medieval life expectancy: gender difference through history

medieval chivalry greatly reduced men's life expectancy relative to women's

In England, homicides per capita fell roughly by a factor of thirty from the fourteenth-century to the late twentieth century.[1] This progress of civilization wasn’t associated with a secular reduction in gender inequality in life expectancy. Elite men’s life expectancy in medieval England was perhaps nine years less than elite women’s. Men achieved near equality with women in life expectancy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But men’s lifespan shortfall subsequently grew to about five years in late-twentieth-century England. These facts of gender difference in life expectancy are largely unknown. Reducing gender inequality that disfavors men has never been of public concern. Whether that anti-men bias continues may determine the future of civilization.

Violence against men in late medieval England made men’s life expectancy much less than women’s. The best available data are for the legitimate offspring of British kings, queens, dukes, and duchesses. For such persons born from 1330 to 1479, men’s and women’s expected additional years of life at age twenty were 21.7 years and 31.1 years, respectively. Men at age twenty thus expected to have 9.4 less additional years of life than women had. The share of violent deaths to all deaths for men ages 15 and older was 46%.  If men dying from violence are excluded from the life-expectancy calculation, men and women at age twenty had nearly the same expected additional years of life.[2] Violence against men in medieval England explains why men expected to have much shorter lives than women did.

Men probably had much shorter life expectancy than women did across late medieval Europe. The sparse available evidence indicates that the male/female ratio of homicide victims was 13, 7, and 3, in the thirteenth-to-sixteenth centuries, the seventeenth century, and the eighteenth century, respectively.[3] The leading scholar of long-term historical trends in homicide observed:

Generally, the shift toward lower homicide rates appears to have been primarily — but not exclusively — a drop in male-to-male violent encounters. [4]

Violence has always been vastly disproportionately directed against men.[5] Homicidal violence was high enough in medieval Europe to be a considerable factor in life expectancy. These facts imply that medieval European men had a considerable life-expectancy shortfall relative to women.[6]

During the European Age of Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, women and men apparently had nearly equal lifespans. Life expectancy calculated from English parish registers indicates that males had roughly a half-year advantage in life expectancy on average across the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.[7] The experience of the Age of Enlightenment makes clear that there is nothing natural or inevitable about men suffering relatively short life expectancy. Use of reason in pursuing social reform can promote gender equality in the most fundamental dimension: gender equality in life expectancy.

The growth of men’s life expectancy shortfall from the early nineteenth century to the late twentieth century probably reflects men’s historically disproportionate burden of financially supporting families. In England, excluding decades of world wars, men’s life expectancy shortfall peaked at 6.2 years in the 1970s.[8] In the U.S., men’s life expectancy shortfall peaked at 7.7 years about 1970. Subsequent movement toward gender equality in life expectancy is plausibly associated with women’s greater participation in the paid labor force, particularly in highly stressful jobs previously allocated almost exclusively to men.

Much work remains to be done to achieve gender equality in life expectancy. Men continue to face enormous gender discrimination in family court decisions. Men continue to be deprived of equal opportunities with women to withdraw temporarily or permanently from the paid workforce and be financially supported by their partners or spouses. The effects of gender inequality can be measured ultimately in life. In England and the U.S., men currently fall about four years short in life expectancy relative to women. The long shadow of medieval chivalry remains in devaluing men’s lives to this day.[9]

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:

Data: workbook on female and male life expectancy at birth in medieval Europe to the present (Excel version)


[1] Eisner (2003) p. 96, Fig. 3:

homicide per capita in England from Middle Ages to present

Cf. Pinker (2011) p. 61, Fig. 3-2, “Source: Graph from Eisner, 2003.”

[2] Hollingsworth (1957) pp. 10, 8. Life expectancy at birth was 24.0 years for males and 32.9 years for females. The full time-series data are available in the life-expectancy gender trend worksheet.

Among European elite, about 30% of noble men died in battle from about 900 to 1550. Cummins (2017) pp. 407, 420, Figure 5. Men also face a significant risk of death from violence apart from mass casualties of battle. Noble European men’s estimated age at death was rough constant at 47 years from 900 to 1300. Id. p. 426, Figure 8. Cummins’s lack of interest in men’s life expectancy shortfall and his concern to highlight women’s allegedly greater death rate from bubonic plague makes his highly adjusted sex results suspect in my eyes. Gender bias in reporting COVID-19 mortality indicates the extent of the public problem.

In documenting medieval English mortality, Clark (2007), Table 6.2 p. 122, has an imprecise population description (“English aristocrats”) and an incorrect source citation. Table 6.2’s data on life expectancy at birth are for British kings, queens, dukes, and duchesses. Its source is Hollingsworth (1957) p. 8. The data on “fraction of deaths from violence” appears to be an estimate for male deaths from violence relative to all male deaths, rather than the directly reported figures for the male violent death share for deaths after age 15. Clark’s estimates appear to be made by using the survivors per 100 males born at age 5 and 20 (64 and 54, respectively), id. p. 11, to estimate 57 survivors at age 15. Assuming all violent deaths occurred after age 15 gives Clark’s Table 6.2 violent death share estimates. Pinker (2011) p. 81, Fig. 3-7, is a line graph of Clark’s death share estimates, described as for “English male aristocrats.”

[3 Eisner (2003) p. 118, Table 5.

[4] Id. p. 119.

[5] Deuteronomy 20:12-15 describes a general commandment to massacre all the men, but take the women and children as spoils (gendercide). A mass grave at Schöneck-Kilianstädten (Germany) from about 7000 years ago clearly indicates a massacre of at least nine men ages 20 to 40, no women of those ages, and eleven children ages seven or under. That demographic distribution strongly suggests that women ages 20 to 40 were present, but abducted rather than killed. Meyer et al. (2015).  Demographic data from human groups at Sredny Stog and Novodanylovka about 7000 years ago indicate that life expectancy at birth was 7.8 years longer for females than for males. Estimated life expectancy at birth was for females, 43.6 years; for males, 35.8 years. For a remarkably factless and Whig-ideological analysis of male-female mortality differences throughout history, Berin, Stolnitz & Tenenbein (1989).

[6] Prospects of survival apparently favored aristocratic women relative to aristocratic men in tenth and eleventh century Saxony. Violence against men is a plausible explanation. Leyser (1975) pp. 56-7. Leading medieval biologist Albertus Magnus in his Cologne lectures in 1258 declared that, in exception to an Aristotelian generality, women then outlived men. See Albertus Magnus, Quaestiones super libris de animalibus, Bk. 15, quaestio 8. Herlihy (1975), pp. 11-2, found Albertus’s view consistent with other medieval evidence from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. For a detailed, somewhat tendentious review of Albertus’s claim, Biller (2000) pp. 286-95. Here are links to Albertus’s works available online.

Among first marriages in the elite Nesle family in northern France, 1100 to 1300, wives outlived husbands nearly two to one. Hadju (1980) p. 129. The implications of that statistic for gender differences in life expectancy depends on gender differences in age at first marriage. Among person born in British ducal families from 1330 to 1470, men at first marriage were 5.3 years older than women at first marriage. Hollingsworth (1957) p. 14. In the Nesle family data, the average length of widowhood was 19.5 years and 35% of widows remarried. Those facts suggest that widows’ former husbands were dying quite young.

[7] Wrigley (1997) Figure 6.21, Table 6.27, pp. 307-8. These calculations included only married persons. Childbirth created some additional mortality risk for women. If unmarried persons were included, then perhaps women would have had a slight life expectancy advantage. For the data, see the life expectancy gender trend worksheet.

[8] Based on national vital statistics for England and Wales. Estimates compiled in the Human Mortality Database. See the life expectancy gender trend worksheet for details.

[9] Chivalry can take subtle forms. Consider the UK Longevity Science Advisory Panel’s conclusions on gender inequality in life expectancy:

The gender gap in human lifespan is profoundly affected by societal and behavioural factors and movement towards greater parity in lifestyle between men and women is a major factor in the recent reduction in gender gap in life expectancy. Nevertheless there is such a significant range of genetic, endocrine, cell and molecular biology differences between men and women with impacts on longevity that we are led to the conclusion that a gender difference in longevity will persist. At age 65 this is probably of the order of 1-2 years.

Finally we believe that raw data exists which could be analysed to eliminate social and environmental factors and provide a more accurate estimate of the underlying gender gap in longevity. We plan to explore this possibility in the near future.

Pattison et al. (2012) p. 44. Humans have never and can not exist apart from “social and environmental factors.” The “underlying gender gap in longevity” is a meaningless concept. Achieving gender equality in the fundamental human capability of being alive is clearly feasible. The remaining important question is whether gender equality is truly a constitutional public value.

[image] Knights killing other knights while women watch and applaud.  Illustration from Codex Manesse, Zurich, created between 1305 and 1315. UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 17r. Thanks to University of Hiedelberg and Wikimedia Commons.


Berin, Barnet N., George J. Stolnitz, and Aaron Tenenbein. 1989. “Mortality Trends of Males and Females over the Ages.” Transactions of Society of Actuaries 41: 9-32.

Biller, Peter. 2000. The measure of multitude: population in medieval thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Clark, Gregory. 2007. A farewell to alms: a brief economic history of the world. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Cummins, Neil. 2017. “Lifespans of the European Elite, 800–1800.” The Journal of Economic History. 77 (2): 406-439.

Eisner, Manuel. 2003. “Long-Term Historical Trends in Violent Crime.” Crime and Justice. 30: 83-142.

Hajdu, Robert. 1980. “The Position of Noblewomen in the Pays Des Coutumes, 1100-1300.” Journal of Family History. 5 (2): 122-144.

Herlihy, David. 1975. “Life Expectancies for Women in Medieval Society.” Pp. 1-22 in Rosmarie Thee Morewedge, ed. 1975. The role of women in the Middle Ages: papers of the sixth annual conference of the Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, State University of New York at Binghamton 6-7 May 1972. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press.

Hollingsworth, T. H. 1957. “A Demographic Study of the British Ducal Families.” Population Studies. 11 (1): 4.

Leyser, Karl. 1979. Rule and conflict in an early medieval society: Ottonian Saxony. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Meyer, Christian, Christian Lohr, Detlef Gronenborn, and Kurt W. Alt. 2015. “The massacre mass grave of Schöneck-Kilianstädten reveals new insights into collective violence in Early Neolithic Central Europe.PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, US). Published online before print August 17, 2015, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1504365112 The online supplement includes the demographic data on the bodies in the grave.

Pattison, John, Klim McPHerson, Colin Blakemore, Steven Haberman. 2012. Life expectancy: Past and future variations by gender in England & Wales. LSAP paper 2. Longevity Science Advisory Panel.

Pinker, Steven. 2011. The better angels of our nature: why violence has declined. New York: Viking.

Wrigley, E.A. 1997. English population history from family reconstitution, 1580-1837. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

blasme des femmes: misogyny in the myth of patriarchy

Pravda: Soviet official meets with Hitler in 1940

Le blasme des femmes {The culpability of women} is medieval vernacular literature of men’s sexed protest. It’s scarcely understood or tolerated today. Many persons now believe that men ruling in patriarchy have brutally oppressed their wives, mothers, daughters and all other women throughout history. Belief in patriarchy and men’s brutality toward women has to explain away the literature of men’s sexed protest. Why have men throughout history cried out about the abuse, deceptions, and betrayals that they felt men suffer from women?

A man cannot withstand her guile
once she has picked him for her wile;
her will to power will prevail,
she vanquishes most any male.

Woman lives in constant anger,
do I even dare harangue her?

{ E nul ne se puet de lui esgarder
Quaunt ele li vout enginner;
Femme, si ele veut mester,
Nul ne se pot de ceo retrere

Aitant cum eles sunt en ire
Jeo ne ose de eus si bien non dire. }[1]

Patriarchy myth-makers dismiss men’s sexed protests as misogyny. While ruling over women, exploiting women, and controlling women as their own personal property, men complained bitterly about women simply because men hate women, according to the now dominant mythic view of men. Hate is a word for mobilizing social repression. Calling men’s sexed protest misogyny socially justifies repressing it.

A man who slanders women
is a man I must condemn,
for a courtier whom one respects
would never malign the opposite sex.

{ Qui que des fames vous mesdie
Je n’ai talent que mal en die,
C’onques a cortois ne a sage
N’oï de fame dire outrage } [2]

As master narratives, patriarchy and misogyny are social obfuscation. The lives of men and women have always been intimately intertwined in successfully reproducing societies. Those aren’t plausible circumstances for absolute, hierarchical rule and hatred of the other. Men’s sexed protest doesn’t indicate misogyny. Patriarchy has no significance to most men. Men’s sexed protest, and the social suppression of it, reflect men’s social subordination and women’s social dominance.

I would tell it clearly,
but all truths are not good to say.

{ Cleremont le deviseroie,
Mais touz voirz ne sont bonds a dire. } [3]

Today men are incarcerated for doing nothing more than having consensual sex and being too poor to fulfill their obligations of forced financial fatherhood. Through state-institutionalized undue influence, misrepresentations, and mis-service, forced financial fatherhood is imposed on many men without regard for the biological truth of paternity. Men face massive discrimination in child custody decisions, the criminalization of men’s sexuality is ever-expanding, the vastly disproportionate violence against men attracts no public concern, and men continued to be sex-selected for disposal in military service. Why aren’t more men protesting the privileges of women relative to men?

Therefore each man ought to honor
and value women above all.

{ Dount chescun doit honorer
E femmes sur tous preyser. }[4]

When men protest the sex-based injustices they suffer, gynocentric society generates quarrels about women, apologies for women, and defenses of women. Men’s servitude to women is deeply entrenched in European culture. Men historically have tended to understand their worth as persons in terms of defending women and children, and in providing resources to women and children. Women are superior to men in social communication. Women are the decision-makers for a large majority of consumer spending. In many high-income countries, women also make up the majority of voters by a larger margin than that which commonly decides major elections. Myths of patriarchy and misogyny work to keep men in their socially subordinate place.

There’s no clerk so shrewd,
nor any other so worthy,
who would want to blame women
nor argue anything against them,
unless he be of base lineage.
Because of this, they say nothing but good.

{ N’est clerc taunt aparceyvaunt,
Ne nul autre taunt vaillaunt,
Qe femmes vueillent blamer
Ne rien countre eux desputer,
S’il ne soit de vileyne nacioun;
Pur ce, ne dient si bien noun. }[5]

Are women equally to blame for the evil done to men? The current dominant view is that the injustices done to men are all men’s fault. Blame patriarchy for the highly disproportionate suicides of men.  Blame patriarchy for the highly disproportionate incarceration of men. Blame “toxic masculinity” for men’s suffering. But don’t blame women. Say nothing but good about women.

Sweet friend, be assured
that he will be cursed by God
who, with evil and empty words,
speaks dishonor or contempt to women.

{ Douce amie, seiez certeigne
Que de Dieu serra maldit
Qe, de male parole e veyne,
Dient a femme hounte ou despyt. }[6]

Le blasme des femmes is necessary for true democratic equality.[7] Women and men, whose lives have always been intimately intertwined, are equally responsible for injustices against women and men.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Le blasme des femmes {The culpability of women} ll. 113-6,  142-3, from Anglo-Norman French trans. Fiero, Pfeffer & Allain (1989) pp. 127, 129. Le blasme des femmes appears to have been composed for oral recitation. Manuscripts of it exist with many variations. Fiero, Pfeffer & Allain (1989)’s version is based on the manuscript Cambridge, University Library, Gg I.i, f. 627r. Text dated 1272-1310. Id. pp. 15-6. Another version of Le blasme des femmes exists in the Harley 2253 Manuscript, Art. 77.

The Cambridge manuscript of Le blasme des femmes concludes with five lines of Latin verse. The last line:

Now ever since I took a wife, calamity has marred my life

{ uxorem duxi quod semper postea luxi }

Id. pp. 130-1. The concluding Latin verse has the leonine rhyme that Matheolus used in his seminal work of men’s sexed protest.

Medieval literature of men’s sexed protest was much less prominent and influential than medieval literature of courtly love. Courtly love literature abased men and pedestalized women.

[2] Le bien des fames {The good of women} ll. 1-4, from Francien French trans. Fiero, Pfeffer & Allain (1989) p. 107. Text dated 1272-1310. For the source text word courtois I’ve used “courtier” rather than “chap.”

[3] La contenance des fames {The ways of women} ll. 170-1, from Francien French trans. Fiero, Pfeffer & Allain (1989) pp. 97, 104 (literal translation version). Text dated 1272-1310. Above I’ve added the explicit translation “but” for mais.

[4] Le dit des femmes {The song on women) ll. 65-6, MS Harley 2253, Art. 76, from Anglo-Norman French trans. Fein (2014).

[5] Le dit des femmes {The song on women) ll. 51-6, MS Harley 2253, Art. 76, from Anglo-Norman French trans. Fein (2014).

[6] ABC a femmes {ABC of Women} ll. 276-9, MS Harley 2253, Art. 8, from Anglo-Norman French trans. Fein (2014).

[7] Fiero, Pfeffer & Allain (1989) p. xi explains:

The greater space given to the anti-female material in our discussions reflects the misogynic tradition that prevailed in medieval times and subtly persists into our own age. Since, according to Webster’s dictionary definition, the word feminist refers to one who advocates the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes or generally defends the rights and interests of women, we have avoided the words pro-feminist and anti-feminist, preferring instead pro- and anti-female.

The subtle incoherence of Webster’s alternate definitions of feminist seems to have eluded these scholars. The underlying social problem is far from subtle. On the term antifeminist, see my Matheolus post, note [7].

[image] Front page of Pravda (Moscow, USSR) newspaper, 18 November, 1940. It features a photo of Soviet Commissar M.B. Molotov and Adolf Hitler meeting in Berlin. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Fein, Susanna, ed. with David B. Raybin, and Jan M. Ziolkowski, trans. 2014. The complete Harley 2253 Manuscript (vol. 1, vol. 2, vol. 3). Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University. Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Fiero, Gloria, Wendy Pfeffer, and Mathé Allain. 1989. Three medieval views of women: La contenance des fames, Le bien des fames, Le blasme des fames. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press.

the devil’s gateway: putting the devil back into Hell

devil's gateway

In a treatise addressed to “you … best beloved sisters {sorores dilectissimae}” about the year 200, the Christian writer Tertullian vigorously disparaged women’s fancy apparel. Tertullian understood pride as the preeminent sin. His beloved sisters apparently wore necklaces and anklets of gold, emeralds and pearls, and embroidered fabrics colored with expensive dyes. Tertullian’s beloved sisters must have been very wealthy, high-status women. He served them a heaping plate of humble pie:

You are the devil’s gateway. You are the unsealer of that prohibited tree. You are the first deserter of the divine law. You are Eve who persuaded Adam whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, the human being. On account your merit — that is, death — even the Son of God had to die. Nonetheless, you think about adorning yourself beyond your tunics of animal skins?

{ Tu es diaboli ianua; tu es arboris illius resignatrix; tu es diuinae legis prima desertrix; tu es quae eum suasisti, quem diabolus aggredi non ualuit; tu imaginem Dei, hominem, tam facile elisisti; propter tuum meritum, id est mortem, etiam filius Dei mori habuit: et adornari tibi in mente est super pelliceas tuas tunicas? }

Those words could easily be interpreted as being vicious and hateful. We who are morally far superior to Tertullian could feel pride that we would never write anything like that. Tertullian’s work in general uses extravagant rhetoric that would not be acceptable in our less tolerant age.

In medieval Christian Europe, Giovanni Boccaccio, a literary genius not prone to sanctimony, responded outrageously to Tertullian’s outrageous rhetoric. A humble sense for men’s common carnal interest suggests that the devil that enters the “devil’s gateway” is a man’s penis. Boccaccio created for his fellow Christians and anyone else interested in entertaining tales the story of the hermit Rustico and the beautiful girl Alibech. Rustico taught Alibech how to “put the devil back into Hell.” Alibech enjoyed immensely that activity. In our current age of intense concern for verbal orthodoxy, Boccaccio’s medieval stories show more liberal possibilities for understanding.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


The above quote is from Book I, Ch. I.2 of Tertullian’s treatise On the Apparel of Women {De cultu feminarum / De habitu muliebri} from Latin translated by Rev. S. Thelwall. In Book I, Ch. II.5 of that work, Tertullian declares:

You women yourselves have the same angelic nature promised as your reward, the same sexual being as men, the same advancement to the dignity of judging.

{ Nam et uobis eadem tunc substantia angelica repromissa, idem sexus qui et uiris, eamdem iudicandi dignationem pollicetur. }

Tertullian apparently was like Jerome in implicitly affirming women’s ability to understand sophisticated rhetoric. At the same time, Tertullian’s Christian teachings undoubtedly presented serious challenges to prevailing ways of life for both women and men. Little is known about Tertullian’s life. But Jerome clearly had intense concern for women and a strong following among women.

Modern scholars commonly regard Tertullian’s On the Apparel of Women as misogynistic. Jon Huckins provides an example of a typical current response to Tertullian referring to his “best beloved sisters” as “the devil’s gateway.”

Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato si’ (24 May 2015) took up Tertullian’s concerns about consumerism:

Since the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products, people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending. … Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction.

Para. 203-4. Unlike Tertullian, Pope Francis emphasized the effect of consumerism on the earth’s natural environment. But like Tertullian, Francis began with a figure implying humility:

We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.

Para. 2.

A more sensational figure of humility is inter faeces et urinem nascimur (“we are born between feces and urine”). That phrase has been widely mis-attributed to Augustine of Hippo. It was probably minted in the nineteenth century. The attribution to Augustine is consistent with modern stereotyping of Augustine’s thought. The phrase, liberally construed, is consistent with biological reality and Christian theological understanding of original sin and the necessity of baptism. Like the devil’s gateway and the joy of putting the devil back into Hell, recognizing the biological reality of human birth can point to humane appreciation for fullness of embodied life.

In his widely misinterpreted Il Corbaccio, Boccaccio referred to heterosexual intercourse as a woman wanting to “put the devil in the oven {infornare il malaguida}.” Il Corbaccio, section 287. The devil here similarly refers to a man’s penis. While Boccaccio’s figure of the penis as the devil disparages men, Boccaccio wasn’t anti-meninist. Boccaccio cared deeply about men’s lives.

[image] Devil’s Gate, Wyoming. Photo released to the public domain thanks to Ryan Reeder and Wikicommons.

vindicating Macarius of false sex accusation enabled new birth

Saint Macarius of Egypt, spiritbearer

Saint Macarius, known as the great luminary and spiritbearer, was early in his life falsely accused of a masculine sex crime. Macarius was an Egyptian Christian born about the year 300. As has been common for men historically, Macarius was pressured into marriage and a career. He sought only to withdraw from society and save his soul. Through the terrible injustice of a false sex accusation against Macarius, God guided him to realizing his dream of becoming a holy man. The Life of Saint Macarius of Scetis has inspired many other men and women to seek solace in wastelands and give birth to souls filled with the holy spirit.

The false sex accusation against Macarius originated in plans to marry. A young woman and young man loved each other. They sought to marry. Men, however, are expected to offer not only their loving being in marriage, but also material resources. Because the young man’s parents were poor, he wasn’t able to marry the young woman. They nonetheless had sex. In accordance with the fundamental reality of biology, she got pregnant. They feared that their parents would kill them both for what they had done.

The young woman and young man plotted together to accuse falsely Macarius of the masculine sex crime of “getting a woman pregnant.” The Life of Saint Macarius of Scetis explains:

When the parents of the young girl found out that this had happened to her, they asked her, “What has happened to you? Who did this? Tell us!” She, just as she had been instructed by the young man, said, “I went to see the anchorite {Macarius} one day. It was he who did this to me. He got me pregnant.” [1]

The parents, supported by a crowd, confronted Macarius. Without even bothering to hear Macarius’s response to the charge, the crowd “beat him badly enough to enough to kill him.” Macarius, who had done no wrong, protested, “What has happened that you hit me so mercilessly like this?”[2] The crowd didn’t respond to Macarius’s question. The crowd instead proceeded to humiliate him:

they bound to his back some pots smeared with soot and dragged him through the middle of the village, with a crowd of children walking with him, beating him and pulling him this way and that like they do to those who are crazy, all of them crying out about him in a single voice and saying, “He stuck the girl!”

Macarius suffered a brutal physical beating and public humiliation. Those punishments, imposed on him without due process, were the result of a false accusation of “getting a woman pregnant.”

Macarius also had child support payments imposed on him. After some Christians heard Macarius’s account of what had happened, they responded:

“What you people are saying is not true. We know from our previous experience with him that this man is faithful and righteous.” And they stood around him and loosened the bonds and also broke the pots smeared with soot that had been placed around his neck.

The father of the young man insisted, however, that Macarius pay child support as a condition for being freed:

You can’t do that {free Macarius} until he guarantees that when the young girl gives birth he will pay the cost of her delivery and provide for the raising of her child.

One of Macarius’s close supporters agreed to provide that guarantee so that Macarius could be freed. Macarius the anchorite humbly accepted forced financial fatherhood:

When he entered his cell, he said to himself, “Macarius, look! You have found yourself a wife. Now the situation requires you to work night and day so you can provide for yourself and for her and her child.” And so he diligently got to work and he gave the baskets that he made to his supporter in order to sell them and give the money he made to the woman so that when she gave birth she could use it for herself and her child. [3]

Macarius thus became subject to the sort of indentured servitude that has oppressed many men throughout history.

Oppressing men hurts women. In the case of Macarius, it prevented the joy of new birth:

when the time came for that wretched young girl to give birth, the labor pains were severe and difficult. She was in danger of dying for four days and four nights and was not able to give birth. Her mother said to her, “What is happening to you, my daughter? Look, much longer and you’ll be dead.” She {the daughter} said, “Truly I deserve to die; not only have I sinned but I have also falsely accused God’s servant the anchorite. That holy man did not touch me at all; no, it was such and such young man who got me pregnant.”

After confessing the truth about her false accusation against Macarius, the young woman was able to give birth. When news of the young woman’s redirected charge of “getting her pregnant” reached the young man, he wisely fled. Crowds came to see Macarius and glorified and praised him. Macarius wisely fled to the Scetis desert.[4]

Today men recognizing the reality of men’s social position are fleeing to desert isolation like Macarius did. Everyone should be concerned, because men withdrawing from society hurts women.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] The Life of Saint Macarius of Scetis s. 14, from Coptic (primarily from Codex Vaticanus LXIV) trans. Vivian (2004a) pp. 165-6. Subsequent quotes above are from id. pp. 166-8. The name Macarius means in Greek “blessed.” Id. p. 19.

The Life of Saint Macarius of Scetis s. 14 earlier describes gender mutuality in the young woman and young man’s plotting:

The two of them were afraid that their parents would kill them on account of the shame they had brought them and so they devised a plan filled with iniquity, adding another great sin on top of their previous fornication. Each partner said to the other, “What will we do? If our parents find out about it they will kill us, but let’s say that the priest, the anchorite, is the one who did it because he’s a stranger and no mercy will be shown to him.”

Trans. id. 165. The subsequent text has the woman make the accusation, with responsibility for the accusation shifted to the man (“just as she had been instructed by the young man”). The text thus depicts women’s social privilege of relatively credibility and men’s relative burden of blame.

The Life of Saint Macarius of Scetis has survived in three, tenth-century Coptic manuscripts. It was probably written between 623 and 784 GC. Id. p. 35. A shorter version of the story of falsely accusing Macarius of paternity exists in the first part of the section on Macarius the Great in the Greek Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Apophthegmata Patrum) and similarly and nearly identically in the closely related Coptic Sayings of the Desert Fathers. For an English translation of the story in the Greek Sayings, Ward (1984) pp. 124-5, available online. For the story in the Coptic Sayings, Vivian (2004a) pp. 51-3. For an overview of ancient literature on Macarius, Evelyn White (1932) pp. 60-72. The Life of Macarius of Egypt in the Greek Lausic History of Palladius doesn’t include this story. The Coptic Life of Macarius of Egypt likewise doesn’t include the false accusation story. For a translation of the latter, Vivian (2004b) pp. 93-130.

[2] Cf. John 18:23.

[3] In the translation from Vivian (2004a), p. 167, I’ve replaced “his servant” with “his supporter.” The man who helped Macarius live as an anchorite wasn’t a servant in the modern sense of a menial-subservient person working for a wealthy, high-status person. Early Christian monks who lived isolated, austere lives in the Egyptian desert had persons who provided minimal necessary connections to the rest of the world. The man collecting baskets from Macarius was such a person.

[4] Palladius apparently wrote the Apophthegmata Patrum in Asia Minor long after he left Egypt. The text in its surviving form apparently is from Palestine and dates no earlier than the late-fifth century. Brakke (2013) p. 240. Yet the story of the false accusation of Macarius is historically significant:

even the strangest and most supernatural anecdote may have some root in actual monastic experience. … we may never ascertain what actually happened before traditions began to circulate, but the investigation into how monastic stories were transmitted and revised nonetheless helps us to see the concerns and values that animated early monks — and these concerns and values were certainly real.

Id. p. 251.

[image] Ancient fresco of Saint Macarius of Egypt. Thanks to Roman Zacharij and Wikimedia Commons.


Brakke, David. 2013. “Macarius’s Quest and Ours: Literary Sources for Early Egyptian Monasticism.” Cistercian Studies Quarterly 48(2): 239-51.

Evelyn White, Hugh G., with Walter Hauser, and Albert M. Lythgoe. 1932. The monasteries of the Wadi ‘N Natrun, Part II: the history of the monasteries of Nitria and of Scetis. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Vivian, Tim. 2004a. Saint Macarius, the spiritbearer: coptic texts relating to Saint Macarius the Great. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Vivian, Tim, with Rowan A. Greer. 2004b. Four desert fathers: Pambo, Evagrius, Macarius of Egypt, and Macarius of Alexandria: Coptic texts relating to the Lausiac history of Palladius. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Ward, Benedicta. 1984. The sayings of the Desert Fathers: the alphabetical collection. Rev. ed. Kalamazoo, Mich: Cistercian Publications. (the relevant story, Macarius the Great, s. 1, is identical to that in the original, 1975 edition).