Dhuoda for fathers deprived of custody of their children

Dhuoda's vision of fathers' love for their children

In November 30, 841,in the European Carolingian kingdom, the duchess Dhuoda began writing a book for her eldest child William. She was living apart from her husband and without physical custody of her children. William, fifteen-years old, had been placed in the sworn service of the king in violent circumstances five months earlier. Dhuoda’s second child, also a son, had been born eight months earlier. Her husband had quickly taken the baby from her to be under his protection.[1] Dhuoda loved her sons and longed to be with them. Her book has poignant immediacy today for the many fathers deprived of physical custody of their children.

Like many fathers today, Dhuoda grieved deeply from being deprived of her children. Her book includes impersonal observations and recognizes the objective value of being useful:

I have observed that most women in this world take joy in their children. But, my son William, I see myself, Dhuoda, living separated and far away from you. For this reason I am somewhat ill at ease, and eager to be useful to you. I am happy, therefore, to address this little book to you [2]

Most men take joy in their children and are eager to be useful to them. But parents, women and men, long more deeply to be with their children. Dhuoda wrote to her son:

I have been long deprived of your company, and I dwell in this town because my husband commands it. Though I am happy about the success of his campaigns, I am driven by my longing for you both. … despite the many cares that consume me, this anxiety is foremost in God’s established design — that I see you one day with my own eyes, if such is the Lord’s will. [3]

Husbands legally separated from their wives and deprived of custody of their children might feel similar longing. Beaten down in anti-men family courts and in a culture that treats men as disposable, fathers both yearn to see their children and internalize belief that they don’t deserve that joy:

Much too long, it seems to me
I’ve yearned to gaze on the shape of your face.
If I had the power! But this joy for me is
Undeserved. [4]

The anguish of fathers longing for their children lacks impelling expression in today’s elite culture. Dhuoda’s book, imaginatively read, expands to give fathers’ anguish a powerful voice.

Dhuoda’s charity in anguish was godly. Fathers deprived of custody of their children often have good reasons to be furious at their ex-girlfriends or ex-wives, and at the world. Dhuoda had such reasons with respect to her husband and her society.[5] She nonetheless retained good will toward all. She prayed for her children’s father in her prayer to be re-united with her children:

Grant me, mother of two male children,
my prayer to the loving Creator: may God
Exalt to the heights the father of these children,
and join me to them in the heavenly realm. [6]

She prayed for happiness for her son William and for his father:

May the Almighty God, of whom — despite my unworthiness — I speak so often, render you, together with your father Bernard, my seigniorial lord, happy and cheerful in the present world. May He give you prosperity in all things. And once the course of this life is ended, may He see to it that you joyously enter heaven with the saints.

Dhuoda’s relationship with her husband Bernard was strained. She was concerned that he might divorce from her. Yet with periphastic words she invoked blessings even for other children Bernard might have with another woman.[7] In praying to be received at the heavenly banquet, Dhuoda put her children’s father first, and herself, last:

To this banquet and this house, may the kind Lord in His kindness deign to lead your father, along with his children and me as well. Amen.

Bitterness toward her husband had no place in Dhuoda’s heart. Fathers can find in Dhuoda inspiration to relate to their children’s mothers with respect and kindness.

Despite all intervening circumstances, Dhuoda believed that she and her son were irreplaceable in relation to each other. Dhuoda declared to her son:

There is no one like you I leave behind among the living, no one but you to champion my cause.[8]

Dhuoda’s personal characteristics and status in society were irrelevant to what she meant to her son:

I, Dhuoda, although of the frail sex and living unworthily among women who are worthy, I am nonetheless your mother, my son William. It is to you that the words of my handcraft are now addressed.

Dhuoda’s words would apply equally well today to David and his daughter Wilma:

I, David, although of the disposable sex and living unworthily among men who are worthy, I am nonetheless your father, my daughter Wilma. It is to you that the words of my handcraft are now addressed.

In family courts, welfare agencies, and prisons and jails, fathers are crushed in systems that relate to them as cases in a queue of cases. But a father’s relationship to his child cannot be transferred to another.

Just as a father’s support for his child goes far beyond paying money to the child’s mother, Dhuoda’s support for her son was all-encompassing. Dhuoda wanted her son to be a perfect man. She wanted to be his mentor in all things.[9] These aspirations reflect, not her seeking to dominate him and determine his life, but the breadth of her love for him. In good times and bad, Dhuoda wanted to be there for her son: “In every eventuality I stand by your side.”[10] Dhuoda wrote the book and sent it to her son so that she could always be with him:

Dhuoda is always here to exhort you, my son, but in anticipation of the day when I shall no longer be with you, you have here as a memento of me this little book of moral counsels.[11]

Dhuoda’s book offers much more than moral advice. It’s a little book in the sense that she hand-wrote it for her son Williams’ hands. It’s a huge book in the sense that with it Dhuoda seeks to give William all that she possibly can. Dhuoda urged William to offer God continually in prayer “a sweet gift of honey and honeycomb.” Fearing that she would not live to see her son’s face again, she offered him her handcraft of words:

Here’s a kind of sweet brew with honeycomb mixed
As food for your lips: sip it always, I bid you.[12]

Dhuoda loved her son as the son was to love God. In Christian understanding, there is no greater love.

Many fathers today can find in Dhuoda’s text profound understanding and inspiration. Dhuoda’s great work of handcraft is wonderfully fecund.

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[1] Dhuoda’s second child was taken from her before the child was even baptized and named. Liber manualis, Preface & 1.7, Thiébaux (1998) pp. 51, 71.

[2] Dhuoda, Liber manualis, In the name of the Holy Trinity (prefatory text section), from Latin trans. Thiébaux (1998) p. 43. All subsequent quotations of Liber Manualis are from Thiébaux’s translation, cited by book.section and page number, with some minor changes that I’ve made in accordance with my sense of a better translation.

[3] Id. Preface, p. 51.

[4] Id. 10.2, p. 223.

[5] Dhuoda might have felt that her husband, who apparently was away from her for long periods of time, was insufficiently attentive to her wants and needs. In addition, he gave her the difficult and expensive responsibility of maintaining the Carolingian kingdom’s frontier at the Spanish March. Id 104. p. 227.

[6] Id. Verse inscription (preface) p. 47. Subsequent quotes in the above paragraph are from 1.7, p. 71; 2.2 p. 77. In Thiébaux’s translation, I’ve replaced “sire” with “father,” and “offspring” with “children.”

[7] On Dhuoda’s fear of divorce, 10.4, p. 227. After calling down blessing on her children and explicitly mentioning the birth of her second child, Dhuoda wrote vaguely:

Quod si plus, Deo auxiliante, fuerint, id consequantur una vobiscum, quod a me invocatum est supra {And if more, with God’s help, be subsequently among you, may the others also obtain what I have asked above}

2.3, p. 81. Neel (1991), p. 120, n. 31, comments here, “Dhuoda means if she has grandchildren.” Dhuoda could also have meant her having another child. The chronicle of Ademar of Chabannes indicates that Dhuoda had a daughter born in 844 or 845. Thiébaux (1998), introduction, p. 7. Dhuoda’s words could also mean her husband having another child with another woman. Dhuoda’s unnecessarily indirect phrasing suggests that she considered that possibility.

[8] Liber manualis, 10.4, p. 227. The subsequent quote is from id., Prologue, pp. 47-8.

[9] After providing text for her epitaph and just before the closing of her book, Dhuoda includes a section on reading Psalms. Id. 11.1, pp. 232-7. Her text there adapts Alcuin’s preface to a treatise on the use of Psalms, De Psalmorum usu liber (available in Patrologia Latina, v. 101, cols. 465-68). Dhuoda punctuated Alcuin’s points with eiusdem (“another thing”) and item (“furthermore”). That verbal punctuation of Alcuin’s teaching emphasizes Dhuoda’s concern to give William as much as she can.

[10] Liber Manualis, 9.5, p. 215.

[11] Id. 1.7, pp. 69-71.

[12] Id 10.1, p. 219. The previous quote describes offering daily Psalms to God. Id. 11.1, p. 235.

[image] Tomonori Toyofuku, Caelum II, detail. 1963, wood. Work 66,4999, Hirshhorn Museum. Douglas Galbi’s photograph at Hirschhorn Museum.


Neel, Carol, trans. 1991. Dhuoda. Handbook for William: a Carolingian woman’s counsel for her son. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Thiébaux, Marcelle, trans. 1998. Dhuoda, Handbook for her Warrior Son: Liber manualis. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Hildegard of Bingen on men's genitals and semen

Hildegard of Bingen's vision of sexuality
In our benighted age, masculinity is described as toxic, men are labeled as rapists for receiving true love, and doctors of public health discuss masculinity as a pathology to be cured to raise men’s average lifespan to equality with women’s. Hildegard of Bingen, a learned, visionary woman leader in twelfth-century Europe, had a much more enlightened understanding of men’s genitals, semen, and men’s sexuality. In Causae et curae, Hildegard depicted men’s sexuality as awesome and holy in its proper, loving context.[1]

Hildegard was a Christian woman religious with mystical vision and wide learning. She entered a community of nuns as a young girl. She lived in that community for her whole life. The modern stereotype of the nun narrowly enclosed in space and mind describes in reverse Hildegard’s life. She wrote liturgical songs and poems along with theological, botanical, and medicinal texts. She counseled bishops, kings, and emperors. She was famous for her visionary understanding. Within her unfathomable wisdom, she profoundly appreciated men’s sexuality.

Hildegard described men’s genitals as tabernacles, a strong structure, and a blossoming flower. With her visionary intuition, she moved from a general description of virile men to a kaleidoscopic description of men’s genital structure and function:

the wind that is in their loins is more fiery than windy. It has two tabernacles under its command into which it blows as a pair of bellows. These tabernacles surround the stem of all of the man’s powers, like small buildings put up next to a tower for its defense. For that reason there are two, so that they may more strongly surround the stem, make it firm and hold it and, further, so that they may capture more strongly and aptly the aforementioned wind and attract and emit it in an even manner, like two pairs of bellows blowing jointly into a fire. Thus when they erect the stem in its power, they hold it strongly. In this way the stem blossoms through its offspring.[2]

Wind in medieval thought is connected to the Holy Spirit. A tabernacle is a place of divine presence. Hildegard’s beautiful and poetic description of men’s genitals is grounded in biological reality, but not limited to that reality. Demeaning, repulsive descriptions of men’s genitals occur in medieval literature. Violence against men’s genitals — men’s “junk” — is a staple of modern popular jokes. Hildegard had humane appreciation for masculine biology.[3]

Hildegard appreciated the urgency of men’s sexual passion. She described men’s sexual passion as “like the fire of blazing mountains ” Shifting images, men can be like a ship in a great storm:

As a ship is endangered by great waves, surging in rivers from strong winds and storms, so that at times it can barely make headway and survive, so too in the storm of pleasure man’s nature can only with difficulty be held in check and restrained.

Fire and water are abstractly contrasting elements. But they are closely connected in Hildegard’s appreciation for men’s sexuality:

When the storm of lust surges in a male, it turns around in him like a mill. For his loins are like a forge which the marrow provides with fire. This forge then pours the fire into the male’s genital area and makes it burn strongly.[4]

Heat and fluid have natural correspondents in men’s sexual biology. Hildegard’s figures of men’s sexuality are both realistic and imaginative.

Hildegard did not romanticize masculine biology. In Hildegard’s Christian understanding, Adam’s transgression against God’s command introduced evil into human being. Hildegard declared:

With the taste for evil the blood of Adam’s children was changed into the poison of semen from which humans’ offspring are propagated.[5]

She described bitter, black bile as originating from Adam’s semen and generating evil. She also described semen as a poisonous foam within men’s bodies.[6] Her description of melancholic men is horrifying:

they do not experience proper love for anyone but are bitter, greedy, foolish, and overflowing with lust. With women they are without restraint like asses. … the embrace of women that they should have in a thoughtful manner is tortuous, hateful and deadly, like that of ravaging wolves. … The wind of sexual pleasure … arrives with a strong, sudden motion, like a wind that suddenly and strongly shakes the entire house. It erects the stem with such tyranny that the stem, which should blossom with blooms, twists vehemently like a viper, with the malice a deadly and murderous viper feels toward its offspring, because the Devil’s suggestion is so strongly at play in the lust of these men, that they would kill a woman in intercourse if they could since there is no love or tenderness in them.[7]

In Hildegard’s thinking, ejaculation is necessary for men to purify their bodies from the accumulating poison of semen. Yet some men excessively seek sexual intercourse with women and engage in such intercourse abusively.

In loving sexual intercourse, poisonous semen becomes life-giving. Hildegard understood conception as the woman’s body warming the man’s poisonous semen and transforming it into the blood of new life. Hildegard declared that conception will occur only if the sexual act is consensual.[8] In reality in the U.S. today, women rape men about as often as men rape women, and some rapes do result in pregnancies. Separating rape from conception seems to have been for Hildegard poetic rhetoric to deny evil acts the power of giving the blessing of new life. Hildegard gave biological significance not just to consent but also to mutual love in sexual intercourse. One-sided love in consensual sexual intercourse produces children who are bitter and lacking in virtue. Mutual love in sexual intercourse produces virtuous children.[9]

In contrast to her figure of poisonous semen, Hildegard also figured semen as a natural blessing. She declared that a man with reproductive strength “produces semen as the sun brings forth light.” Semen in that figure is not poisonous, but life-giving. Another cosmic figure of semen is more elaborate:

In the summertime, as a result of the heat, when fire and air complete their mutual duties in an appropriate mixing behavior, if there is not stormy weather, they sweat the dew out into the mild and clear air. The dew pours out fertility and productivity like semen full of blessings for the fruitful use of the earth.[10]

Just as effects of sexual intercourse are qualified with mutuality and appropriateness, so too is the mixing of fire and air to produce dew. In her Scivias, Hildegard used dew in a simile for the vivification of the infant in the womb:

at the divinely appointed time the infant in the maternal womb receives a spirit, and shows by the movements of its body that it lives, just as the earth opens and brings forth the flowers of its use when the dew falls on it.[11]

Dew in that figure could be understood as moisture rather than seed. Similarly, the Virgin Mary’s flesh rejoiced at the incarnation “just as a blade of grass on which the dew has fall’n / viridity within it to infuse.”[12] Refiguring dew from moisture to seed, Hildegard indicated the natural, universal blessing of men’s sexuality for the world.

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[1] Causae et curae has survived in not much more than one manuscript, the Royal Library of Copenhagen’s Ny Kgl. Saml. 90b, probably dating to the mid-13th century. The manuscript contains an explicit attribution to Hildegard of Bingen. She died in 1179. The manuscript includes some material that Hildegard didn’t author. The extent that it includes material that she did author is a matter of scholarly debate. Moulinier & Berndt (2003), a critical edition of the work, argues that Hildegard wrote little of Causae et curae. That’s currently the predominate scholarly opinion. Sweet (2006), Ch. 2, argues that Hildegard wrote most of it. I believe that the material I’m discussing was either written by Hildegard, or by women students of hers. My references to Hildegard can be interpreted more precisely in that sense.

[2] Causae et curae, 52a, Kaiser (1903) p. 70, ll 23-34, from Latin trans. Berger (1999) p. 58. For tabernacula, id. translates “tents”. I’ve used “tabernacles”. Hildegard elsewhere remarks:

If a man no longer has these two powers {testicles}, either because he has lost them by chance in a natural way or through castration, he has no more manhood and no more masculine storm of passion that erects the member to its full strength. Hence his member cannot be raised to plow the woman like the earth because he is cut free from the storm of his power which should strengthen his member as a means to beget offspring. In the same way, a plow cannot root up the earth when it has no ploughshare.

Causae et curae, from Latin trans. Palmquist, Kulas & Madigan (1994) p. 89. The Romance of the Rose later took up the importance of plowing.

[3] Hildegard recognized the possibility of men ejaculating in their sleep. She understood that men suffer from sexual excitement that doesn’t result in ejaculation. Id. 105b, pp. 54-5. She offered medicine “for the harmful holding back of a semen emission,” “for a swelling in the testicles,” and for sterility. Palmquist, Kulas & Madigan (1994) pp. 171, 160-1.

[4] Causae et curae, 56b, trans. Berger (1999) p. 62. The previous two quotes in the above paragraph are from id. 104b, p. 53; 51a, p. 57. All subsequent quotes are cited by manuscript folio and page in Berger’s translation, unless otherwise noted.

[5] Id. 26a, p. 39.

[6] Id. 27b, p. 39 (black bile); 43b, p. 44 (semen as poisonous foam). According to Hildegard, men’s semen is like foam on boiling water:

Boiling with the ardor and heat of lust, human blood emits foam which we call semen. This is like a pot that, placed over a fire, emits foam from the water because of the fire’s fervor.

Id. 23b-24a, p. 51.

[7] Id. 54a-55a, p. 60.

[8] Id. 43-44a-, p. 44; 78b, p. 81 (warming semen); 43b, p. 43 (consent necessary).

[9] Id. 25b-26a, pp. 51-2.

[10] Causae et curae, Latin in Kaiser (1903) p. 40, ll. 27-32, trans. Palmquist, Kulas & Madigan (1994) p. 36, adapted slightly. Newman (1987), pp. 134-8, doesn’t recognize this blessing of semen.

[11] Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, I.4.16, from Latin trans. Hart & Bishop (1990) p. 119.

[12] Hildegard of Bingen, Ave generosa, 6.2 (Hymn to the Virgin).

[image] Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, Vision I.3, illumination from Meister des Hildegardis-Codex, c. 1165. Thanks to BorgQueen and Wikicommons.


Berger, Margret. 1999. Hildegard of Bingen: on natural philosophy and medicine: selections from Cause et cure. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Hart, Columba and Jane Bishop. 1990. Hildegard of Bingen. Scivias. New York: Paulist Press.

Kaiser, Paul, ed. 1903. Hildegard of Bingen. Hildergardis Causae et curae. Lipsiae: in aedibus B.G. Teubneri.

Moulinier, Laurence and Rainer Berndt. 2003. Hildegard of Bingen. Beate Hildegardis Cause et cure. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.

Newman, Barbara. 1987. Sister of wisdom: St. Hildegard’s theology of the feminine. Aldershot: Scolar.

Palmquist, Mary, John S. Kulas, and Patrick Madigan, trans. 1994. Hildegard of Bingen. Holistic Healing. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press.{English translation from German translation of Latin}

Sweet, Victoria. 2006. Rooted in the earth, rooted in the sky: Hildegard of Bingen and premodern medicine. New York: Routledge.

medieval women’s love poetry for men’s learning

While women enjoy reading fiction much more than men do, men could make their tools more useful with study of medieval women’s love poetry. Men struggling to find love commonly look to women for guidance. But understanding what women say and write about love requires literary sophistication that many men lack. Studying medieval women’s love poetry can help men to gain needed literary sophistication.

Medieval women’s love poetry tells men what women want, but only if men are discerning readers. Consider a poem that a medieval woman in a convent wrote:

We love only those men whom prudent Excellence has molded,
whom Deference has advised to look on us with modesty.

Ovid, that knight of the unchaste Amours, has tricked you,
persuading you to love that poem
by which unhappy men are seduced and not made finer.
If we forgive your faults, that’s because we judge
you have regained worth through the antidote of right reason.
But tell that boy Cupid to lay down his biting whip —
or does he castigate you about vexing, false hopes?
A lady’s grace will grant whatever is honorable —
this she will give to one who always requests with all deference.

{ Illos diligimus quos sculpsit provida Virtus,
Quosque Modestia se monuit spectare modeste.

Te non castorum decipit miles Amorum
Ovidius, que te suasit carmen amare
Quo subvertuntur miseri, non erudiuntur.
Si condonamus tibi culpas, diiudicamus
Antidoto sane rationis te valuisse;
Posce tamen puerum mordax sedare flagellum —
An te castigat quem spec mendosa fatigat?
Gratia domnarum quicquid prestabit honestum;
Hoc illi reddit qui cuncta modesta requirit. } [1]

That’s poetic fiction. Ovid doesn’t trick men. Ovid tells the truth. Men must show that they cannot easily be tricked. Women will accept resources from beta-men providers, but they love alphas. The most numerous alphas, and the types most accessible to ordinary men, are jerks, badboys, and rogues. Some men complain bitterly about women, just as some women complain bitterly about men. Learning to appreciate fiction is a better way. Pretend to be a jerk, badboy, or rogue to stir a woman’s desire.

Testing is different in medieval women’s words than in modern science. Consider another medieval poem that another nun wrote:

Let men whom lewdness delights depart from our company —
if you should be of that sort, stay away!
Even men tested in a thousand ways are only just admitted
and our circle includes them moderately, with modesty.
As for those to whom Excellence wants us to give our pledge,
when the moon signals time, she takes care to mold them well,
so secretly they grow in good reputation and skillfulness.
Let them be duly refined, with manners of distinction.
Therefore, before you come to us, preen your feathers
(if Reason gave you any when she created you),
so that you are not fouled in any part with ingrained malice.
Regarding he who has fame for goodness like our own,
our maidenly company desires the gift of his greeting.

{ Quos incesta iuvant, consortia nostra relinquant —
In quorum numero si converseris, abesto!
Vix admittuntur qui rebus mille probantur
Sed tamen hos medice complectitur atque modeste.
Denique quis Virtus nostrum vult credere pignus,
Illos extrema curat bene fingere luna,
Ut sermone bono clam crescant atque perito,
Moribus egregiis sint undique rite politis.
Ergo quam venias prius ad nos, instrue pennas
Si quas imposuit Ratio tibi, quando creavit,
Ne qua parte dolo sis oblitus inveterato.
Quem similis morum sibi iunxit fama bonorum,
Illi vestalis chorus obtat dona salutis. } [2]

The modern empirical science of seduction recognizes the central concern of this poem as “shit-testing.” That involves a woman hurling shit (unwelcoming, challenging, dismissive words) at a man to see how he responds. Learned authorities in seduction recommend responding to shit tests illogically, laconically, and lewdly. Some examples:

Question: “You are not like other men of refinement, courtesy, and chivalry. Why didn’t you remove your hat when you entered our convent?”
Answer: “i don’t wanna get you pregnant

Question: “What is your parentage?”
Answer: 8=====D~~ {ascii penis; only possible with modern texting technology}

Statement: “You’re not in the Duke’s favor.”
Response: “gay”

If this knowledge had been more widely available to medieval men, convents would have become nurseries, the Archpriest of Hita would have never written Libro de buen amor, and the population explosion associated with the rise of mixed-sex factory work would have occurred centuries earlier. It’s a matter of literary sophistication. Men pass women’s thousands of tests with strong verbal subterfuge.

Medieval women’s love poetry depreciates the value of child-bearing to men. In a medieval poem, the two sisters Alais and Yselda address the more knowing Lady Corenza. Alais says:

Lady Carenza, you whose body is so lovely,
give some advice to my sister and me,
and, since you know how to discern what’s better,
advise me as your experience suggests:
Shall I, in your opinion, take a husband,
or shall I stay unmarried? — that would please me,
for I think to breed has little to commend it —
yet it’s too troubling to be husbandless.

{ Na Carenza al bel cors avinenz,
donaz conseil a nos duas serors,
e ccar saubez mielz triar la meilors,
consilhaz mi second vostra’escienz.
Penre marit a vostra conoscenza?
o starai mi pulcela, et si m’agenza,
que far fillos non cuiç que sia bos
e ssens marit mi par trop anguisos. } [3]

Notice that Alais first appeals to Lady Carenza as a woman of bodily beauty and then as a woman of knowledge and experience. In love from men’s immediate perspective, bodily beauty is paramount. Being husbandless is troubling to Alais because she has no one to assign to household chores. She also has to teach again and again new men how to please her in bed. Yet why would she think that “to breed has little to commend it”? Her sister Yselda elaborates:

Lady Carenza, I’d enjoy taking a husband,
and yet I think having children is a penance —
for after that the breasts will hang right down,
and the belly be wrinkled and wearisome.

{ Na Carenza, penre marit m’agenza
mas far infanz cuiz qu’es gran penitenza
que las tetinas penden aval ios
e llo ventrilh es ruat e’noios. } [4]

In despising the bodily effects of pregnancy, this poem is similar to Aelred of Rievaulx’s medieval account of the nun of Watton’s miraculously removed pregnancy. When women age, their breasts tend to hang down and their bellies wrinkle. Men experience similar effects of aging. Beauty fades. Children are forever. If a woman doesn’t understand those realities, a man should move on to another.

Medieval love poetry teaches men that a loyal woman always remembers her man’s high value. Making clear one’s high value to a woman doesn’t come easily to Christian men, who strive to be humble and compliant (“like a lamb led to the slaughter…”). Good men know that pride is a great sin. They must develop an evil spite for the sake of love. The medieval woman poet (trobairitz) Comtessa de Dia provided an instructive lament. She sang:

I have to sing of what I would not wish,
so bitter do I feel about him whose love I am,
as I love him more than anything there is;
with him, grace and courtesy are no avail to me,
nor my beauty, merit or understanding,
for I am deceived and am betrayed as much
as I would rightly be had I been unwelcoming.

{ A chantar m’er de so q’ieu no volria,
tant me rancur de lui cui sui amia,
car eu l’am mais que nuilla ren que sia:
vas lui no.m val merces ni cortesia
ni ma beltatz ni mos pretz ni mos sens,
c’atressi.m sui enganada e trahia
com degr’esser s’ieu fos desavinens. } [5]

Praising a woman’s grace, courtesy, beauty, merit, or understanding doesn’t earn her ardent love. Women who claim otherwise are deceiving and betraying themselves. A high-value man isn’t welcoming to the woman he wants to love. He welcomes others. He doesn’t want to be her friend. He makes her strive to be a friend to him:

Friend, comfort me in this — that I never failed you
through any behavior of mine;
rather, I love you more than Seguis loved Valensa,
and it delights me that I vanquish you in loving,
my friend, for you are the most excellent.
To me you show arrogance in words and presence,
and are well-disposed towards everybody else.

It amazes me that your being turns to proudness
with me, friend — and for this I am right to grieve:
it is not fair that another love takes you from me,
however she may address or welcome you; —
and remember how it was at the beginning
of our love … God forbid
that the separation should be fault of mine!

The great merit that shelters in your person,
and the rich worth you have, disquiet me —
since there’s no woman, far or near,
who, if she would love, does not submit to you

{ D’aisso.m conort car anc non fis faillensa,
amics, vas vos per nuilla captenenssa,
anz vo am mais non fetz Seguis Valensa,
e platz mi mout que eu d’amar vos venssa,
lo mieus amics, car etz lo plus valens;
mi faitz orgoil en digz et en parvenssa,
e si etz francs vas totas autras gens.

Meraveill me cum vostre cors s’orgoilla,
amics, vas me per q’ai razon qe.m doilla;
non es ies dreitz c’autr’amors vos mi toilla,
per nuilla ren qe.us diga ni.us acoilla,
e membre vos cals fo.l comenssamens
de nostr’amor, ia Dompnedieus non vuoilla
q’en ma colpa sia.l departimens.

Proessa grans q’el vostre cors s’aizina
e lo rics pretz q’avetz m’en ataina,
c’una non sai loindana ni vezina,
si vol amar vas vos no si aclina }

The reward for you maintaining your high value to her is her loyalty to you:

yet you, my friend, have enough discernment
to know who is the loyalest.
And remember our understanding.

My worth and my nobility must speak for me,
and my beauty, and still more my loyal heart

{ mas vos, amics, ez ben tant conoissens
que ben devetz conoisser la plus fina,
e membre vos de nostres covinens.

Valer mi deu mos pretz e mos paratges
e ma beutatz e plus mos fins coratges } [6]

You must stay the course and pass the test:

and so I send you, where you are staying,
this song, which shall be my messenger;
and I want to know, my fair gentle friend,
why you are so hard and strange with me —
I don’t know if it is pride or evil spite.

But I also want you to tell him, messenger,
that many suffer great loss through too great pride.

{ per q’ieu vos man lai on es vostre estatges
esta chansson que me sia messatges,
e voill saber, lo mieus bels amics gens,
per que m’etz vos tant fers ni tant salvatges,
no sai si s’es orgoills o mal talens.

Mais aitan plus vuoill li digas, messatges,
q’en trop d’orgoill ant gran dan maintas gens. }

She will continue to love you loyally if you respond rightly:

be here late tomorrow evening bring wine [7]

Such literary sophistication is difficult for most men to understand and learn. They must overcome that difficulty.

Medieval women’s love poetry tends to be regarded as an arcane study. It shouldn’t be. Truly understanding medieval women’s love poetry teaches men how to secure enduring pleasure in a woman’s love.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] …cum matre Cupido, ll. 8-9, 18-25, Latin text and English translation (modified to follow the Latin more closely) from Dronke (1968) vol. II, XXXI, pp. 433-4. This poem is among so-called love-verses probably from Regensburg (in present-day Bavaria, Germany). It is in the single, chaotic manuscript, Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, MS Clm 17142. The Regensburg love verses were probably written late in the eleventh century. They are from young women in a convent to their cleric-teacher from Liège. He apparently was pursuing amorous affairs with his students. The women students emphasize their moral superiority to their teacher and urge him to show deference to them. For gynocentric discussion, Dronke (1968) vol. I, pp. 221-9 and Dronke (1984) p. 92.

[2] Hunc mihi Mercurius florem dedit ingeniosus, ll 5-17, from Latin text and English translation (modified to follow the Latin more closely) from Dronke (1968) vol. II, XVII, p. 426. This is another “love-verse” from Regensburg. As this poem makes clear, women students in medieval Europe could be just as complacent and self-righteous as some women students today.

[3] Na Carenza al bel cors avinen, st. 1, Occcitan text from Bruckner, Shepard & White (1995), English trans. Dronke (1984) p. 101. Rialto provides the Occitan text and Linda Paterson’s prose translaton of the whole poem. Paterson’s translation is similar to Dronke’s. The poem survives only in garbled form only in one manuscript. Other editors assign lines to voices differently. See, e.g. Paden & Paden (2007) p. 151. The poem probably dates to the late twelfth or early thirteenth century. Id. It’s a trobairitz lyric.

[4] Id. st. 3.

[5] Comtessa de Dia, a trobairitz (woman troubadour) probably active in the twelfth century, A chantar m’er de so qu’eu no volria, st. 1, Occitan (Old Provençal) text from Bruckner, Shepard & White (1995, English trans. Dronke (1984) p. 103. Subsequent quotes above from this poem are similarly sourced seriatim and cover the whole poem. The Occitan text and alternate English translations are available here and here. A musical score for the poem has survived. YouTube has some wonderful  performances of the song, including the one above. The liner notes for Robin Snyder’s album La Domna Ditz provides background on Comtessa de Dia:

The powerful Comtessa de Dia states plainly her desire to sleep with someone other than her husband (“Estat ai en greu cossirier”) and advises women not to worry about court gossips (“Ab ioi et ab ioven m’apais”).

The text of A chantar m’er de so qu’eu no volria in those liner notes is missing two stanzas.

[6] Dronke described the Countess as “trying to rationalize irrational emotions.” He perceptively observed:

the rhetoric mirrors the obsessive quality of the lady’s questioning and rebuking: she turns the same thoughts over and over, reverting to them each time with a new attack. Each time we are brought to share her own wonderment more keenly: the injustice of it all — how was it possible?

Dronke (1984) pp. 10-5.

[7] Just to avoid any misunderstanding, this line is not from the medieval poem. I made it up based on my brief study of leading modern seduction authorities.


Bruckner, Matilda Tomaryn, Laurie Shepard, and Sarah White, eds. and trans. 1995. Songs of the Women Troubadours. New York: Garland.

Dronke, Peter. 1968. Medieval Latin and the rise of European love-lyric. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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.

Paden, William D., and Frances Freeman Paden. 2007. Troubadour poems from the South of France. Cambridge, UK: D.S. Brewer.