donkeys, penis size, and farting: their significance to men

donkey with large penis

Most men are keenly interested in penis size and farting. Greek literature from Athenian comedy of the fifth-century BGC to the second-century GC Onos tale suggests that women prefer larger penises.[1] Given their love for women and their deeply rooted concern to please women, men’s interest in penis size is completely understandable. But what about farting?

The fourteenth-century Byzantine poem An Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds strongly associates donkeys with large penises and farting. The poem refers to the representative donkey as being “of giant dick and balls.” The ox in the poem proclaimed, “I have a mighty dick, both long and fiery.” The donkey moved quickly in response:

The donkey, having heard the ox’s boast
of how his dick is long and fiery hot,
let fly a little fart and brayed a bit.
Then, heralded by blasts of breaking wind,
in he ran. As he stood on center stage,
he pricked his ears up and addressed the ox:

“You lie, long-winded fool, and boast too much:
it’s me that has a dick thick as a cudgel,
long, robust, plump, and headed with a nostril!
Not only is it bigger than your own,
but it surpasses any animal’s.
And when it’s stirred by lust and kindled somewhat,
its head becomes just like a Western saucer! [2]

Being “heralded by blasts of breaking wind” clearly marks the donkey’s entrance. Farting frequently and mightily is as distinctive to the donkey as is his large penis.

A unique fable embedded within An Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds links joyfully farting with donkeys’ oppressive workloads. According to the fable, donkeys petitioned the king of the world for relief from their burdensome share of household work. The king granted relief in a written mandate given to a donkey envoy. The donkey envoy joyfully rushed to bring the good news to his donkey brothers:

he brayed with boundless joy and called them out,
running and farting merrily on the way:
“Rejoice, O donkeys! Be ye of good cheer!
For I have brought the mandate of the king
that they should load us lightly to relieve us,
forbidding extra loading altogether.”
And just as he was braying out these words,
letting fly farts and overcome with joy,
as he was gulping down amidst his braying,
the donkey swallowed down the royal mandate,
reaching the other donkeys empty-handed.

With the donkey envoy having eaten the king’s mandate, donkeys faced being beasts of burden forevermore. To this day, they desperately search their excrement for the lost mandate for their humane treatment.[3]

Men’s interest in farting signifies their bewilderment. Has farting — an explosive, rebellious bodily function — kept men overburdened with work just like donkeys? Does farting help a man to develop a penis like that of a donkey? But what’s the virtue in being hung like a donkey if men’s work with their penises is undervalued? Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey not overburdened with baggage. Why don’t Christians honor men and donkeys more?[4] The men legislators who have passed so many anti-men laws — are they eunuchs who don’t fart? Men naturally fart and wonder.

Under gynocentrism, associating men with donkeys is much less common than asserting that men are dogs or men are pigs. Most men, of course, don’t have a donkey-sized penis. Yet Octavian after his victory in the Battle of Actium erected a victory monument that associated his penis with a donkey. Solomon and Marcolf, a medieval Latin masterpiece of men’s sexed protest, celebrates the work of donkeys and reverberates with farting. More understanding of men and donkeys and their penises and farting might be the most promising path forward toward treating men humanely.

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[1] On penis size in Aristophanes’s fifth-century Athenian comedies, see note [3] in my post on Asinarius.

[2] An Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds ll. 646-55, from Greek trans. Nicholas & Baloglou (2003) p. 195. The previous two short quotes are from l. 82, p. 165 (of giant dick and balls), l. 671, p. 195 (I have a might dick…). The subsequent quote is ll. 710-20, p. 199 (he brayed with boundless joy…).

An Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds seems to have been written about 1364, probably in Constantinople or Thessalonica. Its author was most plausibly a man from “the lower echelons of the Byzantine literati.” Quadrupeds has survived in five manuscripts. The earliest manuscript (Constantinopolitan (C): Graecus Seraglio 35) was written in 1461. Id. pp. 60-71, 97-8; the quoted phrase is from p. 68.

Quadrupeds is a work of beast flytings, with pairs of beasts being members of the opposing sides carnivores and herbivores. Beast flytings also also exist in medieval Latin poetry. For a review of the Latin beast flytings, Ziolkowski (2003) Ch. 5. This type of beast poetry has been largely overlooked. Id. p. 132.

[3] A close parallel to the fable of the donkey swallowing the king’s mandate for relief exists in a folk story from the village of Pera in Cyprus. The Aesopic fable “Zeus and the Donkeys” (Perry 185 / Gibbs 568) is more loosely related. Nicholas & Baloglou (2003) pp. 40-2. Quadrupeds probably got the tale from the ancient source for the folk tale. It’s unlikely that Quadrupeds influenced oral stories. Id pp. 56-60.

[4] The Christian Gospels indicate that Jesus entered Jerusalem on a young donkey not overburdened with baggage. On Jesus not carrying heavy baggage, Mark 6:8, Matthew 10:9-10, Luke 9:3. See also Matthew 6:25-6.  John 12.14-5 states that Jesus entered Jerusalem on a young donkey (ὀνάριον). That animal was the colt (πῶλος) of a donkey (ὄνος). Mark 11:7 and Luke 19:35 simply describe the animal as a colt (πῶλος). Matthew 21:2-7 has created difficulties for interpretation. According to it, Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey (ὄνος) and her (αὐτῆς) colt (πῶλος). Matthew representing the donkey as the female parent of the (male) colt is best understood as signifying the sense of epochal change in Zechariah 9:9, meaning the overthrow of gynocentrism. In part due to lack of appreciation for donkeys, men, and medieval literature, gynocentrism unfortunately has endured.

In the medieval Latin poem “Disce, leo {Learn, lion},” a donkey described his extensive bookish learning and chided a lion:

Don’t look down on me, you who are proud with your puffed-out neck,
for the Lord of Heaven mounted upon the back of a donkey,
He who trod down the savage lion with His own heel.

{Non me dispicias tumida cervice supervus,
Nam dominus celi dorsum conscendit aselli,
Qui propria sevum calce calcavit leonem.}

Latin and English trans. Ziolowski (1993) pp. 137-8. I’ve lineated Ziolkowski’s English translation and used “donkey” rather than “ass” for asellus to be consistent in terms. “Learn, lion” offers a deeply subversive allegorical interpretation of Zechariah 9:9 and the meaning of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. That allegorical understanding probably wasn’t limited to learned clerics writing in Latin. Byzantium was a Christian society in which Jesus’s association with a donkey would be generally recognized.

A donkey’s commendable Christian charity appears in the twelfth-century Latin “Testamentum asini {The Testament of the Ass}.” The donkey’s bequests conclude thus:

to widows, my erect penis
together with my testicles.

{priapumque viduis
una cum testiculis.}

ll. 42-3, Latin text from Novati (1883) pp. 79-81, English trans. in Ziolkowski (1993) p. 299. I’ve adapted the above translation from Ziolkowski’s.

[image] Donkey with a penis. The donkey is disputing with an ox. Illumination from manuscript An Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds, Constantinopolitan Graecus Seraglio 35 (folio 53v). This manuscript was written in 1461 in Venetian Negroponte (Euboea). Nicholas & Baloglou (2003) p. 98. According to the expert and influential legal understanding of Wikimedia Commons, this image is in the public domain in the U.S.


Nicholas, Nick, and George Baloglou, ed. and trans. 2003. An entertaining tale of quadrupeds. New York: Columbia University Press.

Novati, Francesco, ed. 1883. Carmina Medii Aevi. Firenze: Alla Libreria Dante.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1993. Talking animals: medieval Latin beast poetry, 750-1150. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

women’s nature allows Amazons & other women to die like men in battle

Amazons fighting Greeks in Trojan War

Gynocentric societies throughout history have controlled men’s bodies and forced them into the horrors of war. A leading twelfth-century Byzantine intellectual expressed poetically the gynocentric sense of males being intended from birth to bleed in battle:

The newborn baby is of the male gender; male, O earth and sun! Did you see him right away as he slid out, full of blood and tainted by gore as if coming from war and battle? [1]

Overcoming gynocentrism and achieving gender equality in military service requires recognizing that men aren’t naturally destined to labor to provide goods for women and children and to fight and die in wars. According to a declamation of the sixth-century public speaker Choricius of Gaza, the Trojan king Priam long ago affirmed that women’s nature is no obstacle to Amazons and other women dying in battle just like men.

Examples from non-human animals make clear that females can be fearsome fighters. According to Choricius of Gaza, King Priam directed to an unbeliever the example of bitches:

Have you never observed the bitches among the guard dogs? Have you not noticed that they do not stay at home to breed and feed the cubs, but go out with the males in the pack? [2]

The Byzantine epic Digenis Akritis, which shows extraordinary critical awareness of women’s privileges under gynocentrism, described the hero Digenis’s encounter with a family of bears. The bear family consisted of a mamma bear, a papa bear, and their two cubs. Gynocentric society grants men respect for engaging in violent, dangerous acts. Digenis thus attacked the family of bears:

The female stood her ground and did battle for her cubs,
but he {Digenis} was quick and went for her
yet did not close up quickly to strike her with his stick,
but as he got near, he locked her in his arms
and tightened his grasp and promptly throttled her.
When her mate saw this, he turned round
and ran a mile away in flight from Digenis. [3]

The mamma bear died fighting for her husband and children. Human women are fully capable of doing likewise.

Achieving gender equality in military service and other lines of work requires only that women be trained like men. King Priam explained:

I agree that women are weaker than men, but this is a matter of training, not of nature. If we {men} were skilled by nature in war, why should we have expected our sons from childhood to engage in bodily exercise, to go out with the hounds, and to practice tracking and using arms and bows and learning all the other skills? Where nature is dominant, there is no need for labor; god needs no labor to be immortal, because it is his nature, and no man tries to be a god, because it is not in his nature. Similarly, you would not see either men or women exercising, if nature sufficed for the men and forbade the women even to wish to do so. The activities of war are so far from being natural to human beings that a person who possesses one of the skills required does not thereby have the other kinds of expertise at his disposal; among all the multitude of the Trojans and of our enemies it would be hard to find a single man who was both infantryman and archer and was well trained as a horseman. What is there surprising if practice has taught women {Amazons} to fight? [4]

Today elementary school teachers — who shape the future generation — are nearly all women. Yet, with proper training, men could succeed as elementary school teachers and in other, relatively safe, women-dominated occupations. Women could be trained to work in the dangerous occupations that for long have been mainly filled with men:

If men give up their arms and take to working wool, you will soon see them doing women’s work. How many men do you think understand weaving, how many are embroiders of clothes? They say that Achilles’s mother dressed him as a girl and made him do what girls do. So, just as experience teaches us {men} women’s work, what is there to prevent women practicing something that we do? … If you asked the Amazons to weave you a tunic, they would say, “Sir, you deceive yourself; do you not see that we carry arms? It is not our way to do this sort of work.” [5]

An ignorant one groused, just as some do today, that achieving gender equality in military service would destroy the armed forces: “success does not follow a womanized rabble.”[6] Intellectual authorities from Plato to present-day thought leaders affirm that biology isn’t destiny. Compared to women, men aren’t naturally destined to suffer more violence and have shorter lifespans. With proper training, women could relieve men of much of men’s burden of fighting and dying.

While King Priam believed that Amazon warriors could help save Troy, he deeply felt the effects of daughters not being treated like sons. Priam’s son Hector was killed in the Trojan War, and Hector’s body was then abused. Priam wept when he recalled his son Hector. Priam explained:

I do not go much among the fighting men, since I am old and cannot bear to see my sons torn limb from limb [7]

Bravely facing reality is the first step toward gender equality. Sons are not born inevitably to be torn limb from limb in military service.

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[1] From Michael Psellos, To Konstantinos, nephew of the patriach Michael Keroularios, when his son Romanos was born (written 1063-1065?), Letter S 157, from Greek trans. Stratis Papaioannou, in Kaldellis (2006) p. 173.

In another letter, Psellos similarly figured a new-born son as a man bleeding from combat wounds:

Indeed, did I even wait to see the newborn baby? No, O sacred one. I both embraced him and filled him with kisses and I almost stained my lips with blood, as if I had clasped a bravest warrior made red by blood returning from battle.

From Psellos, To Ioannes Doukas (written 1063-1065?), Letter S 72, from Greek trans. Papaioannou, in Kaldellis (2006) p. 172.

[2] Choricius of Gaza, Declamation 2.25, trans. D. A. Russell in Penella (2009) p. 78. The context of Priam’s declamation:

After Hector’s death, Achilles, having fallen in love with Polyxena, sends an embassy to the Trojans, promising alliance in return for the marriage. The Trojans deliberate; Polydamas recommends acceptance, Priam opposes.

Choricius, Declamation 1 {by Polydamas}, Theme, trans. Russell in id. p. 61. Polydamas disparaged the Amazons’ ability to help the Trojans and men’s ability to do work that women did:

We know that when a man tried to do some woman’s work, the product, generally speaking, is poor and clumsy. But if we allow that it is not normal for us to spin wool, are we to grant that they {women} can learn the experience of arms to a high standard? I do not at all agree with you here; the Amazons are indeed better than their sex, but they are nonetheless women.

Declamation 1.14-5, trans. id. p. 64.

[3] Digenis Akritis, Escorial version ll. 766-72, from Greek trans. Jeffreys (1998) p. 297.

[4] Choricius, Declamation 2.15-9, trans. D. A. Russell, in Penella (2009) p. 77. Emphasizing women’s fighting spirit, Priam also observed, “women are all contentious by nature.” Id. 2.79, trans. id. p. 85.

[5] Choricius, Declamation 2.19-20, trans. id.

[6] Choricius, Declamation 3.33 (the Lydians), trans. Simon Swain in Penella (2009) p. 92. The Persian king Cyrus, seeking to subdue the Lydian men’s independent initiatives and aggressiveness, ordered them to wear women’s clothes and sing and play music. Cyrus latter sought to recruit the Lydian men into his army. Pleading their acquired womanly ways, the Lydian men argued against their joining Cyrus’s army. The Lydian men further argued to Cyrus:

If it’s numbers you want and numbers you call protection, then it’s time to arm our women, to refuse our boys leave to reach their fighting age, and to drag from their homes those burdened with age — even if they have to stand bent over their sticks.

Id. 3.35.

[7] Choricius, Declamation 2.27, trans. D. A. Russell, in Penella (2009) p. 77.

[image] Amazons fighting against the Greeks in the Trojan War. At the center, Achilles holds the dying Penthesilea. Panel of a marble sarcophagus, Roman artwork, 3rd century GC. Item Inv 933 in Vatican Museums, Museo Pio-Clementino, Octagon Hall, Hermes Cabinet. Photo thanks to Marie-Lan Nguyen (2009) and Wikimedia Commons.


Jeffreys, Elizabeth, ed. and trans. 1998. Digenis Akritis: the Grottaferrata and Escorial versions. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Kaldellis, Anthony, ed. and trans. 2006. Mothers and sons, fathers and daughters: the Byzantine family of Michael Psellos. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Penella, Robert J., ed. 2009. Rhetorical exercises from late antiquity: a translation of Choricius of Gaza’s Preliminary talks and declamations. Cambridge: Cambridge Cambridge University Press.

John Italos & Michael Psellos: masculine troubles in Byzantium

Michael Psellos teaching Byzantine Emperor Michael VII Doukas

For passionate, intimate relationships, most women prefer smart, savvy, vigorously masculine men. The twelfth-century woman intellectual and princess Anna Komnene complained about Byzantine men before her father began his reforming reign as Emperor, under the direction of his mother, in 1081:

men for the most part lived luxuriously and amused themselves, and due to their effeminacy they busied themselves with quail-hunting and other more disgraceful pastimes, and treated letters, and in fact any training in the arts, as a secondary consideration. [1]

John Italos and Michael Psellos lived in gynocentric Byzantine society among the men that Anna Komnene disparaged. Each struggled in his own way to escape gynocentric oppression and live a humane, fulfilling life. Their representations in the deeply perceptive Byzantine satire Timarion indicate how each fared.

From a young age, John Italos was formed in the male gender role that controls men’s bodies, devalues men’s lives, and shortens men’s lifespans. Italos’s father was an Italian mercenary who hired himself out to the Sicilians. Italos himself received a military education as a boy and lived among soldiers. When a Byzantine general defeated the Sicilians, Italos and his father fled to Lombardy.[2]

Italos eventually joined the winning side as a scholar in Constantinople. He attended Michael Psellos’s lectures and succeeded him as holder of the official Byzantine title Chief of Philosophers sometime after 1054. Italos retained a martial personality in scholarly battles. Anna Komnene noted:

he was most unrefined, and subject to violent temper; and this fierce temper annulled and obliterated the credit he gained from his learning. For in arguments this man used fists as well as words and he did not allow his interlocutor simply to lose himself in embarrassment nor was he satisfied with sewing up his opponent’s mouth and condemning him to silence, but forthwith his hand flew out to tear his beard and hair, and insult quickly followed insult, in fact the man could not be restrained in the use of his hands and tongue. [3]

Being refined and rhetorically savvy (social credit) differs from philosophic merit. Anna Kommene added:

The only unphilosophic trait he {John Italos} had was that after the blow his anger left him, tears and evident remorse followed.

Crying is a potent feminine social tactic. Remorseful tears are associated with the Christian understanding of forgiveness. Forgiveness in ancient Greek literature, in contrast, involved making excuses and abasing oneself to mitigate the need for the aggrieved other to regain status through retaliatory action.[4] John Italos didn’t follow the ancient Greek “philosophic” practice of repudiating hurtful acts. Drawing upon his extensive learning in dialectic, Italos counter-balanced the masculine philosophic practice of aggressive argument with the feminine, Christian practice of remorseful crying.[5]

Tacking between masculine and feminine practices didn’t enable Italos to earn enduring acclaim in gynocentric intellectual life. In the Byzantine Hell of the Timarion, Italos attempted to sit next to Pythagoras. The latter was calmly and unemotionally debating matters with Parmenides, Melissus, Anaxagoras, Thales and other eminent pre-Socratic thinkers. That’s how men engaged in thoughtful discussion before Socrates invented philosophy. Pythagoras rebuked Italos:

You filthy rat, you who have put on the mantle of the Galilaeans {Christians} which they call divine and heavenly, meaning baptism, where do you get the nerve to join us, men who spent their lives in epistemology and syllogistic thought? Either take off that strange robe or take yourself off right away from our company. [6]

The intellectual integrity of the pre-Socratics forbade admittance of turncoats like Italos to their circle.

Italos next tried to emulate Diogenes. A Cynic philosopher, Diogenes would pace back and forth and, with his fierce and combative Socratic style, would attempt to provoke arguments. Italos stepped up to confront Diogenes with forceful discussion. The discussion turned into a dog-fight:

To show his contempt for his opponent’s brand of offensiveness, he {Diogenes} snorted and howled like a dog that is always barking. That provoked John {Italos}, who was also an amateur of Cynic dogma, to start howling in his turn. This all ended in a wrestling match. The Italian got hold of Diogenes in the shoulder with his teeth, but Diogenes countered by fastening his onto his rival’s throat and probably would have throttled him, had not Cato the Roman, who didn’t care much for philosophers, extricated John from Diogenes’ mouth.

Diogenes then spit abusive words at Italos:

You dirty rat … where do you get the nerve to treat me as an inferior, you of all people, whom the Byzantines treated as scum and who was hated by all the Galilaeans {Christians}? By the Cynic philosophy of which sect I am the leader, if you dare to say as much as one more word to me, you will get a second painful death and burial.

With maternal solicitude, Cato took John by the hand and led him away. When they came upon the sophistic-rhetoricians, the latter jumped up and pelted Italos with stones. They shouted:

Get him out of here, Cato. An imbecile who failed grammar in life, a laughingstock when he tried to write speeches — he doesn’t belong here.

Italos responded to this series of intellectual debacles with a Protean Christian prayer to pagan learning:

Aristotle, Aristotle, O syllogism, O sophism, where are you now that I need you? If only you had been here to help me, I could have wiped the floor with these idiot philosophers and this pig-dealing bag of wind, Diogenes. [7]

Italos never rested his soul in a bedrock sense of his own true nature. That meant trouble for a man in gynocentric Byzantine society.

Recognizing a more propitious path to compassion and privilege under gynocentrism, Michael Psellos identified as fully feminine. In a letter to a prominent figure in the Byzantine royal court, Psellos explained:

with regard to nature I am feminine. … I am not a Scythian in my soul, neither was I born “of oak nor of stone,” but I am by nature a delicate shoot and I am softened with respect to natural emotions. [8]

Meeting childhood friends late in life, Psellos nearly cried with delight from physical intimacy with them:

One after another, they kissed me all over, rubbed themselves against my feet, smiled pleasant smiles, and wondered how, instead of the blond hair of my youth, my head has turned silver. They almost brought me to tears. For my soul is indeed simply feminine and easily moved toward compassion. [9]

Psellos (Ψελλός) comes from the Greek verb “to lisp” (ψελλίζειν). The Timarion suggests that Michael Psellos lisped:

The Byzantine Sophist {Michael Psellos} made the announcement without any hesitation, although he whispered {lowly lisped} most of it, being unable to force out the words clearly through the crookedness of his lips. [10]

In any case, Psellos went as far as to identify with the nipples of women:

I am similar to the nipple of women (do not cast blame upon my example, for this is not a negligible work of nature). How do nipples posses the milk that flows from them? The quality and quantity of milk does not reside in the female body, but rather when the mouths of nursling babies press the breasts and squeeze the frontal muscle, it is they that render wet the moisture spread deep inside and turn it into a stream. … The whole thing seems like the digging of wells. … this is also how I squeeze out my words like fountains, spurred by the well-diggers of my letters. If you dig me, I become watery; if not, I simply freeze up. [11]

Psellos, who had a close relationship with Psellos’s mother, wrote a lengthy ecomium for her. That oration effectively canonized her.[12] Byzantium never developed an authoritative apparatus for administering and enforcing men’s choices of what pronouns should be used in referring to them. If Psellos could have registered pronoun choices with an all-powerful Byzantine bureaucracy, Psellos probably wouldn’t have chosen he/him.

While deploying gendered pronouns without rhetorical artifice, the Timarion represented Psellos as an acclaimed intellectual. In Byzantine Hell, philosophers graciously greeted Psellos. Sophists, providing greater honor, treated Psellos as a revered teacher:

They {the sophists} rose as one man in his honor and gave him an enthusiastic welcome. He got the option of sitting  down  in the middle of their circle if he wanted to relax, or towering over them all in the chair that they offered him as the reward for the gracefulness of his eloquence, the charm and clarity of his diction, his affability, his gift of instant extemporization, his natural skill in every literary genre. They kept hailing him as “Sun King” [13]

As a socially favored person, one doesn’t have to perform impressively. In the Timarion, Psellos read out bureaucratic boilerplate for a court’s judgment.[14] The implications are straight-forward. An ordinary bureaucrat will be honored as a master rhetorician if he identifies as fully feminine.

Psellos’s way serves men under gynocentrism today. A leading scholar of Psellos’s work explained:

Psellos was effectively at the process of rearranging the discursive field of gender in order to set his female nature and feminine performance at the epicenter of attention. He appropriated femininity, that is, in order to amplify readerly desire and redirect it upon himself. [15]

According to today’s discursive values, Psello’s enacted “a splendid combination of self-effacement by means of his impersonation of a female voice and self-proclamation with the staging of an ineluctable self.” Many men in scholarly writings and postings on Facebook pursue a similar strategy. The life of John Italos indicates difficulties in performing the masculine aggression against men that is at the center of women’s desire for men. Yet figures such as the Byzantine renegade Andronikos I and the extraordinarily self-conscious Digenis Akritis provide men with insight into more humanely and successfully living as masculine men in gynocentric society.

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[1] Anna Komnene, Alexiad Bk. 5, Ch. 8, from Atticizing Greek trans. Dawes (1928). Scholars of that time were “gloomy men of uncouth habits.” Id.

[2] Biographical facts about Italos are from the Alexiad, Bk. 5, Ch. 8; the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (ed. Kazhdan), subject heading John Italus; and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, topic heading Byzantine Philosophy, section 1.3.

John Italos (Ἰωάννης ὁ Ἰταλός) is more consistently transliterated as Ioannes Italos. His name is commonly rendered in English as John Italus. I’ve used the form John Italos rather than Ioannes Italos to make the text more easily readable for non-specialists.

[3] Alexiad, Bk. 5, Ch. 8, trans. Dawes (1928). The subsequent quote is from id. Italos gave learned lectures on the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, and the neo-Platonists Proclus, Porphyry and Iamblichus. Trizio (2013) analyzes a specimen of his scholarship.

Italos was charged with paganism and heresy in 1076 and again 1082. He avoided punishment in 1076. In 1082, he was condemned and eleven chapters of anathema against him were added to the Syndikon of Orthodoxy. Italos’s intellectual views were common in Byzantine intellectual circles. Prosecution of Italos seems to have been politically motivated. Clucas (1981).

[4] On the ancient idea of forgiveness, Konstan (2010).

[5] Michael Psellos used the the term unphilosophic {ἀφιλοσόφως} in a more general sense of unemotional:

I want to philosophize about everything, both words and things. Yet my character betrays me, as it is disposed in a nonphilosphical {ἀφιλοσόφως} manner toward the natural affections (or perhaps this is philosophical too, for the other type of man is Skythian). Thus (how might one say it) I become excited about newborn babies, especially if they are dearest and of dearest parents, and when I am faced with their delights and charms.

Psellos, To Konstantinos, nephew of the patriarch Michael Keroularios, when his son Romanos was born {written after 1063- 1065?}, Letter S 157, from Greek trans. Stratis Papaioannou in Kaldellis (2006) p. 173. The Byzantines viewed Skythians (Scythians) as heartless barbarians.

[6] Timarion 43, from Greek trans. Baldwin (1984) p. 72. The subsequent four quotes are from Timarion 44, trans. id. pp. 73-4. I’ve made some non-substantial changes to Baldwin’s translation to make it more accessible to the general reader.

[7] Cf. Psalm 22:1, Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34, John 11:21,32.

Jaworska-Wołoszyn has made one of the most perceptive comments in the scholarly literature about Italos:

Probably the unflattering opinion about Italos was also determined by the fact that he did not have a caring and devoted mother nearby, whereas  his master Psellos managed to ascend to the heights owing to his mother’s help.

Jaworska-Wołoszyn (2014) p. 288. In bonobo society, a mother’s support for her adult son is crucial to his welfare and promotes a peaceful, egalitarian society generally.

[8] Psellos, To the Same {Ioannes Doukas, written 1063-1065?}, from Greek trans. Papaioannou (2013) p. 208 (with Greek text). Papaioannou’s translation in Kaldellis (2006) pp. 172-3 is substantially identical.

Psellos understood the superior position of the female sex. He wrote to his grandson:

The emperor and empress quarreled over who would sponsor you, and the female sex won.

Psellos, To his grandson, who was still an infant, from Greek trans. Anthony Kaldellis in id. p. 165.

[9] Psellos, To an anonymous friend who was a judge in the administrative theme of Philadelphia in Asia Minor, Letter S 180, from Greek trans. Papaioannou (2013) p. 207 (with Greek text).

[10] Timarion 41, trans. Baldwin (1984) p. 71. The Greek word translated as “whispered” is a form of the Greek verb hypopsellizon. Id. p. 127, n. 224. That word, along with other evidence in the Timarion, is the basis for identifying Psellos with the Timarion’s references to the “Byzantine Sophist” (which Baldwin translated more loosely as the “Byzantine Professor”). Psellos may have been an acquired personal epithet rather than an inherited family name.

[11] Psellos, To Konstantinos, nephew of the patriarch Keroularios, Letter S 117, trans. Papaioannou (2013) p. 229 (with Greek text).

[12] Psellos, Encomium for his mother, available in English translation in Kaldellis (2006) pp. 51-109. Psellos’s mother was named Theodote (Theodota). The Encomium is styled as:

a funeral oration being addressed to relatives and others who wish to know about the saintly qualities of his mother {Theodote}. … the Encomium effectively canonizes Psellos’ mother.

Id. p. 33. Theodote became a devout, ascetic Christian. Psellos formed her to his ideal of intellectual motherhood:

Theodote stands in this final image as the divine source, or an embodiment of that source, from which Psellos has received the life that he will not betray: the life of logos as embodied in the classical secular-humanist paideia, and in the rhetorical, political, philosophical, and pedagogical career of a “Byzantine sophist.”

Walker (2004) p. 99.

Psellos’s Encomium for his mother, not surprisingly, was a highly successful Byzantine work. The Encomium was “studied and admired by later generations of Byzantine writers.” Kaldellis (2006) p. 29. Gregorios Pardos, bishop of Corinth early in the twelfth century, stated:

Above all the consummately excellent speeches that we know, the four best are these: Demosthenes’ On the Crown, the Panathenaic Speech of {Aelios} Aristeides, the Theologian’s {Gregory of Nazianzos’} epitaphios for Basil the Great, and Psellos’ {epitaphios} for his mother.

From Greek trans. Walker (2004) p. 53.

[13] Timarion 45, trans. Baldwin (1984) p. 74.

[14] Timarion 41 gives the entire text of what Psellos read to the public assembly:

It has been resolved by this most worshipful college of great physicians, not forgetting the divine Aesculapius, that Nyktion and Oxybas, in so much as they have transgressed against the laws of the dead, shall be removed forthwith from their office of conductors of souls, and that Timarion shall be restored to life and live in his own body. In due time, when he has completed his allotted span, and has had the holy rituals performed over him, then and only then shall he be brought back to Hades by the legally apppointed conductors of the dead.

Trans. Baldwin (1984). That’s the sort of bureaucratese that ordinary Byzantine bureaucrats regularly produced.

[15] Papaioannou (2013) p. 231. The subsequent quote is from id.

[image] Michael Psellos (on left) teaching Byzantine Emperor Michael VII Doukas (on right). Codex 234, f. 245a, Mount Athos, Pantokrator Monastery. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Baldwin, Barry, trans. and commentary. 1984. Timarion. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Clucas, Lowell. 1981. The trial of John Italos and the crisis of intellectual values in Byzantium in the eleventh century. München: Institut für Byzantinistik, Neugriechische Philologie und Byzantinische Kunstgeschichte der Universität.

Dawes, Elizabeth A. S., trans. 1928. The Alexiad of Princess Anna Comnena: being the history of the reign of her father, Alexius I, Emperor of the Romans, 1081 – 1118 A.D. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Jaworska-Wołoszyn, Magdalena. 2014. “John Italos Seen by Anna Komnene.” Peitho: Examina antiqua. 5: 279-294.

Kaldellis, Anthony, ed. and trans. 2006. Mothers and sons, fathers and daughters: the Byzantine family of Michael Psellos. Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press.

Konstan, David. 2010. Before forgiveness: the origins of a moral idea. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Papaioannou, Stratis. 2013. Michael Psellos: rhetoric and authorship in Byzantium. Cambridge: Cambridge University press.

Trizio, Michele. 2013. “Escaping through the Homeric Gates: John Italos’ Neoplatonic Exegesis of Odyssey 19.562-567 Between Synesius and Proclus.” Documenti e studi sulla tradizione filosofica medievale. 24: 69-83.

Walker, Jeffrey. 2004. “These Things I Have Not Betrayed: Michael Psellos’ Encomium of His Mother as a Defense of Rhetoric.” Rhetorica. 22 (1): 49-101.

Grottaferrata Digenis Akritis: self-consciousness under gynocentrism

gynocentrism: the big picture

The Grottaferrata version of the medieval Greek epic Digenis Akritis encompasses subtle self-consciousness of men’s position under gynocentrism. Romanos the Melodist’s sixth-century kontakia on Mary at the foot of the cross reflects gynocentrism, but uncritically. The kontakia’s representation of gynocentrism seems to result mainly from particular circumstances of symbolic competition. Major literature of men’s sex protest such as Lamentationes Matheoluli directly confronts gynocentric dominance with unruly men’s recalcitrance. Unlike either, the Grottaferrata Digenis Akritis has a gynocentric orientation that’s both self-conscious and complex.

Consider the exchange of oaths between Digenis and the girl who became his wife. He declared to her:

In you is my every beginning and my end
that had its beginning with God, until my death;
and if ever I should wish to grieve you, my soul,
and if I do not preserve untroubled your love for me
and your most pure desire until my death,
may I not die a Christian, may I not prosper,
may I not win my parents’ blessings;
and may you, high-born girl, preserve the same feelings. [1]

Like Ruodlieb’s nephew pledging to his bride reciprocally “constant and enduring faith,” Digenis offered a reciprocal pledge to his beloved: “may you … preserve the same feelings.” She in response implicitly rejected gender symmetry in love and expressed ungenerous suspicion:

Leaving parents, brothers and household,
I entrust myself to you, youngster, with God;
grant me him as a witness that you will not grieve me
but make me your lawful wife till the end.
For many lovers have set aside their words,
despite having previously shown themselves passionate to the girls they desire.

Digenis had invoked a curse upon himself if he should grieve her. He had asked her to preserve the same feelings. She didn’t. Instead, she called on him to swear again before God that he would not grieve her. Digenis acquiesced, but with a complaining coda:

By the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,
I will never grieve you, highest-born of girls,
but I will make you mistress of my possessions and my lady,
my wife and spouse until the end of my life,
if you keep your desire for me pure,
as I said to you before, my dearest soul.

She said nothing further. The mighty warrior Digenis thus submitted to his future wife’s degrading conditions. He didn’t ask her to swear before God not to grieve him. He didn’t declare to her that many women betray their words to men. The narrator observed, “they had bound each other well through their oaths.”[2] That observation is best understood as a subtle, ironic critique of gynocentrism.

Digenis himself behaved ambivalently with respect to gynocentric imperatives and values. Under gynocentrism, women amorously favor the man who acts like the bigger jerk. When Digenis suddenly realized that imperative from the love affair of Aploravdis’s daughter, he raped her. He subsequently deeply regretted being such a jerk. When the Amazon Maximou came to behead him, Digenis fought her in accordance with the gynocentric value that only men should be killed. Digenis subsequently became furious with himself for upholding that gender injustice. He returned to slay Maximou. Digenis came from a prominent family in a matriarchal society. While he honored his parents, he chose to leave matriarchal society and live only with his wife. They never had children.[3]

While Digenis sought to live apart from gynocentrism, he never appreciated his own intrinsic value as a man. Digenis on his deathbed recounted to his wife his many heroic deeds:

{heroic deeds}
it was out of my boundless love for you, my dearest,
that I did all this, so that I could win you.

{more heroic deeds}
I dared to do these things for love of you,
for I preferred death to your grieving in any way.

{more heroic deeds}
These deeds I performed for the sake of your love,
to which I preferred neither the world nor life.

{another heroic deed}
And this deed I performed out of the excess of my love
for you, my very dearly beloved girl, so that I could win you.

{another heroic deed}
And many more other things for love of you, my soul,
I achieved, so that I might win you,
and I missed my aim, I failed in my expectations;
for know for certain that I am dying. [4]

Underscoring the folly of men orienting their life wholly toward winning a woman’s love, Digenis died young from a sickness he caught while taking a bath at home in a pleasure garden. That’s a most unheroic death. Digenis Akritis is a subtle tale of a man’s troubled and ultimately failing struggle to escape gynocentrism.

Literary scholars have failed to appreciate the profound, critical perspective on men’s lives in Digenis Akritis. The psychologically complex Digenis has been superficially derided as “violent and boorish.”[5] A subtle tale of a man’s struggle with gynocentrism had been crudely misrepresented as:

the philistine fantasy world of Digenes Akrites, a man’s man who lived in the country, never met an intellectual, and devoted himself to sex and violence.[6]

While disparaging “a man’s man,” intellectuals studying Digenis Akritis have engaged in lengthy, tedious tribal battles over the merits of the Grottaferrata version relative to the Escorial version. Few persons would be interested in meeting such intellectuals. A concluding comment to a book-length study subtitled “New Approaches to Byzantine Heroic Poetry” observed:

specifically literary study of Digenes Akrites, in any of its versions, remains a neglected area. [7]

More significant than neglect of literary study of Digenis Akritis has been lack of literary appreciation for men’s lives under gynocentrism. Digenis Akritis can be adequately appreciated only with sympathetic understanding of men in relation to women.

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[1] Digenis Akritis, Grottaferrata version, 4.555-62, from Greek trans. Jeffreys (1998) pp. 99, 101. The subsequent two quotes are from 4.570–5 and 4.578-83, id. p. 101. For “my every beginning and my end,” cf. Revelation 22:13.

[2] Digenis Akritis, Grottaferrata version, 4.584, trans. Jeffreys (1998) p. 101. In the Escorial version, the girl first makes a vow ending with “my God find you out, my lord, if you cause me pain.” Digenis then makes an oath in response to that concern:

Benevolent Lord God, creator of the ages:
if I think of causing you pain,
may wild beasts tear me apart
and may I not take pleasure in my youthfulness, my prodigious bravery,
and may I not be buried as a Christian and may I never prosper,
may I never inherit my mother’s blessing
and may I never take pleasure in your prodigious love,
if ever I think of causing you pain.
But you, dark-eyed one, see that you give no offence.

Digenis Akritis, Escorial version ll. 902-10, trans. Jeffreys (1998) p. 307. In the Escorial version, the girl doesn’t implicitly reject Digenis’s call for reciprocity. Digenis also more directly insists on the girl’s reciprocal obligation. These differences suggest that the Grottaferrata’s version of the oaths represents a sophisticated literary choice.

While both version represent Byzantine matriarchy, the Escorial version is more directly matriarchal than the Grottaferrata version. For the curse, the Escorial declares “may I never inherit my mother’s blessing”; the Grottaferrata has “may I not win my parents’ blessings.” The Escorial has lengthy prayers of Digenis’s mother for him before he went to abduct the girl who became his wife. It also states that Digenis attacked the guerillas “on foot supported only by my mother’s blessing.” Escorial 811-23 (mother’s prayers), 1212 (attacking with mother’s blessing). Neither of those features is in the Grottaferrata version.

[3] Trilling interprets the childlessness of Digenis and his wife with a crude allegory:

In allegorical terms he has no children because his life, however remarkable in itself, leads nowhere.

Trilling (2016) p. 159. Byzantium was a Christian society in which celibate men and women were highly honored. Celibacy, which in a strict form implies childlessness, was a well-recognized path to holiness. Moreover, being a warrior didn’t exclude a childless quest for holiness. Digenis Akritis explicitly invoked childless military saints: Theodore of Heraclea, Theodore of Amasea, George, and Demetrios of Thessaloniki. The childlessness of Digenis is better understood as setting him apart from the familial relations of matriarchy and gynocentrism.

[4] Digenis Akritis, Grottaferrata version, 8.63-124, trans. Jeffreys (1998) pp. 221, 223. Both l. 8.123 and 8.124  begin with καί; l. 8.124 could also be translated as “and know for certain that I am dying.” In any case, Digenis failure wasn’t necessarily that he didn’t win the girl’s true, worldly love. His aim and his expectation may well have been to have a long life in love with the girl. By dying young, he failed in that aim and expectation. Cf. Galatariotou (1987) pp. 65-6.

[5] Kaldellis (2007) p. 269.

[6] Magdalino (1984) p. 69.

[7] Ricks (1993) p. 170.

[image] Detail from Cameo Shores by Austin Neill. Available from unsplash under a Creative Commons Zero license.


Galatariotou, Catia. 1987. “Structural Oppositions in the Grottaferrata Digenes Akrites.” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. 11 (1): 29-68.

Jeffreys, Elizabeth, ed. and trans. 1998. Digenis Akritis: the Grottaferrata and Escorial versions. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Kaldellis, Anthony. 2007. Hellenism in Byzantium: the transformations of Greek identity and the reception of the classical tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Magdalino, Paul. 1984. “Byzantine Snobbery.” Pp. 58-78 in Angold, Michael, ed. The Byzantine aristocracy, IX to XIII centuries. Oxford, England: B.A.R.

Ricks, David. 1993. “Digenes Akrites as literature.” Ch. 14 (pp. 161-70) in Beaton, Roderick and David Ricks, eds. Digenes Akrites: New Approaches to Byzantine Heroic Poetry. Center for Hellenic Studies, King’s College, London.

Trilling, James. 2016. “Re-Introducing Digenis Akritis: A Byzantine Poem of Strength, Weakness, and the Disturbing Absence of God.” Viator. 47 (3): 149-170.

Timarion learned that intellectual life is better in Byzantine Hell

Byzantine icon: harrowing Hell

Vomiting and diarrhea gripped Timarion. Completely drained and unable to produce any publishable articles, he attempted to sleep. Two spirits came to conduct away his soul. One said to the other:

Here is the man who lost the fourth of this constituent elements by vomiting up all his bile. He cannot be allowed to go on living on the strength of his remaining three. Aesculapius and Hippocrates have said as much in the decree they wrote down and posted in Hades whereby no man, even if his body be in good shape, shall go on living if he has been deprived of one of his four elements. [1]

Which of the two types of bile Timarion lost isn’t worth a bitter argument. Timarion was dead according to the decree of leading medical authorities. The spirits thus pulled his soul out of his body through his nose and mouth, as through a yawn, and conducted it to the abode of the dead. Yet Timarion wasn’t actually dead. Moreover, public reason in Byzantine Hell was good enough to restore life wrongly taken from a corpse.

In Byzantine Hell, Timarion brought suit against the officials who had conducted his soul to Hades. Called before a judicial panel to defend their actions, those spirits testified:

As for the poor devil Timarion, we had observed him in the process of losing through dysentery his fourth element all the way from Thessalonica to the greatest river in Thrace. Acquainted as we are with the law laid down by the greatest medical brains to the effect that no man shall violate the law of nature by living on the basis of three elements, when we saw all his bile emptied out over a space of thirty days, we went to his bed and summoned forth his soul, since it was not lawful for it to remain in a body so deprived. But, your most worshipful judges, it is for you to render your verdict; we will submit ourselves to the law. [2]

Declaring that the case required expert medical knowledge, the judges summoned Aesculapius and Hippocrates. They in turn called for Erasistratus. With the most revered medical authorities in Hell attending, how could the case not be judged rightly?

The medical authorities quickly displayed their expertise. They demanded that the defendants diagnose the disease and the state of Timarion’s soul. The defendants responded:

Greatest of the physicians, we have in no way disobeyed or dishonored your regulations. After all, it was you and your colleagues on earth who established the hard and fast rule that no one should keep on living or breathing who was not fully comprised of the four elements — blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile — and that whoever happened to be deprived of one of these four should under no circumstances be allowed to live.

Therefore, in fulfillment of our allotted duty in the upper world, on seeing this poor wretch continuously coughing up bile mixed with blood for thirty days and nights, we perceived on the basis of our medical expertise that he could not be allowed to live any longer. We ask you, how could he possibly have had any of this elemental humor left in him after coughing it up in such quantities for so many days? You may then rest assured that we had no need to use force to separate his soul from his body. Quite the contrary, we went in gently through the nostrils and drew it up with a light sucking action. It put up no resistance, since his body was by that time completely exhausted from its continuous secretions.

Timarion’s advocate Theodore of Smyrna rose in rebuttal:

Your Honors, and you, too, presidents and executive members of the medical association, you have just heard the babbling excuses of these accursed devils and the pathetic and illogical pretense of an argument they have attempted to string together. Now, in rebuttal, I shall show how they have hoisted themselves with their own petard.

Theodore pointed out that a soul is rightly conducted to Hades only after proper religious rituals have been performed. For Christian souls, funeral rites are performed on the third, ninth, and fortieth days after death. Timarion received no such rites before being conducted to Hades. Moreover, Timarion’s soul still had bits of living flesh sticking to it. Theodore called for “some officials with good eyesight” (not leading physicians or leading theologians) to examine thoroughly the state of Timarion’s soul.[3] Two officials did so and reported to the court:

External examination shows the entire soul to be defiled by gore, of a color commonly found on men who fall in battle, the result of sweat mixing with blood. But our detailed internal investigation discloses that some parts of the soul are still suffused with pure blood and still emit some particles of living breath. Furthermore, some pieces of flesh are stuck to it, containing blood and the essence of life.

Timarion’s advocate drew out the implications for the court:

There you have it, gentlemen, the vindication of my own argument. For if the soul was still managing to cling obstinately to the body, how could its fourth element have been entirely drained away? According to the theories of the most distinguished doctors, nature surrenders a soul without a struggle when it actually has lost an element. But in this case, it was not the element itself that was voided, but rather the food ingested every day was forcibly expelled when turned into a secretion that was bile-like but not real bile, as a result of inflammation of the liver. This is quite clear from the results of the second examination. That part of the soul of Timarion which was near to the liver when the bleeding began is all rendered down into bile. And, organically speaking, it is precisely there that our daily intake of food, once transformed into a bile-like substance, produces and gets rid of our bodily refuse which is equally bile-like. There can be only one conclusion. What was secreted was not pure elemental bile but ordinary bodily wastes that are voided along with bile, more than usual in this particular case because of the inflamed condition of the liver.

The judges, not surprisingly, ruled that the defendants had transgressed the laws of the dead in conducting Timarion’s soul to Hades. The judges ordered that the defendants be removed from their office and that Timarion be restored to life in his body. In short, judges in Byzantine Hell established that an authoritative decree should not be followed in contradiction to facts of life. That’s better quality public reason than typically prevails elsewhere, especially today.

Timarion’s advocate Theodore of Smyrna directly declared the superiority of intellectual life in Byzantine Hell. He stated:

Let me tell you, in the life above it was verbal dexterity and crowd-pleasing wit that counted. Down here, it is all philosophy and true culture, with less demagogic display. [4]

Theodore of Smyrna followed prominent Byzantine intellectuals Michael Psellos and Ioannes Italos in holding the title “Chief of the Philosophers” in Constantinople.[5] He participated in high-level political-ecclesiastical meetings and wrote learned commentary on Aristotle. Well-known for his resonant delivery and impressive size, he was the biggest sophist in Constantinople early in the twelfth century. In Byzantine Hell, a vegetarian diet greatly reduced Theodore’s size and improved his bodily health. His testimony to the superiority of intellectual life in Byzantine Hell carries great weight. His words should settle the matter in intellectual life today.[6]

Outside of Byzantine Hell, a man cries in despair at the public response to a woman kick-boxer assaulting her celebrity boyfriend. She punched him in the face, broke his nose, and split in his lip. In response, he promoted a fund-raising campaign for White Ribbon Australia. That’s the domestic violence organization that bullied the founder of the first modern domestic violence shelter because she refused to misrepresent the facts about domestic violence against men. Eminent authorities and their decrees dominate the reality of men’s lives in public discussion today. We would all have more reasonable lives in Byzantine Hell.

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[1] Timarion 13, from Greek trans. Baldwin (1984) p. 51. Two of the four constituent elements (humors in ancient medical theory) are bile: yellow bile and black bile. The Timarion never substantially distinguishes between these two bile elements.

The Timarion is generally thought to have been written in twelfth-century Constantinople. Its author isn’t convincingly known. For a brief, accessible review of thoughts on dating and authorship, Strain (2013) pp. 2-3.

The Timarion has survived in only one manuscript, Codex Vaticanus graecus 87. That manuscript also contains works of Lucian. The Timarion has considerable intertextuality with Lucian’s works. Lucian, however, surely didn’t write it. The Timarion contains many factual references to Byzantine history and real Byzantine persons.

All subsequent quotes from the Timarion will be cited by source section and page number in Baldwin’s translation. I’ve changed a few words to their standard spelling in American English.

[2] Timarion 35, p. 66. The conductors of souls reason like the Pharisees examining the blind man whom Jesus cured with mud on the Sabbath. John 9:1-41.

Subsequent quotes are from the Timarion 38, pp. 68-9 (Greatest of the physicians…); 39, p. 69 (Your Honors…); 40, p. 70 (External examination…), 40, pp. 70-1 (There you have it…) 24, p. 59 (Let me tell you…).

[3] The officials’ names transliterated into English are Oxyderkion and Nyktoleustes. Translated into English they are Sharpeye and Nightspy. Baldwin (1984) p. 127, n. 219, crediting Tozer (1881). Krallis observes:

The judges’ verdict appears based purely on a medical rather than moral diagnosis.

Krallis (2010) p. 222. The charge before the court turns on a medical, not moral issue. Yet none of the eminent medical authorities Aesculapius, Hippocrates,  Erasistratus, and Galen provides the medical diagnosis. It comes via officials whose only recognized credential is keen eyesight. That’s good satirical play in a work where the descent to Hades functions “as a platform where intellectual, authorial, and fictional issues may be displayed and discussed.” Nilsson (2016) p. 181. See also Bzinkowsky (2015).

While including real persons and events and satirizing actual practices, the Timarion is imaginative literature that draws upon conventional mythological and literary motifs such as katabasis. Krallis observes:

Given the medical staff present at the trial, and the information provided by Theodore of Smyrna on its members, we can draw a few conclusions about Timarion’s condition. Theodore’s fear of Galen is evidence that there was indeed a medical condition. … What could have excited Timarion enough to make him sick?

Id p. 238. Such analysis lacks both reason (its assertions have no necessary relation to each other) and imagination (the subject is fictional literature). Taking literally Konstantinos Akropolites’s letter conveying the Timarion is a similar mistake. See Kaldellis (2007) p. 277, Krallis (2010) p. 221.

[5] Nilsson recognizes the importance of this statement to the Timarion as a whole. She explains:

I read it in light of the situation and attitudes of twelfth-century professional rhetors, whose authorial personae expressed the idea that they were forced to exhibit qua entertain, which prevented engagement in “true” philosophy, i.e., paideia and logoi. Seen from this perspective, the Hades of the Timarion offers weary rhetoricians a rest from the constraints of their trade, reminiscent rather of the Isle of the Blessed where Homer was placed in Lucian’s True Histories. Such an interpretation does not exclude philosophical or political connotations; it simply puts the focus on the metaliterary potential and sociocultural significance of the work.

Nilsson (2016) p. 190.

[5] According to the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (ed. Kazhdan), Theodore of Smyrna was:

high-ranking official and scholar; born mid-11th C., died after 1112. He was magistros and judge in 1082 and later held the post of quaestor with the titles of protoproedros and protokouropalates (Laurent, Corpus 2, nos. 1118–19). After the deposition of John Italos, Theodore was appointed hypatos ton philosophon. In 1112 he engaged in discussions in Constantinople with the Latin theologian Peter Grossolano.

Other information about Theodore in the paragraph above comes from Baldwin (1984) p. 113, n. 149, and the Timarion itself.

The title hypatos ton philosophon {Chief of the Philosophers} was created for Michael Psellos about 1047. The title subsequently passed to Ioannes Italos (John Italos) and then Theodore of Smyrna. The Timarion refers to that title with the phrase “sophistic chair in Constantinople.” Timarion 23, p. 58. A more literal translation is “Throne of Sophistry in Constantinople.” The medieval Greek text of the Timarion doesn’t use the word philosophy. Its diction emphasizes that Theodore is a sophist. Krallis (2010) p. 229, n. 40.

[6] Educational institutions are part of the problem. Kaldellis observes:

The Timarion, in other words, presents a satirical but nevertheless serious history of education in Byzantium. … the text basically offers a politicized commentary on the history of higher education in late eleventh- and early twelfth-century Constantinople, one that I believe should be taken seriously today.

Kaldellis (2012) pp. 281, 287. Strain’s poignant conclusion should trouble academics today:

Those who can enjoy the entertainment {that the Timarion provides} are reminded that they are, perhaps, clever enough to serve and entertain their masters. But should they tell, or hide, from rulers and paymasters, the folly and fragility of the world they help them rule?

Strain (2013) pp. 14-5. A world in which authoritative knowledge claims dominate reality is foolish and fragile. Those paid to promote the dominant ideology hide from their paymasters the truth at their own peril.

[image] Harrowing of Hell. Detail from mid-15th century Byzantine icon. Attributed to Andreas Ritzos. Held in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg (Russia). Thanks to Shakko and Wikimedia Commons.


Baldwin, Barry, trans. and commentary. 1984. Timarion. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Bzinkowsky, Michal. 2015. “Notes on eschatological patterns in a 12th century anonymous satirical dialogue the Timarion.” Eos. 102(1): 129-148.

Kaldellis, Anthony. 2007. Hellenism in Byzantium: the transformations of Greek identity and the reception of the classical tradition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Kaldellis, Anthony. 2012. “The Timarion: Toward a Literary Interpretation.” Pp. 275-288 in Odorico, Paolo, ed. 2012. La face cachée de la littérature byzantine le texte en tant que message immédiat: actes du colloque international, Paris, 5-6-7 juin 2008. Paris: Centre d’études byzantines, néo-helléniques et sud-est européennes, École des hautes études en sciences sociales.

Krallis, Dimitris. 2010. “Harmless satire, stinging critique: Notes and suggestions for reading the Timarion.” Ch. 12 (pp. 221-245) in Dimiter Angelov and Michael Saxby, eds. Power and subversion in Byzantium: papers from the 43rd Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Birmingham, March 2010. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Variorum.

Nilsson, Ingela. 2016. “Poets and Teachers in the Underworld: From the Lucianic katabasis to the Timarion.” Symbolae Osloenses. 90 (1): 180-204.

Strain, Michael. 2013. “How does satire work in the Timarion and whom/what it is aimed at?” Teaching Material for MA Byzantine Studies, Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, University of Birmingham.

Konstantinos Akropolites burning the book of neo-pagan Timarion

book burning

The Byzantine Emperor promoted Konstantinos Akropolites to grand logothete in Constantinople about 1294. Akropolites thus became the administrative head of the Byzantine bureaucracy. As the son of Giorgos Akropolites, an eminent bureaucrat and historian who lived from 1217 to 1282, Konstantinos Akropolites undoubtedly had extensive knowledge of bureaucracy in action.[1] Such experience encourages indirect expression and a wry sense of humor. In a letter to a friend, Akropolites harshly disparaged the outrageously impious and amusing Byzantine literary work the Timarion. Akropolites’s letter should be read as sophisticated rhetoric testing intellectual broad-mindedness.

Like the ninth-century Arabic rhetorician al-Jahiz writing on misers, Konstantinos Akropolites engaged in subtle irony in disparaging the Timarion. Akropolites blandly praised the Timarion’s account of the festival of Saint Demetrius of Thessalonike:

I cannot imagine what motivated him to attack the Christian faith. It is all the more strange since, by starting with the festival of the famous martyr St. Demetrius, he did make a good and appropriately solemn start before degenerating into his quite unsuitable tale. [2]

Saint Demetrius was the patron saint of the western European crusaders who took Antioch from the Turks in 1098, and then brutally took Constantinople from the Byzantines in 1204. In Byzantine eyes the crusaders were barbarians. The barbarians enlisting Demetrius as their patron saint directly concerned Byzantium:

there is no doubt that Byzantium was very much on the minds of crusaders at Antioch. They had sound reasons to expect Emperor Alexius to come to their aid and grew increasingly disappointed when he did not. … the appearance of Eastern saints in two of the early narratives of the battle of Antioch was intended to make a powerful statement not only about the worthiness of the crusaders, but also about the unworthiness of Byzantium. When Demetrius and other saints joined the crusaders, they abandoned the Byzantines. … the claim that Demetrius intervened on the side of crusaders was conceivably a reproach to Emperor Alexius in person. [3]

The Timarion used the festival of Saint Demetrius in Thessalonike to represent political difference:

The staging itself of this story in Thessalonike inevitably highlights the crucial divide between the Western present of the empire and its Eastern past. Timarion is a Cappodocian visiting this city in the Western part of the empire. He draws his origins from lost Byzantine territory, which, at that time, lay beyond the empire’s eastern frontier. His presence in Thessalonike puts the loss of the east in stark relief. Timarion accentuate this loss by listing the nations visiting the fair. These are mostly Western Europeans, as well as “Greeks” from Boeotia and the Peloponnese. The few Eastern visitors are from areas outside the empire, like Egypt, Phoenica and the Black Sea. … If Thessalonike attracts the Western Byzantines and numerous foreigners, the representatives of the Byzantine East are to be found in Hades. [4]

Konstantinos Akropolites probably recognized the struggle for Saint Demetrius and the political differences that the Timarion represented in Thessalonike and Hades. Akropolites staunchly opposed Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos moving toward union with the Church of Rome. Akropolites’s praise of the Timarion’s “good and appropriately solemn start” — the tale of Timarion’s journey from Constantinople to Thessalonike and his experience of the worldly festival of Saint Demetrius there — creates suspicion of irony.

The conclusion of Akropolites’s letter makes its ironic rhetoric more clear. The Timarion probably was written in the twelfth century. Writing more than a century later, Akropolites describes the author of the Timarion as an “oldish barbarian who came late in life to catch up with things here in Constantinople.” That extra-textual assertion reverses the polarities of Timarion’s journey to Thessalonike. If the Timarion’s author actually was an “oldish barbarian” who migrated to Constantinople, he quickly gained detailed knowledge of Byzantine intellectual figures and culture. In any case, Akropolites then ostensibly moved toward an extremely crude form of intellectual interaction:

as soon as I had got to the end of his book {the Timarion}, I felt I should consign it to the flames so that in the future it would not fall into the hands of any Christian. And my intention would have become a fait accompli had not the sense of respect for a fellow believer which I have long maintained intervened to stop me. This held my hand, so to speak, and restrained me from my intent, thus saving this insane book from the fate which I think it so richly deserves.

So, my godlike friend, I have disclosed to you what I think about the enclosed volume. In return, I want very much to have your opinion.

The Timarion has survived in only one manuscript. Imaging Akropolites having pulled back from throwing that manuscript into his fire isn’t reasonable. Akropolites almost surely wouldn’t have encountered the sole manuscript of a barbarian author who wrote more than a century earlier, and he wouldn’t have known extra-textual information about that author. The Timarion almost surely was a work that circulated in multiple manuscripts and gained some notoriety for its author. The Timarion almost surely fell into the hands of Christians many times before Akropolites encountered it.

Akropolites’s letter is literally unreasonable. After harshly and unequivocally condemning the Timarion for madly disrespecting Christian truths and reviving pagan myths, to his godlike friend Akropolites declared “I want very much to have your opinion.” If the Timarion truly offended Akropolites, or if he actually believed that outrageously impious work should be harshly repressed, he wouldn’t have circulated it further. With a literal reading of his letter, Akropolites sending the Timarion to his godlike friend and seeking his opinion makes no sense.[5]

Akropolites asserted that his piousness toward his godlike friend stayed his hand and stopped him from burning the Timarion. Backing away from burning a book is at the center of an elaborate, concluding rhetorical figure in the mid-fifteenth-century Spanish masterpiece of men’s sexed protest, The Archpriest of Talavera. Akropolites’s concluding rhetoric is best interpreted as figuratively drawing upon Abraham’s binding of Isaac.[6]

Here is the inner meaning of Akropolites’s letter about the Timarion. I send you an outrageously impious text. If you are a sophisticated intellectual, read it and enjoy it. No harm will come of this.

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[1] Biographical information about Konstantine Akropolites is from Baldwin (1984) p. 26 and the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (Kazhdan, ed.), heading Constantine Akropolites. He wrote more than thirty lives of saints. That shouldn’t be understood to mean that he was an austerely pious persons. Akropolites died in or before May 1324.

[2] Konstantine Akropolites, letter to a friend, from Greek trans. Baldwin (1984) pp. 25-6. All subsequent quotes from the letter are from id.

[3] Lapina (2009) pp. 106-7.

[4] Krallis (2010) pp. 230-1. The Timarion’s description of the Saint Demetrios festival in Thessaloniki rewrites the description of the festival at Delphi in Heliodoros’s Aithiopika. MacDougall (2016). MacDougall observes:

The shade of the hero Neoptolemos/Pyrrhus – who had been unjustly murdered at Delphi by Orestes – appeared when Delphi was attacked by the Gauls in 279 BCE. As a cultic hero and defender of the city, Neoptolemos is a parallel to the martyr Demetrios, whose cult and fame exploded precisely in response to his role in defending Thessaloniki from a different set of barbarian invaders from the North: the Slavs and Avars. It was in this guise – as a bulwark of the city against foreign invaders – that Demetrios was most well-known throughout Byzantine history, even as he is to the present day.

Id. p. 149. That account ignores the crusaders’ appropriation of St. Demetrios after their victory in the Battle of Antioch in 1098. Assuming that the author of the Timarion recognized the crusaders’ appropriation of St. Demetrios (which also implies that the Timarion was written after 1098) seems to me to better fit with the Timarion’s satire and Akropolites’s irony.

[5] Both Kaldellis and Krallis read Akropolites’s letter literally and give it considerable weight in their interpretations of the Timarion. Kaldellis (2007) p. 277; Krallis (2010) p. 221.

[6] Genesis 22:1-19.

[image] Book burning. Color-enhanced detail from oil-on-panel painting entitled St. Dominic de Guzman and the Albigensians. Painted by Pedro Berruguete from 1493 to 1499. Held in Prado Museum (Madrid, Spain) item P00609. Color-enhanced detail via derechoaleer. Full image thanks to the Prado Museum and Wikimedia Commons.


Baldwin, Barry, trans. and commentary. 1984. Timarion. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Kaldellis, Anthony. 2007. Hellenism in Byzantium: the transformations of Greek identity and the reception of the classical tradition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Krallis, Dimitris. 2010. “Harmless satire, stinging critique: Notes and suggestions for reading the Timarion.” Ch. 12 (pp. 221-245) in Dimiter Angelov and Michael Saxby, eds. Power and subversion in Byzantium: papers from the 43rd Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Birmingham, March 2010. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Variorum.

Lapina, Elizabeth. 2009. “Demetrius of Thessaloniki: Patron Saint of Crusaders.” Viator. 40 (2): 93-112.

MacDougall, Byron. 2016. “The festival of Saint Demetrios, the Timarion, and the Aithiopika.” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. 40 (01): 136-150.

Peter Lombard’s Sentences: conjugal partnership, not courtly love

Peter Lombard writing Sentences

Unlike a more humane, more passionate understanding of chivalry, the long-reigning ideology of courtly love deepens men’s subordination to women. Courtly love ideology proclaims that women are morally superior to men. It urges men to labor for women’s “enobling  love.” Peter Lombard, medieval Europe’s most influential systematic theologian, rejected that ideology.[1] Drawing upon the most highly regarded Jewish and Christian authorities, Lombard established in his monumental Sentences that men and women in love are intended to have an equal conjugal partnership.

Peter Lombard understood the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib to indicate that women and men belong together in an equal partnership. In his Sentences, he explained:

she {Eve} was formed not from just any part of his body {Adam’s body}, but from his side, so that it should be shown that she was created for the partnership of love, lest, if perhaps she had been made from his head, she should be perceived as set over man in domination; or if from his feet, as if subject to him in servitude. Therefore, since she was made neither to dominate, nor to serve the man, but as his partner, she had to be produced neither from his head, nor from his feet, but from his side, so that he would know that she was to be placed beside himself

{non de qualibet parte corporis viri, sed de latere eius formata est, ut ostenderetur quia in consortium creabatur dilectionis: ne forte si fuisset de capite facta, viro ad dominationem videretur praeferenda; aut si de pedibus, ad servitutem subicienda. Quia igitur viro nec domina nec ancilla parabatur, sed socia, nec de capite nec de pedibus, sed de latere fuerat producenda, ut iuxta se ponendam cognosceret} [2]

Lombard emphasized that marriage is a conjugal partnership of equals:

consent to carnal joining or to cohabitation does not make a marriage, but consent to conjugal partnership, expressed by words of present tense, as when a man says: I take you as my wife, and neither as one to lord it over me, nor as a slave-girl. … she is not given as slave-girl or as one to lord it over him; in the beginning she was not formed either from the highest part, nor from the lowest, but from the side of man, for the sake of conjugal partnership.

{consensus cohabitationis vel carnalis copulae non facit coniugium, sed consensus. coniugalis societatis, verbis secundum praesens tempus expressus, ut cum vir dicit: Ego accipio te in meam, non dominam, non ancillam, sed coniugem. … Quia enim non ancilla vel domina datur, ideo nec de summo nec de imo a principio formata est, sed de latere viri, ob coniugalem societatem.} [3]

Courtly lovers abase themselves and pedestalize women. Yet woman are flesh-and-blood humans just like men are. Those who believe otherwise deny human nature and deny revelation that ancient Jewish and Christian authorities understood.

Many Christians have believed in the sinfulness of man in the sense of those decrying “toxic masculinity.” Medieval theologian Peter Lombard, in contrast, provided sympathetic understanding of Adam’s sin.[4] According to Lombard, Adam knew that eating fruit from the tree of knowledge was a sin, but, out of concern for Eve, Adam didn’t go his own way:

Adam … reflected on penance and God’s mercy, even as he humoured the woman and consented to her persuasion, not wishing to sadden her and leave her alienated from herself, lest she should perish. He judged that it {eating the fruit} was a venial, not a mortal, sin.

Adam … de poenitentia et Dei misericordia cogitavit, dum uxori morem gerens, eius persuasioni consensit, nolens eam contristare et a se alienatam relinquere, ne periret, arbitratus illud esse veniale, non mortale delictum. [5]

Adam’s fundamental sin was being too meek and submissive toward a woman. Courtly love encourages and celebrates exactly that horrendous sin.[6]

In our age of ignorance, superstition, and bigotry, many believe that men are privileged relative to women. These believers believe that violence against women is the most pressing human rights problem in the world today. The fact that violence is much more frequently directed against men doesn’t matter to the believers’ beliefs about gender equality. The believers shudder at perceived threats to women’s constitutionally established reproductive rights, but they show no concern about forced financial fatherhood currently imposed on men and men having no reproductive rights whatsoever. The believers look upwards and gaze upon the genitals of mega-corporation CEOs and national political leaders. They don’t see the gender of the many more numerous persons authoritatively deprived of custody of their children or locked up in prison and jails, even when those persons are their relatives and neighbors. We are living in a Dark Age.

We have never been medieval like the medieval theologian Peter Lombard. His systematic, enlightened thinking about women and men in love rejected the oppressive, gynocentric ideology of courtly love. Although highly influential, Lombard’s reason wasn’t enough to overcome the darkness in which men disbelieve what they see with their own eyes.[7] Better education in medieval literature offers men and women the best hope for enlightenment.

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[1] Born about 1100, Peter Lombard became a professor at the cathedral school of Notre Dame in Paris about 1145 and Bishop of Paris in 1159. He was a renowned master-teacher who engaged with other leading theologians such as Hugh of St. Victor and Peter Abelard. Lombard finished his second and final draft of the Sentences in 1158.

Lombard’s Sentences became the most commented upon Christian work other than the Bible. More than 1,400 commentaries on it are known to have been written. Lombard’s Sentences was the standard university-level textbook on theology from the early thirteenth century to the mid-sixteenth century throughout western Europe. Rosemann (2004) pp. 3-4. On its influence, Rosemann (2007).

From the middle of the eleventh century to the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, clerics trained in cathedral schools rose in influence to become the agenda-setters and arbiters of elite reasoned belief. The University of Paris, which helped to institutionalize clerics’ broad societal importance, was founded about 1150 as a corporation associated with the cathedral school of Notre Dame in Paris. For intellectual history of Lombard’s Sentences within the socio-intellectual development of the clerical class, Monagle (2013).

[2] Peter Lombard, Libri Quatuor Sententiarum {Sentences}, Bk. 2, Distinction 18, Ch. 2, from Latin trans. Silano (2007) Bk. 2, p. 77. Silano’s translation is based on Ignatius Brady’s 1971 critical edition. The Latin text is from the Quaracchi edition of 1916, available online at Magister Sententiarum. While the Quaracchi edition has faults, they don’t seem relevant to the quotes above.

[3] Lombard, Libri Quatuor Sententiarum, Bk. 4, Distinction 28, Ch. 3.2 and 4.1, trans. Silano (2007) Bk. 4, p. 172. I have made some non-substantive changes in the translation to better align it with the Latin. On “lording it over,” cf. Matthew 20:25, Mark 10:42.

Scholars today find Lombard’s view surprising for the wrong reasons. For example, Finn (2011), p. 60, called Lombard’s view on conjugal partnership “a surprising conclusion, given the patriarchalism of his world and his sources.” Notional patriarchy is merely the integument of gynocentrism. Lombard’s view is surprising in its overt recognition of the possibility of women’s dominance and its decisive rejection of that dominance. The situation within local churches may have been particularly salient to Lombard’s concern about women dominating men.

[4] A particularly shameful example of claiming “toxic masculinity” is pathologizing men who are vastly disproportionately victims of lethal violence. The influential work of Augustine of Hippo taught that the sin of Eve and Adam is propagated through all subsequent humans through men’s semen. See Augustine, On Marriage and Concupiscence.

[5] Lombard, Libri Quatuor Sententiarum, Bk. 2, Distinction 22, Ch. 4.1., trans. Silano (2007) p. 100. I’ve made non-substantial changes to the translation to make it more easily readable. Rosemann comments:

From our contemporary perspective, Lombard’s description of Adam’s motives for sinning must appear slightly amusing

Rosemann (2007) p. 110. Lombard’s description might not appear amusing to those who judge our contemporary orthodoxy about demonic males to be absurd and hateful.

[6] Silano began the introduction to Lombard’s Sentences with a story honoring a woman’s adultery:

A story that was already old by the end of the Middle Ages had it that there had once been three brothers, born of an adulterous union. Their mother, on her deathbed, confessed her sin, and her confessor, noting its gravity, urged her to much sorrow and penance. The woman acknowledged that adultery is a great sin, but professed an inability to feel compunction, in view of the great good that had come of it, since each of her sons had become a luminary in the Church. The confessor agreed that her sons had done much useful work for the Church, but this had been God’s gift; her contribution had been the commission of adultery, and for this she ought to sorrow, or at least she ought to sorrow at her inability to feel sorrow. The three brothers born of this unrepented sin were Peter Comestor, Gratian, and Peter Lombard.

Silano (2007) Bk. 1, p. vii. Silano characterized the story as “charming” and asserted “it makes important points.” Silano interpreted the story allegorically. Yet the story also indicates that, throughout history, authorities have treated women adulterers more leniently than men adulterers. More generally, courtly love ideology and anti-men gender bias in judging culpability supports deeply unjust anti-men bias in criminal justice and incarceration.

[7] Literature and philosophy throughout history have generally failed to recognize men’s distinctively masculine being and have tended to consider humans generically. That failure is starkly apparent in Johnson’s Dictionary (1755) and continues in current scholarship. Monagle (2015) provides a gynocentric perspective on Peter Lombard’s failure to appreciate men’s distinctively masculine being.

[image] Peter Lombard within illuminated initial from one of the earliest manuscripts of Lombard’s Sentences. Lombard is writing Omnes sitientes venite ad me {all you who thirst, come to me}. A scribe named Michael of Ireland wrote this manuscript in 1158. Michael plausibly worked for the abbey of St. Victor in Paris. He thus would have seen Peter Lombard in person. Rosemann (2004) pp. 41-2. Illumination from Troyes. Bibliothèque Municipale MS 900, fol. 1r. Image thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Finn, Thomas M. 2011. “Sex and Marriage in the Sentences of Peter Lombard.” Theological Studies. 72 (1): 41-69.

Monagle, Clare. 2013. Orthodoxy and controversy in twelfth-century religious discourse: Peter Lombard’s Sentences and the development of theology. Turnhout: Brepols.

Monagle, Clare. 2015. “Christ’s Masculinity: Homo and Vir in Peter Lombard’s Sentences.” Ch. 2 (pp. 32-47) in Broomhall, Susan, ed. 2015. Ordering emotions in Europe, 1100-1800. Leiden: Brill.

Rosemann, Philipp W. 2004. Peter Lombard. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rosemann, Philipp W. 2013. The story of a great medieval book: Peter Lombard’s Sentences. North York, Ontario, Canada: Univ. of Toronto Press.

Silano, Giulio, trans. 2007-2010. Peter Lombard. The Sentences {Libri Quatuor Sententiarum}. 4 vols. {Book 1: The mystery of the Trinity; Book 2: On creation; Book 3: On the Incarnation of the Word; Book 4: On the Doctrine of Signs}. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.