ostentatio genitalium saves world from pathological gynocentrism

Darkness covered the faces of the people and its wombs were a formless void.  Self-absorbed, virtue-signaling women and impotent, self-abasing men secretly cursed the gynocentric days of their births.

holy family with infant John the Baptist

Then among these loathing people came an extraordinary, fully masculine son. His mother and father and those closest to him embraced the human fullness of his masculine being. He was a man-child, a boy. They loved him.

the Holy Family, Andrea Mantegna

The fully masculine son was a sign that would be opposed. The inner thoughts of many were filled with hate for men. Like thousands of sons at colleges and universities today, he would suffer an agonizing trial, a mockery of justice, then scourging, spitting, and expulsion. His mother pondered all these things in her heart. She prayed over his vulnerability.

Virgin adoring baby Jesus with penis

Protected and loved, he grew up to be a man. Unknowing scholars condemned him as “hyper-masculine.” Modern-day Jezebels screeched that the man was committing symbolic violence against them, and that men they smear as misogynists must protect them from men they accuse of symbolic violence. Gynocentric thought-leaders opined that the man was a woman, or at least androgynous.

Gallino crucifix, attributed to Michelangelo

Though wholly innocent, and without any sins against women or men, the man was crucified. He was crucified for being a man who testified to the truth. He cried out in compassion for his persecutors, “Father, forgive them, for they know not a father’s love.” Blood from the wound at his side flowed down to his groin. When he was taken down from the cross, he was grasping agonizingly at his groin. Mothers, here are your sons.

Zebraku lamentation

It was finished. The women who loved him looked upon his dead body in despair. They knew the facts of life and love and procreation. They didn’t dare hope for resurrection.

three mourners look upon dead Christ, by Andrea Mantegna

The rising of the dead man happened. Some institutionally entrenched scholars doubted. One wrote archly of “what certain painted folds of drapery really conceal.” For those who have eyes to see and some appreciation for Renaissance painters’ painstaking representations of drapery, what the form of the drapery about the man’s groins represents cannot be doubt. He had risen from the dead.

Christ, man of sorrows, by Maerten van Heemskerck

Holy Trinity in a glory of angels, by Lucas Cranach

The father was well-pleased with his son who fulfilled his mission. The father put his hand under his son’s thigh and swore that once again fully masculine men would be loved in the fullness of their masculine being. Then he sat his son upon a throne of grace. Let all women and men boldly approach this throne of grace in their time of need.

throne of grace, medieval carving

The man’s ostentatio genitalium, reverberating across centuries, now is readily available for all to see. He was not ashamed to call other men his brothers. Men and women today are groaning under the bondage of pathological gynocentrism. But seeing the man’s love, who can separate us from the love of each other? In this hope we are saved.

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The above is based mainly on the seminal work of Leo Steinberg. He first presented this work publicly in 1981 in a Lionel Trilling Seminar at Columbia University. For a good appreciation of Steinberg’s contribution to artistic culture, Strauss (1997).

Despite survival bias against such images, ostentatio genitalium isn’t a marginal phenomenon in surviving Renaissance images. Steinberg implicitly defined ostentatio genitalium {showing of male genitals} as “images wherein the emphasis on the genitalia of Christ is assertive and central.” He initially estimated that the number of Renaissance ostentatio genitalium images “runs past a thousand.” In his 1996 edition, he observed in retrospect that “the number {of identified ostentatio genitalium Renaissance images} by now has probably doubled.” Steinberg (1996) pp. 109, 266.

An under-appreciated strand of literary history celebrates the seminal, generative work of penises. Within traditional, Greco-Roman culture, Octavian celebrated his victory at Actium with a monumental sculpture of a penis-baring ass-driver having dominion over a donkey. Octavian’s Actium monument seems to relate to literature, most importantly Apulieus’s Metamorphoses, acknowledging the appeal of donkeys’ large penises. Greco-Roman Priapea, on the other hand, ironically critiqued brutalizing and commodifying stereotypes of men’s sexuality. Most importantly, Maximianus’s fifth elegy concluded with a reference to death, impotence, and rising. Ostentatio genitalium can be understood as a Christian refiguring of the final verses of Maximianus’s fifth elegy.

Important works of medieval literature directly affirmed men’s redeemed penises. Bernardus Silvestris’s Cosmographia celebrates penises triumphing over death. Nigellus Wireker’s Speculum stultorum metaphorically addressed penis size and the importance of generative semen. Jean de Meun’s continuation of the Romance of the Rose concluded with uniting adoration of the Virgin Mary with the lover’s genital connection to a specific, flesh-and-blood woman. In medieval Christian understanding, Jesus saved and redeemed humanity, including men and men’s sexuality. As the courtly tales of the great late-medieval church official Poggio Bracciolini indicate, God made men’s sexuality, and it became very good.

Although daring and insightful, Leo Steinberg wasn’t a meninist art historian. At crucial points he effaced masculine distinctiveness. Consider:

If, as Christianity teaches, God abased himself in becoming man, then his assumption of human genitals sounds the nadir of his self-abasement.

Steinberg (1996) p. 239. Steinberg here uses “man” for a generic human. The generic human has “human genitals” rather than masculine genitals. But Christianity doesn’t teach that God became a generic human being (“man”). Christianity teaches that God became a fully male human being with male genitals. Throughout human history, male genitals have been socially disparaged. Throughout human history, females have been privileged under dominant gynocentrism. The self-abasement of God went to the extreme by God becoming a male human being.

Steinberg didn’t recognize that men matter as a distinctive gender. Ostentatio genitalium explicitly concerns masculine genitals. Yet Steinberg explained:

In the ostentatio genitalium, the mystery of the Incarnation is reaffirmed against the drift to complacency and regains its power to startle. The Word made flesh is, after all, a difficult dogma,and routine, nominal faith easily recoils from its consequences. One assents with reservations — “made flesh,” yes, of course, but surely within decent limits. Whereas Renaissance painters, whose calling demands that they give visible witness to the enfleshment of God, must go, or choose to go, all the way. … It now appears clearer than ever that these artists, in their dealing with the totality of man’s body, brought a unique understanding to the role Western theology assigns to the genitals.

Id. p. 226. These artists weren’t dealing with a generic human’s body (“man’s body”); they were dealing with a specific male human’s body. The genitals of Christ were masculine genitals. Without knowing Latin grammatical cases, a child could look at the ostentatio genitalium images and perceive that the images show male genitals. But scholars commonly have refused to recognize men’s maleness. Understanding masculine genitals in Western theology and Western thought has hardly begun.

Scholars have been preoccupied with arguing that Jesus was not a fully male human being. Caroline Walker Bynum contributed to her rise to the pinnacle scholarly eminence with her book, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages. See Bynum (1982). Addressing his scholarly critics, Steinberg explained:

This notion of a female Savior derives above all from a sense of Christ’s side wound as an organ capable of symbolic lactation and of giving birth to the Church. … these same medieval artists who imaged the Crucified as unsexed (asexué) refused to deny him his beard, rejecting the type of the smooth-cheeked Savior common until the 10th century. Their image of Christ does not seem to posit a shift of gender so much as an “asexuation,” an ideal of manhood without the blight of sex. Though the shaming part {sc. male genitals} is omitted, no late medieval artist insinuates that the Incarnate was other than male.

Steinberg (1996) p. 247. Steinberg interpreted Renaissance paintings depicting the crucified Christ having an erection to be an extraordinary symbol of resurrection. A critic brandished the banal accusation of gender bias against women. Steinberg aptly responded, with some exasperation:

Here was no Tiresian gender contest, no vying of male with female, because the subject of Heemskerck’s image was not the power to outperform the opposite sex, but the power to override death. And the victor in the picture is male for the sufficient reason that this was Christ’s sex. Had the Trinity’s Second Person incarnated a woman, she would doubtless have resurrected in a spectacular pregnancy.

Id. p. 325, n. 30.

In a chapter he added to his 1996 enlarged edition, Steinberg provided a thorough critique of medievalist Caroline Walker Bynum’s forty-page response to his book. In a section entitled “The Body of Christ as Female in Medieval Texts,” Bynum offered a textist critique of Steinberg’s collection of ostentatio genitalium Renaissance paintings. Citing Bernard of Clairvaux’s comments on Song of Songs 1.1-2, she asserted that this text:

makes clear not only the medieval tendency to associate breasts with food (rather than sex) but also the medieval tendency to assimilate Church as Christ’s spouse with Church as Christ’s body.

Bynum (1986) p. 414. Steinberg sensibly responded and coyly speculated:

since the Virgin is singular and her breast’s status unique, it is entirely inappropriate to cite images of the Maria lactans as evidence of how “medieval people” perceived female breasts. … I would guess that the view medieval men took of bared breasts varied with the observer, the party observed, and the spur of the moment. … {Jean de Roye in Paris in 1461} writes: “And there were also three very handsome girls, representing quite naked sirens, and one saw their beautiful upright, separate, round and hard breasts, which was a very pleasant sight….” Was this de Roye being insufficiently medieval in failing to recognize that very pleasant sight as essentially alimentary? … Far be it from me to belittle the nutritional value of the maternal breast, but when San Bernardino and fellow preachers rallied against low-necked dresses, it was not to keep sources of nourishment hid.

Steinberg (1996) p. 382.

Like many scholars writing about gender, Bynum is blind to the obvious. Consider:

Robert Campin’s Madonna and Child before a Firescreen {shown below} is featured full-page {in Bynum’s work} to attend this peremptory sentence: “Mary … presents her baby as if he were bread fresh from the oven.” That fresh bread is, of course, fetched from the writings of 14th-century mystics who, Bynum reminds us, thought of Christ’s human body as food. On the strength of that thought — and because, in Campin’s picture, flametips behind the firescreen indicate a live blaze — a spry 15th-century baby is transubstantiated into baked goods. Bynum does not ask how her pronouncement sorts with the picture’s general character; whether Campin’s Christ Child looks like one incubated in that recessed hearth; or whether the mother, who has been reading and is now preparing to suckle her sprightly boy, is “presenting” this Child like a loaf. And what will Bynum make of this latest finding: we have just learned that the painter, laboring over the composition, lowered Mary’s left hand to ensure that the Child’s penis shows.

Steinberg (1996) pp. 388-9, footnotes and parenthetical image citations omitted. The text Steinberg quoted is Bynum (1986) p. 425. Bynum’s next sentence explains her blindness and documents her tendentiousness: “Mary is assimilated to Christ and celebrant.” Id.

Robert Campin school, Madonna and Child before a Firescreen

Bynum’s scholarship has been far more influential than Steinberg’s. Bynum (1991), a collection of essays that includes her response to Steinberg, won a prestigious scholarly award and has been reprinted six times. Bynum’s work is canonical in college and post-graduate teaching on medieval literature and medieval society, and of course in gender / women’s studies. Bynum without substance characterized as questionable Steinberg’s seeing the dead Christ depicted with an erection:

Steinberg’s reading of a number of pictures of the adult Christ in which he sees an actual erection under the loincloth is questionable … I will leave aside here some of the legitimate questions critics have raised about Steinberg, such as the question of how much of the artistic attention to genitals is simply naturalism, or doubts about what certain painted folds of drapery really conceal.

Bynum (1986) pp. 404, 405. For thorough deconstruction of this rhetoric and the reality of what the paintings really represent, Steinberg (1996) pp. 310-25. Witnessing to the blind-Bynum school and the collapse of enlightenment, Wikipedia’s entry on Heemskerck’s Man of Sorrows declares: “The loincloth is claimed to be wrapped around an erection, visible to some art historians but not others.” Two presentations at the 2018 annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America treat Bynum’s response to Steinberg as something other than risible support for oppressive, mind-numbing gynocentric ideology. See Lamoureux (2018) and Reed (2018).

Bynum is no uncompensated, evenings-and-weekends scholar freely offering cultural learning and bold, free-thinking analysis to all on the Internet. Bynum is University Professor emerita at Columbia University. She was Dean of Columbia’s School of General Studies. She served as President of the American Historical Association in 1996 and President of the Medieval Academy of America in 1997-98. She has been awarded fourteen honorary degrees, including from University of Michigan, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvanian, and Harvard University. Bynum was awarded the Federal Republic of Germany’s Grand Merit Cross with Star and Hebrew University’s Doctor Honoris Causa. She has been elected as a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy. She was instituted as Professor of Western Medieval History at the Institute for Advanced Study in the U.S. The Institute for Advanced Study was the home of Albert Einstein, a genius who clearly recognized American gynocentrism.

Steinberg was reluctant to challenge Bynum. He observed:

the idea that Christ’s male member could be neutered by tactics of interpretation — that it could be promoted to kinship with the stigmata as one more among the instruments of the Passion — has been remarkably well-received, and for good reason. The tactic removes an untimely reminder of Christ’s masculinity and, more important, supplants an unacceptable association with sex by an acceptable memento of suffering.

Steinberg (1996) p. 279. Now excising masculinity, demonized as “toxic masculinity” or “hyper-masculinity,” has become a pervasive social program. Steinberg expressed regret:

I regret, too, that her {Bynum’s} essay — widely assigned as required reading to neutralize mine — derailed me into a quarrel I would not have chosen to enter.

Id. p. 389. A good man, Steinberg preferred not to challenge men’s female adversaries. In the face of Bynum effacing masculinity and buttressing dominant gynocentrism, Steinberg offered the Christian understanding of neither woman nor man, but all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 4:28):

Bynum’s crtique of SC {Steinberg’s Sexuality of Christ…} thus contrives an adversarial situation, in which my perception of Renaissance pictures is seen as waging a sexual vendetta in defense of Christ’s masculinity.

This was not my design. To me, the ostentatio genitalium in the paintings discussed did not seem posed as male versus female. I read the new genital emphasis as an imaginative reintegration of the sexual into the ideally human….

Steinberg (1996) p. 365. Steinberg was a remarkably broad-minded, kind, and generous scholar. Yet his prudential weakness is all too common. If men’s Christian or non-Christian character prevents them from confronting women when necessary, then Christianity, ethics, and civilization are doomed to oblivion.

[images] (1) The Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist. Oil painting made about 1570-1573 by Flemish artist Denys Calvaert. Preserved as item P.994.3 in Hood Museum, Dartmouth College. (2) The Holy Family. Oil painting made about 1495-1500 by Italian artist Andrea Mantegna. Preserved as item AM-51-PS01 in Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister {Old Masters Picture Galley}, Dresden, Germany (via Wikimedia Commons). (3) Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Child. Oil painting made in 1483 by Italian artist Francesco Bonsignori. Preserved in Museo di Castelvecchio, Verona, Italy. (4) Crucifix. Thought to be made about 1495 and attributed to Michelangelo. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, Italy (derived from photo by Marzocco58 via Wikipedia). Here’s a similar crucifix made in 1492 and securely attributed to Michelangelo. (5) Lamentation of Christ by Master of the Žebrák Lamentation of Christ. Lime wood relief made about 1510. Preserved in the National Gallery of Prague (via Wikimedia Commons). (6) Dead Christ. Painting made about 1470-1474 by Andrea Mantegna. Preserved as item Reg. Cron. 352 in Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, Italy (via Wikimedia Commons). (7) Man of Sorrows. Painting made about 1532 by Maarten van Heemskerck. Preserved as item S-53 in the Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent, Belgium (via Wikimedia Commons). (8) Holy Trinity in a Glory of Angels. Painting made about 1515-1518 by German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder. Preserved in Kunsthalle Bremen, Bremen, Germany (via WikiArt). (9) Throne of Grace (Altar of the Trinity with Saint Catherine and a bishop saint). Wood carving made about 1500 in northern Germany or Denmark. Preserved as item S30n21 in Gardner Museum, Boston, USA. On the throne of grace, Hebrews 4:16. On a pact made through a man putting his hand under another man’s thigh, Genesis 24:2. (10) Madonna and Child before a Firescreen. Oil painting, made about 1440 by the workshop of Robert Campin. Preserved as item NG2609 in the National Gallery, London, UK.

Steinberg (1996) presents and discusses all the works above, except two. One exception is the crucifix questionably attributed to Michelangelo. That crucifix has been publicly known only since 2004. Discussions of the above works and closely related works in id. are: Calvaert’s Holy Family with John the Baptist, pp. 306-9; Bonsignori’s Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Child, p. 45; Žebrák Lamentation of Christ, with other images of dead Christ with his hand on his groin, pp. 94-104, 203-6; Mantegna’s Dead Christ, p. 45; Heemskerck’s Man of Sorrows, pp. 81-90, 310-17, 324-5; Cranach’s Holy Trinity in a Glory of Angels, pp. 300-3; Throne of Grace, pp. 104-6, 210-2; Madonna and Child Before a Firescreen, pp. 259-61, 386-8.


Bynum, Caroline Walker. 1982. Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. 1986. “The body of Christ in the later Middle Ages: a reply to Leo Steinberg.” Renaissance Quarterly. 39(3): 399-439.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. 1991. Fragmentation and redemption: essays on gender and the human body in medieval religion. New York: Zone Books. {Bynum (1986), with minor writing, is Ch. 3 in this book. This book was award the 1992 Lionel Trilling Book Award. It had at least six printings by 2012.}

Lamoureux, Johanne. 2018. “Understanding the Oblivion of Steinberg’s Sexuality of Christ.” Presentation on panel “Leo Steinberg’s Sexuality of Christ Revisited II.” The 64th Annual Meeting of the Renaissance Society of America, New Orleans, 22 March – 24 March 2018 (relevant call for papers).

Reed, Julia M. 2018. “True Sex and the Truth of Sex: Interpreting the Steinberg-Bynum Exchange.” Presentation on panel “Leo Steinberg’s Sexuality of Christ Revisited I.” The 64th Annual Meeting of the Renaissance Society of America, New Orleans, 22 March – 24 March 2018.

Steinberg, Leo. 1996 (first edition in 1983). The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion. 2nd edition, revised and expanded. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Strauss, David Levi. 1997. “Rescuing Art from Modern Oblivion.” The Wilson Quarterly. 21 (3): 34-49.

sacralizing men’s sexuality: Jacob & his wives to Jesus & his church

trivializing male sexuality in ancient Greece

From castration culture in ancient Greek myth to harsh regulation of men’s sexuality in ancient Greece to the Roman culture of trivializing and brutalizing men’s penises, the ancient Greco-Roman world devalued men’s sexuality. Ancient Hebrew culture generally treated men more humanely. Yet the account of Jacob and his wives in Genesis represents Jacob as having dog-like sexuality. Within that context, the deeply learned Jewish Christian Paul of Tarsus proclaimed that men’s sexuality has sacralizing status.

Jacob saw Rachel coming with a flock of sheep to a well near Haran. With men’s deeply rooted sense that they must earn women’s love, Jacob rolled away a large stone covering the well. Then he watered Rachel’s sheep for her. This was a time before extensive and pervasive criminalization of men’s sexuality. Almost surely before securing her affirmative consent, Jacob then kissed Rachel and wept aloud. Rachel understood that Jacob wanted to marry her. She rushed home to tell her father Laban.

Laban exploited Jacob’s love for Rachel. After Jacob had worked for him for a month, earning nothing but the opportunity to be near Rachel, Laban asked Jacob what wages he sought:

Jacob loved Rachel, so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” … So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her. [1]

{ וַיֶּאֱהַב יַעֲקֹב אֶת־רָחֵל וַיֹּאמֶר אֶֽעֱבָדְךָ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים
בְּרָחֵל בִּתְּךָ הַקְּטַנָּֽה

וַיַּעֲבֹד יַעֲקֹב בְּרָחֵל שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים וַיִּהְיוּ בְעֵינָיו כְּיָמִים
אֲחָדִים בְּאַהֲבָתֹו אֹתָֽהּ }

Jacob wasn’t an emotionless man. He wept in love for Rachel and joyfully worked for years in love for her.

Like many men, Jacob was romantically simple. Unlike Tobias, Jacob on his wedding night focused on fulfilling his sexual obligation. Only the next morning did he notice that the woman he had sex with was not his intended wife Rachel, but her older sister Leah. The focused, hard-working husband Jacob had fallen victim to a bed trick. He had acted narrowly in love for his wife without understanding in detail who she actually was.

Jacob served women with get-down-to-business masculine sexuality. When Laban offered, in exchange for another seven years of work, Rachel to Jacob as a second wife, Jacob accepted that offer. He then did double manly marital duty, serving both Leah and Rachel. When both Leah and Rachel sought to have more children, they sent to Jacob their maidservants. He served their maidservants sexually without any recorded deliberation or objection. The story of Leah, Rachel, and Jacob implicitly assumes that Jacob would have sex with any woman put in bed with him. That’s a beastly representation of men’s sexuality.[2]

The Jewish Christian apostle Paul of Tarsus, in contrast, taught that men’s sexuality is a precious, sacralizing gift. No more than one woman was to enjoy a given man’s sexuality, and that was to be in a mutual personal relationship of marriage:

To avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife and let every woman have her own husband. Let the husband render unto his wife due sexual generosity and likewise also the wife unto her husband.

{ πορνείας ἕκαστος τὴν ἑαυτοῦ γυναῖκα ἐχέτω καὶ ἑκάστη τὸν ἴδιον ἄνδρα ἐχέτω τῇ γυναικὶ ὁ ἀνὴρ τὴν ὀφειλὴν ἀποδιδότω ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ ἡ γυνὴ τῷ ἀνδρί } [3]

Coupling tenderness with masculine vigor, husbands’ sexual generosity to their wives is an aspect of husbands’ healthful care for their wives and helps to sanctify their wives:

Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the Church and give himself up for her, that he might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present a glorious church to himself, not having a spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own body, but nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as the Lord does for the Church.

{ οἱ ἄνδρες ἀγαπᾶτε τὰς γυναῖκας καθὼς καὶ ὁ Χριστὸς ἠγάπησεν τὴν ἐκκλησίαν καὶ ἑαυτὸν παρέδωκεν ὑπὲρ αὐτῆς ἵνα αὐτὴν ἁγιάσῃ καθαρίσας τῷ λουτρῷ τοῦ ὕδατος ἐν ῥήματι ἵνα παραστήσῃ αὐτὸς ἑαυτῷ ἔνδοξον τὴν ἐκκλησίαν μὴ ἔχουσαν σπίλον ἢ ῥυτίδα ἤ τι τῶν τοιούτων ἀλλ’ ἵνα ᾖ ἁγία καὶ ἄμωμος οὕτως ὀφείλουσιν καὶ οἱ ἄνδρες ἀγαπᾶν τὰς ἑαυτῶν γυναῖκας ὡς τὰ ἑαυτῶν σώματα ὁ ἀγαπῶν τὴν ἑαυτοῦ γυναῖκα ἑαυτὸν ἀγαπᾷ οὐδεὶς γάρ ποτε τὴν ἑαυτοῦ σάρκα ἐμίσησεν ἀλλὰ ἐκτρέφει καὶ θάλπει αὐτήν καθὼς καὶ ὁ Χριστὸς τὴν ἐκκλησίαν } [4]

In Christian understanding, Christ undergoing crucifixion — his Passion — expresses God’s unbounded love for humanity in bodily action. Christian husbands are called to follow Christ in giving themselves up completely in love for their wives. Husbands’ passion for their wives in bodily action differs greatly from husbands’ loving their wives with dog-like sexuality. According to Paul of Tarsus, Jesus elevated men’s sexuality to a sacralizing status. Husbands’ sexuality is for Christians a sacrament by which wives become holy.

In stark contrast to true Christian understanding, today’s demonization of men’s sexuality is a central tenet in a more oppressive  religion than has ever existed historically. Far too many couples are suffering through an epidemic of sexless marriages. Now is the time to stop believing and start questioning, even when the writer or speaker is a woman. Those who imagine themselves to be Christians have no excuse for doing otherwise.

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[1] Genesis 29:18, 20. Hebrew text (Masoretic) from Blue Letter Bible. The story as a whole spans Genesis 29-31.

[2] With sound physiological reasoning, King David’s servants brought the beautiful young woman Abishag the Shunammite into his bed when he was having difficulty getting warm. King David had strong, independent sexuality, as shown in his tragic affair with Bathsheba. However, perhaps because he had gained greater ethical appreciation for his sexuality, David did not have sex with Abishag. 1 Kings 1:1-5. It’s also possible that he was irremediably impotent.

[3] 1 Corinthians 7:2-3. Greek text (Morphological GNT) here and subsequently from Blue Letter Bible. This obligation, known in medieval Europe as the “marital debt,” occasionally made defaulting men subject to harsh punishment.

[4] Ephesians 5:25-29. Coupled with the husbands’ obligation to surrender his life to his wife was a much less onerous instruction for wives:

Wives, submit yourself to your own husbands as you do to the Lord, for the husband is head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the Church, and he is the savior of the body. Therefore just as the Church is subject to Christ, so also wives should be in everything to their own husbands.

{ αἱ γυναῖκες τοῖς ἰδίοις ἀνδράσιν ὡς τῷ κυρίῳ ὅτι ἀνήρ ἐστιν κεφαλὴ τῆς γυναικὸς ὡς καὶ ὁ Χριστὸς κεφαλὴ τῆς ἐκκλησίας αὐτὸς σωτὴρ τοῦ σώματος ἀλλὰ ὡς ἡ ἐκκλησία ὑποτάσσεται τῷ Χριστῷ οὕτως καὶ αἱ γυναῖκες τοῖς ἀνδράσιν ἐν παντί }

Ephesians 5:25:22-24. Under today’s oppressive gynocentric orthodoxy, few theologians, ministers, priests, or scholars dare even to quote the above passage.

[image] Trivializing male sexuality in ancient Greece. Drunk, cavorting male nature spirits (sileni) depicted on an Attic red-figured psykter. Made between 500 and 490 BGC. Painting attributed to Douris. Preserved as item GR 1868,0606.7 (Cat. Vases E 768) in the British Museum (photo thanks to the extraordinarily generous Marie-Lan Nguyen, via Wikimedia Commons).

educating medieval men about divorce risk

stormy ahead

Despite the huge financial significance of child support and divorce law, many persons today have sex and get married in ignorance of the wildly inconsistent laws relevant to those actions. The situation was probably better in the Middle Ages. Law regulating sex was then more liberal, and family law was less sex-biased. Moreover, literature like the thirteenth-century Old French work The Little Debate {Le Petit Plet} provided useful education to men about relationships and divorce.

Persons considering sex that could produce children or pondering getting married should think carefully about the possibility of undesired change in their relationship. In addition to women being regarded as superior to men in guile, women until the modern age were also thought to be more dynamic and adaptable than men. About two millennia ago, Virgil stated, “a woman is always varying and changing {varium et mutabile semper femina}.”[1] Le Petit Plet dilated upon that commonplace:

A woman resembles a sweetbriar rose
but she behaves like the wind at sea,
now it’s to the west, now it’s to the east,
However much she chatters, just as quickly she goes silent.
There’s nothing under the sky
that’s alive and that’s mortal
that’s so prone to change, near and far,
as is the heart of a woman, when she has need.
Now it’s up, now it’s down,
now it’s inside, now it’s outside.

{ Femme resemble flur de engleter
E si se tent cum vent en mer,
Ore est al west, ore est en le est,
Quant plus jangleie, tantost se test.
N’ad desuz la chape del cel
Ren ke se moet u seit mortel,
Ke tant se change e pres e loin,
Cum quor de femme, quant ad busoin.
Si femme sent u ben u mal,
Ore est la sus, ore est la val,
Ore est dedenz, ore est dehors } [2]

Not surprisingly, authorities have declared that women are biological superior to men in the skills most important in today’s fast-changing economy. Yet women’s superior dynamism has dangers for men in their relationships with women:

Women change themselves from the past.
I have seen chaste and faithful wives
in little time become whores,
and those who were unequaled in sweetness
turn nasty in the end,
and innocent, sweet, and demure ones turn
to put their lovers in a bad scene.

{ Femmes changer sa en arere.
Jo ai veu chaste espuse e leale
En poi de ure devenir cursale,
E tele ke de dulçur n’aveit per
Mult felunesse au paraler,
E mult simple, duce e coye
Mettre sun dru en male voie. }

Of course all human relationships are fraught with risk. But women’s social superiority allows them to easily smear and destroy men, including their husbands:

Most of the divorces that occur
women make by their nastiness.
If there’s anything that displeases them,
they gather in social groups to discuss their complaints.
One says that her husband
is a great scoundrel, and not because of her.
Another says that hers is a goat.
The husband of another is a malicious villain.
This one says she has cause for a big complaint,
since he doesn’t do with her what he is obliged to do.
Thus each woman strains to cause an angry fight
by bringing shame upon her sweet lover.
Each knows well what advances her interests,
so that she can obtain a separation;
if not, she believes she’s been so dishonored
that her husband won’t have a day of peace in the rest of his life.

{ Les plus devorz ke unt esté
Firent femmes par mauvesté.
Si ren i ad ke lur desplet,
Enz en chapitres moevent lur plet.
L’une dist ke le soen mari
Est lere fort, si n’est par li.
L’autre dist ke le soen est un chevre,
L’espus a l’autre est felun e enrevre.
Icele dist ke ele ad grant dreit
Ke cil ne li fet ke fere deit.
Issi se peine por un curuz
Chescune hunir sun ami duz.
Ben quide chescune ke ben se avance,
Si porchaser poet la deseverance;
Si nun, mult se tendra hunie,
Ne il n’avera pes jur de sa vie. }

The medieval Latin masterpiece Solomon and Marcolf dramatically presented women’s political power. That political power promotes grotesquely anti-men divorce judgments.

Enlightenment is men’s best hope for improving their lives. Yet in our doctrinaire and repressive age, intellectually alive and curious persons have few contemporary learning resources for considering thoughts and perspectives outside of gynocentric orthodoxy. Studying medieval literature is thus vital for enlightenment today.

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[1] Virgil, Aeneid 4.569.

[2] Chardri, The Little Debate {Le Petit Plet} ll. 1299-1308, Old French text from Merrilees (1970), my English translation with help from Cartlidge (2015) p. 142. The subsequent two quotes are similarly from Le Petit Plet ll. 1386-92 (Women change themselves…) and ll. 1393-1408 (Most of the divorces…).

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Younger) similarly appreciated women’s dynamism:

Nothing is as mobile as a woman’s will; nothing is so easily changing.

{ Nihil tam mobile quam foeminarum voluntas, nihil tam vagum. }

De remediis fortuitorum, Latin text from Palmer (1953) p. 62, my English translation. On the textual history of De remediis fortuitorum, see note [3] in my post on medieval lesson in winning women’s love.

[images] Stormy ahead. Derived from photo released under CCO / Public Domain license by Good Free Photos.


Cartlidge, Neil, trans. 2015. The works of Chardri: three poems in the French of thirteenth-century England; The Life of the Seven Sleepers, The Life of St. Josaphaz and The Little Debate. Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

Merrilees, Brian S., ed. 1970. Chardri. Le petit plet. Oxford: Blackwell.

Palmer, Ralph Graham, ed. 1953. Seneca’s De Remediis Fortuitorum and the Elizabethans. An essay on the influence of Seneca’s ethical thought in the sixteenth century, together with the newly-edited Latin text and English translation of 1547 by Robert Whyttynton. Institute of Elizabethan Studies: Chicago.

pious man’s hypocrisy exposed him to being raped by woman

medieval representation of lust

Introducing a story about “a certain blessed Paul {Paulo cuidam Beato}” who lived in Pisa, the eminent medieval church official Poggio Bracciolini declared:

The hypocrite is, of all types, the worst that lives.

{ Hypocritarum genus pessimum est omnium qui vivant. }

Paul was one of those destitute persons who sat outside a doorway, yet never asked for alms. Rather than speaking of his need, he waited for others to recognize his need and provide for him. That’s not what made Paul a hypocrite.

Paul sometimes sat outside a widow’s doorway. She always gave him alms in the form of food. The widow developed keen appreciation for Paul’s masculine beauty:

She, from often seeing Paul (he was beautiful), became inflamed with him. Once after giving him food, she asked him to come back the next day, saying that she would take care that he was well fed. He thus became a frequent visitor to her house. She at last asked the man to come in to take his food. He consented to this, and when he had richly stuffed his belly with food and drink, the woman, amorously impatient, embracing and kissing him, asserted that he shouldn’t depart before knowing her intimately.

{ Illa, conspicata saepius virum (erat enim formosus) exarsit in Paulum, ciboque dato rogavit, ut postridie rediret, se curaturam ut bene pranderet. Cum frequens domum mulieris accessisset, illa tandem rogavit hominem ut intus accederet ad sumendum cibum; annuit hic, et cum opipare ventrem cibo potuque farsisset, mulier, libidinis impatiens, virum amplectitur, osculaturque, asserens non inde abiturum, priusquam se cognoscat. }

From a medieval Christian perspective, Paul committed the sin of gluttony. Moreover, he hypocritically pretended to reject the sin of fornication:

He feigned reluctance and pretended to detest the woman’s fervent desiring. The widow pressed upon him lewdly, until he finally gave way to her importuning. “Since,” he said, “you are determined to bring about such a sin, I take God as my witness that all this work is yours. I am far from having any guilt. You therefore take the cursed meat (his shaft was indeed already erect) and use it as you please. I will not even touch it.” Thus he unwillingly submitted to the woman and adhering to abstinence didn’t touch the meat nearest to him. The whole sin he attributed to the woman.

{ Ille reluctanti similis, ac detestans mulieris ferventem cupiditatem, cum illa obscenius instaret, tandem cedens viduae importunitati: “Posteaquam,” inquit, “tantum malum patrare cupis, testor Deum, opus tuum erit: ego procul absum a culpa. Tu ipsa,” inquit, “cape hanc maledictam carnem” (iam enim virga erecta erat), “et ipsamet utere, ut lubet: ego enim eam minime tangam.” Ita invitus mulierem subegit, licet propter abstinentiam non tangeret carnem suam, totum peccatum tribuens mulieri. }

According to modern rape doctrine interpreted with respect for equal justice under law, Paul didn’t affirmatively consent to having sex with the widow. She therefore raped him. But women raping men isn’t defined as real rape. With more enlightened and humane understanding, medieval jurists probably would attribute some culpability to Paul. He stuffed himself with meat from the table and treated the meat in his pants hypocritically.

Men, while pretending that they are innocent and unwilling, shouldn’t entice women into having sex. Most men don’t do that. Women shouldn’t do that, either, especially given today’s viciously anti-men judgments of rape.

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The quotes above are from a story preserved by the great medieval church official Poggio Bracciolini. Poggio recorded the story as Facetiae 6, “About a widow lustfully inflamed with a pauper {De vidua accensa libidine cum paupere},” Latin text from Poggio (1879) vol. 1, pp. 21-4, my English translation with help from that of id. Poggio attributed this story to a person he met at a party. That person told this story when the subject of hypocrites became the subject of vigorous discussion.

Medieval authorities believed that widows had strong, independent sexuality. Medieval thinkers also closely associated the sins of gluttony and lust.

[image] A demon masturbating to satisfy his lust. From a 13th-century manuscript. Image via Grammaticus VII and Wikimedia Commons.


Poggio. 1879. Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini. The facetiae or jocose tales of Poggio, now first translated into English with the Latin text. Paris: Isidore Liseux (vol. 1, vol. 2).

Luke’s diptych of Zechariah & Mary shows men’s weakness

Zechariah and Mary

After its dedicatory preface to Theophilus (literally, “lover of God”), the Gospel of Luke presents a diptych of birth narratives in which Zechariah and Mary have sharply contrasting positions. Zechariah served the Jerusalem temple altar that was central to Jewish religious life. He was a descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses.[1] Mary, in contrast, was a lowly young Jewish woman living in the provincial town of Nazareth. Yet the angel Gabriel treated Mary with much more respect and generosity than he treated Zechariah. Moreover, Mary had a much stronger sense of self than did Zechariah. Luke’s diptych of Zechariah and Mary should be understood as a stunning revelation of men’s weakness.

When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, he treated her kindly and respectfully. He greeted her warmly and affirmatively:

Greetings, highly favored one, the Lord is with you.

{ Χαῖρε κεχαριτωμένη ὁ κύριος μετὰ σοῦ } [2]

Mary, not surprisingly, was confused by these words. She kept pondering what sort of greeting this was. Then Gabriel said to her:

Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.

{ μὴ φοβοῦ Μαριάμ εὗρες γὰρ χάριν παρὰ τῷ θεῷ }

Gabriel went on to tell Mary that she would conceive a great son who would reign over the house of Jacob forever. Gabriel told Mary to name her son Jesus. Mary, confused, questioned the angel and offered a reason for doubt:

How can this be, since I am a virgin?

{ πῶς ἔσται τοῦτο ἐπεὶ ἄνδρα οὐ γινώσκω }

Gabriel then patiently explained to Mary that the Holy Spirit would come upon her, and that nothing is impossible with God.

The angel Gabriel treated Zechariah, in contrast, quite harshly. When Zechariah was hard at work incensing the Lord’s altar in Jerusalem, Gabriel appeared to him without any greeting and terrified him. Gabriel calmed Zechariah as he had calmed Mary, but without any personal affirmation:

Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your petition has been heard.

{ μὴ φοβοῦ Ζαχαρία διότι εἰσηκούσθη ἡ δέησίς σου }

Zechariah had found favor with God in the sense that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son. Just as Gabriel instructed Mary in naming, he instructed Zechariah to name his son John. Gabriel told Zechariah that John, like Jesus, would be a great son. Like Mary, Zechariah, confused, questioned the angel and offered a reason for doubt:

How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.

{ κατὰ τί γνώσομαι τοῦτο ἐγὼ γάρ εἰμι πρεσβύτης καὶ ἡ γυνή μου προβεβηκυῖα ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις αὐτῆς }

While to Mary’s questioning Gabriel responded warmly and receptively, to Zechariah’s questioning Gabriel responded agonistically, emphatically asserting his superior status:

I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this.

{ ἐγώ εἰμι Γαβριὴλ ὁ παρεστηκὼς ἐνώπιον τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ ἀπεστάλην λαλῆσαι πρὸς σὲ καὶ εὐαγγελίσασθαί σοι ταῦτα }

Then Gabriel declared that Zechariah would be punished for his questioning:

you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their proper time.

{ ἔσῃ σιωπῶν καὶ μὴ δυνάμενος λαλῆσαι ἄχρι ἧς ἡμέρας γένηται ταῦτα ἀνθ’ ὧν οὐκ ἐπίστευσας τοῖς λόγοις μου οἵτινες πληρωθήσονται εἰς τὸν καιρὸν αὐτῶν }

Why did Gabriel treat Zechariah so harshly?[3] Could this biblical text provide insight into why ruling authorities today hold behind bars fifteen times more men than women, and hardly anyone cares?

Mary apparently had a much stronger sense of self than did Zechariah. When Mary’s relative Elizabeth called her blessed, Mary responded:

My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One had done great things for me, and holy is his name.

{ μεγαλυνει η ψυχη μου τον κυριον και ηγαλλιασεν το πνευμα μου επι τω θεω τω σωτηρι μου
ὅτι ἐπέβλεψεν ἐπὶ τὴν ταπείνωσιν τῆς δούλης αὐτοῦ ἰδοὺ γὰρ ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν μακαριοῦσίν με πᾶσαι αἱ γενεαί
ὅτι ἐποίησέν μοι μεγάλα ὁ δυνατός καὶ ἅγιον τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ } [4]

In these verses, Mary is centrally concerned with herself. Compare those verses with the first three verses that Zechariah sang in joy for the birth of his son John:

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people,
and has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old

{ εὐλογητὸς κύριος ὁ θεὸς τοῦ Ἰσραήλ ὅτι ἐπεσκέψατο καὶ ἐποίησεν λύτρωσιν τῷ λαῷ αὐτοῦ
καὶ ἤγειρεν κέρας σωτηρίας ἡμῖν ἐν οἴκῳ Δαυὶδ παιδὸς αὐτοῦ
καθὼς ἐλάλησεν διὰ στόματος τῶν ἁγίων ἀπ’ αἰῶνος προφητῶν αὐτοῦ }

Zechariah never referred to himself. His joy was all for his people. While Zechariah was at work in the temple in Jerusalem, he was murdered by order of King Herod.[5] Dying on the job poignantly alludes to far too many men’s fates.

Most men and women are deeply deluded about men’s social status. The formal elite of modern societies — the persons who hold positions like Zechariah did about two millennia ago — have been primarily men. They have been a very small share of men. Moreover, far from serving the interests of all men, elite men have had little consciousness even of themselves as men.

The contrast between Zechariah and Mary in the Gospel of Luke echoes the more general theme of Jesus overturning worldly status hierarchies. But that story has not yet been fully revealed and accomplished. Christians have said almost nothing about the contrast between Zechariah and Mary. The world is still groaning under the hidden hierarchy of gynocentrism.

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[1] Zechariah is also known as Zachariah, which is a more accurate transliteration of the Greek form of his name. Zechariah belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron. Luke 1:5. Abijah headed one of the houses of the descendants of Aaron. 1 Chronicles 24:10. Connecting Zechariah less directly than Elizabeth to Aaron in Luke 1:5 might be another way in which Luke signals gynocentrism. While Zechariah periodically traveled to work in Jerusalem, his home was in the hill country of Judea. Luke 1:39. That may have been Hebron. Joshua 21:11. Hebron is about 25 miles south of Jerusalem.

As Luke’s formal address to Theophilus indicates, the Gospel of Luke was written for a relatively learned Greek audience. Luke is written in more learned Greek than is the Gospel of Mark.

[2] This and subsequent quotes are from Chapter 1 of Luke. The Greek text is the Morphological GNT from the Blue Letter Bible. The English translation is mainly the Revised Standard Version, but in some instances I’ve used a more literal translation for particular words, or adjusted the clause order to follow the Greek.

[3] Orthodox Christian tradition indicates that Zechariah was punished for the weakness of his faith in doubting the angel Gabriel’s prophecy. See the Orthodox life of Saint Zachariah. Mary also seems to have doubted Gabriel’s prophecy for her.

The Qur’an treats Zechariah (Zachariah) less harshly than Luke. It describes his muteness as a sign indicating the truth of Gabriel’s prophecy, not punishment of Zechariah for some offense. Qur’an 19:10. It also places Zechariah among the righteous with Jesus. Qur’an 6:85.

[4] This text is from the Mary’s song known as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). Subsequent verses of the Magnificat don’t include first-personal address. The subsequent quote is from Zechariah’s song known as the Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79). None of the subsequent verses of the Benedictus include first-personal address.

[5] Matthew 23:35. Both Christian and Muslim traditions identify Zechariah, the son of Barachiah, with Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist.

[image] Zechariah and Mary. Image constructed from a medieval Georgian fresco of Zechariah in the Holy Cross Monastery in Jerusalem (via Wikimedia) and a mosaic of Mary, the mother of Jesus, made about 1118 GC in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (via Josep Renalias and Wikimedia Commons).

medieval men regarded themselves as inferior to women

optical illusion: man & frog

The women-are-wonderful effect has been scientifically established only in recent decades. Yet men have long regarded themselves as inferior to women. Medieval men rightly recognized that women as masters of persuasion who thoroughly dominate men.

In Chardri’s thirteenth-century work The Little Debate {Le Petit Plet}, a young worldly man bluntly explained to a naive old man the reality of men’s inferiority to women:

There’s no man living under the sky
who she can’t deceive by pretenses of beauty.
She’d make you perceive weak is strong,
she’d make you perceive what’s right is wrong,
she’d make you perceive what’s cold is hot,
she’d make you perceive what’s low is high,
she’d make you perceive what’s white is black,
what’s foolish a woman would make you perceive as wise.

There’s no woman under the clouds,
whether she’s young or old,
who if she wants to hurt you somehow,
won’t bring you to ruin.

{ N’ad suz cel home ki seit vivant
Ke ele ne deceive par beau semblant.
Ele vus fet de feble fort,
Ele vus fet de dreit le tort,
Ele vus fet de freit le chaut,
Ele vus fet de bas le haut,
Ele vus fet de blanc le neir,
De la folie vus fra le saveir.

N’ad femme ke seit desuz la nue,
Ke jofne seit u seit chanue,
Si ele vus vout gures grever,
Ke ele ne vus face mal achever. }

Even in medieval Europe, men were astonishingly willing to listen and believe women. A medieval woman convinced a medieval man that he didn’t actually see his wife having sex with another man. Another medieval man believed what his wife told him when she told him he that he had died. A man’s estate hardly mattered: a medieval priest, knight, and townsman all believed they were responsible for a woman’s pregnancy. All three surely weren’t the sperm donor.

Some men have tried to overcome their inferiority to women. Pitas Payas in medieval Brittany painted a lamb on his wife’s groin to protect her chastity while he was on a business trip. His painting skills didn’t help. Another scholarly medieval man attempted to compile a encyclopedic book of women’s wiles. He soon gave up on his scholarly project. At least both rape of women (but not of men) and falsely accusing a man of raping a woman have been regarded as serious matters throughout history until recent decades. Nonetheless, only gods saved a medieval man from his adulterous wife.

Unlike the Middle Ages, our more ignorant, bigoted, and repressive age doesn’t understand that sex differences in guile have great public significance. In the fourth century, Gregory of Nazianzus told the young bride Olympiada that then-prevalent talk about the equality of the sexes was silliness, for women are morally superior to men. That lesson has been forgotten. Gender equality will not be achieved until men penetrate the gender gap in guile.

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The quote above is from Chardri, The Little Debate {Le Petit Plet} ll. 1217-32, Old French (Anglo-Norman) text from Merrilees (1970) pp. 40-1, my English translation, benefiting from that of Cartlidge (2015) p. 140. Marie de France and Matheolus also deployed the rhetorical technique of enantiosis in describing women’s ability to persuade men to deny their own personal experience. See note [1] in my post on men’s inferiority in guile. Ovid, Ars amatoria, 1.249-253, advises men to be wary of judging women’s appearance at night. Medieval scholars recognized that warning to be insufficient.

[image] Optical illusion disc. From McLean’s Optical Illusions or Magic Panorama Box, published in 1833. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Cartlidge, Neil, trans. 2015. The works of Chardri: three poems in the French of thirteenth-century England; The Life of the Seven Sleepers, The Life of St. Josaphaz and The Little Debate. Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

Merrilees, Brian S., ed. 1970. Chardri. Le petit plet. Oxford: Blackwell.

punctuation poems subtly subvert dominant social order with lineation

Challenging the ideology of the dominant social order tends to anger persons entrenched in it. That’s dangerous for dissidents. Creative poets, however, developed means to pass under orthodoxy while offering subversive views. With punctuation poems, poets allowed readers to nod in complacent affirmation of the dominant ideology. Yet these poems with an alternate lineation enabled alert readers to encounter a different view of the dominant social order.

Law, particularly criminal law, is a central aspect of the dominant social order. Consider this perspective on reigning law in England in the fifteenth century:

Now the law is led by clear conscience.
Very seldomly covetousness has dominion.
In every place right has residence.
Neither in town nor rurally {exists} deception.
There is truly in every case consolation.
The poor people at no time has {nothing} but formal right.
Men may find neither {by} day nor night adulation.
Now reigns truth in every man’s sight.

Here’s a radically different view:

Now the law is led by clear conscience very seldomly.
Covetousness has dominion in every place.
Right has residence neither in town nor rurally.
Deception there is truly in every case.
Consolation the poor people at no time has {anything} but formal right.
Men may find neither day nor night {but all confused}.
Adulation now reigns {over} truth in every man’s sight.

Both these readings are encoded in same Middle English poem:

Nowe the lawe is ledde by clere conscience .
ffull seld . Couetise hath dominacioun .
In Every place . Right hath residence .
Neyther in towne ne feld . Similacion .
Ther is truly in euery cas . Consolacioun .
The pore peple no tyme hase . but right .
Men may fynd day ne nyght . Adulacioun .
Nowe reigneth treuth in euery mannys sight . [1]

Reading textual lines as the units of sense, the dominant reading practice, gives the ideology of the dominant order. Transgressing the end-stopped lines to the mid-line break (caesura) gives the subversive reading. That non-dominant Middle English poetic lineation is known as enjambment.

Lawyers in seventeenth-century England imprisoned through private action an extraordinarily large number of men for debt. A punctuation poem from the mid-seventeenth century critiques lawyers’ role in that terrible structure of justice:

Lawyers themselves maintain the commonweal.
They punish such as does offend and steal.
They free with subtle art the innocent
from any danger, loose {them} of punishment.
The can, but will not, save the world in awe
with any false or mis-expounded law.
They ever have great stock of charity,
and love they desire not, keeping amity.

Lawyers themselves maintain.
The commonweal they punish such as does offend and steal.
They free with subtle art {the guilty}.
The innocent from any danger, loose of punishment, they can, but will not, save.
The world in awe, with any false or mis-expounded law, they ever have great stock.
Of charity and love they lack,
not keeping amity.

{ Lawyers themselves maineteyne . ye common weale .
They punish . such as doe offend and steale .
They free with subtill arte . The Innocent .
From any danger, loose of punishment .
They can but will not save . ye world in awe .
With any false or mixexpounded law .
They euer haue great store . of charite .
And loue they wante not, keeping amitie . } [2]

This poem is relatively crude in its use of rhyme. But, as in the previous punctuation poem, breaks within the lines are associated with the critical version that breaks from affirming the dominant social order.[3]

Another aspect of dominant ideology is the dominant religious faith. In seventeenth-century England, orthodox faith meant not merely ideological fervor in upholding dominant ideology, but membership in an actual Church of England. With a break down its middle, like the break a priest makes to a communion wafer in celebrating Mass, a seventeenth-century punctuation poem encoded a fierce Catholic declaration within an Anglican affirmation:

I hold as faith what England’s church allows.
What Rome’s church says my conscience disavows.
Where the King’s the head that church can have no shame.
The flock’s misled that holds the Pope supreme.
Where the altar’s dressed {with holy images}, there’s service scarce divine.
The people’s blessed with table, bread, and wine  {and no holy images}.
He’s but an ass who the {Anglican} communion flies —
who shuns the {Catholic} Mass is catholic and wise.

I hold as faith
what Rome’s church says.
Where the King’s the head,
the flock’s misled.
Where the altar’s dressed {with holy images},
the people’s blessed.
He’s but an ass
who shuns the {Catholic} Mass.

What England’s church allows,
my conscience disavows.
That church can have no shame,
that holds the Pope supreme.
There’s service scarce divine
with table, bread, and wine {but no holy images}.
Who the {Anglican} communion flies
is Catholic and wise. [4]

Catholics rebels plotted in 1605 to blow up the House of Lords and kill King James I. In previous decades many Catholics were harshly treated and sometimes even killed for their faith. Affirming Catholicism within a statement of Anglican orthodoxy wasn’t a trifling poetic game.

Criticizing women is even more dangerous under the dominant gynocentric order than is dissenting in how to worship God. Not surprisingly, men resorted to punctuation poems for the treacherous activity of expressing their feelings about women:

In women is rest, peace, and patience.
No {mere} season for truth, everything {they say is} with generosity.
Both by night and day, they have {their men’s warranted} confidence.
All ways of treason out of blame they be.
At no time, as men say, {have they} mutability.
They have, without nay, {nothing} but steadfastness.
In them may you never find, I guess, cruelty.
Such qualities they have more & less.

In women {there} is {for} rest, peace, and patience no season.
For truth everything {including their sexual favors} with generosity {they give} both by night and day.
They have confidence {in} all ways of treason.
Out of blame they be at no time.
As men say, mutability they have.
Without nay, but {even just} steadfastness in them may you never find.
I guess cruelty — such qualities — they have more & less.

{ In women is rest peas and pacience .
No season . for soth outht of charite .
Bothe be nyght & day . thei haue confidence .
All wey of treasone . Owt of blame thei be .
No tyme as men say . Mutabilite .
They haue without nay . but stedfastnes .
In theym may ye neuer fynde y gesse . Cruelte
Suche condicons they haue more & lesse . } [5]

The concluding “more & less” indicates the diffidence of this poem’s protest. But another punctuation poem moves forward to protest more vigorously women’s abusive behavior toward men:

All women are virtuous, noble & excellent.
Who can perceive that they do offend?
Daily they serve god with good intent.
Seldom they displease their husbands to their lives’ end.
Always to please them they do intend.
Never man may find in them shrewdness.
Commonly such conditions they have more & less.

What man can perceive that women be evil?
Every man that has wit greatly will them praise.
For vice they abhor with all their will.
Prudence, mercy & patience they use always.
Folly, wrath & cruelty they hate as man says.
Meekness & all virtue they practice ever.
Sin to avoid, virtues they do procure.

Some men speak, “Much evil be women!”
Truly therefore they are to blame.
Nothing a man may disparage of them.
Abundantly they have grace & good fame.
Lacking {are they} few virtues to a good name.
In them you find all constantness.
They lack, obviously, all shrewdness as I see it.

All women are virtuous, noble & excellent: who can perceive that?
They do offend daily.
They serve god with good intent seldom.
They displease their husbands to their lives’ end always.
To please them they do intend never.
Man may find in them shrewdness commonly.
Such conditions they have more & less.

What man can perceive that women be evil? Every man that has wit.
Greatly {they} will them praise for vice.
They abhor with all their will prudence, mercy & patience.
They use always folly, wrath & cruelty.
They hate, as men says, meekness & all virtue.
They practice ever sin.
To avoid virtues, they do procure.

Some men speak, “Much evil be women truly!”
Therefore they are to blame {for} nothing.
A man may disparage of them abundantly.
They have grace & good fame lacking.
Few virtues to a good name in them you find.
All constantness they lack, obviously.
All shrewdness {they have}, as I see it.

{ All women have vertues noble & excelent
Who can perceyve that they do offend
dayly they serve god with good intent
Seldome they dysplease there husbandes to theyr lyves end
Always to plese them they do intend
neuer man may fynd in them srewdnes
comonly suche condycyons they haue more & lese

What man can percyve that women be evyll
euery man that hathe wytt . gretly wyll them prayse
ffor vyce : they Abhorre with all theyre wyll
prudence mercy & pacyence . they vse always
ffoly wrathe & cruelte they hate As men says
meknes & all vertue . they prattyse euer
syn . to Avoyde vertues they do procure

Sum men speke muche evyll be women
truly . theyfore they be to blame
nothyng . A man may chekk in them
haboundantly . they haue of grace & good fame
Lakkyng . few vertues to A good name
in them fynd ye . All constantnes
they lak perde . all srewdnes As I gese } [6]

Like law, lawyers, and the church, women had a dominant position in medieval gynocentric society. In punctuation poems, the dominant way of reading poems expressed that dominant position. One such poem explained:

Read this verse according to its meter
and it says women are good, but read it {according} to
its {punctuation} marks to gain the contrary {meaning}.

{ Reid this werss acording to ye meitter
& It is guid of wemen bot reid it to
ye nott ewin the contrair } [7]

The contrary meaning was the subversive, dangerous meaning within gynocentric society.

Surviving Middle English punctuation poems lack the artistic brilliance of Optatianus Porfyrius’s fourth-century carmen cancellatum to a cuckolded husband. But they have a similar social position and a similar critical strategy. Within the oppressive circumstances of gynocentric society, speaking about gender injustices against men requires unusual poetry.

rabbit-duck illusion

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[1] Middle English text exactly from Robbins (1952) p. 101 (poem no. 111), my modern English versions. The Middle English text is punctuated as in the manuscript source, MS Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Library Hh.2.6, f. 58ra. Five other surviving manuscripts are known to contain this poem, DIMEV 3804. Nutall (2014) points out the change in verse form with the change in lineation.

Subsequent examples of punctuation poems are Roister Doister’s mispunctuated love letter to Dame Christian Custance, in Nicholas Udall’s comedic play Roister Doister, “Sweete mistresse where as I loue you nothing at all”, 3.4.36ff ; and the poetic prologue to the play in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, “If we offend, it is with our good will.” 5.1.108ff. Here’s a recent poem that reveals anti-meninist sentiments if the lines are read in reverse order. Here’s a review of modern punctuation poetry.

[2] Original English text from Robbins (1939) p. 207, my modernizations. Id. describes it as “A poem of the time of King Charles II {that} was printed in an edition limited to 102 copies at Bristol in 1814.”

[3] A punctuation poem written in the mid-sixteenth century is inconsistent with that pattern. Consider:

Trusty seldom, to their friends unjust.
Glad to help no Christian creator.
Willing to grieve, establishing all their joy & lust.
Only in the pleasure of God having no care.
Who is most rich with them, they will be protective.
Where need is, {they are} giving {of} neither reward nor fee.
Unreasonably thus priests love, obviously.

Trusty, seldom to their friends unjust.
Glad to help.
No Christian creator willing to grieve.
Establishing all their joy & lust only in the pleasure of God.
Having no care who is most rich with them.
They will be protective where need is.
Giving neither reward nor fee unreasonably.
Thus priests love, obviously.

{ Trvsty seldom . to their ffrendys vniust .
Gladd for to helpe no crysten creator .
Wyllyng to greve . settyng all ther ioy & lust
Only in Þe pleasour . of gode havyng no cure .
Who is most riche with them Þei wil be sure .
Wher nede is gewyng nether rewarde ne ffee .
Vnresonably thus lyve prestys, Parde. }

Middle English text from Kreuzer (1938) p. 323 (version B, punctuated for disparaging priests), my modernizations. The poem survives in Pembroke College, Cambridge MS. 307, fol. 197b. The poem survives to two versions of the Middle English text, differently punctuated to indicated the different readings. Id. prints both versions. Robbins (1952) p. 101 prints the A version (punctuated for praising priests), and notes:

The poem is written twice: first in a mid-sixteenth-century hand, and second in a somewhat latter hand. It appears on the end flyleaf of a Confessio Amantis along with other scribblings — a location which indicates the experimental nature of the verse.

Id. p. 262. Kreuzer (1938), p. 323, less carefully suggests that both versions were written in the fifteenth century.

Priests were part of the dominant order in medieval England. Who would have authored a fifteenth-century English poem that in its dominant lineation disparaged priests, yet contained an alternate lineation that praised priests? The most plausible answer seems to me a priest. The point might be that, despite superficial appearances of corruption, priests have a less visible goodness. Such social positioning of a punctuation poem seems to me likely to be quite unusual.

[4] Original English text in Robbins (1939) p. 207, my modernizations. The original text is like the first modernization except in spelling and punctuation. Id. states of the poem:

it comes from a broadside of 1655, which the antiquary Robert Bell two hundred years later found posted on the wall of a Gloucestershire public-house.

The poem probably was written well before the English Civil War (1642–1651).

[5] Middle English text exactly from Robbins (1952) p. 102 (poem no. 112), my modern English versions. The Middle English text is punctuated as in the manuscript source, MS Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Library Hh.2.6, f. 58ra. (the same folio page containing above “Lawyers themselves maineteyne . ye common weale .”). This poem is found only in this manuscript.

[6] Poem by Richard Hattfield, Middle English text from the Devonshire Manuscript, London, British Library Addit. 17492, f. 18v, my modernizations. The first stanza of this poem (DIMEV 406) is found in four other manuscripts, but the second and third stanzas are unique to the Devonshire Manuscript.

[7] Middle English text from Robbins (1939) p. 206, printed from the early sixteenth-century MS. Cambridge UK, Magdalene College Pepys 2553 (Maitland Folio Manuscript) p. 356, printed in Craigie (1919) vol. 1, p. 433. This rubric follows the first stanza of a version of “All women have virtues noble and excellent” (DIMEV 406). See above.

[image] “Rabbit and Duck” double (ambiguous) drawing. From the 23 October 1892 issue of Fliegende Blätter. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Craigie, William Alexander. 1919. The Maitland Folio Manuscript, Containing Poems by Sir Richard Maitland, Dunbar, Douglas, Henryson, and others. Scottish Text Society n.s. 7.

Kreuzer, James R. 1938. “Some Earlier Examples of the Rhetorical Device in Ralph Roister Doister (III. iv. 33 ff.).” The Review of English Studies. 14 (55): 321-323.

Nuttall, Jenni. 2014. “One Poem: Two Ways.” Stylisticienne, Mar. 27 (online).

Robbins, Rossell Hope. 1939. “Punctuation Poems — A Further Note.” The Review of English Studies. Old Series 15(58): 206-207.

Robbins, Rossell Hope. 1952. Secular lyrics of the XIVth and XVth centuries. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Paul condemned gyno-idolators along with fornicators & adulterers

While men-abasing “courtly love” became a highly refined form of oppression in medieval Europe, its constituents gyno-idolatory and gynocentrism have been prevalent throughout history. The man enslaved in love, soldiering on watch for his beloved and lamenting that he is locked out, is a common figure in ancient Roman elegiac poems. That’s the context in which Paul of Tarsus condemned gyno-idolatry among particular categories of men’s sexual wrongdoing.

Paul’s condemnation of idolatry should be interpreted within its specific context. Paul declared:

Do not be deceived! Neither fornicators nor idolators nor adulterers nor catamites nor sodomites nor thieves nor the greedy, neither drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

{ μὴ πλανᾶσθε οὔτε πόρνοι οὔτε εἰδωλολάτραι οὔτε μοιχοὶ οὔτε μαλακοὶ οὔτε ἀρσενοκοῖται οὔτε κλέπται οὔτε πλεονέκται οὐ μέθυσοι οὐ λοίδοροι οὐχ ἅρπαγες βασιλείαν θεοῦ κληρονομήσουσιν } [1]

At least four of the first five categories concern sexual immorality. Among those categories, catamites are men who typically, consensually are penetrated sexually by other men. Sodomites are men who typically, consensually penetrate sexually other men. Those terms indicate that Paul’s condemnation of sexual immorality is addressed specifically to men.[2] Fornicators thus means men who have sex with women to whom they are not married. Adulterers similarly means men who have sex with married women, but who aren’t those women’s husbands. But what about “idolators” situated in the middle of those terms?

Idolators as a figure of harlotry isn’t a gender-consistent interpretation. Idolatry in Hebrew scripture is associated with feminine harlotry. For example, the prophet Hosea criticized Israel:

My people consult their piece of wood,
and their wand makes pronouncements for them,
For the spirit of harlotry has led them astray;
they play the whore, forsaking their God. [3]

{ עַמִּי בְּעֵצֹו יִשְׁאָל וּמַקְלֹו יַגִּיד לֹו כִּי רוּחַ זְנוּנִים הִתְעָה
וַיִּזְנוּ מִתַּחַת אֱלֹהֵיהֶֽם׃ }

In Hebrew scripture, Israel, meaning the chosen people of God, is commonly figured as a woman. In Christianity, the church, meaning of the people of God, is also commonly feminine. Men’s sexual welfare disadvantage and women’s sexual privilege have created throughout history sexual markets in which men predominately pay women for sex. That means that whores historically have been predominately women. Idolators as a figure of harlotry implies that the idolators are women. That’s inconsistent with the context of Paul condemning men’s sexual immorality.[4]

With extraordinary inspiration, Paul used the term idolators to condemn gyno-idolators as another category of men engaged in sexual immorality. Gyno-idolatry involves men treating women, who are fully human beings, as if women were goddesses, or at least superior human beings. King Solomon was a pre-eminent gyno-idolator. Lucretius, the great Roman debunker of delusions, strongly condemned gyno-idolatry. Yet the brilliant Roman author Ovid suffered horrible punishment for not being a gyno-idolator. Benighted medieval knights like Lancelot became celebrated for their gyno-idolatry. Under increasingly totalitarian gynocentrism, gyno-idolatry has become a nearly unspeakable form of sexual immorality.

King Solomon falling into gyno-idolatry

Men, do not worship your girlfriends! Husbands, do not idolize your wives! If you engage in such idolatry, you are no better than fornicators, adulterers, catamites, and sodomites. So said the wise man that Christians now call Saint Paul.

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[1] 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. The English translation is insubstantially adapted from that of Orr & Walther (1995).

[2] 1 Corinthians 6:5 also indicates that Paul is addressing men. Orr & Walther (1995), p. 250, doesn’t recognize that Paul is specifically addressing men here. That Paul condemned men’s sexual immorality should not be interpreted to condone women’s sexual immorality. Women are no more sexually moral than men are. Paul surely recognized this reality. See, e.g. 1 Corinthians 5:1, Romans 1:26-7, Galations 3:28.

[3] Hosea 4:12. More generally, see Hosea 3:10-5:4 and Jeremiah 3.

[4] Orr & Walther (1995), p. 255, doesn’t recognize the gender problem in idolators being a figure of harlotry from Hebrew scripture.

[image] King Solomon falling into gyno-idolatry. Painting by Giovanni Venanzi di Pesaro, made in 1668. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Orr, William F., and James Arthur Walther. 1995. I Corinthians: a new translation; introduction with a study of the life of Paul, notes and commentary. Anchor Bible series. New York: Doubleday.