De amore’s sexual economics supports gender inequality

In Andreas Capellanus’s influential medieval treatise About Love {De amore}, gender inequality takes important forms in addition to the widely celebrated debasement of men in love servitude. The sexual economics of De amore claims global welfare benefits from toil of men not free to choose in important ways. De amore’s considerable influence on normative views of love has helped to sustain anti-men gender inequality across major historical changes in public authority.

De amore defines loves as a compulsion that men suffer through uncontrollable thinking at the sight of a beautiful woman. Its definitional discourse is scholastic:

1. What would be love

Love is an inborn suffering which results from the sight of, and uncontrolled thinking about, the beauty of the other sex. This feeling makes a man desire before all else the embraces of the other sex, and to achieve the utter fulfillment of the commands of love in the other’s embrace by their common desire.

{ Quid sit amor

Amor est passio quaedam innata procedens ex visione et immoderata cogitatione formae alterius sexus, ob quam aliquis super omnia cupit alterius potiri amplexibus et omnia de utriusque voluntate in ipsius amplexu amoris praecepta compleri. }[1]

In the medieval scientific consensus, Andreas’s definition of love is “a carefully constructed, properly scientific definition drawing on a long philosophical tradition.”[2] In elite thinking today, Andreas’s definition tends to be disparaged as oppressing women with men’s gaze. In any case, the definition explicitly excludes popular understanding of rape. To be love, sexual union must be by “common desire.” Yet, like under current laws regulating men’s sexuality, men lack significant freedom of choice in love. According to De amore, men must discipline their eyes not even to glance at a beautiful woman. If a man glances, his freedom to choose vanishes, and he becomes subject to considerable suffering.

De amore disparages men pursuing economically rational means for having sex with women. A fee-simple transaction with a harlot provides probably the most economical way for a man to secure sex. De amore harshly rejects men having sex with harlots, now more properly called sex workers:

If my views are asked on loving harlots, I say that all of them should be utterly avoided because intercourse with them is a most foul pursuit, the sin of lewd behavior being almost invariably committed with them. … I do not wish to instruct you on how to obtain this love, for no matter how affectionately harlots yield themselves to a suitor, they bestow these favors without the pressure of entreaties, so you should not ask for instruction on this.

{ Si vero quaeratur, quid de meretricis sentiamus amore, dicimus omnes meretrices penitus esse vitandas, quia ipsarum foedissima commixtio est, et incestus cum eis crimen semper fere committitur. … Ad earum autem capessendum amorem doctrinam tibi non curamus exponere, quia, quocunque se affectu concedant petenti, haec semper sine precum instantia largiuntur; ergo ad hoc doctrinam postulare non debes. }[3]

Andreas wants men to entreat women for sex. He thus also disparages men loving women who engage in sex readily:

Do not tie yourself with bonds to such a woman, for you could not win her love by any skill of application. A woman of this type cannot unite herself to anyone with bonds of love because of her excessive sexual appetite; she seeks satiety through the lust of many. So in vain do you seek her love, unless you regard yourself as so virile in sexual matters that you can satiate her lust. But this would be more difficult than draining the seas completely of their waters.  … love is definitely absent where favors are granted readily.

{ Talis quidem mulieris te noli vinculis colligare, quia ipsius amorem nullius posses sollicitudinis arte lucrari. Nam quum propter nimiam Veneris abundantiam huiusmodi mulier nullius se potest amoris vinculis colligare sed multorum appetit libidine satiari, eius frustra quaeris amorem, nisi te in Veneris opere tam potentem agnoveris ut eius valeas libidinem saturare, quo tibi facilius esset aquis penitus maria desiccare. … ubi facilis rei petitae largitio reperitur, ibi amorem constat abesse. }

Wealthy men can trade on their wealth for sex. While Andreas says nothing about men purchasing for themselves exotic horses and ostentatious castles, he disparages men wearing perfume and making themselves “glossy with bodily adornment {corporis se cultu perlustrat}.” He also rejects men wooing women with lavish gifts:

if any woman is so obsessed by burning avarice as to offer herself to a lover for a gift, she is to be regarded by all as no lover, but as a counterfeiter of love, and consigned to the brothels of unchaste women. Indeed, the degenerate life of such women is more to be despised than the sensuality of those who prostitute themselves for money in public. … it is better for you to bargain with women who hang about brothels on the street, and to purchase their bodies for a small sum than to acquiesce in being robbed of your riches by the woman who like a courtesan apes a lady under pretense of love.

{ si aliqua mulier avaritiae tanto detineatur ardore ut muneris gratia se ipsam largiatur amanti, haec a nemine reputetur amatrix sed falsificatrix amoris et immundarum mulierum prostibulis adiungenda. Immo magis istarum luxuria quam publico quaestu meretricantium est profananda voluptas. … magis tibi expedit cum mulieribus publice in prostibulo commorantibus negotiari et earum pretio corpus parvo mercari, quam sub amoris figmento ab aliqua se dominam simulante meretricio more velle propriis exspoliari divitiis. }

In Andreas’s view, wealthy men, like all other men, should toil for sex with women.

medieval sexual economics: man killing man, women watch

Andreas emphasizes that men must toil for sex with women. He refers to men “gaining” and “winning”  women’s love. De amore includes a lengthy section of eight dialogues instructing men on how to gain love from women. No dialogue describes women gaining love from men. In one dialogue, a common woman declares:

If no great prizes can be won unless some heavy labor’s done, you must suffer the exhaustion of many toils to be able to obtain the favors you seek, since what you ask for {sex with the woman} is a greater prize.

{ Si absque gravi labore magna parari non possunt, quum id quod postulas sit de maioribus unum, multis te oportet laboribus fatigari, ut ad quesita munera valeas pervenire. }[4]

The common man responds:

I give you all the thanks that I can express for so sagely promising me your love when I have performed great toils. God forbid that I or any other could win the love of so worthy a woman without first attaining it by many labors.

{ Omnes quas possum tibi refero grates, quod post labores multos amorem mihi tuum tam provide promisisti. Absit enim ut tantae probitatis feminae ego vel alius quilibet possit lucrari amorem nisi multis fuerit primo laboribus acquisitus. }

The Arthurian romance embedded within De amore has a girl instructing a knight to undertake a dangerous quest to win the love of a beautiful lady. The knight fights with one man and suffers a bloody side wound. He nonetheless grievously injuries the other man and defeats him. The knight kills a second man, severs the limb of yet another, and with hard blows to the head blinds a third. In response to his violent ordeal and great hardships, “she rewarded his labours with her love {labores illius suo remuneravit amore}.”[5] In De amore, women are essentially entitled to sexual love. Men, in contrast, must toil, fight, and suffer for sex.

In addition to stark gender inequality in sexual labor, De amore presents men pursuing women without reasonable regard for men’s plausible self-interests. De amore considers men’s pursuit of women in terms of a nearly complete enumeration of class pairs among commoners, nobles, and higher nobles. Within that enumeration, a man of the higher nobility pursues a common woman, a noble man pursues a noble woman, and a common man pursues a woman of higher nobility.[6] The nearly complete pairings by class imply two principles of sexual economics:

  1. Men have lower sexual value than women do. Hence men pursue women, and women don’t pursue men.
  2. Men and women’s social class is instrumentally relevant to sexual pursuit, but men’s sexual interests don’t vary systematically across women. Nothing other than the essential feature of having a vagina (being a woman) predicts men’s sexual interest. Men’s sexuality is thus more animalistic than that of other animals, who typically prefer to mate with females indicating high fertility.

These principles of sexual economics are peculiar literary constructs, particularly in medieval Europe. Medieval European literature fully recognized women’s strong, independent sexuality. Men throughout history have typically preferred to have sex with beautiful, young, warmly receptive women. A woman of higher nobility could offer a man benefits from a sexual relationship that a common woman couldn’t. A common man might trade off to some extent a woman’s privilege against a lower value in beauty, youth, and warm receptivity. But what about a man of higher nobility pursuing a common woman? Holding constant beauty, youth, and warm receptivity, a woman of lower social class is less sexually attractive to men. De amore obliterates men’s plausible sexual interests in their pursuit of women.

In De amore’s sexual economics, the tight constraints on men’s sexual agency and the obliteration of men’s sexual interests are linked to large benefits in general public welfare. The man of higher nobility sets out the dominant ideology of sexual economics:

I think it is established by the clearest reasoning that men can do nothing, and can get no taste of the fount of goodness, unless they so act under the persuasion of ladies. But though all good things manifestly derive from women, though the Lord has granted them so exalted a preference, and though they are styled the cause and source of all good things, a clear obligation lies on them. To men who perform good deeds they must show themselves in such a light that the worth of such men seems to grow in every way from virtue to virtue under their gaze.

{ lucidissima videtur mihi ratione constare quod homines nil esse possunt nilque de bonitatis valent fonte praelibare, nisi dominarum hoc fecerint suadela commoti. Sed quamvis et mulieribus cuncta videantur bona procedere, et multam eis Dominus praerogativam concesserit, et omnium dicantur esse causa et origo bonorum, necessitas sibi tamen evidenter incumbit ut tales de debeant bona facientibus exhibere, ut eorum probitas earum intuitu de virtute in virtutem modis omnibus crescere videatur. }[7]

Andreas in his own voice similarly declares that through women:

the whole world is ready to perform deeds of kindness, the rich have their wealth of possessions increased, plentiful provision is made for the poverty of the poor, and miserly men are brought back to the path of right behavior and learn the way of generosity. Indeed, since women are able to reward with praise, they create the incentives for doing all the good things that are done in the world.

{ per eas ad benefaciendum mundus disponitur universus, et divitibus rerum abundantia crescit, egenorum abundanter inopiae providetur, et ad viam rectitudinis reducuntur avari viamque largitatis cognoscunt. Immo laudum decoratae virtute cuncta quae in mundo bona fiunt occasionem praestant agendi. }

According to De amore, all good things in the world manifestly derive from women through men toiling to please women. This sexual-economic ideology now prevails in liberal democracies around the world.

Gender inequality should be considered truthfully along with increases in welfare in assessing sustainability. Public authorities from medieval Europe to the present have been remarkably successfully in making men subject to love servitude. But holding men in love servitude may not be sustainable forever. If men reject the dogma of love servitude to women and think freely and rationally about their self-interests, the cathedral of civilization will be challenged in a way that it hasn’t been from the Middle Ages to the present.

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[1] De amore 1.1.1, Latin text and English translation from Walsh (1982) p. 33. Id. renders Quid sit amor as “What love is.” I’ve provided above a translation that more clearly distinguishes the subjunctive verb form of the heading from the indicative verb form that begins the definition of love (Amor est….). All subsequent quotations of De amore are in the translation of id., cited by page number. I’ve made some minor changes in the translations for clarity.

[2] Monson (2005) p. 21. For more extensive analysis of the Andreas’s definition of love, see id. Ch. 5. The ancient Greeks connected beauty to sexual desire. Konstan (2015).

[3] De amore 1.12.1-2, p. 223. The subsequent three quotes are from 1.10.2, 4, p. 221; 1.6.8, p. 43 (bodily adornment); 1.9.2, 10, pp. 213, 217.

[4] De amore 1.6.66, p. 59. The subsequent quote is 1.6.67, p. 59. In celebrating amour courtois, Dronke emphasizes that men must toil and suffer to “win” the woman’s love:

the way to winning such love is infinitely arduous … its beauty and value {sic} lie in the lover’s giving all he has, in his enduring pain and sacrifice for love’s sake

Dronke (1965) p. 7. Id. shows no concern about the deeply entrenched anti-men gender inequality in amour courtois.

[5] De amore 2.8.49, p. 285.  Andreas’s Arthurian romance contains echoes of Chrétien de Troyes’s romances Erec et Enide and Le chavalier de la charrette (Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart). Walsh (1982) introduction, p. 24. Andreas’s Arthurian romance is thematically within the mainstream of medieval romance.

Woman rewarding men with sex is attested far beyond romance. In the mid-fifteenth-century Distaff Gospels, a group of older women meet to share wisdom. Their leader, Dame Ysengrine, asked a older man to act as secretary, recording their words. According to the man, Dame Ysengrine said, “I would be rewarded by some of the younger ones of my choice; I was pleased by this suggestion and thanked them.” From French trans. Jay & Garay (2006) p. 77. After the man had done six days of writing their words, the meeting ended. The women:

thanked me very much for the trouble I had taken on their behalf, and for my wages, they promised to help me, if I so desired, to speak for me to some young woman.

Id. p. 189. The man declined that sexual opportunity with a metaphorical reference to his old age.

[6] De amore 1.6.21 to 1.6.564, p. 209. Andreas inexplicably omits a noble man pursuing a woman of higher nobility. Each pair in the class-based enumeration is associated with an exemplary dialogue.

[7] De amore 1.6.403, p. 159. The subsequent quote is from 1.9.19-20, p. 219. The last sentence in the second quote is: Immo laudum decoratae virtute cuncta quae in mundo bona fiunt occasionem praestant agendi. Walsh more literally translates that with flowery, periphrastic language:

Indeed, they are adorned with the meed of praise, and they afford an opportunity of doing all good things that exist in the world.

Above I provide a translation that makes the substantive meaning clearer.

[image] Man killing another man while women watch and applaud.  Illustration from Codex Manesse, Zurich, between 1305 and 1315. UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 321v. Thanks to University of Hiedelberg and Wikimedia Commons.


Dronke, Peter. 1965. Medieval Latin and the rise of European love-lyric. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Jeay, Madeleine and Kathleen E. Garay, ed. and trans. 2006. The distaff gospels: a first modern English edition of Les évangiles des quenouilles. Peterborough, Ont: Broadview Editions.

Konstan, David. 2015. Beauty: The Fortunes of an Ancient Greek Idea. New York: Oxford University Press.

Monson, Don A. 2005. Andreas Capellanus, scholasticism, & the courtly tradition. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press.

Walsh, P.G., trans. 1982. Andreas Capellanus on love {De amore}. London: Duckworth.

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