Abishag & David: Guillaume de Machaut’s Voir Dit shows possibilities

The aged King David felt cold in bed. On their own initiative, his retainers undertook a wide-ranging search for a young, beautiful, woman to keep him warm. Abishag the Shunammite was victorious in that beauty search. She thus gained the opportunity to crawl into bed with King David.

The young, beautiful Abishag nestled in bed with the aged David. He accepted her warm care for him. But he didn’t have sex with her. Because an old heterosexual man abstaining from sex with a beautiful, young, willing woman tends to regarded as a pious delusion, modern scholars commonly assume that David was impotent.[1] The love affair that Guillaume de Machaut documented in his fourteenth-century book, The True Poem {Le Voir Dit}, provides an important counterpoint to superficial interpretations of Abishag and David’s relationship in bed.

King David in bed with Abishag the Shunammite

When Guillaume de Machaut was in his sixties, a young woman wrote to him of her ardent love for him. She was the nineteen-year-old Peronne d’Armentières, the daughter of the wealthy lord of Armentières in the Aisne department of France. Machaut was then an eminent cleric, poet, and musical composer. Without having talked with him or even just gazed upon him, Peronne came to love Machaut through the public acclaim for his written work.[2] Her love was a case of the well-known medieval possibility of experiencing “love from afar {amor de lonh}.”

Machaut had established his fame in part through writing men-abasing courtly love poetry associated with deeply entrenched gyno-idolatry. Imagine the desperate misery of a man who would write a poem such as this:

Sweet, lovely lady,
for God’s sake do not think
that any other has sovereignty
over my heart — only you alone.

Always, without treachery,
I have cherished you,
and all the days of my life humbly,
without base thoughts, served you.

And since my malady will
never be healed without you, sweet
enemy who takes delight
in my torment,

with clasped hands I beg
your heart that forgets me,
that it mercifully kill me,
for too long have I languished.

{ Douce dame jolie,
Pour dieu ne pensés mie
Que nulle ait signorie
Seur moy fors vous seulement.

Qu’adès sans tricherie
Vous ay et humblement
Tous les jours de ma vie
Sans villain pensement.

Et quant ma maladie
Ne sera nullement
Sans vous, douce anemie,
Qui lie
Estes de mon tourment,

A jointes mains deprie
Vo cuer, puis qu’il m’oublie,
Que temprement m’ocie,
Car trop langui longuement. }[3]

Machaut beloved lady couldn’t even be bothered to fulfill his request to kill him. Like men foolishly soldiering in love, Machaut was frustrated and deprived of joy. He thus made himself ill in his old age.

Defying the men-oppressing gender norm for initiating amorous relationships, Peronne took the initiative with Machaut. She sent him a rondel that she had composed for him:

The woman who has never seen you
and who loves you faithfully
with all her heart makes you this present.
She says she sees nothing to her liking
because she cannot see you often,
the woman who has never seen you
and who loves you faithfully,
but because of the good that
all the world in unison says of you,
you have with virtue conquered her.
The woman who has never seen you
and who loves you faithfully
with all her heart makes you this present.

{ Celle qui onques ne vous vit
Et qui vous aimme loiaument
De tout son cuer vous fait present
Et dit qua son gre pas ne vit
Quant veoir ne vous puet souvent
Celle qui onques ne vous vit
Et qui vous aimme loiaument
Car pour les biens que de vous dit
Tous li mondes communement
Conquise lavez bonnement
Celle qui onques ne vous vit
Et qui vous aimme loiaument
De tout son cuer vous fait present }[4]

The messenger who brought Peronne’s rondel to Machaut described her as a dream-woman:

She is noble, young, gay, and elegant,
lithe, well-shaped, pretty, and attractive,
wise at heart, and in her manner
very humble, and with a quiet way,
beautiful, good, and the best singer
born in the last hundred years,
and even her dancing is exceptional.
Indeed she’s such a sweet creature
that she surpasses and exceeds all other women
in intelligence, in sweetness, and in grace.

{ Gente, iuene, jolie, et iointe
Longue, droite, faitice, et cointe
Sage de cuer et de maniere
Treshumble et de simple chiere
Belle, bonne, et la mieux chantans
Qui fust nee de puis .C. ans
Mais elle dance outre mesure
Et sest si douce creature
Que toutes autres veint et passe
En sens en douceur et en grace}

According to the messenger, Peronne felt compassion for the ill Machaut. She wanted to make him well. Warm-hearted medieval women cared for suffering men. The beautiful, young Peronne cared for the eminent, sick, much older Machaut.

Unlike Machaut, King David had vigorously pushed forward God blessing with loving action. God’s fundamental blessing in Hebrew scripture is more life — descendants as numerous as stars in the sky and sand on the seashore. David had eight wives, at least ten concubines, and numerous children. His sexual vigor was such that when he saw the beautiful Bathsheba bathing, he intensely lusted for her and arranged to have sex with her. Moreover, he arranged to have Bathsheba’s husband killed. Then David married her. Promoting violence against men blasphemes against God’s blessing of life. David subsequently realized that his lust for Bathsheba had caused him to sin against God. He repented his wrong.[5]

King David gazing upon Bathsheba

Machaut, a cleric who never married and had no children, was delusional in his perception of women and love. Like Pygmalion and other idolaters, Machaut confused works of human hands with a living being. He loved the text of Peronne’s poem as if it were the woman herself:

And I kissed the poem unabashedly
more than a hundred times or thereabouts,
and afterward I doffed my cap
and got down on my knees in front of it.
Nor did I let this writing get far from me.
Instead I guarded it quite tenderly
and carefully next to my heart,
kissing it many times
because of the great pleasure I found there.

{ Et si le baisay sans doubtance
Plus de cent fois ou environ
Et puis iostay mon chaperon
Et devant lui magenouillay
Ne de moy pas ne leslongnay
Eins le garday tresdoucement
Sus mon cuer et songneusement
Et souventes fois la baisoie
Car trop grant plaisence y avoie }

Like Machaut, David was a musically talented man. Like Machaut, David was thought to be a poet who authored many psalms. Unlike Machaut, David’s heart was fully true to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Explicitly engaging in gyno-idolatry, Machaut loved an image of his beloved woman. Machaut asked Peronne to send him a painted portrait of herself. When her portrait arrived, he was overjoyed:

I took out the pretty portrait,
which had been carefully wrapped
in my sweet love’s kerchiefs,
undoing these without delay.
And seeing how very beautiful she was,
I gave her the name All-Beautiful.
At once I made a sacrifice to her,
but not one of bull or calf.
I instead performed a true act of homage
with my hands, mouth, and heart,
on my knees, my palms together.
And this truly was the least I might do
because her sweet, pleasant image
had been too strongly impressed on my heart
ever to depart as long
as this body treads the earth.
She will thus by me be adored,
served, loved, and honored
as my sovereign goddess.

{ Je pris ceste ymage iolie
Qui trop bien fu entortillie
Des cuevrechies ma douce amour
Si la desloiay sans demour
Et quant ie la vi si tresbele
Je li mis a non toute bele
Car tantost li fis sacrefice
Nompas de tor ne de genice
Einsois li fis loyal hommage
De mains, de bouche, et de corage
A genous et a iointes mains
Et vraiement ce fu dou meins
Car sa douce plaisant empreinte
Fu en mon cuer si fort empreinte
Que iamais ne sen partira
Tant com li corps par terre ira
Eins sera de moy aouree
Servie amee, et honnouree
Com ma souvereinne deesse }

Machaut referred to Peronne throughout his book only with the name that he gave to her portrait: “All Beautiful {Toute Belle}.” Fourteenth-century European Christians hyper-venerated lavishly dressed and bejeweled statues of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Machaut acted that way toward his portrait of Peronne:

I placed the portrait high above my bed
with great joy and delight.
I could thus gaze at her and touch her
when rising in the morning and laying down at night.
I dressed and adorned the image,
many times comparing it
to Venus in my worship,
and even beyond that, for I said:
“Sweet image, sweet likeness,
you have more power than Venus.
Sweet lady, yours is every virtue,
and so you’ll be adorned with damask
made from pure gold woven finely,
since no woman compares to you.”
I placed her above my bedhead,
acting the true servant and faithful lover.
Meanwhile, when catching sight of her, many persons
wondered what this was.
Placing the portrait there was my wish.

{ Si la mis haut dessus mon lit
A grant ioie et a grant delit
Pour li veoir et atouchier
A mon lever et au couchier
Je la vesti ie la paray
Et meintes fois la comparay
A venus, quant ie laouroie
Et plus encor, car ie disoie
Douce ymage douce samblance
Plus que venus as de puissance
Toute vertus douce dame has
Pour ce dun fin drap de damas
Fait de fin or seras paree
Qua toy nulle nest comparee
Einsi sus mon cheves la mis
Com vrais sers et loiaus amis
Dont moult de gens se mervilloient
Que cestoit quant la resgardoient
Einsi la mis et tout de gre }

Within the tradition of the patriarch Jacob of God’s chosen people, the great King David, and Saint Mary Magdalene, Machaut’s actions are ridiculous. No medieval Christian would take seriously his claim that no woman compares to Peronne’s image in virtue and that her image is even more powerful than Venus. Machaut is mocking himself for his unfleshly love for Peronne.[6]

Peronne had warm, caring vitality like Abishag the Shunammite. When she and Machaut finally met at a dinner party, she pulled him aside and said:

Make sure I can find you in this garden
after dinner so we may enjoy ourselves
when the sun loses its light.

{ Faites quen ce vergier vous truisse
Apres souper pour nous deduire
Quant li solaus laira le luire }

Later than evening with her in the garden, Machaut got down on his knees, clasped his hands, and spoke of his love for her. He then disparaged knights with their lances at ready and a cooking pot that’s been used many times and thrown out. Those old poetic images don’t interest young women. Machaut proposed a multi-day Christian pilgrimage with him acting as her squire. Peronne agreed.

In addition to Machaut, Peronne took with her on this pilgrimage her sister and her cousin Guillemette. After spending the first part of a hot pilgrimage afternoon browsing goods at a fair, the women said that they felt sleepy. A drunk man directed them to a peasant’s home offering a room for rent with a day rate. The room had two beds. Peronne’s sister reclined on one bed. Peronne and Guillemette reclined on the other. Peronne called out to Machaut:

Come sleep between us two
and do nothing shameful.
Here, your place is all ready.

{ Venez couchier entre nous .ij.
Et ne faites pas le honteus
Vesci tout apoint vostre place }

“…and lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil….” Machaut responded:

May God never please
that I rest there. Outside I’ll stay
and await you here
and I’ll wake you at nine,
the moment I hear the hour rung.

{ ia dieu ne place
Que ie y voise la hors seray
Et la ie vous attenderay
Et vous esveilleray a nonne
Si tost com iorray quon la sonne }[7]

Peronne, however, was a strong, independent woman:

Then my lady argued vehemently
that I should come in, and when things got heated,
I drew by her side in jest,
excusing myself all the while,
saying I was not worthy.

{ A dont ma dame iura fort
Que ie yroie, et quant vint au fort
De li maprochay en rusant
Et toudis en moy escusant
Que ce a moy pas napartenoit }

Every man is a worthy man. Men’s lives should matter. Raping men is as wrong as raping women:

But she took me very firmly by the hand
and they pulled me roughly onto the bed.
And then I cried out: “I’m being forced!”
But God knows that to lie there
was my greatest desire,
nor did I want other nourishment,
and I whinnied for no other grain.
The sergeant who had opened the door
covered us with two mantles.
He closed the window completely
and then the door so no one could see a thing.
And there my lady slept,
one arm all the while across me.

{ Mais par la main si me tenoit
Quelles mi tirerent a force
Et lors ie criay on mefforce
Mais dieux scet que de la gesir
Cestoit mon plus tresgrant desir
Nautres pastez ne desiroie
Dautre aveinne ne hanissoie
Li sergens qui luis nous ouvri
De .ij. manteles nous couvri
Et la fenestre cloy toute
Et puis luis si quon ni vit goute
Et la ma dame sendormi
Toudis lun de ses bras seur my }[8]

Just as David unexpectedly found himself in bed with Abishag, Machaut found himself forced into bed with Peronne. Machaut, however, didn’t warm up:

I lay by her side a long time,
more coyly than any young woman,
for I didn’t dare utter a word,
or touch or speak to her
since she was asleep.
There the power of Love was apparent to me,
for I lay just like a log
beside my lady on this bed.
And I didn’t stir any more than I’d have done
if someone had been threatening to kill me.

{ La fui longuement dales elle
Plus simplement cune pucelle
Car ie nosoie mot sonner
Li touchier ne araisonner
Pour ce quelle estoit endormie
La vi ge damour la maistrie
Car iestoie comme une souche
Dalez ma dame en ceste couche
Ne ne mosoie remuer
Nient plus quon me vosist tuer }

Love and death threats typical stir emotions and flush blood throughout the body. Machaut lay there like a log. Men’s impotence is an epic disaster. Machaut’s condition was even worse. He was totally deprived of living vitality.

Not merely dogs, men are personally complex human beings. Long before the reign of terror of today’s sex police, Machaut was afraid. He wisely recognized that, when in social danger, acting like a woman is a man’s safest practice. To act like women, men must strive to be dynamic and always adapting:

The lady I love with a pure heart,
who had slept and dreamt in that place,
quite softly awakened,
coughed rather discreetly
and said: “Friend, are you here?
Embrace me — it’s safe.”
And I did so like a coward.
But she kept whispering to me quite softly,
and so I put my arms around her.

{ Ma dame que iaim de cuer fin
Qui la dormi et sommilla
Moult doucettement sesveilla
Et moult bassettement touci
Et dist amis estes vous cy
Acolez moy seurement
Et ie le fis couardement
Mais moult le me dist a bas ton
Pour ce lacolay a taston }

Men need to feel encouraged and safe. Embracing Peronne, Machaut overcame one of his fears:

Now I couldn’t see a thing
but knew quite well
this was not her companion.

{ Car nulle goute ni veoie
Mais certeinnement bien savoie
Que ce nestoit pas sa compaigne }

The biblical Jacob suffered a bed-trick. So did a newly married man in thirteenth-century Italy. Machaut was at least sure that he knew the woman:

And so I was like someone who bathes
in the river of the earthly paradise,
for honorably bestowed upon me
was all the goodness that could exist.
And I was provided for to my liking
completely because of the great abundance
that I now had of what pleased me,
because everything she said
too loudly satisfied me,
while all the goodness I felt
I savored, tasting mercy.

{ Sestoie com cils qui se baigne
En flun de paradis terrestre
Car de tout le bien qui puet estre
Par honneur estoie assevis
Et saoulez a mon devis
Sans plus pour la grant habundance
Que iavoie de souffissance
Car tout ce quelle me disoit
Trop hautement me souffissoit
Et tout le bien que ie sentoie
A goust de mercy savouroie }

Early in fifteenth-century France, Alain Chartier suffered from a beloved woman who lacked mercy. Many men desperately need mercy from women, even if just a taste of mercy.

Mercy for Machaut ultimately came through godly protection. Naked in bed, Peronne called for Machaut and urged him not to be afraid. Not quite like Tobias, Machaut got on his knees and prayed to Venus. Hidden in a dark cloud, Venus incensed the room with manna and balm, and then spread her dark cloud to hide Peronne and Machaut.[9] Venus went on to perform a miracle such that Machaut’s desire was satisfied. He wrote a ballad about the fruit of that sweet union. She gave him a key and said that he now held the key to her heart.

The young, beautiful, warm Abishag crawled into bed with the old, cold King David. She warmed him up. That’s simply the physics of heat transfer. He didn’t have sex with her. That’s biblical truth. Modern scholars have interpreted the text to imply that King David was sexually impotent. That interpretation demeans men’s personal complexity.

David might have refrained from having sex with Abishag for a wide variety of personal, relational, and moral reasons. Perhaps he thought that having sex with her would create additional familial obligations that he didn’t want, or reduce the care with which she ministered to him. Perhaps he though that his other wives and concubines would be upset if he had sex with her. Perhaps he resolved not to have sex with additional women in repentance for the wrong he did to Bathsheba’s husband. Perhaps he now felt that extra-marital sex is sinful. Perhaps he wanted to write love poems for Abishag and felt that he would be more inspired to do so if he didn’t have sex with her. Machaut’s relationship with Peronne shows the wide range of possibilities for an old man’s behavior in relation to a young, beautiful woman eager to have sex with him. David was no less a unique person than was Machaut.

Even as an old man, David wasn’t impotent as a king. He decreed that his son Solomon would succeed him as king. He gave detailed instructions for the ceremony by which Solomon would be declared king. He also gave moral, religious, and political instructions to Solomon.[10] Even without having sex with Abishag, David worked hard right up to the time of his death. The significance of David not having sex with Abishag is no more clear than the significance of Machaut’s long and elaborate poetic relationship with Peronne before he had sex with her.

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[1] For the account of King David relationship with Abishag the Shunammite, 1 Kings 1:1-4, 15. Most scholars from the twentieth century onward assert that David failed a sexual virility test or that he was impotent. Meek (2014) pp. 4-6. Meek observed:

For David, the issue of impotency is far from a foregone conclusion. In fact, the narrator goes out of the way to tell the reader that David did not have sex with Abishag.

Id. p. 12. That so many “critical” interpreters uncritically assumed that David was impotent because he didn’t have sex with Abishag shows pervasive lack of appreciation for men’s personal, sexual complexity.

[2] Guillaume de Machaut was one of the most famous and influential poet-musicians of fourteenth-century Europe:

Machaut’s reputation rested on his production of an immense and varied corpus of works, many of which were composed for, and in honor of, the several grand nobles with whose courts he was at various times associated. As a musician, he set more than forty balades, thirty virelays, twenty rondeaux, lais and motets and composed a polyphonic setting of the mass; the virtuosity and innovations of these productions made him one of the most important figures of late medieval music

Leech-Wilkinson & Palmer (1998) pp. xi-xii. Here are eight of Machaut’s songs, with English translations. Machaut’s Remede de Fortune includes both narration and notated, lyric-poetic inserts. Some recordings of Machaut’s music are freely available online, including: Je puis trop bien ma dame comparer (ballade) by Ferrara Ensemble / Crawford Young (2001); J’aim sans penser by Dominique Vellard (Cantus Records, 2001); Dame, ne regardes pas (LIBER: Ensemble for Early Music, 2004); Je vivroie liement, by Elisabeth Pawelke / Almara from album Outros Amores (2016).

The extent to which Machaut’s Voir Dit records personal history is a matter of considerable scholarly controversy. The most detailed recent examination has supported an “autobiographical view”:

True to its name, the Voir Dit offers a story that is plausibly situated in real time and place as well as events that often involve the verifiable movements of historically documented people (the king of France, the duke of Normandy, the duke of Bar); often the narrative and letters connect plausibly to historical events. … The finished work provides evidence that as Machaut composed the verse narrative into which the letters were to be set, he rewrote some to reflect that narrative. In the form they now have for us, the letters, in fact, are both reliable documents of Guillaume’s relationship with the lady and fictionalized accounts.

Leech-Wilkinson & Palmer (1998) pp. xxv, xli, lix. Voir Dit apparently recounts events that occurred between 1361 and 1365. Id. pp. 752-3. Machaut, who died in 1377, probably wrote Voir Dit about 1365. On the history of prior interpretations of Voir Dit, id. pp. xxi-xxv and Sturges (1992).

In 1875, the eminent French scholar Paulin Paris identified Machaut’s beloved as Peronnelle d’Armentières (Peronnelle d’Unchair), the daughter of Gaucher d’Unchair. The historical evidence limits her age to between 15 and 20 years old. Id. pp. 22, 38-9, nn. 4-5. Scholars have favored the age of nineteen. The evidence also supports the name Peronne. I use that name conventionally above. Overall, the evidence for identifying Machaut’s beloved lady with Peronne d’Armentières is ambivalent and circumstantial.

[3] Guillaume de Machaut, virelai “Sweet, lovely lady {Douce dame jolie}” stanzas 1-2, 6-7 of 7, Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Horton (2009). Wikipedia has a similar English translation. Lyrics Translate includes a variety of translations of this song.

[4] Guillaume de Machaut, The Book of the True Poem {Le Livre dou Voir Dit} vv. 203-215 (rondel from the lady), Old French text and English trans. (with minor changes) from Leech-Wilkinson & Palmer (1998).

All the subsequent quotes above are from Voir Dit and are similarly sourced. They are vv. 109-18 (She is noble, young, gay, and elegant…), 190-8 (And I kissed the poem unabashedly…), 1556-74 (I took out the pretty portrait…), 1586-1604 (I placed the portrait high above my bed…), 3606-8 (Make sure I can find you in this garden…), 3765-7 (Come sleep between us two…), 3768-2 (May God never please…), 3773-7 (Then my lady argued vehemently…), 3778-90 (But she took me very firmly by the hand…), 3791-3800 (I lay by her side a long time…), 3802-10 (The lady I love with a pure heart…), 3811-3 (Now I couldn’t see a thing…), 3814-24 (And so I was like someone who bathes…).

[5] On David’s character, skills and devotion to God, 1 Samuel 16:18 and 1 Kings 11:4. The wives of David were Michal, daughter of King Saul; Ahinoam the Yizre’elite; Abigail, the wife of Nabal the Carmelite; Maacah, the daughter of Talmay, King of Geshur; Haggith, mother of Adonijah; Abital, mother of Shephatiah; Eglah, mother of Ithream; and Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. On David having at least ten concubines, 2 Samuel 15:16, 20:3. On David and Bathsheba, 2 Samuel 11:1 – 12:15.

[6] Within medieval French culture that hyper-venerated Mary, the mother of Jesus, Machaut wrote a mass in honor of her. This Messe de Nostre Dame, written before 1365, is the first complete setting for the mass ordinary that a single composer wrote. On this mass, Leech-Wilkinson (1990). Here’s a recording of Messe de Nostre Dame by the Ensemble Gilles Binchois, under the direction of Dominique Vellard, from their 1999 album, De Machaut: Sacred and Secular Music.

[7] Writing to the young soldier Nepotian who had recently become a Christian parish priest, the Christian hermit-scholar Jerome of Stridon in 394 GC advised:

Women’s feet should rarely or never be carried forth into your lodging-room. To all young women and to all Christ’s virgins show equal indifference and equal love. Don’t remain under the same roof with them. Don’t trust in your prior continence. Neither holier than David nor wiser than Solomon can you be. Always remember that a woman ejected the cultivator from his possession of Paradise.

{ Hospitiolum tuum aut raro aut numquam mulierum pedes ferant. Omnes puellas et virgines Christi aut aequaliter ignora aut aequaliter dilige. Ne sub eodem tecto manseris; ne in praeterita castitate confidas. Nec David sanctior nec Salomone potes esse sapientior; memento semper, quod paradisi colonum de possessione sua mulier eiecerit. }

Jerome of Stridon, Letters 52, To the priest Nepotian {Ad Nepotianum presbyterum} section 5, Latin text from Wright (1933) p. 202, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. Here’s the translation of Freemantle (1892). A rhetorically sophisticated writer, Jerome here alludes to soldiers’ reputations for eagerly having sex with women. A soldier carrying a woman into his lodging room suggests a passionate affair. Cultivating a possession in Paradise suggests a man having sex with a woman who has given herself in love to him. Jerome counseled Christian priests to refrain from sexual intercourse and treat all women equally. Jerome himself had many women friends.

In the context of advising Christian clergy, the biblical text concerning Abishag and David created a pastoral challenge for Jerome. Rhetorically exaggerating, Jerome suggested that a literal reading of that biblical passage would create a scene fit for a pantomime show or Atellan farce. A young soldier-priest could easily be led into temptation if he attempted to imitate David in bed with Abishag. Jerome allegorized Abishag as wisdom:

Who is then this Shunammite, this woman and virgin, so glowing as to warm the cold, yet so holy as not to arouse lust in the warmed? … Let Wisdom alone embrace me, that is our Abishag, who never grows old. Let her nestle in my bosom. She is unpolluted and a virgin forever. She is like Mary, who daily conceives and unceasingly brings to birth and who is uncorrupted.

{ Quae est igitur ista Somanitis uxor et virgo tam fervens, ut frigidum calcfaceret, tam sancta, ut calentem ad libidinem non provocaret? … Amplexetur me modo sapientia et Abisag nostra, quae numquam senescit, in meo requiescat sinu. Inpolluta est virginitatisque perpetuae et in similitudinem Mariae, cum cotidie generet semperque parturiat, incorrupta est. }

Jerome, Ad Nepotianum presbyterum 3, 6, sourced as previously. Jerome thus interpreted 1 Kings 1:1-4 to instruct priests to embrace and warm themselves with God’s wisdom. This sophisticated didactic interpretation has little relevance to historical interpretation of the passage.

[8] Men being raped is about as prevalent as women being raped. Literary scholars tend to ignore directly described violence against men and focus on imagined forms of violence against women. Hence a recent scholarly article on Voir Dit declared:

when we consider the consequences of this glorification for the woman called Toute Belle, who must also have an allegorical other imposed upon her, we start to glimpse an economy of domination that underlies Guillaume’s retelling of the love affair. Tapping into that economy and describing it will allow us to move beyond limitations of previous scholarship concerning the Voir dit, limitations that — while discerning ulterior motives in Machaut’s depiction of the love affair (i.e., building his own image) — have ignored the violence done to the woman the text must sacrifice to realize those motives.

Armstrong (2011) p. 92.

[9] Cf. Exodus 13:21, Psalm 105:39.

[10] Schreiner interprets 1 Kings 1:1b (David could not warm himself) and 1 Kings 1:4 (Abishag was beautiful and ministered to David, but he didn’t have sex with her) to imply that David was impotent. Schreiner (2018) pp. 124-5. Machaut’s account shows that this inference of impotence isn’t necessary true.

Schreiner further reasons that David’s impotence motivated Abonijah to rebel, as described in 1 Kings 1:5. Id. pp. 129-30. Abonijah might have rebelled on the basis of his inference that David was sexually impotent and therefore politically impotent. David wasn’t in fact politically impotent. He quashed Abonijah’s rebellion by having Solomon formally invested as king. See 1 Kings 1:28-53. Abonijah seems to have thought that Abishag was David’s wife and that he could usurp the throne by marrying her. See 1 Kings 2:13-8. That suggests that Abonijah thought that David had sex with Abishag. In any case, scholars who assume that David was sexually and politically impotent are more mistaken than Abonijah was.

[images] (1) King David in bed with Abishag the Shunammite. Oil on canvas painted by Pedro Américo in 1879. Preserved in Museu Nacional de Belas Artes (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil). Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Recording of Guillaume de Machaut’s virelai “Sweet, lovely lady {Douce dame jolie}” by Annwn, on album Orbis Alia (2007). Via YouTube. Here are recordings by Mil Marie Mougenot (2014) and by La Morra (2015). (3) Nude Bathsheba bathing and King David gazing upon her. Oil on canvas painted by Jean-Léon Gérôme in 1889. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Armstrong, Joshua. 2011. “The Glorified Woman: Abstraction and Domination in Le Livre du Voir Dit.” Romanic Review. 102 (1-2): 91-108.

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

Horton, Scott. 2009. “Machaut — Douce dame jolie.” Harper’s Magazine. March 1.

Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel. 1990. Machaut’s Mass: an introduction. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel, ed. and R. Barton Palmer, trans. 1998. Guillaume de Machaut. Le Livre dou Voir Dit / The Book of the True Poem. New York: Garland Publishing.

Meek, Russel. 2014. ‘The Abishag Episode: Reexamining the Role of Virility in 1 Kings 1:1-4 in Light of the Kirta Epic and the Sumerian Tale “The Old Man and the Young Woman.”Bulletin for Biblical Research. 24 (1): 1-14.

Schreiner, David B. 2018. ‘“But He Could Not Warm Himself”: Sexual Innuendo and the Place of 1 Kgs 1,1-4.’ Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament. 32 (1): 121-130.

Sturges, Robert S. 1992. “The Critical Reception of Machaut’s Voir-Dit and the History of Literary History.” French Forum. 17 (2): 133-151.

Wright, F. A., ed. and trans. 1933. Select Letters of St. Jerome. Loeb Classical Library, no. 262. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

old men’s sexual difficulties: all-encompassing medieval perspectives

Classical Latin literature recognized the epic disaster of men’s impotence. According to medieval European authorities, heterosexuality is divinely commanded. One of Peter of Blois’s twelfth-century lyrics moves from an opening stanza describing seasonal change from winter to spring to celebrating heterosexual coupling:

Enter now the Western breeze,
putting mist and clouds to flight.
Enter Venus, who decrees
all her creatures should unite,
male with female, in communion,
following their appetite.
People, too, are linked in union,
urged by her to love’s delight.

{ Ethera Favonius
induit a vinculis.
Ornat mundum Cyprius
sacris dive copulis.
Castra Venus renovari
novis ovat populis
et tenellas copulari
blandis mentes stimulis. }[1]

From Venus’s universal commandment, Peter turned to his personal circumstances:

Through my veins I feel the hot
runnels of divine desire.
Flora’s mouth’s the honey-pot
that alone can quench my fire.
Flora, flower of uniqueness,
perfect pattern all admire,
only you can salve my weakness
with the succor I require.

{ Tuum, Venus, haurio
venis ignem bibulis.
Tuis, Flora, sicio
favum de labellulis.
Flora, flore singulari
preminens puellulis,
solum sola me solari
soles in periculis. }

Envious persons, hypocrites, and gossips forced Flora and Peter to part. This early example of vicious cancel culture caused the lovers to suffer. Peter morosely declared:

Rather anything than part
with no kiss, but it was so.
What was in your silent heart
only gestures dared to show.
Words were banned, but your revealing
eyes and features let me know
all the pain you were concealing
when your tears began to flow.

{ In discessu dulcibus
non fruebar osculis.
Salutabas nutibus
pene loquens garrulis.
Fas non erat pauca fari.
Fuere pro verbulis,
quas, heu, vidi dirivari
lacrimas ex oculis. }

Love doesn’t necessarily win. Harsh persecution of men’s sexuality along with social viciousness can nullify a divine decree to unite.

Men’s heterosexuality might end in an apocalypse. In the sixth century, the Irish Christian leader Columba wrote a poem describing such a day:

Day of the king most righteous,
that day is near at hand,
the day of wrath and vengeance,
and darkness on the land.

Day of thick clouds and voices,
of mighty thundering,
a day of narrow anguish
and bitter sorrowing.

Love of women is over,
and ended is men’s desire.
Men fight with men no longer,
and the world lusts no more.

{ Regis regum rectissimi
prope est dies domini,
dies irae et vindictae,
tenebrarum et nebulae,

diesque mirabilium
tonitruorum fortium,
dies quoque angustiae,
maeroris ac tristitiae,

in quo cessabit mulierum
amor et desiderium,
hominumque contentio
mundi huius et cupido. }[2]

In this poem, the day of God’s judgment has come. God now holds all persons to account for their deeds. Love relations between women and men and violence against men have created horrible wrongs that infuriate God. The only men who will not be condemned to devouring flames and burning of thirst and hunger and weeping and gnashing of teeth will be MGTOWs (Men Going Their Own Way):

Since humans have fragmented
glorious laws of truth,
who can please God
in the new time
other than those who despise
this present world?

{ Quis potest deo placere
novissimo in tempore
variatis insignibus
veritatis ordinibus
exceptis contemptoribus
mundi praesentis istius? }

Some persons are in the present world, but not of the present world. They live and pray and sing and tell old tales and laugh. They marvel at the mystery of things.

Re-orienting one’s life in that way isn’t easy. Writing early in the thirteenth century, the French theologian Philip the Chancellor, born into a family of powerful clerics, declared:

In the flourishing days of my youth
it was permitted — and a joy —
to do whatever I wanted:
to run around at will
and exhaust
all the pleasures of the flesh.

I want to change my ways,
to leave behind and put right
my rash behavior.
Then I will focus on
serious matters and for my vices
compensate with virtues.

{ Dum iuventus floruit,
licuit et libuit
facere, quod placuit:
iuxta voluntatem
currere, peragere
carnis voluptatem.

Volo resipiscere,
linquere, corrigere,
quod commisi temere;
deinceps intendam
seriis, pro vitiis
virtutes rependam. }[3]

Old age helps men to change their lives from sexual coupling with as many beautiful, young persons as possible to other virtuous actions.

Honestly recognizing reality is helpful for old men. On seeing a lovely young woman, a young, medieval knight urged her to have sex with him. Like Abishag crawling into bed with the aged King David, she apparently was interested in old men. The young knight proclaimed to her:

Join in the rejoicing and have fun —
lead out all the dancers!
Young men are full of life,
old men are past it!

Listen, my lovely,
knighthood confers
a thousands ways of making love.

Young men deserve your love —
we are as hot as fire!
Old men make you shudder —
they are as cold as ice!

{ Congaudentes ludite,
choros simul ducite!
Iuvenes sunt lepidi,
senes sunt decrepiti!

Audi, bel’ amia,
mille modos Veneris
dat chevaleria.

Iuvenes amabiles,
igni comparabiles;
senes sunt horribiles,
frigori consimiles! }[4]

In ancient Athens, the famous philosopher Epicurus employed the services of the courtesan Leontium, who was also one of his students. She complained bitterly about him:

Nothing is harder to please, it seems, than an old man who is just starting to behave like a boy again. How this Epicurus is controlling me, criticizing everything, suspecting everything, writing me incomprehensible letters and chasing me out of his garden. By Aphrodite, even if he had been an Adonis, though nearly eighty years old, I wouldn’t put up with him, this lice-ridden and sickly man who is all wrapped up in fleece instead of felt. How long must one endure this philosopher? Let him have his Principal Doctrines on Nature and his distorted Canons, and permit me to live according to nature, my own mistress, without anger and violence.

{ Οὐδὲν δυσαρεστότερον, ὡς ἔοικεν, ἐστὶν ἄρτι πάλιν μειρακευομένου πρεσβύτου. οἷά με Ἐπίκουρος οὗτος διοικεῖ πάντα λοιδορῶν, πάντα ὑποπτεύων, ἐπιστολὰς ἀδιαλύτους μοι γράφων, ἐκδιώκων ἐκ τοῦ κήπου. μὰ τὴν Ἀφροδίτην, εἰ Ἄδωνις ἦν, ἤδη ἐγγὺς ὀγδοήκοντα ἔτη, οὐκ ἂν αὐτοῦ ἠνεσχόμην φθειριῶντος καὶ φιλονοσοῦντος καὶ καταπεπιλημένου εὖ μάλα πόκοις ἀντὶ πίλων. μέχρι τίνος ὑπομενεῖ τις τὸν φιλόσοφον τοῦτον; ἐχέτω τὰς περὶ φύσεως αὐτοῦ κυρίας δόξας καὶ τοὺς διεστραμμένους κανόνας· ἐμὲ δὲ ἀφέτω ζῆν φυσικῶς κυρίαν ἐμαυτῆς ἀστομάχητον καὶ ἀνύβριστον. }[5]

As a general principle, the higher the social status of a man, the more likely that a young woman will be amorously interested in him (hypergamy). Intellectual achievement tends to raise a man’s social status. Nonetheless, no amount of scholarly study can make an old men into a young man in reality.

Old men with well-developed minds are able to think extensively about love. In medieval Europe, an old man reasoned:

The unicorn customarily shows himself to young unmarried women,
and only a woman whose virginity is truly unstained
can retain him in her embrace.

Thus the young woman who associates with a young man
and rejects me as an old man is rightly deprived
of the privilege by which the unicorn allows her to capture him.

In the threshing of young women, what’s owed to old men
as reward is chaff. The grain goes to young men.
So as an old man I leave the threshing floor to the next man.

{ Rhinoceros virginibus se solet exhibere;
sed cuius est virginitas intemerata vere,
suo potest gremio hunc sola retinere.

Igitur que iuveni virgo sociatur
et me senem spreverit, iure defraudatur,
ut ab hac rhinoceros se capi patiatur.

In tritura virginum debetur seniori
pro mercede palea, frumentum iuniori;
inde senex aream relinquo successori. }[6]

In addition to spitefully thinking through women’s amorous opportunities with unicorns, this old man focused on the separation of the wheat from the chaff in the narrow, temporal judgment leading to a night in the bedroom. Obsession with that final judgment doesn’t allow a man to enjoy the fullness of life here on earth.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Peter of Blois (attributed), Arundel Lyrics 7, “The earth applauds, the north wind {Plaudit humus Boree},” vv. 11-8 (stanza 2), Latin text and English translation from Adcock (1983) pp. 66-7. This twelfth-century poem survives in only one manuscript, London, British Library, Arundel 384 III, f. 234r. Here’s an online Latin text of the whole song. The subsequent two quotes above are from “Plaudit humus Boree,” vv. 21-28 (stanza 3) and 41-8 (stanza 5 of 5). I’ve made some insubstantial changes to Adcock’s lovely translation.

While Adcock’s and McDonough’s readings are identical for stanza 3, in stanza 2 McDonough has a slightly different Latin text for vv. 12, 14, 16. That reading gives stanza 2 a somewhat different tone:

The west wind clothes the sky with small birds. The Cyprian god beautifies the world through the sacred bonds of the gods. Venus exults that her camp is being revived by new followers and that tender hearts are being ravaged by stings of seduction.

{ Ethera favonius
induit aviculis.
Ornat mundum Cyprius
sacris dium copulis.
Castra Venus renovari
novis ovat populis,
et tenellas populari
blandis mentes stimulis. }

Latin text and English translation from McDonough (2010), pp. 32-3. In the context of the whole song, Adcock’s Latin reading seems to me thematically superior. The difference between the two readings emphasizes the importance of paleographic study.

[2] Columba {Colum Cille} (attributed), “The high creator, ancient of days and engendered {Altus prosator vetustus dierum et ingenitus}” vv. 98-103, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Waddell (1929) pp. 68-9. Cf. Zephaniah 1:15-7.

Waddell’s Latin text is identical to that of Blume (1908) p. 277. Blume’s Latin text is based on early continental manuscripts. Stevenson regards it as the best text. Stevenson (1999) p. 326, n. 4. Columba lived in sixth-century Ireland. Stevenson questions the attribution of “Altus prosator” to Columba and suggests that it’s a seventh-century Hiberno-Latin poem.

“Altus prosator” is the greatest of all surviving Hiberno-Latin poems. “No other Hiberno-Latin poem has anything like its range and originality.” Stevenson (1999) pp. 326-7. It’s an abecedarian hymn with each stanza having twelve verses, or six, if couplets are joined to form leonine verses. It has a radial thematic structure: “The Altus Prosator’s stanzas come together in an organised whole if one reads the poem out from the center, rather than down the page.” Wesseling (1988) p. 51.

“Altus prosator” is available online in various Latin texts and translations. Chasing Columba provides a rather literal English translation. Bernard & Atkinson (1898) vol. 2, pp. 142-53, provides scholarly commentary, a Latin text, and a literal English translation. For another Latin text and an English paraphrase, Stone (1897) pp. 126-75.

The subsequent quote above is the refrain (antiphon) for “Altus prosator” from Blume (1908) p. 275, with my English translation.

[3] Carmina Burana 30: Philip the Chancellor (probably), “In the flourishing days of my youth {Dum iuventus floruit} stanzas 1 and 4 (of 4), Latin text and English translation from Traill (2018). Here’s an online Latin text. The Carmina Burana was compiled about 1230 in a Germanic location near Italy. Its songs thus date no later than 1230.

[4] Carmina Burana 94: “Join in the rejoicing and have fun {Congaudentes ludite}” stanza 1, refrain, stanza 3 (of 3), Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Traill (2018). Here’s an online Latin text that differs significantly from Traill’s text.

[5] Alciphron, Letters 4, Letters of the Courtesans {Επιστολαι Εταιρικαι} 17, Leontium to Lamia {Λεόντιον Λαμίᾳ} ll. 1-12, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified slightly) from Granholm (2012). Alciphron wrote roughly about the year 200 GC.

[6] Carmina Burana 93: “An unattractive woman has a garden for young women {Hortum habet insula virgo virginalem},” stanzas 6-8 (of 8), Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Traill (2018). In a note to the first stanza, Traill insightfully suggests that the garden is a brothel. Id. vol. 1, p. 555. The old man’s reasoning about unicorns suggests that he and the woman have a loving, physically affectionate relationship, but don’t have sex. On threshing, cf. Luke 3:15-7. On wheat and chaff in the Bible, Wakefield (2019).

Some editors have separated “Hortum habet insula virgo virginalem” into two poems, Carmina Burana 93 and 93a. Traill convincingly argues for one poem. Id.

[images] (1) Recording of Benjamin Britten’s “A Hymn of St Columba” (“Regis regum rectissimi” stanza from “Altus prosator”) performed by the Merbecke Choir at Southwark Cathdral on 13 July 2013. Via YouTube. Here are recordings by The Sixteen and Harry Christophers (2002) and by the Memphis Chamber Choir (1995). (2) Performance of “Dum iuventus floruit” by La Camera delle Lacrime (2017) in the play “Dante Troubadour: Les Cercles de l’Enfer.” Via YouTube. This performance refers to verses from Dante’s Inferno:

It flows into a swamp whose name is Styx,
this gloomy little brook, descending to
the bottom of the gray, malignant slope.

And I, who gazed intently as I stood,
saw people in that slough all slimed with mud,
stripped naked, and their faces torn with rage.

{ In la palude va c’ha nome Stige
questo tristo ruscel, quand’è disceso
al piè de le maligne piagge grige.

E io, che di mirare stava inteso,
vidi genti fangose in quel pantano,
ignude tutte, con sembiante offeso. }

Dante, Inferno 7.106-11, Italian text and English translation from Esolen (2002).


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

Bernard, J. H. and R. Atkinson. 1898. The Irish Liber Hymnorum. 2 volumes (vol. 1, vol. 2). London: Harrison and Sons.

Blume, Clemens. 1908. Die Hymnen des Thesaurus Hymnologicus H.A. Daniels und anderer Hymnen-Ausgaben. Analecta Hymnica Medii Aevi 51. Leipzig: O.R. Reisland.

Esolen, Anthony M., trans. 2002. Dante Alighieri. The Inferno. New York: Modern Library.

Granholm, Patrik, ed. and trans. 2012. Alciphron: Letters of the Courtesans. Uppsala: Institutionen för Lingvistik och Filologi, Uppsala Universitet.

McDonough, Christopher J., ed. and trans. 2010. The Arundel lyrics; The poems of Hugh Primas. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 2. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Stevenson, Jane. 1999. “Altus Prosator.” Celtica: Journal of the School of Celtic Studies. 23: 326–368.

Stone, Samuel John. 1897. Lays of Iona and other Poems. London: Longmans & Co.

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

Waddell, Helen. 1929 / rev. 1948. Mediaeval Latin Lyrics. New York: Henry Holt.

Wakefield, Dexter B. 2019. “The Wheat and the Chaff.” Living Church News (Living Church of God). September / October 2019, online.

Wesseling, Margaret. 1988. “Structure and Image in the Altus Prosator: Columba’s Symmetrical Universe.” Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium. 8: 46-57.

madly in love: fool for Gallus love lacked Eracle’s Christian wisdom

Over two millennia ago, the Roman poet and military leader Cornelius Gallus figured insane love and love as war. The enormity of these love figures in defining love norms within subsequent European culture can hardly be under-estimated. The most influential challenge to Gallus’s ideas about love has been the Christian New Testament. In twelfth-century France, the cleric Gautier d’Arras centrally contrasted Gallus’s love and Christian love in his story of the empress Athenaïs committing adultery.

After an extensive bride-show failed to provide a suitable wife for the Roman Emperor Laïs, Athenaïs through the annunciation of Eracle gained that highly privileged position without even seeking it. She was a young, beautiful, and impoverished woman. She was also loyal, pious, sensible, intelligent, and good-spirited. Emperor Laïs and all the Roman people came to love dearly Empress Athenaïs.

After seven years of blissful marriage, Laïs had to leave Rome to quash a rebellion. That would be a long and difficult military campaign besieging a city. Laïs was reluctant to depart from his wife, but her traveling with him would be too difficult and dangerous for her. As the Roman Emperor, he was required to lead this violence against men. He feared not the violence, but losing his wife’s love:

He would be forced always to have fear,
for a courtly lover always fears
losing what he holds in his hands,
for he is always afraid in love.
One never suspicious has never loved!

{ tos jors estuet que crieme i ait,
que fins amans tos jors se crient
de perdre ce c’a ses mains tient,
qu’il a tos jors crieme en amor:
qui ne mescroit, ains n’ama jor! }[1]

Those fearful and suspicious in love are loving in the way of Gallus. Jesus instructed his followers to be not afraid before the revelation of love. Those who love in the way of Gallus lack wisdom in their madness:

And even a wise man
always fears very distressingly,
henceforth no man will ever be wise
if he does all that the love god requires of him.
But self-made madness isn’t such
as is natural madness,
because one can be very wise in character
who is very foolish in courtly love,
and that madness and that knowledge
make one have fear in love.

{ Et sages hom meïmement
se crient tous jors molt durement,
mais ja nus hom sages nen iert
s’il fait tout ce c’Amors requiert.
Mais se folie n’est pas teus
com est folie natureus,
car teus est de molt sage ator
qui molt est faus en fine amor,
et tel folie et tel savoir
font en amor paour avoir. }

Here the “love god {Amors}” is the traditional Greco-Roman love god of Gallus. The associated analysis of wisdom and foolishness must be read along with Paul of Tarsus’s words about a different god of love:

For since in the wisdom of god, the world through wisdom did not know god, it pleased god through the foolishness of what we preach to save those who believe.

{ 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]

In Christian understanding, god is love. Christians are fools for the sake of Christ. Being madly in love in the worldly sense of Gallus isn’t wise in Christian understanding.

holy fool Nikolay Salos castigating Ivan IV

Emperor Laïs sought advice from his divine counselor Eracle on how to keep an eye on the Empress Athenaïs during his long absence. Eracle vehemently advised against putting her under guard. He declared:

Lord, if you restrain her
with locks or barring,
no shackles of iron or locking
will ever manage to hold her.
If you let her do what suits her,
she’ll be such a good wife as never was.
Leave her fully in peace, lord,
so to have always a good beloved.

{ Sire, se vos le destraigniés
n’en fremetés n’en siereüre,
loiiens de fer ne fremeüre
ne le poroit jamais tenir.
Se vous laissiés çou couvenir,
3035 si bone feme n’ert jamais.
Laissiés le, sire, tout em pais
si arés tous jors bone amie. }[3]

Eracle understood that matters concerning men’s relations with women are complicated. Some women will betray men who trust them. Eracle was certain that Athenaïs was not such a woman.

Laïs insisted that he wanted advice on how to guard his wife. Eracle in response observed that some counselors will tell their lord whatever their lord wants to hear. He declared that only foolish lords have such counselors. Eracle again advised Laïs not to confine Athenaïs under guard. Defying Eracle’s advice, Laïs had her confined to a heavily fortified tower under the watchful eyes of twenty-four trusted barons with their wives. Then Laïs left Rome for his lengthy, distant imperial duty.

While Laïs and his men soldiers were brutally suffering in besieging the rebel city, Athenaïs was lamenting being confined in the spacious, safe imperial tower. She reasoned instrumentally in relation to her husband:

I see nothing that isn’t a thing
for me to grieve. My heart makes the case against me
that I for god and for honor
have kept the faith of my lord.
Certainly I am not aware
of a thing that I have gained
apart from great dishonor heaped upon me.

{ Je ne voi onques nule cose
qui ne me griet; mes cuers me cose
que je por Diu et por honor
ai foi gardee mon signor;
car je ne sui aperceüe
de cose que jou aie eüe
fors de grant honte c’on m’alieve. }

Athenaïs recalled again and again that she had been faithful to her husband and that he had treated her badly. Her resentment tormented her.

The time came for a grand festival in Rome. All the people of Rome attended this festival, and the empress customarily attended as well. The young, noble men of Rome would play harps and dance for the empress there. Athenaïs insisted on her customary attendance even while her husband was out of town. All her guards accompanied her to the festival.

The preeminent young man at the festival was Paridés. The son of a Roman senator, he was the best dressed, most handsome, and most courtly of all the young men. He had beautiful eyes, lovely curly hair, a finely sculpted face, shapely arms, and an attractive, well-built body. Leaping and twirling, he danced vigorously in front of Athenaïs. He also played sweetly on his harp. She gazed on him, and he gazed on her, and they became madly in love with each other.[4]

Athenaïs and Paridés both experienced all the symptoms of Gallus’s love madness. They suffered great distress, uncertainty, and inner torment. Neither was able to sleep at night. They turned pale and refused to eat. They continually sighed, wept, and lamented the misfortune of not being with the beloved other. They regretted that love had attacked them. Both sensed that they were on the verge of dying.

An old woman, a friend of Paridés’s family, intervened to save him from death. She perceived that he was languishing in love for a woman. With her womanly wisdom gathered from many years of life, she told him:

Not even the most lowly woman in Rome,
if she saw a very high man
languishing for her in such a manner,
would not become haughty and proud.
According to many witnesses, a woman always
comes closer to him who is more distant
such that there wasn’t much familiarity.
And those who are well set-up with her
are thrust well behind
for lamenting in this manner.
A woman doesn’t esteem highly
a man who is too captivated by her.
But she loves that one, esteems that one
who has her under foot, who has her captivated.
I, who am I woman, say it by my experience.
I have made many men anguish in the past
when I was a young wench.
I wouldn’t have loved a man for all Toulouse
because he loved me. Instead I’d play with him,
but I’d always take from him.
To the contrary, I gave sexual access to those
who weren’t concerned about my love.

{ Il nen a tant vil garce en Rome,
s’ele veoit un bien haut home
languir por li en tel maniere,
ne devenist estoute et fiere.
Feme est tos jors de tel tesmoing
que mius li vient plus en est loing
por qu’il n’i soit bien acointiés,
et teus i est bien empointiés
qui s’en reboute bien arriere
por dolouser en tel maniere.
A feme n’est pas de grant pris
hom puis que trop en est soupris,
mais celui aime, celui prise
qui l’a sous piés, qui l’a souprise.
Jel di por moi qui feme sui:
ja ai je fait maint home anui;
quant je estoie jovene touse
je n’amaisse home por Toulouse
por qu’il m’amast, ains l’amusoie,
ne mais du sien tos jors prendoie:
a ceus le donoie a droiture
qui de m’amor n’avoient cure }

Most men throughout history have had great love for women. That’s not to men’s advantage. The old women counseled Paridés to be moderate in his love. She assured him that she could acquire for him love from the woman whom he loved. A strong, independent, self-confident woman, she explained:

There isn’t any woman, if I so seek,
whom I cannot make to believe in my god.
I’m not speaking of the god of history,
of the “Our Father” and of the gospel.
I know of such trickery and guile
that your good would be obtained,
even if it were with the empress.

{ Il n’i a nule, se je voel,
que je ne face en mon diu croire:
je parol bien d’el que d’estoire,
de patre nostre et d’evangile;
tant sai de barat et de gile
que vostres bons ert acomplis,
se c’ert nes li empereïs. }

The old woman’s god was sex. Devotion to that god provided her with mammon. Paridés fainted when he heard her mention the empress. The old woman then discerned that he was in love with the empress. She assured him that she could help him even with the empress.[5] Then she encouraged him to take some soup. Paridés’s mother, distressed that her son was wasting away without eating, was so delighted with him taking soup that she gave the old woman a good cloak and much money.

The old woman then acted as a go-between in arranging a sexual encounter for the empress and Paridés. Under those arrangements, Athenaïs rode out to the festival on a prized, frisky horse. As she was passing by the old woman’s house, she struck the horse. It bucked and she fell into a pre-arranged puddle. She then went into the old woman’s house to change her clothes and treat her alleged rheumatism with warmth and rubbing. The men imperial guards stood outside the house. Inside, the old woman opened a trap door. Paridés was waiting for Athenaïs in an underground den. They met for the first time and quickly had bestial sex.[6] Then Athenaïs returned to her place in front of the fire. The old woman closed the trap door and covered it to make invisible the existence of a man within an underground chamber. Athenaïs’s guards were completely fooled.

Emperor Laïs’s divine counselor Eracle perceived immediately that the empress had committed adultery. He informed the emperor, who then ceased besieging the rebel city and returned to Rome. Athenaïs knew that Eracle with his extrasensory perception would perceive her crime. She knew that cuckolding the emperor would subject Paridés to the death penalty and her probably to some less severe punishment. In her love madness, she committed adultery despite the expected cost to her beloved and her.

Eracle declared that Emperor Laïs was at fault. Showing considerable concern for his own reputation as a counselor, Eracle declared to Laïs:

It’s your fault for what she has done.
She was chaste and noble and free from sin.
She was the best woman in all the world
when you put her in prison,
so making a great mistake.
I told you in public
that you would lose her for this.

{ que c’est par vos canqu’ele a fait.
Ele ert et caste et fine et monde,
ele ert li miudre riens del monde;
quant le mesistes en prison,
si fesistes grant mesproison,
que je vos dis tout en oiant
que vos le perderiés par tant }

That Laïs did wrong doesn’t imply that he’s to blame for Athenaïs doing wrong. But blaming a man makes for a more popular story. With Christian compassion, Eracle advised:

If you don’t want to keep her any longer,
let her go as is suitable.
You can arrange an amicable parting from her
by the Pope’s law.

{ Se vos nel volés mais tenir,
toute le laissiés convenir;
se vos en partés bielement,
par l’apostole loiaument }

Despite his distress, Laïs recognized his wrong in not following Eracle’s earlier advice. He realized that he must follow the wise-fool Eracle’s advice now. Laïs thus granted mercy to Paridés, a divorce to Athenaïs, and provisions such that the two could marry. In ceasing to besiege a city and acting mercifully toward his wayward wife, Emperor Laïs rejected Gallus’s love madness and love warfare. He acted instead with the wisdom of fools for Christ.[7]

Gallus’s figures of love madness and love as war have been even more damaging to human relationships than has been the men-abasing ideology of courtly love. Those who know nothing of classical and medieval love poetry nonetheless love under its influence through representations all around them. Freedom from the shackles of oppressive poetic culture doesn’t come easily. At least Christians can strive to be madly in love as fools for a much different love god.

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[1] Gautier d’Arras, Eracle vv. 2992-6, Old French text from Pratt (2007), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. Raynaud de Lage (1976) represents an earlier critical edition. Besieging a city / a man insistently pleading for entry at the door of a beloved woman’s house is a figure of Gallus’s insane love.

Subsequent quotes, unless otherwise noted, are similarly from Eracle. They are vv. 2997-3006 (And even a wise man…), 3030-7 (Lord, if you restrain her…), 3317-24 (I see nothing that isn’t a thing…), 4139-60 (Not even the most lowly woman in Rome…), 4174-80 (There isn’t any woman, if I so seek…), 4972-8 (It’s your fault for what she had done…), 5007-10 (If you don’t want to keep her any longer…).

[2] 1 Corinthians 1:21. More generally, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, 3:18-20, 4:1-14. On not being afraid, e.g. Isaiah 40:9-11, Mark 5:35-43. On the Christian god being love, e.g. John 13:34, 1 John 4:7-21, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13.

[3] Eracle here alludes to god setting prisoners free in Psalm 107:14-6.

[4] Pratt (2007) translated “qui sont d’amor soupris” (v. 3509) as “those who have fallen madly in love.” A more literal translation is “those who are captivated by love.” In Gallus’s figures of love, the military metaphor of being captured is closely associated with being madly in love.

[5] The old woman go-between is a well-established character in medieval literature. Examples can be found in the weeping-dog fabliau, Libro de buen amor (Trotaconventos), Judah al-Harizi’s Tahkemoni, medieval Welsh erotic poetry, and La Celestina (Celestina), among other medieval works.

In the thirteenth-century pseudo-Ovidian About an old woman {De vetula}, an old woman was extremely reluctant to take up the work of a go-between for Ovid:

I implore you, by the gods, do not trouble me further
about this matter! I ask that you permit me to finish
my old age in peace. I would prefer to live in safety
than for the sake of riches go to the dead with bloody hands.
This poverty of mine should suffice for me
for the few days that fate, one thinks, will grant me.
Let me pass! I would prefer to live in safety
than have your promise subject me to so much fear.

{ Obsecro per superos ne sollicitaveris ultra
Me super his! In pace meam finire senectam
me, rogo, permittas. Magis eligo vivere tuta,
sufficiatque mihi paupertas haec mea paucis,
quos mihi concedunt fatalia pensa, diebus,
quam pro divitiis adeam cum sanguine manes,
Esto, quod evadam! Magis eligo vivere tuta,
quam metui tanto tua me promissio subdat! }

De vetula vv. 2.371-8, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Hexter, Pfuntner & Haynes (2020) pp. 220-1. The old woman eventually took up the job for high pay. Unable or unwilling to convince the young woman to sleep with Ovid, the old woman arranged a bed-trick to sleep with Ovid herself.

[6] Pratt interprets Gautier d’Arras to be rationalizing Athenaïs committing adultery: “he has produced a largely sympathetic account of how an active heroine responds to marital injustice and loss of freedom.” Pratt (2007) p xl. Another scholar has interpreted Eracle to be critical of courtly love: “courtly love, masquerading as a superficial veneer for animal passion, is being satirised by Gautier.” Id., citing Pierreville (2001) p. 191. Pierreville’s reading seems to me more perceptive. In satirizing courtly love, this section of Eracle may have influenced the thirteenth-century Old Occitan Flamenca.

[7] Pratt seems to me to misinterpret the love contrast between Laïs and Athenaïs / Paridés: “The couple’s concept of fin’amor (4913-44), a compulsion which cannot easily be broken, is similarly contrasted with Laïs’s possessive love (2959-68, 2983-3009).” Pratt (2007) p. xliii. Ovidian fin’amor is a development of Gallus’s love madness. Both Laïs and Athenaïs / Paridés behave according to that pattern, which includes possessiveness and jealousy. In the end, however, Laïs shifts to Christian expressions of love: repentance, self-sacrifice, and mercy.

The hagiography and folk-tale episodes preceding the adultery episode in Eracle establish Eracle as a wise-fool. He’s conceived when his mother follows bizarre angelic instructions to have sex with her husband on a particular carpet placed on the floor. Eracle and his mother accept selling him into slavery to get more money for alms-giving. Eracle’s apparently foolish recommendations concerning stones, horses, and women turn out to be astonishingly wise. Emperor Laïs belatedly recognized the wisdom of the wise-fool Eracle in relation to women.

The adultery episode in Eracle has a didactic thrust. It doesn’t celebrate love madness briefly consummated in a hole in the ground. It doesn’t ridicule Laïs or laugh with him about the comic position of husbands. Cf. Konstan (2014) on adulterous wives in classical Greece. The adultery episode in Eracle goes beyond satire to function as a substantive Christian critique of Gallus-Ovidian love madness.

[image] Holy fool Nikolay Salos reproaches Ivan the Fearsome (Ivan IV) for bloodthirstiness at Pskov. Painting by Pelevin Ivan Andreevich {Пелевин Иван Андреевич}. Painted in 1877. Preserved in the Art Gallery of the Foundation of Generations of the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug of Ugra {Художественная Галерея Фонда поколений ХМАО Югры} (Russia). Via Wikimedia Commons.


Hexter, Ralph J., Laura Pfuntner, and Justin Haynes, ed. and trans. 2020. Appendix Ovidiana: Latin poems ascribed to Ovid in the Middle Ages. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 62. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Konstan, David. 2014. “Laughing at Ourselves: Gendered Humor in Classical Greece.”  In Anna Foka and Jonas Liliequist, eds. Humour, Gender and Laughter Across Times and Cultures. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan.

Pierreville, Corinne. 2001. Gautier d’Arras: l’autre Chrétien. Paris: H. Champion.

Pratt, Karen, ed. and trans. 2007. Gautier d’Arras. Eracle. King’s College London Medieval Studies 21. London: King’s College London, Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies.

Raynaud de Lage, Guy, ed. 1976. Gautier d’Arras. Eracle. Paris: Champion. Published online in by ENS de Lyon in the Base de français médiéval, last revised 28-5-2013.