social construction of sexual culpability in classical Arabic poetry

medieval Baghdad underground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A prick that yearns to fuck
Every hairy pussy

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

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

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

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


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

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

medieval scholar at University of Paris wretched like courtly lover

scholars studying at the medieval University of Paris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All night long he is preoccupied with knowledge:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And another poem:

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

And another poem:

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

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

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

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

Is more oppressive than his face in appearance

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

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

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

O silent farting of the elephant when it has indigestion,

O grief of poor men on holidays,

O lack of ink for the copyist,

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

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

Then he would move to prose “O” laments:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mongols besieging Baghdad in 1258

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Id. p. 63, n. 6.

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

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

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

Id. p. 39. St. Germain has:

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

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

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

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

For this text St. Germain has:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Mother Nature denounced promiscuous maidservants exploiting men

sexy maidservant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

facing reality: pampered slave girl threatened to cuckold her master

Judith preparing to behead lover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

girdle of Venus for Architrenius: the cuckold in castration culture

Vulcan catching Mars cuckolding him with his wife Venus

About two millennia after Homer described the girdle of Venus, the all-powerful mother, Mother Nature, advised the weeping young man Architrenius to marry. Mother Nature promised that the man’s bride would present him with the girdle of Venus. The yes-dearing cuckold Vulcan had made that girdle for his adulterous wife Venus. The girdle depicted the oppression of men’s sexuality, including Democritus castrating himself. The medieval Latin satire Architrenius thus associated mother-prompted marriage with castration culture.

Suffering terribly from internalized misandry, Architrenius sought aid from Mother Nature. He imagined:

When I appear before her, she will be compassionate and resourceful, soothe my grief and grant the aid for which I plead. … A son will induce his mother to grant his prayer.

{ pacemque dolorum
Compassiva feret et subsidiosa roganti
Indulgetbit opem, …
ad vota parentem
Filius inducet } [1]

In the Aeneid, the great warrior Turnus, wearing a sword belt featuring the husband-killing Danaids, ignorantly declared, “fortune favors the bold {audentes fortuna iuvat}.”[2] The weeping man Architrenius more prophetically declared, “what fortune may await the wretched, I will see {sit miseris fortuna, videbo}.” On his journey to plead with Mother Nature, Architrenius experienced rocks tearing into his feet, brambles gouging his legs, and tree branches lashing his face. Wind stung his lips, sun burned his skin, and rain drenched him. Even before he recognize her, mother Nature wasn’t kind to Architrenius.

On his journey, Architrenius encountered a beautiful, young woman. She had luxuriant blonde hair and smooth skin without any imperfections:

The swanlike whiteness of her skin is not clouded by any mark or blemish, and its white bloom has received no admixture of the juice of berries.

{ Candida, nec macule nevo nebescit, oloris
Emula, nec recipit vaccinia mixta ligustris. } [3]

The woman had starry green eyes that expressed the Sabine women’s privilege:

Like a lantern in a watch-tower, the pupil of her eye shines with starry fire. At the center a little blazing gem of sapphire shines like the light of day; it is surrounded by a band of ruddy gold, while the outer rim is glowing beryl. … The sheer good faith expressed in her eyes is a guarantee of her Sabine purity.

{ Excubie lampas faculis ignescit ocellus
Sidereis, in quo saphyri flammata diescit
Gemmula, quam rutili mediam circumligat auri
Torquis, ad extremos tractus ardente beryllo.

Promittitque fides oculi sinera Sabinam. }

Just as Helen of Troy did to great harm, the beautiful young woman tended to sexually harass men:

Her appearance is intoxicating; her beauty both feeds the mind of the beholder with pleasure and preys upon him, enticing men with baited hook of desire.

{ Ebriat aspectus, animum cibat; omne tuentis
Delicium facies et predo, cupidinis hamo
Piscatura viros }

So it was with Architrenius:

Architrenius is consumed by a hidden fire, and feeds it, for the torch burns more sharply as he looks, fixing his eager gaze on her face. But at length the too vivid impression of her beauty causes him pain; his very powers of sight become a disease, and he diverts his too sensitive eyes to other parts.

{ Uritur et cecum fovet Architrenius ignem,
Spectandoque faces acuit, vultuque ruentes
Inserit intuitus; facies presencior estum
Asperat et tandem visu sibi pestifer omni
Mollibus ad partes alias divertit ocellis. }

Here’s what he saw when he slowly lowered his eyes:

Her breasts, small, restrained, and clearly defined, do not overflow her bosom like those of an old woman, but hold their position with a firmness proper to her tender years. Each little sphere puts forth a tender bud. … Fuller at the breast, her body narrows, until the loins swell sumptuously to accommodate the full curve of her womb. Below, in a place inaccessible to Venus, a secret garden puts forth the tender bloom of chastity. … No basely presuming vice can open portals locked by the key of virtue; the doors are as if bound with iron bands, on which the unfailing power of a vow has set its seal. Soft down spreads about the portals, soft with the first fleeciness of youth. It does not stray in profusion over the threshold, but confines its mossy carpet to the outer borders.

{ Circumcisa, brevis, limata mamillula laxum
Non implet longeva sinum, puerilibus annis
Castigata sedet …
Qua teres astricti mediam domat orbita cinctus,
Contrahitur flexo laterum distancia lumbo,
Plenior ad pectus, tenuatur ad ilia, donec
Luxuriet renum gremio crescente volumen.
Invius excluse Veneri, secrecior ortus
Flore pudicicie tenero pubescit …
Improba non aperit vicii presumptio clausas
Clavigera virtute fores, adamante ligatur
Ianua, quam voti gravitas infracta sigillat.
Pro foribus lanugo sedet, primoque iuvente
Vellere mollescit, nec multa in limine serpit,
Sed summo tenuem preludit margine muscum. }

What the omniscient narrator knew, the desperate human man Architrenius perceived only through faith:

Architrenius takes note of those parts that are visible, and deduces what he does not see from the evidence of things seen; the grace of what is exposed serves as a mirror of what is veiled. Pleased, he pants out a scarcely whispered prayer that he may feed his avid eyes on this honeycomb, and thirsts no less feverishly for the honey stored within.

{ Hec oculis partim notat Architrenius et, quos
Non videt, a simili visorum conicit artus,
Nudaque pro speculo velate gracia servit.
Hec placet, hanc voto, quod vix respiret, hanelat,
Cernendique favum cupidis delibat ocellis,
Nec sitis infuso minor est idroprica melle. } [4]

When men gaze intently upon women, grace often infuses them with the hope of procreation redeeming creation. Many men delight in women’s beauty. Many men have whispered similar prayers for salvation from castration culture.

When Architrenius found Mother Nature, he threw himself at her feet and embraced her knees. That’s the classical position of supplication. Living under the wrongs of gynocentric society, Architrenius explained that he was miserable and tormented, and his heart was filled with grief. He wept profusely and pleaded with Mother Nature:

Can you, Nature, allow your offspring to be tormented by the scourge of wrong? What winter storm has so aroused your motherly gentleness against your sons? Has a mother’s love learned a step-mother’s hatred? Alas that your charges must henceforth taste only bitter food! Motherly compassion has cloaked itself in severity, and Ino has grown as hard as unyielding Procne.

{ Compaterisne tuam scelerum, Natura, flagellis
Affligi sobolem? que sic in pignora pacem
Maternam turbavit hiemps? odiumne noverce
Exhibitura favos! heu pignora semper amarum
Gustatura cibum! pietas materna rigorem
Induit et scopulis Prognes induruit Ino. }

Scholars now believe that Mother Nature, like everything else, is socially constructed. Yet anti-men gender inequality in reproductive knowledge and cuckolding risk has existed roughly as long as sexually reproducing species have. Architrenius complained that Mother Nature didn’t treat men with generous kindness. He spoke perceptively for men generally.

In response to the weeping Architrenius’s complaint, Mother Nature urged him to marry. She selected for him a young woman, “beautiful, yet chaste {pulchra — pudica tamen}”:

She will be a sweet companion in the marriage chamber, delicately soft to the appreciative touch. Her splendor dims the light of day and the gemlike glow of her starry face burns through the mantle of the darkest night. Though the most persuasive of procuresses should present herself, the very matron of honor of corrupted love, the most brilliant of the handmaids of dissolute Venus, that race whom anxious chastity so mistrusts, this maiden would never accept the embraces of a stranger. She does not harbor a Ledaean spirit behind the face of Lucretia; in her heart she is a very Penelope, though her face is the Spartan’s.

{ Blanda comes thalami sapidoque tenellula tactu;
Obnubit spendore diem, noctisque profunde
Peplum siderei vultus carbunculus urit.
Cum sit adulterii promptissima lena, Diones
Pronuba corrupte, Venerisque ancilla solute
Gloria, sollicito species suspecta pudori,
Non tamen hec recipit alienos innuba nexus,
Nec Ledea tenet animos, Lucrecia vultum,
Solaque Penelopen gremio gerit, ore Lacenam. }

Many men find such women highly attractive. But when being pulled toward the prison of marriage, men should consider a broad view.

girdle of Venus placed on Hera

Mother Nature explained that the bride would present her husband-to-be with the girdle of Venus. Vulcan, Venus’s husband, actually did the manual labor of making the girdle that came to be named after Venus. A leading exemplar of yes-dearism, Vulcan was completely subservient to his goddess wife Venus. When she wanted him to do something, she would persuade him with her sexual allure and his passion for her. For example, when he hesitated to make a shield for Aeneas, she emotionally besieged him:

Ceasing to speak, the goddess threw her snow-white arms
around him as he held back, caressing him here and there,
and suddenly he caught fire — the same old story,
the flame he knew by heart went running through him,
melting him to the marrow of his bones. As thunder
at times will split the sky and a trail of fire goes
rippling through the clouds, flashing, blinding light —
and his wife sensed it all, delighting in her bewitching ways,
she knew her beauty’s power. And father Vulcan,
enthralled by Venus, his everlasting love, replied:
“Why plumb the past for appeals? Where has it gone,
goddess, the trust you lodged in me? If only
you’d been so passionate for him {Aeneas}, then as now,
we would have been in our rights to arm the Trojans,
even then. Neither Father Almighty nor the Fates
were dead against Troy’s standing any longer or
Priam’s living on for ten more years. But now,
if you are gearing up for war, your mind set,
whatever my pains and all my skills can promise,
whatever molten electrum and iron can bring to life,
whatever the bellows’ fiery blasts can do — enough!
Don’t pray to me now. Never doubt your powers.”
With those words on his lips, he gave his wife
the embrace both desired, then sinking limp
on her breast he courted peaceful sleep
that stole throughout his body.

{ Dixerat et niveis hinc atque hinc diva lacertis
cunctantem amplexu molli fovet. Ille repente
accepit solitam flammam, notusque medullas
intravit calor et labefacta per ossa cucurrit:
non secus atque olim tonitru cum rupta corusco
ignea rima micans percurrit lumine nimbos.
Sensit laeta dolis et formae conscia coniunx.
Tum pater aeterno fatur devinctus amore:
“Quid causas petis ex alto? Fiducia cessit
quo tibi, diva, mei? Similis si cura fuisset,
tum quoque fas nobis Teucros armare fuisset:
nec pater omnipotens Troiam nec fata vetabant
stare decemque alios Priamum superesse per annos.
Et nunc, si bellare paras atque haec tibi mens est,
quidquid in arte mea possum promittere curae,
quod fieri ferro liquidove potest electro,
quantum ignes animaeque valent, absiste precando
viribus indubitare tuis.” Ea verba locutus
optatos dedit amplexus placidumque petivit
coniugis infusus gremio per membra soporem. } [5]

Vulcan under Venus’s sexual coercion similarly made the girdle of Venus:

The Lemnian smith {Vulcan}, laboring at the anvil to purchase the love of his spouse {Venus}, carefully fashioned it from molten gold, straining with the bellows to heat his ever-glowing forge, growing hot with both Liparean and Cyprian fires. Meanwhile, Venus lightened his labor by marveling at his handiwork. Even as his hand applied itself to the work, his mouth was snatching from her delicious lips kisses that were far from artificial. Though his face was blackened, and his gait halting, he fed on those sweet kisses: the kisses of adulterous love are no more steeped in honey, nor could Paris’s Phrygian kisses have tasted sweeter to Helen.

{ Incudis studio sponse lucratus amorem,
Lennius hanc cocto solidavit sedulus auro,
Follibus eluctans vigiles excire caminos.
Non minus ardescens Lipares quam Cipridis igne,
Dum Venus emollit operam mirando laborem.
Dum tamen insudat operi manus, oscula morsis
Lingua rapit labris plus quam fabrilia, vultu
Sit licet obscuro, claudo pede, basia carpit
Dulcia nec plure saturantur adultera melle
Nec, Pari, plus Frigiis poteras pavisse Lacenam. } [6]

The sexual division of labor here has the man Vulcan doing hard, dangerous, dirty work, while the woman Venus stood by praising him and occasionally allowing him to kiss her. That’s a common structural inequality that devalues men’s lives. The effects are predictable. Bored with her hard-working beta husband Vulcan, Venus went on to cuckold him by having a torrid sexual relationship with the god of war Mars.

Venus ordering Vulcan to do work

Working as a subservient cuckold under gynocentrism, Vulcan represented his own abasement in the golden girdle he made. He depicted Hippolytus, a man who died in exile after his step-mother Phaedra falsely accused him of rape. The girdle’s representation of Hippolytus thus helps to keep men in their place by reminding them of their vulnerability to women’s false accusations. Vulcan also depicted the high-class prostitute Phryne. She was acquitted of a capital offense after she bared her breasts to the jurors.[7] As Phryne’s case highlights, criminal justice systems act mainly to punish men, not women. With a representation of Lais and Demosthenes, the girdle proclaimed that men commonly feel compelled to buy sex from women.[8] Worst of all, the girdle represented horrific effects of castration culture:

Democritus cuts off his genitals, abandons the male sex and becomes neuter. He divests the robed brothers of their male robes, banishes Venus’s twin testicular servants from their ancestral home, quells with cold steel the fire in his loins, and cuts short the work of that organ by severing it.

{ Inguina Democritus castrat, sexumque virilem
Exuit et neutrum recipit, fratresque togatos
Detoget et Veneris geminum depellit avito
Mancipium tecto, lumbique incendia ferro
Ingelat et nervi succisus apocopat usum. } [9]

What man would seek to get married with this girdle of Venus promised to him as a wedding gift? Architrenius, culturally illiterate, failed to read the signs correctly. He eagerly went through with the marriage that Mother had arranged for him.

The medieval Latin satire Architrenius doesn’t explicitly describe Architrenius’s fortune as a married man. Fortune reportedly blessed his marriage. Yet in the context of medieval Latin satire, the lengthy, tedious praise of his wife’s chastity points to adultery.[10] Architrenius’s good fortune may have been that he wasn’t imprisoned for “child support” debt after his wife divorced him and was awarded custody of their children. Archtrenius’s name literally means “arch-weeper.” He didn’t change his name upon getting married. His baptismal name prefigured his marital fate.

Careful literary study is necessary to understand fully the horrors of castration culture. In the Architrenius, the attendants of Architrenius’s bride included the personifications:

a virgin’s sexual intactness, the castration of a widowed bed,
matronly seriousness, the unchanging levity of a girl

{ Virginis integritas, vidui castracio lecti,
Matrone gravitas, levitas immota puelle } [11]

Those four phrases present a complex structure of meaning. In a cross-line crossing structure, a virgin is associated with a girl, and a widow with a matron. Across the phrase pairs on each line, sexual intactness contrasts with sexual dismemberment, and seriousness contrasts with levity. Virginity, seriousness, and levity are well-recognized concerns in medieval Latin literature. Castration, along with castration culture, tends to be trivialized if recognized at all. Yet in the extraordinary phrase vidui castracio lecti, castration figures the chastity of a widow sleeping alone. That broad, figurative use of castration, in the context of long-standing concern about widows’ chastity, indicates the extent to which castration was normalized in medieval society.[12] Castration in the figurative sense is even more normalized in the misandristic, gynocentric societies of today.

Unless his proposed bride deeply understands castration culture and resolutely rejects it, a man should not marry.

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[1] Johannes de Hauvilla, Architrenius, Latin text and trans. adapted slightly from Wetherbee (1994) pp. 22-3. Wetherbee translated parentum as “a parent.” The reference is clearly to Architrenius’s mother. Above I’ve translated parentum as “his mother.”

The Architrenius is “a narrative satire in nine books and 4361 lines of Latin hexameter.” Id. p. ix. The Architrenius apparently was completed in 1184 and dedicated in that year to Walter of Coutances. Walter was about to be established as the Archbishop of Rouen. Johannes de Hauvilla was a Norman, apparently from the village of Hauville near Rouen. He probably taught at the cathedral school of Rouen. Little else is known about his life. Id. p. x.

Subsequent quotes from the Architrenius are (cited by Latin book.line and page in the Wetherbee’s English translation): 1.333, p. 23 (what fortune may await…); 1.384-5, p. 25 (The swanlike whiteness…); 1.404-7,410, p. 27 (Like a lantern…); 1.426-8, p. 27 (Her appearance…); 2.1-5, p. 33 (Architrenius is consumed…); 2.17-9,26-31,39-44, pp. 33, 35 (Her breasts…); 2.66-71, p. 35 (Architrenius takes note…); 9.178-84, p. 235 (Can you, Nature…); 9.295, p. 241 (beautiful — yet chaste); 9.280-88, p. 241 (She will be a sweet companion…); 9.304-13, p. 243 (The Lemnian smith…); 9.328-32, p. 243 (Democritus cuts off his genitals…); 9.431-2, p. 249 (a virgin’s sexual intactness…). I’ve noted substantial changes that I’ve made to Wetherbee’s translation; non-substantial changes go unnoted.

[2] Virgil, Aeneid 10.284.

[3] The Architrenius further associates whiteness with the girl’s beauty:

a natural rosy heat, set off by the surrounding lily whiteness, creates a warm light in her cheeks, but its fire is tempered, and the softer red which suffuses the snowy white of the rest of her face has a gentler glow. … Perpetual snow gleams on her white neck

{ Incola flamma rose, quam circumfusa coronant
Lilia, candentes vultus accendit et ignes
Temperat et parcit faculis et amicius urit
Blandior extremi fusa nive purpura limbi.

Ningit in albenti mansura pruinula collo }

ll. 1.432-5, 470, trans. Wetherbee (1994) p. 29. Medieval society had little understanding of racial discrimination as a moral wrong. The moral wrong of racism is now widely understood. Much less progress has been made in overcoming anti-men sexism and castration culture.

[4] Architrenius “deduces what he does not see from the evidence of things seen”; cf. Hebrews 11:1-3. Wetherbee disparages Architrenius’s masculine heterosexuality as not being aesthetic:

Architrenius’ reaction is more lustful than aesthetic, an exaggerated version of that sought by Matthew of Vendome in addressing his sumptuous description of the female body to the “lector deliciosus.”

Wetherbee (1972) p. 245. Johannes de Hauvilla, however, allusively connects Architrenius’s natural bodily response to the salvific eye of faith.

[5] Virgil, Aeneid 8.387-406, trans. Fagles pp. 254-5, adapted slightly. The Latin text is available online at the Vergil project.

[6] The girdle of Venus is first mentioned in Homer, Iliad 14.214-17. There the girdle (breastband) is a love charm that Venus gives to Hera:

she loosed from her breasts the breastband,
pierced and alluring, with every kind of enchantment
woven through it … There is the heat of Love,
the pulsing rush of Longing, the lover’s whisper,
irrestible — magic to make the sanest man go mad.

Trans. Fagles (1990) p. 376. For more on the girdle of Venus, Takada (1989) pp. 38-43.

[7] Phryne reportedly failed in a wager-induced attempt to seduce Xenocrates. However, vernacular literature in medieval Europe (the History of the Holy Grail) transmitted that a woman’s beauty could overcome even Hippocrates.

[8] According to Aulus Gellus, Noctes Atticae 1.8.3-6:

The great Demosthenes approached her secretly and asked for her favours. But Lais demanded ten thousand drachmas — a sum equivalent in our money to ten thousand denarii. Amazed and shocked at the woman’s great impudence and the vast sum of money demanded, Demosthenes turned away, remarking as he left her: “I will not buy regret at such a price.”

Trans. J. C. Rolfe (1927) for the Loeb Classical Library.

[9] In classical literature, Democritus blinded himself to eliminate the intellectual distraction of worldly vision. Cicero, De finibus 5.87, Aulus Gellus, Noctes Atticae 10.17.1. Tertullian plausibly associated Democritus concern about worldly distraction with women:

Democritus, by blinding himself because he could not look on women without lust and was pained if he did not possess them, declares his incontinency by his attempted cure. But the Christian, though he preserve his sight, sees no women, because he is blinded against lust in his heart.

Tertullian, Apologeticum 46.11, trans. Alexander Souter (1917). Democritus castrating himself is known only in the Architrenius. Wetherbee noted that “Schmidt plausibly suggest that the basis for John’s substitution of castration {in the Architrenius} is Tertullian.” Wetherbee (1994) p. 268, n. 28. That attribution obscures the thematic importance of castration in the Architrenius and in medieval culture more generally.

[10] Mother Nature warned Architrenius:

Keep your mind wholly free of any taint of fear lest she ever break the bond of marriage, for she will never admit a husband who could admit the thought of such foulness.

{ contagia toto
Pectore declines, alioquin vincula rumpet
Coniugii, passum maculas non passa maritum. }

9.299-301, p. 241. Attempting to coerce a man to suppress a vital, reasonable, and distinctive concern of men doesn’t inspire confidence. That coercion underscores the reality of the concern.

[11] Wetherbee translated this couplet as “inviolate virginity; the abstinence of an unshared bed; matronly dignity; a maiden’s steadfast delicacy.” For vidui castracio lecti, he noted:

As Schmidt notes, castratio must be intended as in some sense equivalent to castitas.

Wetherbee (1994) p. 249 (translation), p.268, n. 36 (note). Wetherbee’s translation seems to me to obscure the rhetorical structure of the couplet. Moreover, given the enduring influence of castration culture, medieval Latin philologists should carefully and extensively study terms such as castratio. That said, Wetherbee and other medieval Latin philologists-translators deserve praise, honor, and appreciation for conveying vitally important medieval Latin literature to a larger present-day public. Thank you for your work, Winthrop Wetherbee!

[12] In the Architrenius, Mother Nature also apparently associated castration with men committing adultery:

Adultery is a foul disgrace! It plucks away the girdle of good character and afflicts an already tainted reputation with diseases that lead to ruin in various ways. As the price of a shameful night’s lodging, the hammer forsakes its natural pouch, its twin is cut away by the hand of Lachesis, and the distaff, too, is severed by the Fates.

{ Turpis adulterii labes! redimicula morum
Vellit et obscuram trahit in contagia famam,
In varias suspecta neces, preciumque pudendi
Hospitis a loculo Nature malleus exit
Et Lachesis gemino succiso pollice. Parcis
Tollitur una colus }

9.260-5, p. 239. The hammer refers to the penis, the pouch to the vagina, its twin to the testicles, and the distaff, probably to the vagina. Cf. Wetherbee (1972) p. 252. Aelred of Rievaulx’s account of the Nun of Watton indicates that in twelfth-century England men were castrated for consensual sex with an unmarried woman.

[images] (1) Vulcan catches Mars and Venus cuckolding him. Excerpt from painting by Alexandre Charles Guillemot, 1827. Held in the Indianopolis Museum of Art. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons. (2) Venus places her girdle around the waist of Juno (Hera). Excerpt from a painting by Andrea Appiani, circa 1811. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons. (3) Vulcan in his forge taking orders from Venus. Excerpt from painting by Juan de Espinal, circa 1760. Held in the Museum of Fine Arts of Seville. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Fagles, Robert, trans. and Bernard Knox, intro. and notes. 1990. The Iliad. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Viking.

Fagles, Robert, trans. 2006. Virgil. The Aeneid. New York: Viking.

Takada, Yasunari. 1989. “The Brooch of Thebes and the Girdle of Venus: Courtly Love in an Oppositional Perspective.” Poetica (Tokyo) 29/39: 17-38.

Wetherbee, Winthrop. 1972. Platonism and poetry in the twelfth century: the literary influence of the school of Chartres. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

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

man in medieval Baghdad foolishly acted as a courtly lover

singing slave girl

A young man pretending to be an aristocrat arrived at a banquet in eleventh-century Baghdad. A slave girl  — beautiful, highly cultured, and wealthy — was singing there. She enthralled him.

In fashionable devotion to the singing slave girl, the young man refrained from eating even though he was dying of hunger. He became inebriated from drinking sweet date wine. Then the love-struck young man saw roses. He grabbed them and ate them. The slave girl whispered behind her tambourine to her master:

By God, I beg of you, call for something for this young man to eat, or else his shit will become honeyed rose jam!

The singing slave girl cared for the foolish young man.

The young man was dressed in only a brocade robe. The night was cold. He began to shiver, and his teeth chatter. He said to the slave girl, “I want to embrace you.” She said to him, “You poor thing, you need to embrace an outer garment more than to embrace me, if you had any sense!” She had worldly good sense. He was a foolish courtly lover. He left deeply wounded by her sensible words.

As foolish courtly lovers do, the young man then wooed the slave girl with letters. He wrote to her of “his love and his follies, his insomnia at night, his tossing and turning in bed as if he were lying on a hot frying pain, and his inability to eat and drink.” The shrewd narrator of the story added that the young man wrote “of such like vacuous drivel, which has no use or benefit” to men in love. The singing slave girl naturally rejected the vacuous drivel of the courtly lover.

Badly educated, the courtly lover turned to literary imagination and poetry. He wrote to the slave girl:

Since you have forbidden me to visit you, or to ask you to visit me, then order, by God, your specter to visit me at night, and quench the heat of my heart.

Guide me to your specter so that
I may claim a rendezvous with it.

Another poem:

If your abstinence is a come-on,
show your specter the way to me.

The young man sought to travel to meet the slave girl’s spirit, or to have it come to him. In worldly love, a spirit is a poor substitute for a flesh-and-blood woman.

With compassion and boldness, the singing slave girl taught the foolish man actually how to achieve his aim. She sent a message to him:

Woe upon you, you poor thing, I’ll do something for you that is better for you than my specter visiting you at night. Put two gold coins in a purse and I’ll come to you and that will be that.

In courting sophisticated slave girls in medieval Baghdad, poetry was much less useful than gold coins.

As the above story indicates, the eleventh-century Islamic world had both the intellectual capability and freedom to criticize the men-debasing ideology of courtly love. In western Europe, benighted scholars have ignorantly celebrated courtly love for about a millennium. Study of medieval Islamic literature might help to spur a true renaissance and enlightenment.

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The above story is from the Ḥikāyat Abī al-Qāsim {The Imitation Abū al-Qāsim}, a work written in Arabic and attributed to al-Azdī. The work and its author are closely associated with Baghdad. It was probably originally written between 1008 and 1020. The work has survived in a unique codex manuscript now held in the British Library as MS. ADD 19, 913. That manuscript, which isn’t the author’s autograph, includes a marginal note dated 1347. St. Germain (2006) pp. 10-14.

St. Germain provides an English translation of Ḥikāyat Abī al-Qāsim, along with extensive notes. For the story above, see id. pp. 287-8. The quotes above are from id., with some insubstantial changes for clarity.

The singing slave girl was Zād Mihr, a historically attested woman. The man in love with her isn’t named. He is described as “a young man who pretended to be an aristocrat of Baghdad.” The young man’s letters to Zād Mihr include symptoms of lovesickness recognized from antiquity.

[image] Portrait of young Egyptian singing slave girl. Painting by
Émile Vernet-Lecomte, 1869. Slightly cropped. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


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