Hildebert of Lavardin on woman’s role in the pursuit of death

newborn macaque imitates man's tongue protrusion

Men commonly seek wealth and fame. Men, with good evolutionary pedigree, also commonly seek women. In Boethius’s sixth-century Consolation of Philosophy, Lady Philosophy warned Boethius against too highly valuing wealth and fame. Lady Philosophy said nothing to Boethius about men seeking women.[1] At the height of enlightenment in twelfth-century Europe, long before our age of oppressive ideology, Hildebert of Lavardin understood that Lady Philosophy sought to take Boethius home to experience consolation in marital union. Yet Hildebert also understood that women and men’s personal relationships are as treacherous as high politics of public life.

Although many things impede holy habits,
woman, wealth, and honor impede these most highly.
Woman, wealth, and honor are tinder and torches of evil,
they draw hearts to sin and hands to the sword.
Happy is the one who knows by studied example what woman is,
who with learned skill eludes her wiles. [2]

Hildebert of Lavardin wrote a daring revision of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. Hildebert’s work, De querimonia et conflictu spiritus et carnis (Of the Complaint and Conflict of the spirit and the flesh), alternates poetry and prose, as does Boethius’s work. Hildebert wrote five pairs of prose and poetry sections. Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy consists of five books. Boethius’s work begins aberrationally in elegiac poetry, with theatrical whores dictating sad songs to the tearful, mournful first-person narrating man. Hildebert’s work begins with a first-person narrating man undertaking the practical tasks of rebuilding a house that has burned to the ground. The fire that burned down the house was misapplied passion.[3]

Better to marry a serpent or lion
Than to lie with a contentious wife. [4]

Hildbert’s woman-spirit is a foil to Lady Philosophy. Boethius’s Lady Philosophy appears suddenly to him as a majestic authority. Sullied only by others’ lack of appreciation for her, she seeks to console Boethius. Hildebert’s woman-spirit similarly appears suddenly to Hildebert. But she is an unstable, querulous woman. She complains of endless attacks from enemies. She claims that her servant-girl has bewitched her and led her into ignominious affairs with disreputable paramours. The entire situation displeases her. And it’s all Hildebert’s fault. He didn’t recognize who she is, and he has failed to protect her.

Woman conceives in her mind, praises with her tongue, and fulfills with her deeds,
the ruin of law, the nation, and her own self. [5]

Hildebert, like many other men, fails to recognize the woman-spirit ruling over him. His woman-spirit disparages him:

Show me, if you can, what you would accomplish without me, what you would arrange without my knowing it. I know the thoughts of your heart and the secrets of your bedchamber. If you write, I move your fingers; if you speak, I open your mouth. The decisions of your household and its expenses, and equally the rules about slacking servants are in my control, planned and promulgated by me. … Do you recognize her who completely fills you, completely moves you, completely rules and possesses you? [6]

Hildebert understood that Eve and Adam originally lived in a concord of spirit and flesh. But the fall of man-flesh and woman-spirit broke that concord:

because of the flesh inciting and the spirit incited as though by her husband and spouse, that first transgression came to be … Do you see, therefore, the concupiscence that moves the flesh as if it were male, the depravity with which such a husband extorted for himself the consent of the spirit, and the sort of offspring these two could generate? Do you see, I ask, how a foreign stench wafts in on me {Hildebert’s woman-spirit}, and the smoke I endure from the fanned flames? [7]

The woman-spirit reigns over the man-flesh in stench and misery, anxiety and tiresomeness. Their concord is in “shameful and ridiculous appetites for death.”

Although the flesh is pleased to be given life, and it loves
this duty of living breath, still it happens that
broken by long evils, it grows weary of life, it renounces years,
it prefers to die once rather than many times, and to be seized
by the ultimate death, rather than survive when so many have gone before.
But although it may be intent upon these, there is no homicidal will,
until the uxorious spirit grows weak and favors the flesh;
when the spirit has been overcome by goads and alluring arguments,
error comes into being: while the flesh cries out,
the spirit hears her; crime is created by consent,
and through this creation a monstrosity: the flesh becomes husband,
the spirit, wife. [8]

With woman-spirits, philosophy’s modern-day descendants lead man and woman to the land of the dead. Philosophy, unlike Lady Philosophy, is a death figure:

This is seen in many ways. The theta on her {Philosophy’s} robe marks the top of the ladder that reaches from praxis to theoria; but a theta on the robe of a prisoner is a sign of one marked for death. The smoke that covers her robes at {Consolation of Philosophy, section} 1.1.3 reminds … of the smoke on death masks in the halls of aristocratic families. … Philosophy is the practice of death; a good death will prove the philosopher, and Philosophy is eager for the prisoner to die well and thus to vindicate her. … As Philosophy is both death and half of the author’s person, we may conclude that the author does not desire that these halves of himself be reconciled and united. [9]

Hildebert sets before himself Xanthippe and Socrates, Dhuoda and Bernard. Xanthippe is the woman-spirit of Hildebert’s De querimonia et conflictu spiritus et carnis. Dhuoda is Boethius’s Lady Philosophy. Women and men can make for themselves much different earthly homes.

A fountain of piety spares the sins of woman:
Let the severe fathers learn to pity the wretched ones. [10]

Stand firm against the criminalization of men. Lift up your spirit to worthy hopes. Pray that truth conquers lies, and virtue prevails. Your mundane actions necessarily play amid the harmony of the star-filled universe.

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[1] James J. O’Donnell has helpfully made available online a concordance for the Latin text of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. The ordinary Latin word for wealth (opēs) occurs in Consolation of Philosophy 22 times in various forms.  The Latin word for honor (honor) occurs 17 times in various forms. Latin words for woman, femina, mulier, and domina, occur 0 times, 2 times, and 3 times, respectively. In Boethius’s Consolation of {Lady} Philosophy, woman is not conceptually positioned as an object of men’s appetites, as are wealth and honor.

[2] Hilbert of Lavardin, De tribus vitiis: Muliebri amore, avaritia, ambitione (Of three vices: love of woman, avarice, ambition) ll. 1-6, from Latin trans. Walsh (2005) p. 231, with my adaptations. The Latin text in Patrologia Latina (PL 171 1428C) is headed Quam nociva sint sacris hominibus femina, avaritia, ambitio (How woman, avarice, and ambition are damaging to the holiness of man).

Hildebert of Lavardin, who lived from about 1056 to 1133, rose from humble birth to become Bishop of Le Mans in 1096 and then Archbishop of Tours. He is alternately known as Hildebert of Tours. He reportedly fathered many children as archdeacon at Le Mans. Balint (2009) p. 40, n. 80, citing Ivo of Chartres, letter 277 (PL 172.279). Hildebert probably wrote De tribus vitiis: Muliebri amore, avaritia, ambitione prior to 1096, when he was archdeacon at the cathedral school of Le Mans. Hildebert became known as “the finest scholar and the most competent versifier of his age.” Walsh (2005) p. 231. For references to key scholarly work on Hildebert, see Angelini (2015) p. 168, n. 3.

Hildebert apparently recognized discrimination against men in criminal justice. He wrote ironically in elegant Latin poetry:

Woman is a fragile thing, constant in nothing but crime,
Never ceasing to wreak willing harm.

{Femina res fragilis, nunquam nisi crimine constans,
Nunquam sponte sua desinit esse nocens.}

De tribus vitiis: Muliebri amore, avaritia, ambitione ll. 7-8. As is apparent above, Hildebert’s De querimonia et conflictu spiritus et carnis is also a significant contribution to the literature of men’s sexed protest.

Patrologia Latina credits Hildebert with another work of men’s sexed protest, Quam periculosa mulierum familiaritas (How intimacy with women is dangerous). See PL 171.1427D, Latin text online here. However, Hauréau (1882), pp. 102-4, argues that this poem was written at the end of the twelfth century or early in the thirteenth century. Like passages in Bernard of Morlaix’s De Contemptu Mundi, Quam periculosa mulierum familiaritas tends to trivialize by exaggeration men’s precarious social position.

Hildebert had close, friendly relations with powerful women. He wrote personal letters to Matilda, the Empress of England, and to Adele, Countess of Blois and daughter of William the Conqueror, as well as to other powerful women. On Hildebert’s letters to powerful women, Angelini (2015). Hildebert also dedicated poems to women. Id. p. 170.

[3] Balint (2009) Appendix II, pp. 174-190, provides an English translation of De querimonia et conflictu spiritus et carnis. For English translations of Boethius’s Consolation of philosophy, see the references in my post on Lady Philosophy and man blindness.

[4] Lamentationes Matheoluli, ll. 692-3, from Latin trans. Correale & Hamel (2005) p. 388, with my adaptations. The Latin text is available in Van Hamel (1892). See also ll. 3738-9: “A man is safer with a lion than with a wife who likes to argue.” From Latin trans. Correale & Hamel (2005) p. 389, n. 2.

[5] Hilbert of Lavardin, De tribus vitiis: Muliebri amore, avaritia, ambitione ll. 25-6, from Latin trans. Walsh (2005) p. 231-2, with my adaptations.

[6] Hilbert of Lavardin, De querimonia et conflictu spiritus et carnis Prose 2, from Latin trans. Balint (2009 pp. 178-9. Here’s a Latin text from PL 171.989-1004. Dronke (1994), p. 47, observes that “the text in the Patrologia Latina is badly garbled and there is no modern edition.” Dronke draws upon manuscripts that title the work Philosophia de interiore et exteriore homine (Philosophy of the Inner and Outer Man). Orth (2000) now provides a modern edition.

[7] De querimonia et conflictu spiritus et carnis Prose 4, trans. Balint (2009) pp. 184, 186. The subsequent quote is from Prose 5, id. p. 189. Modern medieval scholarship tends to stereotype the flesh as woman, and the spirit as man. In the twelfth century, Hildebert had a more fluid understanding of the gendering of flesh and spirit.

[8] Verse 5, trans. id. pp. 189-90. Id. translates animae obsequium as “duty of the soul.” Above I’ve used “duty of living breath” to avoid metaphysical connotations in an apparently mundane context.

[9] Relihan (2007) pp. 68-9.

[10] Ubi parcit mulieri deprehensae in adulterio (Where the woman caught in adultery is spared) PL 171 1427C. I’m grateful to David Konstan for help with translating the Latin text. While PL attributes this poem to Hildebert, Hauréau (1882), pp. 101-2, suggests that Baudry de Bourgueil (Baldric of Dol) wrote it. The sense of “the wretched ones” seems to me to be men.

[image] Newborn macaque imitates a man’s tongue protrusion. Thanks to Evolution of Neonatal Imitation. Gross L, PLoS Biology Vol. 4/9/2006 and Wikimedia Commons. Here’s some discussion of the biology of making sense of another like oneself.


Angelini, Roberto. 2015. “Powerful Women in the Epistles of Hildebert of Lavardin.” Pp. 167-178 in Høgel, Christian, and Elisabetta Bartoli, eds. 2015. Medieval letters: between fiction and document. Turnhout: Brepols.

Balint, Bridget K. 2009. Ordering chaos: the self and the cosmos in twelfth-century Latin prosimetrum. Leiden: Brill.

Correale, Robert M., and Mary Hamel. 2005. Sources and analogues of the Canterbury tales. Volume II. Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer.

Dronke, Peter. 1994. Verse with prose from Petronius to Dante: the art and scope of the mixed form. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Hauréau, Jean Barthélémy. 1882. Les mélanges poétiques d’Hildebert de Lavardin. Paris, Le Mans.

Orth, Peter, ed. 2000. Hildebert de Lavardin. Hildeberts Prosimetrum De Querimonia und die Gedichte eines Anonymus: Untersuchungen und kritische Editionen. Wiener Studien. Beiheft ; 26 / Arbeiten zur mittel- und neulateinischen Philologie 6. Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

Relihan, Joel C. 2007. The prisoner’s philosophy: life and death in Boethius’s Consolation. Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press.

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.

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.

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