’s suffering under women’s high sexual demands. With respect to Iberian literature of men’s sexed protest, Morán (2018) pp. 387-90.

[7] Alfonso X {Afonso X}, Galician-Portuguese text of Universo Cantigas 491 (B 493, V 76) (see also Cantigas Medievais Galego-Portuguesas), English translation from Zenith (1995) pp. 105, 107 (with changes discussed subsequently). Other English translations are Keller (1967) p. 107 and Arias (2017) p. 108, and the Galician paraphrase and glossary of Universo Cantigas.

Verse 9 hasn’t been transmitted well. Zenith has the reading “macar no leito muitas [el ouver],” and translates “a number of women in his bed.” Zenith (1995) pp. 104-5. Arias has “macar na Lei muitas [vezes no quer]” and translates “although he many times does not want to read the Law (Bible), as far as I know”. Arias (2017) pp. 102-3. Keller has “ca tam mal e muyt’a fee leer” and translates “for by my faith, he, through the books”. Keller (1967) pp. 107-8. I provide an English translation of v. 9 for the text of Universo Cantigas.

[8] St. Marcoul’s fire {fogo que de San Marçal} is also known as St. Anthony’s fire (which Zenith uses in his translation), St. Francis’s fire, and the “holy fire {ignis sacer}.” These terms probably refer to skin infections now medically known as ergotism and erysipelas. These highly communicable skin infections were a type of plague in medieval Europe. They killed thousands of persons in France in the twelfth century. Zenith (1995) p. 254 (note to song 49, “Ao daian de Calez eu achei”) and Morros (1995).

[8] D’Agostino (2012), Sodré (2013). The twelfth-century Catalan man trobairitz Guilhem de Berguedan vigorously satirized a fornicating priest:

The young woman,
panting and moaning,
who is reclining under cleric Roger,
is all in motion
and so much at ease
feeling her cunt’s sweetness
that with her urine
she makes a potion,
and her cunt is without rest or truce.
In this city of Poitiers
she broke her back screwing.

{ La mesquina
Flaira e grina,
Que maistre Rogier enclina,
Tan festina
E s’aisina
Tro sent la douçor conina;
De s’orina
Fai mezina,
E’l con non cessa ni fina,
Qu’en la ciutat peitavina
Se rompèt fotent l’esquina. }

Guilhem de Berguedan, “A deceiver {Un trichaire}” (PC 210,22), vv. 23-33 (stanza 3), Old Occitan text from Corpus des Troubadours (see also Rialto), English translation from Lazar (1989) p. 264 (modified slightly to follow the Old Occitan more closely).

This cleric Roger reportedly did a remarkable amount of sexual work in a week:

A Christian woman
under the cover
he screwed forty times a week.

{ Crestïana
Fot sotz vana
Quaranta vetz la setmana. }

“Un trichaire” vv. 48-50, sourced as above. That record of sexual work, while impressive, is less than twice the one-day record of Charlemagne’s peer Oliver.

Alfonso X almost surely knew Guilhem de Berguedan’s “Un trichaire.” In his song “O genete,” Universo Cantigas 489 (B 491, V 74), Alfonso chided his knights for fleeing from Moorish knights. Alfonso apparently wrote “O genete” as a contrafactum to “Un trichaire.”

[9] The eminent, influential ninth-century Arabic scholar al-Jahiz referred to the sexual school of the great woman scholar Al-Alfiya. She apparently wrote the Arabic text Of the penis and the vulva {Alfiyya wa-shalfiyya}. That text probably drew upon Indian literature (such as the Kamasutra) and Persian learning. Late in the eleventh century, Constantine the African brought to Salerno, Italy, many Arabic medical manuscripts. These included texts on love and sex. They may well have included a version of Alfiyya wa-shalfiyya. Drawing upon such Arabic texts, Constantine the African wrote in Latin the Book of Sexual Intercourse {Liber de coitu}. Al-Alfiya and Liber de coitu seem to have influenced the fifteenth-century Catalan work Mirror of Fucking {Speculum al foderi}. Compared to these works, ibn Hazm’s early eleventh-century Arabic poem Ring of the Dove {طوق الحمامة / Ṭawq al-Ḥamāmah} is much less sexually explicit.

[10] D’Agostino (2012), pp. 290-1, insightfully put forward this reading.

[11] Qādis apparently was an Arabic transliteration of Gades, the Roman name for Cádiz.

[12] For identification of beger as a toponym for Vejer de la Frontera, Ferreiro (2014) pp. 181-5. In v. 2, V (Cancioneiro da Vaticana) has beger, while B (Cancioneiro da Biblioteca Nacional) has berger. Universo Cantigas reads in B the r in berger as being canceled with a vertical line. See Note 1 here. Cantigas Medievais Galego-Portuguesas reads from B simply berger and puts that forward as the better text. On Vejer de la Frontera being a castle outpost repopulated (with Spanish civilians) only in 1288, O’Callaghan (2011) pp. 6, 51, 56.

[13] Walter Map {Gualterus Map}, On Courtiers’ Trifles {De nugis curialium} 4.3, Latin text from James, Brooke & Mynors (1983) p. 300, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. No Livy of Carthage is known to exist, nor is this conversation elsewhere documented. Livy of Carthage apparently is a textual corruption arising from “Peno” (of Carthage) being read for “Aponi” (Bagni d’Albano near Padua) in Martial, Epigrams 1.61.3-9. Id. p. 301, n. 4.

The Roman historian Titus Livius (Livy) could fairly be regarded as a grave and uxorious man. See, e.g. Livy’s account of the Bacchanalia Affair of 186 BGC in Livy’s History 39.8-19. Nonetheless, this conversation between Livy and Canius of Gades almost surely is Map’s creative fiction. Subsequent quotes from this conversation are similarly sourced from De nugis curialium 4.3.

In Walter Map’s account of the conversation of Livy and Canius of Gades, Livy continues:

Tityus cannot love Juno when many vultures tear his liver into many pieces.

{ non enim eo iecore Iunonem amat Ticius quod multi uultures in multa diuellunt. }

After being killed, Tityus (Tityos) was stretched out and bound to the ground in the underworld. Two vultures continually tore at his liver. Homer, Odyssey 11.576. In the ancient Mediterranean world, the liver was thought to be the source of passions. Juno, the Roman goddess of marriage, was extremely jealous of her husband Jove’s strong, independent sexuality. Walter Map seems to be suggesting that a man must have undivided passion to be worthy of marriage.

Criminal justice systems have long been highly biased towards penal punishment of men. Leto’s children Artemis and/or Apollo reportedly killed Tityos for attempting to rape Leto. Some ancient sources identify Tityos’s mother Elara as Leto. Moreover, ancient sources also indicate that Juno, a very powerful goddess, commanded Tityos to rape Leto because Juno was angry that Leto had sex with Jove, Juno’s husband. Here’s a review of ancient sources concerning Tityus. What actually happened in this myth matters less for real social justice than recognizing that women play a significant role in inciting men to violence, violence mainly directed at other men.

[14] Libs is glossed as auster {south wind} in the manuscript. James, Brooke & Mynors (1983) p. 300, note v. In Map’s Latin text, Vulcan is called Mulciber {the softener}. That epithet adds irony to Vulcan’s hard marital conditions.

Canius of Gades began his response to Livy with these words of wisdom:

If ever I fall, I get up more cautiously. If for a moment I sink, I resume breathing more happily.

{ Si quando labor, resurgo caucior; si paululum opprimor, alacrius resumo aerem. }

Enjoying the loves of many women is dangerous for men. Men pursuing such a life course must be resilient.

[15] Ancient Roman literature includes references to Gades {Cádiz} and Canius of Gades. Listing eminent literary figures, Martial declares: “merry Gades rejoices in her Canius {gaudent iocosae Canio suo Gades}.” Martial, Epigrams 1.61.9. This Canius is called Canius Rufus {Canius the Red-Head}. He spent time in Tarentum in Rome’s Campus Martius. He seems to have been a learned man of leasure. What is he doing in Rome? “He’s laughing {ridet}.” Martial, Epigrams 3.20. Canius may have playfully conversed in Rome with Emperor Caligula (reigned 37 to 41 GC). Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy {De consolatione philosophiae} 1.95-9. On the dancing girls of Gades and pleasures in Gades, Fear (1991).

[16] Alfonso X {Afonso X}, Galician-Portuguese text of Universo Cantigas 478 (B 480, V 63) (see also Cantigas Medievais Galego-Portuguesas) stanza 1, English translation from Zenith (1995) p. 93. Here’s a recorded performance of this song. On interpretations of it, Hart (1999).

[images] (1) Portrait of Alfonso X the Learned. From an illuminated manuscript of The Book of Games {Libro de los juegos} translated from Arabic in 1283. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Peasant life in February. At the bottom left of the composition, peasants sit by a fire and warm their genitals, while in the upper right, a man in tight underwear chops down a tree in the cold. The composition apparently associates generation with the sun’s fire and anticipates seasonal warming. Painted about 1415 by Paul Limbourg. Detail from folio 2v of Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Musée Condé (Chantilly, France), MS 65. Via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Video recording of song “Maria Balteira” from A Quenlla’s album Na Boca Unha Cantiga, vol. II (1998). Via YouTube.


Arias Freixedo, Xosé Bieito. 2017. Per Arte de Foder: Cantigas de escarnio de temática sexual. Berlin: Frank & Timme.

Attrell, Dan, and David Porrecam trans. 2019. Picatrix. A medieval treatise on astral magic. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Burns, Robert I., ed. 1990a. Emperor of Culture: Alfonso X the learned of Castile and his thirteenth-century Renaissance. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Burns, Robert I. 1990b. “Stupor Mundi: Alfonso X of Castile, the Learned.” Ch. 1 (pp. 1-13) in Burns (1990a).

Corral Diaz, Esther. 2015. “Maria Balteira, a Woman Crusader to Outremer.” Pp. 65-80 in C.A. González-Paz, ed. Women and Pilgrimage in Medieval Galicia, Burlington, VA: Ashgate Publishing.

D’Agostino, Alfonso. 2012. “A vueltas con el deán de Cádiz.” (alternate link) Pp. 315-325 in Martínez Pérez, Antonia, and Ana L. Baquero Escudero, eds. Estudios de literatura medieval: 25 años de la Asociación Hispánica de Literatura Medieval. Murcia: Universidad de Murcia. Servicio de Publicaciones.

England, Samuel. 2017. Medieval Empires and the Culture of Competition: literary duels at Islamic and Christian courts. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Fear, A. T. 1991. “The Dancing Girls of Cádiz.” Greece & Rome. 38 (1): 75-79.

Fernández-Ordóñez, Inéz. 1999. “El taller historiográfico alfonsí: La Estoria de España y la General estoria en el marco de las obras promovidas por Alfonso el Sabio.” Pp. 105-126 in Jesús Montoya Martínez and Ana Domínguez Rodríguez, eds. El scriptorium alfonsí: de los libros de astrología a las “Cantigas de Santa María”. Cursos de verano de El Escorial. Madrid: Editorial Complutense.

Ferreiro, Manuel. 2010. “Os Hapax Como Problema E Como Solución. Sobre a Cantiga 493/18,11 [B 495/V 78] De Afonso X.” Pp. 239-261 in Arbor Aldea, Mariña & F. Guiadanes, Antonio, eds. Estudos De Edición Crítica E Lírica Galego-Portuguesa. Anexo 67 De Verba. Universidade de Santiago: Servizo de Publicacións.

Ferreiro, Manuel. 2014. “Por volta de topónimos e textos afonsinos. A cantiga “Ansur Moniz, muit’ouve gran pesar” [B 482, V 65].” Pp. 177-196 in Eirín García, Leticia, and Xoán López Viñas, eds. Lingua, Texto, Diacronía: estudos de lingüística histórica. Revista Galega de Filoloxía, Monografía 9. A Coruña: Universidade da Coruña, Área de Filoloxías Galega e Portuguesa.

Ferreira, Manuel Pedro. 2016. “The Medieval Fate of the Cantigas de Santa Maria: Iberian Politics Meets Song.” Journal of the American Musicological Society. 69 (2): 295-353.

Hart, Thomas. 1999. “Alfonso X’s ‘Non me posso pagar tanto.'” Portuguese Studies. 15: 1-10.

Iconos. 2014. “La historia de María Pérez.” Iconos Medievales: Pintura, historias, emociones. Online, November 19, 2014.

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.

Keller, John Esten. 1967. Alfonso X, el Sabio. New York: Twayne.

Lazar, Moshe. 1989. “Carmina Erotica, Carmina Iocosa: The Body and the Bawdy in Medieval Love Songs.” Pp. 249-276 in Lazar, Moshe, and Norris J. Lacy, eds. Poetics of Love in the Middle Ages: texts and contexts. Fairfax, Va: George Mason University Press.

Morán Cabanas, Maria Isabel. 2018. “O retrato descortês das damas no Cancioneiro Geral: motivos e imagens da tradição lírica.” Pp. 381-391 in Corral Díaz, Esther, ed. 2018. Voces de Mujeres en la Edad Media: entre realidad y ficción. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Morros i Mestres, Benvingut. 1995. ‘El “Foc de Sant Marçal” a una cantiga d’Alfons X.’ Gimbernat: Revista d’Història de la Medicina i de les Ciències de la Salut. 23: 165-8.

O’Callaghan, Joseph F. 2011. The Gibraltar Crusade Castile and the Battle for the Strait. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Patrick, Robey C. 2015. Translating Arabic wisdom in the court of Alfonso X, El Sabio. Ph.D. Thesis, Graduate Program in Spanish and Portuguese. Ohio State University, USA.

Snow, Joseph T. 1990. “Alfonso as Troubadour: The Fact and the Fiction.” Ch. 9 (pp. 124-140) in Burns (1990a).

Sodré, Paulo Roberto. 2013. ‘“Ao daian de Cález eu achei”, de Afonso X: Um deão leitor de arte amatória.’ Revista Diálogos Mediterrânicos. 4: 116-130.

Zenith, Richard, trans. 1995. 113 Galician-Portuguese Troubadour Poems. Manchester: Carcanet, in association with Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Instituto Camões.

Montaigne on liberal humanism & gender bias in COVID-19 deaths by sex

Michel de Montaigne, portrait

The sixteenth-century essayist and philosopher Michel de Montaigne is widely regarded as a pioneer of enlightened public reason. Montaigne fully recognized humans’ ability to be contradictory and to rationalize absurdities. Montaigne thus offers key insights into how to understand the suspensions of fundamental human rights under the COVID-19 public health emergencies declared around the world. Montaigne’s insights are especially relevant to men’s health and gender bias in addressing COVID-19 deaths by sex.

CDC misleading on COVID-19 deaths by sex

As a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic, men have lost at least 50% more years of life than have women. Relatively good data on COVID-19 deaths by sex are readily available online. To analyze the COVID-19 death data meaningfully in relation to gender, one should recognize three key facts:

  1. Years of life lost depend on age at death from COVID-19 and life expectancy. In the United States, a 40-year-old person dying from COVID-19 loses about four times as many years of expected life as does an 80-year-old person dying from COVID-19.
  2. The male/female COVID-19 death sex ratio isn’t constant across age groups. The male/female COVID-19 death sex ratio peaks for middle-aged persons. In the U.S., COVID-19 deaths among persons ages 40-49 years have a male/female sex ratio of 2.32. The overall U.S. male/female COVID-19 sex death ratio is 1.18 and is driven by the concentration of deaths (58%) among persons 75 years old and older.
  3. Even though life expectancy is highly malleable with respect to societal circumstances, in our current time of intense concern about gender equality, men’s life expectancy is significantly less than women’s at every year of age.[1] Among U.S. persons 75 years and older, the number of men is 26% less than the number of women because of men’s lifespan shortfall relative to women. Men who have already disproportionately died relative to women from other factors cannot die of COVID-19.

A simple, naive COVID-19 sex death ratio (or even worse, leading with a simple, naive death percentage for female) doesn’t recognize these three key facts. But these facts can be readily incorporated into a meaningful statistic: the COVID-19 life-years-lost sex ratio (male to female), with males having gender equality with females in lifespan. For reported U.S. data, the naive death sex ratio (male to female) is 1.18, while the life-years-lost sex ratio is 1.52. For reported global data, the naive COVID-19 death sex ratio is 1.45. The COVID-19 life-years-lost sex ratio (male to female) globally is probably close to 2.[2]

The sex ratio in expected life-years lost is a clear, objective measure of welfare loss by gender. Men losing at least 50% more life-years from COVID-19 should inform the response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. But like men’s shortfall in life expectancy, men being vastly disproportionately subject to violent death, penal systems being gender-biased to imprison vastly disproportionately persons with penises, the acute sex-bias in child-custody rulings, and forced financial fatherhood, the large gender inequality in expected life-years lost from COVID-19 attracts relatively little public attention.

Leading institutions, public authorities, and at least one obscenely wealthy woman have made what seem to me ridiculously gender-bigoted claims about COVID-19. Here’s insightful analysis, aptly summarized: “WHO & Lancet: men’s higher death rate from COVID-19 due to ‘masculine norms’; The Guardian: women’s lower death rate due to ‘genetic superiority.'” An article in the staid U.S. financial magazine Forbes breathlessly declared:

the pandemic has chipped away at hard-earned progress towards both greater gender equality and women’s economic rights, while exacerbating an already terrifying mental health crisis.

Sofia Sprechmann, Secretary-General of humanitarian agency Care International, recently described Covid-19 as the biggest setback to gender equality in a decade. Research conducted by McKinsey has revealed that women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to this crisis than men’s. The consultancy concluded that because of Coronavirus’ “regressive effect on gender equality”, global GDP growth could be $1 trillion lower in 2030 than it would be if women’s unemployment simply tracked that of men in each sector.[3]

If you think that McKinsey “estimate” is anything other than a custom-fabricated number for a high fee, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you. The Hawaii state Department of Human Services’ State Commission on the Status of Women has put together “A Feminist Economic Recovery Plan for COVID-19.” What has the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Men proposed? If there were such a commission, and there isn’t, it might propose a comprehensive program of gender de-indoctrination. In an article in the prestigious public-policy journal Foreign Affairs, mega-billionaire Melinda Gates declared in inane purple prose:

History teaches that disease outbreaks — from AIDS to Zika to Ebola — play out with a certain grim predictability. As they infect societies, they expose and exploit existing forces of marginalization, seeking out fault lines of gender, race, caste, and class. It is no coincidence, for example, that in the United States, black Americans are dying at disproportionate rates. Or that although more men are dying of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, the broader impacts of this crisis threaten to disproportionately affect women’s lives and livelihoods.

Consider this rewriting of the last two sentences of Melinda Gates’s assertions:

It is no coincidence, for example, that in the United States, black Americans are dying at disproportionate rates, although the broader impacts of this crisis threaten to disproportionately affect white persons’ lives and livelihoods. Or that although more men are dying of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, the broader impacts of this crisis threaten to disproportionately affect women’s lives and livelihoods.

That rewrite seems to me just as sensible as the original. The United Nations Population Fund has similarly declared that “women and girls have been disproportionately affected” by COVID-19, with women’s reproductive rights put at risk. COVID-19 hasn’t affected men’s reproductive rights, because men lack reproductive rights and are thus subject to forced financial fatherhood. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has declared:

The #COVID19 pandemic is demonstrating what we all know: millennia of patriarchy have resulted in a male-dominated world with a male-dominated culture which damages everyone – women, men, girls & boys.

Reasoning from this bizarre global conspiracy that everyone he knows believes, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has called for a global ceasefire amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He highlighted that the most vulnerable persons in war are “women and children, people with disabilities, the marginalized and the displaced.” That men have been historically compelled to fight and die in wars the UN Secretary-General simply ignores. UNICEF ridiculously reminds the world, “Many world leaders have warned that women and girls must not be overlooked as the world responds to the greatest health crisis in a century.”[4] In reality, few care about men’s lives. Few care that men are losing at least 50% more life-years from COVID-19 death than women are.

With the current farce of public reason amid the COVID-19 pandemic, what would Michel de Montaigne do? What do I know? I have read Montaigne words. Montaigne dared to express publicly concern for men’s health:

What is one to say of that ridiculous piece of foot-covering {codpiece} on our fathers’ pants, which is still seen on our Swiss guards? And why do we today make show of the shape of it under our trousers, and often, what is worse, by falseness and deception, exaggerate our pieces’ natural grandeur? It’s preferable for me to believe that this sort of clothing was invented in better and more moral centuries so as not to deceive the world, so that each man would courteously render to the public an account of his being. More simple nations still have a closer relation to the truth. Then one was instructed in knowledge of a man’s working organ, in the same way as the fact of the size of the arm or the foot. …

perhaps a more chaste and fruitful practice is to let women know life as it is early rather than to allow them the liberty to conjecture according to the freedom and heat of their fantasy. In place of the true organs, they substitute, by desire and hope, others that are three times more extravagant. And one man I know lost by having the measure of his revealed when it wasn’t yet right for being placed in position for its most serious use. What damage is done by those enormous portrayals {of penises} that children scatter in the halls and stairs of royal houses! From them comes a cruel misunderstanding of our natural endowment.

{ Que vouloit dire cette ridicule piece de la chaussure de nos peres, qui se voit encore en nos Souysses? A quoy faire la montre que nous faisons à cette heure de nos pieces en forme, soubs nos gregues et souvent, qui pis est, outre leur grandeur naturelle, par fauceté et imposture? Il me prend envie de croire que cette sorte de vestement fut inventée aux meilleurs et plus consciencieux siecles pour ne piper le monde, pour que chacun rendist en publiq et galamment conte de son faict. Les nations plus simples l’ont encore aucunement rapportant au vray. Lors on instruisoit la science de l’ouvrier, comme il se faict de la mesure du bras ou du pied. …

à l’avanture est-ce un plus chaste et fructueux usage de leur faire de bonne heure connoistre le vif que de le leur laisser deviner selon la liberté et chaleur de leur fantasie. Au lieu des parties vrayes, elles en substituent, par desir et par esperance, d’autres extravagantes au triple. Et tel de ma connoissance s’est perdu pour avoir faict la descouverte des sienes en lieu où il n’estoit encore au propre de les mettre en possession de leur plus serieux usage. Quel dommage ne font ces enormes pourtraicts que les enfans vont semant aux passages et escalliers des maisons Royalles? De là leur vient un cruel mespris de nostre portée naturelle. }[5]

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, men’s safety and health should be of paramount public concern. School and university officials must carefully monitor walls and stalls in bathrooms and throughout buildings to ensure that no graffiti harmful to men appears. Students should not be allowed to return to schools and universities until men’s safety and health can be assured. That’s what Montaigne would say to leading authorities on gender today.

*  *  *  *  *

Here’s my “life-loss-gender-COVID-19” data workbook (web-page version, online spreadsheet version, LibreOffice calc version download).

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[1] The risk of death from COVID-19 increases greatly with age: in the U.S., 58% of COVID-19 deaths have occurred among persons 75 years and older. That fact is relatively well-recognized, including on the U.S. CDC COVID Data Tracker. For all the relevant data on COVID-19 deaths by sex discussed in the above paragraph, see my “life-loss-gender-COVID-19” data workbook. The data are as reported by the US Centers for Disease Control on August 28, 2020.

[2] The page titled “Men, sex, gender and COVID-19” of The Sex, Gender and COVID-19 Project ignores the three key facts about the sex ratio of deaths from COVID-19. Moreover, its data tracker represents the simplistic death ratio as a linear bar chart. Compared to the death ratio, the bar chart tends to lessen perception of gender disparity.

The Sex, Gender and Covid-19 Project is a partnership of Global Health 50/50  (byline: “Towards Gender Equality in Global Health”), the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) {sic}, and the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC). The project is founded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Thus its gender bias in presenting the large gender inequality in COVID-19 deaths is consistent with Melinda Gates’s beliefs about COVID-19 and gender, as well as the titular focus of the International Center for Research on Women.

[3] Cox (2020). The subsequent quote is from Gates (2020). For Hawaii’s feminist economic recovery program, Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women (2020).

[4] Kamanga-Njikho & Tajik (2020). The two previous short quotes are from UNFPA (2020) and United Nations (2020).

[5] Michel de Montaigne, Essays {Essais} III.5, “On some lines of Virgil {Sur des vers de Virgile},” French text from the Villey & Saulnier (1965) version of the 1595 edition of Essais, my English translation benefiting from that of Screech (1993) p. 969-71.

Montaigne endured numerous plagues. Montaigne’s beloved friend, the poet Étienne de La Boétie, died from plague in 1563. While Montaigne served as major of Bordeaux, a plague in 1585 killed a third of Bordeaux’s people. Bratcher (2020).

[image] Portrait of Michel de Montaigne (cropped slightly). Painted in the 1570s. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Bratcher, Drew. 2020. “Sheltering in Place with Montaigne.” Arts & Culture, The Paris Review. Online, April 7, 2020.

Cox, Josie. 2020. “New Research Shows Covid-19’s Impact On Gender Inequality And Mothers’ Mental Health.” Forbes. Online, July 30, 2020.

Gates, Melinda. 2020. “The Pandemic’s Toll on Women: COVID-19 Is Gender-Blind, But Not Gender-Neutral.” Foreign Affairs. Online, July 15, 2020.

Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women. 2020. Building Bridges, Not Walking on Backs: A Feminist Economic Recovery Plan for COVID-19. Online, April 14, 2002.

Kamanga-Njikho, Veronica and Qandigul Tajik. 2020. “Female-headed households bear the brunt of Covid-19 as livelihood gaps increase.” UNICEF, South Asia. Afghanistan. Article. Online, April 21, 2020.

Screech, M. A., trans. 1993. Michel De Montaigne: the Complete Essays. London, England: Penguin Books.

UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund). 2020. “Putting the brakes on COVID-19: Safeguarding the health and rights of women and girls.” News. Online, July 11, 2020.

United Nations. 2020. “Secretary-General Calls for Global Ceasefire, Citing War-Ravaged Health Systems, Populations Most Vulnerable to Novel Coronavirus.” Secretary-General Press Release, SG/SM/20018. Online, 23 March 2020.