limit to gender justice: lessons of ancient & medieval sumptuary laws

Venetian woman wearing fancy dress

Men historically have carried a highly disparate gender burden of working to provide money for women. Women seeking from men expensive goods (dinners at fine restaurants, diamond rings, fancy dresses, etc.) contributes to this structural gender oppression of men. One distraught man recently described gender-typical difficulties in his relationship with his wife:

She came from a family where she got everything she wanted. I’ve been working for years trying to give her the same kinds of things but I just cannot do it, I lost one of my two jobs and have had to give a lot up. … I see husbands buying their wives Lexus and Mercedes cars and I can’t even dream of doing that.

More than 2200 years ago, the Roman Republic passed Lex Oppia to limit women’s acquisition of gold and women’s display of privilege of riding in carriages pulled by multiple horses. Lex Oppia thus constrained men’s gift-giving to women. Medieval Italian cities similarly passed sumptuary laws on women that limited material demands on men. While reflecting relatively sophisticated understanding of gender relations, such laws typically had little enduring effects. The fourteenth-century Florentine merchant, public official, and literary writer Franco Sacchetti in his Trecentonovelle brilliantly narrated how sumptuary laws on women cannot get beyond a prevalent limit to gender justice.

Many blue-collar men labor at their jobs with little awareness of structural gender oppression. So it was in medieval Italy. Yet Greek and Roman classics were more widely read in medieval Italy than even among all university professors today. To those who encountered their eternal truths, the classics were alive in medieval Italy to an extant scarcely conceivable today. Sacchetti in his Trecentonovelle presented the classical insight of the fourteenth-century Florentine Coppo di Borghese:

There was once a citizen of Florence, wise and very well-to-do, whose name was Coppo di Borghese. He lived across from where the Leoni are now, and he was having his house worked on. Reading one Saturday afternoon in Livy, he came upon a story of how the Roman women, because a law had been made recently against their fancy dress, had run to the Capitol, asking and pleading that the law be lifted. Coppo, although wise, was also haughty and a little weird. He began to fly into a rage, as if the events were happening in front of him. He banged the book and his hand on the table, and sometimes stuck the book with his hand, saying: “Alas, Romans, you will suffer this, you who have suffered that no king or emperor be greater than you?”

{ Fu un cittadino già in Firenze, e savio, e in istato assai il cui nome fu Coppo di Borghese, e stava dirimpetto dove stanno al presente i Leoni, il quale faceva murare nelle sue case; e leggendo un sabato dopo nona nel Titolivio, si venne abbattuto a una storia; come le donne romane, essendo stata fatta contra loro ornamenti legge di poco tempo, erano corse al Campidoglio, volendo e addomandando che quella legge si dirogasse. Coppo, come che savio fosse, essendo sdegnoso, e in parte bizzarro, cominciò in sé medesimo muoversi ad ira, come il caso in quella dinanzi a lui intervenisse; e percuote e ’l libro e le mani in su la tavola, e talora percuote l’una con l’altra mano, dicendo: “Oimè, Romani, sofferrete voi questo, che non avete sofferto che re o imperadore sia maggior di voi?” } [1]

Coppo had good reason to be distraught. Like the Romans, the Florentines were struggling to constrain women acquiring and displaying luxury goods.[2] The masons working on Coppo’s house entered and found him enraged. These men hadn’t been taught about structural gender oppression. They didn’t understand Coppo’s concern for social justice. They simply wanted to be paid for their hard, dirty brick-work.

Coppo’s mind was on matters far bigger than these men’s hard, dirty brick-work. Coppo told them that he didn’t care if his whole house collapsed. He scornfully ignored their request for fair payment for their work:

Eh, go with God today in the name of the devil. I gladly would have never been born in this world, having to think that those brazen ones, those whores, those weeping women, have so much daring that they ran to the Capitol to get back their fancy dress. What will the Romans do with this? For Coppo, who is here, cannot make peace. If I could, I would burn them all, so that whoever remained would always remember. Go away, and leave me alone.

{ Deh, andatevi con Dio oggi al nome del diavolo, ch’io vorrei volentieri non esser mai stato al mondo, pensando che quelle sfacciate, quelle puttane, quelle dolorose, abbiano aúto tanto ardire ch’elle sieno corse al Campidoglio per rivolere gli ornamenti. Che faranno li Romani di questo? ché Coppo, che è qui, non se ne puote dar pace: e se io potessi, tutte le farei ardere, acciò che sempre chi rimanesse se ne ricordasse: andatevene, e lasciatemi stare. }

The working men had no understanding of what had enraged Coppo. One thought that with the word “Romans” Coppo was referring to a stadera, a kind of scale, or perhaps a stadium, a measure of length. Another figured that Coppo’s wife had cuckolded him. A third understood Coppo’s word for “Capitol {Campidoglio}” to mean “I complain of my headache {de capo mi doglio}.” Another thought that the house owner had spilled “a cup of oil {un coppo d’oglio}.”[3] Men’s concerns for gender justice have long been badly understood.

Florence established an Official of Women {Ufficiale delle donne} in the 1330s. Offices for women now exist within most local, state, and national governments. But in medieval Florence, the officials for women didn’t merely seek to promote women’s interests. The medieval Florentine officials for women were concerned for gender equality. They sought to advance gender equality by limiting women’s competition to obtain and display fancy clothes.[4]

The Florentine Ufficiale delle donne was scarcely able to constrain Florentine women. In 1384, Messer Amerigo degli Amerighi of Pesaro was appointed Ufficiale delle donne. Messer Amerigo brought with him a notary and six assistants to staff his office. These sub-officials were all highly competent professionals. Moreover, since they were from a different city, they had some protection against Florentine women’s personal and political power. Nonetheless, the Ufficiale delle donne Messer Amerigo soon declared to the Florentine city leaders:

My lords, I have studied all my life to learn law. Now, when I thought that I knew something, I find that I know nothing. Obeying the orders that you gave me, I went out to seek the forbidden fancy dress of your women. They met me with arguments the like of which are not to be found in any law book. Some of these I will repeat to you. A woman comes with the peak of her hood fringed out and twisted around her head. My notary says, “Tell me your name, for you have a peak with fringes.” The good woman takes this peak, which is fastened round her head with a pin, and holding it in her hand, she declares that it is a wreath. Then going further, he finds one wearing many buttons in front of her dress. He says to her, “You are not allowed to wear those buttons.” But she answers, “Yes, Messer, but I may for these are not buttons but studs, and if you do not believe me, look, they have no loops, and moreover there are no buttonholes.” Then the notary goes to another who is wearing ermine and says, “Now what can she say to this?” And he prepares to write down her name. But the woman answers, “Do not write me down, for this is not ermine, it is the fur of lattizzo.” Says the notary, “What is this lattizzo?” and the woman replies, “It is an animal.” Thus my notary becomes speechless like an animal.

{ Signori miei, io ho tutto il tempo della vita mia studiato per apparar ragione, e ora, quando io credea sapere qualche cosa, io truovo che io so nulla, però che cercando degli ornamenti divietati alle vostre donne per gli ordini che m’avete dati, sí fatti argomenti non trovai mai in alcuna legge, come sono quelli ch’elle fanno; e fra gli altri ve ne voglio nominare alcuni. E’ si truova una donna col becchetto frastagliato avvolto sopra il cappuccio; il notaio mio dice: “Ditemi il nome vostro; però che avete il becchetto intagliato”; la buona donna piglia questo becchetto che è appiccato al cappuccio con uno spillo, e recaselo in mano, e dice ch’egli è una ghirlanda. Or va piú oltre, truova molti bottoni portare dinanzi; dicesi a quella che è trovata: “Questi bottoni voi non potete portare”; e quella risponde: “Messer sí, posso, ché questi non sono bottoni, ma sono coppelle, e se non mi credete, guardate, e’ non hanno picciuolo, e ancora non c’è niuno occhiello”. Va il notaio all’altra che porta gli ermellini, e dice: “Che potrà apporre costei?” “Voi portate gli ermellini”; e la vuole scrivere; la donna dice: “Non iscrivete, no, ché questi non sono ermellini, anzi sono lattizzi”; dice il notaio: “Che cosa è questo lattizzo?” e la donna risponde: “È una bestia”. E ’l notaio mio come bestia. } [5]

The Florentine city leaders understood Coppo di Borghese’s rage at the Roman leaders surrendering to women. Yet those city leaders also understood women’s power in gynocentric society. They told Messer Amerigo and his staff to do only what was feasible in seeking to constrain women according to city law. The men of the medieval Florentine Office of Women understood what that meant:

after this hardly any officer carried out his orders or gave himself any trouble, but allowed the peaks to pass for wreaths and meddled not with the false buttons and the lattizzo’s fur and the belts. And so goes a Friulan saying: “What woman wants, God wants, and what God wants, will be.”

{ E questo fu detto in tal ora, e in tal punto, che quasi d’allora in qua nessuno officiale quasi ha fatto officio, o datosene fatica; lasciando correre le ghirlande per becchetti, e le coppelle e i lattizzi, e’ cinciglioni. E però dice il Friolano: “Ciò che vuole dunna, vuol signò; e ciò che vuol signò, tirli in birli”. }

The Florentine Ufficiale delle donne effectively couldn’t do anything that women disliked. That office thus faced the limit on gender justice that most government bodies face today.

Men deserve equal blame with women for the failure of sumptuary laws on women’s dress. Writing about the year 1315, an authority in Venice observed:

Sometimes the man follows too much the will of the woman in buying her fancy dress, and this gives rise to much evil and excessive expenditure. The woman is more than ever filled with pride, and for vainglory desires still more to go out and show herself. … If the custom of the city in this respect is extravagant, it should be regulated by laws after the manner of the Romans.

{ El segondo si è ke alguna fiada l’ omo seve tropo la voluntade de la femna en comprarli ornamenti, ke de çò nasce multi mali, sopercle spensarie, e la femena d’ è plù soperba et ella per vanagloria vol plu andar e plu mostrarse. … E se la çitade de çò è tropo larga, sovra de çò se de’ far statuti, sì co fese li Romani } [6]

Men purchased luxury goods for women. Men helped women to evade the sumptuary laws. In addition, men were subject to and paid the fines for women violating sumptuary laws.[7] Some women were so willing to have their men incur fines that they regarded sumptuary laws as merely luxury taxes. The phrase “pay the luxury tax {pagar le pompe}” became a common expression for describing women’s behavioral response to sumptuary laws.[8]

Given the economic importance of restraining women’s demand for luxuries, cites made extraordinary efforts to make such laws effective.  Florentine city officials were ordered to read the sumptuary laws of 1322-5 publicly at least once a month. Moreover, priests were required to read those laws in their churches. Priests were also required to report any violations to city officials.[9] Just as universities now do in the U.S. for sexual offenses, cities in medieval Italy set up means for making secret denunciations of persons who allegedly violated sumptuary laws. Anonymous denunciation boxes, called tamburi, were common in Florence by the fifteenth century.[10]

Nonetheless, city officials’ frustration and despair over women’s power is readily apparent. Florentine city magistrates in 1433 elected new officials in charge of enforcing laws on women’s fancy dress. The magistrates commended the new officials’ character, but highlighted with extreme language the difficulty of their assignment:

in great measure these officials of women’s fancy dress have an honest desire to restrain the barbarous and irrepressible bestiality of women who, not mindful of the weakness of their nature, forgetting that they are subject to their husbands, and transforming their perverse sense into a reprobate and diabolical nature, force their husbands with their honeyed poison to submit to them.

{ maxime quare cupiditatem honestam magnum in modum habuerunt ad refrenandum barbaram et indomitam feminarum bestialitatem que, non memores sue nature fragilitatis et quod viris subdite sint eorum pravum mutantes sensum in reprobam et diabolicam naturam, ipsos viros cogunt, mellifluis venenis, ipsis subiecte } [11]

Throughout history, few men have been strong enough to stand up to women rather than submit to them. As the magistrates recognized, not constraining men’s weakness for giving women luxurious gifts prompts men to avoid marriage:

it is not in conformity with nature for women to dress themselves with such fancy dress when men, because of this, avoid the bond of matrimony because of the unbearable expense

{ non est nature conforme ut tantis sumptuosis ornamentis se hornent cum ipsi homines propter hoc desstant a matrimonii copula propter incomportabiles sumptus }

Florentine officials were concerned that if men avoid marriage, women are less likely to have children, and the city population would decline. City officials evidently weren’t willing to encourage immigration into the city. Today, men avoid marriage because police, without any due process of law, will throw men out of their homes on the adverse word of a cohabiting woman. Men also face huge anti-men sex discrimination in family courts. Yet women’s demands for luxury goods still remain a significant deterrent to marriage.

medieval women's dresses with long trains

Medieval officials incurred the wrath of women for prohibiting luxurious dresses. In 1279, Cardinal Latino Malabranca, the papal legate for Lombardy, Tuscany, and Romagna, attempted to constrain woman’s fancy dress:

he enraged all women with the law he made. It restrained women to wear shorter dress — long enough to touch the ground or longer only by the measure of one palm. Previously women had dragged on the ground behind them dress-trains of an arm-and-a-half’s length. Of which Patecchio said: “And dresses so long, they drag the dirt.” And he had this law preached in churches and imposed on women as a religous requirement: no priest could grant absolution to them until they complied. To the women, this law was all the more bitter than death. A certain woman friend told me that her dress train was dearer to her than the total of all the other clothes that she wore.

{ turbavit mulieres omnes cum quadam constituione, quam fecit; in qua continebatur, quod mulieres haberent vestimenta curta usque ad terram et tantum plus, quanta est unius palme mensura. Trahebant enim prius caudas vestimentorum per terram longas per brachium et dimidium. De quibus dicit Patecclus: “Et trappi longhi, ke la polver menna.” Et fecit hoc per ecclesias predicari et imposuit mulieribus sub precepto, et quod nullus sacerdos posset eas absolvere, nisi ita facerent; quod fuit mulieribus amarius omni morte. Nam quedam mulier familiariter dixit michi, quod plus erat ei kara illa cauda quam totum aliud vestimentum, quo induebatur. } [12]

Some women in the U.S. today wear short-shorts so short that their butt-cheeks show. Fashions change, but the way in which women are oppressed remains. Cardinal Latino even imposed additional hardships on women:

In the above law Cardinal Latinus also ruled that every woman — not just young women and young ladies, but even married women and widows and elderly women — must wear a veil on her head. To them, that was burdensome and horrible.

{ Insuper cardinalis Latinus precepit in illa constitutione, quod omnes mulieres, tam iuvencule sive domicelle quam maritate et vidue et matrone, in capitibus vela portarent. Quod grave horribiliter fuit eis. }

Women in Islamic cultures have commonly wore veils on their heads. Like women in Islamic cultures, women in medieval Italy turned veils to their advantage:

They soon came upon a remedy for this tribulation, although they could do very little about their dress trains. They began construct their veils of linen and silk, interwoven with gold. That made them appear ten times better and more greatly attracted lascivious, gazing eyes.

{ isti tribulationi remedium invenerunt, quod minime potuerunt caudis. Nam vela faciebant fieri de bisso et serico, auro intexta, cum quibus in decuplum melius apparebant et magis ad lasciviam videntium oculos attrahebant. }

Many men at this time were peasant laborers, barely earning food, clothing, and shelter by working hard, dirty jobs such as plowing, carting, and brick-laying. In addition, men had to endure these highly privileged women’s sexual harassment of them. As has been commonly the case, law did relatively little to help men.

The limit to gender justice in the ancient Roman Republic has changed little to our day. Men today can imagine a dinner party in which Fortunata, who had as husband Timalchio, entered to greet her friend Scintilla, who had as husband Habinnas. Fortunata sat with Scintilla, kissed her, and held her hand. Their encounter progressed to exchanging intimacies:

Fortunata tugged the bracelets off her extremely fat arms and displayed them to the admiring Scintilla. Finally she even removed her anklets and her golden hairnet, which she said was of pure gold. Trimalchio observed this encounter, and ordered that all the jewelry be brought to him. “You see,” he said, “these are women’s fetters. This is how we foolish milksops are robbed. She must have six and half pounds of them….” Scintilla was no better. From her neck she removed a little gold locket that she called her happy box. From it she produced twin earings and handed each in turn to Fortunata to examine, saying: “Thanks to my husband’s kindness, no one has a better pair.”

{ Fortunata armillas suas crassissimis detraheret lacertis Scintillaeque miranti ostenderet. Vltimo etiam periscelides resolvit et reticulum aureum, quem ex obrussa esse dicebat. Notavit haec Trimalchio iussitque afferri omnia et: “Videtis, inquit, mulieris compedes: sic nos barcalae despoliamur. Sex pondo et selibram debet habere. Et ipse nihilo minus habeo decem pondo armillam ex millesimis Mercurii factam.” Vltimo etiam, ne mentiri videretur, stateram iussit afferri et circulatum approbari pondus. Nec melior Scintilla, quae de cervice sua capsellam detraxit aureolam, quam Felicionem appellabat. Inde duo crotalia protulit et Fortunatae invicem consideranda dedit et: “Domini, inquit, mei beneficio nemo habet meliora.” } [13]

Scintilla’s husband Habinnas responded scornfully to his wife’s masculinity-demeaning compliment:

you really emptied me out, just so I could buy you a glass bead. I tell you straight, if I had a daughter, I’d cut her little ears off. If there were no women in the world, we could live dirt-cheap. But as things stand, what we drink down for our own basic needs is less than we piss away, burning in love.

{ excatarissasti me, ut tibi emerem fabam vitream. Plane si filiam haberem, auriculas illi praeciderem. Mulieres si non essent, omnia pro luto haberemus; nunc hoc est caldum meiere et frigidum potare. }

As husbands, men experience themselves being dessicated. As fathers, despite their great love for their daughters, men cannot protect their daughters from the pernicious gynocentric teachings that pour into their daughters’ ears.

The limit to gender justice is what women want. Sumptuary laws benefit women by constraining competition among women in dress. Sumptuary laws benefit men by limiting competition among men to provide women with the most expensive dress. But neither Lex Oppia in the Roman Republic 2200 years ago nor sumptuary laws in medieval Italian cities effectively endured. Such laws enraged women in their immediate, narrow interests. Those laws were thus either repealed or not effectively enforced. In today’s workplace, men are commonly prohibited from wearing shorts, but women are allowed to wear less-than-knee-length dresses. Read Livy and medieval history, and you will understand.

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Read more:


[1] Franco Sacchetti, Il Trecentenovelle 66, Italian text from Faccioli (1970), my English translation, benefiting from Cornish (2010) p. 16. The subsequent quote above is similarly from Il Trecentenovelle 66.

Coppo di Borghese Domenichi held important Florentine city offices between 1308 and the early 1340s. Boccoccio, among other prominent figures, held Coppo in high regard. See, e.g. Decameron 5.9.4. Here’s some analysis of Boccaccio’s story of the falcon.

Coppo was reading about the Roman women’s rebellion against Lex Oppia. That rebellion is described in Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Libri (History of Rome) 34.1-8, freely available online in the English translation of Roberts (1905). Livy’s account includes a still-relevant speech by Cato the Elder. Coppo apparently sponsored an Aeneid compendium in Italian that Andrea Lancia made from a Latin compendium about 1316. Cornish (2010) p. 18. Cornish astutely observed that it’s “highly unlikely” that Coppo was reading Livy in the original Latin. Id. p. 19.

Franco Sacchetti, who lived from about 1330 to 1400, was from an old Floretine family of the Guelf faction. In addition to being a merchant and public official, Sacchetti wrote poetry with themes of love, politics, and comedy. He also wrote moralistic pieces similar to sermons. Sacchetti’s Trecentonovelle {Three Hundred Short Novels} is regarded as an early masterpiece of prose writing. He wrote Trecentonovelle between 1392 and 1397. That work regrettably has survived only in part in a sixteenth-century transcription. For English translations of some of the novelles in Trecentonovelle, Steegmann (1908) and Roscoe (1825) vol. 1, pp. 82-93.

[2] The first Florentine sumptuary laws probably were enacted about the 1260s. A comprehensive package of laws regulating women’s fancy dress was established in Florence from 1322 to 1325. Rainey (1985) pp. 44, 50-67. For a freely available overview of sumptuary law in medieval Italy, Facelle (2009).

Women’s political power readily overcame Florentine sumptuary laws. Charles, Duke of Calabria, became ruling lord of Florence in 1325 to lead the city’s defenses against the threatening army of Castruccio Castracani. Florentine women then attacked through Charles’s wife, the Duchess of Calabria. She pursuaded her husband to revoke the prohibition on luxurious silk tresses that Florentine women wore over their (perhaps thinning) hair. Rainey (1985) p. 68.

Having experienced this political reversal first-hand, the eminent Florentine Giovanni Villani lamented that women didn’t even have to use reason to persuade men. What women want trumps any reason men might recognize: “the inordinate appetite of women conquers the reason and good sense of men {il disordinato appetito delle donne vince la ragione e il senno degli uomini}.” Villani, Nuovo Cronica (c. 1348) 10.11. Villani’s own wife Monna and other women pursuaded the Duke of Calabria to order that sumptuary charges against them be reviewed. Rainey (1985) p. 69-70. With respect to his wife Monna’s spending on luxurious clothing and incurring fines for violating sumptuary law, Giovanni Villani, like other men, was in a lose-lose position.

[3] For insightul discussion of this wordplay in relation to levels of linguistic understanding, Cornish (2010) p. 16f.

[4] Writing in northern France about 1115, Guibert of Nogent complained of women’s extravagant dress:

The way they dress is completely different from the simplicity of old: sleeves spread wide open, their tunics worn tight, curled toes on shoes from Cordoba, you might see the surrender of all modesty proclaimed everywhere.

{ Vestium qualitates in tantum sunt ab illa veteri frugalitate dissimiles, ut dilatatio manicarum, tunicarum angustia, calceorum de Corduba rostra torticia, totius ubique jacturam videas clamare pudoris. }

Guibert, Monodiae {Songs of Self} 1.12, Latin text from Bourgin (1907), English trans. from McAlhany & Rubenstein (2011). In ancient Rome, women wore expensive, revealing silk clothes. See note [1] in my post on the silk trade between ancient Rome and China. Both Seneca the Younger in the first century GC (Epistulae morales ad Lucilium {Letters on Behavior to Lucilius} 90.16-20, 45) and Jerome in the fourth century (Life of Paul the Hermit 17) contrasted luxurious clothes of their times with earlier, simpler clothes. Similarly Dante, Commedia, Paradiso 15.97-120.

[5] Franco Sacchetti, Il Trecentenovelle 137, Italian text from Faccioli (1970), my English translation, benefiting from that of Steegmann (1908). The subsequent quote is similarly from this novelle.

One Florentine official recognized the ancient Roman failure and the rage of Coppo di Borghese Domenichi:

I would have you know that the Romans, who conquered the whole world, could do nothing against their women. And these women, in order to lift the rules on their fancy dress, ran to the Capitol and conquered the Romans, obtaining what they wanted to such an extent that when Coppo di Borghese read this story in a book written by Livy, he almost went insane.

{ Io vo’ che voi sappiate ch’e’ Romani non potero contro le loro donne, che vinsono tutto il mondo; ed elle per levar gli ordini sopra gli ornamenti loro, corsono al Campidoglio, e vinsono e’ Romani, avendo quello che voleano; per tal segnale che Coppo del Borghese in una novella di questo libro leggendo in Tito Livio la detta istoria, ne fu per impazzare. }

Il Trecentenovelle 137, cited as above.

This novelle isn’t merely fiction. Florentine city records indicate that Amerigo of Pesara served as the Ufficiale delle donne from March to September 1384. Sacchetti at that time was a member of Florence’s ruling council. He probably heard directly from Amerigo about women evading the sumptuary laws. Rainey (1985) p. 233.

Under details of the the sumptuary laws in effect in Florence in 1384, ermine fur was forbidden, but lattizzo fur wasn’t. The latter type of fur is fairly obscure:

According to some dictionaries a lattizzo referred to a weasel-like animal similar to ermine but with milky white fur, whence its name.

Killerby (2002) p. 123, n. 43.

[6]  Paolino da Venezia (Paolino Minorita), Trattato de regimine rectoris 53, Italian (Venetian dialect) text from  Mussafia (1868) p. 75, English translation (adapted slightly) from Zanda (2010) p. 149, n. 104. Paolino da Venezia was a city official, Catholic bishop, and writer.

[7] Killerby stated:

Of the clothing laws which were targeted primarily at women, the male members of the household were held responsible for payment of the fine, as was customary

Killerby (1994) p. 103. Similarly, Izbicki (2009) p. 45.

[8] Killerby (2002) p. 123, which observes:

In Venice the term ‘pagar le pompe’, or ‘to pay the luxury fine’, became such a common expression that it is found in dialectical dictionaries.


[9] Rainey (1985) p. 165

[10] Frick (2002) p. 182. About half the cases prosecuted originated in anonymous denunciations. Id.

[11] From records of the deliberations of the lords of Florence, Latin text and English translation (adapted) from Rainey (1985) pp. 479 (English), 763 (Latin). The subsequent quote is similarly sourced.

[12] Salimbene de Adam, Cronica {Chronicle}, Latin text from Holder-Egger (1905) pp. 169-70, English translation adapted from Baird, Baglivi & Kane (1986) pp. 160-1, for this and the subsequent two quotes. Salimbene’s quote about dresses dragging in the dirt is “Not Patecchio, but Ugo di Perso’s second answer to Patecchio, l. 65.” Id. p. 674, n. 56. Salimbene later repeated the central political concern about Cardinal Latino Malabranca’s laws: “This legate enraged women with his laws {Iste legatus turbavit mulieres cum constitutionibus suis}.” Similarly from Holder-Egger (1905) p. 436, Baird, Baglivi & Kane (1986) p. 443.

Cardinal Latino Malabranca’s laws are titled De habitu mulierum {On women’s dress}. For their social and political context, Izbicki (2009). Id., Appendix 3.1 provides an English translation of the laws. According to De habitu mulierum:

No woman exceeding twelve years of age will appear publicly in the city in a gown in which the front part is open.

{ Nulla mulier ex quo duodecim annum aetatis exegerit in veste quae ab anteriori parte aperta sit publice per civitatem excedunt procedere }

Latin text from Rainey (1985) p. 89, n. 9, my English translation. Cf. Dante, Commedia, Purgatorio 23.97-105 and Vincenzo Catena’s portrait of a woman (above). For analysis, Olson (2015).

[13] Petronius, Satyricon 67, Latin text from Heseltine & Rouse (1913), my English translation benefiting from those of id. and Walsh (1996). The subsequent quote is similarly from Satyricon 67.

[images] (1) Portrait of a Woman, probably Venetian, gesturing toward her chest. Painting by Vincenzo Catena, made about 1520. Preserved under acc.# 1961.1.31 in the El Paso Museum of Art (El Paso, Texas). Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Women with long dress-trains in medieval Florentine wedding parade for Boccaccio Adimari and Lisa Ricasoli in 1420, or perhaps another Adimiri wedding twenty years later. Detail from Dance Scene / Cassone Adimari (wedding chest of Adimari), painted by Giovanni di ser Giovanni Guidi (Lo Scheggia) about 1450. Preserved as Inv. 1890 n. 8457 in Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze. Via 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.

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

Cornish, Alison. 2010. Vernacular Translation in Dante’s Italy: illiterate literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Faccioli, Emilio, ed. 1970. Franco Sacchetti. Il Trecentonovelle. Torino: Giulio Einaudi.

Facelle, Amanda E. 2009. Down to the Last Stitch: Sumptuary Law and Conspicuous Consumption in Renaissance Italy. B.A. Thesis, Wesleyan University.

Frick, Carole Collier. 2002. Dressing Renaissance Florence: families, fortunes, & fine clothing. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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.

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

Izbicki, Thomas M. 2009. “Failed Censures: Ecclesiastical Regulation of Women’s Clothing in Late Medieval Italy.” Ch. 3 (pp. 37-53) in Robin Netherton and Gale R. Owen-Crocker. Medieval Clothing and Textiles, vol. 5. Woodbridfge: Boydell & Brewer.

Killerby, Catherine Kovesi. 1994. “Practical Problems in the Enforcement of Italian Sumptuary Law, 1200-1500.” Ch. 6 (pp. 99-120) in Trevor Dean and K. J. P. Lowe, eds. Crime, society, and the law in Renaissance Italy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Killerby, Catherine Kovesi. 2002. Sumptuary Law in Italy: 1200-1500. Oxford: Clarendon 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)

Mussafia, Adolfo, ed. 1868. Paolino Minorita. Trattato de regimine rectoris. Vienna: Tendler.

Olson, Kristina M. 2015. “Uncovering the Historical Body of Florence: Dante, Forese Donati, and Sumptuary Legislation.” Italian Culture. 33 (1): 1-15.

Rainey, Ronald Eugene. 1985. Sumptuary legislation in Renaissance Florence. Ph.D. Thesis, Columbia University.

Roscoe, Thomas, trans. 1825. The Italian Novelists: selected from the most approved authors in that language; from the earliest period down to the close of the eighteenth century: arranged in an historical and chronological series. Translated from the original Italian. Accompanied with notes, critical and biographical. 4 vols. London: Printed for Septimus Prowett, 23, Old Bond Street.

Steegmann, Mary G., trans. 1908. Franco Sacchetti. Tales from Sacchetti. London: J.M. Dent & Co.

Villani, Giovanni. 1348. Nuova Cronica {New Chronicles}. Firenze: Per il Magheri, 1823.

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

Zanda, Emanuela. 2010. Fighting Hydra-Like Luxury: sumptuary regulation in the Roman Republic. London: Duckworth.

punctuation poems pervasive: readers shape meanings of texts!!

exclamation point followed by question mark

Written communication depends on shared understandings of graphical symbols (words and punctuation) and mutual experience of combinations of words being used in different ways (genres). No writer can require a reader to understand a text in the way that the writer meant it. Especially in our increasingly vicious and totalitarian age, writing is a dangerous activity. Historical knowledge of punctuation shows possibilities for misunderstanding and helps to support humane practices of reading.

Exclamation points in modern editions of Beowulf represent particular expert readers’ interpretations. Beowulf didn’t originally include any exclamation points. The exclamation point apparently arose in late-fourteenth-century Italy as an outgrowth of the vigorous ars dictaminis of Boncompagno da Signa and other leading scholars.[1] That’s more than three hundred years after the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf was written and probably about six hundred years after Beowulf was composed. Punctuation in modern editions of Beowulf, like punctuation in modern editions of almost all ancient and medieval works, is a matter of editorial choice.

Modern editions of Beowulf have vastly different numbers of exclamation points. The total number of exclamation points added to the Old English text has ranged from 1 to about 290, with a median of 13, across seven editions of Beowulf published from 1861 to 2008.[2] The issue isn’t just intensity of exclamation. Two recent, scholarly editions, which added 7 and 13 exclamation points respectively, have no exclamation points in the same textual place.[3] A scholarly edition of Beowulf published in 1894 explicitly addressed the issue of exclamation points. The editor declared:

If the reader’s sense or emotions do not tell him where he ought to feel exclamatory, he must suffer the consequences.[4]

That’s unfair. Men too often are assigned sole responsibility for mutual affairs. Moreover, even expert, highly attentive readers of Beowulf don’t know when the writer sincerely meant to be exclamatory!

Scribes and correctors punctuated texts to clarify their interpretations of them. Writing in 397, Augustine recognized that punctuation could affect the meaning of biblical texts. He advised punctuating an ambiguous scriptural passage such that its meaning is consistent with clearer words of scripture and church authority. He also urged interpreting ambiguous scripture in its scriptural context. Augustine even recognized the now-fashionable concept of textual indeterminacy:

Where, however, the ambiguity cannot be cleared up, either by the rule of faith or by the context, there is nothing to hinder us to punctuate the sentence according to any method we choose of those that suggest themselves. Such is the case in a verse to the Corinthians: “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. Receive us; we have wronged no man.” It is doubtful whether we should read, “let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit {mundemus nos ab omni coinquinatione carnis et spiritus}” in accordance with the passage, “that she may be holy both in body and in spirit,”or, “let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh {mundemus nos ab omni coinquinatione carnis},” so as to make the next sentence, “and perfecting holiness of spirit in the fear of God, receive us {et spiritus perficientes sanctificationem in timore Dei capite has}.” Such ambiguities of punctuation, therefore, are left to the reader’s discretion.

{ Ubi autem neque praescripto fidei, neque ipsius sermonis textu ambiguitas explicari potest, nihil obest secundum quamlibet earum quae ostenduntur, sententiam distinguere. Veluti est illa ad Corinthios: Has ergo promissiones habentes, carissimi, mundemus nos ab omni coinquinatione carnis et spiritus, perficientes sanctificationem in timore Dei. Capite nos, nemini nocuimus. Dubium est quippe utrum: Mundemus nos ab omni coinquinatione carnis et spiritus, secundum illam sententiam: Ut sit sancta et corpore et spiritu, an: Mundemus nos ab omni coinquinatione carnis, ut alius sit sensus: Et spiritus perficientes sanctificationem in timore Dei capite nos. Tales igitur distinctionum ambiguitates in potestate legentis sunt. } [5]

Augustine’s wisdom on interpreting scripture is also sound wisdom for interpreting secular law and other authoritative texts.

To foster imagination and new understanding, literary works and sophisticated literary criticism often encourage readers to ponder possible meanings of a text. Poems use verbal ambiguity to cloak transgressive positions. Punctuation poems encode alternate readings in alternate punctuation. Generic hybrids make new connections between separated aspects of life. Verbal complexity helps to make literature interesting and fun.

Literary works and literary criticism are non-authoritative today. With respect to these works, readers always have a powerful option for readerly engagement and meaning-making. Readers should cultivate an under-appreciated form of punctuation. If you don’t like some text, cross it out in your mind and ignore it!

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[1] Parkes (1992) p. 49. The exclamation point {punctus exclamativus} was also called the admiration point {punctus admirativus}. For a history of punctuation that’s freely available online, Krahn (2014).

[2] Calculated from data in Weiskott (2012) pp. 27-9. The editions and number of exclamation points: Grundtvig (1861), 40; Grein (1867), 290; Sedgefield (1910), 1; Chambers (1914), 9; Klaebr (1922), 56; Mitchell & Robinson (1998), 7; Fulk, Bjor & Niles (2008), 13. The first two figures are estimates from the first 800 and 500 lines of Beowulf, respectively.

[3] Weiskott (2012) p. 29. Weiskott stated:

we do not agree, nor have we ever agreed, about this issue {of exclamation points}, and no one writes about it, as though a compulsion to pepper Beowulf with exclamation points were an embarrassing but unavoidable fact of life as an Anglo-Saxonist.


[4] From A. J. Wyatt’s 1894 edition of Beowulf, introduction p. x-xi, cited in Weiskott (2012) p. 27, n. 13.

[5] Augustine, De doctrina Christiana {On Christian Doctrine} 3.2.5, Latin text from Sant’Agostine website, English translation (adapted insubstantially) from website of James J. O’Donnell, University Professor at Georgetown University.

Parkes described a general principle of punctuation practice in historical European manuscripts:

Medieval scribes and correctors punctuate where confusion is like to arise (if their Latin is sufficient to recognize the fact) and do not always punctuate where confusion is not likely to arise, even when they are concerned with the sententia literae. Because scribes and correctors were also readers they were concerned primarily with interpretation, especially with elements which might be subject to confusion. Elements which may have a similar syntactic function or convey similar meaning, and which are punctuated in one context, need not be punctuated in another when the context ensures that confusion is not likely to arise. This factor helps to explain why some modern scholars have regarded medieval punctuation as “irregular.”

Parkes (1978) pp. 138-9. Medieval scribes and correctors primarily worked on authoritative texts. The distinctive between literary texts and authoritative texts had little meaning in the ancient and medieval Mediterranean world. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were highly authoritative texts in the ancient world.

[image] Exclamation point followed by question mark. Adapted from image on Wikimedia Commons, thanks to emojione.


Krahn, Albert Edward. 2014. A New Paradigm for Punctuation. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Parkes, M. B. 1978. “Punctuation, or pause and effect.” Pp. 127-142 in James J. Murphy, ed. Medieval Eloquence: studies in the theory and practice of medieval rhetoric. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Parkes, M. B. 1992. Pause and Effect: an introduction to the history of punctuation in the West. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Weiskott, Eric. 2012. “Making Beowulf Scream: Exclamation and the Punctuation of Old English Poetry.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology. 111 (1): 25-41.

learned Jerome described rape in Life of Paul the First Hermit

Paul the First Hermit, according to Jerome

According to badly reported data from the expert U.S. government health agency’s national survey, women raping men has a higher incidence than men raping women. The issue of men getting raped has been suppressed through a culture of denial, ignorance, and gynocentric malice toward men. Many persons don’t even understand that women can rape men. Yet the learned and highly honored Saint Jerome, in his widely read Life of Paul the First Hermit {Vita Pauli primi eremitae}, explicitly and realistically described a woman raping a man. Jerome’s account of a women raping a man has been suppressed in translation, badly interpreted, and largely ignored. That deplorable blindness and dumbness of our Dark Age ends right now in your reading of this post.

To characterize the oppression of Christians under Roman Emperors in the middle of the third century, Jerome described two men martyrs. One was tortured with burning-hot racks and plates. When he survived those, his body was smeared with honey and tied down flat in the blazing sun. Flies swarmed upon him and ate him alive. This man suffered martyrdom through being subject to horrible bodily pain.

The second man was tortured in way that persons today can scarcely understand. Drawing upon his vast knowledge of non-Christian literature, Jerome described a classical pleasure garden:

The Roman Emperor ordered another martyr in the flower of his youth to be abducted to a most delightful garden. There amid the white lilies and red roses, he was forced to rest on a thick feather bed. Beside him meandered a gently murmuring stream. The wind plucked lightly at the trees’ leaves and produced a soft whisper. Tied down with pleasant garlands so that he was unable to escape, he was left there.

{ Alium iuuenali aetate florentem in amoenissimos hortulos praecepit adduci ibique inter candentia lilia et rubentes rosas, cum leni iuxta murmure serperet riuus et molli sibilo arborum folia uentus stringeret, super structum plumis lectulum supinari, et ne se inde posset excutere, blandis sertorum nexibus inretitum relinqui. } [1]

Many men would rather be tied down physically in a beautiful garden than be tied down by having to work a miserable job to support a wife and children. The circumstances in this beautiful garden, however, took a dramatic turn for the worse:

When everyone had gone away, a beautiful prostitute came to him and began to stroke his neck with gentle caresses and, what is improper even to relate, to grope his genitals with her hands. When his body was aroused with lust, this shameless, victorious female assailant lay down on top of him.

{ Quo cum recedentibus cunctis meretrix speciosa uenisset, coepit delicatis stringere colla complexibus et, quod dictu quoque scelus est, manibus adtrectare uirilia, ut corpore in libidinem concitato se uictrix impudica superiaceret. }

That’s raping a man. Jerome understood that women can rape men. You should understand that, too. Like many men who are raped, this man had no one he could turn to for help.

Scholars have obscured this man being raped. Many persons who have read the above passage in the Life of Paul the First Hermit have done so in a widely distributed, bad English translation:

When all had withdrawn from him, a harlot of great beauty drew near and began with voluptuous embrace to throw her arms around his neck, and, wicked even to relate! to handle his person, so that once the lusts of the flesh were roused, she might accomplish her licentious purpose. [2]

The harlot handled “his person“? While a man’s penis is at the center of his earthly being, a man’s person is far more than his penis or his wallet. Moreover, this translation describes the woman’s crime hypothetically and vaguely: “she might accomplish her licentious purpose.” That’s not what the Latin text means. The Latin text makes clear that the woman lay down on top of the man. In addition, the Latin text emphasizes the woman’s aggressive domination of the man. It identifies her as a female victor (victrix). In context, “victorious female assailant” is for that word a reasonable English translation.

The rape victim unjustly blamed himself. He had resisted prior torture with the emotional control of a Stoic. Yet he failed to maintain the bodily tranquility of an Epicurean when involuntarily subject to pleasurable sensations. He felt deeply distraught:

What could the soldier of Christ do, where could he turn? He whom tortures had not defeated was overcome by pleasure.

{ Quid ageret miles Christi, quo se uerteret? Quem tormenta non uicerant superabat uoluptas. }

Men shouldn’t be blamed for their sexual arousal. Having a penis or having an erection shouldn’t be a crime. Women who sexually harass men or rape men commit wrongs or crimes. They deserve blame.

This rape victim resisted to an extraordinary extent. He was a Christian. In the ancient world, Christians were renowned for fearlessness in the face of bodily torments. The pleasure of kissing has long involved mutual play of tongues. With the help of God, this Christian resisted with his tongue:

At last, by divine inspiration, he bit off his tongue and spit it out into her face as she kissed him. And so his feeling of lust was trampled down by the sharp pain that succeeded it.

{ Tandem coelitus inspiratus praecisam mordicus linguam in osculantis se faciem exspuit. Ac sic libidinis sensum succedens doloris magnitudo calcauit. }

This Christian knew his bodily self as well as any ancient Greek oracle would advise. Through self-mutilation he prevented himself from being raped any longer.

Jerome’s account of the two men martyrs displays great learning and literary sophistication. His account is a diptych challenging the influential philosophical schools of Stoicism and Epicureanism. In describing the second man’s resistance, Jerome shows remarkably subtle understanding of human emotion and self-consciousness.

Most importantly, Jerome’s account of the second man martyr is a more accurate representation of reality than major modern news sources have yet provided. With a little-known website, a man came out about what happened to him when he was a young man:

This time in the car, she grabbed me and I asked her to stop and she looked me straight in the face and said “You will do what I want you to do or I will put your family on the street”. I know that without these people, we are homeless. My Dad’s job was based through these people and we were under their roof. Even though I was already terrified enough, the idea that my sisters and brother would be on the street seemed to be so much worse. So I did what she wanted me to do. Not just that night but for many of nights, weeks and months ahead.

God didn’t inspire this young man to bite off his tongue and spit it at that woman behaving wickedly.[3] Now much older, this man believes that God has acted in his life:

I still think back from time to time and wonder why me? Why did I have to go through this season of my life? Why God would put me through such an awful thing, and I still can’t explain that but I do know that without him, I wouldn’t have overcome it. Without him, I wouldn’t be here today to tell this story.

Men need their tongues to speak. Now isn’t the time for men to bite off their tongues and be silenced. Now is the time for men to speak out about injustices against men.

Jerome in his Life of Paul the First Hermit mocked concern to acquire worldly news. Much worldly news in fact bears little relation to reality. To understand the reality of how women rape men, the best source of enlightenment remains careful, accurate reading of Jerome’s Life of Paul the First Hermit.

Social workers have largely failed to take seriously sexual violence against men. The early desert hermits were honored in their day as miracle workers, not social workers.[4] May Paul the First Hermit work the miracle of making everyone today understand the real wrong of women raping men.

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[1] Jerome, Life of Paul the First Hermit {Vita Pauli primi eremitae} s. 3, Latin text from Hunink (2002), my English translation, benefiting from that of White (1998). All the subsequent quotes from Vita Pauli primi eremitae, unless otherwise noted, are similarly sourced. Jerome refers to the two Christian martyrs suffering under Roman Emperors Trajan Decius (reigned 249 to 251) and Valerian the Elder (reigned 253 to 260).

Jerome wrote Vita Pauli primi eremitae about 375 GC. He dedicated the work to Paulus of Concordia. Jerome, Epistles 10.3. Vita Pauli primi eremitae was widely read. Surviving manuscripts of it include at least 128 manuscripts written before the twelfth century. Here’s a beautiful online manuscript of Jerome’s three lives of hermits, copied in Italy in 1425.

In the preface to her translation of Vita Pauli primi eremitae, White disrespectfully refers to Jerome’s “obsession with sex.” White (1998) p. 73. Sex has occurred on earth for more than a billion years. Sex is vitally important. In the fourth century GC, Jerome engaged in vigorous, relatively tolerant public discussion of sex and marriage. Such discussion is sternly policed and firmly constrained in our more oppressive and repressed culture. Institutions of the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Anglican Church have appropriately honored Jerome as a father of the Christian Church, an eminent scholar (Doctor of the Church), and a saint.

[2] Jerome, Vita Pauli primi eremitae s. 3, trans. Freemantle (1892). This translation is by far the most the widely disseminated translation online. This translation, with very minor variations, is included in the important, freely available online document collections of the Hermitary and New Advent.

Traditional philology has failed to represent rightly men’s distinctive gender. That compounds the structural injustice of the penis’s image problem.

[3] Tertullian, Apologeticum {Apology} 50, describes an Athenian harlot biting off her tongue and spitting it out into the face of a tyrant who through torture hoped to extract from her the names of her co-conspirators. She thus deliberately silenced herself. In the relatively enlightened fourth century, persons understood that women could rape men. In Jerome’s story of the martyr, the raped man’s loss of his tongue didn’t prevent the crime against him from being publicly understood.

[4] MacMullen (2019) p. 21. Peter Brown’s influential scholarship has fostered the misconception that early holy men functioned as social workers.

[image] Bird startles Paul the Hermit and makes him fearful. The bird, however, gave Paul bread. Oil on canvas painting made by Mattia Preti, about 1656-1660. Preserved as item 6612 in the Art Gallery of Ontario. Via Wikimedia Commons.


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

Hunink, Vincent, ed. 2002. Jerome (Sophronius Eusebius Hieronymus). Vita Pauli = Het leven van Paulus van Thebe. Leuven: Uitgeverij P.

MacMullen, Ramsay. 2019. “The Place of the Holy Man in the Later Roman Empire.” Harvard Theological Review. 112 (1): 1-32.

White, Carolinne. 1998. Early Christian lives: life of Antony by Athanasius, life of Paul of Thebes by Jerome, life of Hilarion by Jerome, life of Malchus by Jerome, life of Martin of Tours by Sulpicius Severus, life of Benedict by Gregory the Great. London: Penguin Books.

gyno-idolatry and atomism in medieval reception of De rerum natura

You hear these things, and I fear you’ll think yourself
on the road to evil, learning the fundamentals
of blasphemy.

{ Illud in his rebus vereor, ne forte rearis
impia te rationis inire elementa viamque
indugredi sceleris. } [1]

ninth-century manuscript page of Lucretius, De rerum natura

Written about 2100 years ago, Lucretius’s De rerum natura is an epic monument of philosophical and literary genius. Yet surviving medieval literature from the mid-ninth century and to early in the fifteenth century contains very few references to De rerum natura. Moreover, no copy of De rerum natura is known to have been made during that period.[2] These facts have prompted tendentious misrepresentation of relatively enlightened medieval European intellectual life. Fortunately, Guibert of Nogent’s Monodiae, which he wrote about 1115, provides a previously unrecognized and vitally important witness to medieval engagement with De rerum natura.

Guibert was thoroughly educated with access to the best intellectual resources of late-eleventh-century Europe. When he was twelve, Guibert entered the monastery of Saint-Germer de Fly in northern France. He studied at Saint-Germer and remained there from about 1067 to 1104. Saint-Germer was a place “where a multitude of literary scholars flourished {ibi literatorum floreat multitudo}.”[3] Guibert stated that he surpassed in learning his fellow monks there. That’s plausible. Guibert studied for a time with Anselm of Bec. This Anselm was Archbishop of Canterbury and one of the greatest philosophical thinkers of medieval Europe. Guibert was also knew personally Anselm of Laon. This second Anselm was a leading master at the Cathedral school of Laon and famous throughout Europe for his scholarship. Anselm of Laon chose Guibert to preach a politically important sermon of reconciliation at the Cathedral of Laon in 1111. If anyone of his time had read De rerum natura, Guibert probably had, too.

Guibert studied non-Christian literature. He “perused books of all kinds to comprehend the multiple meanings of words.”[4] At a certain point in his intellectual development, Guibert described himself as competing with Ovid and the pastoral poets (almost surely including Virgil) in writing epistles, love poems, and frivolous compositions with sweet-sounding words. With the prefatory phrase, “if I may borrow the words of a comic writer {ut comici verbis utar},” Guibert paraphrased a line from Terence’s Eunuchus.[5] He also quoted and thought carefully about a detail concerning beauty in Sallust’s Bellum Catilinae. Guibert’s writing was “refined in form, almost to the point of preciosity and hermeticism … almost pedantic … more elegant and recherché than that of many contemporary prose writers.”[6] Guibert was the sort of intellectual who would have been interested in reading De rerum natura.

Guibert plausibly had access to De rerum natura. The two, nearly complete surviving ninth-century manuscripts of De rerum natura probably spent time in northern France. Codex Oblongus, a luxurious instance of De rerum natura, was produced in an early-ninth-century scriptorium probably in north-west Germany or north-east France. The Irish scholar-monk Dungal corrected Codex Oblongus early in the ninth century. Dungal spent time in northern France, as well as in Saint-Denis, about five miles north of Paris. Dungal may have worked on the Codex Oblongus in Saint-Denis or elsewhere in northern France. The other, nearly complete surviving ninth-century manuscript of De rerum natura is Codex Quadratus. That manuscript was probably produced in a monastery in northern France.[7] Either of these two manuscripts could have been available to Guibert. Other, now-lost copies of De rerum natura may have also been available to him.

Like Lucretius, who described common nature in high poetry, Guibert is a sophisticated writer who must be read attentively. For example, Guibert reported that Count Jean of Soisssons had attended an Easter vigil. There Jean allegedly asked a priest to explain to him the “mystery of those days {mysterium dierum illorum}.”[8] The priest ingenuously obliged and described Jesus’s suffering, death, and resurrection. Jean responded, “Behold a fable! Behold blowing air! {Ecce fabula, ecce ventus!}.” Jean’s question to the priest is completely implausible coming from an adult raised in medieval European Christian culture. Moreover, the use of “ecce” parodies a biblical call for attention. Guibert’s story of Jean setting up for ridicule the priest at the Easter vigil echoes De rerum natura’s sarcastic disparagement of Greco-Roman stories of the gods.

With naturalistic dialogue Guibert concluded the story of Count Jean at the Easter vigil. Consider:

The priest responded, “If you hold what I have said to be blowing air and a fable, why are you here keeping this vigil?” “Beautiful women spend the night here, and I eagerly attend to them,” Jean said.

{ “Si tu,” inquit, “pro vento et fabula, quae dixerim, habes, quid hic vigilas?” “Pulchras,” ait, “mulieres, quae istic coexcubant, libenter attendo.”}

Men typically like to gaze upon beautiful women and to serve them sexually to the point of exhaustion. Jean’s remarks thus have a naturalistic plausibility. Nonetheless, Guibert probably fabricated the whole story of Jean at the Easter vigil to portray the impious character of Count Jean.[9]

Immediately following the story of the Easter vigil, Guibert less plausibly expanded upon his characterization of Count Jean’s sexual behavior. Guibert declared:

Even with him having a young, beautiful wife, he spurned her. He spent his affection on the most wrinkled old woman. Although in the house of a Jew he kept a bed very often prepared for himself and her, he was nonetheless never able to confine himself to those bed-sheets. But in the fury of his lust he would press himself together with this most sordid woman in some dirty corner or even in some closet.

{ Certe cum conjugem juvenculam speciosam haberet, ea contempta, rugosissimam ita affectabat anum, ut, cum intra domum cujusdam Judaei lectum sibi et illi saepius apparari faceret, nunquam tamen stratu cohiberi poterat, sed in aliquem angulum turpem, aut certe intra apothecam aliquam prae furore libidinis se cum illa sordidissima contrudebat. }

Jean’s mother entrusted to a Jew one of her most politically sensitive actions. Jean himself had high regard for Jews. Jean could plausibly have had a Jewish friend generously helping him in providing accommodation for an extramarital affair. Yet Jean having an affair with an extremely wrinkled old woman, especially when he had a beautiful young wife and apparently didn’t need a wealthy widow’s money, is highly implausible. It’s as implausible as believing that many old male professors don’t notice how sexually attractive some of their young female students are.

Other components of Guibert’s characterization of Count Jean mix sophisticated rhetoric with realism. Guibert reported that Jean arranged a bed-trick:

one night when the candle-lights had been extinguished, the Count ordered a certain lowly courtier to go as himself to sleep with his wife so that he could thrust on her a charge of adultery. When she sensed it wasn’t the Count from his bodily quality (the Count had disgusting boils), she savagely beat this dandy by exerting herself strongly, with help from her handmaidens.

{ quod cum uxore sua parasitastrum quendam, extinctis jam nocte lucernis, sub specie sui cubitum ire mandavit, ut adulterii sui crimen impingeret. Quae cum non esse comitem ex corporis qualitate sentiret (erat enim comes foede pruriginosus), suo quo valuit nisu et pedissequarum auxilio, scurram dure cecidit. }

This account has literary qualities in artfully contrasting the noble Count’s low bodily quality with the attractiveness of the lowly courtier. The Count seeking to thrust on his wife a charge of adultery rhetorically contrasts with him properly fulfilling his vitally important marital obligation.

Yet Guibert’s account of the failed bed-trick is also realistic. Many women throughout history have been highly privileged. These highly privileged women have exploited other women to help fight their battles. Today, highly privileged women tend to demand passively that men act to stop men from treating them badly. But women are fully capable of acting strongly and independently. In Guibert’s account of the failed bed-trick, the medieval woman took the initiative to beat savagely the dandy in her bed. Moreover, an independent document supports the general shape of the account. Specifically, a surviving letter from Bishop Ivo of Chartres indicates that Ivo was aware of Jean charging his wife with adultery and that Ivo was suspicious of that charge.[10]

Like Lucretius in De rerum natura, Guibert addressed radical ideas. Guibert stated that Count Jean believed that “all women should be in common {omnes foeminas debere esse communes}.” The highly respected ancient Greek thinker Solon proposed a related idea to address the crushing sexual welfare inequality that men endure. Guibert despised Jean’s belief in sexual communalism. As a Christian, he regarded as licit only permanent, two-person, heterosexual conjugal partnerships in which each spouse is mutually obliged to have sex with the other even if she or he doesn’t feel like it.

Count Jean cherished a medieval sect that followed practices now commonly taught in schools and institutions of higher education. Guibert reported:

They condemn marriage and procreative sex. Indeed, wherever they are scattered throughout the Latin world, one sees men and women living together without the name of husband and wife. One man doesn’t dwell with one woman, but men are known to sleep with other men, and women with other women. Actually, to them a man having sex with a woman is morally wrong. All offspring born from sexual intercourse they eliminate.

{ conjugia damnant, et fructificare coitibus; et certe cum per Latinum conspersi sint orbem, videas viros mulieribus cohabitare sine mariti conjugisque nomine, ita ut vir cum foemina, singuluscum singula, non moretur, sed viri cum viris, foemina cum foeminis cubitare noscantur; nam viri apud eos in foeminam nefas est; eduliac omnium quae ex coitu nascuntur, eliminant }

Apparently the sect focused on personal happiness and career ambitions. From the vantage-point of modernity, these practices seem eminently plausible.

Guibert immediately shifted to describing a ritual extraordinary even relative to life in the modern world. This secret ritual revealed the deep nature of things:

They hold meetings in underground vaults or around hidden hearths, with both sexes together indiscriminately. Candles are lit, and some young woman lies down and uncovers her buttocks in the sight of all. They offer their candles to her from behind. As soon as these have burned out, they shout “chaos” from all sides, and each person has sex with the first person they encounter.

{ conventicula faciunt in ypogeis aut pennalibus abditis, sexus simul indifferens, qui, candelis accensis, cuidam mulierculae sub obtutu omnium, retectis, ut dicitur, natibus, procumbenti casa tergo offerunt; hisque mox extinctis, chaos undecunque conclamant, et cum ea quae ad manum venerit prima quisque coit }

The first part of this ceremony ritually expresses gyno-idolatry. It draws upon men’s well-attested admiration for women’s buttocks. De rerum natura emphatically exposed delusions of gyno-idolatry. In exposing the sect’s devotion to a young woman’s buttocks, Guibert seems to have appreciated and appropriated De rerum natura’s debunking of gyno-idolatry.

Guibert, however, parodied the classical atomism of De rerum natura. Lucretius asserted that the world coalesced from chaos through random swerving of atoms. In Guibert’s representation, the sect’s coupling activity begins from chaos. The generation of a new human occurs only through the accidental encounter of a woman and man. Promiscuous sexual encounters from chaos among atomic individuals resonates with De rerum natura.[11] Guibert and other medieval Christians understood creation, and humans and their relations at the pinnacle of creation, much differently.

Guibert further developed his critical representation of De rerum natura in depicting human sacrifice. Lucretius in De rerum natura distinguished himself from Epicurus by depicting human and animal sacrifice as socially destructive.[12] Near the beginning of Book 1 of De rerum natura, Lucretius narrated the brutal, irrational sacrifice of Iphigenia:

At Aulis did even the the pride of the Greek people,
the chosen peers, defile Diana’s altar
with the shameful blood of the virgin Iphigenia.
As soon as they tressed her hair with the ritual fillet,
the tassels spilling neatly upon each cheek,
and she sensed her grieving father beside the altar
with the acolytes nearby, hiding the knife,
and countrymen weeping to look upon her — mute
with fear, she fell to her knees, she groped for the earth.
Poor girl, what good did it do her then, that she
was the first to give the king the title “father”?
Up to the altar the men escorted her, trembling;
not so that when her solemn rites were finished
she might be cheered in a ringing wedding-hymn,
but filthily, at the marrying age, unblemished
victim, she fell by her father’s slaughter-stroke
to shove his fleet off on a bon voyage!

{ Aulide quo pacto Triviai virginis aram
Iphianassai turparunt sanguine foede
ductores Danaum delecti, prima virorum.
cui simul infula virgineos circumdata comptus
ex utraque pari malarum parte profusast,
et maestum simul ante aras adstare parentem
sensit et hunc propter ferrum celare ministros
aspectuque suo lacrimas effundere civis,
muta metu terram genibus summissa petebat.
nec miserae prodesse in tali tempore quibat
quod patrio princeps donarat nomine regem.
nam sublata virum manibus tremibundaque ad aras
deductast, non ut sollemni more sacrorum
perfecto posset claro comitari Hymenaeo,
sed casta inceste nubendi tempore in ipso
hostia concideret mactatu maesta parentis,
exitus ut classi felix faustusque daretur. } [13]

Guibert’s modernistic sect is similarly brutal. They reduce a newly born child to ashes with the pretense that nothing is destroyed into nothing:

If a woman there becomes pregnant, after she has pushed out the birth they return to this very place and start a large fire. Sitting in a circle, they toss the child from hand to hand through the flames until its life is extinguished. Then it is reduced to ashes. They make bread from the ashes. Each is bestowed with a piece as a eucharist.

{ si inibi foemina gravidetur, partu demum fuso in idipsum reditur; ignis multus accenditur, a circumsedentibus puer de manu in manum per flammas jacitur, donec extinguitur; deinde in cineres redigitur; excinere panis conficitur; cuique pars pro eucharistia tribuitur }

For Guibert, unlike Lucretius, the horror of human sacrifice is bound to atomism. If human beings consist only of atoms, nothing is lost when a human life is reduced to ashes and then made into bread. That food is a eucharist for only an abstract, undifferentiated, meaningless God. Guibert certainly knew that Augustine had alleged that some Manichaeans participated in a human semen eucharist.[14] But Guibert’s understanding and representation of Manichaeism is the Epicureanism of De rerum natura.[15]

Guibert of Nogent in northern France about the year 1100 apparently read and thought carefully about De rerum natura. Carrying intense, conflicted views about his mother and mother Church, Guibert found merit in De rerum natura’s stunning debunking of gyno-idolatry. Yet he also found De rerum natura’s atomism socially destructive, inhumane, and fundamentally misconceived. As Guibert’s Monodiae shows, medieval thinkers were fully capable of grappling with De rerum natura and formulating a sophisticated response.

For medieval Christian culture, the atheistic atomism of De rerum natura was probably less troublesome to address than its attack on gyno-idolatry. Medieval Christian culture swerved close to engaging in gyno-idolatry in its fervid hyper-veneration of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Deep unease with Lucretius’s debunking of gyno-idolatry probably was the most important factor in constraining studying, copying, and discussing De rerum natura from the mid-ninth century through to 1417. That was the year when the great medieval church official Poggio Bracciolini discovered a copy of De rerum natura. Poggio was an heir to the brilliant Italian literary culture of Boccaccio and his deeply Christian-humanistic Corbaccio. He and others like him were unafraid to dispel gyno-idolatrous delusions as Lucretius had attempted to do.

Gynocentrism has a much tighter grip on intellectuals today than it did in Poggio’s time. Men today are deprived of any reproductive rights. Millions of men for doing nothing more than having consensual sex of reproductive type have no choice but to pay a monthly gynogeld to stave off incarceration without the benefit of counsel. Gynocentrism firmly suppresses discussion of that and related grotesque injustices against men. Amid pervasively expressed concern for gender equality, gynocentrism has produced colossal delusions about gender equality. Scholars today tend to pass over De rerum natura’s brilliant attack on gyno-idolatry with facile and absurd claims of “misogyny.” Perhaps in future years De rerum natura will once again scarcely be discussed.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Lucretius, De rerum natura {On the nature of things} 1.80-2 (half line), Latin text from Bailey (2017), English translation from Esolen (1995).

[2] Butterfield (2013) p. 286, n. 1. Butterfield observed:

No convincing instance of Dante’s imitating Lucretius has been proposed. Petrarch’s knowledge of Lucretius is drawn directly from Macrobius … Guido Billanovich (1958, 164–8 and 182–90) had alleged imitations in Eugenius Vulgarius (fl. early tenth century), the Liber pontificialis of Ravenna (c. 900), Lovato Lovati (c. 1241–1309) and Albertino Mussato (c. 1261–1329) but few have accepted the validity of any of these associations.

Id. While reviewing a wide range of medieval authors and works, Butterfield says nothing about Guibert of Nogent’s Monodiae.

Liudprand of Cremona’s Antapodosis 2.22 (King Henry’s speech to Arnulf) “echoes lines from Virgil, Boethius, and perhaps Lucretius.” Squatriti (2007) p. 86, n. 26. Witt (2012), p. 90, states that Liuprand refers to Lucretius, but notes that he may have done so from florilegia. Liuprand wrote his Antapodosis about 960.

Palmer summarized:

although no Lucretius manuscripts survive from the period between the ninth century and Poggio’s discovery in 1417, a scattering of medieval references in Italian, French, Spanish, German, English, and other traditions indicate a tenacious, if spotty, knowledge of the poet and some knowledge of the poem. Treatments of Epicureanism itself, and of the philosophical content of the poem, appear principally in the attacks on Epicureanism written by the fourth-century Christian apologists Arnobius and Lactantius, though Jerome and Ambrose discuss Lucretius briefly, as did, later and at greater length, Isidore of Seville. Before the fifteenth century, a scholar who knew the name Lucretius was most likely to have seen it in Ovid or in one of the many grammarians who mined the De rerum natura for examples of rare or archaic forms. Such fragments survive in Probus, Fronto, Aulus Gellius, Festus, Nonius Marcellus, Aelius Donatus, Servius, Diomedes Grammaticus, Macrobius, and Priscian.

Palmer (2014) p. 100. Id. makes no mention of Guibert.

[3] Guibert of Nogent, Monodiae {Songs by myself} 2.5. Here’s some comparative analysis of Guibert’s intellectual development. The subsequent facts in the above paragraph are culled from Guibert’s Monodiae.

[4] Guibert, Monodiae 2.16.

[5] Guibert, Monodiae 3.14. Guibert wrote, “to make from the foolish the idiotic {de stulto insanum facere}.” That’s a paraphrase of Terence, Eunuchus l. 254, where the slave Parmeno says to the Gnatho the parasite: “What a man, by Hercules! Here he makes men from foolish straight into idiotic {scitum hercle hominem! hic homines prorsum ex stultis insanos facit}.”

[6] Archambault (1996) p. xxxvi (introduction), quoting in English translation Labande (1981) p. xx (introduction). Benton, a learned medieval historian, stated:

Guibert knew both the pagan and the Christian classics better than either Bourgin or I, and although I have been able to identify some 35 more allusions and quotations than my predecessor {Bourgin}, I have no doubt that many more have gone unnoticed.

Benton (1970) p. 3. Benton lists Guibert as citing in his Monodiae passages from Augustine, Bede, Benedict, Gregory the Great, Horace, Lucan, Ovid, Sallust, Sidonius Apollinaris, Tacitus, Terence, and Virgil. Id. p. 246.

[7] For these facts, Butterfield (2013) pp. 6-9, 201.

[8] Guibert, Monodiae 3.16, Latin text from Bourgin (1907), my English translation benefiting from those of Archambault (1996) and McAlhany & Rubenstein (2011). Both of the latter translations are based on the Latin text of Labande (1981), as well as some additional Latin textual witnesses. The quoted Latin text is consistent with both those translations. To serve for close reading, my translations follow the Latin as closely as feasible while still being intelligible to a general reader. All subsequent quotes from Monodiae are from 3.16-17 and are similarly sourced.

Count Jean of Soissons was the son of Alais, daughter of Count Renaud of Soissons, and the brother of Manasses, Bishop of Soissons. Guibert knew Jean personally. He heard from Count Jean himself about hatred among his family members and other personal stories: “the Count himself narrated to me some of what was told above {mihi comes isdem de ea quae sunt superius relata narrabat}.”

[9] According to Guibert, Count Jean responded sarcastically to a priest urging him to repentence on his deathbed:

“You want me,” he said, “to give money to those ass-lickers, that is to say priests? Not a single obol!”

{ Vis, inquit, ut laccatoribus, scilicet presbyteris, mea erogem? Ne obolum quidem! }

An obol was a silver coin used in ancient Greece.

[10] Benton (1970) p. 211, n. 7. Count Jean’s wife was Adeline, daughter of Nevelon of Pierrepont. Id.

[11] According to Lucretius, Epicurus was like the giants engaged in Gigantomachy. Using his mind, Epicurus (the Greek man) will be “first to smash open the tight-barred gates of Nature {naturae primus portarum claustra cupiret}.” De rerum natura 1.71. That specific line adapts Ennius, Annals, Book VII: “after ghastly Discordia / shattered the ironbound posts and gates of War {postquam Discordia taetra / Belli ferratos postes portasque refregit}.” Frag. 225, Latin text and English translation (adapted) from Golberg & Manuwald (2018). Ennius’s Annals was an important epic predecessor to Lucretius and considerably influenced De rerum natura. Harrison (2002). Morgan insightfully observed:

If there is indeed a hint of Discordia taetra, “ghastly Discordia”, in Lucretius’ Epicurus, well, that’s as stunning a move as his topsy-turvy Gigantomachy: once again, though in even more arresting fashion, the founder of Lucretius’ philosophical school is equated to chaotic, anti-Olympian forces.

Morgan (2014).

Rider interprets De rerum natura as presenting Epicureanism as the sociohistorical instantiation of the Empedoclean force Love. Epicureanism in this allegory does battle with religion and sacrifice as the sociohistorical instantiation of the Empedoclean force Strife. Rider (2011) pp. 28-9, 46-52. Guibert and Morgan’s interpretation of chaos in De rerum natura seems to me a better reading. It connects more closely with the key Epicurean idea of atomism in relation to birth and death.

[12] Rider (2011). Lucretius also described the pathetic sorrow of a cow after her calf had been sacrificed to the gods. De rerum natura 2.352-66.

[13] Lucretius, De rerum natura 1.84-100, Latin text from Bailey (2017), English translation from Esolen (1995). Harrison (2002), p. 7, maps the central position of this passage in the proem of De rerum natura. Here are some online study notes for the Latin text.

I’ve made two small changes in Esolen’s translation based on my understanding of the Latin poem. For l. 84, Esolen has “At Aulis, for instance: the pride of the Greek people,”. But both the position and facts of the sacrifice of Iphigenia (done by “the pride of the Greek people, the chosen peers”) seems to me to make this story more important than just “for instance.” So I’ve modified the line to “At Aulis did even the the pride of the Greek people,”.  In l. 94, Esolen’s translation has ‘to give the king the name of “father”?’. To indicate the poetic constrast between “king” and “father”, I’ve used the less literal translation “title” for nomine: to give the king the title “father”?’.

[14] Guibert explicitly refered to Augustine:

If you review heresies from what Augustine has summarized, you will find that none comes closer to this one than does the Manichaeans. Originally started by the learned, what has survived of this heresy has filtered down to peasants. Boasting of holding to the life of the Apostles, those peasants cherish their reading of Acts and nothing else.

{ Si relegas haereses ab Augustino digestas, nulli magis quam Manicheorum reperies convenire. Quae olim coeta a doctioribus, residuum demisit ad rusticos, qui vitam se apostolicam tenere jactantes, eorum actus solos legere amplectuntur. }

Guibert’s reference to the learned implicitly follows Augustine in tracing the origin of Manichaeism to the Persian master Mani. In his book On the relics of the saints {De pignoribus sanctorum}, Guibert labeled the sect Manichaeans:

Some time ago the zeal of God’s people at Soissons caused remnants of Manicheaism to be burned to death, but because they lacked a just cause for dying, they only added damnation to bodily punishments. I spoke about these things at greater length in my books of Monodies .

{ Manichaeorum pridem Suessionis zelo Dei plebis arserunt, sed extorres a justa causa, solummodo addemnatis corporibus sibi damno fuerunt. Super quibus in libris Monodiarum mearum laciniosius dixi. }

De pignoribus sanctorum, Latin text from Patrologia Latina 156, English translation (modified) from McAlhany & Rubenstein (2011) p. 185. Thomas Head’s translation is freely available online.

Augustine of Hippo described Manichaeans as participating in a human semen eucharist. The ritual, according to Augustine, is “no sacrament but a sacrilege {non sacramentum sed exsecramentum}”:

because of some demand of their sacrilegious superstition, their Elect are forced to consume a sort of eucharist sprinkled with human seed in order that the divine substance may be freed even from that, just as it is from other foods which they receive. … flour is sprinkled beneath a couple in sexual intercourse to receive and commingle with their seed. … they are just as much obliged to purge from human seed by eating, as they are in reference to other seed which they consume in their food.

{ exsecrabilis superstitionis quadam necessitate, coguntur Electi eorum uelut eucharistiam conspersam cum semine humano sumere ut etiam inde, sicut de aliis cibis quos accipiunt, substantia illa diuina purgetur. … ad excipiendum et commiscendum concumbentium semen farina substernitur … sic eam etiam de semine humano, quemadmodum de aliis seminibus quae in alimentis sumunt, debeant manducando purgare. }

De Haeresibus 46, Latin text (from edition of Roel Vander Plaetse and Clemens Beukers, 1979) and English translation from van Oort (2016a) pp. 194-6. According to Augustine, a unmarried young woman named Margarita, as well as another woman named Eusebia, had sexual intercourse as part of this ritual. Augustine apparently was referring to heresy cases against Manichaeans in Carthage in 421 and 427. Id. pp. 198-9. Upon careful review, van Oort regards Augustine’s account as reliable. van Oort (2016b) provides further evidence of human semen eucharist.

Guibert’s account of the ritual of the “Soissons Manichaeans” is more poetic than Augustine’s. McAlhany & Rubenstein perceived in Guibert’s account casual parody beyond Augustine’s description of Manichaean heresy:

The heresy as presented here is a mixture of attacks against the sacramental authority of priests in ceremonies such as baptism and the Eucharist and of certain dualist ideas associated with Manichaeism and described by Saint Augustine. Guibert himself draws attention to this similarity. It is unclear how much, if any, of this represents Clement’s and Evrard’s actual beliefs {they were prosecuted members of the Soissons sect}. Probably Guibert, after gossiping with fellow abbots, has colored an antisacramental doctrine with a lewd and clearly parodic series of half-formed notions, ceremonies, and sexual practices.

McAlhany & Rubenstein (2011) p. 274, n. 93. I think Guibert should be credited with greater intellectual sophostication. Specifically, I think he colored his construction of “Soissons Manichaeans” with thoughtful consideration of De rerum natura.

[15] Lucretius, who adhered to belief in the existence of gods, regarded gods as having no significance for worldly life. The sect’s god is thus like Lucretius’s gods.

Guibert surely understood that Christians would not read the incineration of the child, even if fictional, with emotional detachment even if they regarded it as irrational and morally wrong. That differs from Lucretius’s apparent strategy in depicting the sacrifice of Iphigenia. Morrison (2013). Reducing the child to ashes / atoms underscores the parody of atomism and De rerum natura.

[image] Manuscript page of Lucretius, De rerum natura, Book 1, folio 1r. Manuscript made in northern Italy, perhaps Bobbio, between 850 and 900 GC. Preserved in Det Kongelige Bibliotek as MS GKS 211 2°.


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

Bailey, Cyril, ed. 2017. Titus Lucretius Carus. De rerum natura. Libri sex, vol. 1. Prolegomena, text, critical aparatus, and translation. Oxford: Oxford 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.

Billanovich, Guido. 1958. “‘Veterum vestigia vatum’ nei carmi dei preumanisti padovani.” Italia Medioevale e Umanistica. 1: 155-243.

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

Butterfield, David. 2013. The Early Textual History of Lucretius’ De rerum natura. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.(Lisa Piazzi’s review)

Esolen, Anthony M., trans. 1995. Lucretius. On the Nature of Things: De rerum natura. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Golberg, Sander M. and Gesine Manuwald, ed. and trans. 2018. Fragmentary Republican Latin, Volume I: Ennius, Testimonia. Epic Fragments. Loeb Classical Library 294. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018.

Harrison, Steven J. 2002. “Ennius and the Prologue to Lucretius DRN 1 (1.1-148).” Leeds International Classical Studies. 1.4: 1-13.

Labande, Edmond René, ed. and trans. (French). 1981. Guibert of Nogent. Autobiographie. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

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)

Morgan, Llewelyn. 2014. “The Triumph of Chaos.” Online post at Lugubelinus, May 14.

Morrison, Andrew D. 2013. “Nil igitur mors est ad nos? Iphianassa, the Athenian Plague, and Epicurean Views of Death.” Ch. 8 (pp. 211-32) in Sharrock, Alison, Andrew D. Morrison, and Daryn Lehoux, eds. 2013. Lucretius: poetry, philosophy, science. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Palmer, Ada. 2014. Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance. I Tatti Studies in Italian Renaissance History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press. (Quinn Radziszewski’s review)

Rider, Zackary P. 2011. Empedocles, Epicurus, and the Failure of Sacrifice in Lucretius. M.A. Thesis, Department of Classics, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Squatriti, Paolo, trans. 2007. The Complete Works of Liudprand of Cremona. Washington: Catholic University of America Press.

van Oort, Johannes. 2016a. “‘Human Semen Eucharist’ Among the Manichaeans? The Testimony of Augustine Reconsidered in Context.” Vigiliae Christianae. 70 (2): 193-216.

van Oort, Johannes. 2016b. “Another Case of Human Semen Eucharist Among the Manichaeans?Vigiliae Christianae. 70 (4): 430-440.

Witt, Ronald G. 2012. The Two Latin Cultures and the Foundation of Renaissance Humanism in Medieval Italy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jephthah’s daughter sought bigger name than Abraham’s son Isaac

Jephthah sacrificing his daughter

Whatever a man can do, a woman can do even better. Behind every great man is an even greater woman. Every husband knows that all his success he owes to his wife. Who would dare to challenge such popular wisdom? Few persons have throughout history. In the ancient Hebrew biblical world, Jephthah’s daughter sought to gain an even more famous name than Abraham’s son Isaac. Not surprisingly, about 1900 years ago in a Hebrew work now known as Pseudo-Philo’s Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum {Book of Biblical Antiquities}, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob recognized that girls rule.

Jephthah’s mother was a prostitute. His father was Gilead. This was a time before sex workers received their due respect. Gilead, the name of Jephthah’s prostitute-visiting father, means in Hebrew “eternal happiness.” What became known as the balm of Gilead, the universal cure for men?[1] Like biological anthropologists who still don’t understand sexual selection in practice, biblical scholars still can’t imagine what ancient Hebrew men thought the balm of Gilead was.

Jephthah was also a mighty warrior. Societies have long exploited men to fight their wars. Drafting or inciting Jephthah to fight for his society was more complicated than normal. Because Jephthah wasn’t their mother’s son, the sons of Gilead’s wife had driven Jephthah from their home. In gynocentric society, men’s relationship with women determines the right to stay in one’s home. Jephthah thus became an outcast brigand. To get Jephthah to fight for them, the elders of Gilead’s society agreed to make Jephthah their chief if he led the fight against their enemy the Ammonites, if they prevailed, and if he lived.

Jephthah vowed to God for a victory. He vowed that if God would allow him to defeat the Ammonites, whoever came out first to meet him when he returned home victorious would be God’s — would be offered to God as a burnt offering. Jephthah was victorious over the Ammonites. He undoubtedly killed many Ammonite men, and many men of Gilead were probably killed as well. When Jephthah returned home, he was greeted first by his only child joyously shaking timbrels and dancing. This only child was a young woman. Would Jephthah kill a young woman, his daughter, to fulfill his vow to God?

Many ancient and medieval thinkers found reason for Jephthah not sacrificing his daughter. Mosaic law condemns instances of sacrificing children, and it provides monetary equivalents for human sacrifices.[2] Surely honoring a vow to God to perform an action that God condemns can’t be right. Joining the Hebrew phrases for “would be God’s” and “would be offered to God as a burnt offering” is a Hebrew letter that the twelfth-century rabbi Joseph Kimhi interpreted as “or” rather than “and.” Perhaps Jephthah fulfilled his vow by dedicating his daughter to the Lord as an alternative to immolating her.[3] Many men undoubtedly were killed in the battle between the Ammonites and Jephthah’s men. Yet the fate of Jephthah’s daughter has attracted far more concern than the fate of all the men who were killed.

The great medieval thinker and poet Peter Abelard provided words of Jephthah’s daughter. Judges records Jephthah’s daughter urging him to sacrifice her:

she said to him, “My father, since you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone forth from your mouth, now that the Lord has avenged you on your enemies, the Ammonites.” [4]

{ ותאמר אליו אבי פציתה את־פיך אל־יהוה עשה לי
כאשר יצא מפיך אחרי אשר עשה לך יהוה נקמות מאיביך
מבני עמון }

What father wouldn’t do what his daughter asked him to do? Yet fathers in their loving concern seek what’s best for their daughters. Being killed usually isn’t good for a person. Jephthah’s daughter had to spend additional words to persuade her father to do what she wanted him to do:

Abraham wishing to sacrifice his son
did not receive this grace from the Lord,
that the Lord would accept from him the boy as an offering.
He who spurned a boy,
if he accepts a girl —
think, what an honor it would be for my sex!

{ Immolare filium uolens Abraham
non hanc apud Dominum habet gratiam,
ut ab ipso puerum uellet hostiam.
Puerum qui respuit,
si puellam suscipit —
quod decus sit sexus mei percipe! } [5]

Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son Issac according to God’s command. At the last moment, an angel of God stayed Abraham’s knife-wielding hand. Jephthah’s daughter sought do better than Isaac. She eagerly imagined that God might not intervene, and that being killed, she would win glory as being better than Isaac. Like many women today, Jephthah’s daughter ardently sought to be like a man, but better.[6]

Jephthah’s daughter told her horror-stricken and wavering father to man up. She harshly declared to him:

As in sex, so in spirit,
be now a man, I pray!
Do not impede my glory or your own!

{ Ut sexu sic animo
uir esto nunc, obseto!
Nec mee nec tue obstes glorie! }

Women constantly tell men how to be a man. Wise men choose their own way, consistent with the innate goodness of their being. Jephthah should have gently but firmly told his daughter not to instruct him about how to be a man. Then he should have said to her, “If you have sorrow for your offense and love for me, go make me a sandwich.” Instead, he allowed her to continue to instruct him disrespectfully:

Would you wish to hold me before your soul
and by this perverse example harm others?

If love should allow you
to prefer this girl to the Lord,
then offending the Lord together with the people,
you would also destroy the people by displeasing the Lord.

What the tender young woman does not fear to endure,
let the man’s right arm suffer to inflict,
as the solemn promise of his own vow requires!

{ Si tue preferre me uis anime
exemplo que prauo cunctos ledere?

Sinat te delectio
proferat hanc Domino,
unaque tu Dominum offendens cum populo,
amittas et populum displicendo Domino.

Quod ferre non trepidat uirgo tenera
inferre sustineat uiri dextera,
sponsio quem obligat uoti propria! }

Even with this provocation, Jephthah didn’t immediately go ahead and kill his daughter. Like most fathers, he loved his daughter completely.[7]

Like most fathers, Jephthah lacked the strength to stand up to his daughter. She demanded and received time and supplies from him to enjoy a two-month hiking trip in the wilderness with her young single female friends.[8] When Jephthah’s daughter returned from her wilderness trip, she enjoyed a bath in her own bedroom, with her servant-handmaidens serving her. Jephthah’s daughter was a highly privileged woman.

After her bath, Jephthah’s daughter ordered her father to prepare to kill her. Her servant-handmaidens adorned her with a necklace of gems and pearls, and with golden earrings, rings, and bracelets. Annoyed by the weight of these luxurious accessories, she quickly pushed herself from her soft bed to her feet. She was in a sense a strong and independent woman: “At once she seizes the naked blade which she delivered to her father {Mox quem patri detulit ensem nudum arripit}.” Like the highly privileged women of ancient Jerusalem, Jephthah’s daughter had material riches but no husband. Her death would for her substitute for a marriage feast.[9]

Throughout history, Jephthah has been blamed for his daughter’s death. Jephthah has been blamed for rashly making a vow to God while facing a terrifying battle with the Ammonites. Jephthah has been blamed for being faithful to his vow to God. But Jephthah has scarcely ever been blamed for doing as his daughter wished him to do:

O senseless mind of a judge!
O insane zeal of a prince!
O father, but enemy of your family,
which you destroy by the death of your only child.

{ O mentem amentem iudicis!
O zelum insanum principis!
O patrem, sed hostem generis,
unice quod nece diluis. }

Most early Jewish and Christian commentary condemned Jephthah for fulfilling his vow.[10] In the course of a lengthy review of ancient and medieval commentary on Jephthah and his daughter, a modern scholar refered to Jephthah killing his daughter as “Jephthah’s senseless deed.” Another modern scholar lamented:

Ephrem is not the only ascetic patristic author who fails to denounce Jephthah unequivocally. Jerome, for one, equivocates. [11]

Gynocentric society encourages fathers to do anything to please their daughters. Women should share the blame with men for the resulting pain and suffering.

With women typically regarded as wonderful, Jephthah’s daughter has been celebrated among the most wonderful women. Pseudo-Philo’s God in Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum {Book of Biblical Antiquities} declared of Jephthah’s daughter:

I have seen that she is wiser than her father and that the young woman is smarter than all the wise men who are here. Now let her soul be given up in accord with her request, and her death will be precious before me always, and she will go and depart into the bosom of her mothers.

{ Ecce nunc conclusi linguam sapientum populi mei in generationem istam, ut non possent respondere filie Iepte ad verbum eius, ut compleretur verbum meum, nec destrueretur consilium meum quod cogitaveram. Et ipsam vidi magis sapientem pre patre suo, et sensatam virginem pre omnibus qui hic sunt sapientibus. Et nunc detur anima eius in petitione eius, et erit mors eius preciosa ante conspectum meum omni tempore, et abiens decidet in sinum matrum suarum. } [12]

In addition to insisting that her father kill her, Jephthah’s daughter had another credit to her name. The biblical account declares that through to the time of her death, “she didn’t have sex with any man {ידעה איש}.”[13] Many young women majoring in Women’s Studies today will die unmarried, hugging to the hope that in death they’ll depart into the bosom of their mothers. They are heirs to generations of women taught life-depriving lies:

Chant, young Hebrew women,
in memory of that famous young woman,
that glorious girl of Israel —
that young woman truly raises your status.

{ Hebree dicite uirgines,
dicite uirginis memores,
inclite puelle Israel —
hac ualde uirgine nobiles. }

According to the biblical account, four days every year the women of Israel honor the memory of Jephthah’s daughter. That commemorative ritual came to be known as tekufah. Jews throughout medieval German and medieval northern France observed tekufah regularly.[14]

Gynocentric society’s yearning to create a goddess can have astonishing effects. Writing to cure religious misunderstanding about 1650 years ago, Epiphanius of Salamis observed:

The profundities and glories of the sacred scripture, which are beyond human understanding, have confused many. … in Sebasteia, which was once called Samaria, they have declared Jephthah’s daughter a goddess, and still hold a festival in her honor every year.

{ πολλοὺς γὰρ ἐφαντασίασε τὰ βαθύτατα τῆς θείας γραφῆς καὶ ἔνδοξα καὶ ὑπεραίροντα διάνοιαν ἀνθρωπίνης φύσεως. … ἐν δὲ τῇ Σεβαστείᾳ τῇ ποτὲ Σαμαρείᾳ καλουμένῃ, τὴν θυγατέρα Ἰεφθάε θεοποιήσαντες ἔτι ταύτῃ τελετὴν κατ’ ἔτος ἄγουσιν. } [15]

The great thinker Paul of Tarsus, deeply learned in Jewish culture, warned strongly against gyno-idolatry. Neither Jews nor Christians nor Greeks nor anyone else have consistently taken to heart Paul’s profound wisdom about women.

Jephthah’s daughter sought to gain more glory that Abraham’s son Isaac by insisting that her father kill her. Jephthah should have rebuked his daughter’s foolish attempt to lean into his sword. Today, even more so than in biblical times, women strive to outperform men. That’s a recipe for an unhappy, lonely death.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] For the story of Jephthah and his daughter, Judges 11. On the balm of Gilead, Jeremiah 8:52, 46:11. According to the Wikipedia on the name Gilead:

In Hebrew, גלעד (transcribed Gilad or Ghil’ad) is used as a male given name and is often analysed as deriving from גיל (gil) “happiness, joy” and עד (ad) “eternity, forever”; i.e. “eternal happiness”.

Perhaps originating in a very ancient time before pervasive disparagement of men’s sexuality, Gilead has a complementary root meaning “hard, stony region.”

[2] Leviticus 18:21, 20:2-5, 27:1–8; Deuteronomy 18:10. The issue is historically complicated. Child sacrifice apparently did licitly occur in ancient Hebrew society. Cf. Thompson, who asserts:

the sheer unlawfulness of Jephthah’s vow in light of the biblical prohibition against human sacrifice and the provision of the Mosaic law (in Lev. 27:1–8) for such a vow to be redeemed monetarily.

Thompson (2001) p. 170.

[3] Jephthah’s vow is in Judges 11:31. Rabbi David Kimhi wrote this grammatical argument about Judges 11:31 early in the thirteenth century. He attributed it to his father, Rabbi Joseph Kimhi. Thompson (2001) pp. 150-1.

[4] Judges 11:36.

[5] Peter Abelard, Planctus uirginum Israel super filia Iepte Galadite {The Lament of the Young Women of Israel over the Daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite} ll. 36-41, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly in some places) from Ruys (2014). Abelard probably wrote this planctus in the mid-1130s. Id. pp. 8, 65. Ruys characterized Abelard’s six planctus as perhaps his “most remarkable literary achievement.” Ruys (2006) p. 1.

All subsequent quotes from Planctus uirginum Israel super filia Iepte Galadite are similarly sourced. Those quotes are (cited by verse number in Ruys’ Latin text): 44-6 (As in sex…); 47-52, 61-3 (Would you wish…); 111 (At once she seizes the naked blade…); 120-3 (O senseless mind…); 124-7 (Chant, young Hebrew women…). The planctus ends with l. 127.

Planctus uirginum Israel super filia Iepte Galadite has a complex poetic form. The manuscript text is written with multiple vertical columns and explicit musical notation. Carefully study of the text and its metrical patterns suggest that two lacuna might exist. Orlandi (2001) pp. 329-37. I simply follow Ruys’ Latin text.

A Latin text (significantly inferior to Ruys’) and German translation of Abelard’s Planctus uirginum Israel super filia Iepte Galadite is freely available online at Heloïsa und Abaelard. Here’s a better Latin text and French translation, also freely available online.

For Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac and the angel’s last-minute intervention, Genesis 22:1-19.

[6] A chorus of young women of Israel provide framing song for the drama of Planctus uirginum Israel super filia Iepte Galadite. In their introductory song they sing, “O how rare the man like her {O quam rarum illi uirum similem}!” Planctus l. 16. The chorus understood Jephthah’s daughter to have successfully competed with men, particularly with Abraham’s son Isaac. For a detailed comparison of the biblical texts concerning the two incidents, Shemesh (2017) pp. 119-22.

Visual representations of Jephthah sacrificing his daughter have long been prominently paired with Abraham being restrained from sacrificing Isaac. Within the great church (Justinian’s basilica) of Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, seventh-century encaustic paintings of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac and Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter frame the altar of the sanctuary. In the Monastery of Saint Anthony at the Red Sea, a thirteenth-century wall painting over the altar also depicts both events. Weitzmann (1964), Schroeder (2012). For visual representations of Jephthah and his daughter more generally, Drewer (2002).

[7] Ruys perceptively commented:

the entire poem turns upon the question of the relationship between biological sex and social gender. …  Abelard’s Planctus uirginum thus profoundly challenges traditional identification of sex and gender and explores the question of what constitutes the sexed female body and what it means to be, and to become, a woman.

Ruys (2006) pp. 10-1. What’s missing from this analysis, and from literary studies in general, is a meninist perspective. Abelard’s Planctus uirginum Israel super filia Iepte Galadite profoundly challenges daughters dominating their fathers and young women disastrously constructing their identity in terms of competing with men.

Abelard’s Planctus also challenges privileging mothers’ relationships with their children relative to fathers’ relationships with their children. Inverting the sex stereotype of the absent father, Abelard makes no mention of the young woman’s mother. Moreover, the daughter says to her father:

Behold, she who is the fruit of your womb

{ Uteri qui tui fructus inspice }

Planctus, l. 42. Ruys learnedly observed:

Certainly in Classical Latin ‘uterus’ can mean any bodily cavity, but it can hardly be disputed that it is a word with very strong feminine overtones, most commonly used to designate the womb. This is especially the case in Abelard’s time, a period when the twelfth-century veneration of the Virgin Mary and the virgin birth was well under way and was being expressed in an increasing number of hymns explicitly in praise of the ‘uterus Virginis’.

Ruys (2006) p. 11. Similarly, Ruys (20014) p. 277, note to l. 42. Id. adds that this line echoes God’s blessing in the Vulgate text of Deuteronomy 28:4, “Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb {benedictus fructus ventris tui}.” Those are the same words of Elizabeth to Mary in the Vulgate for Luke 1:42. Jephthah’s daughter thus figures her father as being as important to her as a mother. That sense of gender equality contrasts sharply with gross anti-father sex-discrimination in child custody rulings today.

Dronke declared, “As Abelard has presented Jephtha and his daughter, we cannot, strictly, identify with either of them.” Dronke (1970) p. 144. I think many men can significantly identify with Jephthah, and many women, with Jephthah’s daughter. Part of the problem for Dronke seems to be his one-sided perspective on women and men.

[8] Jephthah’s daughter said to Jephthah:

But you will grant
a period of two months
in which, wandering through valleys and hills with my companions
and weeping, I may give myself over to laments
that thus the Lord should deprive me of progeny.

{ Sed duorum mensium
indulgebis spatium,
quo ualles et colles cum sodalibus
peragrans et plorans, uaccem planctibus
quod sic me semine priuet Dominus. }

Planctus ll. 64-8. Both the words indulgebis (indulgeo) and uaccem (uaco) have connotations of indulgence and idleness. The word semine (semen) literally refers a bodily component of the precious gift of men’s sexuality. Jephthah’s daughter here projects onto the Lord her culpability for her impending, barren death.

[9] For death as a wedding substitute in literary history and oral folktales in relation to Jephthah’s daughter, Alexiou & Dronke (1971).

[10] Blaming Jephthah was commonly combined with celebrating his daughter:

Early Jewish and Christian commentary, however, commonly condemned Jephthah for his vow while honoring the daughter, often seeing her as a martyr. … Prior to Kimhi, rabbinic literature had mostly vilified Jephthah along lines followed also by Pseudo‐Philo.

Thompson (2001) abstract for electronic edition of Ch. 3 and p. 150. Thompson refers to “Jephthah’s senseless deed” and “Jephthah’s senseless vow.” Id. pp. 119, 149. A significant counterpoint to disparaging Jephthah is Hebrews 11:32-4.

Dante’s preeminent guide Beatrice faulted Jephthah while making no reference to his daughter’s powerful influence:

Let not mortals take vows lightly.
Be faithful and, as well, not injudicious,
as was Jephthah, offering up what first he saw,
who had done better had he said “I have done ill”
than keeping faith and doing worse. And you can find
this sort of folly in the leader of the Greeks,
who made Iphigenia lament the beauty of her face
and who made all those, whether wise or foolish,
who heard reports of such a rite lament as well.

{ Non prendan li mortali il voto a ciancia;
siate fedeli, e a ciò far non bieci,
come Ieptè a la sua prima mancia;
cui più si convenia dicer ‘Mal feci,’
che, servando, far peggio; e così stolto
ritrovar puoi il gran duca de’ Greci,
onde pianse Efigènia il suo bel volto,
e fé pianger di sé i folli e i savi
ch’udir parlar di così fatto cólto. }

Dante, Paradiso 5.64-71, Italian text and English translation from the Princeton Dante Project and Robert & Jean Hollander. More so than Dante, Guibert of Nogent thought deeply about the sacrifice of Iphigenia and Lucretius’s De rerum natura.

[11] Schroeder (2012) p. 294.

[12] Pseudo-Philo, Liber antiquitatum biblicarum 40.4, Latin text and English translation from Jacobson (1996) pp. 60, 161. Here’s a online Latin version.

[13] Judges 11:39.

[14] Baumgarten (2007) analyzes the tekufah in detail.

[15] Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 35 (55) 1.9-10, Greek text from Patrologia Graeca 41:973, English translation from Williams (1994) v. 2, p. 79.

Despite modern pretensions, critical analysis of the story of Jephthah and his daughter has improved little over the past two millennia. On the literary and artistic history, Sypherd (1948) and Thompson (2001), Ch. 3. Sypherd (1948) ignorantly dismisses much insightful medieval work. Thompson (2001), Ch. 3, devotes extensive, non-critical attention to modern anti-meninist scholarship. That’s an oppressive, gender-bigoted aspect of current dominant ideology. Moreover, Thompson projects onto medieval thinkers the obliteration of the father in modern gynocentric ideology. Thus:

minds both theological and pious attempted to identify with Jephthah’s daughter, reading their own lives and concerns and ecclesial contexts into her story in order to recall the witness of her truncated life — in mourning, warning, and grace.

Thompson (2001) p. 178. Serious study of great medieval Latin men writers, e.g. Matheus of Boulogne, Boncompagno of Signa, and Walter Map, might help to remedy such narrow-mindedness.

[image] On left, Jephthah’s daughter and her young single female friends lamenting in the wilderness. On right, Jephthah beheading his daughter. Illumination from folio 54r of the Paris Psalter of Saint Louis. Created from 1270-74 in Paris. Preserved as Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Latin 10525.


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

Baumgarten, Elisheva. 2007. “‘Remember That Glorious Girl’: Jephthah’s Daughter in Medieval Jewish Culture.” The Jewish Quarterly Review. 97 (2): 180-209.

Drewer, Lois. 2002. “Jephthah and His Daughter in Medieval Art: Ambiguities of Heroism and Sacrifice.” Pp. 35-59 in Hourihane, Colum. 2002. Insights and Interpretations: studies in celebration of the eighty-fifth anniversary of the Index of Christian art. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Dronke, Peter. 1970. Poetic Individuality in the Middle Ages: new departures in poetry 1000-1150. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Jacobson, Howard. 1996. A Commentary on Pseudo-Philo’s Liber antiquitatum biblicarum: with Latin text and English translation. Leiden: Brill.

Orlandi, Giovanni. 2001. “On the text and interpretation of Abelard’s Planctus.” Pp. 327-42 in John Marenbon and Peter Dronke, eds. Poetry and Philosophy in the Middle Ages: a festschrift for Peter Dronke. Leiden.

Ruys, Juanita Feros. 2006. “Ut sexu sic animo‘: the resolution of sex and gender in the Planctus of Abelard.” Medium Aevum. 75 (1): 1-23.

Ruys, Juanita Feros. 2014. The Repentant Abelard: family, gender and ethics in Peter Abelard’s Carmen ad Astralabium and Planctus. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmsillan.

Schroeder, Caroline T. 2012. “Child Sacrifice in Egyptian Monastic Culture: From Familial Renunciation to Jephthah’s Lost Daughter.” Journal of Early Christian Studies. 20 (2): 269-302.

Shemesh, Yael. 2017. “Jephthah — Victimizer and Victim: A Comparison of Jephthah and Characters in Genesis.” Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society (JANES). 32 (1): 117-131.

Sypherd, Wilbur Owen. 1948. Jephthah and his Daughter: a study in comparative literature. Newark: University of Delaware.

Thompson, John L. 2001. Writing the Wrongs: women of the Old Testament among biblical commentators from Philo through the Reformation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Williams, Frank, trans. 1987/1994. The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis. Vol. 1: Book I, Sects 1-46, Vol. 2: Books II and III (sects 47-80). Leiden: Brill.

Weitzmann, Kurt. 1964. “The Jephthah Panel in the Bema of the Church of St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. 18: 341-352.

displaying cruelty to women spurs crusade against men-killing man

medieval hanging of five kings

Today, men’s lives are valued far less than women’s. Men’s lives were also valued less than women’s lives in medieval Europe. The problem isn’t merely chivalrous men killing other men in service to women. A more fundamental problem is violence against men being normalized as only violence. In thirteenth-century Italy, Alberigo da Romano, the ruler of the city Treviso, brutally killed many men. Yet the Cardinal of Lombardy shrewdly displayed Alberigo’s cruelty to women to spur a crusade among local men to kill Alberigo and his family.

Men’s violent deaths tend to be less notable than cruelty to women. Consider how the thirteenth-century Franciscan monk Salimbene reported a particularly horrific instance of Alberigo’s violence:

Alberigo had twenty-five civic leaders of Treviso hanged on a single day, yet they had neither offended nor harmed him in any way. … And he required thirty noble women — their mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters — to come and watch the hangings. And not only that; he also wanted to cut off the noses of these women. But by the good deed of one who is called Alberigo’s bastard son, but who isn’t, that action was dismissed. However, he had their clothes cut off from their breasts down so that with their whole bodies nude they were seen by those who were being hanged. And he had the men hung near the ground, and he forced the nude women to pass between the men’s legs. With their legs and feet they kicked the women’s faces as they were dying in the bitterness of their lives. And the women had to endure such mockery in their anguish and sorrow of being alive.

{ XXV de maioribus Trivisii fecit una die suspendi, et non offenderant nec leserant eum in aliquo … Et XXX nobiles mulieres, matres istorum, uxores, filias et sorores, fecit venire, ut viderent suspendendo, et ipsi eas; quibus voluit nasum precidere, sed benefitio cuiusdam, quem appellabat filium suum spurium, sed non erat, fuit dimissum. Verumtamen usque ad mamillas fuerunt vestes earum precise, ita quod totum corpus cuiuslibet earum nudum erat, et viderunt eas qui suspendendi erant. Et ita iuxta terram fuerunt suspensi, quod iste mulieres cogebantur per tibias eorum transire, et illi cum tibiis et pedibus vultum earum percutiebant, dum moriebantur in amaritudine animarum suarum; et iste in angustia et dolore vivebant, dum talia ludibria sustinerent. }

The men being hung had to see women they loved sexually exposed. Alberigo forced the women to go between their men’s involuntarily jerking legs and feet as the men suffocated and died in hanging. That arrangement viciously parodies sexual intercourse. Amid the horrific cruelty was a successful intervention to save the women from having their noses cut off. Salimbene’s concluding concern is that women had to endure mockery as they lived. The men endured terrible mockery and were killed. As is commonly the case, the men’s fate was less notable, and more brutal.

Salimbene continued with a focus on the women. He reported:

After this Alberigo had the women carried off beyond the river called Sial or Sile, and then to go wherever they wished. The women made for themselves with the pieces of garment that they had about their breasts coverings for their genitals, that is their vaginas. Then they walked the whole day for fifteen miles through wild fields, through thorns and briars and nettles and burrs and thistles, with naked feet and totally naked bodies and being bitten by flies. They went weeping, for they had cause for weeping, and they had nothing to eat.

{ Post hec fecit eas poni ultra fluvium qui dicitur Sila vel Siler, ut irent quo vellent. Et fecerunt sibi coopertoria de modico indumento, quod habebant circa mammillas, et operuerunt sibi menbra genitalia, id est pudenda, et ambulaverunt tota die illa per XV miliaria per terram incultam, per spinas et tribulos et urticas et lappas et paliuros et cardetos, et nudis pedibus incedebant et nude toto corpore et a muscis mordebantur; et flendo ibant, quia causam flendi hadebant, nec habebant quid manducarent. }

The women had just watched men they love be brutally killed. That undoubtedly hurt them more than briars and flies. That undoubtedly caused them to weep more than for not having anything to eat. Weeping women are a potent persuasive force. Salimbene thought not of the men hanging dead, but of the weeping women.

When the women became mired in the Venetian lagoons at night, a lone fisherman working then saw them and helped them. With his little boat he transferred them across the lagoon one by one to the safety of solid ground. The last remaining woman he treated differently:

After he had transported all of them except one, he took this last one to his fisherman’s home and fed her well and treated her with kindness, courtesy, humanity, love, and respect.

{ postquam omnes transtulit preter unam, illam ultimam ad domum suam piscatoriam duxit et optime pavit et benigne, curialiter et humane et caritative et honeste tractavit. }

Authorities today would suspect the man of raping or at least sexually harassing that nearly naked woman. But the impoverished single fisherman apparently helped the desperate, nearly naked women without compensation of any sort. Men are innately virtuous and good. As he had promised the women, early the next morning he got a larger boat and transported all of the women to the Church of San Marco in Venice. Then the fisherman went to Lord Ottavio, the Cardinal and papal representative in Lombardy, and told him of the women’s great suffering and their present location.

The Cardinal both helped the women and exploited them politically. The Cardinal immediately went to the women. He had food given to them, but not clothing. Like a shrewd media operative today, the Cardinal recognized an opportunity:

he sent a messenger throughout the city saying to all: come swiftly and quickly and without any delay to the Cardinal at the Church of San Marco — all men and women, all the small and the great, young men and young women, the old with the young. Come, for he had such to tell them, as they had never before heard, and such to show them, as they had never before seen. What more? The call very quickly gathered all the citizens of Venice to the Cardinal in the square of the Church of San Marco. There they heard from him the whole story written above. When he recited it, he made come before them the women in their shameful and nude state, as the wicked Alberigo had shamefully done to them.

{ misit per totam civitatem dicendo, quod celeriter atque festine et sine aliqua mora omnes venirent ad ipsum ad ecclesiam sancti Marci, tam viri quam mulieres, tam parvi quam magni, iuvenes et virgines, senes cum iunioribus quoniam talia diceret eis, que nunquam audiverant, et talia ostenderet eis, que nunquam viderant. Quid plura? Dicto cicius congregata est tota civitas Venetorum ad eum in platea ecclesie sancti Marci, et audiverunt ab eo totam historiam suprascriptam. Quam cum recitasset, fecit venire dominas illas ita dehonestatas et nudas, sicut ille maledictus Albricus dehonestari fecerat. }

Women historically have mobilized men to kill other men. The response to abuse of women in thirteenth-century Italy was similarly violent, but with a medieval understanding of gender equality:

When the Venetians had heard the whole story told above and looked upon those nude ladies, they cried out in loud voices, saying: “Let him die, let that wicked man die! Burn him and his wife alive, and all their progeny eradicate from this age! Then the Cardinal said, “Holy Scripture agrees with you, for it likewise curses the impious man … Let them be blotted out of the book of the living, and with the just let them not be written.” Then they all cried out, “So be it! So be it!” After this, by the will of the entire city, all men and women, the Cardinal preached a crusade against the wicked Alberigo. Whoever would take it up and go to destroy Alberigo — or send someone in his place, paying all expenses — would receive a plenary indulgence for all the sins he had. With the authority of all-mighty God and the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul as well as by his authority as legate vested in him by the apostolic chair, he confirmed giving that indulgence of repentance to all. All were thus excited, and all — man and woman, from little to the great — took the cross.

{ Cum autem audivissent Veneti omnem historiam supradictam et dominas ita nudatas conspexissent, elevata voce clamaverunt dicentes: “Moriatur, moriatur maledictus ille et vivus ardeat cum uxore, et tota eius progenies de hoc seculo extirpetur!” Tunc cardinalis dixit: “Scriptura divina concordat vobiscum, que taliter homini impio imprecatur … Deleantur de libro viventium et cum iustis non scribantur.” Tunc clamaverunt omnes dicentes: “Fiat, fiat!” Post hec de voluntate totius civitatis, tam virorum quam mulierum, predicavit crucem contra maledictum Albricum, et quicumque eam assumeret et iret vel mitteret loco sui aliquem suis expensis ad destruendum eum, plenariam indulgentiam omnium peccatorum suorum haberet. Quam auctoritate omnipotentis Dei et beatorum Petri et Pauli apostolorum eius necnon et legatione, qua ab apostolica sede fungebatur, indulgentiam datam omnibus peniter confirmavit. Animati sunt igitur omnes et crucesignati a parvo usque ad maximum, a viro usque ad mulierum }

By telling of Alberigo’s vicious acts and displaying the near-naked women, the Cardinal incited all the people of Venice to what he formulated as a Christian mission: to kill Alberigo and his family

The Venetians subsequently brutally fulfilled this mission against Alberigo. They were like a Twitter mob enraged against a man who criticized a woman, but the medieval Venetians were less gender-biased and more reality-based:

Alberigo, along with his wife and sons and daughters, perished by a wicked death. Those who killed them yanked off the children’s arms and legs while they were still alive, while their parents were watching, and struck the father and mother in the mouth with those limbs. Then they tied the mother and daughters to stakes and burned them. And those daughters were young and the most beautiful of women in the world. They were guilty of nothing. Their killers didn’t spare the innocence and beauty of the daughters because of great hatred for their father and mother … From there they came at Alberigo with pincers and each one in the street tore flesh from Alberigo’s body while he was still living. Thus they destroyed his body amid jeers and insults and heavy torments.

{ mala morte periit cum uxore et filiis et filiabus. Extrahebant enim qui interfecerunt eos tibias et brachia filiorum puerorum de corpore eorum, cum adhuc vivi essent, parentibus videntibus, et cum eis percutiebant os patris et matris; postmodum ligaverunt uxorum et filias ad palos et conbusserunt eas. Et erant nubiles et pulcherrime virgines de mundo nec erant culpabiles; et non pepercerunt innocentie et pulcritudini earum propter odium patris et matris. … Unde et veniebant ad Albricum cum tenacibus et extrahebant de corpore eius, cum adhuc viveret, in platea quilibet unum bolum, et sic destruxerunt corpus eius ludibriis et opprobriis et gravibus tormentis. }

Hateful gender bias existed even in medieval Europe. The husband was killed much more viciously than the wife, yet surely the wife deserves equal credit for her husband’s deeds. Moreover, Alberigo’s wife Margaret “called noble ladies and matrons whores and prostitutes {nobiles dominas et matronas appellabat putanas et meretrices}.” Why wasn’t she killed as viciously as her husband was? Salimbene expressed special solicitousness toward the young and beautiful daughters. Salimbene scarcely noted the sons’ deaths. In contrast to dominant myths, in reality it’s a women’s world, especially if the women are young and beautiful.

The story of the Venetians’ crusade against Alberigo underscores the importance of women. In thirteenth-century Italy, Albertanus of Brescia wrote of how Prudence dissuaded her husband Melibee from launching a vendetta against neighboring men. If the Treviso women had refused to allow Cardinal Lord Ottavio to make a spectacle of their nakedness and suffering, Alberigo and Margaret might have been restrained more humanely. Their innocent sons and daughters might have been spared.

Women should refuse to allow their suffering to be exploited to incite horrific violence. The Spartan mothers ordering their sons to victory or death is barbaric. Even strong, independent, highly privileged single women lamenting the cruelties they have endured must contribute to reducing violence against men.

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The killings of Alberigo da Romano, his wife Margaret, and their children occurred in Treviso (in northern Italy) on August 26, 1260. Alberigo’s killing of men leaders of Treviso apparently happened in 1258. Holder-Egger (1905) p. 363, n. 11; p. 366, n. 1. Salimbene described himself as a first-person witness to the killing of Alberigo and his family: “I saw these things with my own eyes {Vidi ista oculis meis}.”

The above account of Alberigo da Romano’s rule, acts, and fate is from Salimbene’s Cronica. For all the quotes, the Latin texts are from Holder-Egger (1905) pp. 363-6. The English translations I have adapted from those of Baird, Baglivi & Kane (1986) pp. 365-9.

[image] Hanging of five kings. Realistic medieval depiction illustrating Joshua 10:26-27. Upper register of folio 11v in the Crusader Bible / Morgan Picture Bible of Louis IX. Generally thought to have been made in Paris about 1245. Preserved as MS M.638 in the Morgan Library & Museum (New York). Here’s detailed analysis of the Crusader Bible / Morgan Picture Bible.


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.

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

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.

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[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.

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[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.