appreciation for men’s sexuality in Hildegard’s Causae et curae

Hildgard of Bingen's universal man

In Causes and Cures {Causae et curae}, the twelfth-century scholar and woman religious Hildegard of Bingen described four types of men. A subsequent scribe apparently labeled these types by well-established humoral temperaments: choleric, sanguine, melancholic, and phlegmatic.[1] Characterizations of men, like discussion of man, historically have tended to be asexual. Hildegard, however, didn’t describe types of men conventionally. Using natural metaphors, she characterized four types of men by their sexual desire and sexual behavior. Unlike earlier writers, who were almost all men, Hildegard of Bingen recognized fundamental importance and diversity in men’s sexuality.[2]

The types of men labeled melancholic and phlegmatic Hildegard placed at extremes of a brute / culture continuum. She described melancholic men as heterosexually “without restraint like asses.” Such men are “like animals and vipers.” They behave sexually like “ravaging wolves”; “in their hearts they are as violent as lions and they behave in the manner of bears.” In sexual intercourse, a melancholic man’s erect penis “twists vehemently like a viper.”[3] He performs sexually as if he would like to kill the woman. Melancholic men, like brutes, lack the human capacity to have sex as an expression of love.

Phlegmatic men, in contrast, are womanly and cultured. Phlegmatic men lack male characteristics. They have no beard or only a sparse one. Hildegard described the color of their faces as womanly, and their flesh, “soft like woman’s.” These men have difficulty achieving an erection; “they fail now and then in the act of procreation.” They have difficulty holding an erection to ejaculate at “the right moment.”[4] Phlegmatic men, however, are witty and verbal:

in their thoughts and delivery of speech they are daring and quick, like a fire whose flame rises suddenly and falls as rapidly. Likewise, they show some daring in their deportment but not in their deeds. In closer contact they reveal that for them it is more a matter of intention than deed.

Delivery of speech, deportment, and intention are aspects of human behavior that are highly elaborated culturally.  Melancholic men are associated with the nature of brutes. Phlegmatic men are men associated with women and culture.

Like melancholic men, choleric and sanguine men need sex with women. Hildegard declared of choleric men:

Whenever they have {sexual} intercourse with a woman they are healthy and happy. If deprived of it they dry up in themselves and walk about as if moribund unless they can force out the foam of their semen in lustful dreams or thoughts or in some other perverse act. They feel such lustful ardor that they will, on occasion, also have contact with some insentient and lifeless object and torment themselves with it so that, exhausted, in defense against and as a relief from this ardor, so to speak, they will ejaculate the foam of their semen with lust and in the torment of this ardent passion that is in them. For continence is difficult for these men.

Sanguine men in the absence of women are better able to alleviate lust:

They free themselves more easily than others from the ardent heat of lust, be it spontaneously or by other means.

Nonetheless, intercourse with women is also essential for sanguine men:

If they are without women, the males mentioned above remain as inglorious as a day without sun. As fruit is prevented from drying on such a day and throughout a day without sun, so these men will be in a moderately calm mood when they remain without a woman. Yet around women they are as delightful as a day with bright sun.

For all men but phlegmatic men, frequent sexual intercourse with women is necessary for their good health and happiness.

Hildegard contrasted choleric and sanguine men with natural metaphors for sexual desire. In late European medieval literature, Cupid shot arrows into persons’ eyes to make them love-struck.[5] Although Hildegard undoubtedly knew stories of Cupid, she described choleric men’s sexual desire with arrows used in a naturalistic simile along with other naturalistic similes:

Their blood burns with great ardor when they have seen or heard a woman or brought her to mind in their thoughts, because upon seeing a woman, their eyes are directed like arrows toward the love of woman and, upon hearing a woman, their speech is like a powerful windstorm and their thoughts are like a hurricane that cannot be restrained from descending upon the earth.[6]

Hildegard contrasted sanguine men with choleric men using Aristotelian metaphors of harmony and nobility:

They {sanguine men} can live with women in honesty and fertility, practice abstinence too, and look with beautiful and sober eyes at women. Whereas the eyes of other men {choleric men} are directed like arrows toward women, theirs {sanguine men’s} are honorably in harmony with women. Whereas the speech of other men acts like a powerful storm toward women, theirs has the sound of a cithara. Whereas the thoughts of other men are like a hurricane, these men are called thoughtful lovers full of honorableness.[7]

Hildegard further described sanguine men with abstract, philosophical language:

they are referred to as the golden edifice in proper embrace because in them rationality senses why this is so. Therefore these men will act with self-control and show a human attitude.

The odd phrase “golden edifice in proper embrace,” which is associated with rationality, seems to be a refashioning of the Aristotelian idea of the golden mean. Hildegard, with appreciation for men’s real experience of their humanity, touchingly added:

On the other hand, they often endure much pain when {sexually} controlling themselves as much as possible.

Both choleric and sanguine men have strong, natural sexuality without the moral coloring of brutishness. Sanguine men characteristically transform their strong, natural sexual desire with self-control and rationally seek honor and harmony. Choleric men, however, are also capable of acting “rightly and in a well-balanced manner in the ardor of embrace.” In Hildegard’s thought, types of men are tendencies that allow within themselves differences in behavior.

Men by virtue of their human dignity are intrinsically entitled to be healthy and happy. As Hildegard of Bingen perceptively recognized and courageously expounded, most types of men need frequent sexual intercourse with women to be healthy and happy.[8] A well-ordered society seeks to fulfill men’s sexual entitlement just as it seeks health and happiness for all its members.

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[1] Causes and Cures {Causae et curae} has survived mainly in one thirteenth-century manuscript. The temperament labels, along with other labels, are inserted in a different hand from the writing of the rest of the text. Cadden (1984) pp. 165-6. On authorship and modern editions of Causae et curae, see note [1] in earlier post on Hildegard and men’s sexuality.  Hildegard also provided a textually and conceptually independent four-fold characterization of women. Dronke (1984), pp. 180-183, focuses on the four-fold characterization of women.

[2] While I use the traditional humoral temperament labels for convenience, Hildegard’s descriptions of types of men are unprecedented in important ways:

Hildegard tries to work out the implications for personality of the four humoral temperaments, with a vividness and richness of detail unparalleled in earlier medical or physiognomic tradition. What is particularly new and startling in her procedure is that she interprets the four humours fundamentally in terms of sexual behavior, and that she gives a separate detailed account for four temperaments of women as well as for those of men

Dronke (1984) p. 180.

[3] Causae et curae, 54b-55a, from Latin trans. Berger (1999) pp. 60-61.  All subsequent quotes are from id. 51b-56a, pp. 57-62, unless otherwise noted. While sexual behavior predominates in Hildegard’s characterization of men, she also includes some typical elements of physiognomy.

[4] The “right moment” is connected in Causae et curae to women’s pleasure, the subject of the immediate next sentence in that text.

[5] Stewart (2003), intro. The mid-thirteenth-century masterpiece Romance of the Rose narrates:

The God of Love {Cupid} … took an arrow and, when the string was in the nock, drew the bow — a wondrously strong one — up to his ear and shot at me in such a way that with great force he sent the point through the eye and into my heart.

Le Roman de la Rose, v. 2, ll. 1681-95, from Old French trans. Dahlberg (1971) p. 54.

[6] Plato and Galen understood vision as a process of extramission: the eye actively projects out pneuma to see. The Platonic understanding of vision, described most fully in Plato’s Timaeus, was dominant in twelfth-century Europe. Aristotle, in contrast, is associated with understanding vision as intromission: the eye sees through passively receiving beams from the viewed object. Albert the Great vigorously promoted Aristotelian visual understanding in the mid-thirteenth century. By the beginning of the fourteenth century, Aristotelian intromission had become the dominant understanding of vision in Europe. Id. pp. 13-18. Hildegard’s arrow simile is aligned with understanding vision as extramission. Hildegard referred to Plato in Causae et curae. A Latin version of Timaeus was known in Europe in her time. Dronke stated:

As for Plato, it is not certain what traditions Hildegard knew. (I have found no clear indication, for instance, that she had read the Latin Timaeus.)

Dronke (1984) p. 183. Hildegard probably did know, perhaps indirectly, the Platonic understanding of vision as extramission. Hildegard’s simile of the arrow is in parallel with similes using windstorms and hurricanes. Her simile of the arrow is neither spiritual nor theoretical. It concerns the natural flight (straight, undeviating from its specific target) of an arrow.

[7] A cithara was an ancient Greek musical instrument in the form of a large lyre.

[8] In her Book of the Rewards of Life (Liber Vitae Meritorum), Hildegard addressed the issue of men fornicating with cattle.  Part 3, Chs. 71, 81, 82, from Latin trans. Hozeski (1994) pp. 164, 167. That concern indicates both men’s sexual ardor and the prevailing failure in humanely encompassing it.

[image] The Universal Man (Humanity and the Macrocosmos), illumination in thirteenth-century text of Hildegard of Bingen’s Liber Divinorum Operum, sec. I.2, completed in 1165. MS 1942, Biblioteca Statale, Lucca (Italy). Thanks to Wikicommons. Here’s some scholarly discussion of the image.


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

Cadden, Joan. 1984. “It takes all kinds: sexuality and gender differences in Hildegard of Bingen’s ‘Book of Compound Medicine.'” Traditio. 40: 149-174.

Dahlberg, Charles. 1971. Jean Guillaume de Lorris. The Romance of the Rose. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University 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.

Hozeski, Bruce, trans. 1994. Hildegard of Bingen. The book of the rewards of life = Liber vitae meritorum. New York: Garland Publishing.

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

Stewart, Dana E. 2003. The Arrow of Love: optics, gender, and subjectivity in medieval love poetry. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press.

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