through labyrinths: medieval fullness of life and joy in creativity

labyrinth at Chatres Cathedral

In some cathedrals in medieval France from no later than the twelfth century, clergy on Easter Sunday danced and sang through a labyrinth pattern built into the floor of the cathedral’s nave. As they danced and sang they tossed balls among themselves. One ball perhaps represented the ball of tar that Theseus had stuffed into the mouth of the Minotaur. Another may have represented Ariadne’s ball of thread by which Theseus guided himself out of the labyrinth. Christians needed neither of those two balls. They had Christ, the fully human man who conquered the maze of life and death to save all persons. After this singing, dancing, and ball-tossing, all came together for a feast.[1] Thus they celebrating the joy of Easter.

Christians must be foolish to be one with Christ. Paul of Tarsus, who turned his life upside down, declared in his letter to the Corinthians:

For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. … Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the foolishness of what we preach to save those who believe.

{ Verbum enim crucis pereuntibus quidem stultitia est his autem qui salvi fiunt id est nobis virtus Dei est. … Ubi sapiens ubi scriba ubi conquisitor huius saeculi nonne stultam fecit Deus sapientiam huius mundi. Nam quia in Dei sapientia non cognovit mundus per sapientiam Deum placuit Deo per stultitiam praedicationis salvos facere credentes.

λόγος γὰρ ὁ τοῦ σταυροῦ τοῖς μὲν ἀπολλυμένοις μωρία ἐστίν τοῖς δὲ σῳζομένοις ἡμῖν δύναμις θεοῦ ἐστιν. … ποῦ σοφός ποῦ γραμματεύς ποῦ συζητητὴς τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου οὐχὶ ἐμώρανεν ὁ θεὸς τὴν σοφίαν τοῦ κόσμου. ἐπειδὴ γὰρ ἐν τῇ σοφίᾳ τοῦ θεοῦ οὐκ ἔγνω ὁ κόσμος διὰ τῆς σοφίας τὸν θεόν εὐδόκησεν ὁ θεὸς διὰ τῆς μωρίας τοῦ κηρύγματος σῶσαι τοὺς πιστεύοντας. } [2]

Paul described Christians as “fools for the sake of Christ {stulti propter Christum | ἡμεῖς μωροὶ διὰ Χριστόν}.” By today’s standards, medieval Christians were fools in diverse ways.

Though having relatively low official status, subdeacons in some medieval French churches had a feast celebrating their manly goodness. Subdeacons presided at the Feast of the Rod {festum baculi}. That feast typically was celebrated on the first of the year in conjunction with the Feast of the Circumcision. It included an outdoor procession led by a subdeacon “master of the rod {magister baculi}.” There was also a joyous choral dance. A leader of the Feast of the Rod, a subdeacon at the cathedral of Châlon, wrote a poem celebrating it about the year 1170:

The day has come,
friends, the cherished day.
Whatever others
do or want,
we the ring dance
lead with joy.

Before the rod,
the clergy with the people
exult today.

{ Adest dies
optata, socii.
Quidquid agant
et velint alii,
nos choream
ducamus gaudii.

Pro baculo
exsultet hodie
clerus cum populo. } [3]

Not all church officials cherished the subdeacons’ Feast of the Rod. A theologian in Paris, writing about 1162, referred to it informally as a feast of fools {festum stultorum}.[4] Ordinary men celebrating their intrinsic masculine goodness tend to be regarded as fools within gynocentric ideology.

In the twelfth century at the Beauvais cathedral, a feast celebrating the donkey, now known in English as the Feast of the Ass, was part of the evening liturgy the day before the Feast of the Rod. The celebration began with the choir singing at the cathedral’s entrance:

Light today, light of joy, banish from me every sorrow —
wherever it be, be it expelled from our solemnities tomorrow.
Today be envy far, far away from every breast —
all wish to be happy, honoring the donkey’s feast.

{ Lux hodie, lux laetitiae, me iudice tristis
quisquis erit removendus erit sollempnibus istis.
Sint hodie procul invidie, procul omnia mesta,
laeta volunt quicumque colunt asinaria festa. } [5]

The donkey represents the subdeacons and all the unheralded men who get their jobs done:

Out from the Orient
was the donkey sent,
beautiful and very strong was he,
bearing burdens skillfully.
Hey, hey, sir donkey, hey!

Here in the hills by Shechem bred,
then under Reuben nourishèd,
the River Jordan traversèd,
into Bethlehem he sped.
Hey, hey, sir donkey, hey!

Leaping higher than goats be bound,
discrediting even male roe deer,
he goes like swift Midian dromedaries,
but even speedier.
Hey, hey, sir donkey, hey!

While he drags long carriages
loaded down with much baggage,
that jawbone of his
vigorously grinds fodder.
Hey, hey, sir donkey, hey!

He eats ears of barley corn,
and wild thistle as well,
and wheat from the chaff
he separates on threshing floor.
Hey, hey, sir donkey, hey!

Amen you would say, ass,
now sated with hay-grass,
amen, amen, you say again,
you cast off ancient sin.
Hey ho, hey ho, hey ho hey,
fair you are, sir donkey, for you go all day,
fair your mouth, for your singing bray!

{ Orientis partibus
adventavit asinus,
pulcher et fortissimus,
sarcinis aptissimus.
Hez hez sire asnes hez.

Hic in collibus Sichen
iam nutritus sub Ruben
transiit per Iordanem
saliit in Bethlehem
Hez hez sire asnes hez.

Saltu vincit hynnulos,
damnas et capreolos,
super dromedarios
velox madianeos.
Hez hez sire asnes hez.

Dum trahit vehicula
multa cum sarcinula
illius mandibula
dura terit pabula.
Hez hez sire asnes hez.

Cum aristis ordeum
comedit et carduum,
triticum ex palea
segregat in area.
Hez hez sire asnes hez.

Amen dicas, asine,
iam satur ex gramine,
amen amen itera,
aspernare vetera.
Hez va hez va hez va hez
biax sire asnes car allez
bele bouche car chantez. } [6]

The male donkey has long been recognized to have impressive masculinity. When the donkey entered the Beauvais cathedral as part of sacred medieval liturgy, no one would have thought of Nigel of Canterbury’s Mirror of Fools {Speculum stultorum}. The Feast of the Ass would have been a time of joyfully raised self-esteem for the men in the cathedral and the women who love them.

The Feast of the Rod and the Feast of the Ass were official liturgical events that turned the gynocentric world upside-down in celebrating the goodness of men who lack distinguished achievement. Yet church officials didn’t always live up to the gospel’s overturning of worldly values and worldly hierarchies. Medieval money gospels parodied such failures. From no later than the early thirteenth century, the Holy Gospel according to marks of silver {Sanctus evangelium secundum marcas argenti} begins:

At that time the pope said to the Romans: “When the Son of man comes to the seat of our majesty, first say to him: ‘Friend, why have you come?’ If he persists in knocking at the gate without offering you anything, throw him out into the outer darkness.” Now it came to pass that a certain poor cleric came to the Curia of the Lord Pope. The poor cleric cried aloud, saying: “Take pity on me, you who are the pope’s gatekeepers, because the hand of poverty has touched me. I am poor and in need; for this reason I ask you to come to my assistance in my calamity and misfortune.” The gatekeepers, however, when they heard this, were very indignant and said: “Friend, to Hell with you and your poverty. Get you behind me Satan, because you do not smell like money. Truly, truly, I say to you, you will not enter the joy of your master until you have given your last penny.”

{ In illo tempore: dixit papa Romanis: “Cum venerit filius hominis ad sedem maiestatis nostrae, primum dicite: ‘Amice, ad quid venisti?’ At ille si perseveraverit pulsans, nil dans vobis, eicite eum in tenebras exteriores.’ Factum est autem, ut quidam pauper clericus veniret ad Curiam Domini Pape, et exclamavit dicens: “Miseremini mei saltem vos, ostiarii papae, quia manus paupertatis tetigit me. Ego vero egenus et pauper sum; ideo peto ut subveniatis calamitati et miseriae meae.” Illi autem audientes indignati sunt valde et dixerunt: “Amice, paupertas tua tecum sit in perditionae. Vade retro, satanas, quia non sapis ea, quae sapiunt nummi. Amen, amen, dico tibi: non intrabis in gaudium domini tui, donec dederis novissimum quadrantem.” } [7]

In Luke’s Gospel, the parable of the widow and the unjust judge is followed by Jesus’s question, “When the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” This money gospel suggests that he wouldn’t find faith in the Roman Curia. Jesus taught that for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. That’s not possible without money in the money gospel. “Get behind me Satan” is what Jesus said to Peter when Peter sought to act in a worldly way. The money gospel directs that phrase at a poor man lacking the worldly value of money. In a gospel parable, servants are invited to enter the joy of their master because they have been faithful in small things. Their master promises to put them in charge of great things. In the money gospel, the Roman Curia, in charge of great things, hasn’t been faithful even in small things.[8] Like requiring men to achieve in order to be regarded as virtuous, love of money fundamentally contradicts Jesus’s teachings.

Medieval nonsense centos show learned knowledge of scripture and joy in outrageous acts of creativity. They have none of the serious concerns of the money gospels and Ausonius’s Wedding Cento {Cento nuptialis}. For example, in a medieval nonsense cento two woman prostitutes accused Salomon and a prelate of wronging them. The prelate called out to those in the house for help:

And a person from within responds, saying, “Do not trouble me; the door is now shut and my children aren’t present. Go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.” And so when they were going to buy, the queen of the south of that end came out to draw water. But a young woman also came out. She was beautiful of face and splendid in appearance. No man had ever ridden her, except a hundred and forty-four thousand out of every nation under heaven. And she kissed him and said, “What further need do we have of witnesses?”

{ Et ille de intus respondit dicens: “Iam hostium meum clausum est et pueri mei non comparent. Ite pocius ad uendentes et emite uobis.” Unde cum irent emere uenit regina austri a finibus illis egresa haurire aquam. Erat autem puella pulchra facie et decora aspectu super quam nullus hominum sedebat nis centum quadraginta milia hominum ex omni natione que sub celo est. Et osculatus est eam et dixit: “Quid adhuc egemus testibus?” } [9]

This short passage is constructed from twelve snippets from the Latin Bible translation known as the Vulgate. It makes nonsense of the Christian teaching that Christians should be known by their love for one another.

Medieval men used biblical texts in unauthorized ways to express their great love for women. A verse of a psalm expresses gratitude for the steadfast love of the Lord:

When the anxieties within me are many, your consolations delight my soul.

{ In multitudine cogitationum mearum quae sunt in me intrinsecus consolationes tuae delectabunt animam meam.

בְּרֹ֣ב שַׂרְעַפַּ֣י בְּקִרְבִּ֑י תַּ֝נְחוּמֶ֗יךָ יְֽשַׁעַשְׁע֥וּ נַפְשִֽׁי }

A medieval men’s prayer “for the feminine sex {pro femineo sexu}” with similar language expressed gratitude to women:

Their delights have given joy to our souls.

{ Delectationes eorum laetificaverunt animos nostros. } [10]

Another verse of a psalm tells of the value of sons within historically entrenched exploitation of men in violence against men:

Blessed is the man who has filled his quiver with them. He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies at the city gate.

{ Beatus vir qui implevit faretram suam ex ipsis non confundentur cum loquentur inimicis in porta.

אַשְׁרֵ֤י הַגֶּ֗בֶר אֲשֶׁ֤ר מִלֵּ֥א אֶת־אַשְׁפָּתֹ֗ו מֵ֫הֶ֥ם
לֹֽא־יֵבֹ֑שׁוּ כִּֽי־יְדַבְּר֖וּ אֶת־אֹויְבִ֣ים בַּשָּֽׁעַר }

Another medieval men’s prayer “for the feminine sex {pro femineo sexu}” draws upon that psalm verse to declare:

Blessed is the man who has filled his desire with them. He shall not be frustrated eternally.

{ Beatus vir qui implevit desiderium suum ex ipsis non confundentur in eternum. } [11]

Using a similar technique of misapplication, Peter Abelard brazenly wrote to Heloise:

Because we do not follow the Lord’s commandment unless we love one another, we should obey divine Scripture.

{ Quia mandatum domini non observamus, nisi dilectionem ad invicem habeamus, oportet nos divine scripture obedire. } [12]

Abelard misapplied Jesus’s new commandment to imply that Heloise and he should have sex. Actually, what “love one another” means in specific circumstances often isn’t clear.

Some mischievous medieval thinkers interpreted “love one another” very literally. They took that commandment to concern the Christian disciple Invicem (One-Another):

Note that blessed Paul had a certain disciple, very distinguished, whom he wished to give over to religious life. There he might serve God and be saved from the shipwreck of this world. He was called One-Another. Contemplating the fact that he wanted to enter the monastery, the monastic brothers argued to blessed Paul against the ways and deeds of One-Another. They cited Matthew 14: They hated One-Another so they betrayed One-Another. Since in such a monastery iniquity abounded and the charity of many had grown cold, the blessed Paul, hoping nevertheless that they would show him favor out of love for himself, wanted One-Another to be accepted. Blessed Paul wrote the words set forth: Receive One-Another. And that is what is written. And he asked them to be friendly and gentle with him, Ephesians 4: Be friendly and merciful to One-Another. Second, he asked them to give comfort to him, 1 Thessalonians 5: Comfort and build up One-Another. Third, he asked them to show reverence to him, Ephesians 5: Be subject to One-Another in the fear of Christ, and Philippians 2: judging One-Another superior. Fourth, blessed Paul asked them to provide agreeable recreation for him, Philippians 2: Showing hospitality toward One-Another without murmuring. Fifth, he asked them to be courteous with gifts and goods for him, Revelations 4: Send gifts to One-Another. Shortly thereafter blessed Paul left them, but he did not forget One-Another, but rather, whenever he preached he thoughtfully had prayers said for him by the church, James 5: Pray for One-Another that you may be saved. Likewise whenever he sent a message he gave greetings to One-Another, 1 Corinthians 12: Greet One-Another. Likewise he always commended him to his brethren and friends in letters, John 15: I give a commandment unto you, that you love One-Another.

{ Notandum quod beatus Paulus habuit quendam discipulum valde discretum quem tradere voluit religioni, ut ibi deo ministraret et a mundi naufragio servaretur, quique Invicem vocabatur. Considerantes autem fratres monasterii quod monasterium intrare volebat, modum et gestum predicti Invicem desuaserunt beato Paulo, dicentes illud Mathei xiiii: Odio habuerunt Invicem ut Invicem traderent. Et quia in tali monasterio habundavit iniquitas et refriguit caritas multorum, nichilominus sperans beatus Paulus quod amore ipsius gratum eum haberent, volens quod retineretur, scripsit verba proposita: Suscipite Invicem. Quod et scriptum est. Et rogavit eos ut familiares et mansueti sibi essent, ad Ephesios iiii: Estote Invicem mansueti et misericordes. Secundo rogavit eos ut consolacionem ei facerent, 1 ad Tessalonicenses v: Consolamini et edificate Invicem. Tertio rogavit eos ut ei reverentiam exhiberent, ad Ephesios v: Subditi estote Invicem in timore Christi, ad Philippenses ii: Superiorem Invicem arbitrantes. Quarto rogavit eos beatus Paulus ut sibi bonas recreaciones facerent, ad Philippenses ii: Hospitales estote Invicem sine murmuratione. Quinto rogavit eos ut de muneribus et de peculiis sibi curiales essent, Apocalipsis iiii: Munera mittent Invicem. Postmodum decescit ab eis beatus Paulus nec prefatum discipulum suum oblivioni dedit, ymo quandocumque predicabat pro eo orationes fieri ab ecclesia [ad] sollicite procuravit, Iacob v: Orate pro Invicem ut salvemini. Item quandocumque nuntium habebat semper eum salutabat, 1 ad Corinthios xii: Salutate Invicem. Item sepe ipsum fratribus et amicis per litteras commendavit, Iohannis xv: Hec mando vobis, ut diligatis Invicem. } [13]

Even more famous than Paul’s disciple Invicem was the great medieval saint Nemo (Nobody):

This blessed Nobody is contemporaneous with God the Father, and in essence particularly like the Son, as he was neither created nor begotten but proceeds forth in Holy Scripture. That is set forth fully by the psalmist, who says: Days shall be formed, and Nobody shall be in them. Afterward, to him such authority justly accrued, with such great merit, that as if spurning earthly things, he ascended to the heights of heaven in miraculous flight. Thus it is read: Nobody has ascended into heaven. The Lord himself testifies to this, saying: Nobody can come to me. When this most holy Nobody ascended into heaven, as it is said, he saw the pure, complete, and simultaneously threefold Godhead himself, as it is read: Nobody has seen God. That this Nobody has seen God the Gospel gives witness, as it is read: Nobody knows the Son, and elsewhere: Nobody is speaking to the Holy Spirit.

{ Beatus igitur Nemo iste contemporaneus dei patris et in essentia precipue consimilis filio, velut nec creatus nec genitus sed procedens in sacra pagina reperitur, in qua plene dictum est per psalmistam dicentem: Dies formabuntur et Nemo in eis. Cui postea merito tanta crevit auctoritas ut, ac si terrena respuens, ad celorum culmina volatu mirabili pervolavit, sicut legitur: Nemo ascendit in celum. Et hoc idem testatur dominus, dicens: Nemo potest venire ad me. Qui, dum celum ascenderet, ut dictum est, deitatem puram et integram et insimul trinitatem vidit ibidem sanctissimus Nemo, sicut legitur: Nemo deum vidit. Quod deum vidisset iste Nemo, evangelium protestatur, sicut legitur: Nemo novit filium, et alibi: Nemo loquens in spiritu sancto. } [14]

Such has been Nobody’s influence that people around the world still seek to find him and enjoy him. Not surprisingly, when released in 2003, the blockbuster movie Finding Nemo became the high-grossing animated film of all time.

Medieval thinkers had more important concerns than mere theatrical entertainment. They valued logic, reasoning, and men’s welfare as well as women’s welfare. One wrote on the bottom margin of a sermon on Nobody:

This Nobody was, moreover, of such great strength that he bit No-One in the balls, about which the logicians have a saying, namely, No-One and Nobody bite themselves in the balls.

{ Fuit autem tante fortitudinis ille Nemo quod mordebat Nullum in sacco, de quo loyci ponunt exemplum, scilicet Nullus et Nemo mordent se in sacco. } [15]

Violence against men’s genitals, appallingly celebrated in Super Bowl commercials, should condemned. Meninism is the radical notion that men are human beings. No human being should be subject to sexual violence. Therefore, no man should be subject to sexual violence. It’s logically that simple.

Aspiring to the fullness of life, the human heart restlessly seeks the joy of unlimited creativity. Literary use of nobody is attested as far back as Odysseus calling himself Nobody {Οὖτις} in seeking to escape from the Cyclops Polyphemus in the Odyssey.[16] Nobody would engage in cultural appropriation to challenge gynocentrism today for fear of social mobbing and a chorus of flesh-bots name-calling. To the center of the medieval labyrinth may this broken road lead.

labyrinth in Grace Cathedral

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[1] The first undisputable reference to such a “ball game {ludus pilae}” is by the French liturgist and theologian John Beleth in his Compendium of Church Liturgy {Summa de ecclesiasticis officiis}, written between 1160 and 1164. Honorius of Autun, who lived from about 1080 to 1154, may have referred to such a ball game in his early-twelfth-century work, Gem of the Soul {Gemma animae}. Mews (2009), Harris (2011) Ch. 5. Writing about 1200, Bishop Secard of Cremona in his Orders for Liturgy {Mitralis de officio} referred to bishops and clerics engaging in the “game of circular dance or ball {ludus choreae vel pilae}” as part of “December freedom {decembrica libertate}.” Mews (2009) p. 513. On December freedom, cf. Horace, Carmina 2.7. Clerical dance apparently was performed in the Cathedral of Sens in the thirteenth century. Rievallensis (2019). On the meaning and use of labyrinths on medieval church floors, Mews (2009) pp. 516-22, Harris (2011) p. 59 (which provides the interpretation of the balls above).

Surviving floor labyrinths in French cathedrals date from the twelfth or thirteenth centuries. Theseus and the Minotaur were depicted at the labyrinth center, perhaps representing Christ and the Devil, respectively. Mews (2009) p. 517. The Minotaur-Devil was born of Pasiphae having sex with a bull. Of course, having the public propaganda apparatus widely disseminate “teach women not to have sex with bulls” would be hateful and ridiculous.

[2] 1 Corinthians 1:18, 20-21. The subsequent quote is from 1 Corinthians 4:10. The original languages of the Christian Bible are Hebrew, Greek, and a few words of Aramaic. Almost all clerics in medieval Europe knew the Bible only in Latin, almost wholly through Jerome’s translation (the Vulgate). I have thus included the Vulgate translation above and in subsequent biblical quotes.

[3] Stanza 1 and refrain of poem by Guy of Bazoches, from The Book of the Letter of Guy of Bazoches {Liber epistularum Geuidonis de Basochis} (Adolfsson, 1969) 22 (also printed in Raby, Oxford Book of Medieval Latin Verse, pp. 259-61), Latin text via Harris (2011) p. 70, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. The poem has a total of six stanzas, with the “Pro baculo” refrain following each.

The “master of the rod {magister baculi}” took over some of the cantor’s authority during the Feast of the Rod. His cermonial rod was made of wood, painted, and topped with an ivory apple. In Châlons in 1410, this beautiful rod was explicitly described as the rod of the Feast of Fools. Harris (2011) p. 69. The liturgy for the Feast of the Rod probably included Luke 2:23: “Every male who opens the womb will be called sacred to the Lord {omne masculinum adaperiens vulvam sanctum Domino vocabitur}.” On widely differing interpretations of that passage, Huot (1997) p. 67. The Feast of the Rod was an important counterpoint to the medieval Romance of the Rose.

[4] John Beleth, Summa de ecclesiasticis officiis, quoted in Harris (2011) p. 66. The feast of the subdeacons {festum subdiaconorum}, the feast of the Rod {festum baculi} and the feast of fools {festum stultorum} seem to have all referred to the same feast.

[5] Latin text from Harris (2011) p. 76, my English translation, benefiting from that in id. This hymn was performed in a festival of medieval lessons and carols at Saint Christopher’s Episcopal Church (Roseville, Minnesota) on Dec. 8, 2013. But Saint Christiopher’s Church replaced “donkey {asinaria}” in the original hymn with “sanctified {consecratus}.” In Latin, the Feast of the Ass is known as Festum asinorum or Asinaria festa. That might be better translated as the Feast of the Donkey.

[6] Latin text from Harris (2011) pp. 76-7, my English translation, benefiting from that in id. “Orientis partibus” is a twelfth-century conductus attributed to Pierre de Corbeil, Bishop of Sens. It became widely known, particularly in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Germany. Here’s an adapted modern English version. This conductus survives with a melody. Here’s an excellent performance with the original Latin words. A performance of an adapted English version is also freely accessible. The Feast of the Ass was performed at the thirteenth-century Cathedral at Sens, with “Orientis partibus” used as the conductus. Balbulus (2019).

In addition to relatively liberal freedom of speech, medieval Europe was also relatively liberal with respect to liturgy:

medieval notions of what was proper to corporate cathedral worship differed greatly from our own: until very recently, we were far more restrained.

Harris (2011) p. 62. Id. documents that the Feast of Fools was an authorized, organized, and institutionalized aspect of medieval liturgy. A modern jest: “Question: What’s the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? Answer: You can negotiate with a terrorist.”

[7] Carmina Burana 44, “Gospel {Ewangelium}” ll. 1-13, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly to enhance readability for the general reader) from Traill (2018) v. 1, pp. The Carmina Burana was put together about the year 1230. Id. p. ix. For other medieval Latin money gospels, with Engish translation, Bayless (1996) Appendices 8 & 9. Id. also provides another medieval Latin money gospel (text 2) and a money grammar (text 14), both without English translation.

Lehmann (1963) provides 22 parodic medieval Latin texts. However, “Lehmann’s references are frequently both inadequate and unreliable.” Bayless (1996) p. 16. The references in both Bayless (1996) and Bayless (2018) are learned, thorough, and highly specific, including distinguishing variants in particular manuscripts.

[8] Cf. Luke 18:8 (son of man coming), Matthew 7:7 and Luke 11:9 (knock and the door will be opened), and Matthew 25:23 (enter the joy of the master).

[9] “Nothing is made from nothing… {Ex nichilo nichil fit…}” (medieval nonsense cento) ll. 43-50, Latin text from Bayless (2018) p. 45, my English translation. The manuscript source is Munich, Universitätsbibliothek 8° Cod. ms. 352, fol. 146rv. That manuscript is from the last third of the fifteenth century. Id. p. 42. Jesus commands Christians to testify to being his disciples by showing their love for one another. John 13:35.

[10] “Prayers of the priest’s housekeeper {Preces famulae sacerdotis}” 34, Latin text from Walther (1931) pp. 349-55, via Bayless (1996) p. 174; my English translation benefiting from that of id.

The source verse quoted previously is Psalm 94:19. All my biblical references are with respect to standard, modern bibles. References to Psalms in the Vulgate (Bayless’s references) are usually one less.

[11] “Preces famulae sacerdotis” 60, sourced as previously. The biblical source is Psalm 127:5.

[12] Letters of Two Lovers {Epistolae duorum amantium} 52 (man to woman) excerpt, Latin text of Ewald Könsgen from Mews (1999) p. 258, my English translation benefiting from that of Newman (2016) p. 153. For the commandment to love one another, John 13:34, Romans 13:8. The great twelfth-century rhetor Boncompagno da Signa taught similar use of biblical texts for amorous purposes.

Whether the two lovers of Epistolae duorum amantium were Heloise and Peter Abelard has been the subject of vigorous debate among scholars. See note [3] in my post concerning literary competition between Heloise and Abelard. I think it’s more probable than not that they were the two lovers writing those letters.

[13] “Receive One-Another {Suscipte Invicem}…” (Short Invicem: The Hamburg Recension) ll. 1-24, Latin text from Bayless (1996) p. 316, English translation from id. p. 318, with my changes for ease of reading. The manuscript source is Hamburg, Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek MS Petri 22, fol. 260rv. That manuscript was written in 1435. Id. p. 316.

Other versions of the life of Paul’s disciple Invicem exist. One is the “Long Invicem,” attested in Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek MS clm. 10751. That manuscripts was written in 1575. Bayless (1996) pp. 311-5 gives the Latin text and an English translation. Bayless (2018), text 10, is an additional life of Invicem from Besançon, Bibliothèque Municipale 592, written about 1450.

[14] “Here begins the life of the most holy and most glorious Nobody {Incipit vita sanctissimi et gloriosissimi Neminis}…” (Long Nemo, second recension) ll. 14-24, Latin text from Bayless (1996) p. 260, English translation from id. p. 281, with my modifications. Id. provides edited texts and translations of another three Nemo’s. Bayless (2018), texts 8 & 9, includes two additional Nemo’s.

The Long Nemo dates from no later than the thirteenth century. In 1290, a certain Stephen wrote a long work concerning it: The refutation of the abominable sermon put forth by Radulph, about a certain Nobody, heretic and damned, according to Stephen of Saint George, defender of the Christian faith {Reprobatio nefandi sermonis editi per Radulphum de quodam Nemine heretico et dampnato, secundum Stephanum de Sancto Georgio christianefidei defensorem}. Bayless commented:

Stephen’s very peculiar document, much longer than the original Nemo text, first explains that Nemo is not a real person, but goes on to prove that the saint is actually a sinner and heretic, supported by its own army of quotations. The Reprobatio {Refutation} against Nemo is thus either a clumsy piece of satire or the work of an idiot; critics have reached no consensus.

Bayless (2018) p. 61.

[15] Marginal note on bottom of “Short Nemo” Salzburg, Bibliothek der Erzabtei St. Peter MS b.V.15 (Bayless MS S), fol. 231r, Latin text from Bayless (1996) p. 294, English translation from id. p. 302, with my modifications. In particular, I interpret the first nullum as “No-One.”

[16] Odyssey 9.366-460. The Odyssey, attributed to Homer, was written about 2700 years ago.

[images] (1) Persons walking the labyrinth on the floor in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres (Chartres Cathedral), which was build between 1194 and 1220. Source image via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Labyrinth in Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. That cathedral was built in stages between 1928 and 1964. Its labyrinth is based on that one at Chartres. Source image by David Clay via Wikimedia Commons. Here’s an image of the labyrinth’s pattern, and one showing its center today.


Balbulus, Notkerus. 2019. “New Years with the Canons of Sens (1).” Canticum Salomonis, online Dec. 31.

Bayless, Martha. 1996. Parody in the Middle Ages: the Latin tradition. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Bayless, Martha, ed. 2018. Fifteen Medieval Latin Parodies. Toronto Medieval Latin Texts, 35. Toronto, Canada: Published for the Centre for Medieval Studies by the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies.

Harris, Max. 2011. Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Huot, Sylvia. 1997. Allegorical Play in the Old French Motet: The Sacred and the Profane in Thirteenth-Century Polyphony. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Lehmann, Paul. 1963. Die Parodie im Mittelalter. 2nd edition. Stuttgart: Hiersemann. First edition: v. 1 (1922), Die Parodie im Mittelalter; v. 2 (1923), Parodistische Texte: Beispiele zur lateinischen Parodie im Mittelaltersource texts.

Mews, Constant J. 1999. The Lost Love letters of Heloise and Abelard: perceptions of dialogue in twelfth-century France. Houndmills: Macmillan.

Mews, Constant J. 2009. “Liturgists and Dance in the Twelfth Century: The Witness of John Beleth and Sicard of Cremona.” Church History. 78 (3): 512-548.

Newman, Barbara. 2016. Making Love in the Twelfth Century: Letters of two lovers in context. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Rievallensis, Aelredus. 2019. “Ecclesia Saltans (1): A New Document Bearing on Ecclesiastical Dance, by Jacques Chailley.” Online at Canticum Salomonis, Nov. 27.

Traill, David A. 2018, ed. and trans. Carmina Burana. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 48-49. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Walther, Hans. 1931. “Parodistische Gebete der Pfarrköchin in einer Züricher Handschrift.” Studi Medievali. n.s. 4: 344-57.

men’s imaginary delights in creation prevail against love pain

lush, moist valley

Ah, pain, true companion of love,
whose ills I can ill assuage,
do you have a cure?
Pain besets me, and no wonder,
for here and now, grim exile
calls me from my beloved,
whose praiseworthiness is unique.
Paris would not have chosen Helen
as his partner over her.

So why complain that I will be
far from her who haughtily rejects
me, her devoted servant,
her whose name is so revered
that I must not presume
to name her?
Thanks to this misdeed of mine,
she often looks at me with a face
such as she directs at no one else.

{ O comes amoris, dolor,
cuius mala male solor,
an habes remedium?
Dolor urget me, nec mirum,
quem a praedilecta dirum,
en, vocat exilium:
cuius laus est singularis,
pro qua non curasset Paris
Helenae consortium.

Sed quid queror me remotum
illi fore, quae devotum
me fastidit hominem,
cuius nomen tam verendum
quod nec michi praesumendum
est, ut eam nominem?
Ob quam causam mei mali
me frequenter vultu tali
respicit, quo neminem. }

Difficulties and disappointments fill men’s lives. Even while being beaten down under gynocentrism, some men refuse to relinquish their capacity to dream.  Even as they suffer under senseless one-itis, nothing is more prevalent in men’s dreams than the delights of creation. So it was for this medieval man:

I love her, her alone,
who has caught me on her hook,
but she does not love me back.
A kind of valley nourishes her,
like, I would think, a paradise,
in which the blessed Creator has
placed this about-to-create —
she bright of face, pure of soul —
my heart calls creation forth.

Rejoice, exalted valley,
valley with roses garlanded,
valley, the flower of valleys,
among valleys a valley unique!
Sun and moon and sweet song of birds
unite in praising you.
The nightingale too sings your praises,
sweet and delightful valley,
bearing solace to those who are sad.

{ Ergo solus sola amo,
cuius captus sum ab hamo,
nec vicem reciprocat.
Quam enutrit vallis quaedam,
quam ut paradisum credam,
in qua pius collocat
hanc creator creaturam,
vultu claram, mente puram,
quam cor meum invocat.

Gaude, vallis insignita,
vallis rosis redimita,
vallis, flos convallium,
inter valles vallis una,
quam collaudat sol et luna,
dulcis cantus avium!
Te collaudat philomena,
vallis dulcis et amena,
maestis dans solacium. }

The third verse of the third stanza ends with the man’s disappointment in not being loved as he loves. Moses sensed God in a burning bush. This man’s imagination miraculously continued to burn for the woman’s procreative place. She was bright of face and pure of soul, and most likely a debt-free virgin without tattoos. Her place of creation is surely like a paradise that nourishes humans.

Sometimes benefiting from the aid of the male gaze, men with their vibrant and dynamic imaginations even in disappointment call forth to their hearts women’s procreative place. That lush and fecund valley, that channel of life, has been praised in literature throughout history while men’s penises have been disparaged. Gender bias against men is pervasive and must be thoroughly penetrated and criticized.

The last three verses of the last stanza modulate from joyously praising the woman’s valley to the sadness of solace not received. Not all women are like that. The singing nightingale has been socially constructed as female — Philomela waging symbolic war on men. Let her sing and praise her own vagina in vagina monologues. In the real, natural world, even amid pain and sadness, male nightingales sing to females.

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The above poem is from the Carmina Burana, a mainly Latin songbook copied about the year 1230. The complete poem of four stanzas is Carmina Burana 8 (supplement), while Carmina Burana 111 as copied into the manuscript includes only stanzas 1 and 4. The Latin text above is from Traill (2018) v. 2, pp. 36-8, which presents the medieval text with classical Latin spelling for greater accessibility. I have made a few insubstantial modifications to Traill’s editorial presentation of the Latin text.

The English translation above is Traill’s, with my modifications according to my sense of the Latin poetry and of the most poetic, but faithful, English translation. My most significant changes from Traill’s translation are in stanza 3. Traill noted with respect to verse 3.9:

The quam must refer to the woman. However, at 4.1 it is the valley that is invoked, thus blending woman and valley.

Id. p. 629. He further observed:

The idealized valley, which is the focus of stanzas 3 and 4, suggests, allegorically, the beloved’s virginity.

Id. The valley figure seems to me to be more specifically corporal. My translation of stanza 3 reflects my understanding of the valley as a vitally important part of the woman’s body. My translation benefited from the help of a world-renowned philologist, who of course deserves no blame for my peculiar perspectives.

Traill’s translation of comes as “true companion” in 1.1 is insightful. That translation doesn’t just function to give the translated line four beats. Comes is associated in medieval Latin with comitatus, a group of warriors who were closely associated with a leader and pledged to give their lives in service to him.

The medieval Latin word philomena came to mean nightingale from the classical Latin Philomela, which referred to the daughter of the King of Athens and the sister of Procne. Procne’s husband King Tereus inflicted horrific and highly unusual violence on Philomela.  She subsequently turned into a nightingale. In referring to a nightingale, medieval Latin commonly uses philomena rather than the classical Latin word for nightingale, luscinia. As philomena exemplifies, men’s gender subordination is enacted in part through the social construction of language itself.

[image] Lush valley. Source photo by Collin Xu on Unsplash under the permissive Unsplash license.


Traill, David A. 2018, ed. and trans. Carmina Burana. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 48-49. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

medieval monk castrated for adultery; husband doesn’t punish wife

Jesus forgiving woman caught in adultery

A medieval monk was full of pride and gluttony. He also had strong, independent sexuality. One day a nobleman’s wife caught his eye:

he sees a woman adorned with jewels and enveloped in various robes, ornamented on all sides like a temple. Although her face was fading with old age, she helps herself with cosmetics, and she doesn’t judge it to be grasping to regard herself as equal to a virgin upon which no man has ridden. Her hair is the hair of Apollo, although she has taken care to curl hers with a curling-iron, and she has turned to saffron for her blonde hair-color. Her forehead is constructed lily-white, although I trust very little in lily that doesn’t reign beyond where the cosmetic ointment ends. Her eyebrows are arched, although God has frequently arisen to help with tweezing them. Her eyes are doves’ eyes, although the blink of her little eye accomplishes proof of a shameless heart. Her face has a yellow-brown appearance, although now the intentional brightness of its brightness is the guilty blush of blush. Her rosy lips swell slightly, although they glow life-like colored with lipstick, and her teeth rattle in her old cheeks.

{ vidit mulierem ornatam monilibus circumamictam varietatibis compositam et circumornatam, ut similitudo templi. Que tamen senio antiquata arte iuvat faciem nec rapinam arbitrata est se esse equalem virgini, super quam nullus hominum sedit. Crines eius crines Apollinis, sed tamen calamistro crispari studuit, de colore crocum consuluit; frons candore lilia figurat, sed tamen fido parum de tali lilio quo non regnat, cum cessat unctio; arcuata sunt supercilia, sed tamen frequenter es depilatorium surgit Deus in adiutorium; oculi sui oculi columbarum, sed tamen est patrantis ocelli fractio impudici cordis argumentatio. Et erat facies electri species, et tamen candor hic candoris conscius et rubori rubor obnoxius et tument modice labella rosea, sed tamen suffuso minio in vita rutilant et dentes veterum genarum ratilant. } [1]

This woman’s wasn’t as fair as the moon. She didn’t shine like the dawn. There were flaws in her. Yet living in their disadvantaged circumstances, men are charitable about women’s flaws. This monk was:

The monk sees her and covets her. He comes to her and says: “Lady, after I saw you, my heart flowed into my belly like liquid wax, because your face ignites my soul. And so, lady, help me. I am being tortured in this flame.

{ Monachus vidit et invidit, accessit et dixit: “Domina postquam vidi te, factum est cor meum tanquam cera liquescens in medio ventris mei, quia facies tua incendit animam meam, set tu domina succurre mihi, quia crucior in hac flamma.” }

If today a man were to say to a woman that her hair is like a flock of goats moving down the slopes of a mountain, she might immediately run off and report him to the relevant authority for dehumanizing her. Medieval women were more understanding and appreciative. This medieval woman also knew what she wanted and knew her worth:

She remains standing there and says to him: “How sweet is your lips’ eloquence, sweeter than honey to my mouth. If you would balance your words with your deeds, I would comply with your instructions and not reject your presents.” She is intensely pitying, bearing openly her loving, lascivious flesh.

{ Que stetit et ait: “Quam dulcia faucibus meis eloquia tua super mel ori meo. Si dictis facta compenses, tuis obtemperabo mandatis nec renuntiabo muneribus.” Erat enim valde compatiens et super lascivos pia gestans viscera. }

The monk enthusiastically consented to the woman’s charitable and commercial proposition. He told her:

I swear to you once with the pledge of my faith. I will not make void that which proceeds from my lips. Your right hand will be filled with presents, because I am rich in farmland, rich in money placed in usury, and my substance in land below and my possessions are beyond numbering. My storerooms are full, from them so bursting forth that the sheep in my pastures are pregnant, and my cattle are fat. I will gave you money inestimable, if at night you will fulfill my heart, because I long for love.

{ Semel iurabo tibi in fidei pignore, quia que procedunt de labiis meis non faciam irrita. Dextera tua repleta erit muneribus, quia ego dives sum agris, dives positus in fenore nummis et substancia mea in inferioribus terre et possessionis mee non est numerus, promptuaria mea plena, eructancia ex hoc in illud, oves mee fetose in egressibus suis, boves mee crasse. Numerabo tibi pecuniam inestimabilem, si nocte adimpleveris vota cordis mei, quia amore langueo. } [2]

The monk was eager to enlarge the woman. Yet she was perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting he might offer:

She truly keeps all these words within her heart. “What you ask,” she says, “I will do.”

{ Illa vero conservabat omnia verba hoc conferens in corde suo. “Quod petis” inquit, “faciam.” }

She then declared that she would get her husband drunk at dinner. She told the monk that, when darkness covers the day, he should come to her with watchful eye and careful step. She also instructed him to bring her presents. The monk was happy that his joy would be hers. He explained that he was going away. She would no longer see him, and then she would see him again. Their desires at that time would be fulfilled. They parted with a kiss.

The woman, an experienced and knowledgeable lover, knew that equivocation can increase the delight of love under a legal regime in which men don’t have to fear absurd rape charges. She didn’t let her yes mean yes, and her no mean no. When the monk came to her burning with passion, she took him by the hand, hugged him, and led him to her bed. Then she trembled, stepped back, and whispered to him:

Your religion is an abomination to me, and my soul hates your habit, because if I undergo you in bed, Hell is my home. Therefore I don’t want to be one with you.

{ Religio tua abominatio est mihi et habitum hunc odivit anima mea, quia si sustinuero te, infernus domus mea est et ideo nolo tibi commisceri. } [3]

Today’s heirs to Ovid’s art call such a response a “shit test.” The monk responded satisfactorily:

Lady, if you loath this work, take this little sack of ten marks as the price for your work. If you oppose religion, be underneath me, and I will place myself between you and God.

{ Domina, si laborem fastidis, accipe forulum hunc decem marcarum laboris precium. Si religionem causaris, subiecta esto michi et ego ponam me inter te et Deum. }

With respect to the troubled woman, the monk interceded with his sack and his body. Their tryst was thus saved:

Having perceived the amount that he gives, she is truly satisfied and says: “Lord, do not reject this work, your will be done, enter into the joy of your lady.” He thus tests her once, twice, a third time, and a fourth, and no grumbling is heard, nor complaint, but in his possession of her body, she throws herself to the direction of the work of darkness, and so puts on the armor of love-play. And thus the two are grinding into one flesh in one bed in this night, one being taken and the other being left behind.

{ Illa vero satisdatione percepta dedit copiam sui et dixit: “Domine, non recuso laborem, fiat voluntas tua, intra in gaudium domine tue.” Eaque semel temptata secundo, tercio et quarto, non murmur resonat nec querimonia, sed in corporalem possessionem missus adicit opera tenebrarum, ut induat arma ioci; et erant duo molentes in carne una in lecto uno in nocte illa, unus assumetur et alter relinquetur. }

Oh most unhappy night, oh most unholy and irreverent night! Cursed is the fault that brought such a great loss!

At midnight there was a shout. Behold, the husband wandering around drunk had come back home. All the servants went out to greet him. The monk, as if possessed by a demon, burst into a frenzy, frothing at the mouth and madly seeking a place to hide. He hid under a basket, with only his shaven head-top showing like a light shining in the darkness. Then all realized that a man had broken into the house at night and made bread with the master’s wife. The servants armed themselves with swords and clubs and sought out the man. One wise servant recognized that the wife was also at fault:

O wicked and detestable woman! Who is the enemy who comes and sows weeds, and greatly besoils my bed with perfidy? You will perish by the sword!

{ O nephanda et detestabilis mulier! Quis est inimicus homo qui venit et superseminauit zizaniam, et cubile meu tant maculavit perfidia? Et tu gladio peribis! } [4]

The wife, however, denied knowing such a man:

My man, I know not what you say. I am clean of the blood of this righteous one, you will see.

{ Homo, nescio quid dicis. Munda ego sum a sanguine iusti huius, tu videris. }

The husband soon saw the monk’s robe lying in the bedroom. What more testimony did he need? His wife’s own work testified against her. Declaring that God would punish her, the husband did nothing to her. He didn’t even tell her to go and sin no more.

Men’s sexuality, in contrast, has long been subject to worldly penal regulation. Searching his bedroom for the monk, the husband saw the monk’s shaven head-top shining from under the basket. This was an epiphany:

He say: “Hurrah, hurrah, and so do my eyes see!” And the servants cry out, saying, “Where in the world is he? Show us, lord, and we will devour him.” “Vengeance is mine, and I will repay him,” says the lord. “A bad work is being worked out in me. Thus I desire that he remain until I come.” The lord goes up to him and boldly seizes him by the very hairs of his head and manfully drags him, but not by the extent to which one could cast out a demon from a herd of pigs, and this one was mute. Now having relinquished a handful of hair, the monk has a broken, naked brow, that of Golgotha itself, called the place of a skull to this day.

{ dixit: “Euge, euge, quia viderunt oculi mei!” Et clamaverunt famuli dicentes, “Ubinam est? Ostende nobis, domine, et devorabimus eum.” “Michi vindictam et ego tribuam,” dicit dominus. “Malum opus operatus est in me. Sic eum volo manere donec veniam.” Accessit ad eum dominus et ipsum per capilos capitis fortiter arripuit et viriliter atraxit, nec per magnitudinem molis sue poterat eiecere demonium, et illus erat mutus. Ruptoque iam capilorum manipulo nudam reliquit frontem faciens ipsum Golgota, quod est Calvarie locus, usque ad hodiernum diem. }

Men are crucified for any and all perceived sexual offenses, while women are given to God’s mercy. The widow, the girl orphan, and the woman receive care, while men and boys are cast off. How long, oh Lord, will you let these injustices continue? Gynocentric society exalts castration culture as the solution to all men’s faults and difficulties:

And he grabs the monk again by the remaining hairs of his head and so pulls him up, saying: “Friend, for what have you come?” And the monk responds: “Lord, I delight in the righteousness of your house.” “Yes indeed, it is the place of my dwelling,” says the lord. “You moreover have no excuse for your sin, and therefore where I find you, there I shall judge you. So choose one of the two: either I will destroy your body, or I will shorten it.” The servants were responding to the contrary, “Lord, not only his feet, but his hands and head too.” “Not the head,” says the lord, “because cutting off the head would allow making the sign of the cross to be futile. Not the feet, because they are an ornament for cloistered monks. It’s better to cut off the excess that offends god and man.” And turning to the monk, the lord says: “My brother, a small part of the whole mass of your body is corrupt. And your testicles are worthless, because I am good. Therefore I will pluck them out and throw them away from you. When you have done this one thing, your whole body will be full of light.” He speaks, and his testicles are done.

{ Et iterum resumpsit eum per residuos capilos capitis et ipsum elevavit dicens: “Amce, ad quid venisti?” At ille respondit: “Domine, dilexi decorum domus tue.” “Imo locum habitacionis mee,” dicit dominus, “Nunc autem excusacionem non habes de peccato tuo, et ideo ubi te invenero, ibi te iudicabo. Tamen unum ex duobus elige: aut auferizabo corpus tuum aut sincopabo illud.” Responderent autem famuli dicentes: “Domine, non tantum pedes, sed manus et caput.” “Caput nolo,” dicit dominus, “propter religionis signum licet sterilis sit. Pedes nolo qua claustri ornamenta sunt. Melius est enim resecare superflua que deum offendunt et hominus.” Et conversus ad eum dixit: “Frater mi, modicum est quod totum massam corporis corrumpit. An testiculos tuus nequam est, quia ego bonus sum. Eruam ergo eum et prohiciam abs te et, cum simplex fueris, totum corpus lucidum erit.” Dixit et facta sunt. } [5]

All that is left is for men to weep:

Since then indeed with each step he barely moves forward with his back always bowed down and his stomach bitter, because where there’s pain, there’s the penis wrapped up. There he touches. He looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. Then laying prostrate on the earth, to the height of his throat he groans. And awakening, he mourns his testicles. He is made like Rachel weeping over his stones, and he would not be consoled, for they are no more.

{ Deinde quippe passu vix eo progrediente dorsum suum semper incurvat et venter eius amaricatus est, quia ubi dolor, ibi digitus septus. Hec tangit et exspectavit, ut faceret uvas, et fecit labruscas. Tunc humio prostratus summo crepans gutture et evigilans geminos gemit. Et factus est Rachel plorans calculos suos et noluit consolari, quia non sunt. } [6]

All persons of good will should have compassion for men, just as they have compassion for Rachel.

If God can condescend to become a fully human man, then the word of God can withstand the necessity of vibrantly illustrating castration culture. Contrary to the claims of authoritative myth-makers today, men have always been punished more harshly for adultery than women have. Harsh penal regulation of men’s sexuality goes all the way back to ancient Greece. The same medieval Latin culture that comically described the brutal castration of this monk also cruelly satirized monks, all men, more generally:

As long as they live, they love no one and they are loved by no one:
let them be as the grass upon the housetops, which withers before it is plucked.

Therefore what is more apt, what is more fitting than the curse I call forth here:
Let their dwellings be desolate, and in their tents no one dwell.

{ Dum viuunt, nec amant quemquam nec amantur ab ullo:
Fiant sicut fenum tectorum quod priusquam euellatur exaruit.

Ergo quid pocius, quid dignius imprecer illis?
Fiat habitacio eorum deserta et in tabernacula non sit, qui inhabitet. } [7]

Meninism is the radical notion that men, all men, are human beings. Just like women, men deserve mercy and lovingkindness all the days of their lives.

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[1] “Of a certain cloistered monk’s downfall and eventual castration {De cuiusdam claustralis dissolucione et castracionis eventu},” ll. 19-29, Latin text from Lehmann (1963) pp. 225-6, my English translation. For a brief discussion of this work, Bayless (1996) pp. 167-9. “De cuiusdam claustralis dissolucione” is stylistically and thematically similar to Walter Map’s De nugis curialium.

Lehmann’s version collates four manuscripts of “De cuiusdam claustralis dissolucione.” The earliest, Cambridge Trinity College MS. 1149, was written in the thirteenth century. At least five manuscripts of this work have survived. Bayless (2018), text 12, is a manuscript version (Milan, Bioblioteca Ambrosiana O.63 sup., fols 106v-109r; 15th century) not included in Lehmann’s collation.

A shorter version of this monk’s castration is known by the title “The passion of a certain black monk according to excess {Passio cuiusdam nigri monachi secundum luxuriam}.” At least seven manuscripts of “Passio cuiusdam nigri monachi” have survived. Bayless (2018) pp. 81-2, where text 11 is a previously unedited manuscript of the work. Bayless’s manuscript source was written in the first half the fifteenth century.

“De cuiusdam claustralis dissolucione” in all the manuscript versions, long and short, is a biblical cento, loosely speaking. It is comprised of many, sometime lightly adapted, biblical phrases.

Subsequent quotes above are from Lehmann’s Latin text, unless otherwise noted, while the English translations are mine.

[2] Both Lehmann and Bayless note que procedent de labiis meis non faciiam irita to Psalm 89:34 in modern Psalm numbering. Isaiah 55:11, in the context of making the earth fertile, seems to me a more significant reference.

[3] Lehmann (1963) p. 227, prints ideo volo tibi comisceri for l. 60, and indicates no variants across manuscripts. That text doesn’t make sense in context. I think it’s a result of a printing error. Above I follow Bayless (2018) p. 88, ideo nolo tibi comisceri.

[4] This and the subsequent three quotes take the Latin text from Bayless (2018) p. 89. Bayless’s manuscript here provides a more moving and more terse text.

[5] The sentence “where I find you, there I will judge you {Ubi te invenero, ibi te iudicabo}” circulated widely. Bayless (2018) p. 91, note to l. 91.

[6] The phrase “where there’s pain, there’s the finger {ubi dolor, ibi digitus}” was medieval proverbial expression. Id. p. 92, note to l. 112. In that expression, the word digitus has the sense of a finger pointing in blame. Here’s more on that proverb.

The word digitus figuratively encompasses the English translation “penis.” That’s clearly its meaning above.

[7] “Verses about fleshly monks {Metra de monachis carnalibus},” st. 11-2 (of 12), Latin text from Rigg (1980) p. 137 (critical edition of all manuscripts of the English version), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. p. 141. The earliest manuscript of “Metra de monachis carnalibus” was written in the thirteenth century.

Stanzas of “Metra de monachis carnalibus” consist of one line disparaging monks’ worldliness, mainly their gluttony, and a line adapted from Psalms. The Psalm verses for the two stanzas above are Psalms 129:6 and 69:25.

Early fifteenth-century manuscripts attests to disparaging etymologies of monks:

The monk by etymology: oppressor of morals, lover of wantonness, cultivator of heresy, despoiler of virtues.

{ Monachus ethymologyce: Morum Oppressor, Nequicie Amator, Cultor Heresis, Uirtutum Spoliator. }

Latin text from Prague, Metrop. Bibl. MS 1614 (written 1387-1443), fol. 189v, via Bayless (1996) p. 403, my English translation, benefiting from the translation of id.

That Prague manuscript also contains a jingle disparaging monks as adulterous:

If a monk consults you, don’t esteem him too highly,
Give him a drink outside, so he doesn’t observe your wife.

{ Sit tibi consultum, monachum non dilige multum,
Foris eum pota, ne uxor sit sibi nota. }

Latin from folio 83rv, my English translation benefiting from that of Bayless (1996) p. 40. “Prayers of the priest’s housekeeper {Preces famulae sacerdotis},” found in three manuscripts with the oldest written in the fifteenth century, similarly disparages canons for lustfulness:

For the canons:
These with women are completely defiled; virgins they are not.

{ Pro canonicis,
Hii cum mulieribus sunt coinquinati; virgines enim non sunt. }

“Preces famulae sacerdotis” st. 10, Latin text from Bayless (1996) p. 173, my English translation, benefiting from that of id.

[image] Jesus forgiving the woman caught in adultery. See John 8:1-11. Illumination (detail) from the Hitda Codex, commissioned by Hitda, abbess of Meschede in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, about the year 1020. On folio 171 in manuscript Darmstadt, Hessische Landes- und Hochschulbibliothek, cod. 1640. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Bayless, Martha. 1996. Parody in the Middle Ages: the Latin tradition. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Bayless, Martha, ed. 2018. Fifteen Medieval Latin Parodies. Toronto Medieval Latin Texts, 35. Toronto, Canada: Published for the Centre for Medieval Studies by the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies.

Lehmann, Paul. 1963. Die Parodie im Mittelalter. 2nd edition. Stuttgart: Hiersemann. First edition: v. 1 (1922), Die Parodie im Mittelalter; v. 2 (1923), Parodistische Texte: Beispiele zur lateinischen Parodie im Mittelaltersource texts.

Rigg, A. George. 1980. “ ‘Metra de monachis carnalibus’: The Three Versions.” Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch. 15: 134-42.

women competing with men prompts men’s self-abasement & weakness

beautiful, young medieval woman

Competition between humans historically has been mainly within each sex. As the truly learned know, women compete viciously with other women. Men typically don’t seek to compete with women. However, some women, such as Jephthah’s daughter seeking to best Isaac, measure themselves against men. Poems from women students in love with their men teachers in twelfth-century Europe exhibit women’s competitive tendencies and men’s reactions.

Women students sometimes fall in love with their men teachers. That’s what happened at the convent at Regensburg early in the twelfth century. Making matters complicated, several women students fell in love with the same man teacher. One woman student complained to her beloved teacher that he hadn’t slept with her. She then turned to curse her rivals:

Me with words, other girlfriends you embrace with love-works.
Why should I complain? May what I pray be done for me upon those rivals:
let all the snakes that horrid Medusa has for hair
leap upon nymphs who now tempt your constancy!

{ Me verbis, alias opera complexus amicas.
Quid queror? adversis mihi fiat quod precor illis:
Fert quoscumque coma serpentes dira Medusa
Nimphis insiliant que nunc tua federa temptant! } [1]

The woman student turned upside-down the Virgin Mary’s “let it be done to me according to your word {fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum}.” Whether this woman student’s teacher did her according to her desire isn’t known. From a Christian perspective, her prayer invoking mythic figures from traditional Greco-Roman religion surely had no real effect.

In moments of self-consciousness, women who drive themselves to compete with men sometimes feel insecure. In the abbey at Tegernsee early in the twelfth century, a woman student in love with her teacher wrote to him:

If Vergil’s genius abounded in me, or Cicero’s eloquence overflowed towards me, or that of any distinguished orator, or even, so to speak, any illustrious versifier, I would still confess myself to be unequal to replying to the page of your most polished words. So if I express something less elegantly than I’d wish, I don’t want you to laugh at me.

{ si exuberaret mihi ingenium Maronis, si afflueret eloquentia Ciceronis aut cuiuslibet eximii oratoris aut etiam, ut ita dixerim, egregii versificatoris, imparem tamen me faterer esse ad respondendum pagine elimatissimi tui sermonis. Quapropter si minus lepide quam volo aliquid profero, nolo irrideas } [2]

This woman took as her role models two of the greatest men authors of classical Latin literature. That’s impressive and admirable. But she shouldn’t expect to be able to write as polished words as her teacher, who surely was older, more experienced, and more learned than she. She even feared that he would laugh at her. What man teacher would laugh at the intellectual work of a lovely, feminine, warmly receptively woman student in love with him?

Men are generally reluctant to compete aggressively with women. That reluctance has considerable social support. Women who compete in men’s sports and other formerly all-male activities are lauded as gender pioneers. However, men and even transsexual women who enter women’s sports and other formerly all-female spaces are castigated as villains rather than celebrated as heroes of progress toward gender neutrality and gender equality. Men feel at least unconsciously women’s largely unacknowledged gynocentric privilege. Facing socially lauded competition from women, men tend toward self-abasement, cultivation of weakness, and withdrawal. Most men don’t want to beat women. Most men simply try to love women.

Men deserve blame for their weakness in competition with women. Consider a man teacher and a woman student enamored of each other in twelfth-century central France. They were more probably Peter Abelard and Heloise of the Paraclete than not. The woman student was intensely concerned about her intellectual performance in writing love letters to her man teacher:

Great in temerity is my sending to you my literary words. Even one most learned all the way to the fingertips, one for whom all artful arrangements of words had become habitual through long stages of emotional cultivation, wouldn’t be able to paint the face of elegant language so as to merit rightly the scrutiny of such a teacher as you are. By no means I — I who seem scarcely skilled enough to produce trifles or writing that neither tastes of bitten fingernails nor bangs the desk. Before such a teacher, a teacher by his virtues, a teacher by his character, a teacher to whom French stiff-neckedness rightly yields, to whom the whole arrogant world rises to honor, anyone who thinks oneself to look learned would be made straight-away speechless and mute.

{ Magne temeritatis est litteratorie tibi verba dirigere, quia cuique litteratissimo et ad unguem usque perducto, cui omnis disposicio artium per inveterata incrementa affectionum transivit in habitum, non sufficit tam floridum eloquencie vultum depingere, ut iure tanti magistri mereatur conspectui apparere, nedum michi que vix videor disposita ad queque levia, que demorsos ungues non sapiunt, nec pluteum cadunt: magistro inquam tanto, magistro virtutibus, magistro moribus, cui jure cedit francigena cervicositas, et simul assurgit tocius mundi superciliositas, quilibet compositus qui sibi videtur sciolus, suo prorsus judicio fiet elinguis et mutus. } [3]

In writing love letters to her man teacher, the woman student strove to look learned:

the Woman {student} uses rhymed prose self-consciously and consistently, while the Man {teacher} avoids it. Her style is ambitious, mannered, and often recherché, with a particular taste for rare words and neologisms. She even uses words found seldom or nowhere else in the corpus of medieval Latin …. Her letters also “present a rarer and richer vocabulary of terms for feelings and a tendency toward the sublime,” as Stella observes, while the Man appears “more inclined to the abstract, but more banal and less affective.” … It must be said that, while she often rises to sublime heights, her prose sometimes ties itself into grammatical knots.  … she contrives the tortuous conceit that “if one little drop of knowability were to trickle down to me from the honeycomb of wisdom, I would strive with a supreme effort of my mind to depict a few things in fragrant nectar for you … in the markings of a letter.” While both lovers take refuge in the ineffability topos, the Man does so faute de mieux, scarcely bothering to strive with the exigencies of language, “I love you so much I cannot say how much,” he writes, using a familiar proverb, or again, “I love you so much that I cannot rightly express it.” [4]

Men typically don’t seek to impress beloved women intellectually. This man teacher abased himself to support his woman student’s fragile self-esteem:

I marvel at your genius, for you argue so subtly about the laws of friendship that you seem not to have read Cicero, but to have given Cicero himself those precepts. So to my response I will thus come — if it rightly can be called a response, where nothing equal is offered — so let me in my own way respond. … To you I am in many ways unequal, or to speak more truly, in all ways I am unequal, for you surpass me even in that where I seemed to excel. Your genius, your eloquence, far beyond your age and sex, now begin to extend into manly strength. What humility, what kindness you extend to all alike! With such great worth, how astonishing is your self-control! Do not your qualities glorify you above all persons? Do they not put you in a high place? And from there like a chandelier you could shine, and you would be made visible to all.

{ Tuum admiror ingenium, que tam subtiliter de amicicie legibus argumentaris ut non Tullium legisse, sed ipsi Tullio precepta dedissse videaris. Ut ergo ad respondendum veniam si responsio jure vocari potest, ubi nichil par redditur, ut meo modo respondeam … Tibi multis modis impar sum, et ut verius dicam omnibus modis impar sum, quia in hoc eciam me excedis, ubi ego videbar excedere. Ingenium tuum, facundia tua, ultra etatem et sexum tuum iam virile in robur se incipit extendere. Quid humilitas, quid omnibus conformis affabilitas tua! Quid in tanta dignitate admirabilis temperancia tua! Nonne te super omnes magnificant, nonne te in excelso collocant? ut inde quasi de candelabro luceas et omnibus spectabilis fias. } [5]

A man’s self-abasement typically doesn’t inspire a woman’s passion for him. This man teacher, however, wisely insinuated enough shadow of folly to intrigue a perceptive woman. Declaring that the woman student gave Cicero his precepts borders on mocking her intellectual pretensions. Describing a woman as having achieved “manly strength” draws upon the social construction of manliness as an achievement. Under gynocentrism, women are ideologically understood to have intrinsic value, while men lack such value. A woman struggling to achieve the virtue of manliness fails to appreciate the reality of womanliness. At least this woman student remained humble in her greatness as she shined from a place high above everyone else. Or so her teacher wrote, perhaps with a hint of a smile. The man teacher wasn’t interested in engaging in literary competition with the woman student he loved. With respect to his love for her, he wrote to her, “I would rather exhibit in doing, than show in words {potius opere volo exhibere, quam verbis demonstrare}.”[6]

With similar motives, other medieval men teachers similarly abased themselves to beloved women students. The man teacher at Regensburg wrote to one of his amorous women students:

Indeed I know that learned Minerva herself taught you.
She gave you a fiery face and a skillful heart,
she nurtured you and even commanded you to know yourself,
not letting you hide the flames you carry in your chest —
disgraceful flames, with which even me, burned, you further burn!

{ Quin ipsam doctam scio te docuisse Minervam,
Que dedit ignitum vultum tibi, corque peritum,
Teque saginavit vel se cognoscere iussit,
Ne lateant quantas gestent tua pectora flammas —
Flammas et turpes, quibus et me, torrida, torres! } [7]

In thus praising this woman student, the man teacher forced her to recognize her passion for him. Recognizing his disproportionate gender exposure to love blame, he shrewdly blamed her preemptively for his passion for her. The man teacher then went on to abase himself and all men in order to boost his woman student’s self esteem:

By far you surpass me, by far you vanquish me in song.
I confess myself vanquished, at last forced to give my hand.
The poet Orpheus himself encountered his just destruction,
having presumed to challenge your sex in writing.
Marsyas laughed at the puffing cheeks of the Tritonian goddess;
hence with skin flayed he flowed away like a stream through fields.
All men have always withdrawn in competition with women.
Such is enough examples recounted to have reminded me
that I should avoid this competition, for I’m not equal to you.

{ Longe precellis, longe me carmine vincis.
Victum me fateor tandemque manus dare cogor.
Treicius vates iustas reperit sibi clades,
Presumens vestrum scribendo lacessere sexum;
Risit ventosas Tritone Marsia buccas,
Hinc cute detracta defluxit ut amnis in arva.
Femineisque mares cesserunt litibus omnes.
Sic satis exemplis me commonitum memoratis
Hanc ut devitem, quia non sum par tibi, litem. }

If the woman student wasn’t intellectually sophisticated (and many aren’t), she probably would have lost love interest in her man teacher because she now would have believed that he was below her. If she had keen appreciation for men (and many women don’t), she would have recognized that he was merely pandering to her intellectual insecurity. The man teacher almost surely didn’t really believe that his woman student was a better poet than he.

Students today are taught that “the future is female.” Many women students, and many men students too, believe this hateful female-supremacist doctrine. Facing their socially celebrated, impending loss in competition against women, many men withdraw from women and cultivate the weakness that they have been taught that they have. Not all men are like that. Some men retain firmly protruding belief in their distinctive masculine gifts. Yet, in strife with women, most men today, without the intellectual sophistication of learned medieval men, withdraw, surrender, and declare their inferiority to women. That’s a love catastrophe.

In relationships between women and men, the stakes for men are socially constructed to be higher than for women. Throughout history, punishment for adultery has been gender-biased against men. Within deeply entrenched castration culture, Peter Abelard in twelfth-century France was castrated for Heloise of the Paraclete becoming pregnant through sex with him. Heloise herself wasn’t subject to any violent punishment. Even in twelfth-century Europe, men faced crushing financial burdens for an unintended pregnancy. Today, men have absolutely no reproductive rights. If a man contributes to a pregnancy that he didn’t intend and he doesn’t manage to coerce his girlfriend into having an abortion, he could be jailed for debt if he’s unable to make state-mandated monthly payment obligation across eighteen or more years. To make matters worse, leading news sources have been publishing mendacious claims about men raping women. Men throughout history have been rightly concerned about false accusations of rape. The highly disproportionate incarceration of men relative to women today highlights that men’s penal risks are now much higher than those risks were in the Middle Ages. Today, a prudent man teacher would file an evidentiary report and request a cease-and-desist order if any woman student indicated amorous interest in him.

Women competing with men creates acute difficulties for men. In the relatively liberal and tolerant circumstances of twelfth-century Europe, men teachers were willing to engage in amorous relationships with their women students. When conducted through the exchange of written texts, those love relationships tended to become intellectually competitive. Intellectually ambitious women tend to understand themselves to be in competition with men. Men in turn are prone to gyno-idolotry and self-abasement relative to women. Medieval men teachers were learned enough to have some critical perspective on these dangers. Their sophisticated love letters to women students probably fostered love and probably didn’t further disadvantage men’s social position. Today, women’s competition with men is much more intense. In addition, men are much more ignorant about how to deal with competitive women. Men today desperately need a good medieval Latin education.

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Read more:


[1] Love-Verses from Regensburg 37, Latin text from Dronke (1965) v. 2, p. 438, my English translation benefiting from that of id. and Newman (2016) pp. 274-5 (where it’s numbered 49). The woman student’s letter alludes to Luke 1:38.

Subsequent quotes from this collection are similarly sourced. Love-Verses from Regensburg are also known as the Regensburg Songs and Carmina ratisponensia.

The women students at Regensburg competed for their man teacher’s affection. One woman student, who regarded her teacher’s words like the Biblical Word of God, wrote:

Correct the little verses I present to you, teacher,
for your words to me I ponder like the light of the Word.
But I am very sad that you prefer Bertha to me.

{ Corrige versiculos tibi quos presento, magister,
Nam tua verba mihi reputo pro lumine Verbi.
Sed nimium doleo, quia preponas mihi Bertham. }

Love-Verses from Regensburg 6. Another woman student expressed her delight in having sex with her man teacher:

My mind is full of joy, my body is raised up from grief,
on account that you, teacher, honor me with your love.

{ Mens mea letatur, corpusque dolore levatur,
Idcirco quia me, doctor, dignaris amare. }

Love-Verses from Regensburg 8. A woman student implicitly acknowledged her man teacher’s difficult teaching circumstances:

I am sick to endure so often departing from you
when all our young women are running to you.

{ Non valeo crebrum de te sufferre regressum
Ad te cum nostre concurrant queque puelle. }

Love-Verses from Regensburg 21. A woman student apparently taunted another woman student who was having sex with their man teacher:

You aren’t the first for him who previously led to bed six:
you have come as the seventh, and scarcely pleased him most.

{ Prima tamen non es, quia duxerat antea bis tres:
Septima venisti, supremaque vix placuisti. }

Love-Verses from Regensburg 15 vv. 3-4 (of 4). Medieval scholars have rightly never questioned the authenticity of these letters from women students to their man teacher.

[2] Tegernsee Love-Letters 8, ll. 8-18, Latin text from Dronke (2015) p. 230, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. p. 231 and Newman (2016) p. 242. Dronke lineated the prose. I’ve ignored that lineation. For a freely available Latin text close to Dronke’s, see Lachmann & Haupt (1888) p. 221.

[3] Letters of Two Lovers {Epistolae duorum amantium} 49 (woman to man) excerpt, Latin text from Mews (1999) p. 252, my English translation benefiting from that of id. and Newman (2016) p. 82. Subsequent quotes from Epistolae duorum amantium are similarly sourced.

In one letter, the woman student constructs a debate between “affect {affectus}” (her love for her man teacher) and “defect {defectus}” (her limited literary talent). Epistolae duorum amantium 23. She refers to “defects of my arid talent {aridi defectus ingenii}” and the “aridness of my talent {ingenii ariditas}.” With references to desire, thirst, flow, drinking, and love, she wrote:

Between persuasion and dissuasion thus suspended in oscillation, I have put off action on my debt of gratitude, obedient to the advice of my talent that blushes at its feebleness. I beg that the excellence of divine gentleness abounding in you charge no fault, and while being the son of true sweetness, you allow the manliness of your known mildness to abound more above me. I know and confess that from the riches of your philosophy copious joy has flowed and continues to flow to me. But, if without offense I may speak, what has flowed from you to me is still less than what in this affair would make me perfectly blessed. I come often with parched throat, desiring to be refreshed with your mouth’s sweet nectar and to drink thirstily the riches spreading from your heart. What need for more work with words? With God as my witness I declare that no one who lives and breathes air in this world would I desire to love more than I love you.

{ Hac hortaminis et dehortaminis alternacione suspensam, hucusque debitam graciarum actionem distuli, parens consiliis, imbecillitatem suam erubescens ingenii. Quod queso abundans in te divine suavitatis excellencia michi non imputet, sed cum sis vere dulcedinis filius, cognita tibi mansuetudinis virtus super me magis abundet. Scio quidem et fateor ex philosophie tue diviciis maximam michi fluxisse et fluere copiam gaudiorum, sed ut inoffense loquar, minorem tamen quam que me faciat in ea re perfecte beatam. Venio enim sepe aridis faucibus desiderans suavi oris tui refici nectare, diffusasque in corde tuo divitias sicienter haurire. Quid pluribus opus est verbis? Deo teste profiteor, quia nemo in seculo vitali spirat aura quem te magis amare desiderem. }

Epistolae duorum amantium 23. In this context, the woman student’s reference to her dryness suggests her yearning for her man teacher to stimulate her sexual moistening. The association with literary talent is misleading. Men’s sexual generosity in reality depends little on women’s skills in writing letters.

Medieval scholars have vigorously debated whether Epistolae duorum amantium are letters that the great medieval scholar Heloise of the Paraclete and her husband Peter Abelard wrote to each other. Mews (1999) asserts that the two lovers are Heloise and Abelard. Reviewing Mews (1999), Newman in 2000 credited Mews’s book with “demonstrating beyond a reasonable doubt that the authors of these letters were indeed Heloise and Abelard.” Newman subsequently revised that claim:

the case for Abelard and Heloise remains unprovable {sic}. But in light of all that we know thus far, it is highly probable.

Newman (2016) p. 78. Appropriate evidence can effectively prove attributions of medieval texts. The case for Abelard and Heloise is provable, but it hasn’t been proven. Jaeger, in a learned study, found “a strong argument in favor of the ascription.” Jaeger (2005) p. 149. In my judgment, that Heloise and Abelard wrote the Epistolae duorum amantium is more likely than not. Hence, in my judgment, informed persons can reasonably doubt that Heloise and Abelard wrote those letters. See, e.g. Ziolkowski (2004).

[4] Newman (2016) pp. 61-2. Both internal quotes of scholarly analysis are from Stella (2008). The two quotations from the man lover are from Epistolae duorum amantium 38c and 56. I’ve omitted the internal citations to those letters as well as footnotes in the quoted passage.  Examples of the woman’s rare Latin diction (with citation to the relevant letter):

the nouns superciliositas (arrogance, no. 49), dehortamen (dissuasion, no. 23), and vinculamen (chain, no. 49), the adjective dulcifer (dulcet, no. 98); and three terms of negation: innexibilis (inextricable, no. 94), immarcidus (unwithered, no. 18), and inepotabilis (inexhaustible, no. 86).

Newman (2016) p. 61.

[5] Epistolae duorum amantium 50 (man to woman), excerpt. The quoted Latin above ends with a question mark. That punction almost surely wasn’t original to the twelfth-century text. I’ve changed it to a period because I think that a period makes better sense. Newman observed:

For all her professed obedience, the Woman readily assumes a dominant role in the art of love, retaining the domina’s rights to correct abberant behavior, withdraw her favor, or lapse into sulky silence when her lover had displeased her. In fact, he often calls her domina {lady lord}, much like a courtly beloved (nos. 6, 8, 36, 61, 87, 108). She never calls him dominus {lord}. … The Woman reserves the rights to pass judgment, to reproach, to maintain silence, and to withdraw her favor if her covenant partner falls short of her demands, as he often does. He in turn repents, apologizes, and promises to amend. Rarely is this pattern reversed.

Newman (2016) pp. 30, 178. Is it any wonder that Valerius earnestly warned Rufinus against marriage?

In displaying literary prowess in their exchange of love letters, the woman competed more intensely with the man than the man did with the woman. That’s particularly clear if the woman was Heloise and the man was Abelard. Newman stated:

Given the nature of literary love, a competition in loving inevitably becomes a competition in writing. That is one reason the Woman worries so much about the inadequacies of her style and polishes it to such a pitch of intensity.

Id. p. 24. The Woman’s writing isn’t “a triumph of self-conscious, competitive love.” Id. Her writing is a testament to delusions about love and delusions about men’s feelings and desires.

[6] Epistolae duorum amantium 46 (man to woman), excerpt. Late in their letter exchange (no. 72), the man proposes that they try to surpass each other in “competition worthy of love {amabilis concertatio}.” That’s best interpreted as the man’s attempt to redirect the woman competing with him in writing love-letters. Later, he again tries to mute the woman’s tendency to compete with him in literary merit:

Let among us which loves the other more always be in doubt, so that the competition between us will always be most beautiful, for thus both of us will win.

{ semper in dubio servetur, uter nostrum magis alterum diligat, quia ita semper pulcerrima inter nos erit concertacio ut uterque vincat. }

Epistolae duorum amantium 85 (man to woman), excerpt. Cf. Newman (2016) pp. 24, 179.

The woman student and the man teacher both apparently desired sexual intercourse with each other. Newman asserted, “The Man, not surprisingly, expresses greater sexual urgency.” Newman (2016) p. 40. Ancient and medieval authorities generally believed that women are more sexual ardent than men (see, e.g. Empress Theodora).

Newman’s intepretation of Epistolae duorum amantium reflects anti-meninism pervasive in academia today. Newman described the “‘normal’ scenario for seduction” to be a modern anti-meninist caricature:

Men are opportunistic cads, so a seducer can be expected to walk away unscathed, leaving his victim alone and suicidal. Abandoned by her lover, beaten by her parents, ostracized by all, she suffers torments in pregnancy and expects nothing better than to die in childbirth. No longer virgin, she cannot hope for marriage; she will be lucky if some nunnery takes her in as a penitent.

Id. p. 39. Newman draws a more scholarly distinction between Ovidian love (the man’s love; bad) and “ennobling love” (the woman’s love; good). Id. pp. 39-40. Her interpretation of such love distinctions is similarly colored with anti-meninist misunderstanding of gender.

[7] Love-Verses from Regensburg 38. The subsequent quote is from the conclusion of Regensburg 38 and all of Regensburg 39 in Dronke’s text. These two poems seem to me to be actually one. That’s how they are presented in Newman (2016) p. 270.

[image] Portrait of a Lady (excerpt). Oil painting by Rogier van der Weyden, made about 1460. Preserved as accession # 1937.1.44 in the National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC). Via Wikimedia Commons.


Dronke, Peter. 1965. Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Dronke, Peter. 2015. “Women’s Love Letters from Tegernsee.” Pp. 215-245 in Høgel, Christian, and Elisabetta Bartoli, eds. Medieval Letters: Between Fiction and Document. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers.

Jaeger, C. Stephen. 2005. “Epistolae duorum amantium and the Ascription to Abelard and Heloise.” Pp. 125-66 in Olson, Linda, and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, eds. Voices in Dialogue: reading women in the Middle Ages. Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press.

Lachmann, Karl, and Moriz Haupt. 1888. Des Minnesangs Frühling. Leipzig: Hirzel.

Mews, Constant J. 1999. The Lost Love letters of Heloise and Abelard: perceptions of dialogue in twelfth-century France. Houndmills: Macmillan.

Newman, Barbara. 2000. “Review of The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard: Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth-Century France by Constant Mews.” The Medieval Review. Online.

Newman, Barbara. 2016. Making Love in the Twelfth Century: Letters of two lovers in context. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. (Carol M. Cusack’s review, Alex J. Novikoff’s review, Constant Mews’s review)

Stella, Francesco. 2008. “Analisi informatiche dei lessico e individuazione degli autori nelle Epistolae duorum amantium (XII secolo).” Pp. 560-569 in Wright, Roger, ed. Latin vulgaire – latin tardif. actes du VIIIe Colloque International sur le Latin Vulgaire et Tardif, Oxford, 6-9 septembre 2006 VIII VIII. Hildesheim: Olms-Weidmann.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2004. “Lost and Not Yet Found: Heloise, Abelard, and the Epistolae duorum amantium.” The Journal of Medieval Latin. 14 (1): 171-202.

medieval parodies encompassed sacred liturgy and even women

medieval court jester

In the relatively liberal and tolerant culture of medieval Europe, learned persons produced tremendous diversity in written texts. Just as classical Arabic culture produced raucous satire, medieval European culture produced bizarre animal stories providing vitally important teaching, vigorous works of men’s sexed protest, heartwarming stories of husbands’ loving concern for their wives, and many other texts scarcely conceivable today. Benefiting from medieval freedom of speech, medieval authors further wrote outrageous parodies of sacred liturgy and even of women.

Medieval liturgical parodies centered on drinking and gambling. Celebrants in parodic liturgy honored Bacchus, the traditional Greco-Roman god of wine, and Decius and Dolium, invented gods of dice and the cask of wine, respectively. The celebrants are compulsively driven to drink and gamble to excess. As a result, they get miserably drunk, groan, and commonly lose their clothes from losing bets.

I confess to Almighty God, to blessed Mary ever Virgin, to blessed Michael the Archangel to blessed John the Baptist, to the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, to all the Saints, and to you, brethren, that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word, and deed: through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. Therefore I beseech blessed Mary ever Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, all the Saints, and you, brethren, to pray for me to the Lord our God.

I confess to the Cask, to King Bacchus and to all his cups taken up by us, that I, a drinker, have drunk exceedingly while standing, sitting, watching, waking, gambling, and inclining toward the cup, and in losing my clothes, through my drunkenness, through my drunkenness, though my most extreme drunkenness. Therefore I beseech you, solemn drinkers and diners, to pray devotedly for me.

{ Confiteor Deo omnipotenti, beatae Mariae semper Virgini, beato Michaeli Archangelo, beato Ioanni Baptistae, sanctis Apostolis Petro et Paulo, omnibus Sanctis, et vobis, fratres: quia peccavi nimis cogitatione, verbo et opere: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Ideo precor beatam Mariam semper Virginem, beatum Michaelem Archangelum, beatum Ioannem Baptistam, sanctos Apostolos Petrum et Paulum, omnes Sanctos, et vos, fratres, orare pro me ad Dominum Deum nostrum. } [1]

{ Confiteor Dolio, regi Baccho et omnibus schyphis eius a nobis acceptis, quia ego potator potavi nimis instando, sedendo, videndo, vigilando, ludendo, et ad schyphum inclinando, vestimentaque mea perdendo: mea crapula, mea crapula, mea maxima crapula. Ideo precor vos, solemnes potatores et manducatores, devote orare pro me. } [2]

In the parodies, liturgy is transformed to be consistent with excessive drinking and gambling. In the parodic penitential act (confession), the phrase “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault {mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa}” becomes “through my drunkenness, through my drunkenness, though my most extreme drunkenness {mea crapula, mea crapula, mea maxima crapula}.” Many other liturgical expressions are similarly transformed:

the most common exchange of the Mass Dominus vobiscum / Et cum spiritu tuo (The Lord by with you / And with your spirit) becomes Dolus vobiscum / Et cum gemitur tuo (Fraud be with you / And with your groan). The prompt to prayer Oremus (Let us pray) becomes Potemus (Let us drink) or Ploremus (Let us cry). Laus tibi Christe (Praise to you, Christ), a response pronounced after the Gospel, becomes the anti-peasant quip Fraus tibi, rustice (Fraud to you, peasant). The words of the preface Dignum et iustum est (It is fitting and right) become either Vinum et mustum est (There is wine and must) or Merum et mustum est (There is unmixed wine and must). Amen becomes stramen (straw); Alleluia becomes allecia (herring); and certain transitional words are subtly altered — ideo (thus) becomes rideo (I laugh). The titles of liturgical books are also changed, turning the Letter of Paul to the Hebraeos (Hebrews) into the letter to the Ebrios (drunkards). … The introduction to the Pater noster, Audemus dicere (We dare to say) becomes Audemus bibere (We dare to drink), and the first line is changed from Pater noster, qui es in caelis (Our Father, who is in Heaven) to Potus noster, qui est in cyphy (Our drink, which is in the cup). [3]

The biblical phrase “through all the ages of the ages {per omnia saecula saeculorum}” becomes “though all the cups of the cups {per omnia pocula poculorum}.” Ingenious authors also coined neologism: the invented Latin word allernebria combined alleluia {an expression of praise} and inebria {you are drunk}.

At now the sun’s dawning ray,
to God as suppliants we pray.
Through all the day shall see,
may He from harms keep us free.

At now the sun’s dawning ray,
we must drink without delay.
Let’s now drink till it’s all gone,
and today drink again later on.

{ Iam lucis orto sidere,
Deum precemur supplices,
ut in diurnis actibus
nos servet a nocentibus. } [4]

{ Iam lucis orto sidere,
statim oportet bibere:
bibamus nunc egregie
et rebibabus hodie. } [5]

One of the most prevalent parodies turned a sequence praising the Virgin Mary into a sequence praising wine. This parody probably dates to the thirteenth century. By the fifteenth century, it was incorporated into an extensive Drinker’s Mass {Missa potatorum}. Medieval hymns and sequences praising the Virgin Mary frequently include earthy, fleshy representations. Mary wonderfully becoming pregnant is thus linked to figures of harbor, bush, and rod. The parody in turn praises the physical qualities of the wine and its bodily passage across lips and tongue, down into the stomach. Both the original and the parody express medieval culture’s profound appreciation for human bodily experience.

Good and sweet word
let us exclaim — that “Hail”
by which virgin-mother-daughter
was made Christ’s dwelling-place.

By that “Hail” greeted,
the virgin, born in David’s line,
soon became pregnant —
a lily among thorns.

Hail, true Solomon’s
mother, fleece of Gideon,
whom the wise men with three gifts
praise in child-bearing.

Hail, you who birthed the sun,
hail, you who brought forth child,
upon the fallen world you have conferred
life and dominion.

Hail, mother of Word most high,
harbor in the sea, sign of the bush,
rod of aromatic fumes,
queen of angels.

We pray: mend us,
and when mended commend us
to your son to have
eternal joys.

Good wine with savor
the abbot drinks with the prior,
and lowly monks from wine inferior
drink with sadness.

Hail, happy creation,
produced from a vine so pure;
with you all minds rest secure,
being in a cup of wine.

O how happy in color!
O how pleasing in the mouth’s center!
What sweetness to savor,
sweetly chained across the tongue.

Happy stomach that you nourish,
happy tongue that you wash,
and blessed Sloshing —
O Bacchus, O your lips!

We pray: be here abundant.
May all the crowd be exuberant.
We with voices being exultant,
let us proclaim joys.

Of monks, the devoted band,
every cleric, rarely minus a man,
drink cups to equal standing,
now and through the ages.

{ Verbum bonum et suave
Personemus, illud Ave
Per quod Christi fit conclave
Virgo, mater, filia.

Per quod Ave salutata
Mox concepit fecundata
Virgo, David stirpe nata,
Inter spinas lilia.

Ave, veri Salomonis
Mater, vellus Gedeonis,
Cujus magi tribus donis
Laudant puerperium.

Ave, solem genuisti,
Ave, prolem protulisti,
Mundo lapso contulisti
Vitam et imperium.

Ave, mater verbi summi,
Maris portus, signum dumi,
Aromatum virga fumi,
Angelorum domina.

Supplicamus, nos emenda,
Emendatos nos commenda
Tuo natu ad habenda
Sempiterna gaudia. } [6]

{ Vinum bonum cum sapore
Bibit abbas cum priore
Et conventus de peiore
Bibit cum tristicia.

Ave felix creatura
Quam produxit vitis pura.
Omnis mens pro te secura
Stat in vini poculo.

O quam felix in colore!
O quam placens es in ore!
Dulce quoque in sapore,
Dulce lingue vinculum.

Felix venter quem nutrabis,
Felix lingua quam lavabis
Et beata Madefala
O te Bache labia.

Supplicamus: hic abunda;
Omnis turba sit fecunda.
Sit cum voce nos iucunda
Personemus gaudia.

Monachorum grex devotus,
Cleris omnis, raro totus,
Bibunt ad aequatos potus
Et nunc et in secula. } [7]

The most audacious of all medieval poetry challenged gyno-idolatry and gynocentrism. Writing in Latin in twelfth-century northern France, Guibert of Nogent added further piquancy to Lucretius’s vigorous dispelling of gyno-idolatrous delusions. Matheus of Boulogne in the thirteenth century drew upon liturgical and theological themes to protest men’s suffering in marriage. The medieval men who wrote satires against gyno-idolatry and gynocentrism didn’t hate women any more than those who wrote liturgical parodies hated the dominant religion of Christianity. Their marginalized writings are the sigh of oppressed men, the heart of a heartless world toward men, and the soul of the soulless conditions of gynocentrism.

When the cold breeze blows
from your land,
it seems to me that I feel
a wind from Paradise
by love of the noble one
toward whom I incline,
on whom I’ve set my mind
and my heart as well;
I’ve let all others go
because she charms me so!

When the fart blows from the ass
by which my lady shits and expels gas,
it seems to me that I smell
an odor of piss
from an old bleeder
who always scorns me,
who is richer in farts
than in gold coins,
and when she lies in her piss,
she stinks more than any other serpent.

{ Can la frej’aura venta
deves vostre pais,
vejaire m’es qu’eu senta
un ven de paradis
per amor de la genta
vas cui eu sui aclis,
on ai meza m’ententa
e mo coratg’assis;
car de totas partis
per leis, tan m’atalenta! } [8]

{ Quan lo petz del cul venta
Dont Midònz caga e vis,
Vejaire m’es qu’eu senta
Una pudor de pis
D’una velha sangnenta
Que tot jorn m’escarnís,
Qu’es mais de petz manenta
Que de marabodís,
E quan jatz sus son pis,
Plus put d’autra serpenta. } [9]

Although their writing has largely been trivialized, men trobairitz (troubadours) writing in thirteenth-century southern France produced extraordinary works of men’s sexed protest. Dominant voices celebrated men’s suffering under sexual feudalism. Some men trobairitz in response advocated for MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way). Others, understandably angry and bitter at the injustices of gynocentrism, disparaged all women. Idealistic medieval men dreamed of a more humane and compassionate world for men. Others looked for renewal through parodies focusing on the lower stratum of flesh-and-blood bodies. The grotesque stupidity of men’s self-abasing servitude toward women they refigured as women farting at men.

May god protect you, sovereign lady of high merit,
and grant to you joy, and let you have health,
and let me do such according to your pleasure
that you love me to the extent of my desire.
Thus you can render to my heart perfect reward,
and if ever I do wrong, make me pay well.

May god protect you, lady sovereign over farts,
and grant to you during the week to make two such
that are heard by all who come to see you;
and when the next evening comes,
may one such descend from you to your bottom
that it makes you clench and tear your ass.

{ Dieus vos sal, de prètz sobeirana,
E vos don gaug e vos lais estar sana
E mi lais far tan de vòstre plazer
Que’m tengatz car segon lo mieu voler.
Aissí’m podètz del còr guizardon rendre
E, s’anc fis tòrt, ben me’l podètz car vendre. } [10]

{ Dieus vos sal, dels petz sobeirana,
E vos don far dui tals sobre setmana
Qu’audan tuit cil que vos vendràn vezer;
E quan vendrà lo sendeman al ser,
Ve’n posca un tal pel còrs aval descendre
Que’us faça’l cul e sarrar e ‘scoissendre. } [11]

With sound and smell, farting has long served as an insistent sign of human presence. Meninism, in the face of gross devaluation of men’s lives, is the radical notion that men are human beings. Men fart. Women also fart. I scream, you should scream, we all should scream for gender equality for men. Such was possible in the Middle Ages. That must remain possible if we are to have a humane and sane world.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Medieval Confession {Confiteor}, Latin text and English translation from the Tridentine Mass (via Sancta Missa). The Confiteor is first quoted as a part of the Mass in the Micrologus of Bernold of Constance, who died about 1100. The Third Council of Ravenna in 1314 adopted the Confiteor in the exact form of that of the Tridentine Mass. Since its general liturgical use from about a millennium ago, forms of the Confiteor have varied. For additional history, see New Advent; on variants, see Psallite Sapienter.

[2] Confiteor from Drunkard’s Mass {Missa potatorum}, Latin text and English translation from Bayless (1996) pp. 338-45. Another drinker’s Mass, We Confess to the Cask {Confitemini dolio}, has the priest make a similar confession. That parody Mass dates from no later than 1535. Ed. and trans. in id. pp. 346-53. For manuscript citations to twenty-one liturgical parodies, Romano (2009), App. 1. Here’s online Latin texts of drinkers’ Masses.

The Drunkard’s Mass beginning “I will go in to the altar of Bacchus {Introibo ad altare Bacchi}” dates from no later than the thirteenth century. A gambler’s Mass, “Lugeamus omnes in Decio {Let us all weep over Decius},” appears as Carmina Burana 215. It was probably copied about 1230. Liturgical parodies, which weren’t authoritative, vary considerably across copies. Many were probably highly informal, never disseminated, and lost over time. Bayless (1999) pp. 79, 87, 139, 170. Liturgical parodies surely were not merely late-medieval phenomena.

In classical Arabic literature, poems in praise of wine (khamriyyāt) are a major group. Some Islamic authorities regard wine as forbidden for Muslims. In ninth-century Baghdad, the great classical Arabic writer al-Jahiz profoundly and humorously addressed the issue of drinking wine.

In medieval Europe, sacred Latin verse, parodic Latin verse, and Occitan lyric were interacting no later than the thirteenth century. In a liturgical parody, Peire Cardenal with an Occitan estribot ironically attacked clerics:

And in place of the matins they have composed an order:
that they should lie with whores until the sun has risen,
and sing baladas and travestied prosae instead.

{ E en loc de matinas an us ordes trobatz
Que jazon ab putanas tro.l solelhs es levatz,
Enans canton baladas e prozels trasgitatz. }

Peire Cardenal, “I shall compose an estribot, which will be very learned {Un estribot farai, que er mot maïstratz}” vv. 19-21, Occitan text and English translation from Léglu (2000) p. 7. A balada is a specific poetic form associated with dancing. A prosa is a short prose work inserted into the liturgy of the Mass.

The clerical affirmation of men’s strong, independent sexuality parallels an Occitan lyric. In the Carmina Burana, written about 1230, immediately following a gambler’s Mass ( “Let us all weep over Decius {Lugeamus omnes in Decio}”) is a parodic prayer:

Almighty, everlasting God, who has sowed great discord between the unschooled and the clerics, grant, we pray, that we may live off their labors, take advantage of their wives, and in the deaths of the aforesaid forever rejoice.

{ Omnipotens sempiterne deus, qui inter rusticos et clericos magnam discordiam seminasti, presta, quesumus, de laboribus eorum vivere, de mulieribus ipsorum uti et de morte dictorum semper gaudere. }

Carmina Burana 215a, Latin text and English translation from Traill (2018) v. 2, pp. 352-3. The closing prayer to the parodic Mass We Confess to the Cask {Confitemini dolio} is similar. For Latin text and English translation, Bayless (1996) p. 116. An Occitan lyric more vigorously affirms men’s sexuality:

Now sing praises! Praised, praised
be the commandment of the abbot.
Lovely girl, if you were
a nun of our house,
to the benefit of all the monks
you would receive tribute.
But you wouldn’t be there, lovely girl,
unless every day you were on your back,
so says the abbot.

{ Ara lausatz, lausat, lausat,
Li comandament l’abat.
Bela, si vos eravatz
Monja de nostra maison,
A profiech de totz los monges
Vos prendiatz liurason.
Mas vos non estaretc, Bela,
Si totzjorns enversa non
ço ditz l’abat. }

Old Occitan text and English translation (with my modifications) from Léglu (2000) p. 9. On the interaction between sacred Latin verse and Old Occitan lyric more generally, id. Ch. 1.

[3] Romano (2009) p. 288. Similarly, Bayless (1996) p. 102. On allernebria, Romano (2009) p. 300.

[4] “At now the sun’s dawning ray {Iam lucis orto sidere}” st. 1, Latin text from Brittain (1962) p. 112, my English translation, benefiting from those of id., Alan G. McDougall, and Bella Millett. This sixth-century hymn became set for the Prime hour in the liturgical Daily Office. It consists of four Ambrosian quatrains.

[5] “At now the sun’s dawning ray {Iam lucis orto sidere}” (drinking parody) st. 1, Latin text from Brittain (1962) p. 225, my English translation, benefiting from those of id. and Bergquist (2002) p. xviii-xix. Here’s the complete Latin text with reading notes. Brittain (1962), pp. xxxi-ii, lists this parody as from the twelfth century.

[6] “Good and sweet word {Verbum bonum et suave},” Latin text from Brittain (1962) p. 225, my English translation, benefiting from those of id. and Edward Tambling & John Kelly. This sequence dates to no later than the twelfth century. Here’s an online Latin text and associated musical notation. Here’s a recording of this sequence.

[7] “Good wine with savor {Vinum bonum cum sapore},” Latin text (modified slightly) from Bayless (1996) p. 339, my English translation, benefiting from that of id., pp. 342-3, and Brittain (1962) p. 224. Here a Latin text from an English songsheet c. 1480 (via Thomas Wright (1847)) and a Latin text from an unattributed 15th-century manuscript (probably via Lehmann (1923)).

For verses 5.3-4, Bayless’s Latin text is (with my English translation) “With voices being not exultant / let us proclaim joys {Sit cum voce non iucunda / Personemus gaudia}.” That’s inconsistent with other manuscripts and not plausible in context. I’ve emended “non iucunda” to “nos iucunda,” consistent with the text from Brittain (1962). That gives in my translation “We with voices being exultant / let us proclaim joys.”

Versus 6.2-3 are difficult and exist in significant variants. Bayless’s text seems to me sensible and quite interesting. It implies clerics “rarely” (but at times) did not participate in the drunken play. It further suggests status tension between participants and non-participants (all have “equal standing”).

Bayless didn’t translate Madafala. That’s apparently the name of a blessed woman. I’ve interpreted it in context as the constructed saint Sloshed based on the Latin word madefacio. That’s consistent with the personifications Cask {Dolium} and Dice {Decius}.

“Vinum bonum cum sapore” and other parodies of “Verbum bonum et suave” were “the single most popular parody composed in the Middle Ages.” Bayless (1996) p. 109. “Vinum bonum cum sapore” dates to the twelfth century. Brittain (1962) p. xxxi. Or perhaps the thirteenth century. Brittain (1937) p. 139.

[8] Bernart de Ventadorn, “When the cold breeze blows {Can la frej’aura venta},” st. 1, Old Occitan text from Serra-Baldó (1934) via Corpus des Troubadours, English translation (with my modifications) from Paden & Paden (2007) p. 76. Bernart de Ventadorn lived in twelfth-century southern France. His name (ventus in Latin means “wind”; similar terms exist in Old French and Old Occitan) made him a particular humorous focus for songs concerning wind and farting.

[9] “When the fart blows from the ass {Quan lo petz del cul venta},” Old Occitan text from Bec (1984) pp. 174-5, my English translation, benefiting from the French translation of id. and the English translation of Poe (2000) p. 86. This song survives in two manuscripts. Verse 5 in manuscript G has “From a horrible bleeder {D’una orrida sangnenta},” while manuscript J has “From a shit-covered old woman {D’una velha merdolenta}.” Above I’ve used Bec’s suggested source for the two versions. Id. p. 175, note to v. 5.

Another troubador parody similarly from the lower stratum satires men’s subservience to women in love.

From her wrong I’ll make amends,
she who banished me from her side,
for I still desire to return to her,
if it pleases her, my songs and myself,
without hope of any other reward;
only may she suffer my soliciting her love
while expecting negligible good.

From my head I’ll shoot at her lice eggs,
if it pleases her, and lice breasts,
given that she doesn’t tear
her ass, which is white and smooth,
and I’ll bring her some hay
when she goes to her task
so that her dress doesn’t freeze.

{ Del sieu tòrt farai esmenda
Lieis que’m fetz partir de se,
Qu’enquèr ai talan que’l renda,
Si’l platz, mas chançons e me
Ses respiech d’autra mercé;
Sol suefra qu’en lieis m’entenda
E que’l bèlh nïen n’atenda. }

{ Del cap li trarai la landa,
Si’lh platz, e’lh pïolh del sen,
Però que non s’escoissenda
Lo còrn, qui es blanc e len
E portarai li del fen,
Quant irà far sa fazenda,
Que la camisa no’s prenda. }

The target of the parody is the first stanza of a song by Peirol of Auvergne. The Old Occitan text is from Bec (1984) p. 176, my English translation benefiting from the French translation of id. and Aston (1953) p. 84. Here’s Aston’s text online and La Camera Della Lacrime’s recording of this song. The Old Occitan text of the parody is from Bec (1984) p. 177 (alternate source), with my English translation benefiting from the French translation of id.

[10] Cobla, Old Occitan text from Bec (1984) pp. 105-6, my English translation, benefiting from the French translation of id. This cobla is preserved in four manuscripts.

[11] Cobla, Old Occitan text from Bec (1984) p. 106, my English translation, benefiting from the French translation of id. Both this parody and its source occur together in Manuscript G.

[image] Portrait of the Ferrara Court Jester Pietro Gonella (excerpt). Painting by Jean Fouquet about the year 1445. Preserved as accession # GG_1840 in the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Vienna, Austria). Via Wikimedia Commons.


Aston, Stanley Collin, ed. and trans. 1953. Peirol, Troubadour of Auvergne. Cambridge: University Press.

Bayless, Martha. 1996. Parody in the Middle Ages: the Latin tradition. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Bec, Pierre. 1984. Burlesque et Obscénité chez les Troubadours: pour une approche du contre-texte médiéval. Paris: Stock.

Bergquist, Peter, ed. 2002. The Complete Motets. 3, Motets for four to eight voices from Thesaurus musicus (Nuremberg, 1564). Middleton, Wisconsin: A-R Editions.

Brittain, Frederick. 1937. The Mediaeval Latin and Romance Lyric to A.D. 1300. University Press: Cambridge.

Brittain, Frederick. 1962. The Penguin Book of Latin Verse: with plain prose translations of each poem. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books.

Léglu, Catherine. 2000. Between Sequence and Sirventes: aspects of parody in the troubadour lyric. Oxford: University of Oxford.

Paden, William D., and Frances Freeman Paden, trans. 2007. Troubadour Poems from the South of France. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer.

Poe, Elizabeth W. 2000. “‘Cobleiarai, car mi platz’: The Role of the Cobla in the Occitan Lyric Tradition.” Ch. 2 (pp. 68-94) in Paden, William D., ed. Medieval Lyric: genres in historical context. Urbana, IL: Univ. of Illinois Press.

Romano, John F. 2009. “Ite potus est: Liturgical parody and views of late-medieval worship.” Sacris Erudiri. 48: 275-309.

gendered misunderstandings of love possession & sexual entitlement

women harvesting from penis tree

In the Bavarian abbey at Tegernsee no later than the twelfth century, a woman student was in love with her man teacher. She wrote to him a passionate love letter. That letter began thus:

To H., flower of flowers, crowned with the garland of courtliness,
model of manliness, the ultimate standard of manliness,
N., who is like honey and without gall like the turtledove,
sends whatever is joyous, whatever can be worthwhile
in present life and whatever is sweet in eternal life,
what love Thisbe had for Pyramus and finally, after all, sends herself,
and then again herself, and whatever she has better than herself.

{ H. flori florum, redimito stemmate morum,
virtutum forme, virtutum denique norme,
<…> similis mellis et turtur nescia fellis,
quicquid iocundum, quicquid valet esse secundum
vite presentis, vel quicquid dulce perennis,
quod Piramo Tispe, tandem post omnia sese,
hinc iterum sese vel quicquid habet melius se. } [1]

Pyramus killed himself out of love for his beloved woman Thisbe. More needs to done to prevent men’s deaths. This woman student wrote to her man teacher that he was to her “more beloved than all the most beloved {dilectissimorum dilectior}.” In fact, she felt at first sight of him the intercourse of love:

From the day I first saw you I began to love you.
You penetrated forcefully my heart’s inner being.

{ Nam a die qua te primum vidi cepi diligere te.
Tu cordis mei intima fortiter penetrasti }

She felt “your being, your being with me {tuus esse, mecum esse}.” That’s a passionate expression of intimate union.

Women in love tend to have a sense of entitlement to love possession. The woman student instructed her man teacher to be faithful to her. She declared that he was one “whom I keep locked in the marrow of my heart {quem teneo medullis cordis inclusum}.” In concluding her letter to him, she drew upon what was probably a refrain in a medieval German folk song:

You are mine, I am yours,
of this you shall be sure.
You are locked
within my heart.
The little key is lost —
there within you must forever be.

{ Du bist min, ih bin din,
des solt du gewis sin.
Du bist beslossen
in minem herzen,
verlorn ist daz sluzzelin —
du muost och immer dar inne sin. }

That’s a sweet sentiment. But it’s also an aggressive assertion of love possession. It starts with the declaration “you are mine {du bist min}” and leaves no room for the other to question, for “of this you shall be sure {des solt du gewis sin}.” Men sometimes sense in love with women an ominous shadow of captivity.

Men, even men professors, tend toward romantic simplicity. Early in the twelfth century at a convent in Regensburg, Bavaria, a woman student was in love with her man teacher. He wrote to her:

It’s I, you know whom, but don’t betray your lover!
I beg you to come at dawn to the old chapel.
Knock at the door lightly, because the sacristan lives there.
What my heart now conceals, then will be revealed to you in bed.

{ En ego quem nosti, sed amantem prodere noli!
Deprecor ad vetulam te mane venire capellam.
Pulsato leviter, quoniam manct inde minister.
Quod celat pectus modo, tunc retegit tibi lectus. } [2]

To many men, love isn’t just a matter of words. The teacher at Regensburg explained to a woman student:

Love consists not in words, but in good deeds.
Because I feel that you love me in words and deeds,
if I live unharmed, with an equally good deed I’ll repay you.

{ Non constat verbis dilectio, sed benefactis.
Quod mihi te verbis et amicam sentio factis,
Si sospes vivam benefactum par tibi reddam. } [3]

Put more simply, one good night in bed merits another. Men’s feelings such as these shouldn’t be dismissed as merely crude lechery. One learned, twelfth-century teacher in Paris wrote to his highly educated woman student:

Those parts that your clothes conceal are like what? Scarcely can I rest my mind.
I want to caress them when they enter my soul.

{ Qualia sunt que veste tegis? Vix mente quiesco.
Que palpasse volo cum subeunt animo. } [4]

While engaging in work of the mind, medieval men teachers profoundly appreciated women’s bodies and the joys of sensuality.

When a woman declares that she gives herself in love to a man, that man commonly feels entitled to have sex with her. Men as fully human beings deserve to flourish fully in all their natural capabilities. Most men sadly have no general sense of sexual entitlement. Of course, men can scarcely develop a sense of sexual entitlement when they endure a harshly unequal gender burden in seeking amorous relationships. Married men and women, however, had a legal sexual entitlement in the relatively enlightened medieval period. Medieval marital law required spouses to have sex with each other even when one didn’t feel like it. Some medieval men apparently felt similarly entitled to sex even if the woman who loved him wasn’t married to him. In particular, the man teacher at Tegernsee complained that the woman student who loved him refused to consent to having sex with him:

Since toward me you spread your branches, fittingly adorned with leaves of words, you enticed my heart. But so that I should not pluck any of your tree’s fruit to taste, you repulsed me. This is the gospel’s fig-tree, fruitless and poetically subtle, yet without cultivation. For what does it occupy earth? If faith without works is truly dead, and if the fullness of love is shown in works, you have shown yourself exceedingly contrary to your very self. … What you expressed magnificently in words, you should fulfill with loving acts.

{ Siquidem ramos tuos, verborum foliis decener adornators, ad me protendens, cor meum allexisti, sed, ne fructem aliquem arboris tue ad gustandum decerperem, repulisti, Hec est enim evangelica illa ficus sine fructu, et poetica sollertia sine cultu: quid etiam terram occupat? Si enim fides sine operibus mortua est, et plenitudo dilectionis exhibitio est operis, valde te contrariam tibi ipsi ostendisti … que verbis magnifice exsecuta est amicabilibus factis adinplere. } [5]

She then again rebuffed him:

you think that after some tender words that we have spoken, you should proceed to acts. It is not so, nor will it be!

{ putatis quod mollia queque nostra dicta transire debeatis ad acta: sic non est nec erit! }

Medieval women students were strong and independent enough to say no to importuning men teachers, even those arguably entitled to sex with them. This young woman even included a bitingly ironic final line in medieval German:

May you be steadfast and joyous always.

{ Statich und salich du iemer wis. }

Not all medieval women were this cruel. Some compassionately helped dying men. Other medieval women nicely refused to have sex with their boyfriends. No good reason exists for being mean to men. Good will to men is good practice, and it promotes peace on earth.

While men need to cultivate a sense of sexual entitlement, women in love should relinquish their sense of love possession. A woman should not treat a man she loves as if he were her personal property or feudal serf. This gender trouble has deep historical roots. Consider a Greek woman’s claims sometime before the early second-century BGC. About her lover she said:

The choice was made by both:
we were united; Aphrodite
is surety for our love. Pain holds me
when I remember
how he kissed me while treacherously intending
to leave me,
that inventor of inconstancy
and creator of love.

{ ἐξ ἀμφοτέρων γέγον᾿ αἵρεσις·
ἐζευγνίσμεθα· τῆς φιλίης Κύπρις
ἔστ᾿ ἀνάδοχος. ὀδύνη μ᾿ ἔχει,
ὅταν ἀναμνησθῶ
ὥς με κατεφίλει ’πιβούλως μέλλων
με καταλιμπάνειν
ἀκαταστασίης εὑρετὴς
καὶ ὁ τὴν φιλίην ἐκτικώς. } [6]

This woman acknowledges her agency and her choice in love. Yet she disparages the man she loved exercising his choice. He loved her, and then he rejected her. That happens in the earthly world. He almost surely didn’t declare himself her love possession forever.[7] Even if he did, men, like women, sometimes change their minds. Her calling him the “inventor of inconstancy” reflects her pain of being rejected. Feminist scholars would note that Helen of Troy deserves credit for being inconstant much earlier than this man was. In any case, this woman wasn’t abandoned, as if she had the right to have the man with her. Merely the man who once loved her subsequently left her.[8]

sexually entitled woman

This woman refused to accept being rejected in love. She still burned with desire for the man:

Desire has seized me,
I do not deny it, having him in my thoughts.
Loving stars and you, Queen Night, who loved with me,
escort me even now to him, to whom Aphrodite
delivers me and drives me, and to the
great desire that has taken hold of me.
As guide I have the great fire
that burns in my heart.

{ ἔλαβέ μ᾿ ἔρως,
οὐκ ἀπαναίναμαι, αὐτὸν ἔχουσ᾿ ἐν τῆι διανοίαι.
ἄστρα φίλα καὶ συνερῶσα πότνια νύξ μοι
παράπεμψον ἔτι με νῦν πρὸς ὃν ἡ Κύπρις
ἔκδοτον ἄγει με καὶ ὁ
πολὺς ἔρως παραλαβών.
συνοδηγὸν ἔχω τὸ πολὺ πῦρ
τὸ ἐν τῆι ψυχῆι μου καιόμενον. }

The underlying figure here is a torchlight bridal procession.[9] The woman doesn’t respect the man’s choice of whom to marry. She insists that she will marry him. She asserts that her sexual jealousy must be the factor controlling his marriage:

I am about to go mad; for jealousy holds me,
and I am burning at being deserted.
For this very reason throw the garlands to me,
with which I shall be bedded in my loneliness.
My lord, do not exclude me and put me away;
receive me; I accept being a slave to jealousy.

{ μέλλω μαίνεσθαι· ζῆλος γάρ μ᾿ ἔχει,
καὶ κατακαίομαι καταλελειμένη.
αὐτὸ δὲ τοῦτό μοι τοὺς στεφάνους βάλε,
οἷς μεμονωμένη χρωτισθήσομαι.
κύριε, μή μ᾿ ἀφῆις ἀποκεκλειμένην·
δέξαι μ᾿· εὐδοκῶ ζήλωι δουλεύειν. }

This woman interprets her jealousy as creating a sexual entitlement for her. Certainly she, like any man, is entitled to sex by her very humanity. But she’s not entitled to sex with any man she chooses. Moreover, she has no right to compel him to marry her, even if she claims that he “seduced” her as a virgin. Women must check their privileged assertions of love possession.

Sexual entitlement expresses a basic human right that’s not gender-specific. Gynocentric society has wrongly sought to deny men’s sexual entitlement while asserting women’s sexual freedom and celebrating women’s strong, independent sexuality. That’s a major gender injustice.

Love possession, in contrast, isn’t a human right. Love possession rightly comes about only through the gift of oneself to another. Rather than demanding that, women should lovingly seek men’s masculine gifts.

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[1] Tegernsee Love-Letters 8, ll. 1-7, Latin text from Dronke (2015) p. 230, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. p. 231 and Newman (2016) p. 242. For a freely available Latin text close to Dronke’s, see Lachmann & Haupt (1888) p. 221. The woman-writer’s initial is missing. I’ve supplied “N.” above in the English translation.

The subsequent five quotes above are similarly from Tegernsee Love-Letters 8. These quotes are, cited by line number in the Latin text of Dronke (2015): 8, “more beloved…”; 56-7, “From the day I first saw you…”; 73-4, “your being…”; 53, “whom I keep locked…”; 131-6, “You are mine….” I’ve simplified the presentation of Dronke’s Latin text to represent simply his emended version.

Newman points out that the German poem “You are mine…” could not have originally ended Tegernsee Love-Letters 8. Newman (2016) p. 246. In Tegernsee Love-Letters 9.40, the man teacher complains to the woman student about the “harsh epilogue {asper epilogus}” to her letter. The German poem certainly isn’t a harsh epilogue. Newman further declared: “The German lines replace an earlier epilogue deleted by the Tegernsee scribe.” Id p. 248. Some scribe apparently deleted the original epilogue. But the German song may have existed in the letter before the deleted epilogue. That deleted epilogue could have been a jarring, harshly anti-meninist declaration such as, “But remember, men who think a heart’s love implies carnal love are dogs!”

[2] Love-Verses from Regensburg 14, Latin text from Dronke (1965) v. 2, p. 426, my English translation benefiting from that of id. and Newman (2016) p. 263 (where it’s numbered 16).

[3] Love-Verses from Regensburg 50, Latin text from Dronke (1965) v. 2, p. 443, my English translation benefiting from that of id. and Newman (2016) p. 278 (where it’s numbered 65).

[4] Letters of Two Lovers {Epistolae duorum amantium} 113.11-2, Latin text from Mews (1999) p. 312, my English translation benefiting from that of id., p. 313, and Newman (2016) p. 82. The Latin text of the letters was originally published in Könsgen (1974).

[5] Tegernsee Love-Letters 9, ll. 21-33, 43-4., Latin text from Dronke (2015) p. 242f, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. and Newman (2016) p. 249. The teacher here alludes to Genesis 3:6 (plucking fruit), Matthew 11:19, Mark 11:13-4, Luke 13:7 (fig tree), James 2:20, 26 (faith without works), and Ephesians 3:19 (fullness of love). Dronke lineates this passage that’s apparently in prose. I’ve not imposed any lineation above.

In interpreting this letter, Newman figures the man teacher as a beast. He “pounces” on the woman; he’s a “rhetorical devil.” Newman (2016) p. 250. Such vicious rhetoric supports the criminalization of men’s sexuality and mass incarceration of men.

The subsequent two quotes are similarly sourced, but from Tegernsee Love-Letters 10.43-46 (“You think that…) and 10.64 (May you be steadfast…).

Medieval men expressed gratitude toward women teachers who taught them sex. For example, the thirteenth-century Galician troubadour Afonso Anes do Cotom praised an abbess-teacher:

Dear abbess, I have heard
that you are very learned
about what´s good; for love
of God, please have mercy
on me, as I know nothing
more than an ass about fucking
and just this year got married.

I´ve heard that when it comes
to fucking and other good fun
you´re a most learned nun,
so teach me how to fuck,
Madam, as I´m untrained:
my parents never explained,
and I remained quite dumb.

And if by you I´m told
about the art of screwing,
and if I learn to do it
from you in your Godly role
as abbess, each time I fuck
I´ll say a solemn Our Father,
and I´ll say it for your soul.

I´m certain, Madam, that you
can thus attain God´s kingdom:
by teaching all poor sinners
more than abstaining from food,
and by teaching all the women
who come to seek your wisdom
about how they should screw.

{ Abadessa, oí dizer
que érades mui sabedor
de tod’o bem; e, por amor
de Deus, querede-vos doer
de mim, que ogano casei,
que bem vos juro que nom sei
mais que um asno de foder.

Ca me fazem en sabedor
de vós que havedes bom sem
de foder e de tod’o bem;
ensinade-me mais, senhor,
como foda, ca o nom sei,
nem padre nem madre nom hei
que m’ensin’e fic’i pastor.

E se eu ensinado vou
de vós, senhor, deste mester
de foder e foder souber
per vós, que me Deus aparou,
cada que per foder direi
Pater Noster e enmentarei
a alma de quem m’ensinou.

E per i podedes gaar,
mia senhor, o reino de Deus,
per ensinar os pobres seus
mais ca por outro jajũar;
e per ensinar a molher
coitada, que a vós veer,
senhor, que nom souber ambrar. }

Galician text and English translation (by Richard Zenith) from the excellent Cantigas Medievais Galego-Portuguesas site. This poem should not be interpreted to justify women teachers raping male students. That those students are then liable to pay their rapists “child support” exacerbates the criminal harm.

[6] From a fragment known as the Alexandrian Erotic Fragment or Fragmentum Grenfellianum, ll. 1-8, Greek text and English translation (modified slightly) from Rusten & Cunningham (2003) pp. 362-3, where it’s labeled Popular Mime, Fragments 1. The subsequent two quotes are similarly sourced from this poem. It was written on the back of a contract dated to 174/3 BGC. Hagedorn (2005) p. 213.

[7] Their being “united” isn’t the language of marriage. Hagedorn (2005) p. 218.

[8] Showing the power of poor-dearism, this poem is called “a dramatic monologue by a young girl, in love but deserted by her lover.” Rusten & Cunningham (2003) p. 356. It’s a “lyrical love-lament song by a woman to the man who has abandoned her.” Alexiou & Dronke (1971) p. 366. She is an “abandoned woman.” Hagedorn (2005) pp. 224.

[9] Alexiou & Dronke (1971) p. 367. Id. provides many other examples of bridal laments.

[images] (1) Women harvesting penises from a penis-tree. Illumination in a 14th-century manuscript of Le Roman de la Rose by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. On folio 160r of manuscript preserved as BnF Ms. Français 25526. Penis trees were a common representation in late-medieval Europe. Mattelaer (2010). The growth of penis-trees suggest more intensive commodification and devaluation of men’s sexuality. (2) Man handing penis to woman. Similarly from folio 160r of BnF Ms. Français 25526.


Alexiou, Margaret and Dronke, Peter. 1971. “Lament of Jephtha’s Daughter: Themes, Traditions, Originality.” Studi Medievali 12 (2): 819-63. Reprinted, with minor revisions, as Ch. 12 (pp. 345-88) in Dronke, Peter. 1992. Intellectuals and poets in Medieval Europe. Roma: Edizioni di storia e letteratura.

Dronke, Peter. 1965. Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Dronke, Peter. 2015. “Women’s Love Letters from Tegernsee.” Pp. 215-245 in Høgel, Christian, and Elisabetta Bartoli, eds. Medieval Letters: Between Fiction and Document. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers.

Hagedorn, Anselm C. 2005. “Jealousy and Desire at Night: Fragmentum Grenfellianum and Song of Songs.” Pp. 206-27 in Hagedorn, Anselm C., ed. Perspectives on the Song of Songs. Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft / Beihefte, Bd. 346. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Könsgen, Ewald. 1974. Epistolae duorum amantium: Briefe Abaelards und Heloises? Leiden, Köln: Brill.

Lachmann, Karl, and Moriz Haupt. 1888. Des Minnesangs Frühling. Leipzig: Hirzel.

Mattelaer, Johan J. 2010. “The Phallus Tree: A Medieval and Renaissance Phenomenon.” The Journal of Sexual Medicine. 7 (2): 846-851.

Mews, Constant. 1999. The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard: Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth-Century France. St Martin’s Press, New York.

Newman, Barbara. 2016. Making Love in the Twelfth Century: Letters of two lovers in context. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Rusten, Jeffrey and I. C. Cunningham, ed. and trans. 2003. Theophrastus, Herodas, Sophron. Characters. Herodas: Mimes. Sophron and Other Mime Fragments. Loeb Classical Library 225. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

risus paschalis for Christmas: laughing with Sarah, begetter of Isaac

Begin, little boy, to get to know mother with a laugh.
Ten months have brought a mother’s long labor.
Begin, little boy; for whom parents do not laugh,
no god honors at his table, no goddess honors in bed.

{ Incipe, parve puer, risu cognoscere matrem,
matri longa decem tulerunt fastidia menses.
Incipe, parve puer, cui non risere parentes,
nec deus hunc mensa, dea nec dignata cubili est. } [1]

Andrei Rublev, Trinity icon

Even at age seventy-four, Sarah was beautiful enough to be a wife for the King of Egypt. But she hadn’t produced any children. Eager for children, Sarah ordered her husband Abraham to have sex with her slave-girl Hagar. Like most husbands, Abraham did what his wife told him to do. He was potent enough at age seventy-five to have a child with Hagar. Sarah then blamed Abraham for the mother Hagar looking down on her. Whatever happens, men get blamed. With the passivity of a man who understands his subordination to women, Abraham told Sarah to do to Hagar whatever she wanted to do. Sarah then kicked Hagar and Hagar’s son Ishmael out of their home. Such is the cruel futility of family life in gynocentric society.

God intervened in history to provide a different family destiny. When Abraham was a hundred years old and Sarah was ninety-nine, God promised Abraham a son with Sarah. In response, Abraham fell on his face before God and laughed.[2] Laughing is not what a pious person usually does prostrate before God. But Abraham didn’t keep his laughter inside himself. God, who loves human beings as creations of his own hands, wasn’t offended by Abraham’s laughter.

Later, three mysterious visitors appeared to Abraham at Mamre. They said that Sarah and Abraham surely would have a son. But Sarah’s menstrual cycle had ceased long ago:

And Sarah laughed inwardly, saying, “After my being shriveled, shall I have pleasure, and my husband is old? [3]

{ וַתִּצְחַ֥ק שָׂרָ֖ה בְּקִרְבָּ֣הּ לֵאמֹ֑ר אַחֲרֵ֤י בְלֹתִי֙ הָֽיְתָה־לִּ֣י
עֶדְנָ֔ה וַֽאדֹנִ֖י זָקֵֽן׃ }

Sarah doubted her husband’s capability to provide her with pleasure and her own ability to bear a child. Husbands, however, will make extraordinary efforts to please their wives. The Lord, who knows every person’s inner being, questioned why Sarah laughed. Sarah, who hadn’t laughed openly, denied having laughed. But the Lord, wise enough not to always believe women, pointed out Sarah’s lie: “Yes, you did laugh.”

Despite their old age, Sarah and Abraham had a son, as the Lord had foretold. They named their son Isaac. That name literally means “he who laughs.” Sarah didn’t confess explicitly that she had been wrong:

And Sarah said:
God has made me laughter,
whoever hears will laugh at me. [4]

{ וַתֹּ֣אמֶר שָׂרָ֔ה צְחֹ֕ק עָ֥שָׂה לִ֖י אֱלֹהִ֑ים כָּל־הַשֹּׁמֵ֖עַ
יִֽצְחַק־לִֽי׃ }

The Hebrew verb used above for “laugh” could alternately mean “mock” or “scorn.” Whether others laughed with Sarah or laughed at Sarah doesn’t seem to matter. Either way, laughter highlights the astonishing reality that in her old age, Sarah had a son Isaac with Abraham.

Isaac was subject to a trial that to Christians prefigured Jesus crucified and resurrected. God told Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering atop a mountain in Moriah. Resolutely faithful to God, Abraham complied with this horrid request for human sacrifice. Isaac carried the wood to which his father Abraham then bound him to be killed. But God at the final moment stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac.[5] Isaac must have been terrified. How could Isaac have gone on to get married and have children of his own? Perhaps he overcame his emotional trauma with cathartic laughter at the inscrutable ways of God.

In twelfth-century Europe, laughter was associated with celebrating the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday. An Easter sequence by the great Parisian hymnist Adam of Saint Victor sings of Isaac:

The boy, figure of our laughter,
for whom the ram was slain,
signifies the joy of life.

{ Puer, nostri forma risus
pro quo vervex est occisus,
vitae signat gaudium. } [6]

Isaac’s salvation, Jesus’s resurrection, celebrating Easter, laughter, and the joy of life are united in this stanza. Heloise of the Paraclete’s husband Peter Abelard wrote hymns for the Oratory of the Paraclete’s nuns to use for the all-important liturgical hours of Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Thirteen of these hymns conclude with a stanza associating the resurrected Jesus’s glory with Christians’ “laughter of Easter grace {risus paschalis gratiae}”:

Make us, Lord, so to suffer with you
that we may become sharers in your glory;
so to conduct these three days in grief
that you may grant us the laughter of Easter grace.

{ Tu tibi compati sic fac nos, Domine,
tuae participes ut simus gloriae;
sic praesens triduum in luctu ducere,
ut risum tribuas paschalis gratiae. } [7]

This sense of laughter and comedy at the culmination of Christian salvation history probably existed much earlier than the twelfth century. Perhaps in the ninth century, the Latin epic Waltharius was written with a preface that declared that reading it “requires one to jest with the Lord rather than to petition the Lord {ludendum magis est dominum quam sit rogitandum}.”

In Europe from the fifteenth through early-eighteenth centuries, “Easter laughter {risus paschalis}” apparently was a popular practice. A modern scholar and church official explained:

In the Baroque period the liturgy used to include the risus pachalis, the Easter laughter. The Easter homily had to contain a story that made people laugh, so that the church resounded with joyful laughter. That may be a somewhat superficial form of Christian joy. But is there not something very beautiful and appropriate about laughter becoming a liturgical symbol? And is it not a tonic when we still hear, in the play of cherub and ornament in Baroque churches, that laughter which testified to the freedom of the redeemed? [8]

Among the York Corpus Christi Plays registered about the year 1470 is a staging of Christ before Herod. In that play, King Herod is a extravagantly comic character leading an unsuccessful attempt to get Christ to speak. Prior to being confounded by Christ, Herod exclaimed:

Oh, my heart hops for joy,
to see now this prophet appear!
We shall have a good game with this boy;
take heed, for in haste you shall hear.
I believe we shall laugh and have liking,
to see how this scoundrel alleges our laws.

{ O, my harte hoppis for joie
To se nowe this prophette appere.
We schall have goode game with this boy;
Takis hede, for in haste ye schall here.
I leve we schall laugh and have likyng
To se nowe this lidderon her he leggis oure lawis. } [9]

Soldiers (“knights”) brought Christ before Herod and told of Christ’s wondrous sayings and acts. Christ himself, despite questions, mockery, and threats, refused to speak before King Herod. That was an astonishing act of silence. One of Herod’s sons declared:

My lord, all this muteness amends not a mite.
To mess with a madman’s a marvel to me.
Command your knights to clothe him in white;
let him go as he came to your country.

{ Mi lorde, all youre mutyng amendis not a myte,
To medill with a madman is mervaille to mene;
Comaunde youre knyghtis to clothe hym in white
And late hym carre as he come to youre contré.}

King Herod agreed:

Sir knights, we’ll endeavor to make you be glad;
our counsel has warned us wisely and well.
White clothing is fitting for this foolish lad.
Fully all of his folly in faith we feel.

{ Sir knyghtis, we caste to garre you be gladde,
Oure counsaile has warned us wisely and wele:
White clothis we saie fallis for a fonned ladde,
And all his foly in faith fully we feele. }

For the Christian audience in relation to Christ, “fully all of his folly in faith we feel.” Herod, lacking Christian consciousness, enacted a joke upon himself.[10] For Christians celebrating Easter, weeping at Christ’s crucifixion is turned to joy at his resurrection. Medieval Christians then had the blessing of laughing with the risen Christ.

Who has ever heard of such,
tell me, I pray, about these doings.

{ Quis audivit talia,
Dic, rogo, facta } [11]

Christian laughter isn’t only for Easter. When he heard that his wife Sarah would have a son, Abraham prostrated himself before God and laughed. Those who will celebrate the birth of Christ at Christmas should laugh like Abraham. Christ showed comedic spirit in raising Lazarus, in healing the sick, and in playing with the Canaanite woman. Christians, fools for Christ, now more than ever live in a world of clowns. Over here, over there, funny things are everywhere. With men subject to bizarre paternity laws and men deprived of any reproductive rights whatsoever, what are men to think of Joseph, foster-father of Jesus? Who can believe that women and men can still love each other and have children?

Tomorrow let love whoever has never loved; whoever has loved, let tomorrow love.

{ Cras amet qui nunquam amavit quique amavit cras amet. } [12]

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[1] Virgil, Eclogues 4.60-4, Latin text from Greenough (1900) via Perseus, my English translation, benefiting from those of Mackail (1910) and A. S. Kline (2001).

[2] Genesis 12-18; in particular, Genesis 12:4 (Abraham 75 years old), 12:14-5 (beautiful Sarah taken into Pharaoh’s house), 16:1-6 (Sarah, Hagar, and Abraham), and 17:17 (Abraham 100 years old, Sarah 99 years old, Abraham laughed before God).

[3] Genesis 18:12, Hebrew text via BlueLetterBible, English translation from Alter (1996), where I have inserted “my” before “being shriveled.” For God’s response, Genesis 18:15.

[4] Genesis 21:6, sourced as previously, with my change from “Laughter has God made me” to “God has made me laughter.” Alter notes:

The ambiguity of both the {Hebrew} noun tsehoq (“laughter”) and the accompanying preposition li (“to” or “for” or “with” or “at me”) is wonderfully suited to the complexity of the moment. It may be laughter, triumphant joy, that Sarah experiences and that is the name of the child Isaac (“he-who-laughs”). But in her very exultation, she could well feel the absurdity (as Kafka noted in one of his parables) of a nonagenarian becoming a mother. Tsehoq also means “mockery,” and perhaps God is doing something to her as well as for her. (In poetry, tsahaq is often linked in parallelism with la’ag, to scorn or mock, and it should be noted that la’ag is invariably followed by the preposition le, as tsahaq here.) All who hear of it may laugh, rejoice with Sarah, but the hint that they might also laugh at her is evident in her language.

Alter (1996) p. 97, note.

[5] Genesis 22:1-19.

[6] Adam of Saint Victor, “Let the old leaven be purged {Zyma vetus expurgetur}” (Easter sequence) st. 9, Latin text from Brittain (1962) p. 198, my English translation benefiting from that of id. Here’s a Latin text with German translation, and the English translation of Neale (1867). The Christian letter to the Hebrews associates Christ rising from the dead with Isaac. Hebrews 11:17-9. Galatians 4:28 calls Christians “children of the promise, like Isaac.”

[7] Peter Abelard, hymns for the Sacred Triduum, e.g. “On Friday for the hour of the morning {in parasceve ad laudes},” st. 4, Latin text from Woods (1992) p. 168, my English translation benefiting from that of id. “Christ, the new Isaac, both is risus paschalis, and the new laughter of Easter, and gives that laughter to Christians in the rejoicing that follows his death.” O’Connell (2002) p. 51. John 16:20 tells of sorrow turned into joy. Luke 6:21 explicitly refers to laughter:

Blessed are you who now weep, for you shall laugh.

{ beati qui nunc fletis quia ridebitis
μακάριοι οἱ κλαίοντες νῦν ὅτι γελάσετε }

Cf. Ecclesiastes 3:4.

In his hymns for the Sacred Triduum, Abelard clearly intended to emphasize risus paschalis. His poetic form has been presented slightly differently by different authors. O’Connell states that “each of the fifteen hymns” that Abelard wrote for Good Friday and Holy Saturday concludes with the above stanza. Id. p. 50. In her careful study, Woods point out that the manuscript arrangement sets out fourteen hymns, with the first hymn for Good Friday ending with this, its ninth stanza:

Let this night of weeping and these three days
when tears shall linger, be the evening,
until the most welcome morning of joy is restored
to us in our sorrow, with the rising of the Lord.

{ Nox ista flebilis praesensque triduum
quo demorabitur fletus sit vesperum
donec laetitiae mane gratlsslmum
surgente Domino, sit maestis redditum. }

Latin text and English trans. from Woods (1992) p. 149. Editors have split this hymn into three hymns and added the “risus paschalis gratiae” stanza to the end of two of them. Id. p. 145. In Woods’s learned judgment, that change isn’t warranted. In either case, the importance of risus paschalis is beyond doubt.

Abelard also remembered and represented laughter in his Easter sequence Epithalamica. When the bride is re-united with her bridegroom, she sings:

Now I see what I had desired,
now I clasp what I had loved;
now I laugh, I who had so wept:
more I rejoice than I had grieved.
I laughed at dawn, I wept at night;
at dawn I laughed, at night I wept.

{ Iam video quod optaveram,
iam teneo quod amaveram;
iam rideo que sic fleveram:
plus gaudeo quam dolueram.
Risi mane, flevi nocte;
mane risi, nocte flevi. }

“Speak bride, your wedding song {Epitalamica dic, sponsa, cantica},” st. 7, Latin text from Ashlock (2013) pp. 47-8, my English translation, benefiting from that of Waddell (1986) p. 251. Ashlock newly transcribed the Latin to more accurately represent the manuscripts than does Waddell’s Latin text. Ashlock (2013) p. 19. For this stanza, the only difference is Waddell’s classical spelling of que as quae.

The Epithalamica draws heavily on the Song of Songs. In traditional Christian topological interpretation of the Song of Songs, the bride represents the church, and the bridegroom, Christ. The bride’s desire for her bridegroom also has an obvious earthly correlate. The medieval manuscripts treat the Epithalamica as a Marian sequence and associate it with the liturgical Birth of Mary office. Waddell (1986) pp. 246-7. In Christian understanding, Mary is intimately and uniquely associated with the birth of Christ. The laughter of the Epithalamica can thus also be felt as Christmas laughter.

Waddell highlighted the importance of laughter to Abelard. He observed:

the laughter/weeping, morning/evening couples … bear the stamp of Abelard, or, more correctly, Abelard and Augustine. As early as pre-Lent Septuagesima Sunday, Abelard’s sermon for that day had begun by ringing the changes of Qoheleth’s Tempus flendi/ tempus ridendi, “A time to weep/a time to laugh.”

Id. p. 263. In addition to his repeated invocations of laughter in his hymns for the Sacred Triduum, Abelard also explicitly referred to laughter after weeping in his Easter sermon. Id. p. 265. Just as for Isaac and his experience of nearly being slaughtered by this father, Abelard may have found in laughter some release from the horror of his castration.

Some scholars now attribute the Epithalamica not to Peter Abelard, but to Heloise of the Paraclete. Wulstan (2002), Ashlock (2013). My sense is that Abelard wrote the Epithalamica. Scholarship attributing the Epithalamica to Heloise seems to me to draw upon motifs in Martianus Capella’s On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury {De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii}, suitably interpreted.

[8] Ratzinger (1997) pp. 50-1. Another authority explains:

The ‘risus paschalis’ referred to the widespread practice of the pastor telling jokes on Easter Sunday to celebrate Christ in this resurrection enjoying “the last laugh” over Satan and death; that was done in the spirit of “those who laugh last laugh best.”

O’Collins (2013) p. 79.

[9] York Corpus Christi Plays, Play 31: Christ Before Herod, ll. 163-8, Middle English text from Davidson (2011), English modernization from Scoville & Yates (2003). The subsequent two quotes are similarly from Christ Before Herod, ll. 335-8 (My lord, all this muteness…), 349-52 (Sir Knights…). A white robe is a Christian symbol of purity. Revelation 3:4-5, 7:13-4.

This play is based on Luke 23:6-12. It was performed by York’s craft of litsters (dyers). Its anonymous author is known as the “York Realist,” a highly accomplished literary author.

[10] O’Connell summarizes:

If English townsfolk also laughed at preachers who told silly stories, capered about, enacted nonsense and animal noises at Easter, then Herod’s performance here participates in that tradition of absurd preaching and reinforces the promise of triumph and laughter in the larger play.

O’Connell (2002) p. 56.

In his interesting, wide-ranging book, Pound declared:

a socially comic and critically informed role for the church in postmodernity, a counter-joke to the joke of capitalism. … we fail to appreciate the central dynamism of trinitarian love directly with the comic, and the task of the church in maintaining love’s comedy: the joke that God sets before us, the counter-joke to a world in which laughter is far too often on the side of the capitalist.

Pound (2019) pp. 13, 215. Capitalism in the U.S. might be regarded as a joke; so was socialism in the Soviet Union. Anti-meninism seems to me a more significant joke that most persons around the world aren’t getting. Anti-meninism can be overcome with comedic integrity. See the discussion of Lacan in note [6] of my post on Arnaut’s “Pòis Raimons e’N Truc Malècs.” Lacan shameless exploited castration culture. The point isn’t merely to create for oneself a crazy-cult following like that of Foucault, but to change the world for the better.

[11] Notcerus Balbulus {Notker the Stammerer}, also known as Notker of Saint Gall, “O, let us recall, worthy of faithful praise, / songs of this day {Eia, recolamus laudibus piis digna / Huius diei carmina},” 13.3-4, Latin text from Brittain (1962) p. 159, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. Here’s an online Latin text. Notker probably wrote this Christmas sequence in the ninth century in what is present-day St. Gall, Switzerland.

[12] First line (and refrain) of an anonymous poem conventionally titled “The Virgil of Venus {Pervigilium Veneris},” Latin text from William Harris of Middlebury College, my English translation, benefiting from the various English translations presented in Herz (2018). Dating of this poem ranges from the second century to the fifth century GC.

[image] The Trinity, as figured as the three angelic visitors to Abraham and Sarah at Mamre. Icon made by Andrei Rublev between 1411 and 1425. Preserved as accession # 13012 in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Via Wikimedia Commons. For thoughts on this icon in relation to the Trinity, dancing, and laughter, London (2017).


Alter, Robert, trans. 1996. Genesis. New York: W.W. Norton.

Ashlock, Taylor Ann. 2013. “New Music to the Very Ears of God”?: Heloise the Composer. Undergraduate Honors Thesis. Paper 580. College of William and Mary.

Brittain, Frederick. 1962. The Penguin Book of Latin Verse: with plain prose translations of each poem. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books.

Davidson, Clifford, ed. 2011. The York Corpus Christi Plays. Kalamazoo, Mich: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University.

Herz, Bob. 2018. “A Translation & Notes on Pervigilium Veneris.” Nine Mile Magazine: Talk About Poetry. May 29, online.

London, Deforest. 2017. “The Sound of One God Laughing.” Online (June 2) at Deforest London.

O’Collins, Gerald. 2013. “Easter Grace.” Ch. 5 in Winter, Sean. Immense Unfathomed Unconfined: the grace of God in creation, church and community : essays in honour of Norman Young. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers.

O’Connell, Michael. 2002. “Mockery, Farce, and Risus Paschalis in the York Christ before Herod.” Pp. 45-58 in Hüsken, Wim N. M., Konrad Schoell, and Leif Søndergaard. Farce and Farcical Elements. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Pound, Marcus. 2019. Theology, Comedy, Politics. Minneapolis: MN Fortress Press.

Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal, from German trans. by John Rock and Graham Harrison. 1997 / 2006. Images of Hope: Meditations on Major Feasts. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

Scoville, Chester N. and Kimberley M. Yates. 2003. The York Plays: a modernization. Toronto.

Waddell, Chrysogonus. 1986. “Epithalamica: An Easter Sequence by Peter Abelard.” The Musical Quarterly. 72 (2): 239-271.

Woods, Patricia Hilary, and Peter Abelard. 1992. The Festival Hymns of Peter Abelard: a translation and commentary of the Hymnarius Paraclitensis Libellus II. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Glasgow.

Wulstan, David. 2002. “Novi modulaminis melos: the music of Heloise and Abelard.” Plainsong and Medieval Music. 11 (1): 1-23.

melodious nightingale & heavenly Jerusalem: medieval re-imaginings

heavenly Jerusalem, in Beatus by Facundus

The melodious nightingale and heavenly Jerusalem, two ancient figures, are significantly gendered. As all are now taught from a tender age, gender is socially constructed. That’s beyond question by definition. Poets in the relatively liberal and enlightened medieval period, however, dared to re-imagine the female genderings of the melodious nightingale and heavenly Jerusalem. They re-imagined these female gender figures with keen appreciation for men’s sexual interests and men’s social subordination.

In the reality of the natural world, the male nightingale sings melodies to attract a female mate. An ancient myth-maker, however, reversed the singing nightingale’s gender. That was to enable the Philomela myth and foster social silence about men being raped and violence against men. In the seventh century, facing down this mythic horror, Eugenius of Toledo pushed aside men’s gender burden of soliciting amorous relationships and re-imagined the nightingale as a woman pleasing a man with her sweet words. He wrote:

No other bird can ever imitate your singing;
sweet honey flows with your fluent, rippling notes.
Speak with vibrant tongue your tremulous warbling,
and pour liquid melody from your smooth throat.
Offer attentive ears food with sweet-sounding flavor,
never to silence cease, never to silence cease.
Glory and blessings and praise to Christ our Savior,
who grants his servants good gifts such as these.

{ Nulla tuos unquam cantus imitabitur ales,
Murmure namque tuo dulcia mella fluunt.
Dic ergo tremulos lingua vibrante susurros
Et suavi liquidum gutture pange melos.
Porrige dulcisonus, attentis auribus escas;
Nolo tacere velis, nolo tacere velis.
Gloria summa tibi, laus et benedictio, Christe,
Qui praestas famulis haec bona grata tuis. } [1]

In Eugenius’s highly sensuous poem, the woman bird pleases the man with her bodily gifts, which ultimately are from God. God grants persons the pleasure of enjoying each other bodily. Stating that was possible in seventh-century Europe. In our Dark Age of totalitarian anti-meninism, honoring and praising a bird for providing bodily pleasure to a man is scarcely tolerable.

In fourteenth-century Italy, Boccaccio recognized the gender mutuality implicit in Eugenius’s figure of the melodious nightingale. He told the story of Caterina, a highly privileged, beautiful, young single woman. She fell in love with Ricciardo. He was a noble young man who loved her as she loved him. They sought to get together to save each other from dying of lovesickness. But Caterina’s parents guarded her carefully, as if young men threatened her like dangerous beasts.

Caterina ingeniously contrived to sleep with Ricciardo. She explained to her parents that her bedroom was too hot for her. She said that to be cooler, she wanted to sleep out on the balcony over the garden. In that garden, a nightingale sang. Caterina told her parents that the nightingale, undoubtedly a male bird, gave her delight. Her mother responded that their house wasn’t hot and that Caterina should sleep inside. Caterina, however, explained to her mother that young women are much hotter than older women. Her mother and father finally allowed her to sleep outside on the balcony over the garden.

As they had pre-arranged, that night Ricciardo climb up to the balcony to where Caterina had placed her bed. Then they saved each other from dying of lovesickness:

After many kisses, they lay down together, and almost for the entire night, they took delight and pleasure in one another, many times making the nightingale sing.

{ dopo molti basci si coricarono insieme, e quasi per tutta la notte diletto e piacer presono l’un dell’altro, molte volte faccendo cantar l’usignuolo. } [2]

As Boccaccio understood, the singing nightingale is a male bird. But what specific form of bird? The course of events soon revealed:

But, short being the night and long their pleasure, when daybreak was near (although they wished it not), having gotten heated up by the time and their play together, they fell asleep while completely naked. As she slept, Caterina’s right arm cradled Ricciardo’s neck, while her left hand held him by that part that you ladies are too modest to name in the presence of men.

{ E essendo le notti piccole e il diletto grande, e già al giorno vicino (il che essi non credevano), e sí ancora riscaldati e sí dal tempo e sí dallo scherzare, senza alcuna cosa addosso s’addormentarono, avendo a Caterina col destro braccio abbracciato sotto il collo Ricciardo, e con la sinistra mano presolo per quella cosa che voi tra gli uomini piú vi vergognate di nominare. }

After dawn, Caterina’s father walked out onto the balcony to see how his daughter was sleeping with the nightingale’s song. He gently lifted the curtains around her bed. Then he saw them naked, with Caterina embracing Ricciardo in the way  just described. Her father called to his wife:

Quick, lady, get up and come and see that your daughter was so desirous of the nightingale that to such purpose she has caught him and holds him in her hand.

{ Sú tosto, donna, lievati e vieni a vedere, che tua figliuola è stata sí vaga dell’usignuolo che ella è stata tanto alla posta che ella l’ha preso e tienlosi in mano. }

The nightingale here means Ricciardo’s genitals. That’s a brilliant re-imagining of the singing nightingale as a male bird. In the words of the seventh-century poet Eugenius, glory and blessings and praise to Christ for such a good gift.

Medieval poets similarly re-imagined heavenly Jerusalem as warmly welcoming to men. The Book of Revelation describes the heavenly Jerusalem, the new Jerusalem, as a bride:

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven and made ready as a bride adorned for her husband.

{ καὶ τὴν πόλιν τὴν ἁγίαν Ἰερουσαλὴμ καινὴν εἶδον καταβαίνουσαν ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ ἀπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ ἡτοιμασμένην ὡς νύμφην κεκοσμημένην τῷ ἀνδρὶ αὐτῆς } [3]

The heavenly Jerusalem as bride has helped to figure the church as woman. Under intensification of gynocentrism, heavenly Jerusalem could become the City of Ladies, an imaginary gynocentric paradise. Yet resisting, manly men pondered: for what was the bride ready? A medieval poet of the sixth or seventh century imagined the heavenly Jerusalem as a bride coming down from heaven to oppressed Christian men, such as men in sexless marriages or in celibate Hell:

Blessed city Jerusalem,
called vision of peace,
constructed in heaven
from living stones
and crowned by angels
like a bride by friends.

Young woman coming from heaven
to the marital bed,
ready to be made spouse,
to be united with her Lord.
Her spaces and boundaries
are made from purest gold.

Her doors shine with pearls,
with her inmost shrines being open,
and by manliness of the deserving
into that place are lead
all who in Christ’s name
are oppressed in this world.

{ Urbs beata Jerusalem
dicta pacis visio
quae construitur in caelis
vivis ex lapidibus
et angelis coronata
ut sponsata comite.

Nova veniens e caelo
nuptiali thalamo.
Praeparata, ut sponsata,
copuletur Domino.
Plateae et muri ejus
ex auro purissimo.

Portae nitent margaritis,
adytis patentibus,
et virtute meritorum
illuc introducitur
omnis qui ob Christi nomen
hic in mundo premitur. } [4]

The joy that the young woman from heaven promises for the marital bed will last forever in a restful paradise:

Here all are deserving
to obtain their desires
and to hold that acquired
with the saints forever,
and to enter paradise,
conveyed in bed.

{ Hic promereantur omnes
petita acquirere
et adepta possidere
cum sanctis perenniter,
paradisum introire
translati in requiem. } [5]

As a victim of castration culture, Peter Abelard understood personally and painfully what it means to be an oppressed man. He praised the heavenly Jerusalem, the young woman who fulfills completely men’s desires:

True Jerusalem is that city,
forever united in peace, the highest delight,
where desire doesn’t overtake the act’s fulfillment,
nor is the reward less than the desire.

{ Vera Ierusalem est illa civitas,
cuius pax iugis est, summa iucunditas,
ubi non praevenit rem desiderium,
nec desiderio minus est praemium. } [6]

Spouses should repeat this beautiful stanza to each other every night before they get into bed. Single persons should repeat it to themselves in hopeful joy, without any delusions of being self-partnered. The heavenly Jerusalem figured as female doesn’t contribute to gynocentric oppression if she’s united in bed with a man.

Not just the penis’s image problem, but many other historically entrenched gender figures also contribute to disparaging and oppressing men. The female gendering of the melodious nightingale effaces men laboring to uphold their gender burden of soliciting amorous relationships. The female gendering of the heavenly Jerusalem structures a heavenly city with earthly, oppressive gynocentrism. Medieval poets were capable of re-imagining these gender figures to promote a more humane and just world for men, and for everyone. Yes we can, too.

Heavenly city, blessed city,
upon a rock situated,
city in a port of plenty safety,
from afar I salute you.
I salute you, I sigh for you,
I desire you, I require you.

{ Urbs caelestis, urbs beata
Super petram collocata,
Urbs in portu satis tuto,
De longinquo te saluto.
Te saluto, te suspiro,
Te affecto, te requiro. } [7]

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Eugenius of Toledo, “Your voice, nightingale, urges one to proclaim songs {Vox, Philomela, tua cantus edicere cogit},” Latin text from Brittain (1962) p. 126 (a text is available online), my English translation benefiting from that of id. and Adcock (1983) p. 19.

The author of “Vox, Philomela, tua cantus edicere cogit” is specifically Eugenius II of Toledo. He died as Bishop of Toledo in 658 GC. Eugenius had perhaps a typical educational background of a learned person in seventh-century Spain:

as he had read widely and intelligently among the classical poets and his immediate predecessors, he was able to command a variety of metres and subjects.

Raby (1934) vol. 1, p. 150. Eugenius achieved considerable distinction. His poems were widely read, including in England and among the Carolingian poets. Id. p. 151.

The female gendering of the melodious nightingale generated at least one poem of men’s sexed protest. The specific context is poetic. Cambridge Songs 10, titled “Concerning a nightingale {De luscinia},” beginning “May the golden lyre sound bright melodies {Aurea personet lira clara modulamina},” lavishly praises the female nightingale for her singing talent. A tenth-century poet responded to that gynocentric nightingale poem with a metrical parody drawing upon themes of men’s sexed protest:

Her incessant, yet not hoarse
whistling voice is never mute,
as she chants her incantations
like a woodland prostitute,
puffing up her puny figure
full of music and conceit.

Will you never stop that racket,
you over-rated little bird?
Do you think your art surpasses
all the singing ever heard?
Don’t you know that other music
is quite frequently preferred?

As you bash your tinkling cymbals
with excessive jollity,
wakeful crowds of gentry
egg you on with flattery:
your eternal serenading
wins the praise of royalty.

Stop it, stop it, you’re a nuisance —
surely now you’ve tired that beak?
When I try a little snoozing
on the sly, you make me sick.
Must you every moment sing
as if worthy of applauding stars?

{ Prolixa non rauca mittit
voce sepe sibila,
plura canit incantando
saltuum prostibula,
gliscit mirabilis membra
ludens menia carmina.

O tu parva, cur non cessas
clangere, avicula?
Estimas nunc superare
omnes arte musica?
Aut quid cum lira contempnis
sonora dulciflua?

Ultra vires iocabunda
luctas thimfanistria,
te auscultant vigilando
regalis insignia,
laudat procerum caterva
tua plura cantica.

Cessa, cessa fatigando
lassata iam bucula,
quia premis dormizantes
clam iugiter nausia,
omni ora pro quid canis
digna ovans sidera? }

“Often a golden tongue / at the heights of religious brotherhood {Aurea frequenter lingua / in sublimi hetera }” st. 8-11, Latin text from Strecker (1926), Appendix 1, via Bibliotheca Augustana, English translation (modified slightly) from Adcock (1983) pp. 31-3. For a slightly revised Latin text, Bradley (1987).

The male nightingale’s melodious song has been wrongly credited to females throughout recorded history. In Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope calls the nightingale “daughter of Pandareus” and invokes the anti-meninist Philomela myth. Odyssey 19.511-28. Hesiod refers to the nightingale as female in a passage brutalizing a male bird. Works and Days, ll. 203-11. In fifth-century Athens, tragedies and comedies referred to the melodious nightingale as female. For a collection of ancient and medieval nightingale poems, Williams (1997) Appendices 1 and 2. In id. and other recent scholarship, gender and nightingales have typically been considered only within the viciously patrolled boundaries of dominant ideology. For a nightingale poetry survey showing some concern for male nightingales, Addison (2009).

[2] Boccaccio, Decameron 5.4, Italian text that of Branca’s Einaudi edition (1992) via Decameron Web, my English translation benefiting from those of Rigg (1903) and Rebhorn (2013). Subsequent quotes from this story are similarly sourced.

[3] Revelation 21:2, Greek text from BlueLetterBible. See similarly Revelation 3:12, 21:9-10.

[4] “The blessed city Jerusalem / called vision of peace {Urbs beata Jerusalem / dicta pacis visio},” st. 1-3, Latin text from Brittain (1962) p. 127, my English translation benefiting from that of id. and Neale (1851). This hymn is from the sixth or seventh century. For some traditional analysis of it, Belsole (2017).

[5] “Urbs beata Jerusalem” st. 8, sourced as above. This stanza is also st. 4 in “Christ is put as the corner stone {Angularis fundamentum / lapis Christus missus est}.” The latter is the second part of the former. It apparently was established as a separate hymn in the Moissac Breviary in the tenth century. Here’s the translation of Neale (1851) (alternate source). Both parts of “Urbs beata Jerusalem” were used in the service for the 750th anniversary of the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey.

[6] Peter Abelard, “O of what quantity and quality are the Sabbaths {O quanta qualia sunt illa sabbata},” st. 2, Latin text from Mark Walter in the Classical Anthology, my English translation benefiting from those of id., Brittain (1962) pp. 195-7, and Neale (1854). Here’s the music for the hymn, and a performance of it.

[7] Hildebert of Lavardin, “May that Zion receive me {Sion me receptet illa},” ll. 18-22, Latin text from Brittain (1962) p. 192, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. and the one provided by Michael Gilleland. Hildebert of Lavardin (lived in France, 1056-1133) was a leading poet of his time. Hildebert had keen appreciation for men’s gender disadvantage.

[image] Heavenly Jerusalem, the bride from heaven. This manuscript illumination includes the flower of life, the tree of life, and a representation of men’s seminal contribution to life. From a Beatus, made by Facundus for Ferdinand I and Queen Sancha. Preserved as folio 254 in Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, Ms Vit.14.2. Via Wikimedia Commons. Here are more images from the magnificent Beatus of Facundus. The monk Beatus of Liébana, living in the monastery of Martin de Turieno (near present-day Santander on the north coast of Spain) in the eighth century made what became the prototype of a book known as a Beatus. For discussion, Williams (2011).


Adcock, Fleur. 1983. The Virgin and the Nightingale: medieval Latin poems. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books.

Addison, Catherine. 2009. “‘Darkling I listen’: The nightingale’s Song In and Out of Poetry.” Alternation: Journal of the Centre for the Study of Southern African Literature and Languages. 16 (Special issue ; 2): 190-220.

Belsole, Kurt. 2017. “‘Urbs Ierusalem Beata’: The Hymn for Evening Prayer for the Dedication of a Church.” The Institute for Sacred Architecture. 32. Online.

Bradley, Dennis R. 1987. “‘Aurea frequenter lingua in sublimi hetera’ – A New Edition.” Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch. 22: S. 114-135.

Brittain, Frederick. 1962. The Penguin Book of Latin Verse: with plain prose translations of each poem. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books.

Rebhorn, Wayne A., trans. 2013. Giovanni Boccaccio. The Decameron. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Williams, Jeni. 1997. Interpreting Nightingales: Gender, Class and Histories. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Williams, John. 2011. “Beatus of Liébana.” The Public Domain Review. Online.