grammar of sex in marriage for Matheolus and Petra

Donatus, Ars Grammatica

Matheolus wished he had looked at Medusa rather than married Petra. A well-educated cleric in thirteenth-century France, Matheolus was learned in grammar and logic. Matheolus learned too late that his wife Petra was a superior subject. Even the great scholar Aristotle was subjected to a woman. Turning from laughter to tears, from joy to grief, Matheolus applied his learning to lamenting philosophy’s failure and the book of his life, now gray and sad.[1]

In his book, Matheolus described women’s power to teach. He headed the relevant section, “how a woman leads her husband to the goal of solecism.”[2] Medieval clerics studied exhaustively how to use Latin words correctly. Intentional solecism was a higher literary art in which women led. Citing the leading scholastic learning in medieval Europe, Matheolus declared:

What good is Perihermeneias, the Elenchi, or Prior Analytics
against her? What good is Posterior Analytics or
all of logic and everything in the school curriculum?
If one were to confess the truth, woman made both serve her.
She led Aristotle, the master of the five goals,
to solecism, with reins and halter [3]

Matheolus here referred to the figure of Alexander the Great’s mistress riding Aristotle like a mare. A man’s behavior is always predicated on women modifying it.

Matheolus vehemently protested husbands’ subjection to their unschooled wives. As Aristotle proved, the root of subjection is men’s physical desire for women. The beautiful maiden named Nature in Alan of Lille’s De planctu naturae described desire uniting opposites and up-ending normal order.[4] That’s what happened when Aristotle accepted a bridle in his mouth and lowered himself to his hands and knees to have a woman ride him like a mare. Matheolus protested:

It’s a shameful riding figure called solecistic;
It’s misuse of language, that clearly shows this displacement of tongue.
It’s incongruous, improper to be so ridden
Order is disorder, our signifying
offends in many ways. The art of grammar
is made dazed, the art of logic is embarrassed,
hence also Nature is astonished and in revulsion refuses to speak. [5]

Nature in De planctu naturae did speak. She observed:

Does not Desire, performing many miracles, to use antiphrasis, change the shapes of all mankind? … Here reasonable procedure is to be without reason, moderation means lack of moderation, trustworthiness is not to be trustworthy. He {Desire} offers what is sweet but adds what is bitter. He injects poison and brings what is noble to an evil end. He attracts by seducing, mocks with smiles, stings as he applies his salve, infects as he shows affection, hates as he loves. [6]

This great confusion is enough to baffle even the great scholar Aristotle:

He knew the power of Nature and Reason.
But why is Nature’s own minister of Reasoning
not being helped, is astonished, such a great master?
What we say logically with our words
Concludes like it did for this great scholar?
It’s embarrassing. What will philosophy say
when its great scholar is deceived by amphiboly? [7]

Husbands of ordinary learning are even less discerning. Wives can make husbands deny what their own eyes saw, disbelieve that they can distinguish between a man and an ass in bed, and affirm that anti-men gender bigotry advances gender equality.

Marriage is no longer a figure of the world overthrown, like Alexander the Great’s mistress riding Aristotle. Alan of Lille’s concern for the grammar of sex figured more than a person of one sex conjoined with a person of the same sex.[8] The conjunction of woman and man can also have more than a literal meaning. Using the clerical language Latin in thirteenth-century Europe, Matheolus counseled men not to marry:

Don’t take one woman, but, reader, have a hundred!
Women have bound thousands of persons together in chains.
If a man has a thousand women, none has him; he is his own man. [9]

For fear of violating the new grammar of sex, readers must read Matheolus literally. Now no one knows anything more than being his own person. The marital debt is no longer being paid. Marriage is bankrupt. If Abelard had listened to Heloise, he would have remained the man he was. And the world would have remained as it always was.

Men and women must find a new grammar of sex. Then they can form a new verbal bond of incarnation in which every rule is struck senseless.[10]

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[1] On Matheolus wishing he had looked at Medusa before marrying Petra, Lamentationes Matheoluli l. 111-2:

Obvia cur pridem mihi non fuit ipsa Medusa,
Et licet in lapidem convertere visa sit usa?
{Why didn’t I meet Medusa herself,
And allow myself to benefit from being turned into stone?}

Klein, Rubel & Schmitt (2014) p. 53. All subsequent Latin text is from id., unless otherwise noted. Cited line numbers are the cumulative numbering across the four books of Lamentationes Matheoluli. For an online Latin text, based on just one, quite good manuscript, Van Hamel (1892). Lamentationes Matheoluli was written about 1290.

Matheolus was well-educated and well-connected in clerical circles. He studied law and logic for six years in Orléans. He studied under Jacques de Boulogne, who became Bishop of Thérouenne, and Nicaise, who became Canon of Fauquembergue. Matheolus spent many years living in Paris, practiced canon law as a cleric, and attended the Council of Lyon in 1274. Van Hamel (1892) pp. cx-cxii (pdf pages 578-80).

Matheolus began his Book IV (l. 3768) with:

Risus in lacrimas, in luctus gaudia verto
{I turn from laughter to tears, from joy to mourning}

That’s quoting nearly verbatim from Alan of Lille, De planctu naturae I.1. Cf. James 4:9. Book III of Lamentationes Matheoluli draws extensively on De planctu naturae. Van Hamel (1892) pp. cxxxv (pdf page 603).

Matheolus’s section on wives leading their husbands to solecisms ends (l. 503):

Nec titulus minio nec cedro charta notetur.
{May your title not be written with red dye, nor your paper treated with oil of cedar.}

That quotes Ovid, Tristia 1.1.7. It indicates a book that doesn’t have colorful, luxurious materiality.

[2] Lamentationes Matheoluli l. 459-503, headed “Quod mulier ducit virum suum ad metam solecismi.” On grammatical metaphors, Ziolkowski (1985).

[3] Lamentationes Matheoluli l. 459-64:

Quid Perihermenias, quid Elenchi, quidve Priora
Prosunt adversus illam, quid Posteriora,
Totaque quid logica, trivium quid quadriviumque?
Ut verum fatear, mulieri servit utrumque.
Duxit Aristotilem metarum quinque magistrum
Ad solecismum, cui frenum sive capistrum

The cited works are works of Aristotle newly recovered in western Europe via the Islamic world. The five goals seem to be five categories of sophisms set out in Aristotle’s Elenchi I.3.

[4] De planctu naturae, Metre 5.

[5] Lamentationes Matheoluli l. 473-9:

Est equitatura solestica dicta probrosa;
Est barbastoma, quod plane docet hic data glossa.
Est incongruus, est improprius hic equitandi
Ordo non ordo, qui nostros significandi
Offendit quoscumque modos. Ars grammaticalis
Istud posse stupet fieri, rubet ars logicalis,
Hinc etiam Natura loqui miranter abhorret.

Jehan Le Fèvre, responding to Lamentationes Matheoluli in Le Livre de Leesce (The Book of Gladness), interpreted Aristotle’s equine position much differently:

He {Aristotle} was full of great love; he always upheld the truth, for which we should praise him highly. And if he let himself be ridden like a horse, it was for joy and for pleasure. Love led him to do this by his great gentleness; so he ought not to be blamed. He clearly showed that we ought to love women, without slander or ill speaking, for they are not guilty at all for this

l. 885-95, from Latin trans. Burke (2013) p. 82. Le Fèvre’s figure of love lacks imagination. It’s just men as cats for women. Men loving women should not require them to be made like animals in subordination to women and silent about women’s faults.

[6] De planctu naturae, Metre 5, from Latin trans. Sheridan (1980) pp. 150, 152-3.

[7] Lamentationes Matheoluli l. 490-6:

Qui vim Nature cognoverat et Rationis
Sed quare Natura suo Ratioque ministro
Non succurrerunt, miror, tantoque magistro.
Nostri verbosi quid dicent inde logiste,
Cum sic conclusus fuerit doctor suus iste?
Erubeo fari. Quid dicet philosophia,
Cum sibi doctorem deceperit amphibolia?

Roman rhetoricians strongly criticized amphibolia (grammatical ambiguity creating multiple possible meanings). Ziolkowski (1998) pp. 49-55. Matheolus himself utilized semantic ambiguity to make points memorable. Consider l. 1724-8:

Si plures tibi queris
Testes, testis in his textus datur Ovidianus:
“Feminee faciunt ad scelus omne manus.”
Quod facere ausa {sua} est, non ausa est scribere dextra;
Ergo, quod restat, hic nondum quere, sed extra!

{If you are seeking more
witnesses, witness what’s given in Ovid’s text:
“the hands of women are fitted for any crime.”
What they dared to do, I did not dare to write;
Therefore, to summarize, there is much more that women have done!}

The term witness could also be translated as testicles/balls, carrying the connotation of male boldness. That’s a well-established pun in Latin, e.g. Plautus, Miles Gloriosus 1420, 1426; and Priapea 15.7 (magnis testibus ista res agetur), available in Parker (1988) p. 92. Matheolus above generalized Ovid, Epistle 6.128: Medeae faciunt ad scelus omne manus.

[8] Ziolkowski (1985) makes clear Alan of Lille’s broad interpretive concerns. Subsequent scholarship has developed Ziolkowski’s insights to the point that “one might claim De planctu naturae as a queer text.” Johnson (2005) p. 189.

[9] Lamentationes Matheoluli l. 2286-8:

Non unam capias, sed centum, lector, habeto!
Femina millenis hominem ligat una catenis.
Si quis habet mille, nullas habet; est suus ille.

In case his point isn’t understood, Matheolus goes on to counsel, “No uxorem, sed amicas, lector, habe” {Reader, have not a wife, but girlfriends!}. Id. l. 2297-8.

[10] Alan of Lille’s “De incarnation Domini” speaks of a new translatio (metaphor):

In hac Verbi copula
Stupet omnis regula.
{In this verbal bond
every rule is struck senseless.}

Cited and trans. Ziolkowski (1985) pp. 135-6.

[image] Page from Aelius Donatus, Ars grammatica, Ars minor. Xylographic book printed c. 1500. Thanks to Old Prints Department, University of Wrocław, Poland.


Burke, Linda, ed. and trans. 2013. Jehan Le Fèvre. The book of gladness / Le livre de Leesce: a 14th century defense of women, in English and French. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc.

Johnson, Michael A. 2005. “Translatio Ganymedis: Reading the Sex Out of Ovid in Alan of Lille’s The Plaint of Nature.” Florilegium 22:171-90.

Klein, Thomas, Thomas Rubel, and Alfred Schmitt, eds. 2014. Lamentationes Matheoluli. Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann.

Parker, W. H., ed. and trans. 1988. Priapea: poems for a phallic god. London: Croom Helm.

Sheridan, James J., ed. and trans. 1980. Alan of Lille. The plaint of nature {De planctu naturae}. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

Van Hamel, Anton Gerard, ed. 1892. Mathéolus, Jean Le Fèvre. Les lamentations de Mathéolus et le livre de leesce de Jehan Le Fèvre, de Ressons: poèmes français du XIVe siècle. Paris: Bouillon.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1985. Alan of Lille’s grammar of sex: the meaning of grammar to a twelfth-century intellectual. Cambridge, Mass: Medieval Academy of America.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1998. “Obscenity in the Latin Grammatical and Rhetorical Tradition.” Pp. 41-59 in Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1998. Obscenity: social control and artistic creation in the European Middle Ages. Leiden {The Netherlands}: Brill.

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