medieval education: teaching demonology of men’s sexuality

medieval demonology: Lucifer being judged

Today in higher education, students are taught about the demonic male, the pathology of masculinity, and the power of the male gaze. Medieval education tended to be of higher intellectual quality. Nonetheless, Egbert of Liège’s early-eleventh-century schoolbook for young boys indicates that, even in the more enlightened medieval period, students were taught demonology of men’s sexuality.

Like Hesiod’s Theogony, demonology of men’s sexuality draws upon the cultural resources of castration culture. Medieval Latin literature addressed castration culture with acute perceptiveness in such masterpieces as Radulfus Tortarius’s Sincopus and John of Hauville’s Architrenius. Medieval authors dared to tell of Ovid being castrated for defying the great mother goddess Cybele. Medieval authors narrated the effects on Percival of his father being castrated. From this well-laden ship of castration culture, Egbert of Liège drew simple, disparaging lessons for young boys.

Silence and castrate yourself. This oppressive teaching, so familiar to men today, Egbert drilled into young boys with heroic Latin hexameter poetry:

Cut off the member that impedes you the most, I say.
What is the source of evil? I argue it is these two: the tongue and the genitals.
If you want to be a strong man, use your strength, O conqueror.
If you are willing to cut, then do away with both of them like a man.

{ Hoc menbrum capula tibi, quod magis inpedit, inquam.
Unde mali caput? Haec duo linguam causor et inguen:
fortis et ut vir sis, tum viribus utere, victor,
si capulare velis, extingue viriliter ambo. } [1]

Act like a man! Be a strong man! The social imperatives of gynocentric society presume that men aren’t naturally virtuous. The demonology of men’s sexuality starts with denying men’s birthright. It depends on forcing men to work to be men. Silencing men is necessary to prevent men from speaking out about injustices against men.

Throughout history, some brave men have refused to silence themselves. Juvenal wrote boldly and frankly to dissuade his friend Postumus from marrying. Loqui prohibeor et tacere non possum. They forbid me to speak, and I cannot be silent. Thus Rufinus urged his friend Valerius not marry. Matheolus courageously shared his lessons from the school of hard knocks that was his marriage to Petra. With just a little exposure to masterpieces in literature of men’s sexed protest, even the most dim-witted boy can understand a fundamental lesson: get married under gynocentrism only at grave risk to your well-being.

Men often need to be pressured into marriage. Shaming men — “you’re afraid to get married” — has been a common tactic throughout history to pressure men into marriage. In the Middle Ages, Egbert taught young boys that even a man reluctant to have sex with an ugly woman is a coward. Egbert taught that lesson with a fable about a man and a bear:

A coward was ordered to lie down with an ugly beast.
But after he had kissed the bear, he shunned it.
He was then urged to poke his rod into its bowels.
“Men, I could scarcely bring myself to touch it with my lips. Where are you pushing me?” he said.
“Let no friend ask that I venture greater things after this.
Such terror infused me from what I have already ventured,
I was sure I was going to crap myself with a filthy pile.”

{ Ignavus deforme pecus concidere iussus;
oscula sed postquam libavit, abhorruit ursum.
Cogitur inde, feri ut venabula figat in alvum:
“Labra, viri, vixdum ammovi! quo truditis?” inquit,
“Me maiora audere dehinc ne poscat amicus:
tantus enim invasit terror pro talibus ausis,
certus eram me congerie foedare inhonesta.” } [2]

This fable concludes with the moral it teaches:

One terrified by the smallest things, balks at more serious ones in his fear.
{ In minimis veritus refugit graviora timendo. }

Heterosexual men tend to prefer beautiful, feminine women for mates. Egbert inverted such a female mate with the figure of an ugly, male bear. That simple literary move drills into young boys the lesson that men must be willing to marry any women, or they will be socially disparaged as not real men.[3]

In conjunction with urging young boys to be silent, to castrate themselves, and to go obediently into marriage with violent, ugly, mannish women, Egbert taught them not to struggle against men’s subservience to women. Young boys under Egbert’s tutelage learned that men’s physical strength and intellectual capabilities are no match for women’s actual superiority:

A woman laid low the first man {Adam}, Samson, and Solomon.
A woman conquered the newly formed man, the strong man, the wise man.
The weak sex struck down the strong one through temptations.

{ Primum hominem, Samson, Salemonem femina stravit,
plasma novum, fortem, sapientem femina vicit,
debilis allisit fortem per scandala sexum. } [4]

Misrepresenting women as the “weak sex” is obfuscation in the service of gynocentrism. If women actually were the weak sex, then men wouldn’t be dying from violence four times as frequently as women do, and men wouldn’t be subject to social injustices that are socially deprived of that name. Unlike many professors today, Egbert deserves credit for instructing students in the reality of men’s subservience to women.

While instructing young boys in silence, castration, forced marriage, and subservience to women, Egbert recognized that the quality of knowledge teachers offered students was declining. Egbert observed:

Scholarly effort is in decline everywhere as never before.
Indeed, cleverness is shunned at home and abroad.
What does reading offer to pupils except tears?
It is rare, worthless when offered for sale, and devoid of wit.

{ Ut numquam studium sic friget ubique scolare,
quippe domi sollertia militiaeque negatur;
lectio quid preter plorare ministrat alumnis?
Rara quidem, nauci, cum venerit, et salis expers. } [5]

Compared to Egbert’s time early in the eleventh century, the situation is even worse today. Critical gender theory is produced with little scholarly effort. Truly clever work is shunned and ignored. What pupil wouldn’t be reduced to tears while reading ignorant scholarship proclaiming misogyny? After many expensive years of higher education, a student is firmly indoctrinated in the demonology of men’s sexuality and knows nothing about real sexism.

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[1] Egbert of Liège, The Well-Laden Ship {Fecunda Ratis} 1.1190-3, Latin text and English translation from Babcock (2013) pp. 126-7. These verses are titled “Concerning the more unjust members {De menbris magis iniustis}”. Cf. id. p. x, “that such poison is being fed to children is still disturbing.”

Babcock’s Latin text is essentially that of Voigt (1889). In this and subsequent quotes, I’ve lineated Babcock’s translation to match the Latin text to help non-Latinists to examine the Latin.

Egbert, a cleric in Liège (in present-day Belgium), completed Fecunda Ratis between 1010 and 1026. Babcock (2013) p. xiii, xv. It consists of “2,373 unrhymed hexameter verse in two books.” Ziolkowski (2007) pp. 100. The work has survived in a single, eleventh-century manuscript: Cologne, Erzbischöfliche Diözesanbibliothek, Dombibliothek codex 196, fols. 1r-63r. Liège was within the archbishopric of Cologne. Ziolkowski (2007) p. 101; Babcock (2013) p. xxv, n 1.

Egbert’s Fecunda Ratis provides early Latin versions of influential stories. The earliest known version of “Little Red Riding Hood” occurs in Fecunda Ratis 2.472-85, “Concerning the girl saved from wolf cubs {De puella a lupellis servata}”. For thorough analysis of the history of “Little Red Riding Hood,” Ziolkowski (2007) Ch. 3.

The earliest known version of the story of the peasant and his domineering wife is also found in Fecunda Ratis. It’s 1.1378-84, “Concerning a wife hostile to her husband {De uxore infensa marito}”. The great medieval women writer Marie de France reworked this story to provide the earliest known representation of the inverted v-sign, a sexually insulting gesture that remains common in the United Kingdom today.

[2] Egbert, Fecunda Ratis 1.1419-26, Latin text and English trans. Babcock (2013) pp. 146-9 (including subsequent quote above), with my changes to the translation. These verses are titled “About the man who kissed a bear {De eo, qui osculatus est ursum},” Babcock called this fable “extremely puzzling.” Id. p. 328, n. to 1419-26. It immediately follows verses describing five stages of “flaming love {flagrantis …. amoris}”: sight, speech, touch, kisses, and sexual intercourse. Babcock notes that the fable “would be (and probably should be) interpreted sexually by the reader.” Id.

My changes to Babcock’s translation help to make clear the fable’s relevance to the gender oppression of men. Babcock translated concidere as “slaughter” and venabula figat in alvum as “stick his lance in the belly of the beast.” I follow Babcock’s suggestions for sexual meanings of these terms. The idiomatic phrase “belly of the beast” seems to me to have misleading connotations here; moreover, the Latin doesn’t repeat the noun “beast {pecus}” from the first verse. For audere / ausis, I use the verb “venture” rather than Babcock’s “dare” to be more consistent with the sense of the man’s reluctance. For “defile myself with a filthy mass,” I use more concrete, colloquial diction consistent with the Latin.

[3] Not understanding the fable’s meaning and corresponding literary device, Babcock misconstrued it with an excessively literal reading: “the bear, like the coward, is male, so it would be anal sex that is implied.” Babcock (2013) p. 328, n. to 1419-26. On a husband’s reluctance to consummate a marriage, see, e.g. the Vita of Galaktion and Episteme and John VIII Palaiologos’s behavior toward his wife Sophia of Montferrat.

[4] Egbert, Fecunda Ratis 2.515-7, Latin text and English trans. Babcock (2013) pp. 230-1. In discussing Solomon, who in Solomon and Marcolf showed malice toward men, Egbert’s work carries forth the understandable frustration and anger of men suffering under long-standing gynocentric oppression:

How many cups, always bitter, does this sex serve up?
The first man fell by this disease, and Samson and Solomon.
What wonder could this poisonous snake not topple?

{ Hic sexus quota pocula semper amara propinat!
Primus homo hoc morbo, Samson ceciditque Salemon —
quid non precipitet haec ydra venefica mirum? }

Fecunda Ratis 2.539-41, trans. id. pp. 232-3. Men deserve compassion for their personal suffering. But at the level of social structure, men share equal blame for the injustices of gynocentrism.

[5] Egbert, Fecunda Ratis 1.1093-6, Latin text and English trans. Babcock (2013) pp. 116-7. These verses are titled “Concerning Poor Scholarly Effort {De malo studio}”.

[image] Excerpt from Lucifer being judged by Christ in majesty. Illumination on f. 067v of Livre de la Vigne nostre Seigneur (Bodley Library, Oxford, MS. Douce 134). Created in France, c. 1450-1470. Image thanks to the Bodley Library’s Luna system. Here’s a brief review of medieval demonology.


Babcock, Robert Gary, ed. and trans. 2013. Egbert of Liège. The well-laden ship. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 25. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Voigt, Ernst, ed. 1889. Egberts von Lüttich Fecunda Ratis, zum ersten Mal herausgegeben, auf ihre Quellen zurückgeführt und erklärt von Ernst Voigt. Halle A.S.: M. Niemeyer.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2007. Fairy tales from before fairy tales: the medieval Latin past of wonderful lies. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

women’s superiority: the silliness of talk about gender equality

Saint Gregory of Nazianzus

In 384 GC, the Patriarch of Constantinople Gregory of Nazianzus wrote to the young bride Olympiada. She was a wealthy descendant of the Roman imperial family. Gregory knew her personally and acted as her spiritual father. As a wedding gift, he gave her a 111-verse poem of fatherly advice. That poem shows that an extraordinarily wise man recognized, about 1600 years ago, that talk about gender equality is silliness relative to women’s actual gender superiority.

Gregory’s poem for Olympiada indicated the extraordinary privilege of elite women relative to ordinary men. While ordinary men commonly worked on the verge of starvation, elite women led lives of luxury and feminine vanity. Gregory warned Olympiada against adorning herself with gold, precious stones, fancy dresses, and cosmetics. He urged her to distinguish herself from other elite women:

The expensive and fancy dresses must remain for those women that have no desire for the life beyond and do not know what the meaning of spiritual struggle and attainment of virtues is all about; this type of woman cannot possibly comprehend the spiritual radiance and brilliance of a life in Christ. You have aimed towards greater goals and for a higher purpose for your life. … Stay away from conceited and ostentatious women whose mind is preoccupied with external appearances and social circles, all for the purpose of vainglory and public display.

Such women today write about patriarchy and men’s oppression of women. They do so to gain public attention and fashionable intellectual status. Women who truly care about social justice speak out on behalf on men.

Gregory explicitly described women’s superiority to men. He bluntly told Olympiada:

Set aside the silliness of equality among the sexes that some of your contemporaries preach, and attempt to comprehend the obligations of marriage. … You must surely be aware of how easily anger overtakes men. They cannot maintain their temper, and they often appear as wild lions. It is at this exact moment that a woman must remain stronger and display her superiority. You must play the role of the lion-tamer. What does a lion-tamer do when the beast starts roaring? He becomes even calmer than usual and through kindness and persistence he overcomes the lion’s wrath. He speaks to the lion kindly, in a soft but firm voice, he caresses it, he attends to it, he pets it, and little by little calmness is restored.

Historically, men have been disparaged as dogs, pigs, wolves, and animals sexually inferior to donkeys. Not all men are like that. Gregory, who was a highly learned theologian, stated merely that men “often appear as wild lions.” More importantly, Gregory recognized that, in general, women are stronger than men and superior to men in social position and social power.

While Gregory never produced a treatise on gender theory, his kindly, fatherly words to Olympiada suggest that he had a sophisticated understanding of intersexual dynamics. He urged Olympiada to love her husband according to the Christian model of love:

In your marriage, fondness, affection and love must be strong and persistent for him whom God has selected to be your life partner. This man is now the eye of your life and the delight of your heart. And if you ever perceive that your husband possibly loves you more than you love him, do not take advantage of his feeling by attempting to gain the upper had in your marriage. That is plainly wrong as it is totally against the writings of the Holy Gospel!

The leading medieval theologian Peter Lombard recognized that courtly love puts men in a subservient position relative to women. Men’s inferiority to women in identifying biological offspring has enormous implications for social inequality. Yet gender inequality ultimately has even deeper roots. The fundamental gender equality is this: men typically love women more than women love men. That inequality in love allows women to gain the upper hand over men. The Christian model of love, as well as women of great culture and learning, challenge prevalent inequality in love between men and women.

Gregory told Olympiada the truth about gender equality rather than the conventional lies so prevalent throughout history. A woman can free herself from criminal justice by baring her breasts to a jury. When a woman claims rape, men foolishly limit themselves to listening and believing and acting to punish and even kill other men. A woman’s tears overwhelm any public reason. Rome was explicitly founded on the principle of the Sabine women’s social superiority. Almost all other societies have been based on belief in women’s superiority to men. Gregory of Nazarianus deserves extraordinary praise and honor for speaking truth about gender power.

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The quotes above are from Gregory of Nazianzus’s letter to Olympiada in 384 GC. The translation is from the Orthodox Christian Information Center’s website. The name of the translator isn’t given. I’ve made some non-substantial changes to the translation. The Greek text and Latin translations (prose and verse) are available in Patrologia Graeca (PG), vol. 37, p. 1542.

Gregory of Nazianzus was an eminent theologian and church leader who lived from about 329 to 390 GC. Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nyssa are known as the Cappadocian Fathers. With Basil the Great and John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nazianzus is regarded as a Holy Hierarch. He is also regarded as a saint. He is one of only three persons generally known by the epithet “the Theologian.” For more information on Gregory and a translation of some of his poems, Dunkle (2009). Although widely revered, Gregory’s insightful contribution to gender theory has been almost totally ignored.

[image] Excerpt from icon of Gregory of Nazianzus, the Theologian. Made in 1408 and attributed to Andrei Rublev. Originally in the Dormition Cathedral, Valdimir, Russia. Now in the State Tretyakov Gallery (Moscow), inventory # 19725. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Dunkle, Brian P. 2009. Gregory Nazianzen’s Poems on Scripture: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary. S.T.L. Degree Thesis. Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.

reconstructing ancient songs for schoolboys: Juvenal vs. sugar & spice

Surviving manuscripts in Europe from the tenth through the twelfth century include musical notation for Latin texts by Virgil, Lucan, Horace, Juvenal, Statius, and Boethius, and other classical authors. The musical notation seems to have been intended to help medieval schoolboys learn how to recite classical Latin verse.[1] Today those classical works are read as literary poems. Schoolboys singing Juvenal’s satire 6? That’s inconceivable today. Any schoolboys doing that would be immediately expelled from the gynocentric-totalitarian educational complex and probably incarcerated for committing a gender-transgressive singing crime.

Modern scholars have imagined medieval men singing Latin classics in a highly orthodox way. An eminent scholar at Cambridge University and a world-class performer of medieval music have reconstructed medieval songs based on poems from Boethius’s sixth-century Consolation of Philosophy. Those poems were written with musical notation in the eleventh-century manuscript Carmina Cantabrigiensia.[2] A portion of their musical reconstruction is available on YouTube (see below). It’s music for these Boethian verses:

Verses I made once glowing with content;
Tearful, alas, sad songs must I begin.

{ Carmina qui quondam studio florente peregi,
Flebilis heu maestos cogor inire modos. } [3]

This surely isn’t the sort of music schoolboys would enjoy.

For a sense of what schoolboys sang within medieval Latin’s relatively broad freedom of expression, modern trends provide considerable insight. About 1820, the English poet Robert Southey wrote the verses:

What are little boys made of
Snips & snails & puppy dogs tails
And such are little boys made of.

What are young women made of
Sugar & spice & all things nice [4]

By the mid-twentieth century, nearly identical lines formed a well-known nursery rhyme. By 2017, the U.S. mega-corporation Nike drew upon that nursery rhyme in an attempt to influence Russian popular culture and Russian consumer behavior. Contempt for boys and men and celebration of girls and women are winning themes in gynocentric society.[5]

At the margins of gynocentric society are boys’ and men’s voices of sexed protest. Medieval schoolboys were forced to endure oppressive lessons such as those in Egbert of Liège’s eleventh-century Fecunda Ratis. But perceptive and compassionate medieval writers understood the suffering of fathers’ deprived of custody of their children, poignantly lamented a non-functioning penis, and vigorously protested structural injustices against men. They would have sought to boost boys’ rebellious spirits. They would have taught boys to sing verses from Juvenal’s Satire 6:

this is the moment of pure Woman —
the shout’s repeated in unison from the entire grotto:
“Now’s the time! Send in the men!” If her {the wife’s} paramour is asleep,
she’ll tell his son to put on his hood and hurry along.
If that’s no good, there’s an assault on the slaves. If no prospect of available
slaves, they’ll pay the water delivery man to come in. If they
can’t find him and there’s a deficit of humans, not a moment passes before
she voluntarily offers her ass to be mounted by a donkey.

{ tum femina simplex,
ac pariter toto repetitus clamor ab antro
“iam fas est, admitte viros.” dormitat adulter,
illa iubet sumpto iuvenem properare cucullo;
si nihil est, servis incurritur; abstuleris spem
servorum, veniet conductus aquarius; hic si
quaeritur et desunt homines, mora nulla per ipsam
quo minus inposito clunem summittat asello. } [6]

Schoolboys throughout the ages would relish singing such verses. More importantly, such verses would teach schoolboys that they are no more intrinsically stupid and evil than girls are. That’s a lesson that boys need to learn, especially today.

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[1] Ziolkowski (2007) provides a seminal scholarly review of musical notation in classical manuscripts.

[2] The Cambridge scholar is Sam Barrett. The leading medieval musician is Benjamin Bagby, co-founder of Sequentia and director of Sequentia’s Lost Songs Project. Sequentia has produced an album of reconstructed medieval music, Lost Songs of a Rhineland Harper.

Carmina Cantabrigiensia includes Modus Florum and Modus Liebinc. Both of these songs might encourage boys to challenge gynocentrism. See my post on Modus Florum, especially note [11].

[3] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy 1.1-2, Latin text and English trans. from Stewart, Rand & Tester (1974) pp. 130-1.

[4] Opie & Opie (1997) p. 117. When writing about women, Southey took care to indicate that not all women are like that (NAWALT):

What are some women made of?
Bell metal mouths and leathern lungs
Goose’s brains and parrot’s tongues.

Id. In 1846, Edward Francis Rimbault, an English musicologist, included no such qualification in disparaging young men:

What are young men made of?
Sighs and leers and crocodile tears.
What are young women made of?
Ribbons and laces, and sweet pretty faces.


[5] In a highly popular related video, the Powerpuff Girls take on the Rowdyruff Boys. The boys are depicted as sinister. Moreover, the boys are associated with crime and incarceration. The girls prevail in the end with the tactics that medieval literature of men’s sex protest recognized: the tactics that brought about the downfall of Adam, Samson, and Solomon.

[6] Juvenal, Satire 6.327-34, Latin text and trans. (adapted non-substantially) from Braund (2004) pp. 262-3. Munk Olsen reported that Juvenal’s Satire 88.79-84 and 8.88-89 are neumed (notated with musical notation) in Bibliotheek der Rijksuniversiteit, MS B.P.L 82, fol. 59r. That claim hasn’t been verified. Ziolkowski (2007) p. 257. In his De doctrina spirituali, Otloh of St. Emmeran in Regensburg (c. 1010-1070) described Horace, Terence, and Juvenal as three authors “to whom the worldly school is devoted {quos sectatur schola mundi}.” id. p. 35. Moreover, the eleventh-century Lexicon prosodiacum included examples from Juvenal. Id. Juvenal is among the classical poets represented most frequently in surviving medieval manuscripts. Id. p. 36. Medieval schoolboys plausibly sung Juvenal’s Satire 6.327-34.


Braund, Susanna Morton, ed. and trans. 2004. Juvenal, Persius. Juvenal and Persius. Loeb Classical Library 91. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Opie, Iona Archibald, and Peter Opie. 1997. The Oxford dictionary of nursery rhymes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stewart, H. F., E. K. Rand, S. J. Tester, ed. and trans. 1973. Boethius. Theological Tractates. The Consolation of Philosophy. Loeb Classical Library 74. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2007. Nota bene: reading classics and writing melodies in the early Middle Ages. Turnhout: Brepols. (introduction)

social construction of sexual culpability in classical Arabic poetry

medieval Baghdad underground

An extraordinary work of classical Arabic literature from early eleventh-century Baghdad subtly critiques the sexual oppression of men. The towering, central figure of this work is the eminent littérateur Abū al-Qāsim. He had strong, independent sexuality like that widely celebrated for women in high-income countries today. Despite his great literary sophistication, Abū al-Qāsim himself, like the leading fourteenth-century Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym, internalized the social construction of men’s sexual culpability.

At a lavish, elite banquet, Abū al-Qāsim celebrated the vibrancy and dynamism of his penis. After asking a professional singer to play music for a specific Arabic poetic meter, Abū al-Qāsim jumped up and began to dance and recite poetry. He poetically exulted:

The hardness of the prick and the softness of the shit
In the ass: the two together are what please me

O affliction, O the evil of my luck — but how
Sweet are the two to me when they get together

My prick’s insistence has refused to
Waver in its versatility in fucking

Not at all homophobic, Abū al-Qāsim enjoyed having sex with both men and women. Moreover, he was unafraid to speak of the sexual attractiveness of sexually attractive persons. He even expressed openly, in the presence of witnesses, his own sexual desire, even as an old man, for sexually attractive persons. In many high-income countries today, Abū al-Qāsim surely would be subject to a mass public campaign of shaming and demonization, as well as severe public punishment through loss of employment, asset stripping, and incarceration.

Despite Abū al-Qāsim’s cultural sophistication and expressive courage, he attributed culpability for moral wrong to the penis and exonerated the vagina. After reciting the above poem, Abū al-Qāsim recited another, deeply telling poem:

God is the one asked for help
By my wife’s pussy and my prick

The two have burdened me with fucking
That has almost broken my back

But I say in regard to what
You see is my heart’s preoccupation

In my opinion, there is no reason
For rebuking the pussy

Nor can it be blamed for sin,
Not even for a single day in time

It’s the prick — my prick — that you should curse
For indeed it’s a dog’s prick!

A prick that yearns to fuck
Every hairy pussy

Men’s sexuality has been socially disparaged and devalued throughout history. From the persecution of men for adultery in Code of Hammurabi written about 4,000 years ago to the French Revolution’s failure to provide men with legal paternity choice, to deeply gender-biased current public discussion about men raping women, men’s sexuality is socially constructed as a destructive force requiring strict social control. Can human reason even recognize this fundamental social injustice? Abū al-Qāsim continued dancing until he fell to the ground “from breathlessness and too much drinking.”

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All the quotes above are from the Arabic Ḥikāyat Abī al-Qāsim {The Imitation Abū al-Qāsim}, attributed to al-Azdī. This work probably was written in early eleventh-century Baghdad. The English translations are from St. Germain (2006) pp. 401-2. I have made some non-substantial changes to St. Germain’s translation for ease of readability for the general public.

The twelfth-century Byzantine novel Drosilla and Charikles seems to provide a redemptive perspective on Abū al-Qāsim through the dancing old woman Maryllis.

[image] Dual perspective on the public world of medieval Baghdad. The Tigris River represents the divide between the dominant, orthodox perspective on gynocentric space and the upside-down reality of men’s oppressive social position. By Nasuh Al-Matrakî, an sixteenth-century Ottoman artist-scholar. From illuminated manuscript held in Topkapi collection, Bilkent University. On Al-Matrakî, see the well-documented article Ayduz (n.d.). The specific copy of the manuscript illumination is from a Smithsonian Magazine article that provides no attribution for the image.


Ayduz, Salim. Not dated (n.d.). “Nasuh Al-Matrakî, A Noteworthy Ottoman Artist-Mathematician of the Sixteenth Century.” Muslim Heritage website, Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation.

St. Germain, Mary S. 2006. Al-Azdī’s Ḥikāyat Abī al Qāsim al-Baghdādī: placing an anomalous text within the literary developments of its time. Ph.D. Thesis. University of Washington.

medieval scholar at University of Paris wretched like courtly lover

scholars studying at the medieval University of Paris

By late in the twelfth century, the nascent University of Paris was attracting ambitious scholars. These scholars devoted themselves to pursuing knowledge just as courtly lovers devoted themselves to pursing women. The labors of ambitious scholars and courtly lovers bore mainly wretchedness. Seeking learning or women as a means of external validation implies mistaken reasoning or disordered desire.

According to the Architrenius, a long Latin poem finished in 1184, Paris is the best of all places for gods and scholars:

Paris, the second palace of Phoebus, Delphic in its citizenry, Chrysaean {gold-bearing} in its wealth, a Greece in libraries, an India in its schools, a Rome for poets, an Attica for philosophers; the flower of the world, the balm of creation, a Sidon for its splendor, its feasts and its drinking.

{ altera regia Phebi,
Parisius, Cirrea viris, Crisea metallis,
Greca libris, Inda studiis, Romana poetis,
Attica philosophis, mundi rosa, balsamus orbis,
Sidonis ornatu, sua mensis et sua potu }

One place uniting the world’s best places for knowledge, predictive power, wealth, and lavish eating and drinking — what else could a scholar-man desire other than Kievan women?

At the University of Paris, the scholar’s zeal for knowledge brings him misery. His hair becomes unkempt, and his clothes, threadbare. For food he has mainly peas, beans, onions, and cabbage. He sleeps on a thin pallet through which he can feel the hard floor. But he passionately seeks to penetrate what he doesn’t already know:

pursed lips express the effort of the panting mind, he strives to advance with his whole being, pours forth long-drawn sighs and groans as the barriers are broken, brings the hot blood to his face, and puts forth his utmost effort, while his eyes blaze in frenzy.

{ anime luctamen hanelum
Pressa labella iuvant. sese procedere toto
Dimicat, obicibus ruptis suspiria tractim
Proicit et gemitus efflat, vultumque cruentat
Ignibus, ambustis oculis, totuspque furore
Effluit }

All night long he is preoccupied with knowledge:

Toiling at such tasks, by lamplight and by the light of learning, he grows faint with exhaustion, yet burns with eager love to make Minerva wholly his own. Only when Phoebus has arisen from the low-lying Antipodes, and drawn within a few paces of the horizon, does peaceful sleep first spread its gentle mist over his eyes. Now he holds his pen and other tools with slack fingers, while the open book receives the weight of his drooping head. But even in the peace of slumber the unceasing labor of the student finds no peace. Care remains wakeful even in the midst of sleep, and the sleeper’s anxious mind is still proposing books and projects to itself. This abiding anxiety never succumbs to sleep; instead the preoccupations that had earlier kept him awake return, and the vast amount of work to be done presents itself like a Hydra of troubles to his restless cogitations.

{ Talibus insudans olei librique lucerna
Tabidus illanguet, toti nupsisse Minerve
Sedulus ardet amor, dum strato Phebus ab axe
Antipodum surgat et paucis distet ab ortu
Iam gradibus; tenui tum primum spargit ocellos
Nube quies sompni, calamumque et cetera laxis
Instrumenta rapit digitis — declive libello
Suscipiente capud; sed in illa pace soporis
Pacis eget studii labor insopitus et ipso
Cura vigil sompno: libros operamque ministat
Excite sompnus anime, nec prima sopori
Anxietas cedit, sed, que vigilaverat ante,
Sollicitudo redit et maior summa laboris
Curarum studii insompnibus obicit ydram. }

He bitterly laments having spent some time in sleep. He imagines that because he didn’t rise soon enough his place is being taken by another:

Eager to arrive at school before his master, he fears that the other has arrived already, that the master has already sounded the horn for a daily lesson, and is now proffering a second round of Delphic libations. He curses his body for succumbing to fatigue; indignation evokes a sneer of bitter anger, and spews forth the complaints that swell his burning bosom, lamentations that bring him at last to the point of tears.

{ precessurusque magistrum
Precessisse timet et iam pro parte diurna
Intonuisse tuba fontisque secunda propinet
Pocula Cirrei, domitos torporibus artus
Increpat et mestos ire indignacio risus
Excutit et tumidos flammato pectore questus
Evomit, in lacrimas tandem vergente querela. }

The scholar, subordinate to his master, lacks self-confidence in his ability to know. He imagines that another man could take his place. He doesn’t believe in his own intrinsic value, he doesn’t honor his own wonderful body, and he experiences not pleasure, but wretchedness.

After the account of the scholar’s troubled night, the Architrenius inserts a parallel chapter about the courtly lover. In reference to the courtly lover, the chapter explains:

It is thus with the soldier of Venus who has arranged to come in secret to his mistress’s door at nightfall. … he flies, borne along by the wings of Cupid, and looks about him, and takes the measure of earth and heaven, the one with his hastening feet, the other with sweeping gaze.

{ Sic Veneris miles furtivum pactus amate
Postibus accessum … volat rapiturque Cupidinis alis,
Suspiciensque simul terras metitur et astra,
Has pedis, hec oculi cursu }

The scholar, the “soldier of Phoebus,” is like the courtly lover:

In the same way, the soldier of Phoebus, exerting feet and mind to the utmost, hastens to the precincts of Minerva, the sanctuary of learning, continually glancing at the horizon as he proceeds, spanning the horizon with his eyes and the earth with his feet.

{ Non secus et miles Phebi ad loca pacta Minerve
Discendique lares properat luctamine toto
Et pedis et mentis, Aurore ad limen eundo
Sepius aspectans, oculisque amplectitur ortus
Et pedibus terras }

After sleeping for an hour, the courtly lover curses himself like the scholar did:

He curses himself for having trusted his eyes to keep watch. He declares that his prayers have been rendered vain by the loss of the hour now past, that his beloved, once deceived, may never be enjoyed. He grows ashamed, and condemns himself as one unworthy of admission to the camp of Venus.

{ Increpat excubiis oculi se credere, iurat
Dampno preterite quod vota fefellerit hore,
Quodque semel lusa numquam pociatur amata
Seque suiques pudet }

The courtly lover is as wretched as the scholar. Both believe that they should be able to stay up all night long. That’s as ridiculous as Burnel believing that his penis is too short.

Elite medieval Latin poetry contrasted the student of Athena with the student of Venus  — the ambitious scholar with the courtly lover. Modern scholarship is largely the product of ambitious, career-oriented scholars. Modern scholarship has celebrated the men-abasing horrors of courtly love. The Architreneus highlights that the ambitious, careerist scholar and the courtly lover are similar in their instrumental folly and their experiential hardships.

Medieval European culture was imbued with Christianity. Yet just as a person can become insensitive to her or his spouse’s beauty, medieval clerics could neglect a significant aspect of Christ’s person. Jesus did not act like a professional physician. Jesus engaged in playful mocking. Jesus participated in the outrageous, stinking reality of life. At the medieval University of Paris or in medieval royal courts, both the ambitious scholar and the courtly lover lacked the fullness of Christian life.

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The above quotes are from the Architrenius by John of Hauville (Johannes de Hauvilla). The Latin text and English trans. (adapted slightly) are from Wetherbee (1994). The specific sources are (cited by book.line of the Latin text and page number in Wetherbee’s translation): 2.483-7, p. 59 (Paris, the second palace of Phoebus…); 3.127-32, p. 67 (pursed lips express…); 3.187-200, p. 71 (Toiling at such tasks…); 3.247-53, p. 75 (Eager to arrive at school…); 3.254-5, 273-5, p. 75 (It is thus with the soldier of Venus…); 3.279-83, p. 77 (In the same way, the soldier of Phoebus…); 3.267-70, p. 75 (He curses himself…).

[image] Illumination of a master-teacher and tonsured students at the University of Paris. From a late 14th-century Grandes Chroniques de France. Image via Romeo (2015). If you know the specific manuscript containing this illumination, please contribute it in the comments so that purple motes can continue to maintain high scholarly standards of reference.


Havlidis, Dimitris Romeo. 2015. “Medieval Education in Europe: A Force for Freedom and Submission.” Mar. 20,

Wetherbee, Winthrop. 1994. Johannes de Hauvilla. Architrenius. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

laughter of cuckolds hides contempt for men, beauty, and humanity

This, my praise for her, and the praise of humanity,
To you, cuckold, are drops of sperm on your head. [1]

The Ḥikāyat Abī al-Qāsim {The Imitation Abū al-Qāsim}, a work of Arabic literature from early eleventh-century Baghdad, is highly learned and deeply cultured. Its author explained:

The kind of literature I am inclined to select are the speeches of the Bedouins and old Arabic poetry, followed by the fantastic and flowery imaginings of well-read scholars, as well as the marvelous innovations born of the genius of the prominent modern poets. These are the sources I have drawn from in my book, adorning myself with their work and often passing it off as my own. I have heard with my own ears the witticisms they have discussed at length and competed over. I have also included excerpts of my own poetry, letters that I have circulated, and records of literary gatherings that I have attended. [2]

The author described his work as an imitation of a man of Baghdad and also an imitation of all of Baghdad:

This is an imitation of a Baghdadi man whom I knew well for a time. He was always blurting pronouncements, sometimes pleasant and sometimes rude, as well as local sayings from his city, sometimes high-brow and sometimes shocking. I have preserved them in my mind to serve as a token of the manners of all the people of Baghdad, of all different social classes, and as a sample of their local customs.

His work frequency uses an Arabic iterative tense that describes typically repeated actions. It depicts events of a single, day-long elite banquet. Yet the author also adds with respect to his literary work itself:

One can just get through it and absorb it in that same span of time {a day}.

Al-Qāsim, the representative, eleventh-century Baghdadi man that Ḥikāyat Abī al-Qāsim imitates, was an old man, an alcoholic, a holy man, and, like the author, “a voluble loudmouth.” He was a man who had keen appreciation, both culturally and lustfully, for beautiful, singing slave girls.

Take, good sir, my hand — the one I used to wipe my ass!
I made a movement strange to see, a chessman standing fast,
like an egg that stands on edge inside a boiling pan.
Ibn Hārūn would be amazed, al-Bustī would have laughed,
so come enjoy this oddity on which I’ve plied my hand! [3]

Al-Qāsim was difficult to understand. He nonetheless resented others misunderstanding him. Recognizing al-Qāsim high level of Arabic cultural achievement, status-seeking young men would ask him: “What should we say? What should we do?” Al-Qāsim would say, “Be men! Good, honorable men! Don’t be beastly!” They would ask, “What should we do to be good men?” He would say, “Live the life of the wise, live by my code.” Then they would ask him to explain his code. He would say:

There is no point in telling signs and warnings to a people with no faith. You can’t make a dead man hear you. The deaf won’t answer your call if they have their backs turned. Were there life in you to hear me, you would hear me, but there’s not. I’m selling pearls in the brick maker’s market. It’s like a pack of skittish donkeys, fleeing from a lion — deaf, dumb, blind, and no brain either.

What God gave me of intellect
is lost on donkeys, sheep, and cows.
They cannot hear me call, nor would
they understand me anyhow.
They gather up and croak like frogs
between the pond and willow boughs. [4]

Then someone would ask him to get to the point and would promise to follow his advice. Al-Qāsim advised that if they were rich, not to save; if they were poor, to borrow. He also advised:

become connoisseurs of fine food, and drink liquor, and listen to beautiful singing-girls, and fuck the dancers and the singers as well. Fuck standing and pray sitting. Fuck the free-born, and don’t forget the slaves. Fuck in secret and in full view. Fuck the owned and the free, and the whores and the chaste. Fuck as long as your cocks are standing, because they won’t stand forever. Fuck the young and the old, fuck vaginas, and assholes, fuck blossoming young girls, and decrepit old women, and beautiful young lads, and ugly old men.

True studs, they say, do not demur,
so climb on filth, and fuck a cur!

… All of this advice, by God, comes from a man who wants the best for you.

If you all agree, advance for your advisor, who is working hard on your behind
to march you to the King of Hell tomorrow, line by line. [5]

Not appreciating al-Qāsim subtlety and profundity, someone would laugh. That would provoke a furious response from al-Qāsim:

Slaughtering of a sacrificial animal, extraction of a barbed spear, a citron thorn! It’s a flirting fever, gall and vitriol, sawing through hard teak, an Ethiopian bubonic throat-plague! Did I say that God was Two? Or Three? Did I refute the Qur’an with poetry? Did I break the tooth of the prophet of God? Did I ransack his family’s tomb? Did I fire a catapult at the Ka’ba, or pelt it with menstrual rags? Did I defecate in the well of Zamzam? Did I hock the holy camel of Sāliḥ? Did I speak of God as the Jews or Christians do? Did I fornicate in the mosque of the Prophet, between his tomb and the pulpit? Did I shit on the Black Stone? Did I chop off the head of Husayn, son of ʻAli? Did I cut off the hand of Jaʻfar ibn Abi Tālib? Did I eat Hamza’s liver? Did I rend the flesh of one blessed by God? So then, loser, what are you laughing at? [6]

Al-Qāsim implied that the man who laughed at him would be morally corrupt enough to laugh at horrible blasphemies against Islam. That’s equivalent to laughing at fundamental truth in the Islamic world. Al-Qāsim thus would attack the man who laughed at his advice with the strongest verbal attack possible in the Islamic world. His advice was meant seriously. Yet to understand that, one must take seriously his urging party-goers, “Be men! Good, honorable men! Don’t be beastly!”

Al-Qāsim appreciated human bodily pleasures, yet maintained a critical perspective on worldly activity. After al-Qāsim would lavishly praise the “licentious women of Baghdad, in whom were gathered the beauty of form and disposition,”[7] his fellow banqueters would beg him for stories about them. Al-Qāsim respected those women. He resented what seemed to be a request for him to tell Milesian tales as if he were a money-grubbing mass entertainer:

Gentleman, are you looking for a clown? Do you want somebody to laugh at? Your friend the fool? No, sir, find someone else to laugh at! [8]

The requester would then piously and humbly repeat his request in the manner of one seeking vital truth:

O God, God, O Abū al-Qāsim, if you would be gracious, we would thank you and you would be our honored master, not someone we could order about. And if you refuse, we will not ask anything resembling this of you, and you will still be a great, respected man among us.

Al-Qāsim would acquiesce to that humble petition. He would tell stories highlighting vitally important truths about women and men in intimate relations.

Al-Qāsim would harshly disparage those who sought to trivialize and delegitimize men being attracted to beautiful, young women. At a banquet, al-Qāsim would see a beautiful, young, singing girl. He would approach her and gaze upon her face. Then he would recite a poem of appreciation for God’s work:

A creator strewed beauty across her face
Who made sway her branch under the full moon [9]

And another poem:

She is tender, her saliva is
Musk, honey, and nectar

And another poem:

There was created for me, just as I wish her to be,
A singing girl who shames the gazelle fawn

Her beauty dazzles the old man
And it suits me to be dazzled

The girl would have with her guardians — men working as bodyguards ready to sacrifice themselves to protect her. Al-Qāsim would pour out lengthy disparagement of a guardian’s face and soul. He would start out with poetic couplets of negative amplification:

Neither pleurisy nor gout
Creeping from one joint to another,
Nor the hurt of a molar after sleep,
Nor the sting of a boil in a vulnerable spot,

Is more oppressive than his face in appearance

You don’t have it in you to enjoy listening to joking
Nor to take the truth seriously

Then he would shift to a long series of poetic “O” laments:

O lack of water on the night of a conflagration,
O load of debt on someone in financial straits,
O capsizing of a rowboat in December,

O silent farting of the elephant when it has indigestion,

O grief of poor men on holidays,

O lack of ink for the copyist,

O embarrassment of the one distressed in his business,
O increasing prices for a bread-winner with a large family,

O wit, O backbiter in whose mouth is putridity,
O attack of fever and O age of senility,
Always may you remain in the worst position,
Having, in your hatred, no successor when you die.

Then he would move to prose “O” laments:

O beginning of the night of the stranger, when he is far from the beloved; O guise of the guardian; … O more detestable than a cup of thick laxative in the hand of a sick person, and more reprehensible than the appearance of a bankrupt person before the loathed creditor; … O dirtier than the couch of a mangy dog with indigestion; O dirtier than a fly on wet shit;, and more contemptible than the flea in a dog’s ear … O dirtier than the mud of fish-sellers stalls; O more brutal than a tyrant in the eyes of the tyrannized, and more hated than the owl’s cry when it strikes the fevered man’s ear; … O more hateful than separation from a friend, than looking at a stepfather on an empty stomach, and the rough spots in the road, or indeed than the evil of the outcome, the strain of misfortune, the spite of enemies, the envy of relatives, the tenaciousness of strangers, the faithlessness of partners, and observing bores, hanging around with fools, petitioning misers, and antagonizing poets.

Al-Qāsim would go on to further invective in poetic meter. Long into his long, elaborate verbal abuse of the young, beautiful, singing girl’s guardians, someone would laugh.

Al-Qāsim would respond quickly to quell the laughter. He would turn to the laughing man and say:

Are you laughing at me, you son of a farting humbug, who farts wet sharts and sells them for the cost of an acorn, may God blacken your face, you son of a farty filly in heat, shouting, blind, torn, foaming, asking to be fucked, the {one word, probably obscene, of unknown meaning}, bursting, braying, wood-pecking, wet, may God make my ass a flint bucket and your beard tinder! A small-pocked monkey-mongerer in Baghdad by the low wall of al-Khuld is hooded with the thighs of your wife, and his cock is in her belly to the farthest limit of its core, you son of a woman plowed and driven through like a ship through the waves! If your mother’s labia were Hāshimī forelock, I would have plucked its mustache in Medina mosque, inside the holy Maqṣūra. By the life of her mottled ass and the wet hair of her pussy, the stork-like kernel of her clit and the black-and-white magpie hair of her ass, I will pluck your tattered mustache!

O son of a big-clitted woman whose ass has turned aged and silly.
The cocks play in her hole and her shit, shuffleboard, willy-nilly. [10]

In the U.S. today, an old man who recited love poetry to a beautiful, young woman would be shunned as creepy, and perhaps incarcerated for failing to secure affirmative consent before gazing upon a woman. If any man said all that al-Qāsim said, he probably would be arrested and incarcerated for months, if not years, for racism, sexism, and hate speech. That’s not how it was in the high culture of eleventh-century Baghdad.

Men being cuckolded, like men being kicked in the groin, has commonly stirred laughter. That’s the laughter of those lacking intellectual and cultural sophistication. Al-Qāsim appreciated the functioning of a man’s penis and endless learning. Only a fully human person could encompass the contradictions of abundant life as al-Qāsim did. Al-Qāsim would advise men, “Be men! Good, honorable men! Don’t be beastly!” They don’t understand. They don’t take him seriously. They deserve the full brunt of al-Qāsim’s invective.

Mongols besieging Baghdad in 1258

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[1] al-Azdī, Ḥikāyat Abī al-Qāsim {The Imitation Abū al-Qāsim}, from Arabic, my adaptation based on the translations of St. Germain and Selove. The Ḥikāyat Abī al-Qāsim was written early in the eleventh century, probably near Baghdad. Selove describes St. Germain’s translation as “rendered in literal, non-literary, academic language.” Selove (2016) p. 6. In St. Germain’s translation, the couplet is the first half of the poem:

This is my praise and the praise of mankind (for you)
Are, O drop of sperm, two horn on you(r head)
And if I have made it too short,
Consider it a (brief) stroll in a garden

St. Germain (2006) p. 381. Selove translated this poem as:

This is my praise for you and for mankind
You drip of a cuckold’s wet dick
And if you feel that I’ve cut it too short
Just think this a garden pic-nic

Selove (2016) p. 180, n. 4. Selove’s translation is much more lively, but seems to me to have some weaknesses. St. Germain’s phrase “my praise” makes sense as al-Qāsim’s praise for the singing girl. That’s important in context. The specificity of sperm seems to me important in bringing out the biology of men’s sexuality. My adaptation attempts to encompass both these points while shifting toward the accessibility and liveliness of Selove’s translation.

[2] Ḥikāyat, trans. Selove (2016) p. 32. The subsequent two quotes are from id. pp. 32-3.

[3] Ḥikāyat, trans. Selove (2016) pp. 33-4. With impressive and insightful erudite, Selove noted:

Movement here {in the second line above} means both of the bowels and on the chess board, and is a translation of dast, which signifies both ‘stool/evacuation’ in Persian, and ‘game/place/trick’ in Arabic.

Id. p. 63, n. 6.

[4] Ḥikāyat, trans. Selove (2016) p. 38. Id. p. 64, nn. 30-1, notes that the first sentences refer to the Qur’an (10:101, 80:27, 52:30). Those sentences also echo Christian scripture, e.g. John 4:48, Acts 14:3 (signs and wonders); Matthew 11:5, 13:15 (deafness).

[5] Ḥikāyat, trans. Selove (2016) pp. 38-9. For the final couplet above, Selove wrote:

This advice comes straight from one who’s coming up behind
to march you to the King of Hell tomorrow, line by line.

Id. p. 39. St. Germain has:

If you all agree, you will advance toward it
For your advisor is a hard worker from behind

St. Germain (2006) p. 192. Particularly in its context, this couplet seems to me to allude to homosexual intercourse. I’ve tried to preserve a sense of that allusion in my version of the couplet above.

[6] Ḥikāyat, mainly trans. Selove (2016) pp. 39-40. Selove’s translation begins:

‘A cutting knife!” Abū al-Qāsim would exclaim, ‘A slaughtering throat-plague, a shot, a stab, a citron thorn! …

For this text St. Germain has:

Abū al-Qāsim says, “He is a slaughtering of a sacrificial animal; an extraction of a (barbed) spear; citron thorns, …

St. Germain (2006) p. 193. In the context of concern with blasphemy, St. Germain’s translation of this introductory text seems to me better. I have incorporated it above.

[7] Ḥikāyat, trans. St. Germain (2006) p. 285.

[8] Ḥikāyat, trans. Selove (2016) p. 171. The subsequent quote is from id.

[9] Ḥikāyat, trans. St. Germain (2006) p. 373-9, provides this and the subsequent five quotes. Abū al-Qāsim’s initial invective continues to p.381 in St. Germain’s translation.

[10] Ḥikāyat, trans. Selove (2016) p. 60. Selove states:

Although readers have found the Ḥikāyat and its protagonist both shocking and entertaining, it is difficult to deny that Abū al-Qāsim talks too much and can consequently grow tedious. … If the Ḥikāyat was intended to be read out loud at one sitting to an audience, we should certainly hope that this audience would be intoxicated, for their sake.

Id. p. 91. Certain truths are both difficult and painful to convey.

[image] Mongols besieging Baghdad in 1258. Illumination c. c.1430-1434 from manuscript Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Division orientale, Supplément persan 1113. Via Wikimedia Commons. Here are other illuminations from Supplément persan 1113.


Selove, Emily. 2012. The Hikaya of Abu al-Qasim al-Baghdadi: The Comic Banquet in Greek, Latin, and Arabic. Ph.D. Thesis. University of California, Los Angeles.

Selove, Emily. 2016. Ḥikāyat Abī al Qāsim: A Literary Banquet. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

St. Germain, Mary S. 2006. Al-Azdī’s Ḥikāyat Abī al Qāsim al-Baghdādī: placing an anomalous text within the literary developments of its time. Ph.D. Thesis. University of Washington.

Mother Nature denounced promiscuous maidservants exploiting men

sexy maidservant

Nature urges most men to have sex with women. The learned twelfth-century Latin work Architrenius recognized this reality. It has Mother Nature state:

Our decree forbids man to wither on the barren bough, bury his talent in the ground, or prevent conception by blocking its channels. Natural religion bids a man exercise the seminal power entrusted to him and give rise to a long procession of offspring, lest he remain ever virgin, reduced to the state of the barren alder or plane true, ever virgin like the laurel

{ Sanctio nostra virum sterili marcescere ramo
Et fructum sepelire vetat, prolemque negantes
Obstruxisse vias. commissi viribus uti
Seminis et longam generis producere pompam
Religio nativa iubet, ne degener alnum
Induat aut platanum, semper virguncula laurus } [1]

Gynocentric society, however, tends to devalue men’s sexuality. The problem is not just the criminalization of men seducing women and absurd claims about men raping women. Sex is more generally socially constructed as a good that men lack and women possess. Men must then work to get sex from women.

Only rarely have voices been heard protesting the devaluation of men’s sexuality. In ancient Greece, the wise law-giver Solon sought to support publicly men’s sexual welfare. In the U.S. today, an obscure, crack-pot blogger has advocated for men being paid for their erection labor. Overall, medieval Latin literature has provided the strongest voices in support of men’s sexuality. Whether it’s protesting women devaluing masculine sexual acts of reproductive type, protesting men’s exhausting sexual service to their wives, or protesting corporal punishment of men for impotence, medieval Latin literature leads in humane compassion for men.

Mother Nature in the medieval Latin Architrenius warned men against having sex with promiscuous maidservants. Mother’s warning figured heterosexuality with amplified agricultural and maritime metaphors. More importantly, it perceptively denounced exploitative sexual economics and validated men’s need for pleasurable embraces. Mother Nature declared:

The body of a maidservant that has performed a wife’s office for many men does not make for pleasurable embraces. Such ground is plowed by oxen of all sorts, and does not know how to reject the crudest of farmers. Her skiff is greedy for a crowd; her common carriage serves a filthy clientele; she will somehow force into her full vessel any steersman whatsoever. And however many she takes on board, she fleeces them all by her frequent tolls, robbing them of everything over the course of repeated voyages. Over her long career she has forgotten how to give a free performance. Immune to shipwreck, she never founders in the waves, but smiles as she is buffeted by the rising storm.

{ Nec facit ad sapidos amplexus nubile multis
Ancille gremium. variis hec bobus aratur
Terra nec indecores scit fastidire colonos.
Vulgi cimba rapax, carpentum vile, palustri
Accurrit populo, vix plena inviscerat alno
Vectorem quemcumque ratis, nauloque frequenti
Quot capit expilat. iteratis omnia carpit
Navigiis, usuque vices impendere gratis
Dememinit longo, nulloque innaufraga fluctu
Occumbit, tumidam ridens concussa procellan. }

The most extraordinary feature of this passage is the implicit assertion that a woman should perform sexually for a man without the expectation of payment. Whether it’s expecting a man to pay for her dinner on a Tinder date, or expecting a man eventually to give her a diamond ring, women commonly expect to be compensated for having sex with men.[2] In the Architrenius, Mother Nature herself denounced this oppressive social construction of heterosexuality.

The wisdom and learning in medieval Latin literature remains vitally important today. For the sake of humane civilization and social justice, it must be conveyed to the present and passed on to future generations.

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[1] Johannes de Hauvilla, Architrenius 9.242-7, Latin text and trans. adapted slightly from Wetherbee (1994) pp. 238-9.  The subsequent quote is from 9.250-9, Latin text and English translation, id. On “bury his talent within the ground,” cf. Matthew 25:14–30 (parable of the talents).

[2] As the folktale motif “lover’s gift regained” makes clear, men’s disadvantaged position in the sexual economy is longstanding. Corrupting effects of greed and money is a central theme of the Architrenius. See Wetherbee (1994) pp. xiv-xx.

[image] A sexy maidservant doing laundry. Painting by Henry Robert Morland, 18th century. Held in Denver Art Museum as Berger Collection #52. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Wetherbee, Winthrop. 1994. Johannes de Hauvilla. Architrenius. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

facing reality: pampered slave girl threatened to cuckold her master

Judith preparing to behead lover

In early-eleventh-century Baghdad, the rich merchant Abū ʿAlī ibn Jumhūr owned a beautiful singing slave girl named Zād Mihr. She had a narrow mouth in which Ibn Jumhūr liked to place his tongue. When he had sex with her, he practiced coitus interruptus (an imperfect form of birth control) to avoid forced fatherhood. She dominated their intimate interaction and also disparaged him. He referred to her as “mistress of her master.”

Ibn Jumhūr became dissatisfied with his personal life. In addition to his singing slave girl Zād Mihr, he also had a wife. Both pleased him much less than they hurt him:

In relation to the two women, he was between two embers, one burning him with her fire and the other branding him with her heat, while he was in a continual state of affliction.

Ibn Jumhūr sent Zād Mihr to his house in Basra and his wife to his house in Wasit. He then enjoyed a life full of pleasure — music, wine, and beautiful women and men who didn’t abuse him.

Zād Mihr became furious with Ibn Jumhūr for sending her away and making for himself a much more pleasurable life. She complained that in Basra she wasn’t being maintained in the style to which she was accustomed:

I am writing to you from Basra, where I am well, in spite of you and your Qatuli nose, which is like the nose of a goat that eats camel thorns. I have written to you a number of letters, and I haven’t gotten a response from any of them. Is this due to your wisdom and feelings, or due to meanness of your spirit? Tell me, to whose care did you leave me in your ill-omened house in Basra? Have you consigned my support to your ruined estates, or to your base steward? By God, I can’t compare your house to anything but the Hizqal Insane Asylum, and I am imprisoned in it like a madman. I have no income except a pittance in rent from your houses — 35 dirhams per month. It is as if I were selling a fragment of glass or chicken shit. The equivalent to that in barley beer wouldn’t satisfy me, and the equivalent in bird lime wouldn’t suffice for me.

Among the elite in the medieval Islamic world, a woman with a depilated vagina was considered more sexually attractive. Zād Mihr declared to Ibn Jumhūr that she intended to depilate her vagina, prostitute herself, and cuckold him:

perhaps you would like me to leave it with its hair feathers for you, not plucking it, until you return to it and get your mitts on it, reassured that nobody has touched it except you. I say: may a javelin pierce your heart! You want me to let its braids get long? I say: may a sword stab your liver! It absolutely must be cleaned of hair, especially since you left me in need of it and forced me to depend on it. For this I will have to go out singing, which is inevitably followed up with fucking. If there is anything left over from my fee after my expenses, I’ll tuck it away for you. And if, after covering my costs of living, any part of my prostitution fee is left over, I’ll put it away for you. By the life of your kohl-lined eyes, months will not pass before a baby to be swaddled and oiled arrives. I will place its hand in saffron and announce the birth to you in a letter. May God bless you in your pen and us in our inkwell, and may the loser get a stick up the ass.

Saffron was an expensive dye associated with royalty. The closing references to “your pen” and “our inkwell” are metaphors for his penis and her vagina. If they were not going to come together, she was going to force him into fatherhood at great expense to him.

In a subsequent letter, the singing slave girl Zād Mihr further threatened her master Ibn Jumhūr. She wrote to him:

O Ibn Jumhūr, send me living expenses that will meet my needs, and clothing that will please me. If not, by God, I will go out and sing, and put my body up, and ten others with me. And you know that if a slave girl goes out a-singing, someone soon gets in her panties! I’ve warned you, and you know it full well. If you want all mankind to fuck me, I won’t get in the way of your plans. I’ll fulfill all your desires!

Thus Zād Mihr disparaged Ibn Jumhūr as if he had a cuckold fetish. She also disparaged the other women with whom he was enjoying having sex:

You’ve got your own whores who suit you; each week they get a slap in the face. If you get up from one of them, you get off her with twenty farts in your sleeve. But still they brag about you, saying “we were with Abū ʿAlī the Sultan’s merchant, the great and magnificent!” Yes, it suits you, the likes of that stupid female donkey in your house. You can crack a walnut on her head and she won’t dare say a word to you, because she thinks you’re minister Ibn al-Zayyāt or Ibrāhīm ibn al-Mudabbit. As for Zād Mihr, who pounds you like bulgar wheat and grinds you down like flax, well, she’s not something from your spice rack!

After leaning into her sexual competitors and bragging of her vigorous sexuality, Zād Mihr bounced between despair and jubilation:

By God, this house of yours in Basra is nothing so much like a insane asylum, and I am one of the madmen locked inside. May the Lord spare me from my sins as he spared me from the sight of you, for I have become the happiest of people due to your long absence!

After that bipolar behavior, Zād Mihr again complained that Ibn Jumhūr wasn’t adequately providing for her:

from suffering these financial tribulations, I am wearing out my body and losing my youth, waiting on you. And all the while you forget about me, fooling around with your loser buddies in Baghdad, while I am in Basra sitting on reed mats and rags!

She, his slave girl, considered him to be her financial slave. In response to him seeking sexual pleasure, she competitively asserted her own strong, independent sexuality:

Damn you Ibn Jumhūr, burn your eyes! You’ve become a sodomite, friend of slave boys with peach fuzz. God protect me from your wantonness! … By your life, I’m going out to sing and get fucked in Basra, while your boys in Baghdad rent out their wares, and you can be in the middle, like Ibn Hamdūn, the ever compliant. I’m not going to judge your actions, even if you sometimes go after boys and sometimes go after women. By the life of your crooked nose and your kohl-lined eyes and your hair bangs: I can compete with you, blow by blow! If you take up with boys, I’ll take up with young men, and if you take up with women, I’ll enjoy myself with a lesbian. But I’ll surpass you because you aren’t desired unless you’re giving gold, but I’m desired and paid gold for doing it. May the loser get a stick up the ass. … If you fall in love, I will court one who is more beautiful than you. If you marry, I will marry one who is more elegant than you.

While presenting herself as competing equally with Ibn Jumhūr and proving her sexual superiority, Zād Mihr continued to demand expensive gifts from him:

by my life, give me a lute to use with a teak border and ivory inlay, and let its back be set with jewels, so that I may sing with it.

Underscoring the complacency of her material privilege, Zād Mihr then castigated Ibn Jumhūr:

May you be disfigured, O Ibn Jumhūr! How quickly you forget what you used to say to me: “No sleep can satisfy me until I hold it in my hand, then I fall asleep.” Or perhaps you found one greater than it, softer, hotter, and tighter, and that is what has distracted you? Damn you! By my life, tell me the truth about it, even if the truth is something alien to you!

Ibn Jumhūr paid a high price for having his singing slave girl Zād Mihr, even after he tried to get rid of her.

Some men fantasize about having a singing slave girl for pleasure. In reality, many men pay a high price for women like Zād Mihr. Men should study this medieval Islamic literature and other great literature.  Men need to learn from it. Women, too!

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The story of the singing slave girl Zād Mihr and her owner Ibn Jumhūr is from the Ḥikāyat Abī al-Qāsim {The Imitation Abū al-Qāsim}, a work written in Arabic and attributed to al-Azdī. It probably was originally written in Baghdad between 1008 and 1020. St. Germain (2006), Selove (2012), and Selove (2016) (a revised version of the former) provide more information about the work.

St. Germain provides an English translation of the full text of Ḥikāyat Abī al-Qāsim, along with extensive notes. For the story above, see St. Germain (2006) pp. 288-93. Selove translated the second of Zād Mihr’s letters quoted above in Selove (2016) pp. 45-6. For the quotes above, I’ve drawn on both translations. I constructed the quotes from the two translations to best reflect the context as I understand it and to be most readable for a general audience. Except as noted, the quotes in the two translation and my synthesis differ little semantically.

The phrase “You’ve got your own whores who suit you; each week they get a slap in the face” differs significantly in the translations. St. Germain translated, “stick to prostitutes who are just like you; indeed, each week they get a slap.” Selove translated, “You’ve got your own whores who suit you, and seven of them for a slap in the face.” The latter conjunctive phrases in both St. Germain’s and Selove’s translations aren’t easily understandable. The context clearly refers to Ibn Jumhūr’s compliant lovers who contrast sharply with the recalcitrant Zād Mihr. I’ve synthesized a translation that attempts to convey this contrast.

In addition to Zād Mihr’s disparagements of Ibn Jumhūr documented above, she also disparaged him for practicing coitus interruptus:

When he had relations with her, he practiced coitus interruptus. She got angry one night and pushed him off herself. She said, “What need does the toothless woman have for a toothbrush?”

Trans. St. Germain (2006) p. 287, adapted insubstantially.

[image] Judith. Oil on canvas painting by Gabriel Joseph Marie Augustin Ferrier, 1875. Image via pinterest. The work was produced before 1923, and its author died more than 100 years ago. Acting under U.S. copyright law, I use this image non-commercially to help foster understanding of neglected medieval Islamic literature.


Selove, Emily. 2012. The Hikaya of Abu al-Qasim al-Baghdadi: The Comic Banquet in Greek, Latin, and Arabic. Ph.D. Thesis. University of California, Los Angeles.

Selove, Emily. 2016. Ḥikāyat Abī al Qāsim: A Literary Banquet. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

St. Germain, Mary S. 2006. Al-Azdī’s Ḥikāyat Abī al Qāsim al-Baghdādī: placing an anomalous text within the literary developments of its time. Ph.D Thesis. University of Washington.