medieval Italian theatricality: a bed-trick & other acts of Apostles

naked St. Francis being clothed by Bishop of Assisi

In 1260 in Parma, Italy, Gerard Segarelli established the Order of Apostles as a mendicant religious order of the Catholic Church. Salimbene de Adam’s Chronicle, which he wrote from 1283 to 1288, is the most detailed surviving source about Segarelli and the Order of Apostles. Salimbene’s harsh criticism of Segarelli’s movement depicts vibrant theatricality in thirteenth-century Italy. Salimbene shows that an intricate bed-trick and outrageously recast acts were within medieval imagination long before Shakespeare’s comedies.

Within circumstances of considerable and conflicted Christian attention to theater, Salimbene explicitly described Gerard Segarelli as an actor. Theatricality is deeply rooted in Christian sensibility. Romanos the Melodist’s sixth-century kontakia present realistic, emotional dialogue. De Maria Magdalena, a text that a Cistercian monk probably wrote in France about 1200, is a theatrical lectio divina. Closer to folk performance, the story of the tumbler of Notre Dame, probably from early in the thirteenth century, depicts a monk engaging in full-body devotional performance. Yet Christians also associated theater with ridiculous and immoral Greco-Roman beliefs and lewd popular performances. Salimbene linked Segarelli with that latter Christian sense of theater:

This Gerard Segarelli, who was their founder, became so demented that he took on the clothes of an actor and became a minstrel, that is, a mime, and went through the streets and squares like a fool. He has a vain heart, seeking after vanities and inventing vanities.

{ Iste Ghirardinus Segalellus, qui primus eorum fuit, ad tantum dementiam iam devenit, quod in habitu histrionum incedit et factus ioculator, id ist mimus, per plateas et vicos stulticando vadit. Habet enim cor vanum et vana sequitur et vana inveniet } [1]

Segarelli understood himself to be a mendicant monk following the practices of the first Christian apostles. But as Salimbene presented Segarelli, he was an insane monk-minstrel.

Just before Salimbene characterized Segarelli as an actor, minstrel, and mime, he told a story about three members of Segarelli’s Order of Apostles. The story features earthy wit and humor:

a certain wealthy young man with a father and a mother still living had recently married. On the first evening before he had sex with his wife, he received as guests into his house three rogues from those who say they are apostles and are not. They persuaded the young man not to have sex with his wife or sleep in the same bed with her on that first night until they indicated to him. This they said in order to forestall and deceive the young man and thereby sleep first with his wife. That they indeed did. All three of them that night went to her bed one after another at short intervals and had sex with her. When on the fourth time the young man went in to have sex with his wife, she was astonished and said to him, “Three times in succession tonight you have had me sexually, and still you have the strength to do this work?” Then the young man realized that those rogues had deceived him. He had them captured and complained strongly to the police chief. Then they were led to be executed by hanging.

{ quidam iuvenis dives, qui habebat patrem et matrem, noviter duxisset uxorem, primo sero, antequam uxorem cognosceret, tres ribaldos, recepit hospitio ex his qui se dicunt apostolos esse et non sunt, qui suaserunt iuveni, ne uxorem cognosceret nec cum ea in eodem lecto prima nocte dormiret, nisi quando dicerent ei. Hoc autem ideo dicebant, quia volebant iuvenem prevenire atque decipere et prius cum uxore eius dormire, sicut factum est, quia omnes tres illa nocte iverunt ad lectum eius, unus post alium facto modico intervallo, et cognoverunt eam. Cum autem quarta vice iuvenis sponsus eius vellet eam cognoscere, mirata uxor eius dixit ei: “Tribus vicibus in hac nocte carnaliter mecum fuisti et adhuc vis agere opus istud?” Tunc cognovit iuvenis ab istis ribaldis se esse deceptum, et fecit eos capi et conquestus est potestati, et ducti sunt ad suspendium }

According to Salimbene, Segarelli’s apostles included “rogues, seducers, deceivers, thieves, and fornicators {ribaldi et seductores et deceptores et latrones et fornicatores}.” These so-called apostles:

spend every day running throughout the cities seeking out women … as they themselves told me, when they travel through the world, they turn aside to prostitutes, or if, in the places they stay, lascivious women solicit them to sin or to transgressing, they consent to the women, and little is the apostles’ resistance.

{ tota die per civitates discurrunt mulieres videndo … ut michi dixerunt, quando vadunt per mundum, ad meretrices declinant et in domibus, in quibus hospitantur, si a lascivis mulieribus sollicitantur ad peccatum sive ad peccandum, consentiunt eis, et parva est pugna } [2]

These are the sort of monks who would perform a triple bed-trick long before Shakespeare’s plays.[3] Salimbene probably thought that those monks should pay for that act with their lives. So they reportedly did.

Salimbene’s tale of the three monks’ triple bed-trick is unlikely to be historical. The monks were mendicants. Characterizing the young man as wealthy sets up an inversion of the idea that a lord had the right to be the first to have sex with his serfs’ brides (droit du seigneur {right of the lord}, also known as jus primae noctis {law of the first night}).[4] The added detail that the young man had a father and mother still living suggests that the wedding night would have been carefully orchestrated. Segarelli’s three apostles apparently also duped the groom’s parents. The bride’s question to her groom late on their wedding night is too comically deadpan to be realistic. Moreover, if she said that, surely the bride or groom wouldn’t have reported it to Salimbene or anyone else. About a century and half after Salimbene wrote, the great medieval church official Poggio included two closely related versions of this story in his collection of courtly tales known as Facetiae. As Poggio recognized, the story that Salimbene recorded is truly a fantastic story. Salimbene apparently adapted it to serve in his disparagement of the Order of Apostles for not honoring chastity.

Salimbene described Segarelli himself behaving theatrically. Actors represent characters in part though choosing costumes and other externals:

This Gerard Segarelli, who was their leader, sought to be like the son of God. So he had himself circumcised, which is against the teaching of the Apostle

{ Igitur de Ghirardino Segalello, qui fuit istorum principium, sciendum, quod filio Dei voluit similari. Nam fecit se circumcidi, quod est contra apostolum }

Being a good representation of Jesus thus mattered more to Segarelli than following the apostolic teaching of Paul as conveyed through holy scripture.[5] Yet Segarelli also acted out a parable of Jesus in a misleading way:

standing in the middle of the road, from his excessive simplicity he said to passersby in a clear voice: “Go you also into my vineyard!” And those who knew him recognized his foolishness. They knew that he had no vineyard there. The actual mountain people, who did not know him, went into the vineyard toward which he stretched out his hand. There they ate grapes that were not his. They wrongly believed that they had received permission from the owner.

{ stans in media via ex nimia simpicitate transeuntibus clara voce dicebat: Ite et vos in vineam meam! Et qui cognoscebant eum, reputabant eum fatuum, scientes, quod nullam vineam ibi habebat. Montanarii vero, qui eum non cognoscebant, ingrediebantur vineam, versus quam manum extenderat, et comedebant uvas non suas, credentes sibi hoc a proprio vinee domino imperatum. }

Segarelli’s act didn’t involve him proclaiming in the person of Jesus. He proclaimed the words of the landowner in Jesus’s parable on laborers in the vineyard.[6] In Salimbene’s story, Segarelli, who sought to be like Jesus, wrongly acted as vineyard-owner.

Salimbene depicted Segarelli as acting out a sensational chastity test. Jerome’s late fourth-century Life of Paul the First Hermit recounts a Christian martyr successfully resisting a beautiful woman attempting to rape him in a bed within a sensuous garden. The early Christian martyr Chrysanthus retained his chastity despite his father procuring and placing in Chrysanthus’s bed young virgin women who solicited sex from him. Segarelli put himself to a similar sensuous test:

when he was living with a certain little widow, who had a beautiful, nubile daughter, he told the widow that God had revealed to him that he should sleep all night nude with her nude daughter in order to test whether or not he could preserve his chastity. And thinking herself blessed, the mother consented, and the daughter did not refuse.

{ cum hospitaretur apud aliquam muierculam viduam, filiam nubilem et speciosam habentem, dicebat siba a Domino revelatum, quod cum illa puella debebat illa nocte nudus cum nuda in eodem lecto dormire, ut probaret, si castitatem servare posset necne. Consentiebat mater reputans se beatam, et puella minime hoc negabat. }

Salimbene didn’t report the results of Segarelli’s self-created chastity test. Given Salimbene’s interest in disparaging Segarelli, apparently neither Segarelli nor the girl disappointed the girl’s mother. Segarelli being heroically chaste would have been less significant to Salimbene than that Segarelli performed a sensational chastity test.[7]

According to Salimbene, Segarelli also acted out a variant of the lactation of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. One day, the Virgin Mary reportedly gave the adult Bernard of Clairvaux a squirt of milk from her breasts, the same breasts that nourished the baby Jesus. Salimbene claimed of Segarelli:

He also lay in a cradle, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and sucked milk from the breasts of a certain woman unaware of him

{ in cunnubulis iacuit fasciis involutus et lac et mammas suxit cuiusdam nescie mulieris. }

That’s a scarcely believable story. A full-grown man could hardly be wrapped in swaddling clothes in a cradle. A woman might give a man milk from her breasts, but she certainly would be aware of what she was doing. This story is best interpreted as a parody of the lactation of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. It depicts Segarelli as a ridiculously bad actor attempting to play Jesus.

Salimbene also presented Segarelli acting badly in attempting to play Saint Francis of Assisi. Francis reportedly took off all his clothes in the center of the city of Assisi in 1206 and vowed to follow a life of poverty.[8] Twelfth-century European sermons commonly exhorted Christians “to follow naked the naked Christ {nudus nudum Christum sequi}.” Francis and his order of monks early in their existence earnestly followed that path. According to Salimbene, Segarelli and his monks acted more pruriently:

he {Gerard Segarelli} and all the others {of his followers} undressed themselves completely, so that their penises had not even trousers or any other clothing covering their nudity. They stood stood all around against the wall like a barefoot army in formation, but neither one ordained nor decent nor honorable. He wanted to strip them so that naked they might follow the naked Christ. Following his master’s command, one of them placed in the middle of the room their clothing tied into a bundle. Then by the command of their master, while they were indecently standing there, a woman was brought in … Gerard Segarelli, that master of theirs, ordered her to distribute whatever clothing she wished to grant to these paupers deprived and denuded of their personhood.

{ se et omnes alios denudavit usque adeo, quod etiam membra genitalia sine bracis et aliquo velamine nuda essent, et stabant apodiati ad murum in acie circum circa. sed non in acie ordinata nec honesta nec bona. Volebat enim eos expropriare, ut nudi nudum Christum decetero sequerentur. Posuerat enim quilibet eorum ex precepto magistri vestimenta sua in medio domus ligata seorsum. Tunc ex precepto magistri, cum ita inhoneste starent, introducta est mulier … Cui Ghirardinus Segalellus, qui magister erat istorum, precepit, ut pauperibus sic expropriatis et a propriis denudatis vestimenta que vellet tribueret. }

Saint Francis of Assisi humbled himself relative to all of humanity. According to Salimbene, Segarelli humiliated himself and his followers to a particular woman. Men have a tendency to humiliate and abase themselves relative to women. In Salimbene’s account, Segarelli acted as a type of anti-Francis and enacted the folly of courtly lovers.[9] That’s not truly acting holy.

While Salimbene probably fabricated most of what he reported of the acts of Gerard Segarelli and the Order of Apostles, Salimbene convincingly witnesses to vibrant theatricality in thirteenth-century Italy. Salimbene’s theatrical disparagement of Segarelli and the Order of Apostles suggests that men in thirteenth-century Italy were thoroughly engaged in acting in loving women and serving God — two central and often wrongly conflated interests in men’s lives.[10] Men throughout history have often been confined to the narrow gender role of providing resources to women and children and fighting to protect gynocentric society. Outrageous acting, along with guile and bed-tricks, provide vital paths for men’s liberation.

* *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Salimbene de Adam, Cronica {Chronicle}, Latin text from Holder-Egger (1905) p. 620, English translation adapted from Baird, Baglivi & Kane (1986) p. 627. Segarelli is also known as Segarello, e.g. in id.

Medieval Italian theatricality could combine high and low culture. The brilliant rhetorician Boncompagno da Signa put on a outrageous performance in Bologna about 1195 to ridicule academic stupidity.

A Dominican inquisitor, a forefather of today’s university administrators, burned Segarelli as a heretic in Parma, Italy, on July 18, 1300. Ordinary Christians and church officials typically admired and supported Segarelli’s Order of Apostles through 1290. The Order of Apostles were entangled in complex rivalries among mendicant orders, including with Salimbene’s Franciscans, the Friars Minor.

Surviving historical sources about Gerard Segarelli and his Order of Apostles are meager. All are hostile towards that movement. They depict it as a Christian heresy. For studies concerning Segarelli and the Order of Apostles, Pierce (2012), Jacobs (2007), Carniello (2006), and Wessley (1976).

Subsequent quotes from Salimbene’s Cronica are sourced as described previously and cited by page in Holder-Egger (1905). The citations for the subsequent quotes above are: “a certain wealthy young man…”, p. 620; “rogues, seducers…”, p. 287; “spend every day running…”, pp. 256, 269; “This Gerard Segarelli…”, p. 257; “standing in the middle of the road…”, p. 257; “when he was living with a certain little widow…”, p. 257; “He also lay in a cradle…”, p. 257; “he {Gerard Segarelli} and all the others {of his followers} undressed themselves…”, p. 264. Holder-Egger’s page numbers are quite close to those of Baird, Baglivi & Kane.

[2] In disparaging the Order of Apostles, Salimbene repeated like a refrain his claim that they run through the cities seeking out women (less emphatically he also accused them of having sex with other men and with boys). Salimbene similarly repeated that the members of Segarelli’s Order of Apostles were men who “say they are apostles, and are not {qui se dicunt apostolos esse et non sunt}.” They are “a synagogue of Satan {synagoga Sathane}.” Cronica, p. 255. Salimbene adapted for both these phrases Revelation 2:9: “those who say they are Jews are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” Consistent with its members running around seeking out women, Salimbene mockingly described the Order of the Apostles as a dispersion: “About the congregation, or rather the dispersion, of those rogues {De congregatione seu potius dispersione illorum ribaldorum}…” Cronica, p. 255.

Salimbene was well-educated. He continually displayed his knowledge of scripture by quoting it. Salimbene characterized Segarelli and his followers are ignorant rustics:

Thus it truly was with these Apostles of Gerard Segarelli, who call themselves apostles, but are rogues and deceivers, who shun the hoe and keep themselves from labor. They are more suited to keeping themselves busy with tending cows or pigs or scouring latrines or some other base work or at least pursuing agriculture.

{ Revera ita accidit istis Apostolis fratris Ghirardini Segalelli, qui se apostolos nominant, cum sint ribaldi et deceptores, qui ligonem vitant et laborare recusant, quibus vaccas et porcos custodire magis incomberet seu purgare latrinas aut alia vilia opera exercere vel saltem agriculture insistere. }

Cronica, p. 293.

Salimbene recognized that women can seriously harm men, yet he lacked practical knowledge about intersexual dynamics. He quoted an ancient Christian warning: “Whenever a woman is with a man, the laughter of Satan isn’t lacking {Ubi femina erit cum viris, non deerit riscarium diaboli}.” Cronica, p. 270, quoting pseudo-Jerome, Letter 42. But not all men, nor all women, are that vulnerable. Salimbene also quoted Alan of Lille:

If you follow, she follows; if you flee, she is put to flight;
if you give in, she gives in; if you flee, she flees.

{ Persequitur, si tu sequeris, fugiendo fugatur,
si cedis, cedit, si fugis, illa fugit. }

Cronica, p. 271, quoting Allan of Lille, Liber parabolum I.37-8. The reality is rather the oppposite, as medieval women’s love poetry indicates. Medieval school texts were generally of better quality.

[3] The bed-trick, meaning one person taking the place of another in bed and then having sex without the sexual partner being aware of the switch, has a long literary history. Jacob suffered a bed-trick when on his wedding night he unknowingly had sex with Leah rather than his intended bride, Leah’s younger sister Rachel.

A bed-trick features in Boccaccio’s Decameron, Day 3, Story 9 (about Beltramo and Giletta). That story was the basis for Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure also include a bed-trick. For a review of the literary history of the bed-trick, Doniger (2000).

[4] The droit de seigneur was a claim known in fifteenth-century Europe. It apparently never was a common sexual practice at any time in history. Boureau (1998). However, droit de seigneur was invoked symbolically in fifteenth century Europe. It expresses symbolically a reasonable understanding of the relationship between men’s status and men’s mating success. Wettlaufer (2000). The droit de seigneur belongs with the chastity belt, the belief that the world is flat, and patriarchy as ridiculous modern myths about medieval European beliefs and practices.

[5] The Apostle Paul taught that Christians need not have themselves circumcised. Galations 5:2-6.

[6] Matthew 20:1-16.

[7] Jerome, The Life of Paul the First Hermit, s. 3, describes a sensational chastity test. The chastity test of Chrysanthus is from the Acts of Chrysanthus and Daria. Salimbene subsquently cited Chrysanthus’s chastity test. According to Salimbene, when Chrysanthus encountered the young virgins soliciting him in bed, he prayed to God to rise up and provide rain:

he lay immobile in prayer and, warding off their embraces and kisses like arrows off the shield of his faith, he called out to the Lord: “Rise up, Lord.”

{ Iacebat autem in oratione immobilis et amplexus earum et oscula quasi sagitarum ictus scuto sue fidei excipiens, clamabat ad Dominum dicens: “Exurge, Domine.” }

Salimbene, Cronica, p. 271. Chrysanthus didn’t bring charges of sexual assault against the young women. Moreover, not all men favor celibate life. Many men would be grateful for these young women taking on men’s burden of seduction. Many men would also be grateful if their father’s would take the sort of dramatic initiative that Chrysanthus’s father did, however misguidedly, to promote his son’s sexual welfare.

Syneisactism, meaning a man and woman living together under vows of chastity in a spiritual marriage, is an ancient Christian practice. It persisted as a Christian practice for at least a millennium. Reynolds (1968). Sexless marriage, a common situation in high-income secular countries today, was more unusual in medieval Christian Europe. Margery Kempe and her husband are, however, a medieval Christian example of a marriage turned sexless. Sexless marriage differs from syneisactism. In a sexless marriage, at least one spouse would strongly prefer to have sex within the marriage. Syneisactism, in contrast, includes a mutual preference to refrain from sex.

Gerard Segarelli’s night naked with the beautiful naked daughter was not a marriage of any sort. It was a simple, sensational chastity test similiar to the one that Jerome described and Chrystanthus reportedly underwent. Cf. Jacobs (2007) p. 153.

[8] The National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi in the U.S. explains:

The growing friction between Francis and his father exploded publicly in October of 1206 when Pietro Bernardone pursued his son to the central piazza of the city and demanded repayment for all that Francis had squandered in his generosity to the poor — and for the money Francis had spent in his {church} restoration work.

Before all the townspeople gathered there, Francis stripped himself naked, renounced his hereditary rights, and gave his fine clothes back to his astonished father. The Bishop of Assisi, who had witnessed the dramatic gesture, wrapped his cloak around the young man, who thereafter dressed himself in a simple flaxen tunic tied at the waist with a cord.

From the National Shrine’s account of the life of Saint Francis.

[9] On Gerard Segarelli as an anti-type of St. Francis more generally, Carniello (2006). Carniello perceptively noted:

Salimbene’s ‘Anti-Francis’ was part of a larger movement among Franciscans and Dominicans in the last quarter of the thirteenth century to construct their mendicant rivals as perverting mendicant piety and even as heretical enemies of the Christian faith. During this process, they activated religious sentiments that were bound to transform into radical dissent. By burning Gerardo Segarelli as a heretic in July 1300, Dominican inquisitors fuelled the fire for extremists who called for radical dissent against a ‘corrupt’ Church to find new followers. It was in this atmosphere of militant opposition between the condoned and the condemned that Fra Dolcino stepped forward in August 1300 and that the Order of Apostles completed its descent into heresy.

Id. p. 251. Major corporations now acting to represses communication and suppress dissent should learn from medieval failures.

[10] In contrast to his representation of Segarelli and the Order of Apostles, Salimbene depicted medieval women’s loving concern for men realistically rather than theatrically. Specifically, Salimbene observed that, as an expression of their commitment to poverty, Segarelli and his Apostles refused to own more than one robe. Salimbene disparaged them for that commitment:

they expose themselves to the hazards of colds or greater sickness or even death, which can very easily and quickly happen. No person has the right to kill oneself. … with one robe, which is all they possess, they expose themselves to many miseries, such as lice, which they cannot eliminate, and also sweat and dirt and stench, because they cannot take off the robe and wash it, without being completely naked. Thus once, a certain woman said to two Friars Minor derisively, “Do you know, I have a naked Apostle in my bed, and there he will be until his robe, which I have washed for him, has dried.”

{ exponunt se discrimini frigoris et magne infirmitatis seu etiam mortis, quam de facili cito possent incurrere. Nullus enim debet interficere semetipsum. … cum una tunica, qua solummodo utuntur, exponunt se mutis miseriis tam pediculorum, quos excutere non possunt, quam etiam sudoris et pulveris et fetoris, quia tunicam nec excutere nec lavare possunt, nisi remanserint nudi. Unde quadam di dixit quedam mulier duobous fratribus Minoribus diredendo: “Noveritis, quod habeo unum Apostolum nudum in lecto meo, et erit ibi, quousque tunica sua siccetur, quam lavi.” }

Cronica, p. 284. Along with Salimbene’s usual jab at the Apostle’s lack of chastity, this account has many realistic details.

[image] Naked Francis of Assisi being covered up by the Bishop of Assisi. Fresco made between 1297 and 1299 in the Upper Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi in Assisi, Italy. Artist unknown; formerly attributed to Giotto di Bondone. Image thanks to Web Gallery of Art and Wikimedia Commons.


Baird, Joseph L., Giuseppe Baglivi, and John Robert Kane. 1986. The Chronicle of Salimbene de Adam. Binghamton, N.Y.: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies.

Boureau, Alain. 1998. The Lord’s First Night: the myth of the droit de cuissage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Translation by Lydia G. Cochrane of Boureau, Alain. 1995. Le droit de cuissage: la fabrication d’un mythe (XIIIe-XXe siècle). Paris: Albin Michel.

Carniello, Brian R. 2006. “Gerardo Segarelli as the Anti-Francis: Mendicant Rivalry and Heresy in Medieval Italy, 1260-1300.” Journal of Ecclesiastical History. 57 (2): 226-251.

Doniger, Wendy. 2000. The Bedtrick: tales of sex and masquerade. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Holder-Egger, Oswald. 1905-1913. Cronica Fratris Salimbene de Adam. Monumenta Germaniae Historica 32. Hannoverae et Lipsiae: Impr. bibliopolii Hahniani.

Jacobs, Robert C. 2007. Locating the Franciscans within the cities of thirteenth century northern Italy using the Chronicle of Salimbene de Adam. Master of Arts Thesis, University of Manitoba.

Pierce, Jerry B. 2012. Poverty, Heresy, and the Apocalypse: the Order of Apostles and Social Change in Medieval Italy 1260-1307. London: Bloomsbury Publishing (underlying 2004 Univerity of Arizona Ph.D. dissertation).

Reynolds, Roger E. 1968. “Virgines Subintroductae in Celtic Christianity.” The Harvard Theological Review. 61 (4): 547-566.

Wessley, Stephen E. 1976. Enthusiasm and Heresy in the year 1300: Guglielma of Milan, Armanno Pungilupo of Ferrara and Gerard Segarelli of Parma. Ph.D. Thesis, Columbia University.

Wettlaufer, Jörg. 2000. “The jus primae noctis as a male power display: a review of historic sources with evolutionary interpretation.” Evolution and Human Behavior. 21 (2): 111-123.

Boncompagno da Signa against his rivals, critics, and plagiarists

medieval master teaching students

In contrast to our intolerant and repressive age, robust and vibrant public discourse existed in the relatively liberal medieval world. Medieval intellectuals, like unlearned children today, were intellectually capable of distinguishing between sticks and stones in some persons’ hands, and words in the mouths of others. Inquisitions and tribunals didn’t strive, with administrative torture, expulsions, and other vicious punishments, to make everyone safe from offensive communication. No pervasive codes of conduct promoted tyranny. Persons could vigorously disagree with each other, strongly dissent from prevailing orthodoxy, and deliver harsh criticism. No one had to fear being mobbed and destroyed because someone said that he made her feel uncomfortable. The great thirteenth-century rhetorician Boncompagno da Signa provides an inspiring example of the robust and vibrant public discourse so lacking today.

Boncompagno targeted his rivals with harsh invective that figured them as a monstrous beast. He allegorized his rivals as sin. They were the beast of jealousy, whose mother is pride:

This beast has nine heads, doubled horns, three tails and four feet. Each of these fights by itself, harms by itself, nor does it strike without pouring out venom. It is also horrible to be seen. It never rests, but surveys the world, tracking down any sort of good fortune, and always tries to mess it up, but is confounded. It grumbles, shrieks, rages, becomes delirious, swallows up, harasses, becomes livid, becomes pale, clamors, becomes nauseated, hides, barks, bites, raves, foams at the mouth, rages, seethes, snarls, and groans when it cannot cause harm. It holds its mouth open. It has very sharp teeth and tongues like arrows of continually burning lightning.

{ Hec namque habet capita novem, cornua duplicata, tres caudas, et quatuor pedes. Quorum quodlibet per se pugnat, per se nocet, nec percutit sine fusione veneni. Est etiam horribilis ad videndum, et tempore aliquo non quiescit, sed terrarum orbem regirans quamlibet felicitatem insequitur, et probitatem semper invenire satagit quam confundat. Murmurat, stridet, fremit, delirat, devorat, anxiatur, livet, pallet, perstrepit, nauseat, delitescit, latrat, mordet, furit, spumat, insanit, ignit, gannit et gemit quando nocere non potest, ora tenet aperta, dentes habet acutissimos et linguas tamquam sagittas fulguris perignitas. } [1]

As one would want to say upon seeing a coven of anti-meninists, Boncompagno wrote, “O how terrible and abominable is the sight of this beast {O quam terribilis et abhominabilis est huius bestie aspectus}!” Like cancer, it causes innumerable deaths and afflicts many with various torments.

Boncompagno vigorously affirmed the value of his own work. One of his most important works, sometimes called Rhetorica antiqua {The Rhetoric of Antiquity}, Boncompagno actually titled with his own name:

I {this work} am titled Boncompagnus from my composer’s name. He, wheeling about to rule the field of eloquence with exalted genius and a solemn style, has brought me into the light of day for the enlightenment of the nations and the glory of the scholastic profession.

{ Boncompagnus in nomine compositoris appellor, qui pratum eloquentie celebri vena et solempni stilo regirans me ad illuminationem gentium et gloriam scolastice professionis eduxit in lucem }

The prologue to this work features a dialogue between the work and its author. The work asks Boncompagno:

I ask to be instructed by you: how should I respond to those poisoned by the venom of jealousy, those who say that I am too prolix and confused?

{ A te postulo edoceri, qualiter veneno invidie toxicatis qui me dicunt esse prolixum nimium et confusum debeam respondere? }

Long before Ralph Waldo Emerson, Boncompagno’s large mind contained multitudes and his work was like a mighty cleansing flood. Boncompagno thus responded to his work’s question about jealous rivals:

You should pull on their neck with bit and bridle. You should say that you are probably similar to the Nile, which irrigates scattered islands and lands by its adjacent rivulets and everywhere makes them germinate. Yet the depth of its waters does not change. It is certain and the effect of the matter shows that you could be divided into a thousand particles and more. Each of them might irrigate an arid heart with the fluid of doctrine and bring forth a sprout of thought like a rivulet derived from a river. Thus divide your water in the streets. Do not care what the envious may say. Because of others’ happiness, the envious burn with inextinguishable fire.

{ In chamo et freno manilla eorum constringas, et dicas quod Nilo probabiliter similaris, qui per rivulos adiacentes diffusus aridas insulas et terras irrigat, easque facit uberius germinare: et tamen alvei profunditas non mutatur. Certum est, et rei effectus ostendit, quod dividi potes in mille particulas, et ultra, quarum quelibet humore doctrine aridum cor irrigatet intellectus germen producit tanquam rivulus a flumine derivatus. Aquam tuam igitur divide in plateis, et noli curare quid invidi referant, qui propter aliorum felicitates igne inexstinguibili aduruntur } [2]

Boncompagno hoped that “with the most truthful arguments I shall have the strength to break the teeth of my rival {emulorum dentes verissimis valeam frangere argumentis}.”[3] Boncompagno produced many books addressing complex issues of rhetoric and ars dictaminis. Boncompagno also fought courageously for social justice. But the world was too corrupt to be washed clean by the flood of Boncompagno’s work.

Nonetheless, Boncompagno persisted. After writing Palma, an introduction to technical terms in the study of letter-writing, Boncompagno wrote Oliva:

The dove brought back to Noah a verdant olive branch. This gesture signaled that Noah could leave the ark at will, because the waters of the flood were already receding from the face of the earth. Under that representative likeness, I therefore dare to title my present book. By its effect, this title Oliva fully convinces me that my books and treatises are received everywhere and authenticated by the judgment of the wise. Hence swarms of envious persons are struck dumb. They might be likened to those in the waters of a flood.

{ Ramum uirentis oliue ad Noe columba reduxit, ut per hoc innueret, quod libere poterat egredi ex archa, quia iam cessauerant aque diluuii a facie terre. Sub quadam igitur subiectiua similitudine librum presentem audeo appellare Oliuam, quia michi per effectum plenius intimat, quod mei libri atque tractatus ubique recipiuntur et facti sunt autentici iudicio sapientum. Vnde inuidorum turme stupescunt, que possunt aquis diluuii quodammodo simulari. } [4]

Boncompagno wasn’t an apparatchik. He didn’t produce a stream of work currying favor with influential colleagues and supporting dominant ideology. He fought strongly against his rivals on behalf of truth and love, yet also with mercy:

The reasons why this book should be called the Oliva should not be left in silence. It can deservedly be titled the Oliva, since the oil of adulation does not come from it, but instead a liquid of sincere love. I had first made the Palma, which rendered me victorious over the envious. Now I wish to add a sibling Oliva to it, so that I may father a double victory. Many people carry olive branches in hand as a sign of victory and of happiness. To touch in brief summary the complete truth, this book is titled the Oliva, because olive oil is the material of piety itself, and it signifies mercy.

{ Quare autem liber iste dicatur Oliua, non est sub silentio reliquendum. Potest namque merito appellari Oliua, quoniam ab ipso non adulationis oleum, set liquor sincere caritatis procedit. Vel quia prius feceram Palmam, que de inuidis me reddidit uictoriosum. Vnde sibi germanitatem uolui addere Oliue, ut michi duplicata uictoria generetur. Profecto in signum uictorie atque iocunditatis plurimi portant in manibus ramos oliue. Et ut summam totius ueritatis breuius tangam, liber iste ideo appellatur Oliua, quia materiale oleum ipsius pietatis est et misericordie significatiuum. }

In our benighted age of ignorance and bigotry, academics and intellectuals everywhere should turn to Boncompagno da Signa for inspiration and guidance.

Boncompagno endured vicious intellectual attacks and mendacious acts. One of Boncompagno’s early works was Five Tables of Salutations {Quinque tabule salutationum}, a work on how to begin a letter. Boncompagno’s rivals stole that work from him. In the prologue to his Palma, Boncompagno declared:

I therefore implore those into whose hands this book shall come that they should not wish to give it to my rivals. After erasing its title page, my rivals said that I did not compose the Quinque tabule salutationum. They are those who have been applying smoke to my works on letter-writing. Darkened by the smoke, these works seem to have been composed in much earlier times. With such wickedness they take away my glory.

{ Rogo igitur illos, ad quorum manus hic liber pervenerit, quatinus ipsum dare non velint meis emulis, qui raso titulo me Quinque salutationum tabulas non composuisse dicebant et qui mea consueverunt fumigare dictamina, ut per fumi obtenebrationem a multis retro temporibus composita viderentur et sic mihi sub quodam sceleris genere meam gloriam auferrent. } [5]

Boncompagno displayed sharp wit and sophisticated rhetoric in associating his critics with plagiarists:

By Almighty God I swear that furtive plagiarists not excoriate these books by scraping off their titles, just as some have excoriated my other books. Indeed, may those scribes who disfigure all urbanity of eloquence with falsifying pens and those jealous and furtive plagiarists be struck with the sword of excommunication.

{ Coniuro per Omnipotentem furtiuos depilatores, ne abrasis titulis ipsos excorient, sicut quidam meos alios libros turpiter excoriarunt. Scriptores nempe, qui penna mendacii omnem eloquentie urbanitatem deturpant, cum inuidis et furtiuis depilatoribus excomunicationis gladio feriantur. } [6]

To excoriate literally means to scrape off skin. That’s what a person would literally do in scraping off a title from a vellum manuscript. Excoriate more figuratively means to criticize harshly. Boncompagno thus sarcastically presented his rivals as both harshly criticizing his work and seeking to appropriate it. In addition, the pen and sword are closely associated in poetry. In invoking “the sword of excommunication,” Bongcompagno implied both a serious church penalty and those furtive, falsifying scribes ceasing to write.

New, huge technology companies are now establishing excommunication as a policy to be applied broadly, vaguely, and arbitrarily. The medieval cultural inheritance supporting relatively vibrant and open public discourse is rapidly vanishing. Formal freedom of speech isn’t sufficient for enlightened intellectual life. A public propaganda apparatus and pervasive fear can arise even without the construction of a Siberian gulag. Democracy dies without vigorous dissent against the nomenklatura and the ruling elites.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Boncompagno da Signa, Boncompagnus / Rhetorica antiqua {Rhetoric of Antiquity}, Prologue 3.3, Latin text from Basso (2015), English translation (modified) from Wight (1998). The subsequent four quotes above are similarly from Boncompagnus, Prologue 3.7 (O how terrible and abominable…), 1.1 (I am titled Boncompagnus…), 3.19 (I ask to be instructed…), and 3.20 (You should pull on their neck…).

Boncompagno’s main rivals apparently were Bene da Firenze and Guido Faba. On these three thirteenth-century Italian rhetoricians, Raccagni (2013b) pp. 74-8. Around 1218, Boncompagno moved from Bologna to Venice. Id. p. 77. Bene da Firenze and Guido Faba:

probably referred to him {Boncompagno} when they respectively invited Bologna to rejoice at being rid of the ‘ridiculus Geta’, and described as erring sheep those who had left Bologna for other academic institutions.

Raccagni (2013a) p. 599.

Arguing about the presentation of cursus in teaching ars dictiminis, Boncompagno derided other teaches as “masters of dactyls {magistri dactylii}.” He declared:

It is not a virtue but vulgar, even heresy, to conclude prose composition under dactyl feet. For “prose” derives from “protoi proson,” which means in Latin “first long,” just as “protomartyr” means “first martyr.” Thus the Greeks defined “prose composition”: “Prose composition is speech drawn out according to the will of the dictator and obligated to no laws of meter.” For they had this definition from the Creator himself of all things, because when He commanded to Adam that he should not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, He truly said: “Eat from every tree of Paradise. But do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Behold: God finished his clause with a dactyl foot.

{ Item non est uirtus sed consuetudo, immo heresis, concludere prosaicum dictamen sub pedibus dactilis. Nam prosaicum dicitur a “protoi proson”, quod latine interpretatur “primo longum”, sicut dicitur “protomartir” idest “primus martir”. Greci autem sic diffiniunt istud dictamen prosaicum: “Prosaicum dictamen est oratio secundum libitum dictantis extensa nullumque metrorum legibus obligata.” Nam ab ipso rerum omnium Creatore hanc diffinitionem habuerunt, quia quando ipse precipit Ade, ne de ligno scientie boni et mali comederet, hic uero dixit “De omni ligno Paradysi comede. De ligno autem scientie boni et mali ne comedas.” Ecce Deus distinctionem suam in pede dactilico finit. }

Boncompagno, Tractatus virtutum Boncompagni {Boncompagno’s Treatise of Virtues} 35 (masters of dactyls), 31-2 (It is not a virtue…). Boncompagno further argued:

To issue a single set of definite and binding rules involving dactyls and spondees for the beginnings and ends of prose clauses would not, therefore, be a sensible doctrine, but instead the utter confusion of the dictatores.

{ Dare igitur sub una forma certas et necessarias regulas in prosa de datilis et spondeis, principiis et finibus clausularum, nec esset doctrina salutifera, sed perpetua confusio dictatorum }

Boncompagno, from Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. Latin 8654, folio 2v, from Cornelius (2010) p. 316, citing Valois (1881) p. 196.

Within the vibrant intellectual life of medieval Europe, vigorous disputes about such issues endured for centuries. Simon O., in his Summa dictandi from the first quarter of the fifteenth century, harshly criticized other teachers:

Certain idiots may boldly blurt out that terminations of this sort are not included in the set of cadences. These people ignorantly rave, for they speak without understanding. Indeed, philosophers who seek out the truth devised terminations of this sort in order to preserve their meanings: for it would be difficult for them and for preachers and composers of homilies to attach their intention to a single termination’s cadence.

{ Quidam ignari forsitan temere prorumpent, quod huiusmodi terminciones non continentur sub serie cadenciarum: qui stolide delirant, quod inquiunt ignorantes. Nam huiusmodi terminaciones philosophi invenerunt, qui veritatem sunt prosecuti, pro sentenciis observandis, qu<ia> deficile esset eis et sermonistis ac collacionum compositoribus sub una terminacionis cadencia <propositum> applicare. }

Cited in Cornelius (2010) p. 322-3. The classical Arabic world encompassed similar disputes.

[2] Luke 3.17 describes God’s judgment as burning chaff in “inextinguishable fire {Vulgate: igni inextinguibili}.”

[3] Boncompagno, Isagoge {Introduction}, Prologue 2, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Wight (1998).

[4] Boncompagno, Oliva {Olive Branch}, Prologue 1.1, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Wight (1998). The subsequent quote is similarly from Oliva, Prologue 1.5-7.

[5] Boncompagno, Palma {Palm}, Prologue 1.1, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Wight (1998).

[6] Boncompagno, Oliva {Olive Branch}, Prologue 1.11-2, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Wight (1998). Boncompagno advised his book Boncompagnus:

if anyone should presume to excoriate you, you will appeal to the magistracy and you will able to bring legal actions against them for theft and injuries.

{ si te aliqui excoriare presumpserint, ad magistratus cathedras appellabis, et poteris eos furti et iniuriarum actionibus convenire }

Boncompagno, Boncompagnus, Prologue 3.17, Latin text from Basso (2015), English translation (modified) from Wight (1998).

[image] Medieval master-professor teaching eager students. From folio 4v in instance of Gossuin de Metz, L’Image du monde, made in 1464. Preserved in British Library as MS Royal 19 A IX. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Basso, Martina. 2015. Il 1 Libro del Boncompagnus di Boncompagno da Signa: Edizione Critica e Glossario. Ph.D. Thesis. Università degli Studi di Padova (Italy).

Cornelius, Ian. 2010. “The Rhetoric of Advancement: Ars dictaminis, Cursus, and Clerical Careerism in Late Medieval England.” New Medieval Literatures. 12: 289-330.

Raccagni, Gianluca. 2013a. “Reintroducing the emperor and repositioning the city republics in the ‘republican’ thought of the rhetorician Boncompagno da Signa.” Historical Research. 86 (234): 579-600.

Raccagni, Gianluca. 2013b. “The teaching of rhetoric and the Magna Carta of the Lombard cities: the Peace of Constance, the Empire and the Papacy in the works of Guido Faba and his leading contemporary colleagues.” Journal of Medieval History. 39 (1): 61-79.

Valois, Noël. 1881. Étude sur le rythme des bulles pontificales. Bibliothèque de l’école des chartes. 42: 161-198 (part 1), 257-272 (part 2).

Wight, Steven M., ed. 1998. Boncompagno da Signa. Medieval diplomatic and the “ars dictandi”. Scrineum (online): Universita degli Studi di Pavia.

men forced to offer sacrifices amid intimate-partner violence

one man begin sawed into two

Contrary to widely propagated lies, men suffer terribly from intimate-partner violence. Both old, fat men and young, handsome men are victimized. What domestic-violence experts teach to women also applies to men. No man is safe from those who claim to love him.

Consider the case of Enguerrand I de Boves. He was born in France in the middle of the eleventh century. Enguerrand married Ade de Marle. She had previously been married to Aubry, Viscount of Coucy.[1] Enguerrand’s marriage to Ade de Marle made him Lord of Marle. Ade had two children, Thomas and Robert, within her marriage to Enguerrand. He apparently suspected that at least Thomas (his “reputed {ut dicitur}” son) wasn’t his biological child. Enguerrand divorced Ade, most plausibly for betraying his reproductive interests despite professing to love him.[2]

Although Enguerrand showed more backbone toward Ade than many men show toward their wives, Enguerrand typically allowed women to dominate him. Guibert of Nogent noted of Enguerrand:

He was so much devoted to women’s love that, whatever women surrounded him, whether they were indebted to him in love or money-seeking women, he would do almost nothing but what their impudence dictated.

{ amori foemineo adeo deditus, ut quascunque circa se aut debitas aut usurarias mulieres haberet, nihil pene faceret, nisi quod ei earundem petulantia dictitaret. } [3]

After Enguerrand divorced Ade, he became enamored of Sibylle de Porcien. She was Count Godfrey’s wife. Godfrey was a very handsome man and much younger than Enguerrand. However, Godfrey and Sibylle were having marital problems, and Sibylle was a woman with strong, independent sexuality:

Her husband was fulfilling his martial duty less than she would have desired. Whether she kept herself from other men can be know from this one thing: she would have never come to such a public and monstrous scandal if she had not descended one step at a time through clandestine evil acts. In particular, she was already pregnant with another man’s child when she married the man who is now her husband. Her past debaucheries everyone knows.

{ Cui, cum minus quam volebat mariti debitum redderetur, utrum alia sese cohibuisset, hoc uno sciri potest, quod ad tam evidentis et immanis flagitii saltum nunquam venisset, nisi clandestinorum malorum gradibus descendisset, praesertim cum externis concubitibus gravida veniret ad istum, quem nunc obsidet. Nam praeteritarum ejus libidinum ea apud omnes }

Enguerrand and Sibylle had a secret affair. She then left her husband and married Enguerrand. Both her former husband Count Godfrey and her father, Roger, Count of Porcien, were furious with Enguerrand for what he had done. Both sides killed many men in the resulting violence against men.

Enguerrand subsequently had to make a humiliating sacrifice for his wife Sibylle. As Enguerrand became old and put on weight, his social status declined:

he was ridiculed by tavern-keepers and butchers for getting old and fat — many pounds with many years

{ sui aevi gravitatem caupones et macellarii irriderent } [4]

In light of these personal developments, his wife Sibylle took decisive action:

his wife, with the pretense of chastity but really because of his age and fatness, began to refuse to have sex with Enguerrand. She, however, would not be deprived of her customary enjoyment of lovers. So she began to lust for a suitable young man.

{ uxor, cum jam sub specie continentiae pro senio et corporis mole aspernaretur Ingelrannum, veteri tamen amasiorum usu carere non poterat. Unde et juvenem idoneum cum amaret } [5]

What could an old, fat, sexually desperate husband do in this situation? Some might say he should divorce his wife and find a new one, or at least find an eager girlfriend. But Enguerrand had already been divorced once. Real-world divorce is expensive in a variety of ways. After Enguerrand’s divorce from Ade, Thomas de Marle, Enguerrand’s reputed son with Ade, hated him and violently attacked him and his allies. Divorce often promotes family violence.

Rather than divorcing Sibylle, Enguerrand resolved that sharing is better than lacking. He apparently accommodated Sibylle’s desire in order to be allowed to have sex with her:

Enguerrand kept her away from all communication with the young man, until she drove Enguerrand so mad with sexual enticements that he summoned the young man, set him up in their house, and betrothed her very young daughter to him to conceal the young man’s wicked affair with Enguerrand’s own wife.

{ eam Ingelrannus ab ejus omnino confabulatione arceret, tantis repente hominem lenociniis dementavit, ut eum ad se accersiret, in domo sua statueret, filiam suam parvulam ad palliandos amores nefarios pactis sponsalibus daret }

Husbands historically have shared their wife with other men when the wife was reluctant to work outside the home. But for good evolutionary-biological reasons (powerfully re-enforced by gynocentric paternity laws) men typically prefer that, for a woman with whom they hope to have children, she exclusively have sex with him. Enguerrand sacrificed an exclusive arrangement with his wife in order to avoid the harm and violence of divorce.

Even young men are forced to offer sacrifices because of intimate-partner violence. Consider a situation of complicated intimate partnerships and violence in ancient Rome. The gladiator Encolpius apparently became a sexual consort for the wealthy married merchant Lichas, and perhaps also had sex with Lichas’s wife. The wealthy, highly privileged woman Tryphaena owned both Encolpius and a sixteen-year-old servant youth named Giton. Encolpius and Giton had a consensual sexual relationship. Exploiting her position of power and authority over Giton, Tryphaena frequently sexually assaulted him. Encolpius and Giton fled from Tryphaena’s household and thus became runaway slaves. Tryphaena was enraged by the loss of her beloved chattel and her sexual privilege. Lichas was enraged that Encolpius had deserted him to be with Giton. The grave risks of further intimate-partner violence are obvious.

Tryphaena, Lichas, Encolpius, and Giton found themselves unexpectedly together on a ship at sea. With Tryphaena keen to sexually assault Giton, Encolpius courageously defended the youth:

Thrusting my fists into Tryphaena’s face, I cried out in a clear and free voice that I would use violence if that wicked woman didn’t abstain from hurting Giton, for she was the only person on the ship who deserved a beating.

{ intentans in oculos Tryphaenae manus usurum me viribus meis clara liberaque voce clamavi, ni abstineret a Gitone iniuriam mulier damnata et in toto navigio sola verberanda. } [6]

A brawl subsequently broke out. Tryphaena, her maids, Lichas, and other subservient men were on her side; Encolpius, Giton, Eumolpus, and Eumolpius’s servant-man fought against them. Blood streamed from wounds on both sides, yet the intimate-partner violence raged undiminished. Then Giton dramatically offered a horrific sacrifice:

Then the supremely brave Giton put a razor to his own manly genitals and threatened to excise the cause of all the misery

{ Tunc fortissimus Giton ad virilia sua admovit novaculam infestam, minatus se abscisurum tot miseriarum causam }

Tryphaena quickly responded with an offer of forgiveness for all past offenses. The warring parties then established a formal peace treaty. Lichas was compelled not to disparage Encolpius about his relationship with Giton:

Lichas, you express your understanding that you will not pursue Encolpius with insulting words or grimaces, nor inquire where he sleeps at night. If you do so inquire, you will pay him two hundred denarii for each injurious act.

{ Licha, ex tui animi sententia, ut tu Encolpion nec verbo contumelioso insequeris nec vultu, neque quaeres ubi nocte dormiat, aut si quaesieris, pro singulis iniuriis numerabis praesentes denarios ducenos. } [7]

Tryphaena was compelled not to sexually harass Giton without pay:

You will give the youth no repugnant demand for a hug, a kiss, or to be held tight in sexual intercourse, without for each act paying a hundred denarii.

{ tu nihil imperabis puero repugnanti, non amplexum, non osculum, non coitum venere constrictum, nisi pro qua re praesentes numeraveris denarios centum. }

A woman paying a subordinate for sexual services that she demands is more just than her receiving those services for free. In our more ignorant and barbaric age, women who raped men can receive state-mandated monthly payments from their victims. While the treaty that ended this intimate-partner violence was far from perfect, at least it established peace.

Cuckolding and castration culture cast a long, dark shadow over human history. Men too often have been called upon to make enormous sacrifices to stop intimate-partner violence. Women must take equal responsibility for stopping intimate-partner violence. But that’s not enough. Establishing a propitious environment for human love is the most important task for everyone.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Ade de Marle is also known as Adèle of Marle and Adèle of Roucy. Aubry of Coucy is also known as Alberic de Beaumont, seigneur de Coucy. Enguerrand I de Boves became Count of Amiens in 1085 and Lord of Coucy in 1086. Bourgin (1907) p. 133, n. 1. Ade and Enguerrand had their first son, Thomas de Marle, in 1073.

Enguerrand had “a very close relative {plurima sibi consanguinitate affinis}” with another Enguerrand who became Bishop of Laon in 1098 or 1099. Bishop Enguerrand of Laon apparently died in 1104. Guibert, Monodiae 3.3; Bourgin (1907) p. 132, n. 1. Both Bishop Enguerrand of Laon and Enguerrand de Marle were probably grandsons of Aubry of Coucy and hence first cousins. Bourgin (1907) p. 133, n. 1;  Archambault (1996) p. 124, n. 10.

An Enguerrand associated with Laon participated in the First Crusade, 1095-1099. Writing about the First Crusade, Guibert reported:

But count Stephen, with certain bishops of our kingdom, among whom were Hugh of Soissons, William of Paris, fine, noble men, who were splendid, accomplished young rulers, and Enguerrand of Laon — would that he had been as preeminent in his religious belief as he was in appearance and eloquence — together with many dignitaries of all ranks, entered the city of Constantinople.

{ At Stephanus comes cum quibusdam pontificibus regni nostri, inter quos Hugo Suessionicus, et Parisiorum Guillelmus illustris indolis generisque viri, qui praesulatui suo in primaevo flore clarissimis moribus ministrabant, et Engelrannus Laudunensis, vir sicut forma et eloquentia, utinam sic religione! conspicuus, cum multa ordinum omnium dignitate moenia Constantinopolitana subintrant. }

Guibert of Nogent, Gesta Dei per Francos {God’s Deeds through the Franks} 8.6, Latin text from Guizot (1825), English trans. from Levine (1997). Archambault identifies this Enguerrand as Enguerrand de Marle. Archambault (1996) p. 125, n. 12. It seems to me more probably Bishop Enguerrand of Laon.

[2] Guibert repeatedly refers to Thomas de Marle as “Enguerrand’s reputed son {ut dicitur Ingrelranni filium}.” E.g. Monodiae 3.11. Benton states:

He {Enguerrand} divorced Adèle of Roucy, the mother of Thomas of Marle, on charges of adultery, leading Guibert to say throughout this work {Monodiae} that Thomas was Enguerrand’s “reputed” son.

Benson (1970) p. 148, n. 2. Archambault, however, argues:

Guibert is not casting doubt on Thomas’s legitimacy, or casting aspersions on Enguerrand’s first marriage to Ade de Marle, Thomas’s mother, when he states: “contra Thomam, quem irremediabiliter ipse, qui dicebatur pater, oderat {against Thomas, who irremediably hated that one who is called his father}.” He is showing, rather, how unnatural Enguerrand’s sentiments have become toward Thomas de Marle, whom both he and he second wife, Sibylle, intend to disinherit.

Archambault (1996) p. 169, n. 113. I think Guibert is both depicting “unnatural” familial sentiments and recording doubt about Thomas’s legitimacy. Guibert states of Enguerrand: “in entering into marriages he had been unfortunate {cum in sortiendis matrimoniis infortuniosus esset}.” Monodiae 3.3. Guibert also describes Thomas’s intense hatred toward both Enguerrand and Sibylle. That hatred is plausibly the hatred of a son toward those who had exposed his mother’s adultery and his illegitimacy in contemporary eyes.

[3] Guibert of Nogent, Monodiae {Songs of Self} 3.3, Latin text from Bourgin (1907), my English translation benefiting from those of Archambault (1996) and McAlhany & Rubenstein (2011). All subsequent quotes from Monodiae are similarly sourced. The subsequent quote above is also from Monodiae 3.3.

[4] Guibert, Monodiae 3.14. Enguerrand was a lord and a count. Being ridiculed by inn-keepers and butchers is a stunning status reversal. The Latin text refers wittily to the “weight of his age {gravitas aevi}”; gravitas, used here ironically, is a venerable Roman virtue.

[5] Guibert, Monodiae 3.11. The subsequent quote above is from id. While less so in medieval Europe than in today’s high-income countries, marriage turning sexless has always been a risk.

[6] Petronius, Satyricon 108, Latin text from Heseltine & Rouse (1913), my English translation benefiting from that of id. and Walsh (1996). All subsequent quotes from the Satyricon are similarly source. The next quote above is also from Satyricon 108.

[7] Petronius, Satyricon 109. The subsequent quote above is from id. The denarius was an ancient Roman silver coin.

Payments of 200 and 100 denarii were enormous sums relative to the income of ordinary Roman men. The Satyricon is thought to have been written about 64 GC. Toward the end of the first century GC, men engaged in unskilled agricultural labor on estates in Roman Egypt earned roughly 5 obols per day. A denarius was worth 28 obols. Hence the daily wage for men engaged in unskilled labor was about 0.2 denarii a day. For the equivalence and data, Harper (2016) Table 2, p. 814, and Figure 9, p. 828. Here’s Harper’s extensive dataset on Roman prices and wages.

[image] One man being sawed into two parts. Illumination on folio 107r in Epistolarium (Amiens) {Épistolier à l’usage d’Amiens}. Illumination by Maître d’Antoine Clabault, made about 1490. Preserved in Bibliothèque nationale de France as Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal. MS-662.


Archambault, Paul J., trans. 1996. A Monk’s Confession: the memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Benton, John F., trans. 1970. Self and society in Medieval France: the memoirs of Abbot Guibert of Nogent. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Bourgin, George, ed. 1907. Guibert of Nogent. Histoire de sa vie: 1053-1124. Paris: Picard.

Guizot, François, trans. 1825. Histoire des Croisades. Collection des mémoires relatifs à l’histoire de France, 10. Paris: Brière.

Harper, Kyle. 2016. “People, Plagues, and Prices in the Roman World: The Evidence from Egypt.” Journal of Economic History. 76 (3): 803-839.

Heseltine, Michael and W. H. D. Rouse, trans., revised by E. H. Warmington. 1913. Petronius Arbiter, Seneca. Satyricon. Apocolocyntosis. Loeb Classical Library 15. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Levine, Robert. 1997. The Deeds of God through the Franks: a translation of Guibert de Nogent’s Gesta Dei per Francos. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

McAlhany, Joseph, and Jay Rubenstein, trans. 2011. Guibert of Nogent. Monodies and the Relics of Saints: the autobiography and a manifesto of a French monk from the time of the crusades. New York, NY: Penguin Books. (review by Scott G. Bruce, review by Bruce L. Venarde)

Walsh, Patrick G, trans. 1996. Petronius Arbiter. The Satyricon. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Roscelin mischaracterized Abelard’s subservience to Heloise

Come, Abelard! for what hast thou to dread?
The torch of Venus burns not for the dead.
Nature stands check’d; Religion disapproves;
Ev’n thou art cold — yet Eloisa loves.
Ah hopeless, lasting flames! like those that burn
To light the dead, and warm th’unfruitful urn. [1]

Abelard kissing Heloise

Under gynocentrism, men are subservient to women. Women expect men to come when women call. Men are taught to work to provide money to women and children and to be prepared to die for their country. The public propaganda apparatus proclaims to men, “work sets you free {arbeit macht frei}.” Not surprisingly, men are expected, in one way or another, to pay for having sex with women. That’s crucial context for understanding Roscelin of Compeigne’s vicious letter to Peter Abelard about his affair with Heloise of the Paraclete.

In Paris early in the twelfth century, Abelard had been a teacher of Heloise. Their relationship developed into a torrid sexual affair and then marriage. Angry with Abelard over difficulties that had developed in Abelard’s marriage with Heloise, Heloise’s uncle Canon Fulbert arranged to have a band of thugs break into Abelard’s bedroom and castrate him. That a terrible form of violence against men is deeply entrenched in human society. Despite being castrated, Abelard continued to work as a teacher. Like most men, he provided money to his wife Heloise. She became abbess of the Benedictine Oratory of the Paraclete. In addition to receiving money from Abelard, Heloise assigned him various literary and theological work to do for the nuns of the Paraclete.[2]

Following a heated exchange of theological views with Abelard, Roscelin of Compeigne about 1120 derided Abelard for providing money to Heloise. Abelard taught Heloise the profound meaning and practice of human love. Roscelin disparaged Abelard for his teaching. Roscelin reduced Abelard’s relationship with Heloise to unfulfilled prostitution:

you do not stop teaching what should not be taught, even when if it were to be taught, you should not teach it. You collect money for the falsehoods that you teach, and you don’t even send the money to your whore as payment for expected sexual intercourse — you take it to her yourself. While you were able, you expected to be given sexual pleasure for a price. Now you give payment, more as compensation for past sins than as buying future sin. And the teaching that you once abused for sexual pleasure, you to this day abuse due to your inclination. But, thank God, even in your need, you are not able.

{ non docenda docere non desinis, cum et docenda docere non debueras, atque collecto falsitatis quam doces pretio, scorto tuo in stupri praemium nequaquam transmittis, sed ipse deportas et quid, dum poteras, in pretium exspectatae voluptatis dabas, modo das in praemium, plus utique remunerando stuprum praeteritum peccans, quam emendo futurum, et qua prius cum voluptate abutebaris, adhuc ex voluntate abuteris: sed Dei gratia ex necessitate non praevales. } [3]

Men who are not able — men suffering from impotence, or even worse, social or physical castration — deserve sympathy, compassion, and disability payments. Abelard, as a castrated man, surely did not provide money to his wife Heloise as compensation for his past sexual sin, which was also her past sexual sin. He provided his wife with money because that’s men’s long-established, oppressive gender role. For teaching Heloise, Abelard probably received room, board, and money. Abelard almost surely never paid Heloise for sex.[4] In contrast to Roscelin’s false, gender-stereotyped claim, Heloise’s family paid for her opportunity to develop a sexual relationship with Abelard. If it weren’t for castration culture, that pay to Abelard would have been money well-spent in helping Heloise to live a full and happy life.

Compared to the mythic gender wage gap, the gender protrusion in payment for sex is a far worse social injustice. Like the mythic gender wage gap, men paying women for sex is used against men even when it doesn’t exist in reality. Every man waiting for a woman (a young, attractive, meninist woman) to call him and ask him out to dinner at a restaurant (a good, expensive restaurant) understands the fundamental gender injustice. What remains is to change it.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Alexander Pope, Eloisa to Abelard (excerpt). Pope wrote this poem in 1717.

[2] Work that Heloise assigned to Abelard included writing hymns for liturgy in the Oracle of the Paraclete and writing answers to theological questions that Heloise sent to him (Problemata Heloissae).

[3] Roscelin of Compiegne, Letter to Abelard {Epistola ad Abaelardum} (excerpt), Latin text from Patrologia Latina 178:369BC, via Heloïsa und Abaelard, my English translation.

Roscelin claimed, “what from Dan to Beersheba is famous we shall unfold {quod a Dan usque Bersabee notum est replicemus}.” In the Hebrew Bible, Dan is the northernmost city of the tribes of Israel. Dan is associated with the idolatry of Jeroboam’s golden calves. 2 Kings 10:29, 2 Chronicles 13:8. Beersheba is a place in the desert in the kingdom of Simeon, south of the the main part of the kingdom of Judah. Beersheba is associated with the Hebrew patriarchs Abraham and Isaac. Genesis 21:22-34, Genesis 26:23-33.

In the relatively liberal and enlightened medieval period, scholars engaged in vigorous, spirited, and open contention. Roscelin claimed that Abelard lived “in the monastery that is in fact that of St. Dionysius {in monasterio siquidem beati Dionysii).” He claimed that there was “gathered together a multitude of barbarians {congregata barbarorum multitudine}.” According to Roscelin writing to Abelard, that was a place “where you would devote yourself to your inclination and lust {ubi voluntati voluptatique tuae deservires}.” In literary history, men’s sexually has commonly been harshly disparaged.

[4] In an earlier letter to Abelard, Heloise declared that she preferred to be Abelard’s whore {meretrix} rather than Abelard’s wife. See Letter 2.10 in Luscombe & Radice (2013) pp. 132-3. Like Theophrastus and Matheolus, Heloise courageously and generously recognized disadvantages that men suffer in marriage. Heloise’s willingness to be Abelard’s whore doesn’t imply that Abelard actually paid Heloise for sex.

[image] Abelard kissing Heloise to provide her with a short break from her strenuous intellectual work. Illumination from between pages 12 and 13 in Fortescue-Brickdale (1919). The great medieval humanist Boccaccio in 1361 wrote an influential volume entitled Famous Women {De mulieribus claris}. Fortescue-Brickdale (1919) follows in that tradition.


Fortescue-Brickdale, Eleanor. 1919. Golden Book of Famous Women. London: Hodder.

Luscombe, David, and Betty Radice, ed. and trans. 2013. The Letter Collection of Peter Abelard and Heloise. Clarendon Press: Oxford.

women’s beauty and men’s under-appreciated work of desire

Bathsheba bathing, with David onlooking yearningly

Important recent classical scholarship has established that “the classical Greek notion of beauty is closely related to erôs, that is, passionate desire.”[1] The learned, twelfth-century monk Guibert of Nogent understood beauty classically. Guibert, however, went beyond the ancient Greek notion of beauty to highlight men’s under-appreciated work of desire.

Guibert presented beauty with a superficial contrast. Consider how Guibert described his greatest blessing:

I have already said, Pious and Holy One, that I am thankful to you for your gifts. I thank you, first and foremost, for having given me a mother who is beautiful yet chaste and modest and exceedingly God-fearing. Mentioning her beauty alone would be profane and foolish if I didn’t add (to show the vanity of the word “beauty”) that the severity of her appearance was sure proof of her chastity.

{ Dixeram, pie et sancte, quod de tuis tibi beneficiis gratularer. Primum potissimumque itaque gratias ago, quod pulchram, sed castam, modestam mihi matrem timoratissimamque contuleris. Pulchram profecto satis seculariter ac inepte protuleram, nisi certae castitatis severissima fronte hoc nomen inane firmassem. } [2]

Guibert’s mother is beautiful {pulcher}, yet she has a severe appearance. So does she look like Saint Pelagia, or like a viciously anti-meninist woman? Guibert immediately explained:

Fasting for the poor, who have no choice for when food is available, is really a form of torture and is therefore less praiseworthy. In the same way, if rich people abstain from food, their merit is derived from abundance. So it is with beauty, which is all the more praiseworthy if it resists flattery while knowing itself to be desirable.

{ Sicut sane in omnino pauperibus jejunia videntur extortitia, quibus non suppetunt ciborum suffragia, et ideo minus laudabilia, frugalitas autem divitum pro sua habet copia pretium; sic forma quanto appetibilior, si contra lenocinia duruerit, tanto omnimodae titulo laudis evectior. }

Guibert’s mother evidently is a woman that men desire, like men do Saint Pelagia. His mother’s severity isn’t repellent bitterness and hostility toward men. Her severity is merely her reason and judgment strong enough to resist the servile flattery of weak, self-abasing men.

Guibert went on to consider a classical understanding of beauty. He stated:

Sallust was able to consider beauty praiseworthy independent of moral considerations. Otherwise he never would have said about Aurelia Orestilla, “Good men never praised anything in her except her beauty.” Sallust seems to have meant that Aurelia’s beauty, considered in isolation, could still be praised by good people, while admitting how corrupt she was in everything else.

{ Sallustiuse Crispus nisi solam sine moribus pulchritudinem laudi duxisset, nunquam de Aurelia Orestilla dixisset: “Inqua, ait, praeter formam nihil unquam bonus laudavit.” Si formam ejus, quam excipit, a bono laudari asserit, quia tamen in caeteris omnibus turpem } [3]

Aurelia Orestilla came from a leading political family in the Roman Republic of the early first century BGC. She was the wife of the eminent Roman commander Catiline when he engaged in a conspiracy to burn Rome and overthrow the Republican government. Cicero associated Aurelia Orestilla with obscenity.[4] She was probably similar to her contemporary Sempronia, a type of woman profusely celebrated in mass media today:

Sempronia was a woman who had often committed many crimes of masculine daring. In family heritage and beauty, and in her husband and her children, she was abundantly favored by fortune. She was well-read in the literature of Greece and Rome, and able to play the lyre and to dance more skillfully than an honest woman would find necessary. She had many other accomplishments that aid voluptuousness. Nothing she valued so little as modesty and chastity. You could not easily say whether she was less sparing of her money or her honor. Her sexual desires were so ardent that she sought men more often than they sought her. Even before the time of the conspiracy she had often broken her word, repudiated her debts, and been privy to murder. Experiences of poverty and extravagance had combined to drive her forward. Nevertheless, she was a woman of no paltry endowments. She could write verses, bandy jests, and use language modest, tender, or wanton. In short, she possessed a high degree of wit and charm.

{ erat Sempronia quae multa saepe virilis audaciae facinora commiserat. Haec mulier genere atque forma, praeterea viro atque liberis satis fortunata fuit; litteris Graecis et Latinis docta, psallere et saltare elegantius, quam necesse est probae, multa alia, quae instrumenta luxuriae sunt. Sed ei cariora semper omnia quam decus atque pudicitia fuit; pecuniae an famae minus parceret, haud facile discerneres; lubido sic accensa, ut saepius peteret viros quam peteretur. Sed ea saepe antehac fidem prodiderat, creditum abiuraverat, caedis conscia fuerat, luxuria atque inopia praeceps abierat. Verum ingenium eius haud absurdum; posse versus facere, iocum movere, sermone uti vel modesto vel molli vel procaci; prorsus multae facetiae multusque lepos inerat. } [5]

The Latin word for beauty used to characterize both Aurelia Orestilla and Sempronia is forma. The Latin word that Guibert used to characterize his mother is pulcher. The word forma is beauty much more narrowly limited to physical appearance.[6]

Like Bishop Nonnus with respect to Pelagia, Guibert had a realistic understanding of womanly beauty. Writing in a more liberal and less doctrinaire age than ours, Guibert frankly explained:

Speaking for Sallust, I think he might just as well have said that Aurelia deserved to be praised for a natural, God-given gift, impaired though she was by all the other impurities that made up her being. Likewise a statue can be praised for the harmony of its parts, no matter what material composes it. It may be regarded as an idol by the Apostle Paul from the viewpoint of faith, and indeed nothing may be called or is more impious, but one can still admire the harmony of its limbs.

{ dicit, secure pro Sallustio loquor sic sensisse, ceu diceret, digne dote naturae a Deo approbari, licet eam constet adjectivis quibuslibet impuritatibus impiari. Laudatur itaque in idolo cujuslibet materiei partibus propriis forma conveniens, et licet idolum ab Apostolo, quantum spectat ad fidem, nihil appelletur nec quippiam profanius habeatur, tamen illa membrorum apta diductio non ab re laudatur. }

Men sexually desire beautiful women even if those women are morally bad. Women, on the other hand, sexually desire bad boys even if those boys aren’t beautiful. Reality resists social constructions of gender. Beauty is an aspect of natural, God-given reality.

The classical understanding of beauty closely linked beauty with desire, but commonly trivialized men’s work of desire. Consider, for example, the classical poet Eumolpus. One day while bathing in a Roman bathhouse with other naked men, he attempted to recite learned poetry. His fellow bathers ridiculed him, attacked him, and drove him out of the bath. Outside, a huge crowd surrounded another naked man. Eumolpus sarcastically reported:

In contrast to their treatment of me, a huge crowd surrounded that other man’s groin and clapped their hands in humblest admiration. He had genitals that hung down with such weight that you would have thought that the man himself was a mere appendage to his penis. What a hard-working young man he must be! I suspect that he has to begin today to finish tomorrow. So it wasn’t long before he got himself an assistant — some Roman noble or other, with a dubious reputation, they say — who gave his clothes to cover him up and brought him home with him, I believe, to enjoy his good fortune in private. … It just shows that it’s more profitable to work your genitals than your brains.

{ ilium autem frequentia ingens circumvenit cum plausu et admiratione timidissima. Habebat enim inguinum pondus tam grande, ut ipsum hominem laciniam fascini crederes. O iuvenem laboriosum: puto ilium pridie incipere, postero die finire. Itaque statim invenit auxilium; nescio quis enim, eques Romanus ut aiebant infamis, sua veste errantem circumdedit ac domum abduxit, credo, ut tam magna fortuna solus uteretur. … Tanto magis expedit inguina quam ingenia fricare. } [7]

Eumolpus thus trivialized the erection labor of even a man with very heavy equipment.[8] More generally, in the defective classical understanding of beauty, men’s desire requires of men negligible labor.

Showing important development of reasoned, empirical thinking, Guibert highlighted that desire requires labor from men. Guibert sympathetically reported why an older man became a monk:

Another man was from a noble Beauvaisien family with rich estates in Noyon. He was elderly, and his body had been worn out long ago. Yet he had a wife vigorous in the business of the marriage bed. That’s greatly pernicious. So, deserting married life and the world, he professed vows as a monk.

{ Alter quidam, genere nobilis Bellovagensium, Noviomagensium quoque locuples, aetate evectus, et effoeto jam corpore, quod talibus pestiferum est, uxorem habens vegetiorem officio thalamorum, desertis conjugio ac saeculo, monachum inibi profitetur. } [9]

With great love for women, men engage in tiring work in bed. Other medieval literature similarly tells of men exhausted by their erection labor. Desire requires strength-sapping labor from men.

In the more liberal and less doctrinaire medieval period, women both under-appreciated and over-appreciated men’s erection labor. Men generally endure less risk to their health when women under-appreciate men’s sexuality. Today, however, many women insist on being on top. Yet women also eagerly buy seedless watermelons and urgently pursue an ideal of zero emissions. Men’s health is thus endangered and men’s erection labor is devalued. Women’s beauty is good for society only when men are adequately compensated for their erection labor.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Konstan (2015) p. 62.

[2] Guibert of Nogent, Monodiae {Songs of Self} 1.2, Latin text from Bourgin (1907), English trans. from Archambault (1996) (adapted). All subsequent quotes from Guibert, unless otherwise noted, are similarly sourced from Monodiae 1.2.

Guibert ended his discussion of his mother’s beauty in a way that underscores the close relationship between beauty and desire:

Thank you, God, for instilling virtue into my mother’s beauty. The seriousness of her whole bearing was enough to show her contempt for all vanity. Her lowered eyes, paucity of speech, and unexcitable facial expression by no means indicated acquiescence to flirtatious looks.

{ Gratia igitur tibi, Deus, qui praestillaveras decori ejus virtutem: illius enim habitudinis gravitas tolius vanitatis poterat insinuare contemptum; oculorum namque pondus, raritas eloquendi ac faciei motuum difficultas, minime levitatibus intuentium obsecundat. }

Id. Guibert here shifts to referring to his mother’s beauty with the Latin word decor. That word most commonly represents physical beauty. Konstan (2015) p. 142. Guibert’s mother is physically beautiful, but she in other ways distances herself from sexual desire.

As many mothers throughout history have with respect to their sons, Guibert’s mother dominated him. He regarded her as almost God-like and was greatly concerning to follow her instructions. She regarded Guibert’s sexual desire as dangerous to him. That’s certainly true for men under gynocentrism today.

[3] Guibert quotes from Sallust, The War With Catiline {Bellum Catilinae} 15.2. Here’s the Loeb edition of The War With Catiline, with Latin text and English translation by John C. Rolfe (1921/1931). Catiline’s full name in Latin is Lucius Sergius Catilina.

[4] On Aurelia Orestilla family background, Evans (1987). Catiline’s wife Aurelia plausibly was Catiline’s daughter via his adulterous relationship with her mother. Consider words of Cicero, with ancient commentary:

“Whenever you were caught in adultery, whenever you caught adulterers yourself, when arising from the same act of gross indecency you found yourself a woman to be both wife and daughter.” It is said that Catilina committed adultery with the woman who was later his mother-in-law, and took to wife the female offspring of that fornication, although she was his daughter. This charge Lucceius also levels against Catilina in the orations which he wrote attacking him. I have not yet discovered the names of these women.

{ “Cum deprehendebare in adulteriis, cum deprehendebas adulteros ipse, cum ex eodem stupro tibi et uxorem et filiam invenisti.” Dicitur Catilina adulterium commisisse cum ea quae ei postea socrus fuit, et ex eo natam stupro duxisse uxorem, cum filia eius esset. Hoc Lucceius quoque Catilinae obicit in orationibus quas in eum scripsit. Nomina harum mulierum nondum inveni. }

Cicero’s speech In his white gown {In toga candida}, according to the commentary of Asconius 91C. Latin text and English translation from Lewis (2006) pp. 183-4. A correction written in Poggio’s manuscript of Asconius added, “the name of his wife was Aurelia Orestilla, of his mother-in-law, I don’t know {nomen uxori fuit Aurelia Orestilla, de socru ignoro}.” Id. (in editor’s note).

Cicero, in his Letters to Friends {Epistulae ad Familiares} 9.15 associated Aurelia and Lollia with obscenity. Cicero stated, “if we use the word Aurelia or Lollia we must prefix an apology {sin de Aurelia aliquid aut Lollia, honos praefandus est}.” Latin text and English translation from Loeb edition of William Glyn (1927).

[5] Sallust, The War With Catiline {Bellum Catilinae} 25, Latin text and English translation (adapted) from the Loeb edition of Rolfe (1921/1931). This Sempronia was the wife of Decimus Junius Brutus. On her involvement in the conspiracy, Bellum Catilinae 40.5. For a modern apology for the perhaps adulterous Sempronia, wife of Scipio Aemilianus, Beness & Hillard (2016). Here’s some analysis of modern reporting of men being cuckolded.

Despite Aurelia Orestilla almost surely being deeply involved in what has been called the Catiline conspiracy, she apparently suffered relatively little from that failed uprising. Catiline in 62 BGC was killed fighting for the conspiracy attempt. But in 50 BGC Aurelia Orestilla was making an elite marriage for her daughter. Cicero, Epistulae ad Familiares 8.7.7, discussed in Evans (1986) p. 70.

Ben Jonson’s tragedy Catiline His Conspiracy (1611) plausibly elaborates on Aurelia Orestilla’s character. Brian Jay Corrigan’s Compendium of Renaissance Drama recognizes Jonson’s gender-critical insight in Catiline His Conspiracy:

After their respective meetings, both men and women conspirators convene in the early hours of the morning to take their leave and make a final statement of confidence. Eventually, when the conspirators are sentenced to death, it is understood that the women, including Aurelia, are not punished.

See Aurelia in Corrigan’s character list. A gender protrusion in men’s mortality and sex discrimination in punishment are common aspects of gynocentrism.

[6] The word forma most specifically refers to physical shape or figure, but it can take on the meaning “beauty” in context. The Latin words for beauty formosus and formositas, which are derived from forma, highlight that physical meaning of beauty. Konstan (2015) pp. 144, 148.

[7] Petronius, Satyricon 92, Latin text from Heseltine & Rouse (1913), English translation from Walsh (1996) (adapted). The well-endowed man is Ascyltus, a rival to Encolpius for amorous relations with Giton. On classical literature admiring large penises, see commentary to Satyricon 92 in Schmeling (2011).

[8] Despite Eumolpus’s disdain’s for Ascyltus’s erection labor, Eumolpus himself experienced sexual exhaustion in his relationship with the Pergamene youth. Eumolpus threatened to alert the father of the Pargamene youth if that youth didn’t stop pressing him for more sex. Satyricon 82-7. On the literary context of this story, Harrison (1998). The gender-political implications of the story have been regrettably overlooked.

[9] Guibert, Monodiae 2.5, Latin text from Bourgin (1907), English trans. from Archambault (1996) (adapted).

[image] Bathsheba sexually harassing David. As a result of that sexual harassment, one man suffered a reproductive injury and a man and a boy were killed. Specifically, Bathsheba’s husband Uriah was cuckolded and killed, and Bathsheba and David’s newly born son died. 2 Samuel 11-12. In recent decades scholars have tended to blame the victim and condemn men in such situations for “the male gaze.” That reflects the growing influence of carceral anti-meninism. Illumination on f. 71 of French Book of Hours, made c. 1485. Preserved as British Library MS Harley 2863.


Archambault, Paul J., trans. 1996. A Monk’s Confession: the memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Beness, J. Lea, and Tom Hillard. 2016. “Wronging Sempronia.” Antichthon. 50: 80-106.

Bourgin, George, ed. 1907. Guibert of Nogent. Histoire de sa vie: 1053-1124. Paris: Picard.

Evans, Richard J. 1987. “Catiline’s wife.” Acta Classica. 30: 69-71.

Harrison, Stephen J. 1998. “The Milesian Tales and the Roman Novel.” Groningen Colloquia on the Novel. 9: 61–73.

Heseltine, Michael and W. H. D. Rouse, trans., revised by E. H. Warmington. 1913. Petronius Arbiter, Seneca. Satyricon. Apocolocyntosis. Loeb Classical Library 15. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Konstan, David. 2015. Beauty: The Fortunes of an Ancient Greek Idea. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lewis, R.G, ed. and trans. 2006. Asconius: Commentaries on Speeches of Cicero. New York: Oxford University Press.

Schmeling, Gareth L. 2011. A Commentary on the Satyrica of Petronius. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walsh, Patrick G, trans. 1996. Petronius Arbiter. The Satyricon. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Guibert of Nogent in Heloise’s light: dark nights of internalized misandry

Guibert presents to Christ his commentary

In France early in the twelfth century, Heloise of the Paraclete became a famous author and religious leader. Guibert of Nogent lived and died there and then as an obscure abbot. Those who dare to defy orthodoxy readily recognize that gynocentrism has privileged women throughout history. Yet Guibert’s lack of recognition relative to Heloise doesn’t simply reflect structural gender oppression. Guibert himself internalized misandry. In his despair, he failed to appreciate his own being.

Even when the eminent twelfth-century abbot Peter the Venerable was a youth, the fame of Heloise’s “distinguished and praiseworthy studies {honesta et laudabilia studia}” were known to him. Many years later Peter the Venerable wrote to Heloise:

I heard then that a woman, though still not freed from worldly ties, was deeply devoted to literary studies, which is most unusual, and to the pursuit of wisdom, albeit wisdom of the world. I heard that she could not be prevented by worldly pleasures, frivolities, and delights from the useful purpose of learning the arts. In a time when detestable laziness keeps almost everyone from these studies, and when the progress of wisdom can come to a standstill — I do not say among women, by whom it is entirely rejected, but it can hardly find virile minds among men — you, through your praiseworthy zeal, have completely excelled all women, and surpassed almost all men.

{ Audiebam tunc temporis, mulierem licet necdum saeculi nexibus expeditam, litteratoriae scientiae quod perrarum est, et studio licet saecularis sapientiae, summam operam dare, nec mundi voluptatibus, nugis, vel deliciis, ab hoc utili discendarum artium proposito retrahi posse. Cumque ab his exercitiis detestanda desidia totus pene torpeat mundus, et ubi subsistere possit pes sapientiae, non dicam apud sexum femineum a quo ex toto explosus est, sed vix apud ipsos viriles animos invenire valeat, tu illo efferendo studio tuo, et mulieres omnes evicisti, et pene viros universos superasti. } [1]

Men love to praise women. Some men even experience a certain pleasure from imagining women beating men. In contrast, men compete aggressively with other men. Guibert recounted his own experience of religious study in a monastery:

While some in my monastery once saw me as far beneath them in age and education as well as influence and understanding, they realized now that the gift of Him alone, who is the key of all knowledge, had instilled into my senses an appetite for learning, and that I had begun to equal them, or, if I may say so, completely surpass them. Their scornful wickedness flared up against me with great fury, and I grew exhausted from the constant debates and controversies. I wished I had never seen literature, much less learned any of it. They made every effort to disrupt my studies. Many times, seizing on an opportunity from the literature itself, they would stir up quarrels through constant questioning. It seemed that the only purpose behind their exertions was to make me shrink away from my eagerness in this study and to shackle my talents.

{ Nam nostratium aliqui, cum me olim longe infra se aetate ac literis, potentia et cognitione vidissent, et, solius ejus dono ipso discendi appetitum meis sensibus instinguente, qui totius est clavis scientiae, me sibi exaequari, aut omnino, si dici fas est, excellere persensissent, tanto furore adversum me eorum indignabunda excanduit nequitia, ut me, frequentibus controversiis et simultatibus fatigatum, multoiens et vidisse et scisse literas poeniteret. Studium plane meum ab eis tantopere turbabatur, ac tot, de ipsis literis sumpta occasione, per continuas quaestiones jurgia motabantur, ut ad hoc solum, quatinus ab ea cura mea resiliret intentio meumque praepediretur ingenium, eniti viderentur. } [2]

Guibert lacked encouragement and support for his learning. His fellow monks’ attacks on him, however, spurred Guibert to more intensive learning:

But just as oil poured on a fire intensifies the flames it seems to extinguish, so in the same way the more my enthusiasm was gripped in this difficult work, the more it heated up as in an oven, and the better it functioned. Questions in which I was judged to be dull served only to sharpen my mind. The difficulties contained in their objections forced me to ponder assiduously about hypotheses. I perused books of all kinds to comprehend the multiple meanings of words and to find adequate answers. This behavior of mine made them hate me even more. But you know, O Lord, that I did little if anything to return their hate.

{ Sed, sicut oleum camino additum, unde putatur extinguere, inde flamma vivaciore proserpit, eo instar clibani quo amplius mea super eo labore solertia premebatur, tanto suis reddita valentior aestibus in melius agebatur. Quaestiones, quibus aestimabar obtundi, intelligentiae plurimam mihi acrimoniam ministrabant, et objectionum difficultates crebra conjecturarum mearum ruminatione et diversorum versatione voluminum, multiplicitatem sensuum et respondendi mihi efficaciam pariebant. Hoc itaque modo, etsi gravissime eis invidiosus eram, tu tamen nosti, Domine, quam parum aut nihil tali bus invidebam } [3]

Overcoming the hostile environment that he experienced, Guibert surpassed nearly all women and men in learning. Moreover, he was from a noble family, and he had a handsome appearance. Yet Guibert became much less famous than Heloise.

Peter the Venerable praised Heloise for her worldly literary studies and for her pursuit of worldly wisdom. Perhaps hoping to gain more appreciation from his peers, Guibert turned to study of worldly poetry:

I left aside all the seriousness of scared Scripture for this vain and ludicrous activity. Sustained by my folly, I had reached a point where I was competing with Ovid and the pastoral poets by striving to achieve an amorous charm in well-crafted epistles and in the way of arranging images. Forgetting the proper rigor of the monastic calling and casting away its modesty, my mind became so enraptured by the seductions of this contagious indulgence that I valued one thing only: that what I was writing in a courtly manner might be attribute to some poet.

{ ut universa a divinae paginae seria pro tam ridicula vanitate seponerem, ad hoc ipsum, duce mea levitate, jam veneram, ut Ovidiana et Bucolicorum dicta praesumerem, et lepores amatorios in specierum distributionibus epistolisque nexilibus affectarem. Oblita igitur mens debiti rigoris, et professionis monasticae pudore rejecto, talibus virulentae hujus licentiae lenociniis lactabatur, hoc solum trutinans, si poetae cuipiam comportari poterat quod curialiter dicebatur } [4]

Writing courtly love poetry is an activity for ignorant, desperate men living in fantasies. Guibert both read courtly love poetry and produced it himself. His body relished this imaginative action:

I was being seized from both directions. The sweet-sounding words that I took in from the poets, and then spewed forth myself ensnared me in their wanton frivolity. Since I kept coming back to them and things like them, immodest stirrings of my flesh all too frequently held me captive.

{ Cujus nimirum utrobique raptabar, dum non solum verborum dulcium, quae a poetis acceperam, sed et quae ego profuderam lasciviis irretirer, verum etiam per horum et his similium revolutiones immodica aliquotiens carnis meae titillatione tenerer } [5]

Heloise delighted in remembering her actual sexual intercourse with Abelard. Guibert engaged only with amorous words and himself.

One night, Guibert’s tutor had a holy vision of an old man with white hair. The old man indicated that Guibert, with understanding of God’s judgment of him, would turn away from secular love poetry. Guibert nonetheless felt for some time what he described as “inner madness {interior rabies}.” He longed for love and praise:

And yet you know, Lord, and I confess it, that at that time neither fear of you, nor shame at myself, nor respect for this holy vision made me behave with any more self-restraint. Indeed, I did not refrain at all in my inner life from the scandalous indecencies of my trifling compositions. In secret I composed the same poems, not daring to show them to any, or scarcely any, of my companions, and yet I often recited them to whom I could, under the name of a false author. I took joy in the praise they received from those who shared religious vows with me. I thought it would be inappropriate to admit that the poems were mine. Since their author could not profit from the fruits of their praise, all that was left to rejoice in were the fruits — or rather the disgrace — of sin.

{ Et tu nosti tamen, Domine, et ego confiteor, quia tunc temporis nec tuo timore, nec meo pudore, nec sacrae hujus visionis honore castigatiora peregerim: et nempe irreverentia , quia interius me habebam, et scriptorum nugantium nequaquam scurrilitatibus temperabam. Latenter quippe cum eadem carmina cuderem, et nemini aut vix omnino meis consimilibus illa prodere auderem, saepius tamen mentito auctore, ipsa quibus poteram recitabam, et laetabar ea a voti mei consortibus collaudari: quae mea fore rebar prorsus inconveniens profiteri, et quod ad fructum ullius auctori suo non proderat laudis, solo restabat fructu, immo turpitudine gaudere peccati. }

As a Christian man, Guibert should have understood that in God he lived, and moved, and had his being. He should have understood that he was a child of God. Guibert and all men, who are God’s creation, are very good.[6] God loves men. Men living under gynocentrism and internalizing misandry often don’t love men. The relatively hostile environment in which he strove to acquiring learning wasn’t the worst social injustice that Guibert experienced. Worst of all, Guibert was deprived of love for himself.[7]

While Guibert condemned himself merely for studying and writing secular love poetry, the eminent twelfth-century abbot Peter the Venerable didn’t condemn Heloise for having sex with Abelard before their marriage. Peter wrote to Heloise to console her after Abelard’s death:

Now, venerable and dearest sister in the Lord, this man to whom you were bound first first by the ties of the flesh and later by the stronger and better bond of divine love, with whom and under whom you have long served the Lord — this man, I say, in your place and as another you, the Lord cherishes in his own embrace. At the coming of the Lord, when He descends from heaven with the singing of archangels and the sound of the trumpet, the Lord, who holds him, will restore him to you by His grace.

{ Hunc ergo venerabilis et carissima in domino soror, cui post carnalem copulam tanto validiore, quanto meliore divinae caritatis vinculo adhesisti, cum quo et sub quo diu domino deservisti, hunc inquam loco tui, vel ut te alteram in gremio suo confovet, et in adventu domini, in voce archangeli, et in tuba dei descendentis de caelo, tibi per ipsius gratiam restituendum reservat. } [8]

A scholar perceptively noted:

The great abbot of Cluny {Peter the Venerable} does not shun a language rich in erotic connotations. At this solemn moment he uses sexual expressions consciously and daringly: in the compass of a single sentence, the words carnalis copula, vinculum, adherere, gremium, confovere all serve to establish a perspective which is both human and divine, and which brings with it profound optimism: the lovers Abelard and Heloise will be reunited in heaven as lovers. The heavenly bond of caritas is stronger and finer (validior, melior) than the physical bond (carnalis copula) — yet Peter feels no need to disparage that bond. Not a word about their being washed clean of the foulness of earthly lust [9]

Heloise didn’t even have to shed tears to have Peter the Venerable overlook her sexual sin. Disparagement of human sexuality throughout history has overwhelmingly been disparagement of men’s sexuality. Peter Abelard himself addressed such gender injustice in his Planctus Dine filie Iacob. Yet from Abelard’s time to our own time, persecution of men’s sexuality has expanded to an absurdly irrational extent.

Both women and men must address reasonably the reality of gynocentrism. An influential work on marriage in medieval France ended with these sentences:

We must not forget the women. Much has already been said about them. But how much do we really know? [10]

Women and men continually strive to uphold women’s interests. Lucretius long ago pointed out that many husbands don’t even know the truth about their own wives. That’s not from lack of attention to them. In contrast, despite the relatively prolific output of men writers throughout history, men’s writers are virtually unknown. The few that have arisen have been treated mainly with ignorant, hateful name-calling. We know less about men, as distinctively gendered persons, than we know about women. To build a more humane and gender-egalitarian future, students should study Guibert of Nogent’s memoirs and other vital works of medieval Latin literature.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Peter the Venerable, letter to Heloise of the Paraclete, Latin text from Constable (1967) 1.303-8, via Heloïsa und Abaelard; English trans. (adapted slightly) from McLaughlin & Wheeler (2009) pp. 293-8. Abelard died in 1142. Peter the Venerable probably wrote this letter in 1143. Id. p. 293.

Peter the Venerable served as abbot of the large, rich, and important Benedictine abbey at Cluny. The Cluny Abbey had a basilica larger than that in Rome and one of the largest libraries in Europe. Guibert became the abbot of a small, poor abbey at Nogent.

[2] Guibert of Nogent, Monodiae {Songs of Self} 2.16, Latin text from Bourgin (1907), English trans. from McAlhany & Rubenstein (2011) (adapted slightly). In subsequent quotes from the Monodiae, the Latin text is always from Bourgin (1907).

[3] Guibert, Monodiae 2.16, English trans. from Archambault (1986) (adapted slightly). Cf. Matthew 5:44, Luke 6:27-8. Guibert became a monk in the monastery at Saint-Germer de Fly. That monastery was a place “where a multitude of literary scholars flourished {ibi literatorum floreat multitudo}.” Monodiae 2.5.

Men are generally viewed less favorably than women. That effect extends to children. A recent econometric study found that in French middle schools, teachers grade girls higher than boys. Terrier (2016). Despite popular media myth-making, that finding is consistent with a variety of other empirical findings. The tremendous gender disparity among elementary school teachers attracts shamefully little concern among those purporting to be concerned about gender equality.

When Guibert entered the monastery at Saint-Germer, he eagerly sought learning:

Henceforth a strong desire for learning filled my spirit, and only this matter alone I sought to inhale, and I considered a day wasted if I did not accomplish any learning. O how often I was thought to be asleep, keeping my fragile body warm under its sheet, when really my spirit was concentrating on reciting texts or else, fearing the complaints of others, I was reading under my blanket. And you, dear Jesus, knew my intention as I did these things. I sought to garner as much praise as possible and to acquire the greatest possible honor in this world.

{ Praeterea tanto discendi affectu repente sum animatus, ut huic soli rei unice inhiarem, et incassum me vivere aestimarem, si diem sine tali quolibet actu transigerem. O quotiens dormire putabar, et corpus sub pannulo fovere tenellulum, et spiritus meus aut dictaturiens arctabatur, aut quippiam objecta lodice, dum judicia vereor aliena, legebam. Et tu, Jesu pie, non nesciebas qua intentione id facerem, conquirendae utique gratia laudis, et ut praesentis saeculi honorificentia major occurreret. }

Monodiae 2.15, English trans. from Archambault (1986) (adapted). Guibert deeply regretted having those worldly motivations.

[4] Guibert, Monodiae 2.17, English trans. from Archambault (1986) (adapted slightly). The pastoral poets surely would have included Virgil’s Eclogues. The well-crafted epistles were probably imitations of Ovid’s Heroides. The arranging of images may have been composing a descriptio puellae {description of a young woman}.

Guibert wrote his Monodiae about 1115. The men-abasing ideology of courtly love was then gaining force. Courtly love was exemplified later in the twelfth century in Chrétien de Troyes’s manlet Lancelot. Boncompagno da Signa’s early-thirtheenth-century debunking of courtly love has had regrettably little influence.

[5] Guibert, Monodiae 2.17, English trans. from McAlhany & Rubenstein (2011) (adapted slightly). The subsequent quote above has the same source.

[6] Acts 17:28, Genesis 1:26-31.

[7] Archambault stated:

Even in an age when it was common to present a dramatically heightened picture of one’s sinfulness, Guibert seems harsh on himself compared to famous contemporaries like Bernard of Clairvaux, Abbot Sugar, Anselm of Canterbury, or Abelard. These religious personalities might have discerned in his hyperbolic professions of abjectness a subtle, familiar form of monastic hubris. What is unmistakeable about Guibert’s confession is that, whatever else his early life might have taught him, it never taught him to love himself.

Archambault (1986) p. xxiv. Guibert didn’t achieve the fame of those famous men contemporaries, or the fame of his famous woman contemporary Heloise. Men raised under gynocentrism have long been taught that achievement is central to their worth as men — their virtue. Guibert suffered from gynocentric society refusing to recognize that men have intrinsic virture. Men are intrinsically good and worthy of love.

[8] Peter the Venerable, letter to Heloise of the Paraclete, Latin text from Constable (1967) 1.303-8, via Heloïsa und Abaelard; English trans. (adapted slightly) from McLaughlin & Wheeler (2009) pp. 293-8.

Heloise herself showed considerable concern about sin and sexual sin in the forty-two exegetical questions she posed for Abelard in a work known as Heloise’s Questions {Problemata Heloissae}. See, e.g. question 8, concerning the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11); question 11, concerning the extent of the Lord’s joy over a sinner repenting (Luke 15:7); question 16, concerning how love is the fulfillment of God’s law (Romans 13:9); question 19, concerning judging others (Matthew 7:1-2); question 42, “whether anyone can sin in doing what the Lord has permitted or even commanded.” Cf. Genesis 1:28. For an English translation of Problemata Heloissae, McLaughlin & Wheeler (2009) 213-67.

[9] Dronke (1992) p. 267. Epitaphs apparently written in the twelfth century celebrated Heloise and Abelard’s sexual unity of persons:

This is sufficient as an epitaph: here lies Peter Abelard,
his beloved Heloise held at his side.

One now in the tomb, as before one in the marriage bed,
one in declaring professions of monastic life.
One is their eternal life at home in the stars above. Amen.

{ Est satis in titulo: petrus his iacet Habaelardus,
Dilectumque tenens huic Heloisa latus.

Unus nunc tumulus, sicut et ante thorus,
Unum propositum viteque professio sacre,
Una perennis eis sit super astra domus. Amen. }

Est satis in titulo: petrus his iacet Habaelardus, Latin text from Dronke (1992) p. 285, my English translation. The epitaph survives in whole only in MS Zürich, Zentralbibliothek C 58/275, s. XII, f. 5va. Another epitaph similarly celebrates Heloise and Abelard’s sexual unity of persons:

One was their flesh, one is the tomb that contains them,
the spirits of both were no less the spirit of one.
Now together they are given a common marital bed of good earth.
Here is Abelard; here also Heloise is there:
in the depths both to be known by your Christ. Amen.

{ Una fuere caro, tumulus quos continet unus,
Nec minus amborum spiritus unus erat.
Nunc quoque communem dat bene terra thorum.
Habelardus his est; hec illius est Heloysa:
Imo utrosque tuos, Christe, fuisse scias. Amen. }

Epitaph of Peter Abelard that he himself composed {Epitaphium Petri Baiolardi a semet conpositum}, incipit Servi animam servans, ancillis redde cadaver, Latin text from Dronke (1992) p. 285, my English translation.

Some epitaphs of Heloise and Abelard concern them only as individuals. One is a couplet which, compared to the first epitaph above, differs only in its second verse:

This is sufficient as an epitaph: here lies Peter Abelard,
to whom alone was evident whatever was knowable.

{ Est satis in titulo, Petrus hic jacet Abaelardus,
Cui soli patuit scibile quidquid erat. }

Latin text from the epitaph page of Heloïsa und Abaelard, my English translation. For additional individualistic medieval epitaphs of Abelard and Heloise in English translation, McLaughlin & Wheeler (2009) pp. 305-7.

[10] Duby (1983) p. 284. This claim evidently was so attractive that it was included in the marketing blurb for the book and on the back cover of the book in a laudatory quote from Ken Turan of the popular magazine Time.

Not surprisingly, Duby interpreted “the rules of courtly love” as being usefully “designed to impose a degree of discipline” on unruly young men. Id. That sexist view is associated with the idea that women are necessary to “civilize” men and that men servilely abasing themselves to women “ennobles” men.

[image] Christ receiving from Guibert his commentary on Hosea, Amos, and Lamentations of Hebrew scripture. The figure labeled Abbot Guibert (lower left) in a black monk’s robe raises his book to the central figure of Christ. On the lower right the prophet Hosea holds a scroll. St. Jerome, the figure on the upper left, may be figuratively feeding the Holy Spirit with scripture. Illumination from folio 1, MS Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, lat. 2502. This manuscript, which comes from Guibert’s abbey at Nogent, is a unicum for Gilbert’s commentary. Guibert’s Monodiae has survived in full in only a seventeenth-century transcription, MS Paris Bibliothèque Nationale, Baluze 42.


Archambault, Paul J., trans. 1996. A Monk’s Confession: the memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Bourgin, George, ed. 1907. Guibert of Nogent. Histoire de sa vie: 1053-1124. Paris: Picard.

Constable, Giles, ed. 1967. The Letters of Peter the Venerable. Harvard Historical Studies, v. 78. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Dronke, Peter. 1992. Intellectuals and poets in Medieval Europe. Roma: Edizioni di storia e letteratura. Ch. 9 (pp. 247-294) reprints Dronke, Peter. 1976. Abelard and Heloise in Medieval testimonies: the twenty-six W.P. Ker Memorial Lecture delivered in the University of Glasgow 29th October, 1976. Glasgow: University of Glasgow Press.

Duby, Georges. 1983. The Knight, the Lady, and the Priest: the making of modern marriage in medieval France. New York: Pantheon Books.

McAlhany, Joseph, and Jay Rubenstein, trans. 2011. Guibert of Nogent. Monodies and the Relics of Saints: the autobiography and a manifesto of a French monk from the time of the crusades. New York, NY: Penguin Books. (review by Scott G. Bruce, review by Bruce L. Venarde)

McLaughlin, Mary Martin, and Bonnie Wheeler, trans. 2009. The Letters of Heloise and Abelard. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Terrier, Camille. 2016. “Boys Lag Behind: How Teachers’ Gender Biases Affect Student Achievement.” MIT Department of Economics, School Effectiveness & Inequality Initiative (SEII) Discussion Paper #2016.07. (related studies)

torturing the penis: enlightened philology’s failure to represent

Amid horrific violence against men throughout history, if justice cannot be achieved, one might at least aspire to understanding accurately the meaning of words. Guibert of Nogent was a learned monk in northern France early in the twelfth century. In his memoirs Monodiae {Songs of Self}, Guibert described vicious violence against men by Thomas de Marle, Lord of Coucy:

When he held any captives for ransom, he would hang them, sometimes with his own hand, by their testicles, and when these were torn away from their bodies, as happened frequently, their vital organs would burst out at almost the same time. Others he would hang by the thumbs or by the penis itself, then place a stone over their shoulders to weigh them down

{ Cum enim captos ad redemptionem quoslibiet cogeret, hos testiculis appendebat propria aliquotiens manu, quibus saepe corporea mole abruptis, eruptio pariter vitalium non tardabat; alteri suspenso per pollices aut per ipsa pudenda, saxo etiam superposito humeros comprimebat } [1]

Guibert wrote the medieval Latin text provided in braces above. The Latin word he used for testicles — testiculis, the dative plural for testiculus — makes clear that men were being brutally hung by their testicles. The Latin word translated as penis is pudenda, the ablative singular for pudendus. Pudendus is literally a circumlocution. It means “that of which one is to be ashamed.” Relatively to women’s vaginas, men’s penis have been much more disparagingly represented in literature. Yet that gender bias isn’t sufficient to narrow the meaning of pudendus above.

Careful analysis of Guibert’s description of torture indicates that he used pundendus to mean penis. Brutal violence is highly disproportionately directed against men. The description of hanging captives by their testicles makes clear that the violence is being directed at men. It also provides a context of sexual violence. The alternate form of hanging puts in parallel thumbs and the pudenda itself. The penis has a shape similar to a thumb. It thus forms a sensible parallel to thumb, as underscored by the term “itself {ipse}” that characterizes pudenda. Hence I judge “penis” to be the best translation of pudenda in Guibert’s description of torturing men. Multiple men were probably hung by each one’s (singular) penis and each one’s one or two thumbs.[2]

McAlhany and Rubenstein’s translation of Guibert’s Monodiae obscures the torturing of the penis. That translation, McAlhany & Rubeinstein (2011), was printed under the popular Penguin imprint. For “per pollices aut per ipsa pudenda,” it lamentably has “by the thumbs or genitals.” Genitals is a non-gendered term that can refer either to male or female genitalia. But women weren’t hung by their thumbs or their vaginas. Men were hung by their testicles, their thumbs, or their very penises. Genitals is a poor translation for the penis itself.

Archambault’s earlier translation is little better for the passage of concern. That translation, Archambault (1996), was published by a university press. It has a popular orientation, yet more detailed footnotes than McAlhany & Rubeinstein (2011). For “per pollices aut per ipsa pudenda,” Archambault (1996) regrettably has “by the organ itself or by the thumbs.” That translation conveys the emphasis of ipse directly and by putting its containing phrase first. Yet “organ” is far too broad of a translation of pudenda here. An organ isn’t necessarily sexual, and an organ isn’t a distinctive part of males. The “organ itself” is stilted language. It’s a poor translation for the penis itself.

Moving backward in time, Benton’s translation for the passage of concern is only slightly better than Archambault’s. Benton (1970) was published in the Harper Torchbooks imprint of Harper & Row. It has an introduction that hazards a distinctive scholarly interpretation of Guibert’s Monodiae and has even more extensive footnotes than Archambault (1996). For “per pollices aut per ipsa pudenda,” Benton (1970) unacceptably has “by their thumbs or by the male organ itself.” Males have a variety of organs, includes more than one that are distinctive to males. The phrase “the male organ itself” characterizes masculine being far too narrowly. Moreover, it doesn’t specifically refer to the penis, a wonderful male organ. The “male organ itself” is a poor translation for the penis itself.

Swinton Bland’s earlier translation is worse in all respects. Swinton Bland (1925) was published in London and in New York in the “Broadway Translations” series. The elite moralist-medievalist George G. Coulton provided an introduction to this most unscholarly translation.[3] For “per pollices aut per ipsa pudenda,” Swinton Bland (1925) misleadingly has “by their thumbs or even their private parts.” Guibert didn’t merely indicate the extent of brutally in torturing men. He emphatically specified the extent itself. The phrase “private parts” is an archaic term for organs that can unite men and women to generate new human being. From a social and evolutionary perspective, nothing is more publicly important than sex. The phrase “even their private parts” is a poor translation for the penis itself.

Guizot’s early-nineteenth-century French translation uses a circumlocution similar to that of the medieval Latin text. Guizot (1825) is scholarly work supporting a larger project of documenting French history. For “per pollices aut per ipsa pudenda,” Guizot (1825) uses “par les pouces ou même par les parties que la pudeur défend de nommer {by the thumbs or even by the parts that propriety forbids naming}.” The shift in the concept for circumlocution from shameful {pudenda} to propriety reflects the Enlightenment’s style of moralizing. The substantive issue remains. Men have played an important role in French history. The penis is a central, vitally important part of a man’s body. Not specifying the penis is a historical injustice.

Scholars should accurately and fully acknowledge the scholarly gender trouble and the torturing of the penis. Winthrop Wetherbee is an eminent scholar and translator of medieval Latin literature. The Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library is the most important series of medieval works being published today. Yet the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library’s edition of Bernardus Silvestris’s twelfth-century masterpiece Cosmographia, with English translation by Winthrop Wetherbee, has mentula translated as “phallus” in a literary context referring to the specific, physical terms blood, brain, loins, and sperm. In that context, mentula should be translated as penis.[4]

This phallus mistake at the pinnacle of modern medieval scholarship isn’t an isolated failing. Wetherbee’s English translation of the Johannes de Hauvilla’s twelfth-century masterpiece Architrenius failed to specify castration in translating vidui castracio lecti.[5] The currently leading Latin text of Nigellus Wireker’s profoundly important twelfth-century Speculum stultorum omits a couplet, present in at least two manuscripts, that brilliantly associates an abbot’s infula with a mule’s testicles.[6] After Chaucer, Chrétien de Troyes is probably the most widely studied medieval author for undergraduates in English-speaking educational institutions. Yet leading English translations of Cligès misrepresent a critically important gender reversal.[7] Medieval studies must become more welcoming and inclusive of men in their full bodily reality.

Like punctuation, philology matters. Bad philology has cast on long shadow on vital ancient and medieval literature. Philology that refuses to represent openly torturing the penis cannot be relevant to today’s major concerns of social justice.

man castrated and disemboweled

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Guibert of Nogent, Monodiae {Songs of Self} 3.11, Latin text from Bourgin (1907), English trans. from McAlhany & Rubenstein (2011) (adapted slightly as described subsequently above). In Guizot (1825), this text is in 3.12.

[2] A man’s penis alone probably could not support the weight of his body for any time. Guibert’s subsequent text indicates that the men would remain hanging for some time as Thomas walked around them and beat them with sticks. The men who were hung by their testicles probably were tortured with hooks that went through their testicles and well into their groins.

[3] Swinton Bland (1925) is “both inaccurate and stylistically awkward, to the point of impenetrability.” McAlhany & Rubeinstein (2011), p. 11. Pantin declared:

To put a translation like this into the hands of people who, presumably not having access to the original, are at the mercy of the translator and editor, is not merely useless but dangerous: the reader will be tempted to think that he has here an inexhaustible mine of generalisations about the psychology, morality, etc., of Guibert’s time. But there is no such royal road to a knowledge of medieval history.

Pantin (1927) p. 346.

On George G. Coulton’s elite moralizing, see notes [4] and [5] in my post on si non caste, tamen caute. Coulton apparently was a scholar in the moral tradition of William W. Sanger, a late-nineteenth-century civic leader and pioneering social scientist.

[4] For the relevant medieval Latin text, Wetherbee’s translation, and critical analysis, see note [3] and associated text in my post on the Cosmographia.

[5] For the relevant medieval Latin text, Wetherbee’s translation, and critical analysis, see note [11] and associated text in my post on the Architrenius.

[6] For the missing medieval Latin couplet, with English translation and analysis, see note [4] in my post on horse vs. mule in the Speculum stultorum.

[7] For the relevant Old French text and a review of published English translations, see note [4] in my post on gender justice in Cligès.

[images] (1) A man (the traitor Ganelon) being drawn and quartered; depicted dorsally. Illumination from folio 216r of an instance of Jacob van Maerlant’s Spieghel Historiael. Made in West Flanders, c. 1325-1335. Preserved as The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek {National Library of the Netherlands}, MS KA 20. (2) Hugh the Younger Despenser castrated and disemboweled in the course of his execution. Illumination made by Loyset Liédet in the 1470s. On folio 11r of the Froissart Manuscript, Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale MS Fr. 2643, via Wikimedia Commons. On Hugh’s remains, Lewis (2008).


Archambault, Paul J., trans. 1996. A Monk’s Confession: the memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Benton, John F., trans. 1970. Self and society in Medieval France: the memoirs of Abbot Guibert of Nogent. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Bourgin, George, ed. 1907. Guibert of Nogent. Histoire de sa vie: 1053-1124. Paris: Picard.

Guizot, François, trans. 1825. Suite de la Vie de Guibert de Nogent, par lui-même. Collection des mémoires relatifs à l’histoire de France, 10. Paris: Brière.

Lewis, Mary E. 2008. “A traitor’s death? The identity of a drawn, hanged and quartered man from Hulton Abbey, Staffordshire.” Antiquity. 82 (315): 113.

McAlhany, Joseph, and Jay Rubenstein, trans. 2011. Guibert of Nogent. Monodies and the Relics of Saints: the autobiography and a manifesto of a French monk from the time of the crusades. New York, NY: Penguin Books. (review by Scott G. Bruce, review by Bruce L. Venarde)

Pantin, W. A. 1927. “Book Review: The Autobiography of Guibert, abbot of Nogent-sous-Coucy.” History. 11 (44): 344-346.

Swinton Bland, C. C., trans. 1925. The Autobiography of Guibert, Abbot of Nogent-sous-Coucy; with an introduction by G.G. Coulton. London: G. Routledge & Sons; New York: E.P. Dutton & Co.

understanding violence against men: testicles & penis often targeted

man being decapitated

Around the world and throughout history, violence has been predominately violence against men. Communally organized war has long been structured as men killing other men. In the U.S. today, about four times more men than women suffer death from violence. That’s not simply because gynocentric society teaches that women’s safety is more important than men’s safety. Violence against men often specifically targets men’s sexuality.

Consider a fifteenth-century French farce. A married man joyfully, but discretely, sings of his consensual sexual affair with a young woman. His wife jealously suspects her husband’s infidelity. With her neighbor Colette, a sexually promiscuous mother of a daughter, she arranges to trick her husband into confessing his sexual affair. Colette disguises herself as a priest. The wife coerces her husband into going to confession with the “priest” Colette. He eventually confesses to the priest that he is having sex with the daughter of his neighbor. That neighbor is Colette. She, outraged, runs to tell the wife.

Colette and the wife plan to beat the husband sexually and violently. Colette declares that, acting as the priest, she will command the husband to submit to the following penance:

That all naked,
down on his hands and knees,
he’ll beg you for mercy and then we
two will each have in our hands
a big stick or at least
a branch with very good prickers.
Then from his head to the soles
of his feet we’ll beat him up very well.

{ Que tout nu
A jointes mains et à genoux
Te crira mercy et puis nous
Deux aurons chacun en noz mains
Ung bon baston ou au moins
Unes verges tres bien poignantes.
Depuis la teste jusques aux plantes
Des piedz sera tresbien gallé. } [1]

That violent attack surely didn’t spare his genitals. After they had beaten him in this way, the husband cried out, “I’m broken everywhere {Je suis tout cassé}.” Colette responded:

You’ve chased very well
my daughter high and low, all in all,
and have made your dick very fat
with her; here’s a flailing to your health!

{ Vous y avez très bien chassé,
En tout, ma fille hault et bas,
Et avez fait voz choux bien gras
Avecques elle, en malle santé.  }

Colette implicitly figures the husband as growing healthy (engorged / fat) with his vigorous thrusting (flailing) against her daughter. She in response satirically gives him a flailing that greatly harms his health. The wife picks up on the sexual innuendo and approvingly declares:

That wasn’t done for nothing.
At least he was rubbed up
and his back was well scratched.

{ Il n’y a pas pour neant esté,
Au moins il a esté froté
Et son dos est bien gallez. } [2]

Women usually commit violence against men, including violence to control men sexually, through having men act as women’s agents of violence. The play of the farce gives the wife and Colette the liberty to enact personally their violence against the husband.

Sexual violence against men doesn’t occur only in imaginative plays. A chronicler described horrific violence against men in thirteenth-century Italy:

Some men had cords tied around their heads and pulled so tightly that their eyes pushed out from the sockets and fell down on their cheeks. Other men were tied up solely by the thumb of the right hand to the left and their bodies thus totally suspended above the ground. And others were tied up and suspended by their testicles.

{ Aliquibus vero ligaverunt capita cum strictorio fortiter perstringendo, quousque egressi sunt oculi de sedibus suis et morabantur in genis; aliquos vero ligabant solummodo per pollicem manus dextre sive sinistre et totaliter totum corpus hominis suspendebant a terra. Et aliquos etiam ligando testiculos suspendebant. } [3]

Similar sexual violence against men occurred in northern France early in the twelfth century:

When he held any captives for ransom, he would hang them, sometimes with his own hand, by their testicles, and when these were torn away from their bodies, as happened frequently, their vital organs would burst out at almost the same time. Others he would hang by the thumbs or by the penis itself, then place a stone over their shoulders to weigh them down

{ Cum enim captos ad redemptionem quoslibiet cogeret, hos testiculis appendebat propria aliquotiens manu, quibus saepe corporea mole abruptis, eruptio pariter vitalium non tardabat; alteri suspenso per pollices aut per ipsa pudenda, saxo etiam superposito humeros comprimebat } [4]

Violence applied directly to men’s testicles and penises emphasizes the gender of the victims. Historians and literary scholars have tended to treat violence against men as normal — merely “violence.” That’s ideological blindness. Violence is applied and reported with acute sex discrimination among persons.

The fourth-century hermit Ammonas of Tunah understood social persecution of men for their sexuality. The sayings of the Christian desert fathers record a heart-warming story about Ammonas:

Once Abba Ammonas went somewhere to eat. A monk there had a bad reputation. A woman happened to come. She went into the cell of the brother who had the bad reputation. Those who were living in that place were troubled when they learned of it. They got together to drive him out of his cell. Knowing that Bishop Ammonas was at that place, they went and asked him to go along with them. When the brother became aware of this, he took the woman and concealed her in a large barrel. When the crowd arrived, Abba Ammonas realized what had happened. He covered up the matter for the love of God. In particular, he came in, sat down on the barrel and ordered the cell to be searched. When they had searched diligently and not found the woman, Abba Ammonas said to them: “What is this? God will forgive you,” and offering a prayer, he obliged them all to withdraw. Then, taking the brother’s hand, he said to him, “Pay attention to yourself,” and so saying, he went away. [5]

Ammonas surely didn’t approve of the monk having sex with a woman. Yet Ammonas, with keen understanding of gynocentrically distorted justice, refused to participate in mob action against the monk for sexual sin. Crude vigilante justice and mob persecution of men for sexual sins is a terrible problem. A chronicler writing in the thirteenth century reported that Ammonas took decisive action to protect himself:

this holy man did as does a beaver or similar animal, who knows that hunters seek to kill him for his testicles. He saves himself by sacrificing part. He castrates himself with his teeth and gives up his testicles and thus they allow him to escape.

{ iste sanctus homo fecit sicut facit fibus sive castor, qui cognoscens, quod venatores persecuntur eum propter testiculos eius habendos, redimit se a parte. Dentibus enim evellit sibi testiculos et dimittit eis, et sic permittunt eum evadere. } [6]

Mob action against men for their sexuality is far worse today than it was in the time of Ammonas the hermit. Many men today effectively castrate themselves to escape mobs that attack and persecute men with testicles. Such self-castration is horrible, but reasonable under the circumstances.

An enlightened commitment to truth and good reason offers the best hope for lessening violence against men. Given the actual facts about violence, ensuring men’s safety and combating persecuting of men’s sexuality should be preeminent social concerns. Even those who don’t regard men as fully human beings should understand that promoting men’s safety helps to advance women’s safety. We must make the world safe for men.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Farce de celuy qui se confesse à sa voisine ll. 505-13, French text from Cohen (1949) pp. 9-20, my English translation. Enders (2013) Ch. 3 provides a much looser English translation. Enders suggests that such treatment of the husband wasn’t unusual:

the physical violence of a folk vengeance that appears to have struck as odd no one at all. The Husband’s “penance” is to stand there and take it as his Wife and Colette beat the crap out of him.

Id. pp. 108-9.

Farce de celuy qui se confesse à sa voisine is a fifteenth-century play consisting of 616 lines, most of which are octosyllabic verse. According to Enders:

The linguistic highpoint of this play is its unabashed, macaronic, grammatically incorrect, and some might say sacrilegious and even blasphemous borrowing of the Latin language of the confessional.

Enders (2013) p. 110. Medieval Christian doctrine declared that marriage is a conjugal partnership established by the free consent of both parties. Medieval Latin literature of men’s sexed protest provided a critical perspective on medieval gynocentrism. Medieval vernacular literature tended to be more gynocentric than medieval Latin literature. These historical realities give piquancy to the farce.

The subsequent three quotes from Farce de celuy qui se confesse à sa voisine are (cited by line in Cohen’s edition): 577 (Je suis tout cassé), 578-81 (Vous y avez très bien chassé…), 582-4 (Il n’y a pas pour neant esté…).

[2] Enders describes the husband as having “deflowered” Colette’s daughter. Enders (2013) pp. 108, 136. The term “deflower” is associated with the brutalization of men’s sexuality.

[3] Salimbene de Adam, Cronica {Chronicle}, Latin text from Holder-Egger (1905) p. 645, my English translation, benefiting from that of Baird, Baglivi & Kane (1986) p. 651. These were acts of freebooters from Liguria, living in Gesso in north-western Italy.

[4] Guibert of Nogent, Monodiae {Songs of Self} 3.11, Latin text from Bourgin (1907), English trans. from McAlhany & Rubenstein (2011) (adapted slightly). The person administering the vicious violence against men was Thomas de Marle, Lord of Coucy. He was thought to be the son of Enguerrand of Coucy.

Violence against men’s genitals exists in some of the earliest literature. Hesiod’s Theogony attests to castration culture. In Hebrew Scripture, the massacre of men at Schechem involved prior wounding of the men’s genitals (Genesis 34), and the killing of Abner came about through a wound to Abner’s abdomen (2 Samuel 3:27).

[5] Apophthegmata patrum, collection alphabetica, Ammonas 10, from Greek trans. Wortley (2014) p. 63 (with my insubstantial adaptations for readability). The main underlying Greek source is Patrilogia Graeca (PG) 65: 71-440. Ammonas’s only words to the monk, “Pay attention to yourself,” are a variant of the Socratic saying “know yourself.” They poignantly call the monk back to his Christian vocation. For an alternate English translation made from a French translation of the ancient Greek, Ward (1984) p. 28, specific text available here.

[6] Salimbene de Adam, Cronica, Latin text from Holder-Egger (1905) p. 142, my English translation, benefiting from that of Baird, Baglivi & Kane (1986) p. 129. The underlying claim that a male beaver chews off its testicles is from Isidore of Seville’s early-seventh-century Etymologiae 12.2.31.

[image] Man being decapitated. Image (colors digitally enhanced) from manuscript of the Shāhnāmah of Firdawsi. Manuscript made in 1618. Image 34 from digital reproduction of book preserved in the Library of Congress (Washington, DC) at call number PK6455.A2


Baird, Joseph L., Giuseppe Baglivi, and John Robert Kane. 1986. The Chronicle of Salimbene de Adam. Binghamton, N.Y.: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies.

Bourgin, George, ed. 1907. Guibert of Nogent. Histoire de sa vie: 1053-1124. Paris: Picard.

Cohen, Gustave, ed. 1949. Recueil de farces francaises inedites du XVe siecle. Cambridge, MA: Mediaeval Academy of America.

Enders, Jody. 2013. “The Farce of the Fart” and Other Ribaldries: twelve medieval French plays in modern English. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Holder-Egger, Oswald. 1905-1913. Cronica Fratris Salimbene de Adam. Monumenta Germaniae Historica 32. Hannoverae et Lipsiae: Impr. bibliopolii Hahniani.

McAlhany, Joseph, and Jay Rubenstein, trans. 2011. Guibert of Nogent. Monodies and the Relics of Saints: the autobiography and a manifesto of a French monk from the time of the crusades. New York, NY: Penguin Books. (review by Scott G. Bruce, review by Bruce L. Venarde)

Ward, Benedicta. 1984. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: the alphabetical collection. Rev. ed. Kalamazoo, Mich: Cistercian Publications.

Wortley, John, trans. 2014. Give Me a Word: the alphabetical sayings of the fathers. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press Popular Patristics Series, no. 52. Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.