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 Book of Ten Chapters {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 shouldn’t be blamed only because she is female,
nor should only a man be blessed with praise,
but rather vice should be corrected in both sexes,
and virtue merits praise equally in both.

{ Quod neque culpari mulier, quia femina tantum,
Nec quia vir tantum debet quis laude beari,
Sed magis in sexu vitium mutatur utroque,
Et pariter laudem virtus in utroque meretur. }[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.”

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 hard mind and stiff neck of men resists
and scarcely endures the yoke, while he denies he’s inferior.

{ At mens dura viri rigida cervice regugnat,
Vixque jugum patitur dum se negat inferiorem. }[4]

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. [5]

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 learn from the folly of Ulrich von Liechtenstein and the wisdom 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. About proper style for writing {De ato genere scribendi}
  2. About the time and the age {De tempore et aevo}
  3. About the high-class whore {De meretrice}
  4. About woman {De matrona} / About the good woman {De muliere bona}
  5. About old age {De senectute}
  6. About destiny and birth {De fato et genesi}
  7. About pleasure {De voluptate}
  8. About true friendship {De vera amicitia}
  9. About a good death {De bono mortis}
  10. About resurrection of bodies {De resurrectione corporum}

Chapter titles in Latin from Patrologia Latina text, my English translation. For brief chapter descriptions, 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, Latin text from the Patrologia Latina 171, 1702A, my English translation, benefiting from those of C.W. Marx in Blamires, Pratt & Marx (1992) p. 232 and Jaeger (1999) p. 225. Subsequent quotes from Liber decem capitulorum are similarly sourced, unless otherwise noted.

[3] Jaeger (1999) p. 94. The subsequent quote is similarly from id.

[4] Marbod of Rennes, Liber decem capitulorum, Ch. 4. In his chapter 3, entitled “About the high-class whore {De meretrice},” Marbod strongly criticizes woman:

Among the countless snares that the cunning enemy
has laid out over all the world’s hills and plains,
the greatest, and which scarcely any man can avoid, is
woman, mournful head, evil sprout, depraved progeny,
who causes many scandals throughout the whole world.

{ Innumeros inter laqueos quos callidus hostis
Omnes per mundi colles composque tetendit,
Maximus est, et quem vix quisquam fallere possit
Femina, triste caput, mala stirps, vitiosa propago,
Plurima quae totum per mundum scandala gignit. }

Liber decem capitulorum, Ch. 3. Marbod put forward biblical examples of women acting wickedly. He described the evil actions of Eve, Lot’s daughters, Delilah, Herodias’s daughter Salome, Tamar, Bathsheba, and Solomon’s wives:

Who persuaded our first father to taste the forbidden?
A woman. Who compelled a father to have sex with his daughters?
A woman. Who robbed the brave man of his hair and destroyed him?
A woman. Who with a sword cut off the holy head of the righteous one?
A woman. What mother heaped crime on crime,
stained heinous incest with more heinous slaughter?
Who the blessed David, who the wise Solomon
seduced with sweet enticements, so one became an adulterer,
the other sacrilegious, who other than a seductive woman?

{ Quis suasit primo vetitum gustare parenti?
Femina. Quis patrem natas vitiare coegit?
Femina. Quis fortem spoliatum crine preremit?
Femina. Quis justi sacrum caput ense recidit?
Femina. Quae matris cumulavit crimine crimen,
Incestumque gravem graviore caede notavit?
Quis David sanctum, sapientem quis Salomonem
Dulcibus illecebris seduxit, ut alter adulter,
Alter sacrilegus fieret, nisi femina blanda? }

Id., Latin text from Patrologia Latina 171, 1698D-1699, my English translation, benefitting from that of Walsh (2005) p. 233. Marbod similarly put forward pre-Christian (classical) examples of women acting wickedly: Eriphyle, Clytemnestra, daughters of Danaus, Procne, and Helen of Troy.

Like Jaeger, Marbod made a pretense of honoring gender equality. He declared of women and men:

Because we are the same, under the same conditions
we live, and there is nothing we do not bear in common,
being in all things alike, except the distinction of sex.
The covenant is our equal birth. We eat the same food,
dress alike, and are moved to weeping and laughing
by similar feelings. With equal sense we discern
what is good, what is evil, what just, what wicked,
and our common understanding proceeds with equal eloquence.
Among peers, we know in turn to give thanks,
with interchangeable duties to merit gifts,
and to give advise that harm would be dispelled.
Man and woman together are able to do all these.

{ Nam cum simus idem, sub eadem conditione
Vivimus, et nihil est quod non commune geramus,
In cunctis similes, salvo discrimine sexus:
Lex, ortus par est, alimentis utimur iisdem,
Aeque vestimur, fletum risumque movemus
Affectu simili, sensu discernimus aequo
Quae bona, quae mala sint, quid iustum, quid sit iniquum,
Et sermone pari sententia mutua currit.
Inter consimiles gratesque referre vicissim
Novimus, officiis alternaque dona mereri,
Et dare consilium quo noxia submoveantur
Ista vir et mulier communiter omnia possunt }

Liber decem capitulorum, Ch. 4.

Marbod nonetheless asserted women’s superiority to men. He asserted this in the most important Christian aspects of human being:

She handles the sick gently, with more skill assists
at their bed, and more diligently ministers with food and drink.
A woman loves more, more quickly values adapting to follow precepts.
Like soft wax she is shaped to the image of the Good
and she shows herself to be subject to instructions.

{ Mollius aegrotum tractat, plus sedula lecto
Assistit, studiosa cibos potumque ministrat.
Plus amat, et citius valet ad praecepta moveri,
Inque boni formam ceu mollis cera reflecti,
Et disciplinae subiectior esse probatur. }

Id. In other words, women inevitably become morally superior to men. Hence men must engage in “ennobling love”: men must do whatever is necessary to earn the love of these morally superior beings.

[5] 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.

Walsh, P. G. 2005. “Antifeminism in the High Middle Ages.” Ch. 11 (pp. 222-42) in Smith, Warren S, ed. 2005. Satiric advice on women and marriage from Plautus to Chaucer. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

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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