more ancient history of bad breath: Jerome on Bilia & Duillius

avoid bad breath to stay close to God

In proclaiming the virtues of women in a work written in 393, the learned Christian scholar Jerome set out the example of Bilia and her husband Duillius.  Duillius once criticized Bilia:

After Duillius had grown old and feeble, he was once in the course of a quarrel taunted with having bad breath.  Feeling deeply shamed, he went home and complained to his wife that she had never told him of his bad breath so that he might remedy that fault.  She replied that she would have done so, but she thought that all men had foul breath as he had.

{ Is jam senex et trementi corpore in quodam jurgio audivit exprobrari sibi os foetidum, et tristis se domum contulit. Cumque uxori questus esset quare nunquam se monuisset, ut huic vitio mederetur: Fecissem, inquit illa, nisi putassem omnibus viris sic os olere. }[1]

This isn’t an example of misandry.  Jerome’s point is that Bilia was so chaste that she did not know the smell of the breath of any man other than her husband.  Jerome’s story implicitly suggests that other wives had greater knowledge.

Bad breath seems to have become a conventional gag.  In a thirteenth-century Old French fabliau, a widow who remarried complains about her new husband:

He doesn’t ask for any other action
than to sleep and eat.
All night long he snores like a pig.
That’s his delight and pastime.
Am I not thus ill-treated?
When I, naked, stretch out next to him
and he turns away from me,
that almost tears the heart out of me.
Former husband, you never treated me that way.
You called me your sweet beloved
and I called you beloved,
because you turned towards me
so to kiss me very sweetly
and said to start:
“My beautiful sweet lady of the castle,
what sweet breath you have!”
Former husband, that was what you said.
May your soul rest in Paradise!

{ Il ne demande autre dangier
Que de dormir et de mangier.
Tote nuit ronque con uns pors.
C’est ses delis et ses depors.
Enne sui ge dont mal venue?
Qant je me’estenc joste li nue
Et it se torne d’autre part,
Por poi que li cuers ne me part.
Sire, ce ne fasiés vos mie,
Ains m’apeliés vo dolce amie,
Et je vos apeloie ami,
Puis vos torniés par devers mi,
Si me baisiés molt dolcement,
Et disiés au conmencement:
“Ma bele dolce castelainne,
Con vos avés soef alainne!”
Sire, c’estoit tos tans vos dis.
Vostre ame soit em paradis! }[2]

Academics might categorized this passage as an example of misandry — the savaging of the real man set against the socially constructed, unreal ideal Man.  But there’s something funny here.  Maybe the remarried widow actually had bad breath, and the former husband never actually said that she had sweet breath!

Bad breath is not just a joke.[3]  Without bad breath, Alexander the Great’s reshaping of western Eurasia would have started from Persia.

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[1] Jerome, Against Jovinian {Contra Jovinianum}, Bk. I, para. 46, Latin text from Patrologia Latina 23.287-8, English translation (modified insubstantially) from Freemantle (1892). According to Jerome, Duillius was “the first Roman to triumph in a naval battle {primus Romae navali certamine triumphavit}.” Id.

Policraticus, a book that John of Salisbury wrote about 1159, has a similar story about a woman not knowing what sexual intercourse involves. Policraticus, Bk. VIII, Ch. 11, from Latin trans. Pike (1938) p. 359.

Jerome also has Theophrastus in his book on marriage warn about bad breath and other personal characteristics:

Notice that in the case of a wife you cannot pick and choose: you must take her as you find her. If she has a bad temper, or is a fool, if she has a blemish, or is proud, or has bad breath, whatever her fault may be — all this we learn after marriage.

{ Adde quod nulla est uxoris electio, sed qualiscunque obvenerit, habenda. Si iracunda, sit fatua, si deformis, si superba, si foetida, quodcunque vitti est post nuptias discimus. }

Contra Jovinianum, Bk. I, para. 47, sourced as previously. Jerome was concerned that women were learning too much about men before marriage. The figure of Theophrastus, in contrast, warned about men not learning enough about women before marriage,

[2] Gautier le Leu, “The Widow {La Veuve}” vv. 407-24, Old French text from Livingston (1951), English translation (modified) from Hellman & O’Gorman (1965) p. 153.

[3] Philogelos (The Laughter Lover), a collection of jokes that Hierocles and Philagrius put together perhaps in the fourth or fifth century GC, includes a section of jokes about bad breath. Here are two such jokes:

  • A man with bad breath decided to kill himself, so he covered his face and was asphyxiated.
  • A man with bad breath, kissing his wife over and over, said: “My Lady, my Hera, my Aphrodite.” And she said, turning away: “My – o Zeus an ozeus {a person with bad breath}!”

Philogelos, jokes 231 & 239A, from Greek trans. Przemyslaw Marciniak in in Attardo (2014) (joke 231) and Quinn (2001) (joke 239A).


Attardo, Salvatore, ed. 2014. Encyclopedia of humor studies. Thousand Oaks, California : SAGE Publications, Inc.

Freemantle, William Henry, trans. 1892.  The Principal Works of St. Jerome.  Philip Schaff, ed. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, vol. 6. Oxford: Parker.

Hellman, Robert, and Richard O’Gorman. 1965. Fabliaux; ribald tales from the old French. New York: Crowell.

Livingston, Charles H. 1951. Le Jongleur Gautier Le Leu: étude sur les fabliaux. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pike, Joseph B., trans. 1938. John of Salisbury. Frivolities of courtiers and footprints of philosopher: Being a transaltion of the first, second, and third books and selections from the seventh and eighth books of the Policraticus of John of Salisbury. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press.

Quinn. John T. 2001. “45 Jokes from The Laughter Lover.” Online at Diotima.

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