Hrotsvit with Gongolf empathized with Solomon and Marcolf

Solomon: “Cast out the mocker, and with him quarrel will depart, and lawsuits and slanders will cease.”

Marcolf: “Cast out flatulence from the stomach, and with it shit will depart, and gas pains and farts will cease.” [1]

punishment of cleric and Gongolf's with in Toul cycle

The Life of Saint Gongolf, composed in Latin in Burgundy about 900 GC, is rather unusual. Gongolf was a married lay nobleman who kept busy hunting wild animals and fighting for his king. Gongolf bizarrely bought a spring for a large amount of money. He was killed by the clerk who cuckolded him. That clerk subsequently suffered disembowelment while using a castle latrine. For her refusal to repent and her impiety, Gongolf’s wife on every Friday had her words transformed into farts.[2] These aren’t the typical components of a saint’s life. Among the many lives of saints that could have served as sources for her writing, Hrotsvit of Gandersheim chose Gongolf. Underscoring her concern for men, Hrotsvit used the story of Gongolf to challenge mockery of cuckolded men.

Hrotsvit highlighted the wrong of cuckolding Gongolf. The Latin life suggests that Gongolf superficially appeared to be a simpleton. That character is associated with cuckoldry. Hrotsvit eliminated that characterization. Rather than having the cleric who cuckolded Gongolf disembowel himself on the latrine, Hrotsvit had him die from rupture of his penis.[3] That death more closely corresponds to his wrong in cuckolding Gongolf. The Latin life seems to subtly mock popular interest in miracle stories.[4] Hrotsvit gave the unusual miracles in the life of Gongolf moral focus on cuckoldry.

Hrotsvit heightened the contrast between the nature of Gongolf’s wife and her behavior. Gongolf’s wife was “a worthy spouse,” “a distinguished spouse of the royal race and one of singular beauty.”[5] Nonetheless, she sexually betrayed Gongolf and plotted his murder. A pilgrim returning from seeing miracles at Gongolf’s tomb urged Gongolf’s wife to repent her evil deeds. Hrotsvit then, more intensely than in the Latin life, presented the wife’s animalistic crudeness:

So, having listened to the man’s sincere advice,
the deceitful woman rolled her murderous eyes
and tossed her wayward head at him impatiently,
and bawled these words from her pestiferous maw:

“Why do you waste your breath, zealously pretending
that such miracles are performed through Gongolf’s merits?
These so-called wonders are nothing but lies.
And if he can pour forth miracles from his tomb
then I can work great wonders with my ass.” [6]

Unlike the Latin life, Hrotsvit imposed as punishment for the wife a complete pairing of speaking and farting. Using epic language, Hrotsvit narrated:

Thus spoke she, and a wondrous sign followed her words,
one congruent with that corporeal part:
thence she brought forth a sound of sordid music
such as my little tongue is ashamed to tell.
And after this, whenever she formed a word,
as often did she sound that graceless note. [7]

Gongolf’s wife mocked the ability of Gongolf’s relics to produce miracles. Her mockery caused her words to be paired with farting.

Hrotsvit’s story of Gongolf relates life in the flesh to life in the spirit. In Solomon and Marcolf, the fleshly Marcolf challenged the spiritual Solomon’s malice toward men. In her retelling of the life of Gongolf, Hrotsvit associated mockery of miracles with cuckoldry. She shifted mockery from the cuckolded man to the unfaithful wife:

So she who disdained to observe the laws of chastity
became a common laughing stock;
and bore throughout the rest of her life
this fitting mark of her disgrace. [8]

Mockery of cuckolded men, like mockery of men physically beaten by their wives, reflects social malice toward men. Hrotsvit sought to exorcise such malice from life in the flesh. She also understood that such malice has no place in life in the spirit.

In many countries around the world today, the cuckoldry of men is institutionally entrenched in government procedures for assigning paternity. Official paternity establishment procedures have been designed to keep men ignorant about biological paternity. Legal paternity is systematically established with undue influence, mis-representation, and mis-service. Courts pretend to mandate paternal relations, while actually just imposing sex-based financial obligations. Elite discussion of paternity testing is rife with contempt for men’s lives. From a historical perspective, mockery of cuckolded men has given way to public institutionalization of cuckolding men.

Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, like Marie de France and Heloise of the Paraclete, offered their courageous, learned voices to help establish justice for ordinary men. But the formal rulers throughout history — almost all men — haven’t followed these women’s lead. That failure has inexorably led to mockery and flatulence. Treasuring and venerating the works of these medieval women writers, we can still hope for miracles.

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Notes:

[1] Solomon and Marcolf, ll. 46ab, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (2008). The medieval fabliau Le Pet au Vilain (The Peasant’s Fart) and the mock epic Audigier, from late twelfth-century France, both describe a person’s soul issuing out of his anus. The thematic importance of farting in Solomon and Marcolf seems more closely related to Hrotsvit’s Gongolf than to those other works.

[2] The Latin text is commonly known as Vita Gangulfi prima. It’s available online in MGH. In French works, Gongolf is commonly spelled Gengoult. The name also occurs variously as Gengulphus, Gongolfus, Gangulf, and other forms. I’ve standardized the spelling above to Gongolf. He seems to have been a historical person who died about 760. His cult as a saint was established before his life was written.

[3] Wailes (2006) p. 247, n. 5 notes some confusion on this point and convincingly clarifies the meaning.

[4] Patzold (2013). Patzold insightfully observes in Vita Gangulfi prima “tension between the coarse content and fine hagiographical cloth.”  He declares that Gongolfus’s virtutes (good deeds) and merita (merits) “comprised scarcely more than a death on the latrine and a spouse who farted every Friday.” Id. p. 209. That humorous statement of course ignores Gongolf’s miraculous transportation of the spring and the wonder-working effects of Gongolf’s relics.

[5] Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, Gongolf, ll. 343, 349-50, from Latin trans. Wiegand (1936) p. 107.

[6] Gongolf, ll. 563-72, trans., with minor changes, from Trenchard, Gengulphus website. The Latin text for Gongolf is available in Wiegand (1936) pp. 88-120.

[7] Gongolf, ll. 574-8, trans. Dronke (1984) p. 61. Gongolf himself punished the clerk by having him expelled from the country. Gongolf directly punished his wife for adultery only by denying her further access to his bed. That punishment points to his paternity interest. Wailes (2006), p. 60, follows the typical social pattern of justifying harsher punishment for the man. Hrotsvit may have had a more critical perspective and a truer understanding of gender equality.

[8] Gongolf, ll.  579-83. Wailes (2006), which focuses on spirituality and politics in Hrotsvit’s works, describes the story as “the glorious life of Gongolf.” Id. p. 60. Hrotsvit seems to me to have appreciated broader interests.

[images] Black-and-white image of stained glass windows in the Gengoult cycle at the collegiate church at Saint-Gengoult, Toul. Dated c. 1270. The images are based on the Latin life of Gengoult / Gongolf. The image on the left shows the punishment of the cleric:

The clerk is portrayed seated at the garderobe, with his robe hitched up and his drawers around his ankles, whilst his bowels are expelled. His imminent descent into the ‘cesspit of hell’ (Vita I) is alluded to by the presence of a crouching devil who assists the extraction with a rake.

The image on the left shows the punishment of Gongolf’s wife:

The indistinct figure on the left is the servant delivering her news. The wife, at the moment of her punishment, is holding up her scalded red arm in front of her whilst, with the other arm, she gesticulates toward her backside. A bystander turns his body away from her, whilst turning his head towards her – indicating both disgust and curiosity.

Descriptions by Paul Trenchard, Gengulphus website. For similar descriptions and images, see Lillich (1991) Ch. 3, and Illustrations III.

References:

Dronke, Peter. 1984. Women writers of the Middle Ages: a critical study of texts from Perpetua († 203) to Marguerite Porete († 1310). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lillich, Meredith P. 1991. Rainbow like an emerald: stained glass in Lorraine in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. University Park: Published for College Art Association by the Pennsylvania State University Press.

MGH: Monumenta Germaniae Historica. 7: Passiones Vitaeque Sanctorum Aevi Merovingii (V). Vita Sancti Gangulfi Martyris Christi.

Patzold, Steffen. 2013. “Laughing at a saint? Miracle and irony in the Vita Gangulfi prima.Early Medieval Europe. 21 (2): 197-220.

Wailes, Stephen L. 2006. Spirituality and politics in the works of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press.

Wiegand, Sister M. Gonsalva. 1936. The non-dramatic works of Hrosvitha; text, translation, and commentary. Ph.D. Thesis. St. Louis University.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2008. Solomon and Marcolf. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University.

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