Béroul’s Tristan narrates evil persons’ lies vs. good ones’ truth

In Béroul’s twelfth-century romance, evil dwarfs and malicious barons repeatedly told King Mark of his vassal-nephew Tristan having sex with Mark’s wife Iseut. The evil dwarfs and malicious barons were wicked liars! One day, Queen Iseut and Tristan planned a tryst in her garden. An evil dwarf learned of their planned tryst. He informed King Mark. The king was astonished that his loyal nephew Tristan would cuckold him. The dwarf urged the king to hide in a tree in the garden to see for himself. That’s what Mark did. But before Tristan and Iseut embraced, she caught sight of the king’s reflection in the water of a fountain.

Tristan courting Iseut:

Iseut and Tristan fabricated a drama in the garden for the spying King Mark. Iseut admonished Tristan and declared her innocence before God:

By God, who made the air and sea,
do not send for me ever again.
I tell you, Tristan, once and for all,
certainly I shouldn’t have come.
The king thinks it’s with a sinful love,
Sir Tristan, that I have loved you.
But before God I swear my faithfulness.
May He send a scourge upon me
if anyone but he who had me as a virgin
ever had my love thereafter even a single day!

{ Par Deu, qui l’air fist et la mer,
Ne me mandez nule foiz mais.
Je vos di bien, Tristran, a fais,
Certes, je n’i vendroie mie.
Li rois pense que par folie,
Sire Tristran, vos aie amé;
Mais Dex plevis ma loiauté,
Qui sor mon cors mete flaele,
S’onques fors cil qui m’ot pucele
Out m’amistié encor nul jor! }[1]

In fact, before Iseut married King Mark, she and Tristan accidentally drank a love potion that made them sexually desire each other. Iseut ended her virginity with Tristan. To obscure her subsequent, extensive sexual activity with Tristan, Iseut’s virgin maid Brengain secretly took Iseut’s place in bed on her wedding night with the king.

Tristan and Iseut embracing

Iseut told of her lived experience in relation to Tristan. She, the niece of the giant Morholt, had been an Irish princess. Tristan killed Morholt in battle after Morholt threatened King Mark’s realm. When Tristan was in Ireland seeking a wife for his uncle Mark and dying of a dragon’s poison, Iseut saved his life. Iseut subsequently returned with Tristan to be King Mark’s wife. For the spying Mark, Iseut told Tristan:

You had to suffer much pain
from the wound you received
in the battle you fought
with my uncle. I healed you.
If because of that you were my friend,
it was no wonder, by my faith!
But they have given the king to understand
that you love me with a dishonorable love.
Let them see God and His kingdom!
Never would they look Him in the face.
Tristan, take care not to send for me
in any place, for any reason.
I should not be so bold
as to dare to come.
I’m staying here too long, truth to tell.
If the king knew one word about this,
I would be torn limb from limb.
I know well that he would have me killed,
and yet it would be quite wrongfully.
Tristan, surely the king doesn’t know
that it’s for his sake that I have loved you.
I have held you dear
because you are of his kin.
Long ago I believed that my mother
dearly loved my father’s relatives.
She used to say that never a wife
would cherish her lord
if she would not love his kin.
Indeed, I know well that she was speaking the truth.

{ Mot vos estut mal endurer
De la plaie que vos preïstes
En la batalle que feïstes
O mon oncle. Je vos gari.
Se vos m’en erïez ami,
N’ert pas mervelle, par ma foi!
Et il ont fait entendre au roi
Que vos m’amez d’amor vilaine.
Si voient il Deu et son reigne!
Ja nul verroient en la face.
Tristran, gardez en nule place
Ne me mandez por nule chose:
Je ne seroie pas tant ose
Que je i osase venir.
Trop demor ci, n’en quier mentir.
S’or en savoit li rois un mot,
Mon cors seret desmenbré tot,
Et si seroit a mot grant tort;
Bien sai qu’il me dorroit la mort.
Tristran, certes, li rois ne set
Que por lui par vos aie ameit:
Por ce qu’eres du parenté
Vos avoie je en cherté.
Je quidai jadis que ma mere
Amast mot les parenz mon pere;
Et disoit ce, que ja mollier
N’en avroit ja son seignor chier
Qui les parenz n’en amereit.
Certes, bien sai que voir diset. }

Tristan in turn explained Mark misunderstanding the truth:

His men have made him believe
something about us that is untrue.

{ Si home li ont fait acroire
De nos tel chose qui n’est voire. }

In Béroul’s romance, the truth is defined in terms of worldly persons’ characteristics.[2] Iseut and Tristan are good persons, so what they say is true. Evil men are wicked liars. Whatever they say is false!

Tristan and Iseut gazing into each other's eyes

Iseut and Tristan eventually had to flee into the Morrois forest to avoid being executed for treasonous adultery. After three years of living in the forest together, the love spell that bound them ended. They both sought to return to more comfortable, civilized life. They turned to the wilderness-dwelling holy hermit Brother Ogrin for advice:

Iseut fell down at the hermit’s feet,
and was not half-hearted in imploring him
to reconcile them with the king:
“I shall have no inclination toward illicit love
on any day of my life.
For your understanding, I don’t say
that I feel remorse for a single day with Tristan,
or say that I don’t love him with good love
and as a friend, without dishonor.
As for the carnal union of my body
and his, we’re entirely free of it.”
The hermit heard her speak and wept.
He praised God for what he had heard.

{ As piez l’ermite chiet encline,
De lui proier point ne se faint
Qu’il les acort au roi, si plaint:
“Qar ja corage de folie
Nen avrai je jor de ma vie.
Ge ne di pas, a vostre entente,
Que de Tristran jor me repente,
Que je ne l’aim de bone amor
Et com amis, sanz desanor:
De la comune de mon cors
Et je du suen somes tuit fors.”
L’ermites l’ot parler, si plore,
De ce qu’il ot Deu en aoure }[3]

Brother Ogrin then provided theological and pastoral counseling to the lovers:

When a man and a woman commit sin,
if they have first taken each other, and then have separated
and have come to acknowledge their fault
and have true repentance,
God pardons them for their transgression,
however horrible and ugly it might be.
Tristan and Queen, now listen
a little and pay attention to me.
In order to take away shame and cover up evil,
it’s necessary to lie a bit, fittingly.

{ Qant home et feme font pechié,
S’aus se sont pris et sont quitié
Et s’aus vienent a penitance
Et aient bone repentance,
Dex lor pardone lor mesfait,
Tant ne seroit orible et lait.
Tristran, roïne, or escoutez
Un petitet, si m’entendez.
Por honte oster et mal covrir
Doit on un poi par bel mentir. }

Christians regard this theological lesson on repentance and forgiveness of sin as eternally true. Pastoral counseling, in contrast, always depends on specific circumstances. With Iseut and Tristan’s agreement, the hermit Brother Ogrin drafted a letter to King Mark in which Tristan offered to return Iseut to him and leave Mark’s realm if Mark so decided. The letter asserted that Tristan and Iseut never had sexual relations. Tristan offered to undergo an ordeal to prove their innocence.

King Mark lovingly accepted Iseut to be his queen once again. He ordered Tristan to depart from his realm for a year. Iseut’s return was celebrated with a great feast and much popular rejoicing. But three malicious barons advised the king:

King, listen to our words.
If the queen has been wanton —
she has never formally denied it —
this is said to your shame.
And the barons of your land
have many a time entreated you concerning this,
because they want her to deny formally
that Tristan ever had her love.
She must clear herself if people are lying about it.
And so have her put to the test,
and straightaway require this of her,
privately, when you retire.
If she does not want to make a formal denial,
let her leave your realm.

{ Rois, or entent nostre parole.
Se la roïne a esté fole,
El n’en fist onques escondit.
S’a vilanie vos est dit;
Et li baron de ton païs
T’en ont par mainte foiz requis,
Qu’il vuelent bien s’en escondie
Qu’o Tristran n’ot sa drüerie.
Escondire se doit c’on ment.
Si l’en fait faire jugement
Et enevoies l’en requier,
Priveement, a ton couchier.
S’ele ne s’en veut escondire,
Lai l’en aler de ton enpire. }

King Mark was furious with these barons for continuing to accuse his queen. They offered to drop the matter forever. But Mark threatened to arrest them. Then he told them to get out of his realm. Mark’s actions created a serious threat to peace.

When Mark returned home to Iseut, he was upset and anxious. She asked him about what was troubling him. To resolve the crisis, she offered to make a formal denial concerning her relationship with Tristan. She insisted that King Arthur and his knights be present, as well as all the people of the realm. They would defend her honor if any dared to accuse her after she had formally established her innocence. She set the place for this proceeding to be the Blanche Lande next to the marsh at Mal Pas. King Mark agreed with her plan. He ordered that this proceeding be arranged.

Meanwhile, Iseut sent instructions to Tristan. He hadn’t departed the realm, but was hiding nearby. She told him of the appointed time and place for the proceeding of her formal denial. She told him to come then to the ford at Mal Pas. She instructed him to disguise himself as a leper and beg from all those coming to the proceeding. She didn’t give him any other instructions on how to act.

One the day of the formal denial, Iseut came to the ford at Mal Pas. Others had become covered in filth from crossing there. With King Arthur, King Mark, and all the rest of the people watching, Iseut sought a ride across a muddy bridge on the backof Tristan disguised as a leper:

“My goodness, sick man, you are very large!
Turn your face that way and your back this way.
I shall mount you like a boy.”
And then the leper smiled at that request.
He turned his back, and she mounted.
They were all watching, kings and counts.
He held her thighs over his crutch,
raised one foot and limped with the other,
and often seemed about to fall.
He made a great show of suffering.
The fair Iseut rode him,
one leg on each side of him.

{ “Diva! malades, mot es gros!
Tor la ton vis et ça ton dos:
Ge monterai conme vaslet.”
Et lors s’en sorrist li deget,
Torne le dos, et ele monte.
Tuit les gardent, et roi et conte.
Ses cuises tient sor son puiot:
L’un pié sorlieve et l’autre clot,
Sovent fait senblant de choier,
Grant chiere fai de soi doloir.
Yseut la bele chevaucha,
Janbe deça, janbe dela. }

Phyllis rode Aristotle, but Iseut’s riding is described more like Emperor Domitian atop Earinus. Iseut treated Tristan disguised as the leper with contempt after benefiting from a ride on his back. In contrast to King Arthur and King Mark, she refused to offer anything in response to the leper’s begging from her some food for the night.[4]

A reason for Iseut riding on the leper’s back became clear when it was time for her to make her formal denial. A collection of holy relics were set out to create reverence and fear. King Arthur then instructed Iseut:

Listen to me, fair Iseut.
Hear what you are called to affirm:
that Tristan towards you had no love
marked by debauchery or infidelity,
nothing but the love that he was duty-bound to have
towards his uncle and his uncle’s wife.

{ Entendez moi, Yseut la bele,
Oiez de qoi on vos apele:
Que Tristran n’ot vers vos amor
De puteé ne de folor,
Fors cele que devoit porter
Envers son oncle et vers sa per. }

Iseut in response thanked God and made a more specific, more earthy oath:

Here I see holy relics.
Listen now to what I here swear,
by which I affirm to the king here present —
so help me God and Saint Hilaire,
and these relics, this reliquary,
and all those relics that are not here
and all those reliquaries throughout the world —
that between my thighs no man has entered
except for the leper for whom I made a heavy load,
who carried me beyond the fords,
and King Mark my spouse.
These two I except from my oath.
I except no one else, of all people.
Concerning two men I cannot exonerate myself:
the leper, and King Mark my lord.

{ Saintes reliques voi ici.
Or escoutez que je ci jure,
De quoi le roi ci aseüre:
Si m’aït Dex et saint Ylaire,
Ces reliques, cest saintuaire,
Totes celes qui ci ne sont
Et tuit icil de par le mont,
Qu’entre mes cuises n’entra home,
Fors le ladre qui fist soi some,
Qui me porta outre les guez,
Et li rois Marc mes esposez.
Ces deus ost de mon soirement,
Ge n’en ost plus de tote gent.
De deus ne me pus escondire:
Du ladre, du roi Marc, mon sire. }[5]

All the people there acclaimed Iseut’s innocence and declared that she need not say more. The three felonious barons who had accused Iseut of having sex with Tristan were universally condemned. Everyone detested those evil liars.

Iseut and Tristan lying dead

In highly contentious matters such as relations between women and men, lazy, cowardly persons tend to favor a false understanding of truth. They believe to be true whatever persons they regard as good want them to believe to be true. They call false whatever persons they don’t like — persons given disparaging labels — say. In twelfth-century Europe, Béroul’s romance of Tristan and Iseut ironically showed that even evil dwarfs and malicious barons might convey the truth.[6] That truth is still true today.

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[1] Béroul, Tristan, vv. 16-25, Old French text from Muret & Defourques (1947), English translation (modified insubstantially) from Sargent-Baur (2015b). For alternate Old French editions, Sargent-Baur (2015a) and Ewert (1967). For an alternate English translation, Lacy (1994).

Béroul’s Tristan apparently dates from between 1165 and 1200. It survives in only one, poorly copied manuscript, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS français 2171. That manuscript was written in the second half of the thirteenth century. Nothing more is known about Béroul than what can be surmised from this manuscript. Some scholars, including Sargent-Baur, believe that one author composed a first part, and another author a second part.

The story of Tristan and Iseut was widely known in medieval Europe. It probably originated in an oral Celtic tale. It became “one the two best-known themes of European secular literature (the other being the quest for the Grail).” Sargent-Baur (2015) p. 10. Among the numerous retellings of it are Thomas of Britain’s Tristan, composed in Old French about 1160, and Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan, composed in Middle High German about 1210. Here’s more on sources and retellings of the story of Iseut and Tristan. For visual representations, Kertz (2014).

The names in this tale vary. Béroul’s Old French text uses the names Tristran, Yseut, Iseut, and Marc. I’ve standardized those in modern English text to Tristan, Iseut, and Mark. Other names commonly found in modern English for the two main characters are Tristram, Tristain, Iseult, Yseult, and Isolde. Other names above follow Sargent-Baur’s transcriptions of the Old French names.

Subsequent quotes from Béroul’s Tristan are similarly sourced. They are vv. 50-78 (You had to suffer much pain…), 83-4 (His men have made him believe…), 2320-31 (Iseut fell down at the hermit’s feet…), 2345-54 (When a man and a woman commit sin…), 3041-54 (King, listen to our words…), 3929-40 (My goodness, sick man…), 4191-96 (Listen to me, fair Iseut…), 4198-4212 (Here I see holy relics…).

[2] Cf. John 14:6. Lacy perceptively observed:

There does appear to be one reliable guide to truth in Béroul: it can be understood to be the opposite of whatever the lovers’ enemies, the felons, say. Their accusations and protestations, though factually correct, must be dismissed simply because they are the enemy.

Lacy (1999) p. 6. For a discussion of the “thick tangle of truth and falsehood, appearance and reality, of which Béroul’s romance is very largely composed,” Sargent-Baur (1984b), with quote from p. 399.

[3] Once Mark accepted Iseut back as his wife, she and Tristan resumed their trysts. Marie de France’s lai Honeysuckle {Chevrefoil} tells of one of their secret meetings:

In the wood she found him
who loved her more than any living thing.
They share their great joy.
She spoke to him quite at leisure,
and told him her pleasure.

{ Dedenz le bois celui trova
que plus l’amot que rien vivant.
Entre els meinent joie mult grant.
A li parlat tut a leisir,
e ele li dist sun plaisir }

Marie de France, Chevrefoil, vv. 92-6, Old French text and English translation from Waters (2018). For freely accessible English translations of Chevrefoil, Shoaf (1993) and Terry (1995), Ch. 4.

Tristan eventually departed and in Brittany married Iseut of the White Hands. But he never consummated his marriage to her. According to Wilhelm, Tristan told Iseut of the White Hands that he was castrated. Wilhelm (1994) p. 284. Castration culture had significant influence in medieval Europe. But Iseut of the White Hands probably had opportunities to see or feel whether Tristan was actually castrated. Thomas of Britain’s Tristan merely states that Tristan spent their wedding night in prayer and silence. In Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan, Tristan claims a thigh wound and fatigue.

[4] King Arthur told Iseut that the leper had earned food and that she should give him some. Underscoring the sexual innuendo, Iseut in response essentially described herself groping the leper:

Under his cloak I felt his belt.
King, his pouch doesn’t grow smaller:
half-loaves and whole ones
and pieces and quarter-loaves —
I felt them well through the bag.

{ Soz sa chape senti sa guige.
Rois, s’aloiere n’apetiche:
Les pains demiés et les entiers
et les pieces et les quartiers
Ai bien parmié le sac sentu. }

Béroul’s Tristan, vv. 3965-9. In one scholar’s understatement, Iseut responded to King Arthur with “unnecessarily realistic detail.” Sargent-Baur (1984a) p. 307. Iseut then went on to chide King Arthur and King Mark, as well as express further contempt for the leper:

He’s a good-for-nothing, that I know.
Today he has obtained good pickings.
He has found people to his measure.
From me he’ll not take away anything worth
a single farthing or a penny.

{ Il est herlot, si que jel sai.
Hui a suï bone pasture,
Trové a gent a sa mesure.
De moi n’en portera qui valle
Un sol ferlinc n’une maalle. }

Béroul’s Tristan, vv. 3976-80. Iseut’s words might be interpreted ironically and humorously with sexual innuendo.

While Béroul obviously intends for Iseut to be regarded as a “good person,” he includes dishonorable aspects of her behavior. One clearly dishonorable aspect of Iseut’s behavior is her apparent cruelty. With a brutal lance thrust, Tristan’s companion Governal killed an evil forester who had sought to expose Iseut and Tristan:

That man fell dead so quickly that never did a priest
come in time, nor could one have been there.
Iseut, who was noble and frank,
laughed at this softly beneath her wimple.

{ Cil chaï mort, si c’onques prestre
N’i vint a tens ne n’i pot estre.
Yseut, qui ert et franche et sinple,
S’en rist doucement soz sa ginple. }

Béroul’s Tristan, vv. 4053-6. That’s a vicious response to brutal violence against men. Iseut also guided Tristan in shooting an arrow through the head of the baron Godoïne. Godoïne was spying on her trysting with Tristan in her royal bedroom. The baron Godoïne, while unquestionably characterized as evil, was arguably serving the king’s interests.

[5] A Hebrew story in the Sindibad / Seven Sages corpus tells a similar story of an adulterous woman and her lover. She contrived to slip in the mud and have her lover help her up. She then swore that no man had touched her since her husband left for a business trip except the man who had helped her up from the mud. See note [4] in my post on men’s inferiority in guile in manipulation of paternity. On the similarity of Béroul’s Tristan to fabliaux, Sargent-Baur (1984a).

[6] Reviewing Béroul’s Tristan in relation to “medieval Christianity,” Chappelle-Thomas calls it “a blatant parody and condemnation of the romance genre.” Chappelle-Thomas (2005) p. 2. Within the context of relatively tolerant medieval Christianity, Beroul’s Tristan seems to me to have wider-ranging intent than literary parody.

[images] (1) Tristan courting Iseut (Tristan et Iseult). Mid-nineteenth-century painting by French artist Hugues Merle. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Tristan and Iseut embracing (Tristán e Iseo; La vida). Painting by Spanish artist Rogelio de Egusquiza in 1912. Preserved as accession # 1035 in Museo de Arte Moderno y Contemporáneo de Santander y Cantabria (Santander, Spain). Via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Iseut and Tristan gazing into each other’s eyes (Tristan et Isolde). Painting in 1911 by French artist Gaston Bussière. Preserved as accession # 999.11.88.12 in Musée des Ursulines (Macon, France). Via Wikimedia Commons. (4) Iseut and Tristan lying dead on the ground (Tristán e Isolda; La muerte). Painting by Spanish artist Rogelio de Egusquiza in 1910. Preserved as accession # inv. 00/9 in the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum (Bilbao, Spain). Via Wikimedia Commons.


Chappelle-Thomas, Julia. 2005. “Medieval Christianity and the Tristan and Iseult Romances.” Course paper posted online.

Ewert, Alfred, ed. 1967. Béroul. The Romance of Tristran: A Poem of the Twelfth Century. Oxford: Blackwell.

Kertz, Lydia Yaitsky. 2014. “Shadows and reflections: Tristan and Isolde in manuscripts and ivory.” Word & Image. 30 (2): 131-154.

Lacy, Norris J. 1994. “Béroul: The Romance of Tristan.” Ch. 10 (pp. 225-276) in Wilhelm, James J., ed. The Romance of Arthur: an anthology of medieval texts in translation. New, Expanded Edition. New York: Garland.

Lacy, Norris J. 1999. “Where the Truth Lies: Fact and Belief in Béroul’s Tristran.” Romance Philology. 52 (2): 1-10.

Muret, Ernest, and L. M. Defourques. 1947. Béroul. Le Roman de Tristan: poème du XIIe siècle. Classiques Français du Moyen Âge, 12. 4th edition. Paris: Honoré Champion. Alternate presentation via Base de Français Médiéval. 2nd edition (1922): online book, online text.

Sargent-Baur, Barbara Nelson. 1984a. “Between fabliau and romance: love and rivalry in Béroul’s Tristran.” Romania. 105 (418): 292-311.

Sargent-Baur, Barbara Nelson. 1984b. “Truth, Half-Truth, Untruth: Béroul’s Telling of the Tristran Story.” Ch. 11 (pp. 393-421) in Arrathoon, Leigh A. The Craft of Fiction: Essays in Medieval Poetics. Rochester, MI: Solaris Press.

Sargent-Baur, Barbara Nelson. 2015a. The Romance of Tristran by Beroul and Beroul II: a diplomatic edition and a critical edition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Sargent-Baur, Barbara Nelson. 2015b. The Romance of Tristran by Beroul and Beroul II: student edition and English translation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Shoaf, Judith P., trans. 1993. “Chevrefoil, by Marie de France.”
Lais of Marie de France: verse translations by Judy Shoaf. Online.

Terry, Patricia, trans. 1995. The Honeysuckle and the Hazel Tree: medieval stories of men and women. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Waters, Claire M. 2018. The Lais of Marie de France: Text and Translation. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.

Wilhelm, James J., trans. 1994. “Thomas of Britain: Tristan (‘The Death Scene’).” Ch. 12 (pp. 283-293) in Wilhelm, James J., ed. The Romance of Arthur: an anthology of medieval texts in translation. New, Expanded Edition. New York: Garland.

Babio, courtly lover to his step-daughter, cuckolded & castrated

In the twelfth-century Latin comedy Babio, Babio is an “old man in love {senex amans}.” That’s an unfair classical figure of ridicule. Old men, just like old women, can love well. But Babio wasn’t in love with his rather difficult wife Petula. He loved his step-daughter Viola, and he loved her with the babbling nonsense of a courtly lover. That’s loving badly. Prone to delusions, Babio lost Viola and was cuckolded and castrated.

At the beginning of the story, the possibility of Viola leaving home to marry the local lord Croceus tormented Babio. He thought to himself:

With what means could I endure being separated from my companion Viola,
in whose mouth you bees make honeyed honeycomb?
Her eyes are stars, her hair is such as you carry forth, Phoebus.
Phyllis exists in her fingers, in her foot is Thais’s foot,
she bears Helen’s face and the slender figure of Corinna.
Noon is equal with her smile, and ivory with her teeth.
When seeing such a one, happy is he who is destined to touch her!
By day she emits incense, by night she has the taste of balsam.
Viola would shine completely, if her heart would shine faithfully,
if she would remain with me, if she would refuse to go far away!

{ Qua ratione queam Viola caruisse sodali?
Cuius in ore favum mellificatis, apes.
Sidera sunt oculi; quales fers, Phoebe, capilli;
Phillis inest digitis; in pede pes Thetidis.
Fert Helene faciem, gracilem praecincta Corinnam;
meridiem risu, dente coaequat ebur.
Talem cum videat, felix cui tangere fas est!
Thura die redolet, balsama nocte sapit.
Tota nitet Viola, niteat si pectore fido,
si mecum maneat, si procul ire neget. }[1]

Learned medieval descriptions of beautiful women proceed from the top of the head downward. Mixing up that form, Babio praised the beautiful woman’s ivory teeth after her praised her feet. Moreover, Phyllis was a shepherdess while Corinna was one of Ovid’s urbane beloveds. Other of the women paragons are inappropriate in context. Thais was a classical Greek sex-worker. Helen was a two-faced women who betrayed her husband and caused the horrific Trojan War.[2]

comic actor in Roman comedy

Babio engaged in gyno-idolatry like a learned cleric betraying his Christian vocation. Babio declaimed to Viola:

Flower of violets Viola, splendor of flowers inviolate,
likeness of spring, beauty of noonday,
gem of your family, happy engendering of your parents,
if the divinities weren’t jealous, you would nearly be a goddess.
Viola is more than a violet, more flowering than a fresh flower,
by your worth more worthy, and by your beauty more beautiful.

{ Flos viole Viola, floris nitor inviolati,
effigies veris, meridiane decor.
Gemma tui generis, felix genitura parentis,
si non invideant numina, paene dea.
Plus viola Viola, plus florens flore recenti,
plus pretio praestans, plusque decore decens. }

Only a creepy courtly lover would speak to his step-daughter like that. Babio begged Viola not to marry Croceus:

Will you stay or will you leave? If you stay, I can live.
If you go, I cannot. You control my fate.
I grant that Croceus is beautiful, and my figure is disfigured,
but he doesn’t surpass Paris, and I don’t follow behind a monster,
and pepper is chosen, and black wool selected,
and white hair, while it would remain, is merely an accustomed nuisance.
Be my lady, and I will be beneath you with my wholesome sex.
Croceus wishes to be your king. Babio will be your slave.

{ Stabis an abscedes? Si stas, ego vivere possum;
Si cedis, nequeo: tu mea fata tenes.
Pulcra licet Croceo, deformis sit mihi forma,
non Paridem superat, non ego monstra sequor.
Et piper eligitur et vellera nigra leguntur,
et nix cum maneat esse molesta solet.
Esto mihi domina, salvo tibi subdar sexu:
vult fore rex Croceus; Babio servus erit. }

Babio was a deformed old man with pungent smell, dark hairy skin, and a head of receding white hair.[3] These weren’t physical characteristics attractive to young women in medieval Europe. More importantly, self-abasement and willingness to be a woman’s slave doesn’t make a man attractive to most women. Viola pretended to want to remain with Babio. She actually despised him and sought to get far away from him as soon as possible.

When Croceus took Viola to be his wife, Babio was distraught. His mind was filled with the usual criminalization of men’s sexuality and a muddle of lurid rustic and scholastic thought:

Now Croceus violates Viola, playing at spreading her legs.
Now he’s handling her hidden parts. Banish, you wicked woman, the wicked deed!
You’ve suffered force, Viola. Now, I expect, the sexual act is a pleasure.
Not far indeed is it that a conjunction will be between them.
What I planted, he carried away. I sowed the field, another has harvested.
I cut down the bushes, another has seized the birds.
I live deprived of my soul. He took it when he took her.
I marvel that I live, a human not ensouled.
Babio is and is not. I’ve already perished. Yet who is speaking?
Babio. I change in a way that I am not what I am.
From nothing I have returned to nothing. I wish I were nothing.
I complain so as to be something, I complain not to be nothing.

{ Jam violat Violam Croceus, ludumique bipertit.
Abdita jam tractat. Pelle, nefanda, nefas.
Vim pateris, Viola; nunc, spero, facta voluptas.
Non procul est etiam quod “que” sit inter eos.
Quod posui tulit hic; sevi sata, messuit alter;
excussi dumos, occupat alter aves.
Vivo carens anima; tulit hanc dum tollitur illa.
Miror quod vivo non animatus homo.
Babio sum, non sum; perii dudum. Loquitur at quis?
Babio. More novo non ego sum quod sum.
In nichil ex nichilo redii. Vellem nichil esse.
Esse queror quicquam, non queror esse nichil. }

Unlike the student-slave Geta in the twelfth-century Latin comedy Geta, Babio didn’t study in Paris. Babio was a rustic living in a small home with cow dung on floor. Yet medieval abstract learning was so culturally influential that even the rustic Babio had acquired it.[4] Today, everyone recognizes that a man needs a woman like a plow needs a field. Men’s lives always matter even if a woman says that men are filled with toxic masculinity. In short, Babio wasn’t nothing even without Viola.

After voicing words of men’s sexed protest in response to what he regarded as Viola’s disloyalty, Babio realized that not all women are like that. He then incoherently re-directed his gyno-idolatry to his wife Petula:

She’s not like Viola. One is faithless, the other faithful;
one night, the other day; one a prickly bush, the other a rose;
one a wolf, the other a sacrificial lamb; one a serpent, the other a dove;
one light, the other weighty; one grief, the other glory.
A wolf amid brambles birthed one, a viper put her forth.
Amid hell an Erinys smelted Viola.
O how dissimilar Viola and Petula are! One young, the other getting old.
She’s well-worn more than fresh, more or less worthy.
The child isn’t such as the mother. Oil thus brings forth foam;
wine, dregs; wool, moths; water, ice.
Petula isn’t another Penelope, but almost herself;
the same modesty, and Petula almost more so.
Petula is not at all petulant, not at all inconstant, not at all flighty,
as if she were a woman with a man thrusting inside of her.
Petula is Penelope in piety, a Sabine in chastity,
a Livia in elegant attire, Marcia in faithful fidelity.
You should cultivate her again, Babio, and fulfill the marital contract’s debt.
Wholly inside of her, you should henceforth to your death entrust yourself to her.

{ Non Violam sequitur. Haec fallax, illa fidelis;
haec nox, illa dies; haec rubes, illa rosa;
haec lupus, illa bidens; haec serpens, illa columba;
haec levis, illa gravis; haec dolor, illa decus.
Sentibus hanc mediis genuit lupus, edidit aspis.
In medio baratri fudit Erinnys eam.
O quam dissimiles! Haec junior, illa senescens,
trita magisque recens, plusque minusque decens.
Non genus ut nutrix, oleum sic promit amurcam,
vina luem, tineam tela, latex glaciem.
Penelope Petula non altera, pene sed ipsa;
Ipsa pudicitia, peneque major ea.
Nil petulans Petula, nil mobile, nil leve sentit,
nec tamen esse potest foemina plena viro.
Penelope Petula pietate, pudore Sabina,
Labia munda situ, Marcida fida fide.
Hanc, Babio, recolas; huic foedera debita solvas;
totus in hanc pauses amodo fisus ei. }[5]

Despite all Babio’s classical references, he didn’t understand a vitally important lesson from the great classical dispeller of delusions Lucretius: gyno-idolatry is always folly. Neither Viola nor Petula was a goddess. Both were fully human, just as men are.[6]

Sophrona and Chremes in Terence's Phormio

Babio soon learned that Petula was having sex with their servant Fodio. From a hidden place, Fodio spoke out in a disguised voice:

Folks are saying, Babio, that Fodio is adding to Petula,
as far as making a new being from their being together on four knees.

{ Plebs, Babio, recitat Petulam Fodio patuisse,
usque genu quarto connumerasse genus. }

Fodio’s name comes from the Latin verb fodere, which means to prick, thrust, or dig. That’s a figure for masculine sexual action. In short, Petula from her position of power and privilege within the household was having sex doggy-style with her servant Fodio. Babio sought to be a love servant to his step-daughter Viola. But he never served her in the way that Fodio was serving Petula.

Babio noticed that Fodio appeared to be receiving additional compensation. The impoverished servant who had a thin face, bare feet, tangled hair, and tattered clothes changed into a servant with full cheeks, well-shod feet, groomed hair, and splendid clothing. Babio realized whose goods Fodio was receiving:

Babio, they are your goods! Petula doesn’t save your goods for you.
While she serves them to Fodio, the servant has the goods.
While he serves them to her, Babio is badly served.
Cursed be such dignity of service!
More depraved than Viola, Fodio accomplishes worse.

{ Haec tua sunt Babio! Tua non tibi Petula servat.
Haec dum servit ei, dona satelles habet.
Haec dum servit ei, male servitur Babioni.
Servitii talis sit maledictus honor.
Prava nimis Viola, Fodius pejora patravit. }

Most men aren’t paid for their sexual work. Petula appreciated Fodio’s additional service. She was paying him additional for it. That meant that Babio was effectively paying for being cuckolded.

When Babio sought to hang Fodio for cuckolding him, Fodio insisted that he receive due process of law. Due process of law is an aspect of humane civilization no longer available to men students charged with sex crimes at many universities today. But due process of law matters. Using classical learning and a sophisticated Latin pun in a false oath of innocence, Fodio with the benefit of due process deceived Babio. More importantly, Petula testified in a support of Fodio with a verbal counter-charge against Babio:

So I seem to you an adulteress? Don’t nourish this gossip!
Perhaps you think all men and women are like you.
I seem to you a sex-worker Thais, but I strive more to be a chaste Sabine.
Because you’re as debauched as Gnatho you think I’m similar to Thais.
Either a frenzy presses upon you, or lethargy drives you away from me,
or you rage, or you’re made senseless by Lethe’s waters.
Your jealous mind doesn’t permit you to be calm.
A suspicious man has neither hope nor rest.

{ Moecha tibi videor: ne das ita pabula fame!
Forsitan hos et eas qualis es esse putas.
Thais ego videor; studui magis esse Sabina;
Me similem similis Thaida Gnato putas.
Aut frenesi premeris, aut te letargus abegit,
Aut furis, aut Lethes infatuaris aquis.
Mens tua zelotipa te non sinit esse quietum;
nec spem nec requiem suspiciosus habet. }

Women accuse men of being suspicious and angry to deflect attention from justified grounds for men’s suspicion and anger. As is commonly the case between women and men, the woman’s counterattack prevailed. Babio relented on hanging Fodio for adultery with Petula.

Babio subsequently sought to catch Petula and Fodio in the act of having sex and then to castrate Fodio. Men historically have been castrated for illicit but consensual sex. The famous medieval scholar Peter Abelard was castrated for his love affair with Heloise. The dwarf Segoncin was castrated for his love affair with Emperor Constance’s wife.[7] Babio similarly planned to castrate Fodio:

I carry my trusty knife.
May God give me daring. May it provide to him a sharp point!
Fodio will be captured; captured, he will not be totally transformed, but
I’ll take away simultaneously his slinging penis and his testicle stones.

{ … Artavum porto fidelem.
Det Deus ausa michi! Praestet acumen ei!
Captus erit Fodius; captus non totus abibit —
mecum devenient funda petraeque simul. }

Drawing upon deeply entrenched brutalization of men’s sexuality, Babio figured Fodio’s genitals as a sling and stones. Fodio was thus using a “weapon” to “attack” a woman. Babio in response planned only violence against the man. Punishment for adultery has long been strongly gender-biased toward punishing men.

Transforming the folktale motif of trickster tricked, the castrator was castrated. When Babio came again at night to catch Petula and Fodio together in bed, Petula mis-identified Babio as a thief. He was after all seeking to take her beloved Fodio from her. Supporting Petula’s strategy of mis-identification, Fodio in turn mis-identified Babio as an adulterer:

You aren’t Babio.
You’re an adulterer, and you’ll give up your dangling genital members to Fodio.

{ … Babio non es.
Moechus es et Fodio pendula membra dabis. }

Babio pleaded for a fair examination of himself in the light. Fodio refused that primitive element of due process:

There is no need to bring light.
I know within my heart that no Babio is here.
Now you’ll no longer be seen. You’ll henceforth not play three parts.
You’ll yield only your testicles, and you’ll suffer no greater harm.

{ Non est opus addere lumen.
Id scio corde tenus, Babio nullus adest.
Nunc eris eclipsis. Non ludes amodo ternis.
Symbola sola dabis, nolo nocere magis. }

Fodio then castrated Babio. A man’s testicles bear his seminal blessing. There can be no greater harm than to cut off a man’s seminal blessing. Babio cried out:

What would hurt more? Is there anything worse to bewail?

{ Ultra quis ledat? Est nimis ista queri? }

There can be nothing worse: castration is war on women. Cuckolded and castrated, Babio departed for the comfort of a monk’s life.

Smart medieval students learned from Babio the folly of imitating models of courtly lovers in medieval romances and troubadour lyrics. They learned of the dangers of gyno-idolatry, whether for a step-daughter or one’s wife. They saw the horror of castration culture in practice.[8] These are lessons that men and women today need to learn.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Babio, vv. 33-42, Latin text of Bate (1976), with a few variant readings and generally normalized with classical Latin spellings and distinguishing u/v and i/j; my English translation, benefiting from those of Crawford (1977), Elliott (1984), and Symes (2012). Bate’s Latin text follows closely MS Oxford Digby 53. That manuscript was written in the last quarter of the twelfth century.

The best current critical edition of Babio is Dessì Fulgheri (1980). Unfortunately I haven’t been able to consult that book. Dessì Fulgheri’s Latin text formed the basis for Elliott’s and Symes’s English translations. The quotes from Babio presented here are substantively consistent with those translation and hence Dessì Fulgheri’s Latin text. For freely available Latin texts, Wright (1844), pp. 65-75, and De Douchet (1854).

Babio’s author, who apparently was English, isn’t securely known. Walter Map and Nigel of Canterbury are regarded as posssible authors. Bate (1976) p. 7, Ziolkowski (1993) p. 24. Babio probably was written mid-twelfth century, or between 1150 and 1185. Symnes (2012) p. 1, Bate (1976) p. 7, respectively. Babio has survived in seven manuscripts.

Babio consists almost exclusively of spoken verses (dialogues and monologues). Its plot of violence against men parallels the fabliau The townswoman of Orléans {La borgoise d’Orliens}. Scholars have debated at length the genre of Babio and other medieval Latin comedies and whether they were performed as plays. With respect to Babio, Faral (1924), Faral (1948), Brennan (1968), Axton (1974) pp. 29-30, and Symes (2012). In 2015, a staged reading of Babio in Symes’s translation took place at the Newberry in Chicago. Questions of Babio’s genre and performance seem to me less important than Babio’s presentation of men’s difficulties in their love for women and castration culture.

Subsequent quotes from Babio are similarly sourced. The quotes above are (by verse number in Bate’s edition) vv. 47-52 (Flower of violets Viola…), 57-64 (Will you stay…), 179-90 (Now Croceus violates Viola…), 199-216 (She’s not like Viola…), 217-8 (Folks are saying, Babio…), 229-33 (Babio, they are your goods…), 287-94 (So I seem to you an adulteress…), 335-8 (I carry my trusty knife…), 445-6 (You aren’t Babio…), 449-52 (There is no need to bring light…), 458 (What would hurt more…).

[2] Babio comically fails in acting like a noble, generous host to Croceus and his retainers. Babio had the cow dung swept out of his home and a half-chicken prepared as a feast for Croceus. Croceus’s three servants got the usual beans and cabbage. Babio variously mimics the voices of peasants, courtly lovers, and clerics. Wailes (1974).

[3] MS Oxford Digby 53 includes a short prose preface that refers to Babio as a “priest {sacerdos}” five times. The text of Babio doesn’t indicate that he’s a priest, but married priests existed in twelfth-century England. Symes (2012) p. 1. The prose preface includes one obvious mistake. Other manuscripts of Babio don’t refer to him as a priest. Whether Babio was a priest or not, he was a rustic with impressive clerical learning.

[4] Babio conspicuously displayed learning in error-prone, ridiculous ways. He declared:

All the same, I know logic. Having well premeditated, I’ll prove
that Socrates is Socrates and that a human is a human.

{ Nosco tamen logicam: bene praemeditando probabo
Quod Socrates Socrates et quod homo sit homo. }

Babio, vv. 135-6. On this and related humor of logic, Ziolkowski (1993).

[5] This passage is filled with sexual double-entendres. In v. 209, Penelope Petula non altera, pene sed ipsa could also mean “Petula isn’t another Penelope, but she herself has a penis.” Similarly, v. 210. The pun arises from the medieval spelling pene of paene {nearly}, and the ablative form of penis {penis}, which is pene {with penis}.

Earlier Babio exultantly described himself as plus Iove pene potens (v. 76), which could mean “more potent with a penis than Jove.” Later Babio deprecatingly referred to himself as Babio pene senex (v. 174), which could mean “Babio, an old man with a penis.”

[6] Babio is misogynistic because the two women in it, Petula and Viola, are depicted as “carnal schemers, out for their own pleasure and advantage.” Elliott (1984) p. xli, citing Brennan (1968) p. 45. If a literary work doesn’t depict at least one woman as wonderful, modern scholars generally categorize it as misogyny. Ultra-orthodox scholars label any negative depiction of women as misogyny.

[7] According to Béroul, King Mark declared of Tristan:

He will meet a worse fate at my hands
than that inflicted by Constantine
on Segoncin, whom he had castrated
when he found him with his wife.

{ Par moi avra plus dure fin
Que ne fist faire Costentin
A Segoçon, qu’il escolla
Qant o sa feme le trova. }

Béroul, Tristan, vv. 277-80, Old French text and English translation by Lacy (1998). Lacy noted:

Segoncin (or Segestes), a character in a story well known during the Middle Ages, was a dwarf reputed to be the lover of the emperor’s wife.

Id. p. 205, n. 280.

[8] In relatively liberal and tolerant medieval Europe, Babio and other medieval Latin comedies were studied in schools:

Babio, like other comedies, was often used in schools. The chance to read and perform such plays provided an incentive to improve one’s Latin, and comedies were also an amusing way to learn verse forms, new vocabulary, classical syntax, and Greco-Roman mythology. Most importantly, they were funny; and they were often funny at the expense of characters frequently mocked by schoolboys and the young men they grew up to be — educated young men who were increasingly needed to run the burgeoning royal and papal bureaucracies of Europe in the twelfth century.

Symes (2012) p. 1. See also Bate (1979). Babio exemplifies more important life lessons as well. Students today also need such lessons, but aren’t getting them.

[image] (1) Comic actor depicted at the start of Terence’s Andria. Illumination from a ninth-century manuscript compilation of Terence’s plays. Made in France, perhaps at Rheims. From folio 3r in Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Latin 7899, via Gallica. (2) Chremes pulling on Sophrona in Terence’s Phormio. Similarly from folio 167v in Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Latin 7899.


Axton, Richard. 1974. European Drama of the Early Middle Ages. London: Hutchinson University Library.

Bate, Keith. 1976. Three Latin Comedies. Toronto: Published for the Centre for Medieval Studies by the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies. Contains Latin texts of Geta, Babio, and Pamphilus.

Bate, Keith. 1979. “Language for School and Court: Comedy in Geta, Alda and Babio.” L’eredità classica nel Medioevo: il linguaggio comico, atti del 3. convegno di studio, Viterbo, 26-27-28 maggio 1978. Viterbo: Agnesotti. 

Brennan, Malcolm M., trans. 1968. Babio. A twelfth century profane comedy. Translated with introduction and notes. Charleston, SC: Military College of South Carolina.

Crawford, James Martin. 1977. The Secular Latin Comedies of Twelfth Century France. Ph. D. Thesis. Indiana University, USA.

De Douchet, Jules. 1854. “Babio.” Columns 1291-1314 in Migne, J.P., ed. Nouvelle Encyclopédie Théologique. vol. 43. Dictionnaire des mystères. Paris: S’imprime et se vend chez J.P. Migne.

Dessì Fulgheri, Andrea. “Babio.” Pp. 242-301 in in Bertini, Ferruccio, ed. Commedie latine del XII e XIII secolo. Vol. 2. Genova: Istituto di filologia classica e medievale.

Elliott, Alison Goddard, trans. 1984. Seven Medieval Latin Comedies. New York: Garland.

Faral, Edmond. 1924. “Le Fabliau Latin au Moyen Âge.” Romania. 50 (199): 321-385.

Faral, Edmond, ed. and trans. (French). 1948. De Babione: Poème comique du 12. siècle, avec une introduction, des notes et un glossaire. Paris: Champion.

Lacy, Norris J. 1998. “Béroul’s Tristan.” Pp. 3-218 in Lacy, Norris J., ed. Early French Tristan Poems. Vol. 1. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Symes, Carol, trans. 2012. “Babio.” Pp. 10-21 in Christina M. Fitzgerald and John T. Sebastian, eds. The Broadview Anthology of Medieval Drama. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press. (cited by online pages 1-11)

Wailes, Stephen L. 1974. “Role-Playing in Medieval Comediae and Fabliaux.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen. 75 (4): 640-649.

Wright, Thomas, ed. 1844. Early mysteries, and other Latin poems of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. London: Nichols and Sons.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1993. “The Humour of Logic and the Logic of Humour in the Twelfth-Century Renaissance.” The Journal of Medieval Latin. 3: 1-26.

Chastelaine de Vergi: the tragedy of men’s subservience to women

In the influential thirteenth-century romance Chastelaine de Vergi, the lady (chastelaine) holding the important castle at Vergi in Burgundy granted her love to a brave and bold knight. She stipulated that if he told anyone of their love, she would cease loving him. That arbitrary, other-worldly condition exemplifies her power and control over him within the courtly literary ideal of sexual feudalism.[1] The Duke of Burgundy, the chastelaine’s uncle, was similarly subservient to his wife. The Chastelaine de Vergi shows that men’s subservience to women inexorably transforms love into death.

the Chastelaine de Vergi and the knight embrace

The Chastelaine de Vergi poignantly represents gender trouble within its first forty verses. The chastelaine and her beloved, subservient knight arranged the following terms for their trysts:

The knight would come every day
at the time she set for him.
He wouldn’t move from his hiding place
until he saw a little dog running through the garden.
And then without delay he would come
into her chamber, knowing well
that at that hour no one would be there
apart from the lady alone.

{ li chevaliers toz jors vendroit
au terme qu’ele li metroit.
Ne ne se mouvroit d’un anglet
de si que un petit chienet
verroit par le vergier aler.
Et lors vendroit sanz demorer
en sa chambre, et si seüst bien
qu’a cele eure n’i avroit rien
fors la dame tant seulement. }[2]

Men have long been disparaged as being sexually like dogs. Here the knight is summoned like a dog for sex with the lady by a little dog running through the lady’s garden. The pun Vergi / vergier and the association of a garden with a woman’s vagina underscores the sexual figure that encompasses the man / dog. Meninism is the radical notion that men are human beings. Because meninist literary criticism has been marginalized and excluded, scholars have failed to recognize the gender trouble at the very beginning of the Chastelaine de Vergi.

The Duchess of Burgundy subsequently sought sexual service from this handsome and vigorous knight. She was his social and political superior and effectively part of his managing authority. After failing to attract his attention with her indications of amorous interest, she informed him of the quid pro quo he could expect for having sex with a highly placed women:

My lord, you are handsome and brave —
everyone says so, thanks be to God.
You clearly deserve
to have a lover in such a high place
that you would gain honor and praise from it,
and such a lover would suit you very well.

{ Sire, vous estes biaus et preus,
ce dïent tuit, la Dieu merci:
si avriiez bien deservi
d’avoir amie en si haut leu
qu’en eüssiez honor et preu,
que bien vous serroit tele amie. }

Faced with a situation even more dangerous than the question, “Do I look fat?”, the knight declared that he hadn’t given any thought to it. The duchess in response advised the knight with an implicit threat:

“In faith,” she said, “A long wait
could be harmful to you — that is my view.
So I advise you to take a lover
in a high place, if you see
that you are well loved there.”

{ Par foi, dist ele, longue atente
vous porroit nuire, ce m’est vis.
Si lo que vous soiez amis
en un haut leu, se vous veez
que vous i soiez bien amez. }

The knight attempted to defuse this situation by saying that he didn’t understand what she was saying, that he was just a lowly knight, and that he wouldn’t strive to love so highly and so advantageously. The duchess then bluntly issued to him a self-answering question:

Tell me whether you are now aware
that I have granted you my love,
I who am a high-ranking, honored lady.

{ Dites moi se vous savez ore
se je vous ai m’amor donee,
qui sui haute dame honoree? }

In medieval Europe, a knight couldn’t go on Twitter to denounce a duchess for sexually harassing him. In any case, few would be concerned about him, too. The knight thus had to assert personally a well-recognized medieval standard of ethical behavior:

My lady, I was not aware of this,
but I would like to have your love
in sincerity and in honor.
But may God protect me from such a love
that would be wrong on my part or yours
in a way bringing shame on my lord,
for at no time and in no way
would I undertake any error
such as acting unreasonably,
churlishly, or disloyally
towards my lawful, natural lord.

{ Ma dame, je ne le sai pas;
mes je voudroie vostre amor
avoir par bien et par honor.
Mes de cele amor Dieus me gart
qu’a moi n’a vous tort cele part
ou la honte mon seignor gise,
qu’a nul fuer ne a nule guise
n’enprendroie tel mesprison
comme de fere traïson
si vilaine et si desloial
vers mon droit seignor natural. }

The knight acted ethically and courageously. The duchess, however, became furious at him. She pretended that she hadn’t propositioned him:

Sir Fool, and who is asking you to do that?

{ dans musars, et qui vous en prie? }

As they both certainly knew, she was. He prudently acquiesced to her fiction. He then said nothing more about the matter.[3]

Because the knight sexually rejected her, the duchess retaliated against him. That night, in bed with her husband the duke, she started to cry. Her husband immediately asked her what was the matter. She responded:

“Certainly,” she said, “I am greatly distressed
that no high-born man knows
who is faithful to him and who is not.
Rather, they show more kindness and honor
to those who to them are traitors,
and yet none of them realizes it.”

{ Certes, dist ele, j’ai duel grant
de ce que ne set nus hauz hom
qui foi li porte ne qui non;
mes plus de bien et d’onor font
a ceus qui lor trahitor sont,
et si ne s’en aperçoit nus. }

Realizing that she was alluding to him, he said that he didn’t understand why she was saying this, that he was innocent of such behavior, and that he wouldn’t allow a traitor to be in his service. She responded:

“Hate then,” she said, “the one
(she named him) who today never stopped
all day long begging of me
that I give him my love,
and he told me that for a very long time
he had been of this mind,
but had never before dared to tell me.
And I set my mind, fair lord,
that I would tell you of it at once.
And to be cooking up this destruction
he was from a while ago considering it,
because that he has another beloved
we have seen no signs.
So I beg of you as a favor
that in this matter you look to your honor
as you know to be right.”

{ Haez donc, dist ele, celui
(sel nomma) qui ne fina hui
de moi proier au lonc du jor
que je li donaisse m’amor,
et me dist que mout a lonc tens
qu’il a esté en cest porpens:
onques mes ne le m’osa dire.
Et je me porpenssai, biaus sire,
tantost que je le vous diroie.
Et ce pert estre chose vroie
qu’il ait pieça a ce penssé;
de ce qu’il a aillors amé
novele oïe n’en avon.
Si vous requier en guerredon
que vostre honor si i gardoiz
com vous savez que il est droiz. }[4]

The duchess thus falsely accused the knight of seeking her carnal love. Despite ample possibilities for faking, women’s tears typically evoke men’s acute concern. In present-day high-income societies, a boss seeking sex with her subordinate via offers of quid pro quo and threats clearly violates labor law and incurs a high liability, but a secretary seeking sex with his boss isn’t regarded as a serious offense. In medieval society, the pattern of culpability was the reverse. The duchess exploited both universal norms and the particular norms of her medieval society to retaliate strongly against the knight who rejected her sexual propositioning.

After merely listening and believing his wife, the duke the very next day condemned the knight. The duke didn’t first tell the knight of the accusation against him, ask him to respond to it, and then thoroughly and objectively investigate the matter. Instead, the duke declared that the knight had acted with great treachery. The duke banished the knight forever from his lands and declared that he would be hanged if he should return and be captured.[5]

Angry and bewildered, the knight declared his innocence. He protested the terrible wrong that his false accuser had done. But the duke permitted no normal process of seeking justice:

“It is of no use for you to answer the charge,”
said the duke, “for there’s no point to it.
She herself has recounted to me
in what manner and in what way
you have begged her and beseeched her
like an envious traitor,
and you said some things,
perhaps, about which she has kept quiet.”

{ Ne vous vaut riens li escondit,
fet li dus, ne point n’en i a.
Cele meïsme conté m’a
en quel maniere et en quel guise
vous l’avez proïe et requise
comme trahitres envious.
Et tel chose deïstes vous,
puet estre, dont ele se test. }

Insinuation of additional, vaguely specified crimes typifies corrupt justice. In proceedings of today’s university sex crime tribunals, simply being a man is enough for the persecuted to be guilty of a massive structure of imagined, historical crimes.

In the Chastelaine de Vergi, the justice process was sexually perverted. The knight declared:

Nothing I might say is of any use,
yet there is nothing I would not do,
so that I would be believed,
for nothing of this sort has happened.

{ Riens ne m’i vaut que j’en deïsse,
si n’est riens que je n’en feïsse
par si que j’en fusse creü,
quar de ce n’i a riens eü. }

The repetition of “nothing {riens}” three times in these four lines is ominously nihilistic.[6] The duke at first merely requested a sworn oath like that a witness commonly offers in a judicial proceeding:

If you are willing to swear to me
by your loyal oath,
that you will tell me truly
what I ask of you,
by your words I would certainly know
whether or not you have done
that for which I have suspicion towards you.

{ Se vous me volez fiancier
par vostre leal serement
que vous me direz vraiement
ce que je vous demanderoie,
par vostre dit certains seroie
se vous avriiez fet ou non
ce dont j’ai vers vous soupeçon. }

Witnesses under oath in a judicial proceeding can be asked only questions relevant and proper to the proceeding. The knight readily agreed to the duke’s request for sworn testimony. That choice shouldn’t be regarded as ethically fraught. It’s judicially normal.[7]

The duke set up a question with relevance to the duchess’s charge of attempted seduction. He noted that the knight dressed elegantly and acted like a man in love with a woman. The duke reasoned:

And when no one knows of
any unmarried woman or lady that you love,
I think to myself that it must be my wife,
who has told me that you have been pleading to her.
Hence I cannot be made to disregard this
by anything that anyone could do,
because I think such turns this affair;
that is, if you don’t tell me of another
elsewhere that you love passionately
and you let me know of it without doubt
in its full truth.
And if you don’t want to do so,
then, like a perjurer, get yourself
away from my land without delay!

{ Et quant d’aillors ne s’aperçoit
nus qu’amez damoisele ou dame,
je me pens que ce soit ma fame,
qui me dist que vous la proiez.
Si ne puis estre desvoiez
por riens que nus me saiche fere,
que je cuit qu’ainsi voist l’afere,
se vous ne me dites qu’aillors
amez en tel leu par amors
que m’en lessiez sanz nule doute
savoir en la verité toute.
Et se ce fere ne volez,
comme parjurs vous en alez
hors de ma terre sanz deloi! }

The chastelaine had imposed secrecy upon the knight regarding their love affair. This line of questioning thus greatly troubled him. He began to cry. Rather than showing pity toward the knight, as a judge would toward a crying woman, the duke accused him of believing that he would betray a secret. The duke insisted that he wouldn’t betray a secret even if he were brutally tortured. He swore that he would maintain secrecy. The knight then told him that he loved the duke’s niece, the chastelaine de Vergi.

Neither the knight nor the duke recognized bounds of relevance and propriety in considering the duchess’s charge against the knight. The knight could have declared under oath that he loved another woman. He could have refused to name her on the grounds that her specific identify wasn’t relevant to refuting the duchess’s accusation. One might argue that her specific identity is relevant to corroborating his love for her.

The duke, however, went far beyond the need of corroborating the knight’s love relationship. The duke asked to go with the knight that evening to his tryst with the chastelaine. The knight reprensibly granted the duke’s request. All night long while the knight was having sex with the chastelaine, the duke was watching and listening from a hidden spot outside. Voyeurism surely wasn’t necessary for adjudicating the duchess’s charge against the knight.[8] Perhaps the duke was sexually frustrated within his marriage and wanted to observe whole-hearted love.

Later that day during dinner, the duke expressed his affection for the knight. The duchess, realizing her scheme to create hate had failed, was distressed. Claiming that she felt ill, she left the dinner early. When the duke went to her, she told him that she felt ill because the duke cherished the knight despite her telling him he had sexually solicited her. To that social drama, the duke responded simply and lovingly:

“Ah!” said the duke, “My sweet friend,
know that I would believe
neither you nor any other person
because never in any way
did what you told me actually happen.
Indeed, I know well that he’s totally innocent of it.
He never had any thought of doing that.
Much have I learned of his situation,
so don’t ask me about it any further.”

{ Ha! fet li dus, ma douce amie,
sachiez je n’en croiroie mie
ne vous ne autre creature
que, onques por nule aventure
avenist ce que vous me dites.
Ainz sai bien qu’il en est toz quites;
n’onques ne penssa de ce fere.
Tant ai apris de son afere,
si ne m’en enquerez ja plus. }

The duke then left without even criticizing his wife for her vicious false accusation.

Rather than regretting her action, the duchess burned to know what the duke had learned about the knight’s situation. The duchess planned to manipulate her husband sexually:

In her heart she thought out a scheme
by which she could know it all well
if she waited until the evening
when she had the duke in her arms.
She knew well that in such delight
she could do, without any doubt,
better what she wished than at any other time.

{ quar en son cuer engin porpensse
qu’ele le porra bien savoir,
s’ele se sueffre jusqu’au soir
qu’ele ait le duc entre ses braz.
Ele set bien de tieus solaz
en fera, ce ne doute point,
mieus son voloir qu’en autre point. }

Not pervasively censored through authoritative name-calling, medieval literature frankly recognized husbands’ difficulties in keeping secrets from their wives and wives’ tendency to talk about their husbands’ secrets. With respect to secrets and many other matters, many husbands are weak in relation to their wives.

When the duke came to bed, the duchess withdrew to one side of the bed. She pretended not to like the duke being next to her. Not permitting him more than a kiss, she called him false, deceitful, and disloyal. She said that he had never loved her. When he asked what was the matter, she claimed that he was concealing from her all his thoughts, such as what the knight had told him. She claimed falsely that she had always told him everything. Then she categorically declared:

So be assured now, without any doubt,
that I will never again have trust
in you nor love you in the way
that I have in the past.

{ Si sachiez ore, sanz doutance,
que ja mes n’avrai tel fiance
en vous, ne cuer de tel maniere,
com j’ai eü ça en arriere. }

After saying this, the duchess began to cry. Deceitful women defeat weak men by projecting their own wrongs onto men, by pretending to be terribly hurt, and by crying.

The duke pitied the poor dear. He explained that if he revealed the knight’s secret, great harm could result. The duchess assured him that she would never reveal any of his secrets. Then she again cried. The duke embraced her and kissed her. He said that he would tell her, but if she ever said a word of what he told her, she would die. She fully agreed to that condition. Then he told her all about the knight’s secret love for the chastelaine de Vergi. Learning how passionately the knight loved a women less noble than she, the duchess felt utterly humiliated. She immediately began to hate the chastelaine and plot to harm her.

With the chastelaine and the duchess dominating the duke and the knight, love led to death. When the duke held court for the feast of Pentecost, the duchess before the dance called the chastelaine a “good mistress {bone mestresse}” who had “learned the art  / of training the little dog {apris le mestier / du petit chienet afetier}.” That taunt revealed knowledge of the chastelaine’s trysts with the knight. Going into the dressing room, the chastelaine grieved intensely that the knight had revealed their love to the duchess. She wrongly surmised that the knight didn’t love her, but instead loved the duchess. She pardoned her beloved knight and then died from a broken heart.

The knight, looking for the chastelaine, went into the dressing room. He saw her lying on a bed. Embracing and kissing her, he rather belatedly, like a blind lover, discovered that she was dead. A young serving-woman had overhead the exchange between the duchess and the chastelaine and the latter’s grief. She told the knight what had happened. Like Pyramus believing that a lion had devoured Thisbe, the knight blamed himself:

“Ah! Alas!” said he, “My sweet love,
the most courtly and the finest
that ever was and the most loyal,
like a disloyal scoundrel
I have killed you!”

{ Ha! las! dist il, Ma douce amor,
la plus cortoise et la meillor
c’onques fust et la plus loial,
comme trichierres desloial
vous ai morte! }

He then grabbed a sword and plunged it into his heart. Bleeding profusely, his dying body fell onto the chastelaine’s dead body.

The young serving-woman rushed out and told the duke what had happened. He went into the room and pulled out the sword piecing the knight’s heart. Then he returned to the dance hall. In the sight of everyone, he thrust the sword into the duchess’s scheming head. She fell dead at his feet. The duke told all what had happened. Grief-stricken, he declared that he would leave to become a Templar knight in the horrific violence against men of the Crusades.[9]

deaths in the Chastelaine de Vergi

Men’s subservience to women, like men’s impotence, creates tragedy in romance between women and men. Within the fallen condition of gynocentrism, signs of truth exist but aren’t understood. Amid other ladies, the duchess praised the chastelaine for having “learned the art  / of training the little dog {apris le mestier / du petit chienet afetier}.” That telling sign hasn’t been understood:

The ladies heard what was said,
but they didn’t understand its meaning.
They returned with the duchess
to take part in the dancing.

{ Les dames ont oï le conte,
mes ne sevent a qoi ce monte;
o la duchoise s’en revont
aus caroles que fetes ont. }

Many literary scholars have been participating in a dance of death.[10] Persons who seek the fullness of life must be open to a new spirit of truth. Let them play their tune. You can refuse to dance. You can read rightly the signs, truly promote gender equality, and seek to help those grievously misled.[11]

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] A beautiful, other-worldly woman imposed a similar condition on Lanval in Marie de France’s lai Lanval. That woman, however, heroically saved Lanval from a false accusation of attempted seduction.

The Chastelaine de Vergi signals its close relation to lyric by including (vv. 295-302) a stanza from a song by the chastelain de Couci (Guy de Thourotte), a trouvère. On this lyric insertion, Marnette (2021). Guillaume de Machaut’s True Poem {Voir Dit}, from about 1365, used extensively lyric insertion. The chastelain de Couci became associated with the eaten-heart motif that appears in the lai Ignaure. The Chastelaine de Vergi also refers (v. 269) to a genre of lyric debate in two parts (jeu parti) included in the corpus of trouvère songs.

[2] Chastelaine de Vergi, vv. 31-9, Old French text from Arrathoon (1975) (except without quotation marks and indenting), English translation (modified slightly) from Burgess & Brook (2016), pp. 214-26. Burgess & Brook’s translation is based on the late thirteenth-century Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS français, 837, folios 6rb-11ra, as edited by Whitehead (1944). In my view, Arrathoon (1975) represents scholarly progress beyond Whitehead (1944). The differences are small, but scholarly progress should be honored. Where necessary, I’ve modified Burgess & Brook’s English translation to be in accord with Arrathoon’s text. Arrathoon (1984b) provides an edition and English translation based on Arrathoon (1975), but with less extensive scholarly documentation.

Arrathoon explained her enormous, masterful work with her declaration: “the Chastelaine de Vergi is a masterpiece which deserves to be transmitted intact to posterity.” Arrathoon (1975) p. iii. Her commitment to truth and the virgin composition didn’t reflect devaluation of agency and interpretive vigor. She also provided an English paraphrase. She explained:

my interpretation of the text must inevitably emerge from such a paraphrase as the key to the art of translation is to interpret rather than search out appropriate words and expressions to create a more or less correct, but probably very stiff mosaic of the original in the second language.

Id. p. 148. Here Arrathoon seems to me mistaken. Making cultural heritage more broadly available has high humanistic and democratic value. Faithful translation can produce a translation that’s fluently readable and readily accessible to a broad readership. Burgess & Brook (2016) exemplifies such translation.

Fairly good Old French texts and modern French and English translations of the Chastelaine de Vergi are readily accessible online. For Old French texts with modern French translations, Raynaud & Foulet (1912) and Bédier (1927). For English translations, Terry (1995), Ch. 8; Mason (1911); and Kemp-Welch (1903).

The Chastelaine de Vergi has survived in twenty-two manuscripts. It was originally composed in the middle of the thirteenth century. Its author isn’t known, but Jean Renart, author of Guillaume de Dole and the Lai de l’Ombre, is plausible.

Scholars have debated the marital status of the chastelaine de Vergi. The text doesn’t clearly specify her marital status. She plausibly could be a widow or a married woman. Arrathoon reviewed the scholarly debate and argued convincingly for the chastelaine being a married woman engaged in adultery with the knight. Arrathoon (1984a) pp. 342-5.

The genre of the Chastelaine de Vergi also has been a matter of scholarly controversy. The narrator provides a brief, moralizing introduction and conclusion. The conclusion declares, “And by this exemplum one should {Et par cest example doit}…” (v. 951). The reliability of the narrator, however, is suspect. On the genre of the Chastelaine de Vergi, Arrathoon (1984a) and Sweet (2017). Categorizing the Chastelaine de Vergi as a lai produced the benefit of it being included in Burgess & Brook (2016).

The Chastelaine de Vergi was widely distributed and influential. Giovanni Boccaccio and Eustache Deschamps included the chastelaine de Vergi in their catalogs of famous lovers. Jean Froissart cited the Chastelaine de Vergi in his book The Prison of Love {La Prison amoureuse}, written about 1372. So too did Evrart de Conty in his The Book of Love Chess Moralized {Le Livre des Eschez amoureux moralisés} from about 1390. In the fifteenth century, the Chastelaine de Vergi was lightly adapted into a prose work called the Chastelaine du Vergier, as well as into novella 70 of Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptaméron (1558), and into François du Souhait’s play Radegonde, Duchesse de Bourgogne (1599). But most important of all, the influential early female supremacist Christine de Pizan mentioned it in her Book of the City of Ladies {Livre de la Cité des Dames} (1405). On the reception of the Chastelaine de Vergi, Sweet (2017), Leushuis (2007), Huot (2001), Virtue (1997), and Gauthier (1985).

Subsequent quotes from the Chastelaine de Vergi are similarly sourced. They are vv. 60-5 (My lord, you are handsome…), 68-72 (“In faith,” she said…), 84-6 (Tell me whether you are now aware…), 89-98 (My lady, I was not aware of this…), 100 (Sir Fool…), 114-9 (“Certainly,” she said…), 125-40 (“Hate then,” she said…), 196-203 (“It is of no use for you to answer the charge,”…), 207-10 (Nothing I might say…), 218-24 (If you are willing to swear to me…), 254-67 (And when no one knows of…), 541-49 (“Ah!” said the duke…), 558-64 (In her heart she thought out a scheme…), 605-8 (So be assured now…), 716-8 (good mistress / learned the art…), 885-9 (“Ah! Alas!” said he…), 717-8 (learned the art…), 719-22 (The ladies heard what was said…).

[3] Women’s sexual harassment and rape of men has been made nearly unspeakable in recent decades through bigotry and harshly enforced ignorance. Such repression didn’t exist in medieval Europe. Medieval European literature even included vigorous voices of men’s sexed protest.

[4] For v. 134, Arrathoon chose the MS. A/E/G0 reading over the MS. C reading Et si puet estre chose vraie. She argued that this reading is more likely to be the best authorial text for a variety of reasons, including that “it underlines the theme of appearance and reality that recurs whenever the duchess enters the scene.” Arrathoon (1975) p. 110. With its documented, highly contextual justification, Arrathoon’s textual choice cannot be fairly characterized as tendentious or aggressive editing. Any translation error for v. 134 is mine.

[5] Prior to recent intensified gynocentrism, perceptive readers recognized the duke’s weakness relative to his wife. About 1903, the eminent archivist-paleographer Louis Brandin noted the freshness of the duchess’s character, including:

her influence over her weak husband, unable to sleep as soon as she has persuaded him that one of his vassals has threatened his honour, and equally unable to keep a secret when his wife turns her back upon him in bed

Kemp-Welsh (1903) pp. xi-xii (introduction by Louis Brandin). About 1944, Frederick Whitehead observed that the Chastelaine de Vergi concerns:

not the dangers of disclosing a secret love, but only the danger of making the disclosure to a weak and indiscreet man dominated by a vindictive wife who bears a grudge against one of the lovers

Whitehead (1944) p. xiv. In his 1951 edition of this book, White deleted this sentence and implicitly apologized for apparently offending women. On this textual history, Sweet (2017) pp. 348-9. Huot deserves credit for acknowledging “dangers for men in being manipulated by their wives.” Huot (2001) p. 269.

Men’s subservience to women isn’t just a medieval literary ideal. In interpreting the Chastelaine de Vergi, Lacy declared:

As Arrathoon puts it (355), the author was “juxtaposing a literary ideal to ‘real life.'” The lover in lyric tradition is subject to the dictates of love and (should she so desire) to the whims of the lady.

Lacy (1990) p. 122, citing Arrathoon (1984a) p. 355. Scholars have tended to complacently accept men being subject to the whims of women in literary ideals and in real life. Meninism provides a critical perspective on men’s subordination to women in both literature and life.

[6] On lexical patterning in the Chastelaine de Vergi, Shirt (1980) and Hunt (1993).

[7] The knight’s oath to the duke has been interpreted as “the well known device of the open-ended promise,” also called “the binding gift {don contraignant}.” E.g. Hunt (1993) pp. 136-7. An influential example of an open-ended promise is Herod’s promise to Herodias’s beautifully dancing daughter. That promise resulted in John the Baptist’s beheading. Matthew 11:2–7, 14:6–12; Mark 1:14, 6:17–29; Luke 3:19–20, 7:18–25, 9:9. More generally, context can implicitly limit an open-ended promise. In court proceedings, witnesses normally swear to tell the whole truth. That doesn’t mean that they must tell the truth about matters judged not relevant and proper within the given judicial proceeding.

[8] Literary critics haven’t recognized the transgression of reasonable judicial procedure culminating in voyeurism in the Chastelaine de Vergi. Similar failure is now grossly apparent in university sex-crime tribunals. Much modern literary criticism has developed to be similar to the reasoning of Geta after he apparently encountered his double:

Here we encounter a contradiction every bit as powerful as the paradox of virginity: that love only exists to the degree that it is secret; that secret love only exists to the degree that it is revealed; and revealed, it is no longer love. … For if love must be kept secret to exist, then, as in the case of the virgin, there can be no way of speaking of it that does not imply its transgression. “La Chastelaine de Vergi” can, in a profound sense, be considered to be “La Chastelaine de Virginité” or “The Lady of Virginity.”

Bloch (1991) p. 123. Persons can have a secret love affair. They could speak about it only between themselves while having a secret love affair. They could also love each other without speaking about it. “La Chastelaine de Vergi” as “The Lady of Virginity” is as ridiculous as Bloch’s totalizing idea of medieval misogyny.

[9] With admirable sympathy for a man, Arrathoon characterized the knight as a “victimized hero.” Arrathoon(1984a) p. 346. Because the duke merely listened and believed his wife’s false accusation of the loyal knight, the duke raged at him extensively. With wonderful textual engagement now all but lost among literary critics, Arrathoon declared:

By this time, we fairly ache for the knight to tell the duke what an evil creature his wife is. How can we not share his righteous indignation? … But what is uppermost in the knight’s mind, as befits the lover of lyric poetry, is not the loss of his own honor, but the possible physical separation from his lady ….

Id. p. 347. In my view, the knight deserves blame for accepting men-abasing ideals of courtly love. But those who support and exploit men-abasing ideals of courtly love deserve more blame.

In response to Arrathoon, Lacy offered a caricature of medieval casuistry. He argued:

The duchess precipitates the crisis, and the narrator presents her as an unequivocally lascivious, jealous, devious, and despicable woman. But if we are led to condemn her, because both her vengeful motive and her brazen method are hateful, it is also true that the duke, the only one of the four protagonists to survive, betrayed a trust and violated a promise, thereby contributing almost as directly as his wife to the developing tragedy. … In fact, if blame has to be assigned, it is hard to escape the conclusion that it belongs to the knight, just as the narrator announces.

Lacy (1990) pp. 119-20. Perhaps justifiably contemptuous of this analysis, Hunt (1993) didn’t even cite Lacy (1990). The introduction-apologue, which directs blame to the knight, is “hopelessly simplistic” and misleading in its surface meaning. Hunt (1993) p. 139. Hunt forthrightly characterized the duchess as “a mulier perniciosa, a maleficent woman who lies at will and systematically prosecutes a vendetta based on lies.” Id. p. 134. Among the characters of the Chastelaine de Vergi, the duchess is by far the most blameworthy. The duchess provides:

the fundamental radix malorum, the remorseless vendetta of an irredeemably evil woman for whom no juster fate can be devised than death. In the presence of lies, deception and malevolence there can be no simple defence.

Id. p. 139. That’s an exaggeration. One simple defense is to avoid such women as much as possible.

Recognition of women acting with evil intent wasn’t suppressed and censored in medieval Europe. For example, a medieval proverb attributed to the classical Greek philosopher Timaeus declares:

He who takes a rogue as his porter,
a traitor as his confidant,
or a wicked woman as his wife
cannot die without suffering great trouble.

{ Qui de felon fet son porter
De traictour son conseiller
De folle fame sa moillier
Ne pueut mourir sanz encombrier }

From the fifteenth-century manuscript Angers, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 548, folio 57v, as transcribed and translated (modified slightly) by Sweet (2017) p. 351.

[10] Men in medieval lyric poignantly describe themselves as lovesick to death for women. These men receive little sympathy today:

Men may talk incessantly of dying for love in their poetry and in their speeches in narrative texts, but usually they do not actually die for love. Women do sometimes talk about dying for love (though they do so a lot less), but when the chips are down, die they do. Men talk the talk; women walk the walk.

Gaunt (2006) p. 144. The totalizing gender dichotomy “men talk the talk; women walk the walk” reflects the anti-men gender bigotry now prevalent in the humanities. The claim that men don’t actually die for love is absurd given the influence of the Iliad on the European literary tradition. But expressing contempt for men is highly valued within dominant literary scholarship:

women have an ethical system imposed upon them in troubadour lyric, one which, in romance, requires them to make the supreme sacrifice for love, while men often merely talk about it. … in dying in inappropriate or troublesome ways, some women and queers may uncover the insidious lure of a symbolic order in which men bleat endlessly about their willingness to die for love while walking all over women.

Id. p. 210. Belief that men construct ethical systems independent from women’s preferences and behaviors is absurd. The claim “women have an ethical system imposed upon them” seems to me merely to exemplify poor-dearist signaling for scholarly credit. Medieval trobairitz described men’s subservience to women under what was essentially sexual feudalism. The scholarly claim that “men bleat endlessly about their willingness to die for love while walking all over women” could be characterized as childish anti-meninism. Gaunt’s book, highly acclaimed among academics, fittingly concludes with misandristic representations of sadism and death.

[11] Cf. Matthew 11:17. The deaths of the chastelaine, knight, and duchess, as well as the self-exile of the duke, occurred on Pentecost. De Looze observed:

La Chastelaine de Vergi, unlike Lanval, reveals a profound lack of confidence in the spoken word and oral discourse in general. … In fact, the only complete version of the events is the written one we read. The spoken versions are all fragments: flawed, incomplete, trapped in the narrow, partial truth of human speech. The miracle of the pure and true verbal act — the miracle of Pentecost — surpasses humans, for whom the closest approximation to a discourse of immanent truth is the written word.

De Looze (1985) p. 43. As literary criticism of the Chastelaine de Vergi indicates, pure and true verbal acts require more than just writing words.

[images] (1) The chastelaine de Vergi and the knight embrace. Illumination from folio 90r in an early fifteenth-century manuscript, Cambridge, Trinity Hall, MS 12. (2) Killings and funerals for three in the Chastelaine de Vergi. From folio 96r of Cambridge, Trinity Hall, MS 12.

Additional visual representations: Ivory caskets made in France early in the fourteenth century are decorated with carved scenes from the Chastelaine de Vergi. See, for example, 17.190.180 in the Metropolitan Museum and 1892,0801.47 in the British Museum.


Arrathoon, Leigh A. 1975. La chastelaine de Vergi: a new critical edition of the text with introduction, notes and an English paraphrase. Ph.D. Thesis, Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. Princeton University.

Arrathoon, Leigh A. 1984a. “Jacques de Vitry, the Tale of Calogrenant, La Chastelaine de Vergi, and the genres of medieval narrative fiction.” Ch. 9 (pp. 281-368) in Arrathoon, Leigh A. The Craft of Fiction: Essays in Medieval Poetics. Rochester, MI: Solaris Press.

Arrathoon, Leigh A., ed. and trans. 1984b. The Lady of Vergi. Merrick, N.Y.: Cross-Cultural Communications.

Bédier, Joseph, ed. and trans. (French). 1927. La Châtelaine de Vergy. Conte du XIIIe siècle. Paris: L’édition d’art H. Piazza.

Bloch, R. Howard. 1991. Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Burgess, Glyn S., and Leslie C. Brook, trans. 2016. Twenty-Four Lays from the French Middle Ages. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

de Looze, Laurence. 1985. “The Untellable Story: Language and Writing in La Chastelaine de Vergi.” The French Review. 59 (1): 42-50.

Gaunt, Simon. 2006. Love and Death in Medieval French and Occitan Courtly Literature: martyrs to love. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gauthier, Barbara Anna, ed. and trans. 1985. La Chastelaine du Vergier: A Critical Edition. Ph.D. Thesis, Vanderbildt University.

Kemp-Welch, Alice, trans. 1903. The Chatelaine of Vergi: a 13th century French romance. Paris: P. Geuthner. Here’s an alternate presentation of this text via York’s In parentheses Publications.

Hunt, Tony. 1993. “The Art of Concealment: La Châtelaine de Vergi.” French Studies. 47 (2): 129-141.

Huot, Sylvia. 2001. “The Chastelaine de Vergi at the Crossroads of Courtly, Moral, and Devotional Literature.” Pp. 269-279 in Joan Tasker Grimbert and Carol J. Chase, eds. Philologies Old and New: Essays in Honor of Peter Florian Dembowski. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Lacy, Norris J. 1990. “Narrative Method and the Question of Guilt in La Chastelaine De Vergi.Romance Notes. 31 (2): 119-124.

Leushuis, Reinier. 2007. “Dialogue, Space, and Selfhood in La Chastelaine de Vergi and Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptaméron 70.” Romanic Review. 98 (4): 323-341.

Marnette, Sophie. 2021. “Quoting Lyrics and Subjectivities in the Chastelaine de Vergy.” Pp. 233-249 in Gilbert, Jane and Griffin, Miranda, eds. Futures of Medieval French: Essays in Honour of Sarah Kay. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

Mason, Eugene, trans. 1911. French Mediaeval Romances from the Lays of Marie de France. London: J.M. Dent & Sons.

Raynaud, Gaston, and Lucien Foulet, ed. and trans. (French). 1921. La Chastelaine de Vergi: poème du XIIIe siècle. Third Edition. Paris: H. Champion. This edition is based on Paris, BnF, fr. 837. Here’s an alternate presentation of this text via Base de Français Médiéval.

Shirt, David J. 1980. “La Chastelaine de Vergi – ­ the technique of stylistic cohesion.” Reading Medieval Studies. 6: 81­99.

Sweet, Rachel. 2017. “No Text is an Island: The Chastelaine de Vergi’s Exemplarity in Context.” Pp. 347-366 in in Pratt, Karen, Bart Besamusca, Matthias Meyer, and Ad Putter, eds. The Dynamics of the Medieval Manuscript: Text Collections from a European Perspective. Göttingen: V&R Unipress.

Terry, Patricia, trans. 1995. The Honeysuckle and the Hazel Tree: medieval stories of men and women. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Virtue, Nancy. 1997. “Le Sainct Esperit… parlast par sa bouche: Marguerite de Navarre’s Evangelical Revision of the Chastelaine de Vergi.” The Sixteenth Century Journal. 28 (3): 811-824.

Whitehead, Frederick, ed. 1944. La Chastelaine de Vergi. Manchester University Press: Manchester.

living classics: Amphitryon cuckolded & Geta duped via book learning

Mighty abstractions, when connected to ordinary life, tend to lead to folly. In the twelfth century, the Latin comedy Geta appropriated Plautus’s classical Roman comedy Amphitryon to challenge the abstract book learning preoccupying European universities. Within today’s sphere of decaying European cultural heritage, Geta is equally relevant to much less sophisticated abstractions now captivating universities and other organs of authoritative discourse.

To raise his social status, the wealthy Greek householder Amphitryon goes to study at the most prestigious center of scholarly learning. That of course is Athens.[1] Amphitryon has with him his head slave Geta, who also participates in learning. They study piles of books. They learn new words and new ways of thinking. They learn to argue about all the burning concerns in twelfth-century European universities.

Meanwhile Jupiter, the nominal head god in charge of the cosmos, is looking down from his seat on high. He laments that Amphitryon’s wife Alcmene is beautiful and pleasing. His own wife is the domineering goddess Juno. She acts like a hateful fury. Jupiter declares his desire for Alcmene to the messenger god Mercury, called Archas:

I’m burning for Alcmene, yet I don’t burn her, but I’m burning.
Her spouse Amphitryon is temporarily absent. I myself will enjoy his place.
Let Jupiter study Alcmene in the marital bed. Let her husband in Athens
philosophize. Let Jupiter love, let the husband read.
Let Amphitryon dispute and let Jupiter deceive. The arts
let him cultivate. Jupiter himself will plow his Alcmene.
But already he prepares to return. Therefore I pray, assume Geta’s form.
I, your father god himself, will assume Amphitryon’s form.

{ Uror in Almenam, nec eam tamen uro, sed uror.
Tempore sponsus abest, utar et ipse loco.
Jupiter Almenae studeat thalamo, vir Athenis
philosophetur; amet Jupiter, ille legat.
Disputet Amphitryon et fallat Jupiter; artes
hic colat, Almenam Jupiter ipse suam.
Jam parat et reditus. Ergo, precor, indue Getam:
induet ipse tuus Amphitriona pater. }[2]

In medieval Europe, wives rejoiced when their husbands returned from long absences. Pious Christian wives wouldn’t rejoice to the degree that they would at the return of the Lord Jesus Christ, but they would rejoice highly:

Acting through various rumors, news announces to Alcmene
the return of her husband, and the news delights her.
She orders that the household rejoice at the return of its lord.
The halls are newly surfaced ivory-white and purple is spread on beds.
The marital bedroom smiles and shines, decorated with gold.
She brings out the wealth of the absent Amphitryon.
Her joy attests, with splendor and magnificence in her clothing
proclaiming, that her husband has returned home.
Her hair artfully flows down, her right hand is also ringed with gold,
and she paints her face such that art vivifies her beauty.
So she conquers other women, so she conquers even herself.
Made new and more attractive, she thus pleases Jove more.

{ Nunciat Almenae variis rumoribus acta
Fama viri reditum, famaque juvit eam.
Ad reditum domini domus exultare jubetur;
Atria vestit ebur, purpura lata thoros.
Arridet talamus positoque refulgerat auro,
Absenti assurgunt Amphitrionis opes.
Gaudia testatur dominae nitor atque superba
Significat domui veste redire virum.
Arte jacent crines, auro quoque dextra superbit,
Pingit et haec vultus vivit ut arte decor.
Sic alias vincit, sic a se vincitur ipsa.
Fit nova plusque decens, plus placet ergo Jovi. }[3]

Jupiter, also known younger as Jove, appreciated Alcmene’s efforts. He proclaimed:

Just look at
how Alcmene is, how good and how beautiful,
how much better than my Juno! Alcmene vanquishes my constellations,
outshines the stars, and makes daylight seem like shadows.
So she pleases me, so let her come out and meet me,
and now let her undergo Jupiter as her Amphitryon.

{… Ecce
quanta sit Almena, quam bona quamque decens,
quam melior Junone mea! Mea sidera vincit,
praeradiat stellis obtenebratque diem.
Sic placet illa michi, sic exeat obvia nobis,
iamque suo subeat Amphitrione Jovem. }

Jupiter and Archas, assuming the forms of Amphitryon and Geta, respectively, immediately descend from the heavens to Alcmene’s home. They arrive before Amphitryon and Geta return.

Alcmene and Amphitryon from Plautus's Amphitryon

Perceiving Jupiter to be Amphitryon, Alcmene delights in her husband’s return home. They greet each other and warmly embrace:

They multiply kisses, they give and repeat giving.
Alcmene is temperate, and she soothingly restrains kisses,
and virginal modesty tames her words.
The god lusts. With his mouth pressing her mouth, he eagerly licks.
His kisses taste of an adulterer, and his words of Jove.
Hanging from Jove’s neck, she presses with blessed
heaviness the god’s shoulders. Thus he loved to be weighed down.
“I truly would not be happier if I embraced Jove himself,”
she said, and thus she compares Jove to Jove.
They pour together kisses. Now Jove burns hotter.

{ Oscula multiplicant, dant iterantque data.
Temperat Almena, castigat et oscula blande,
et sua virgineo verba pudore domat.
Luxuriat deus, ore premens os lambit hiulco,
et moechum sapiunt oscula, verba Jovem.
Dependet collo Jovis illa premitque beato
Pondere colla dei: sic amat ille premi.
“Non equidem mage laeta Jovem complecterer ipsum,”
Dixerat, atque Jovem comparat illa Jovi.
Oscula confundunt; jam Jupiter acrius ardet. }

Jove immediately orders Archas-Geta to shut the door and bolt it.[4] Jove orders that if any sailors or others arrive, they be driven away. Then he leads Alcmene to an intimate chamber and unites with her in bed. To the unknowing, this would be just a normal medieval spousal homecoming.

Meanwhile, the ship carrying the real Geta and Amphitryon has docked. Alcmene has sent her kitchen slave Birria out to meet them and carry baggage. Birria walks slowly and takes detours. He hopes to avoid carrying baggage. Glimpsing Geta coming and carrying a massive load of books, Birria hides. Geta notices that Birria is hiding in a cavern. Stopping to rest nearby, Geta complains to himself of the books’ weight. He complains of the terrible conditions he suffered as a student in Athens. But he proclaims to himself:

But as a prize for my punishment, I bring back amazing sophisms.
Now I know how to prove that a human is an ass.
When my plates, hearth, and greasy kitchen are returned to me,
I will prove that these persons are asses, and those, cows.
I am a logician! I will make all whatever animals I wish.
Birria, since he’s excessively slow, will be an ass.

{ Sed pretium poenae miranda sophismata porto,
Jamque probare scio quod sit asellus homo.
Dum michi me reddent patinae, focus, uncta popina,
Hos asinos, illos esse probabo boves,
Sum logicus, faciam quaevis animalia cunctos;
Birria, nam nimis est lentus, asellus erit. }[5]

Overhearing this nonsense, the no-nonsense Birria affirms to himself the prize of his cherished manliness:

What? Birria will become an ass?
Will he take away what nature has given to me?
To Geta, whatever problems he may roll out, Birria thus
will respond: “Birria will always be a human!”

{ Quid? Birria fiet asellus?
Quod natura dedit auferet ille michi?
Birria sic Getae, quaecunque problemata volvat,
respondebit: erit semper Birria homo. }

Geta continues to philosophize grandly and incoherently:

I have also learned this: that nothing can ever perish,
that once anything is, it never can be nothing.
A thing to which is given to be, never is permitted not to be,
but it changes appearance and renews its state.
Thus it cannot not be.

Death destroys all. It’s reported that learned Plato has died,
and also that Socrates himself lies in the grave.
My reputation will live, but it too will perish with death.
Death destroys all. With death all ceases.

{ Hoc etiam didici quod res nequid ulla perire;
quod semel est aliquid, hoc nichil esse nequid.
Cui semel esse datur nunquam non esse licebit,
sed faciem mutat et novat esse suum.
Sic nequeo non esse. …

Omnia mors tollit; doctum cecidisse Platonem
atque ipsum Socratem occubuisse fertur.
Fama mei vivet, sed et hoc quoque morte peribit.
Omnia mors tollit; omnia morte cadunt. }

Geta throws stones at Birria hiding in the cavern. Birria calls out that it’s he, Geta’s friend. Geta at first refuses to believe. They argue. Only when Birria shows his face does Geta finally acknowledge Birria’s identity.

After sending Birria to meet Amphitryon at the ship, Geta continues home. At home, he encounters a locked door and a silent house. He yells for the door to be opened. Archas-Geta comes to the door and tells Geta to go away. Geta is stunned to encounter his double. He questions what’s going on. Archas-Geta answers that Alcmene and Amphitryon are enjoying themselves in bed, and that Birria has also returned after Archas-Geta threw stones at him hiding in a cavern. The god Archas-Geta knows all that Geta knows. Geta is stupefied:

His voice and deeds prove that he’s the real Geta.
Have I gone astray? Has Birria, whom I just sent on,
returned faster than I or by a shorter way?
It is I who am talking to myself, but I don’t know
by reason how two could have been made from what was one.
All that is, is one, but I who am speaking am not one.
Therefore Geta is nothing, but nothing cannot be.
I was one when my voice against the closed door first
thundered, but he answered me with myself.

{ Hunc verum Getam factaque voxque probant.
Numquid aberravi? Numquid modo Birria missus
me citius rediit vel breviore via?
Est ego qui mecum loquitur; sed nescio fiat
qua ratione duo qui primus unus erat.
Omne quod est unum est, sed non sum qui loquor unus.
Ergo nichil Geta est, nec nichil esse potest.
Unus eram clausa cum prima limina voce
intonui, sed me reddidit ille michi. }

Learning has confused Geta about who’s who. Geta and Archas-Geta argue, with each evoking Roman gods in cursing the other. Their dispute doesn’t concern the now-contentious issue of cultural appropriation, but the even more vital issue of personal identity and personal appropriation. Geta thus asks Archas-Geta to describe himself so that Geta can know whether someone other than himself is he. Archas-Geta responds:

First of all, for you to be wise, you must not believe that you are Geta.
I don’t think you really believe that, but believe me just now:
my Greece knows no other Geta than me.
You seek to deceive me with a name that’s certainly mine.
I alone am Geta.

{ Principio ut sapias Getam te credere noli,
Nec puto quod credas; sed modo crede michi.
Non alium Getam nisi me mea Graecia novit;
fallere me quaeris nomine nempe meo.
Solus ego Geta. }

But does Archas-Geta have lived experience to support his identity claim? With his university learning, Geta asks that question. Archas-Geta answers:

“Listen to my tricks and wiles,” Archas-Geta says,
“so that you will swear that I am Geta and you are nothing.
Even though Geta is ugly, women rejoice to love me.
Would you wish to know the motive? She herself is ugly.
Yet there’s an even better cause: my dick is never sated.
It always has the madness of desire and length without measure.
So I should confess the truth: they love not Geta but his groin.
Women whom my face makes enemies, my groin returns to me as lovers.
Thus one part of me makes it such that I am loved as a whole.
I deceive the old man, I lessen goods committed to me, I secretly steal.
With stolen resources I nourish my sex-worker Thais.

Take up now the truth of how I recently behaved in Athens
so that you will prove me to be Geta by my deeds.
Schools preoccupy Amphitryon. Geta’s sex-worker Thais preoccupies Geta.
When I change countries, I seek a new sex-worker Thais.
A good supply of these Thaises seek Geta.
With gifts I conquer. Love conquers with gift.”

{ “Furta dolosque meos audi,” Caducifer inquit,
“ut jures Getam me fore, teque nichil.
Est quamvis turpis Geta, qua gaudet amari,
Scire velis causam? turpis et illa quidem.
Causa subest melior: nunquam satiati priapi
semper inest rabies, et modus absque modo.
Ut verum fatear non Geta sed inguen amatur;
si qua meos vultus non amat, inguen amat;
quas hostes vultus, inguen michi reddit amicas.
Sic ut totus amer pars facit una mei.
Fallo senem, minuo commissa, recondita furor,
furtivisque opibus Thaida pasco meam.

Accipe nunc verum quod gessi nuper Athenis
ut fore me Getam per mea facta probes.
Amphitriona scholae, sua Getam Thais habebat.
Dum muto patriam Thaida quaero novam;
Thaidas exquiro quarum bona copia Getam;
Vinco muneribus: munere vincit amor.” }[6]

Archas-Geta accurately represented Geta, who immediately recognized his own ugly person and barren activities. Men deserve to be loved for their whole, fully human persons, not just their groins and their material gifts. Yet Geta didn’t understand himself in that way.

Geta in Terence's Phormio

Despondent with his nothingness, Geta heads back to Amphitryon at the ship. He complains to himself:

“Woe to me who was, who now is nothing!
Geta, who can you be? You are a human being. No, by the hero Hercules, since
if Geta is a human being, who can not Geta be?
I am Plato? Perhaps my studies have made me Plato.
If I’m not Geta they shouldn’t call me Geta.
I used to be called Geta. What will my name be?
I will have no name because I am nothing. Alas, I am nothing!
Yet still I am speaking and seeing and I touch myself with my hand.”
Touching himself with his hand, he thus adds: “By the hero Hercules, I am touched!
That which has the power to be touched assuredly cannot be nothing.
Whatever has been something, does not cease to be.
That which once was given to be, always is.
Thus I am, thus I am not. May the logic perish
by which I have perished so completely! Now I know: knowing is harmful.
When Geta learned logic, then he ceased to be.
What makes others cows has made me nothing.
For me these sophistries have been heavily experienced.
Merely changing others, they have deprived me of my very self.
If it is thus, woe to all logic.”

{“Vae michi! qui fueram, quomodo fio nichil!
Geta, quid esse potes? Es homo. Non, Hercule, namque
si quis homo Geta est, quis nisi Geta foret?
Sum Plato? Me forsan artes fecere Platonem.
Geta quidem non sum Getaque dicor ego.
Si non sum Geta non debeo Geta vocari.
Geta vocabar ego; quod michi nomen erit?
Nomen erit nullum quia sum nichil. Heu michi sum nil!
Jam loquor et videor, tangor et ipse manu.”
Seque manu tangens sic addidit: “Hercule, tangor!
Quodque valet tangi non erit, hercle, nichil.
Est aliquid quodcumque fuit, nec desinit esse.
Est etiam semper cui datur esse semel.
Sic sum, sic nil sum. Pereat dialectica per quam
sic perii penitus. Nunc scio: scire nocet.
Cum didicit Geta logicam, tunc desiit esse,
quaeque boves alios me facit esse nichil.
Sic in me gravius experta sophismata! Mutans
tantum alios michimet abstulit esse meum.
Vae logicis, si sic est, omnibus! …” }[7]

Condemning logic follows from reasoning to folly. A slave-student deserves to be taught better than that.

Amphitryon sees the woeful Geta approaching. Geta reports that Amphitryon, Geta, and Birria have already arrived home, and that he is nothing. Birria, a common-sense household thinker, perceives what has happened:

Birria laughs. “Greece received them sane,”
he says, “but sent them back insane.
Logic makes everyone to be insane fools.
Let this intellectual skill never be known to you, Birria.
It’s good that you lack this intellectual skill that by some fantasy
makes humans into asses or nothing.
Let whoever wishes have logic. You, Birria, be always a human.
Let them be pleased with study, and you with a greasy kitchen.”

{ Birria subridens: “Accepit Graecia sanos
hos,” ait, “insanos illa remisit eos.
Insanire facit stultum dialectica quemvis:
ars ea sit nunquam, Birria, nota tibi.
Arte carere bonum est quae per fantasmata quaedam
aut homines asinos aut nichil esse facit.
Sit logicus quivis; tu, Birria, sis homo semper.
His studium placeat, uncta popina tibi.” }

Amphitryon is concerned about his wife. Calling Geta a fool, Amphitryon suspects that an adulterer is with Alcmene. He urges all to seize weapons and prepare to retake their home. Amphitryon will attempt to regain his wife’s love by force. But soldiering for love is folly. Geta will attempt to conquer his nothingness with a sword. Fighting cannot overcome nothing. In reality, men are never nothing. Men are entitled to love and men’s lives always matter, whether in bed with their wives or in the kitchen.

Birria in Terence's Andria

Brandishing weapons and invoking the aid of the god Jupiter, Amphitryon, Geta, and Birria arrive at home. Jupiter and Archas have already left. Alcmene rushes out to meet Amphitryon. She’s bewildered by their weapons. She kisses him and seeks to comfort him. He forgets his suspicion and enjoys embracing her. But Geta boldly calls out threats to no one. Alcmene laughs and explains that Geta himself barred the door when she was in bed with Amphitryon. Knowing that she wasn’t in bed with him, Amphitryon is enraged at being cuckolded. Alcmene explains that she must have been dreaming. Affirming a dream is sometimes necessary to re-establish happiness:

“Dreams they surely are!” lowly Birria suggests. “Geta
is insane. He’s made stupid by his intellectual skill.
Put far away all these insane disputations. I’m heading to the kitchen.
Let Amphitryon rejoice, and let Geta be a human.”
Amphitryon is happy with his wife, Birria with his gleaming kitchen,
and Geta is happy to be human himself. Each of them is contented.

{ “Sompnia sunt, hercle!” subjecit Birria; “Geta
insanit factus stultus arte sua.
Jurgia sint insana procul. Succedo coquinae,
gaudeat Amphitryon, Getaque fiat homo.”
Laetatur sponsa Amphitrion, nidore coquine
Birria, Geta hominem se fore. Quaeque placent. }

Alcmene subsequently gives birth to two boys, the fully mortal Iphicles, son of Amphitryon, and the half-god Heracles, son of Jupiter.[8] Like Joseph, the father of Jesus, Amphitryon loved his extra-marital son Heracles. Moreover, despite their different fathers, Iphicles and Heracles became loyal friends. That’s the sort of love that would have pleased Catullus.

For today’s students, study of medieval Latin literature offers the best hope for avoiding an idiocy of book learning. Unfortunately, university-level study of medieval Latin literature and the humanities more generally often are not welcoming, supportive, and affirming for men students. Everyone in today’s universities should be concerned, because such a situation is bad for women. All students should seek to encounter a culture that embraces the labyrinth of life and that doesn’t impose doctrinaire ideological conformity. Minds, hearts, and souls are terrible gifts to waste.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Bate states that Athens “here stands for Paris, the centre of philosophical studies.” Bate (1976) p. 16, note to v. 31. Early in the twelfth-century Europe, Paris came to be known as the Athens of the North. Peter Abelard was a leading twelfth-century master-teacher in Paris. Id. p. 5, Ziolkowski (1993) pp. 2-3. Study of the Greeks in twelfth-century Paris would have meant Platonism and Aristotelianism, particularly as taught in the cathedral school of Chartres.

Geta, in fact, explicitly sets Athens in Greece. Amphitryon arriving home by ship suggests that he lives in a place where long-distance travel by land from Athens isn’t feasible. Geta doesn’t specifically indicate the location of Amphitryon’s home. Amphitryon’s wife is named Alcmena, the Doric Greek form of the Attic Greek Alcmene. In Plautus’s Amphitryon, Amphitryon lives in Thebes. Thebes in the classical period was associated with the Aeolian dialect.

[2] Vitalis of Blois {Vitalis Blesensis}, Geta, vv. 29-36, Latin text of Bate (1976), with a few variant readings and normalized with classical Latin spellings and distinguishing u/v and i/j based on Wright (1844); my English translation, benefiting from those of Crawford (1977) and Elliott (1984). For another freely available Latin text, Montaiglon (1848). The best current critical edition is Bertini (1980). Unfortunately I haven’t been able to consult that work. Bertini’s Latin text formed the basis for Elliott’s English translation. Subsequent Latin quotes from Geta are similarly sourced. They’re all substantively consistent with Elliott’s translation and hence Bertini’s Latin text.

As a god associated with communication and commerce, Mercury acted as a go-between in facilitating other of Jupiter’s extra-marital affairs. For example, Mercury, known as Hermes in ancient Greek myth, distracted and killed Argus to facilitate Zeus’s affair with the mortal woman Io.

Bate’s Latin text of Geta is based closely on MS Berne, Burgerbibliothek 702. That manuscript is closely associated with the Loire Valley in central France. Geta apparently was copied into MS Berne 702 about 1150. Bate (1973) p. 6. The only significant deviation from Bate’s Latin text in the Latin quotes here are two additional verses for one particular quote, which are noted for that quote.

Vitalis of Blois apparently was a learned cleric who lived in the middle of the twelfth century in the Loire Valley. He wrote Geta in the first half of the twelfth century, probably about 1125-30. Elliott (1984), citing Bertini (1980). Vitalis of Blois also wrote another Latin comedy, Aulularia (Latin text). In his prologue to Aulularia , he explicitly describes adapting both Geta and Aulularia from Plautus’s Amphitryon and Plautus’s Aulularia, respectively. The Roman comic playwright Plautus wrote in Latin in the second century BGC. However, Vitalis adapted Aulularia from a pseudo-Plautine fourth-century text, Querolus sive Aulularia. Some scholars believe that Vitalis adapted Geta from a fourth-century text that Caelius Sedulius in his Easter Song {Carmen paschale} referred to as “ridiculous Geta {ridiculove Geta}.” Bate (1976) pp. 3-4. No other evidence of that Geta text has survived.

In adapting Plautus’s Amphitryon, Vitalis of Blois significantly changed the characters. Plautus’s Amphitryon had been away at war, thus anticipating Gallus’s theme of love and war. Vitalis of Blois made Amphitryon, along with Geta, into students seeking elite Greek knowledge. Amphitryon’s slave Sosia in Plautus is given more prominence as Geta in Vitalis of Blois’s version. Vitalis’s transformation of Bromia into Birria also gives the latter more prominence. Just as in Aulularia, satire of scholastic learning becomes a central focus. At a nominal level, rather than using Plautus’s name for the slaves, Vitalis turned to the second-century BGC Roman comic playwright Terence. The name Geta is used for a slave in Terence’s Phormio and Adelphoe, and Byrria for a slave in Terence’s Andria.

Geta is one of the earliest and most popular of the surviving medieval Latin comedies. Other Latin comedies refer to it. Quotes from Geta were commonly included in medieval compilations of excerpts, known as “gatherings of flowers {florilegia}.” Bate (1976) p. 2-3. Moreover:

The names of Geta and his fellow servant, Birria, became proverbial and the poem became a school-text, the object of glosses and commentaries.

Ziolkowski (1993) pp. 12-3. Geta has survived in sixty-seven complete manuscripts, and seven fragmentary manuscripts. An additional sixteen manuscripts are known to have contained Geta. Bertini (1980) p. 142, n. 6, via Ziolkowski (1993) p. 12. In the fifteenth century, an Italian adaptation, Geta e Birria, was made. Kuhn (2017). About 1421, Eustache Deschamps translated Geta into French as Le traité de Geta et d’Amphitryon. Deschamps, who was dead by 1405, wrote his translation and had it performed as a play perhaps about 1393. Deschamps’s translation has been erroneously dated about 1421. Kendrick (2014) pp. 393-6.

Subsequent quotes above from Geta are similarly sourced. By verse numbers in Bate (1973), they are: vv. 39-50 (Acting through various rumors…), 51-6 (Just look at …), 90-9 (hey multiply kisses…), 161-6 (But as a prize for my punishment…), 167-70 (What? Birria will become an ass?…), 171-5, 177-80 (I have also learned this…), 270-8 (His voice and deeds prove…), 321-5 (First of all, for you to be wise…), 350bc-60, 365-70 (Listen to my tricks and wiles…), 388-407 (Woe to me who was…), 443-50 (Birria laughs…), 517-22 (Dreams they surely are!…).

[3] The reference to wearing a gold wedding ring ironically suggests that she didn’t wear it while Amphitryon was away. Using cosmetics similarly would suggests falseness to the medieval reader familiar with classical critiques of women’s use of cosmetics. See, e.g. Juvenal, Satires 6.457-73 and Tertullian, On Female Fashion {De cultu feminarum} 2.5-7.

After Alcmene sent Birria to meet the home-bound Amphitryon, Birria on his way expresses suspicion about her fidelity to her husband:

A woman wants her slaves to sweat, and Alcmene’s learned to command.
Hardship grips her servants while she renews her skin with cosmetics.
So that an adulterer may enter, she pretends that her husband has returned.
So that you don’t see the adulterers, Birria, you depart, shoved out.

{ Femina vult sudare suos didicitque jubere;
poena tenet famulos, innovat illa cutem.
Moechus ut introeat mentitur adesse maritum;
Ne videas moechos, Birria, pulsus abis. }

Geta, vv. 111-4. In v. 73, Birria is called a servus {servant / slave}. Many men throughout history have, like Birria, experienced oppressive subordination to highly privileged women.

[4] I use the name Archas-Geta to refer to Archas (Mercury) in the form of Geta. Archas as a name for Mercury was unknown in Plautus’s Latin of the second century BGC. Use of the name Archas for Mercury became widespread in Latin after the fifth century GC. Crawford (1977) p. 181, n. 13. The Latin prefix archi-, from the ancient Greek ἀρχι-, means chief or highest. Archas thus might function as a pun for the god Mercury becoming a “higher” form of Geta.

[5] The phrase “sed pretium poenae” is literally written “sed precium pene.” It thus has the punning translation, “But as a prize with my penis.” A similar pun exists in Geta, v. 402, which seems to refer to Peter Abelard’s castration.

Twelfth-century scholars pondered at length logical fallacies. The great twelfth-century Parisian scholar Peter Abelard observed sometime before 1125:

If Socrates is an animal and an ass would be that animal, from very necessity, one must be convinced “Socrates is an ass.”

{ si Socrates est animal et illud animal sit asinus, ex necessitate, et ‘Socrates est asinus’ conuincitur. }

Peter Abelard, Dialectica 317, Latin text from Corpus Corporum, my English translation. Two more twelfth-century sophisms: “Every ass is an animal, and whoever says that you are an animal says the truth. Therefore, whoever says that you are an ass says the truth {tu es vel eris asinus, sed tu non es asinus, ergo eris asinus.” “You are or you will be an ass, but you are not an ass. Therefore, you will be an ass {tu es vel eris asinus, sed tu non es asinus, ergo eris asinus}.” From Rijk (1962) pp. 368, 579, as cited by Ziolkowski (1993) pp. 7-8, with my insubstantial modifications. At Oxford early in the fourteenth century, William of Heytesbury compiled and analyzed such sophisms in his Sophisms of the ass {Sophismata asinina}. On that work, Pironet (1993).

Many other sophisms have also been long known. An early-twelfth-century letter from Wibald of Stavelot to Manegold of Paderborn stated:

Subtleties and sophistic conclusions (which are called Gualidian, after a certain Guaio) you should neither use proudly nor entirely contemn. Examples of such are: “What you have not lost, you have. You have not lost horns. Therefore you have horns.” Another: “Mus {mouse} is a syllable. A mouse nibbles cheese. Therefore a syllable nibbles cheese.”

{ Argutias et sophisticas conclusiunculas, quas Gualidicas a Gualone quodam vocant, nec exercebis superbe nec contemnes penitus. Haec huiusmodi sunt: Quod non perdidisti, habes; cornua autem non perdidisti, comua ergo habes; item: Mus sillaba est; mus autem caseum rodit; sillaba ergo caseum rodit. }

From Ziolkowski (1993) p. 10 (modified insubstantially). These sophisms go back to classical Greek and Roman literature. Id. p. 10, n. 34. Boethius’s Latin translation of Aristotle’s On Sophistical Refutations {Σοφιστικοὶ Ἔλεγχοι / De Sophisticis Elenchis}, as well as the translation by James of Venice, became available in western Europe between 1120 and 1150. Dod (1982) pp. 46, 75. Concerning Aristotle’s On Sophistical Refutations, Krabbe (2012).

[6] The first two verse in this quote (Wright’s vv. 357-8) don’t exist in the Geta of Ms. Berne 702 in the edition of Bate (1973), but do exist in the edition of Bertini (1980) according to the translation of Elliott (1984).

Thais was a common classical Greek name for a courtesan (high-class woman sex-worker). Archas-Geta described the scope for Geta’s genital gifts:

I have hairy thighs,
so that licentious itching holds their powers,
and when with repeated shaking my cock swells with passion,
it certainly extends down to my knees.

{ … hispida crura
sunt michi quae scabies ut sua regna tenet,
sed sic dum crebro singultu colligit iram
ad certum muto tenditur usque genu. }

Geta, vv. 111-4. Reflecting historical disparagement of men’s penis, actors in classical comedies wore huge, grotesque penises {φαλλοί / phalloi}. Gallus in Virgil, Eclogues 10.69, influentially declared, “Love conquers all {omnia vincit Amor}.”

Like many men, Eustache Deschamps understood his penis to be central to his life. One of his ballads includes the wistful refrain, “If only I had my (cock / life) of my Orleans student days {Se j’eusse mon vit d’Orliens}.” Yet he, like Geta, sadly thought that women loved him only for his penis. Kendrick (2014) p. 395.

[7] Questions concerning universals (species) and particulars (which have accidentals) were a focus of study in early twelfth-century Parisian schools. Boethius’s Latin translation of Porphyry’s Isagoge largely shaped these questions. Geta parodies scholarly debates about universals and particulars. Bertini (1979); Elliott (1984) pp. xxxvi-ii; Ziolkowski (1993) pp. 18-20, 24-5. The concluding verse of the twelfth-century About Clerics and a Rustic {De clericis et rustico} also refers to this philosophical debate. Very few scholars today are interested in such debate.

“Thus I am, thus I am not {sic sum, sic nil sum}” (v. 409) may be a parody of Peter Abelard’s treatise Yes and No {Sic et Non}. That parody is sharpened with a pun in the next verse: “Thus my penis has perished {sic perii penitus}.” Elliott (1984) p. xxvii. Abelard was castrated for having a sexual affair with Heloise of the Paraclete. He suffered additional abuse for being a victim of castration.

The oath “by Hercules {Hercule}” has the contracted form “assuredly {hercle}.” Repeated use of this oath is humorous in a play concerning the myth of Hercules’s birth. Kendrick (2014) p. 392.

[8] Alcmene giving birth to Iphicles and Heracles isn’t included in Geta. That outcome is known from ancient Greek myth and Plautus’s Amphitryon.

[images] (1) Amphitryon and Alcmene in Plautus’s Amphitryon. Illuminated initial painted in fifteenth-century Italy. Excerpt from folio 1r of Ms. Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 36.41. Source image via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Geta in Terence’s Phormio, act 3, scene 2. Illumination made c. 1100 in Tours, France. Excerpt from folio 71v of Ms. Tours, Bibliothèque municipale, 0924. Via Portail Biblissima. (3) Birria in Terence’s Andria / The Girl from Andros, act 2, scene 1. Illumination made c. 1100 in Tours, France. Excerpt from folio 4 of Ms. Tours, Bibliothèque municipale, 0924. Via Portail Biblissima.


Bate, Keith. 1976. Three Latin Comedies. Toronto: Published for the Centre for Medieval Studies by the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies. (contains Latin texts of Geta, Babio, and Pamphilus)

Bertini, Ferruccio. 1979. “Il Geta di Vitale di Blois e la scuola di Abelardo.” Sandalion. 2: 257-265.

Bertini, Ferruccio, ed. 1980. “Vitale di Blois, Geta.” Pp. 139-242 in Bertini, Ferruccio, ed. Commedie latine del XII e XIII secolo. Part III. Genova: Istituto di filologia classica e medievale.

Crawford, James Martin. 1977. The Secular Latin Comedies of Twelfth Century France. Ph. D. Thesis. Indiana University, USA.

Dod, Bernard G. 1982. “Aristoteles latinus.” Ch. 2 (pp. 45-79) in Kretzmann, Norman, Anthony Kenny, Jan Pinborg, eds. The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy: From the rediscovery of Aristotle to the disintegration of scholasticism, 1100-1600. Cambridge: Cambridge Univerity Press.

Elliott, Alison Goddard, trans. 1984. Seven Medieval Latin Comedies. New York: Garland.

Kendrick, Laura. 2014. “Medieval Vernacular Versions of Ancient Comedy: Geoffrey Chaucer, Eustache Deschamps, Vitalis of Blois and Plautus’ Amphitryon.” Pp. 377-96 in Olson, S. Douglas, ed. 2014. Ancient Comedy and Reception: essays in honor of Jeffrey Henderson. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Krabbe, Erik C. W. 2012. “Aristotle’s On Sophistical Refutations.” Topoi. 31: 243–248.

Kuhn, Barbara. 2017. “‘nulla son io; […] due siam fatti d’uno’ (Geta e Birria) – Subtracting by Duplicating, or The Transformations of Amphitryon in the Early Modern Period.” Pp. 99-125 in Helmut Pfeiffer, Irene Fantappiè, Tobias Roth, eds. Renaissance Rewritings. Transformationen der Antike 50. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter.

Montaiglon, Anatole de, ed. 1847-48., “Le livre de Geta et de Birria, ou l’Amphitryonéide, poëme latin du XIIIe siècle composé par un auteur inconnu nommé Vitalis, et publié d’après cinq manuscrits de la Bibliothèque nationale.” Pp. 474-505 in Bibliothèque de l’École des Chartes. 2nd series, 4. Paris: J. B. Dumoulin.

Pironet, Fabienne. 1993. “The Sophismata Asinina of William Heytesbury.” Pp. 128-143 in Stephen Read, ed. Sophisms in Medieval Logic and Grammar: Acts of the Ninth European Symposium for Medieval Logic and Semantics, held at St. Andrews, June 1990. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Rijk, Lambertus Marie de. 1962. Logica modernorum. Vol. 1, On the twelfth century theories of fallacy. Assen: Van Gorcum.

Wright, Thomas, ed. 1844. Early mysteries, and other Latin poems of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. London: Nichols and Sons. (alternate presentation of Wright’s Geta)

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1993. “The Humour of Logic and the Logic of Humour in the Twelfth-Century Renaissance.” The Journal of Medieval Latin. 03: 1-26.

Pyramus & Thisbe from Ovid’s gender subtlety to polarized Chaucer

The ancient Greek tale Hero and Leander tells of two young lovers who died for love of each other. While gender symmetry characterizes ancient Greek romance, Hero and Leander is starkly gender-asymmetric.[1] Ovid’s myth of Pyramus and Thisbe, like Hero and Leander, narrates two young lovers dying for love of each other. But Ovid’s myth rejected romantic gender symmetry. Pyramus bluntly blamed himself for Thisbe’s death. Thisbe, in contrast, evoked sympathy for her plight. Gender differences loom even larger in medieval retellings. Thisbe became the dominant figure in the story, while Pyramus’s masculine sexuality was bestialized. In his book The Legend of Good Women, Chaucer went as far as to include explicit anti-meninist sentiment to serve gynocentric interests.

ancient Greek myth of Pyramus and Thisbe before Ovid

Ovid initially described Pyramus and Thisbe as gender-equal rather than gender-symmetric. Showing her literary learning, Arsippe told the story. Her story began:

Pyramus and Thisbe — one the most beautiful of young men,
the other eminent among young women in the Orient —
lived in adjacent houses.

{ Pyramus et Thisbe, iuvenum pulcherrimus alter,
altera, quas Oriens habuit, praelata puellis,
contiguas tenuere domos }[2]

Pyramus and Thisbe were one to another {alter / altera}. But they didn’t necessarily look like one another. Each had beauty eminent within their own respective genders. Moreover, their love burned mutually:

With equally captivated thoughts, they both burned with love.
Each was lacking a go-between. They spoke with nods and signs.
The more they covered their love, the hotter the covered fire boiled.

{ ex aequo captis ardebant mentibus ambo.
conscius omnis abest; nutu signisque loquuntur,
quoque magis tegitur, tectus magis aestuat ignis. }

When their parents separated them by confining them to their respective homes, Thisbe and Pyramus together found a crack in a common wall across which they could communicate. Ovid emphasized the lovers’ unity in communication through the crack, not the crack’s physical structure.

Gender difference ultimately protruded. Pyramus and Thisbe jointly planned to meet at night outside their city under a mulberry tree near an ancient tomb. When Pyramus arrived at the meeting point, he found only a lioness’s tracks and Thisbe’s cloak smeared with blood. With internalized misandry, he condemned himself:

“Two lovers will perish in one night,” he said,
“and she was more worthy of a long life.
My life-breath is guilty. I have killed you, pitiable one,
I who ordered you to come at night to this place filled with danger,
and I didn’t come first. Claw to pieces my body
and consume my harmful flesh with your fierce bites,
O whatever lions live beneath this cliff!”

{ … ‘una duos’ inquit ‘nox perdet amantes,
e quibus illa fuit longa dignissima vita;
nostra nocens anima est. ego te, miseranda, peremi,
in loca plena metus qui iussi nocte venires
nec prior huc veni. nostrum divellite corpus
et scelerata fero consumite viscera morsu
o quicumque sub hac habitatis rupe leones!’ }[3]

She, who was for him, isn’t more worthy of a long life than he. He wasn’t more guilty than she, he didn’t order her to come to that place, and he certainly didn’t kill her. Men’s flesh is not harmful but life-giving. Those who understand know that men should be more pitied than women. Believing that a lioness had devoured Thisbe, Pyramus committed suicide with his own sword.[4] About four times more men than women die from suicide. Pyramus’s suicide is another manifestation of structural sexism.

Thisbe’s actions at the midnight meeting point also manifested structural sexism. When Thisbe saw the lioness coming, she fled. She accidentally dropped her cloak. The lioness befouled it with cattle’s blood from a recent kill. Like many women, Thisbe didn’t consider men’s welfare. In particular, although she knew Pyramus was coming to that spot, she didn’t do anything to warn him about the lioness. She simply hid herself. Men, in contrast, are taught to give up their lives to save women.

When Thisbe emerged from her hiding place, she didn’t understand what was writhing on the bloody ground. Apparently Pyramus’s fate in this dangerous situation wasn’t foremost in Thisbe’s mind:

But after some delay, she recognizes her lover.
Wailing loudly, she strikes at her shameful arms
and tears her hair. Embracing her lover’s body,
she fills his wounds with tears, mingling tears
with blood and kissing his face fixed in death’s coldness.

{ sed postquam remorata suos cognovit amores,
percutit indignos claro plangore lacertos
et laniata comas amplexaque corpus amatum
vulnera supplevit lacrimis fletumque cruori
miscuit et gelidis in vultibus oscula figens }

Just as readers have sympathized with Dido, they have also sympathized with Thisbe. Translators have thus translated “indigni lacerti” as “innocent arms” or elided “indigni.”[5] Thisbe’s arms embraced her dying lover, the lover that she failed to warn of mortal danger. “Shameful arms” is a better translation in this context.

Social status is prominent in Thisbe’s competitive evaluation of Pyramus’s death. She wanted to be regarded as being as brave and loving as he:

I too have a brave hand for this one deed,
and I too have love. This will give me strength for the fatal wound.
I will follow you in being extinguished, and I will be called the most unhappy
cause and companion of your ruin.

{ … est et mihi fortis in unum
hoc manus, est et amor: dabit hic in vulnera vires.
persequar extinctum letique miserrima dicar
causa comesque tui … }

Thisbe didn’t declare herself guilty of Pyramus’s death. She declared that others would say that she suffered for having caused his death. Others thus would focalize her welfare, just as she did. Women are much more likely to receive pity and compassion than are men. Meninism is the radical notion that men are human beings, equal to women in being worthy of compassion. Ovid’s account of Pyramus and Thisbe shows what a radical notion meninism is.

Phyllis riding Aristotle and Ovid's myth of Pyramus and Thisbe

The arc of literary history has bent away from gender equality for men. Consider the twelfth-century lai Pyramus and Thisbe {Piramus et Tisbé}. It explicitly refers to Ovid as a source for its story, but makes significant changes to Ovid’s version. Unlike Ovid’s myth, the lai initially emphasizes gender symmetry:

In the city of Babylon
there were two men of great renown,
of great valor and high rank,
wealthy men from noble families.
These wealthy men had two children
alike in beauty and appearance.
One was a boy, the other a girl.

Their being of the same age and disposition,
their great beauty, their noble birth,
their conversations, laughter and games,
and their delightful surroundings,
and being able to see one another frequently,
all predisposed them to love.

{ En Babilone la cité
Furent dui home renomé,
De grant valour, de grant hautesce,
De parenté et de richesce.
Li riche home orent deus enfans
D’une biauté et d’uns samblans;

Li pers aëz, l’igaulz corages,
Lor grans biautez, lor grans parages,
Les paroles, li ris, li jeu
Et li aaisement del leu
Et li entreveoir souvent
Lor donnerent espirement. }[6]

As a child, Pyramus had equal freedom for the male gaze:

During the day they were preoccupied with gazing at one another,
and they could never have their fill of this.

{ Le jour pensent d’eulz esgarder,
Qu’il ne s’en pueent saoler }

They both poured out monologues expressing their love-sickness for each other. He fainted for love of her, and she fainted for love of him.

Despite this initial representation of gender symmetry, Piramus et Tisbé subsequently heightened gender difference. Thisbe told herself that as a proper young noble woman, she should refuse to speak to Pyramus. She then repented to herself of that aloofness in a gender-distinctive way:

My love,
I never meant what I said.
Now, it seems to me, you can say
that there is no constancy in a woman’s love.
Fair sweet love, duly receive
this pledge:
Have it, my lord, for this outrage —
I grant you hereby my virginity.
I was too proud-hearted just now.
Too proud?
I should bow my head before you.

{ Amis,
Onques a certes ne le dis.
Or poez dire, ce m’est vis,
A droit
Qu’en amours de feme n’a foit.
Biaux douz amis, prenez a droit
Le gage:
Tenez, sire, pour cest outrage
Vous otroi ci mon pucelage.
Trop iere ore de fier corage.
De fier?
Vers vous doi ge bien supploier. }

The oppressive tradition of “courtly love” positioned men as feudal servants to women. In vowing to bow to Pyramus, Thisbe challenged that systemic gender inequality. At the same time, Thisbe figured her virginity as compensation to Pyramus. Yet Pyramus apparently was also a virgin. Thisbe and Pyramus having sex would be as much him giving her his virginity as she giving him her virginity.

Thisbe was the more active of the two lovers. In Piramus et Tisbé, she both found the crack and penetrated it:

The two lovers were the first ones
to notice this hole:
first Thisbe, then Pyramus.
Thisbe discovered the crack.
She took the pendant on her belt
and pushed its metal part through
so that her beloved could see it.

{ Li dui amant premierement
Aperçurent celui pertus:
Primes Tysbé, puis Piramus.
Tysbé trouva la creveüre,
Prist le pendant de sa cainture,
S’en fist outre le fer paroir,
Que ses amis le pot veoir. }

Thisbe also planned the tryst under a mulberry tree outside the city at midnight. She urged Pyramus to follow her plan. She declared that she would be there waiting for him. When Thisbe left the city, the night watchman saw her, but he didn’t stop her because he thought she was a goddess. Pyramus’s departure didn’t merit even a mention. Thisbe acted like a goddess of love in guiding forward the love affair between her and Pyramus.[7]

Piramus et Tisbé bestialized Pyramus’s masculine sexuality. The lai trans-gendered Ovid’s female lion into a male lion. It also changed from cattle to sheep the animals that the lion devoured. A scholar perceptively explained:

Ovid’s lioness ‘dripping with the blood of freshly-killed cattle’ (vv. 96- 97) becomes a male lion covered with the entrails and wool of a whole flock of sheep. The Biblical connotations of sheep and lambs immediately invite us to see this slaughter in terms of the destruction of innocence, while the associations of the male lion imply that the innocence lost here is sexual. The lion was often used as a symbol of virility, and could represent male sexuality in a negative sense as well: Hildegarde of Bingen, for example, defends her sex against accusations of lechery by accusing men of being the real offenders, whose desire is as fierce as a (male) lion. … Lucken suggests that the lion should be seen as the hero’s double, representing the ardor that he has only been able to express verbally up to this point. Not only does the animal arrive at the meeting-place instead of the hero, it also engages in a symbolic deflowering of Tisbé’s wimple, which functions as a metonym of the heroine’s sexual self. On finding the bloodstained wimple under the mulberry tree, Piramus accuses the lion of being sated with her flesh (vv. 723-24), a phrase which is clearly open to a sexual as well as a carnivorous interpretation.[8]

A lion devouring sheep is a bestializing figure for a virgin man having sex with a virgin woman. Despite Ausonius’s courageous and outrageous intervention, men have endured such figural macro-aggressions for centuries. Insane bestialization of men’s sexuality draws upon the classical love insanity of Gallus. “Love that conquers all {Amours, qui toutes choses vaint}” isn’t truly love.

Thisbe's sexual suicide with Pyramus's sword

At the command of a mythic queen Alceste, Chaucer wrote The Legend of Good Women to serve the interests of the English queen, other women, and Chaucer himself under their rule. Alceste commanded him:

You shall, while you live, year by year,
spend the most part of your time
in making a glorious legend
of good women, maidens, and wives,
that were true in loving all their lives.
And tell of false men that betrayed them,
men that all their lives did nothing but strive
to see how many women they could shame.

{ Thow shalt, while that thou lyvest, yer by yere,
The moste partye of thy tyme spende
In makyng of a glorious legende
Of goode wymmen, maydenes and wyves,
That weren trewe in lovyng al hire lyves;
And telle of false men that hem bytraien,
That al hir lyf ne don nat but assayen
How many women they may doon a shame }[9]

With similar anti-meninism, Chaucer mid-story implied that Pyramus betrayed and shamed Thisbe as men allegedly do generally:

This Thisbe had so great affection
and so great desire to see Pyramus
that when she saw her time might be,
at night she stole away fully secretly,
with her face covered with wimple wisely.
All her friends — for to keep her pledge —
she had forsaken. Alas! And it is pitiful
that a woman should ever be so faithful
to trust a man, unless she knew him better.

{ This Tisbe hath so greet affeccioun
And so greet lyking Piramus to see,
That, whan she seigh her tyme mighte be,
At night she stal awey ful prively
With her face y-wimpled subtiny;
For alle her frendes — for to save her trouthe —
She hath for-sake; allas! and that is routhe
That ever woman wolde be so trewe
To trusten man, but she the bet him knewe! }

Thisbe herself warned women of overconfidence while asserting that women are more true in love than men are:

And may the righteous God grant to every lover
that truly loves more prosperity
than Pyramus and Thisbe ever had!
And let no gentlewoman be so confident
to put herself in such an adventure,
but God forbid that a woman can be only
as true in loving as any man!

{ And rightwis god to every lover sende,
That loveth trewely, more prosperitee
Than ever hadde Piramus and Tisbe!
And lat no gentil woman her assure
To putten her in swiche an aventure.
But god forbede but a woman can
Been as trewe in lovynge as a man! }

In the end, Chaucer extolled Pyramus while disparaging men generally. The last verse in his legend of Thisbe asserts that a woman is as good of a lover as even the best of men:

And thus are Thisbe and Pyramus gone.
Of true men I find but few more
in all my books, other than this Pyramus,
and therefore I have spoken of him thus.
For it is excellent for us men to find
a man that can in love be true and kind.
Here you may see, whatsoever lover he may be,
a woman has daring and knowledge as well as he.

{ And thus ar Tisbe and Piramus ago.
Of trewe men I finde but fewe mo
In alle my bokes, save this Piramus,
And therfor have I spoken of him thus.
For hit is deyntee to us men to finde
A man that can in love be trewe and kinde.
Heer may ye seen, what lover so he be,
A woman dar and can as wel as he. }

True love isn’t interpersonal competition. Women competing to be better than men doesn’t promote love between women and men.[10]

The double suicide of Pyramus and Thisbe represents the ultimate result of anti-meninism. Ovid protested vigorously against disparagement of men’s sexuality. Medieval French literature appreciated men’s hardships. In contrast, the marginal, woman-serving courtier Chaucer celebrated a man receiving an ass-reaming with a hot plow-blade. The deathly legacy of the feminized Chaucer casts a malignant shadow over medieval literary studies, especially in English-speaking countries. If they are to overturn gynocentrism and struggle effectively for social justice, students must be taught much more of medieval literature than just Chaucer.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] On gender symmetry in ancient Greek romances, Konstan (1994). This important classical heritage has regrettably been marginalized. Ovid’s Heriodes includes an exchange of letters between Hero and Leander.

[2] Ovid, Metamorphoses, 4.55-7, Latin text of Magnus (1892) via Perseus, my English translation, benefiting from those of Lombardo (2010), Kline (2000), and Miller (1916). Arsippe was one of the daughters of Minyas. She and her sisters rejected the cult of Bacchus and metamorphosed into bats.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses provides the earliest written tale of Pyramus and Thisbe. This story is set in Babylon, a famous ancient walled city. Ovid’s myth credits Semiramus, the wife of the Assyrian King Ninus, with building Babylon’s walls. Ovid’s myth also indicates that Ninus’s tomb was outside the city walls near where Thisbe and Pyramus met. The Greek historian Ctesias of Cnidus, writing about 400 BGC, attests to Semiramus having built a temple-tomb for Ninus outside Babylon. Before she decided to tell of Pyramus and Thisbe, Arsippe considered several other stories, including one about Decretis of Babylon. Ovid probably found these stories in a collection of stories from the Near East.

Ovid changed the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. A scholar observed:

In all likelihood, however, the form in which the story was told before Ovid was quite different from his version. References to Pyramus and Thisbe in later Greek texts suggest that the deaths of the unhappy lovers were accompanied by an altogether different kind of metamorphosis than that described by Ovid, in which their blood permanently changes the color of the hitherto white berries of the mulberry tree to red. In the Greek east, where the story originated, Pyramus was transformed into the river in Cilicia that bears his name, while Thisbe became a nearby spring.

Knox (2014) p. 38. Five frescoes of Pyramus and Thisbe have survived from first-century Pompeii. Id. pp. 39-40. A second-century GC mosaic from Nea Paphos on Cyrus shows an earlier Greek version of the myth. Id p. 38.

The story of Thisbe and Pyramus was widely disseminated in medieval Europe. It survives in seven Latin versions, the French lai Piramus et Tisbé, and numerous other vernacular versions, including ones in German, Dutch, Italian, and English. In addition to being included in Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women, the story of Thisbe and Pyramus is also included in Boccaccio’s About Famous Women {De mulieribus claris}, chapter 12. On its medieval reception, Pratt (2017), Delany (1994) pp. 124-5, and Glendinning (1986). The story went on to shape Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet.

Other quotes from Ovid’s myth of Pyramus and Thisbe (Metamorphoses 4.55-166) are similarly sourced. Those above are (by verses in Book 4): vv. 62-4 (With equally captivated thoughts…), 108-14 (Two lovers will perish…), 137-41 (But after some delay…), 137-41 (I too have a brave hand…).

[3] Ovid’s myth states that Pyramus “came out late {serius egressus}” (Metamorphoses 4.105). Being late may not have been his fault if some factor outside of his control, e.g. the watchman, had hindered him. Nonetheless, the Old French lai Piramus et Tisbé, discussed subsequently, similarly has Pyramus condemning himself for allegedly killing Thisbe:

Dear sister,
I killed you, by last
coming to the rendez-vous, while you were first.

{ Suer chiere,
Je vous ai morte qui derriere
Ving a mon terme, et vous premiere. }

Piramus et Tisbé, vv. 752-4. Burgess & Brook (2016), p. 189, has “Dear sister, I killed you when I arrived late for my appointed time, and you arrived first.” The translation “late” seems to me an incorrect interpretative coloring of “last {derriere}” in obvious relation to “first {premiere}.” Pyramus’s appointed time was also Thisbe’s appointed time. The probably of both arriving at the rendezvous at exactly the same time was essentially zero. One had to be first, and one had to be last. Piramus et Tisbé, vv. 644-52 indicates that Pyramus was late. But it seems to me inappropriate to project that earlier context into Pyramus’s thought in v. 753. From themselves and others, both women and men deserve generosity in interpreting lateness to meetings.

A small delay in arriving at a meeting is a minor matter. Gender equality in compassion and care is a vitally important matter. The crucial interpretive question: if Pyramus had happened to arrive first and seen the lioness / lion, would he have had hid himself without doing anything to warn and protect Thisbe?

Ignoring this important question of gender equality, Chaucer internalized Pyramus’s erroneous self-blame:

And at last this Pyramus came,
but he had stayed at home too long, alas!

“Alas!” said he, “the day that I was born!
This one night will slay both us lovers!
How could I ask mercy of Thisbe
when I am he that have slain you, alas!
My pleading has slain you, as in this case.
Alas! To plead to a woman to travel by night,
and I so slow! Alas, if only I had been
here in this place two fields-length before you!
Now whatever lion may be in this forest,
may he tear apart my body, or whatever wild beast
there is, may he now gnaw my heart!”

{ And, at the laste, this Piramus is come,
But al to longe, allas! at hoom was he.

“Allas!” quode he, “the day that I was born!
This o night wol us lovers bothe slee!
How sholde I axen mercy of Tisbe
Whan I am he that have yow slain, allas!
My bidding hath yow slain, as in this cas.
Allas! to bidde a woman goon by nighte
In place ther as peril fallen mighte,
And I so slow! allas, I ne hadde be
Here in this place a furlong-wey or ye!
Now what leoun that be in this foreste,
My body mote he renden, or what beste
That wilde is, gnawen mote he now myn herte!” }

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Legend of Good Women, The Legend of Thisbe, vv. 823-44, Middle English text from Skeat (1899) via the Medieval and Classical Literature Library, my English modernization, benefiting from that of eChaucer & Gerard NeCastro.

[4] Ovid represented Pyramus’s death as gruesome. Pyramus’s blood spurted into the air like long jets of water from a leaking, high-pressure water-pipe. In his death-throes, Pyramus’s limbs beat against the earth. These gruesome details apparently had literary justifications. The first concerns word-play across mora {mulberry tree}, amors {love}, and mors {death}. Keith (2001). The latter reflects the heal-beating death-throes topos of the Aeneid. Burns (1997).

[5] E.g. “guiltless arms,” “innocent arms,” “arms,” “innocent arms,” “arms,” and “arms” in respectively Lombardo (2010),  Kline (2000), Melville (1986), current Loeb edition of Miller (1916), More (1922) via Perseus, and Golding (1567) via Perseus.

[6] Pyramus and Thisbe {Piramus et Tisbé}, vv. 1-7, 17-22, Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Eley (2001). Where Burgess & Brook (2016), pp. 180-191, seems to me to offer a significantly better translation, I’ve drawn upon that. In English translation, I’ve used the classical spelling of the names, rather than Piramus and Tisbé.

Piramus et Tisbé probably dates from 1155 to 1170. It’s unknown author was learned in Latin and vernacular poetry. Eley (2001) pp. 11-3. Piramus et Tisbé has survived in twenty-two manuscripts. Eley’s edition takes Rouen, Bibliothèque municipale 1044 (0.4) as its base manuscript, emending only where necessary. That manuscript comes from a fourteenth-century copy of Ovid Moralized {Ovide moralisé}. Id. pp. 7-10. The translation in Burgess & Brook (2016) is based on Eley’s edition.

Other quotes from the Old French lai Piramus et Tisbé are similarly sourced. The quotes above are vv. 55-6 (During the day they were preoccupied with gazing…), 241-52 (My love…), 317-3 (The two lovers were the first ones…), 364 (Love that conquers all). With respect to “Love that conquers all {Amours, qui toutes choses vaint}” Eley observed:

We should note that the phrase is used here in its original sense of ‘love is stronger than anyone or anything’, rather than its more optimistic modern interpretation as ‘love overcomes all obstacles’.

Eley (2001) p. 23, n. 34.

[7] Eley perceptively observed:

the Piramus poet changes the whole dynamics of the story, in order to focus attention on the psychology of love and the figure of the heroine. … Tisbé’s monologue is always the second in each pair, but far from creating an impression of her as someone who is purely reactive, this tends to give her speeches added force, as they come over as ‘the final word’ on each topic. The heroine also has a higher proportion of the lines in the lyric sequences: 54.1% as against 45.9% for Piramus. Under the original conditions of performance, her voice would have been noticeably more insistent than that of the hero. … Overall, the psychology of the heroine is more carefully explored than that of the hero. The contradictions of youth are well represented in the figure of Tisbé, who is depicted as both impulsive and thoughtful, impetuous and slightly afraid of her own daring. … In comparison, Piramus comes across as rather passive, given to lyric outbursts rather than action….

Eley (2001) pp. 15, 20, 23, 24.

[8] Eley (2001) pp. 28-9 (omitted reference citing Lucken (1999) p. 386). Lucken failed to consider this figure gender-critically.

[9] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Legend of Good Women, vv. 481-8 (prologue), Middle English text from Skeat (1899) via the Medieval and Classical Literature Library, my English modernization, benefiting from that of eChaucer & Gerard NeCastro. According to the prologue of The Legend of Good Women, the god of Love charged Chaucer with having written badly about Criseyde in his Troilus and Criseyde.

Chaucer was writing according to dominant gynocentric values. As Pratt aptly observed, “the most popular exemplary figures in medieval culture seem to have been women (Griselda, Dido, Medea, Thisbe, and the Chastelaine de Vergi, to name but a few).” Pratt (2017) p. 258. Delany urged compensatory action in response to “the ambivalence of Chaucer’s attitude toward women.” Delany (1994) p. 240. Nothing but continual, fulsome praise for women is acceptable.

Subsequent quotes above from Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women are similarly sourced. They are vv. 792-801 (This Thisbe had so great affection…), 905-11 (And may the righteous God grant to every lover…), 916-23 (And thus are Thisbe and Pyramus gone …).

[10] Lucken concluded:

The schoolboy always dreams of love. He doesn’t yet know that it’s death that writes.

{ L’écolier rêve toujours à l’amour. Il ne sait pas encore que c’est la mort qui écrit. }

Lucken (1999) p. 395. Men’s educational experience must be better than that. The Old French lai Piramus et Tisbé more appropriately concluded:

Say ‘Amen’ aloud, each of you,
and may God grant them true forgiveness,
and grant us redemption,
and give us his blessing.

{ Dites amen, chascun par non,
Que dieus lor face voir pardon,
Et nos face redemption
Et nos otroit beneïcon. }

Piramus et Tisbé, vv. 909-12. Repenting of gynocentrism and seeking forgiveness from men surely would help in bringing about such a blessing.

[images] (1) Mosaic of Thisbe and Pyramus {Θίσβη καὶ Πύραμος} from Nea Paphos on Cyrus. This second-century mosaic shows a Greek version of the myth from before Ovid. Source image thanks to Gérard Janot and Wikimedia Commons. (2) Courtesan Phyllis riding the philosopher Aristotle (leftmost panel) and Ovid’s myth of Pyramus and Thisbe (second and third panels to right). A small box (coffret) with carved, elephant ivory illustrations. Made in Paris, France, c. 1310-30. Preserved as accession # 17.190.173a, b; 1988.16 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, USA). Credit: Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917; The Cloisters Collection, 1988. Source image available under The Met’s generous and public-spirited open-access public domain license. (3) Thisbe committing sexual suicide with Pyramus’s sword. Painted by Pierre Gautherot in 1799. Via Wikimedia Commons. (4) Video of the Beatles performing “Pyramus and Thisbe” in a 1964 television special. Adapted from the performance of the Rude Mechanicals in William’s Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Scene I. Featuring Paul McCartney as Pyramus, John Lennon as Thisbe, George Harrison as Moonshine, and Ringo Starr as Lion, with Trevor Peacock in the role of Quince. Produced by Jack Good for ITV/Rediffusion London and first aired on April 28, 1964. Thanks to GeorgianBeatlesfans and YouTube.


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