Marbod of Rennes in history of gender-equality double-talk

warrior's leg cut off from man's body

In Marbod of Rennes’s eleventh-century Latin work Liber Decem Capitulorum, no chapters focus on men, but two chapters are all about women. One chapter is about wicked women. The following chapter is about good women.[1] A scholar writing at the end of the twentieth century interpreted Marbod of Rennes’s disproportionate attention to women as developing the social ideal of “ennobling love.” Marbod of Rennes is better understood as an exponent of gender-equality double-talk that implicitly devalues men.

While current gender-equality double-talk is blatant and crude, medieval gender-equality double-talk was rhetorically sophisticated. At the end of his double chapters on women, Marbod of Rennes wrote:

woman ought not to be censured simply because she is female, nor ought any man be heaped with praise simply because he is a man, but rather that vice should be censured in both sexes and virtue deserves praise equally in both. [2]

A late-twentieth-century scholar of ennobling love commented on that passage:

Moral value, not sex, is the measure of worth, and woman is declared better able to learn virtue than man. [3]

In the Middle Ages, logic was an important field of learning. An educated medieval cleric could work out the syllogism: moral value is the measure of worth, woman is more moral (learned in virtue) than man; therefore, woman is superior to man. While not tracing through his syllogism, the scholar explained:

The point is that the positive pole here introduces into the public forum of poetry a differentiated view of woman, an awareness of the virtuousness and honor potentially present, maybe even inherent, in women, a sensitivity to the “glory of the female sex.” [4]

The phrase “maybe even inherent” is telling. Claims that women are superior to men are made directly in recent, acclaimed scholarly books and are now featured in major U.S. newspapers.

While focusing his attention on women, Marbod of Rennes with a single sentence anticipated modern disparagement of men. Marbod declared:

the stubborn mentality of stiff-necked man resists and scarcely endures the yoke of discipline, all the while denying that he is inferior. [5]

Those who deny that men are inferior to women are today disparaged as sexist and misogynistic. Men today are expected to acknowledge their inferiority, to ponder whether men are necessary, and perhaps also to act to raise the suicide rate of men, which is already four times that of women.

While scholars have argued that the new economy of communication, cooperation, and self-esteem-raising favors women’s superiority, the extension of ideals of ennobling love to women in eleventh and twelfth-century Europe also emphasized women’s superiority. The leading scholar of ennobling love explained:

“Refined love,” “high love,” and “sublime love or friendship” have the role of social ideals resisting social ills that develop in a male-dominated warrior society: misogyny, rape, contempt of women, boorish, warriorlike manners. The civil values of the court can be a force reshaping social practice by reward and punishment. It may well be one of the most genial ideas of any social reformer in history that he or she developed an ideology of courtly behavior within which “worth,” “price,” “value,” prestige, and standing in noble society are set by the individual’s ability to learn courtesy, restraint, civility, to acquire virtue as a prerequisite to loving — hence also as a result of loving. [6]

Men are urged and forced to fight and die for their societies. Historical developments over the past millennium haven’t change the vastly disproportionate bodily disposal of men in war. The development of ideals of “ennobling love” merely increased vicious disparagement of men for “misogyny, rape, contempt of women,” and, worst of all, “boorish, warriorlike manners.”

Medieval literature sets before men the figures of Ulrich von Liechtenstein and the Archpriest of Talavera. Ulrich von Liechtenstein subordinated himself to women and struggled to win the favor of a lady who had contempt for him. The Archpriest of Talavera wrote an important book instructing men on finding true love. Men should study medieval literature and follow the example, not of Ulrich von Liechtenstein, but of the Archpriest of Talavera. Men, choose to be truly good men.

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[1] The standard scholarly critical edition of Liber decem capitulorum is now that in Leotta and Crimi (1998). A lower-quality Latin text is available online in Patrologia Latina 171, 1693f. The ten chapters in Liber decem capitulorum are:

  1. De Ato Genere Scribendi (proper style for writing)
  2. De Tempore et Aevo (meaning of time)
  3. De Meretrice (wicked women)
  4. De Matrona (good women)
  5. De Senectute (old age)
  6. De Fato et Genesi (role of the zodiac in destiny)
  7. De Voluptate (disadvantages of pursuing pleasure)
  8. De Vera Amicitia (true friendship)
  9. De Bono Mortis (benefits of death)
  10. De Resurrectione Corporum (bodily resurrection)

Chapter titles in Latin from Patrologia Latina text, descriptions in English adapted from Ziolkowski (1986) p. 686. Two letters of Marbod’s to women are available online with Latin text and English translation.

[2] Marbod of Rennes, Liber decem capitulorum, Ch. 4, sec. 9, from Latin trans. C.W. Marx in Blamires, Pratt & Marx (1992) p. 232.

[3] Jaeger (1999) p. 94.

[4] Id.

[5] Marbod of Rennes, Liber decem capitulorum, Ch. 4, sec. 5, from Latin trans. C.W. Marx in Blamires, Pratt & Marx (1992) p. 230.

[6] Jaeger (1999) pp. 150-1. Underscoring the fundamental anti-men gender bigotry in this development, Jaeger explains:

there is an entirely new and unique image of woman created in the years between 1050 and 1100: woman the vessel of virtue, soft wax to Goodness, sensitive, loving and learning more intensely than hard-necked man. … The dynamics which account for the spread of courtliness outward from the humanistically educated court clerics also account for the rise of the image of woman as giver of virtue {to men} through love.

Id. p. 105. Celebrating this development has dominated teaching of medieval Latin literature. For a broader, more humanistic understanding of literature and life, students should study great medieval literature of men’s sexed protest such as Boccaccio’s Corbaccio.

[image] Warrior’s Leg. Paul Thek, 1966-7. Wax, metal, leather, and paint in acrylic vitrine. Joseph H. Hirshhorn Bequest Fund, 1990 (90.9). Douglas Galbi’s photograph at Hirschhorn Museum.


Blamires, Alcuin, Karen Pratt, and C. William Marx. 1992. Men Impugned, Woman Defamed and Woman Defended: an anthology of medieval texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Jaeger, C. Stephen. 1999. Ennobling love: in search of a lost sensibility. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Leotta, Rosario and Carmelo Crimi. 1998. Marbod of Rennes. De ornamentis verborum ; Liber decem capitulorum : retorica, mitologia e moralità di un vescovo poeta (secc. XI-XII). Tavarnuzze (Firenze): SISMEL edizioni del Galluzzo.

Ziolkowski, Jan. 1986. Review. “Marbodo. Liber decem capitulorum, ed. Rosario Leotta.” Speculum 61 (3): 686-688.

2 thoughts on “Marbod of Rennes in history of gender-equality double-talk”

  1. I have been working on a literary translation of Liber decem capitulorum, and while I think you have the sense of the two sections on women about right, I would just add that it isn’t exactly true that none of the other sections focus on men (or male experience). In fact, De senectute, which comes right after the two poems on women, would be more accurately entitled “On Old Men,” all the descriptions clearly referencing men’s experiences, and in the end Marbod’s own experience. De tempore et aevo is also partly autobiographical. I have not yet gotten to De voluptate and De vera amicitia, but I would guess that these two as well will look at their subjects through the lens of masculine experience. As with the contrasting views of women, I would say that a similar kind of contrast is operating in Marbod’s depictions of male behavior. By the way, I love the fact that you have written this thoughtfully about a too-long-neglected poet.

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