medieval men protesting devaluation of masculine love

While men authored most of the surviving medieval Latin texts, voices of men writing self-consciously about masculine love are not common.  Inseminating women, working for money, dying for their country — if men did not perform these natural-cultural tasks, who would?  Christian clerical or monastic life offered men a different way, yet one largely unconcerned with men as distinctively sexed human beings.  Adam, the generic human, was the starting point for understanding the relationship between God and man.  Man in medieval discourse meant human being, not male human being.

Men’s masculine love had a disadvantaged position in medieval discourse.  A loving relationship between God and man was fundamental to medieval understanding of a rightly ordered world.  In medieval thought, God, the maker of heaven and earth, was figured as male.  The Church, the community of Christian believers in this world, was figured as female.  Jesus Christ had a circumcised penis.  Mary, the mother of God, had a womb.  In medieval typology, the Christian believer more naturally matched the type of the Church and Mary.  Mary loved Jesus within the intimate physical circumstances of a mother giving birth to a child.  Mary loved Jesus as a Christian disciple who followed Jesus to the cross.  Man’s love in medieval thought was that of the feminine first disciple Mary.

To appreciate fully men’s sexed protests, medieval texts must be read empathetically.  Medieval men’s sexed protests have generated literature similar to much of the past decades’ academic writing on gender, as well as to the Vagina Monologues.  Self-righteously and indignantly looking down upon such literature and forcefully categorizing it as misogyny is facile.  Within malicious, tedious, and depressing literature, the enlightened reader can find precious human insight.

A medieval Latin text offers rare insight into men’s self-consciousness about masculine love.  The text, which has attracted relatively little scholarly interest, has survived in manuscripts from the twelfth century.[1]  The text insistently addresses woman.  A few easily missed verses reveal a largely unrecognized sense of the medieval position of masculine love.  Consider this verse:

Woman, a man in all his actions of loving is a woman according to you.

{ Femina, vir certe sit amando femina per te. } [2]

Some sexual antagonism undoubtedly has occurred in loving, intimate heterosexual relations since the evolution of humans.  The peevishly enunciated phrase “according to you” is typical of such antagonism.  Men, however, don’t normally complain publicly about lack of appreciation for their full capacity to love.  Underneath this text’s peevishness is a man’s extraordinary self-consciousness about masculine love.

A couplet from the same twelfth-century Latin text offers an astonishing perspective on the sexual portion of masculine love.  The text declares:

Woman that pricks is like having a scorpion in one’s mouth.
Woman wants pricking, and wants it in her mouth.

{ Femina que pungit, ut scorpius ora perungit;
Femina vult pungi, sua que vult ora perungi. } [3]

The text’s scholarly editor notes that this couplet seems best interpreted as referring to sex.[4]  Women’s intemperate sexual eagerness toward men, usually toward men other than the speaker of the text, was a well-established topos in medieval literature.[5]  This couplet, however, describes specific aspects of women’s sexual behavior.  It may be a homosexual man’s deprecation of women’s sexual value.  It can also be interpreted as a heterosexual man’s protest against women’s lack of appreciation for typical masculine desire.  In either case, the couplet shows men self-consciously struggling against low social valuation of masculine sexuality.

What men want is a question that has seldom occurred to men or women.  Men’s dominance in elite public positions doesn’t mean that what is, is what men self-consciously want.  In the U.S. today, men are imprisoned for having done nothing more than have consensual sex, men are deprived of contact with their children in highly discriminatory ways, and men’s relatively high mortality attracts almost no public concern.  Men can hardly avoid sensing that they, as men, are not loved, and that their masculine love is not highly valued socially.  The deep roots of those natural-cultural circumstances are evident in medieval men’s protests against the devaluation of masculine love.

lone stuffed male aninmal

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] The text, which its leading editor calls Carmen de proprietatibus feminarum (Walther, Initia, n. 1410), survives in whole or in a large part in at least sixteen manuscripts dating from the twelfth to the sixteenth century.  Placanica (2006).  The first two lines of the text are “Arbore sub quadam dictavit clericus Adam / Quomodo primus Adam peccavit in arbore quadam.” (Beneath a tree Adam the clerk wrote / Of how the first Adam sinned by means of a tree.)  De proprietatibus feminarum seems to be a satiric re-interpretation and elaboration of an earlier song, Carmen de Adam primo et novissimo.  Both songs have the same first two lines.  The later associates Adam’s fall and Jesus’s death with a tree; the former connects the tree to woman.  The text is in internally rhymed (leonine) hexameters.  That form was fashionable in Latin verse in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Ziolkowski (1989) p. 2.  Placanica (2006) provides edited Latin texts of both songs.  Owen (1887) provides a Latin transcription of De proprietatibus feminarum from Gudianus 192, along with suggested emendations. I’ve collated and made available online (also in Excel workbook download version) these Latin texts and my working literal English translations.  Additions to the texts and improvements to the translations are welcomed.

In its repeated, insistent address to “woman {femina},” De proprietatibus feminarum is similar to Ch. 3 (De Meretrice) in Marbod of Rennes’s Liber decem capitulorum. Another poem of men’s sexed protest, preserved in a single late-fourteenth century manuscript, begins with four couplets beginning with “woman {femina}”:

Woman, the origin of error and the first deception,
cast Adam, through her deceit, into the depths of the valley.
Woman, so as not to escape the crime of deceit,
gave the apple herself and greedily took the first bite.
Woman, so as not to escape the crime of deceit,
then said, “Eat. It will be very pleasant for you.”
Woman was the cause of our common death;
because of this, perpetual punishment pursues all of them.

{ Femina, principium fraudis, deceptio prima,
Adam per frauden vallis deiecit ad ima.
Femina, ne videat fraudis sibi tollere crimen,
ipsa dedit pomum, comedit et avida primum.
Femina, ne videat fraudis sibi tollere crimen,
“Comede” cum dixit “satis tibi fiet amoenum.”
Femina causa fuit mortis nostrae generalis,
poena tamen sequitur cuntas hinc perpetualis. }

Against Women {Contra mulieres} vv. 1-8, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Hexter, Pfuntner & Haynes (2020) pp. 332-3. This poem survives only in the manuscript Vatican City, Biblioteca apostolica, Vat. lat. 1602. Id. p. 434.

[2] De proprietatibus feminarum (Walther, Initia, n. 1410), l. 43, ed. Placanica (2006) p. 189.  Latin text: “Femina, vir certe sit amando femina per te.”

[3] Id., ll. 30-31.  Latin text: “Femina que pungit, ut scorpius ora perungit; / Femina vult pungi, sua que vult ora perungi.”

[4] Placanica (2006) p. 193 (“Versus sequens obscenam significationem videtur praeferre.”)  The author’s conclusion in Boccacio’s Decameron alludes to sex with the declaration:

I confess that I am weighty, and in my day I have been weighed on many occasions, but speaking to those women who have no experience of my weight, let me assure them that I am not heavy.

{ Io confesso d’esser pesato, e molte volte de’ miei dí essere stato; e per ciò, parlando a quelle che pesato non m’hanno, affermo che io non son grave }

The author’s conclusion also states:

I confess, however, that the things of this world aren’t stable but are always changing, and that might explained what happened to my tongue. For not so long ago, distrusting my own judgment, which in matters concerning myself I avoid as much as possible, I was told by the one of the women next door that I had the best and sweetest one in the world, and in all honesty, this occurred when only a few of the stories I have been talking about still remained to be written.

{ Confesso nondimeno le cose di questo mondo non avere stabilità alcuna ma sempre essere in mutamento, e cosí potrebbe della mia lingua esser intervenuto; la quale, non credendo io al mio giudicio il quale a mio potere io fuggo nelle mie cose, non ha guari mi disse una mia vicina che io l’aveva la migliore e la piú dolce del mondo: e in verità, quando questo fu, egli erano poche a scrivere delle soprascritte novelle. }

Italian text from Decameron Web, English translation (modified slightly) from Rebhorn (2013) p. 859.  This latter banter seems to allude to one form of the sex described resentfully above.

Classical literature addressed fellatio and cunnilingus directly. For epigrams addressing a range of sexual acts not of reproductive type, see. e.g. Greek Anthology 5.49 and Ausonius, Epigrams 75 (Kay) / 79 (Evelyn-White). In classical literature, men were typically disparaged for engaging in cunnilingus. See, e.g. Martial, Epigrams 1.77, 11.25, and Ausonius, Epigrams 82-87 (about Eunus).

[5] The topos goes back at least to Juvenal, Satire 6: 115-32, which describes Claudius’ wife sneaking out at night to work as a whore.  The thirteenth-century Latin poem De coniuge non ducenda irreverently declares:

A woman will receive all males:
no prick against her lust prevails.
For who could fill his spouse’s spout?
Alone she wears the district out.

{ Omnem suscipiet femina masculum
Omnemque subdita vincet testiculum.
Quis potest coniugis implere vasculum?
Nam una mulier fatigat populum. }

De coniuge non ducenda, trans. Rigg (1986) pp. 89, 91.  Andreas Capellanus, De Amore, III.104-106, argues that every woman is always lustful. De Amore more generally pushes to inimical extremes common characterizations of women. De amore thus indirectly suggests that claims of women’s sexual intemperance were prevalent.  De amore was written c. 1185. Walsh (1982) provides an English translation of De Amore.


Hexter, Ralph J., Laura Pfuntner, and Justin Haynes, ed. and trans. 2020. Appendix Ovidiana: Latin poems ascribed to Ovid in the Middle Ages. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 62. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Owen, S. G. 1887. “A Medieval Latin Poem.” The English Historical Review. 2 (7): 525-526.

Placanica, Antonii. 2006. “Arbore sub quadam dictavit clericus Adam (Walther, Initia, nn. 1409 et 1410).” FuturAntico (Università di Genova. Dipartimento di archeologia, filologia classica e loro tradizioni). 3: 149-214.

Rebhorn, Wayne A., trans. 2013. Giovanni Boccaccio. The Decameron. New York : W.W. Norton & Company.

Rigg, A. G. 1986. Gawain on marriage: the textual tradition of the De coniuge non ducenda with critical edition and translation. Toronto, Ont., Canada: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1989. Jezebel: a Norman Latin poem of the early eleventh century. New York: P. Lang.

Walsh, P. G. 1982. Andreas Capellanus on love. London: Duckworth.

2 thoughts on “medieval men protesting devaluation of masculine love”

  1. Femina que pungit, ut scorpius ora perungit;
    Femina vult pungi, sua que vult ora perungi.
    The second line seems to mean: The (sort of) woman who wants her face smeared, wants to be ‘pricked/
    but then, what is a ‘femina que pungit;?

    Femina, vir certe sit amando femina per te.
    perhaps the sense is milder: that a man, by his interaction with a woman, becomes a softer creature (like a woman)

  2. Thanks for your careful reading and thinking. The first couplet is quite obscure. I think “Femina que pungit” is best interpreted as a woman acting sexually like a man in some sense. The overall tone of the text is vigorously protesting gender injustices as the text’s author perceives those injustices. That overall sense gives “Femina, vir certe sit amando femina per te” a sharper edge.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current month ye@r day *