ancient Latin literature in Sanger's 19th-century social science

Actaeon sees nude women

Social science ideally informs policy proposals from “positive facts, and not deduced from a mere arbitrary theory.” William W. Sanger, a learned, highly respected civic leader in New York, published in 1858 a massive study of prostitution.[1] Sanger’s study included pioneering social-scientific surveys collecting facts about prostitutes and prostitution. Yet Sanger’s imagination dominated the facts. He imagined men as deceptively vicious and women as fundamentally virtuous. Just as with that gender stereotyping, in reading ancient Latin literature Sanger didn’t distinguish between cultural constructions and reality.

Sanger interpreted ancient Latin literature as both reflecting reality and shaping reality. Between life and literature, Sanger allowed no space for imaginative creation. He believed that a broad, amorphous class of expressions triggers harmful effects:

There is not a Latin author of the best age in whose writings the coarsest words can not be found. … The convenient adage, Charta non erubescit {paper doesn’t blush}, was invented to hide the pruriency of authors, and one of the worst puts in the wretched plea that, “though his page is lewd, his life is pure.” It is quite certain that, whatever might have been the effect on the poet, his readers could not but be demoralized by the lewdness of his verses. [2]

Rather than understanding Juvenal’s satire on women as scintillating literature of men’s sexed protest, authorities today understand it as representing Roman men’s anti-feminism and misogyny, or all men’s anti-feminism and misogyny. Sanger with similar tendentious obtuseness regarded Juvenal’s satire as representing typical Roman women:

Even allowing for poetical exaggeration, it may safely be said that there is no modern society, perhaps there has never existed any since the fall of Rome, to which Juvenal’s famous satire on women can be applied. Independently of the unnatural lusts which were so unblushingly avowed, the picture drawn by the Roman surpasses modern credibility. That it was faithful to nature and fact, there is, unhappily, too much reason to believe.

Sanger similarly interpreted Martial’s explicit epigrams:

A censor like Tacitus might indignantly reprove, but a Martial — and he was, no doubt, a better exponent of public and social life than the stern historian — would only laugh, and copy the model before him. [3]

Martial the poet-maker is thus reduced to Martial the copyist. Sanger conflated realistic style with correspondence to reality. Petronius’s outrageous burlesque in the Satyricon’s banquet of Trimalchio was for Sanger literally “the best recital of a Roman dinner that we have.”

Sanger read ancient Latin poetry as representing biography. Noting that Catullus, Horace, Propertius, Ovid, and Tibullus “devoted no small part of their time and talent to celebration of their mistresses,” Sanger observed of these poets:

All the five we have mentioned moved in the best society at Rome. Some of them, like Horace, saw their fame culminate during their lifetime; others filled important stations under government. Ovid was intimate with Emperor Augustus, and his exile is supposed to have been caused by some improper discoveries he made with regard to the emperor’s relations with his daughter. Yet it is quite evident that all these persons habitually lived with prostitutes, felt no shame on that account, and recorded unblushingly the charms and exploits of their mistresses in verses intended to be read indiscriminately by the Roman youths.

Sanger conceded that Ovid, a brilliant poet, “was not invariably coarse.” Martial’s poetry measured worse:

Martial knows no decency. It may safely be said that his epigrams ought never again to be translated into a modern tongue. Expressions designating the most loathsome depravities, and which, happily, have no equivalent, and need none, in our language, abound in his pages. Pictures of the most revolting pruriency succeed each other rapidly. In a word, such language is used and such scenes depicted as would involve the expulsion of their utterer from any house of ill fame in modern times. Yet Martial enjoyed high favor under government. He was enabled to procure the naturalization of many of his Spanish friends. He possessed a country and town house, both probably gifts from the emperor. His works, even in his lifetime, were carefully sought after, not only in Rome, but in Gaul, Spain, and the other provinces.

Today, Martial’s poetry, like Priapus poetry, is probably too hazardous for most university professors to teach. Some now even regard Ovid’s poetry as requiring trigger warnings. The potential harm to anyone today who twitters words that could be construed as offensive is chilling. With regard to freedom of expression, one might conclude that ancient Rome under the emperors was more civilized, humane, and liberal than modern high-income Western societies.

As elite men tend to do, Sanger imagined himself to be defending women. Sanger imagined prostitution to arise from men seducing and exploiting women, rather than vice-versa or vice-omnia. Just as he sought to repress prostitution, Sanger also sought to repress what he called prostitution of literature and prostitution of art.[4] In modern terms, Sanger was concerned that “prostitution culture” oppresses women:

A young Roman girl, with warm southern blood in her veins, who could gaze on the unveiled pictures of the loves of Venus, read the shameful epigrams of Martial, or the burning love-songs of Catullus, go to the baths and see the nudity of scores of men and women, be touched herself by a hundred lewd hands, as well as those of the bathers who rubbed her dry and kneaded her limbs — a young girl who could withstand such experiences and remain virtuous would need, indeed, to be a miracle of principle and strength of mind.

But even then religion and law remained to assail her. She could not walk through the streets of Rome without seeing temples raised to the honor of Venus, that Venus who was the mother of Rome, as patroness of illicit pleasures. In every field and in many a square, statues of Priapus, whose enormous indecency was his chief characteristic, presented themselves to view, often surrounded by pious matrons in quest of favor from the god. Once a year, at the Lupercalia, she saw young men running naked through the streets, armed with thongs with which they struck every woman they saw; and she noticed that matrons courted this flagellation as a means of becoming prolific. [5]

Sanger indicated relatively little concern about men. While men literally wrote the literature and made the art that Sanger denounced, he seems to have imagined men as being outside of culture in an eternal state of natural brutishness. Sanger sought to culturally suppress men and socially control men to defend women more effectively from men.

Distinguishing cultural constructions from reality provides critical insights. For human beings, death and incarceration are compelling positive facts. Compared to women, men die younger, men die from violence much more frequently, and men are vastly disparately incarcerated. Social science has failed to make these facts sufficiently salient in public discourse about criminalizing seduction and prostitution. The fundamental problem is poor imagination. Learning to read ancient Latin literature well can help to improve imagination.[6] Men and women deserve better than merely pornography and prostitution.

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[1] Sanger (1858). The previous quote is from id. p. 34.

[2] Id. p. 80. Sanger’s phrase “thought his page is lewd, his life is pure” refers to Martial 1.4. See also Catullus 16.5-6. Subsequent quotes are from Sanger (1858) pp. 79 (Even allowing …), 83 (A censor like Tacitus …), 81 (the best recital of a Roman dinner …), 78 (All the five …), 78-9 (Martial knows no decency …), and 80 (A young Roman girl …).

[3] Sanger added:

It may safely be asserted that there does not exist in any modern language a piece of writing which indicates so hopelessly a depraved state of morals as Martial’s epigram on his wife.

Id. pp. 83-4. That epigram is probably 11.43. Martial today is generally thought not to have been married.

[4] Reviewing prostitution in France from Louis XIII to the present day, Sanger observed:

under the brutal sway of the regent, and the lewd influence of the satyr Louis XV, the old prostitution of literature was revived. Thus we find that the most successful authors of the day, such as Voltaire, handled themes grossly immoral in themselves, and rendered still more offensive by their mode of treatment. The most popular novel of the eighteenth century — Manon Lescant {Manon Lescaut} — the work, by the way, of an abbé, is the narrative of the adventures of a prostitute.

Sanger (1858) p. 130. Regarding sixteenth-century France, Sanger observed:

We hear of all kinds of instruments of debauchery; of lewd books and lewd pictures; of indecent sculptures and bronzes being sold without let or hinderance in the stores of Paris. It was the age of Aretino; and besides that famous or infamous writer, a number of other Italians had competed for the prize of lewdness in composition. Poets, painters, sculptors, seemed to try how far art could be prostituted.

Id. pp. 112-3. Sanger declared that “obscene and voluptuous books … may justly be considered as causes, indirect it may be, of prostitution.” Id. 522. He was concerned that literature imported from Europe, along with Americans’ travel to Europe, were bringing to America harmful ideas and morals. Id. pp. 334, 569-72. Sanger summarized:

Every day makes the system of New York more like that of the most depraved capitals of continental Europe, and it remains for the good innate sense of the bulk of the American people to say how much farther we shall proceed in this frivolous, intriguing, and despicable manner of living; or whether they will not strive to perpetuate the stern morality of the Puritan fathers, our great moral safeguard so far, and thus put an effectual barrier against the inroads of a torrent which must undermine our whole social fabric, and finally crush us beneath the ruins.

Id. p. 572. Such a view is particularly astonishing within the context of Sanger’s work. He was not a moralist isolated from the everyday world. He was a leading physician and public figure within primary institutions of social control in New York City. He did pioneering social-scientific study of prostitution.

[5] While Sanger understood prostitution culture to be a cause of prostitution, Horace presented prostitution as a safeguard against adultery:

Seeing a man he knew come out of such a place {“smelly brothel”}, Cato praised him — “Decent fellow!” — and spoke wisely as a god: “When lowly lust has swollen up their veins, young men do right in coming here instead of grinding wives not theirs.”

Horace, Satires 1.2.31-5, from Latin trans. Fuchs (1977) p. 4 (verse lineation suppressed above). Sanger refers to this text indirectly. Sanger (1858) p. 79. Buckley’s English translation in 1863 makes Horace’s sexual imagery considerably more oblique.

By the beginning of the Roman Empire, Cato the Elder of Horace’s satire was a stock figure of traditional morality. On the literary tradition of Cato’s alleged statement, Gowers (2012) p. 98. Cato reportedly further stated:

Later, however, when he noticed him coming out of the same brothel quite frequently, he said, “young man, I praised you for coming here occasionally, not for living here.”

From Porphyrio’s commentary on Horace, cited and trans. Pollmann (2005) p. 93. Like Cato’s speech on the proposal to repeal Lex Oppia, these statements shouldn’t be interpreted as historical records of Cato’s words.

[6] Sanger himself offered advice on classical studies:

And here a word in regard to the bad effects of, so called, classical studies. Are they not oftentimes acquired at the risk of outraged delicacy or undermined moral principles? Mythology, in particular, introduces our youth to courtesans who are described as goddesses, and goddesses who are but courtesans in disguise. Poetry and history as frequently have for their themes the ecstasies of illicit love as the innocent joys of pure affection. Shall these branches of study be totally ignored? By no means; but let their harmless flowers and wholesome fruit alone be culled for youthful minds, to the utter exclusion of all poisonous ones, however beautiful.

Sanger (1858) p. 521. Given the astonishing lack of self-consciousness in Sanger’s social-scientific work and its support for broad criminalization and incarceration of men, a much different approach to classical studies is warranted. Careful study of works such as Priapea, the Life of Aesop, and Apuleius’s Metamorphoses should be central to classics curricula today.

[image] Diana and Actaeon. Painting by Titian, c. 1556-59. Held by the Scottish National Gallery and the National Gallery, London (item Edinburgh: NG 2839 / London: NG6611). Image thanks to National Gallery of Scotland and Wikimedia Commons. In Greek mythology, for the wrong of seeing women nude, Actaeon was transformed into a stag and devoured by dogs.


Fuchs, Jacob, trans. 1977. Horace’s Satires and Epistles. New York: Norton.

Gowers, Emily, ed. 2012. Horace. Satires. Book I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pollmann, Karla. 2005. “Marriage and Gender in Ovid’s Erotodidactic Poetry.” Ch. 5 (pp. 92-110) in Smith, Warren S, ed. 2005. Satiric advice on women and marriage from Plautus to Chaucer. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Sanger, William W. 1858. The history of prostitution: its extent, causes, and effects throughout the world. Being an official report to the Board of Alms-House Governors of the City of New York. New York: Harper.

soldiering for love generated totalizing myth of gender equality

love burns gender equality

knowing under a lyric song he soon set aside his anxious spirit

{cognovit et lirico sub cantico iam spiritum sollicitum removit} [1]

Gender equality in the Middle Ages wasn’t totalizing orthodoxy. Nonetheless, medieval thinkers struggled to reconcile men soldiering for love with gender equality in love.[2] That struggle led to separating fleshly life from words and ideas. That separation in turn enabled a totalizing myth of gender equality and made the experience of Margery Kempe’s husband the experience of many men.

her body without anxiety
takes no offense at a light touch.
The slim girl under her girdle
has a navel that reaches out
and a belly that slightly

{caro carens scrupulo
levem tactum non offendit.
gracili sub cingulo
umbilicum preextendit
paululum ventriculo
tumescenciore.} [3]

A twelfth-century collection of Latin love lyrics known as the Arundel Lyrics disturbingly presents men’s burden of soldiering for love. Soldiering for love (militia amoris) figures in ancient Roman love elegy. Militia amoris was for ignorant men who hadn’t yet understood Ovid’s teachings on love. Like the servile chivalric lovers pedastalizing women and institutionalized sexist selective service, militia amoris represents grotesque gender inequality. The Arundel Lyrics describe men being shot and suffering wounds, men serving long tours as soldiers, and men being continually compliant to women’s will.[4] Amid their anxiety, anguish, torment and distress, men even internalized and celebrated their own oppression:

Into hardship I fall willingly,
not reluctant to suffer,
for I glory in my suffering.

{In laborem sponte labor,
nec invitus pacior,
quod me pati glorior.} [5]

Like fathers’ love for their children being transformed into serving as wallets, militia amoris conflates love and payment. Within the Christian context of medieval Europe, the transplanted idea of militia amoris wrongly induced men to believe that through work they could earn love.[6]

The Arundel Lyrics offer beautiful words supporting gender equality in love. The refrain of one poem celebrates mutuality in lovesickness:

Happy the sickness that cannot be healed
without knowing a matching sickness!

{Felix morbus, qui sanari
nescit sine morbo pari!} [7]

In the first poem of the Arundel Lyrics, the poet imagines divine action harmoniously producing gender equality in love:

Uniting two, the goddess
gives each one to its like,
rejoicing to inflame the pair
with a reciprocal torch;
no couple can explicate themselves
from the enfolding embrace.
And so that love remains regular,
the goddess equally the passion
a double knot is firmer
and stronger
with a twin fastening.

{Suo quemque donat pare
duo nectens diva,
duos gaudet inflammare
face relativa;
quo se nullus explicet,
implicat amplexu.
Et amor ne claudicet,
ignem bipertit nexibus
bino nodus firmior
et cercior
fit nexu.} [8]

In the last poem of the collection, the poet yearns for gender equality with a woman:

who could experience as an equal the pleasures of Venus

{que blandam senciat ex equo Venerem} [9]

Gender equality in love was a beginning and end in learned medieval Latin love lyrics.

Beautiful words about gender equality didn’t transform the oppressive reality of men’s lives. The clash of men’s experiences and professed ideals generated reluctance to enter enduring relationships of love. Men even renounced interest in seeking to incarnate words:

Let love live on as idea,
not commonly revealed in practice.
I will live as yours, you live as mine,
but let us not proceed impetuously.
The goddess will still allow us
to see, to converse, to play.
May in a bond of equals we join
in loving relationship.

{Vivat amor in ydea,
ne divulgetur opere.
Vivam tuus, vive mea,
nec properemus temere.
Dabit adhuc Cytherea
videre, loqui, ludere.
Nos pari iugat federe
relacio Dionea.} [10]

The Arundel Lyrics don’t merely provide exquisitely sophisticated poetry in which “the ancient amatory metaphors of militia amoris are invested with new literal meaning.”[11] In the words of a perceptive critique, the poem above implies that “to become too deeply involved is to court disaster.”[12] That development in medieval Latin love lyrics is commonly felt today in high-income Western countries under a totalizing myth of gender equality. Dispelling that oppressive myth requires rejecting men’s love servitude and celebrating flesh-and-blood women.

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[1] Predantur oculos, 3b.5-10, Latin text from Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 228, transcribed and trans. Moser (2004) p. 347, with my minor adaptation. I’ve removed the poetic lineation.

[2] While lacking totalizing orthodoxy of gender equality, medieval society understood gender equality as a fundamental aspect of human nature: “in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).

In the absence of totalizing myth of gender equality, men and women writing in Latin in medieval Europe expressed thoughts scarcely imaginable today. Great women writers of the Middle Ages poignantly expressed their loving concern for men. Men exuberantly expressed their love for women.

[3] Arundel Lyrics 8 (Sevit aure spiritus) ll. 45-9, Latin texts and English translations available in McDonough (2010) pp. 38-9 and Moser (2004) p. 273. The translation above I’ve adapted from those sources. Servit aure spiritus also survives as Carmina Burana 83, with a refrain.

The Arundel Lyrics have been attributed to one of two clerics named Peter of Blois. Moser (2004) pp. 242-5, Meecham-Jones (2007) pp. 143-7. Dronke (1976), Appendix A, provides a tentative bibliography of poems he attributes to Peter of Blois, mainly on stylistic grounds. Highly learned and artful, the erotic poems of the Arundel Lyrics were associated with leading clerics. They comprise “one of the most sophisticated and ambitious collections of medieval erotic verse in Latin.” Meecham-Jones (2007) p. 143. Peter of Blois’s poetry has been described as “medieval ‘Alexandrianism.'” Godman (1990) p. 157. That description alludes to the learned, innovative poetry of the Hellenistic poet Callimachus and associated poets in Alexandria.

The Arundel Lyrics survive as a collection in British Library MS Arundel 384. Moser (2004) p. 262, Fig. 8 provides an image of a page of the manuscript.

[4] Arundel Lyrics 1.65-6, 8.11-20, 9.29-36, 10.8-10, Latin with English translation available in McDonough (2010).

[5] Arundel Lyrics 11 (In laborem sponte labor) ll. 1-3, Latin with English translation McDonough (2010) pp. 52-3, adapted slightly. Cf. Matthew 26:39, 42; Mark 14:36, Luke 22:42.

[6] Cf. Ephesians 2:4-10, Romans 4:4-5. Men being required to provide material goods for love is a theme of Arundel Lyrics 15 (Spoliatum). Medieval literature addressed that injustice through the “lover’s gift regained” motif.

[7] Arundel Lyrics 7 (Plaudit humus, boree) ll. 9-10 (refrain), Latin with English translation id. pp. 32-3, adapted slightly.

[8] Arundel Lyrics 1 (Dionei sideris) ll. 69-80, Latin with English translation id. pp. 6-7 and Moser (2004) pp. 280-1. The translation above I’ve adapted from both sources. Just before the quoted passage, the poem sharply contrasts the actions of Cupid and Venus. Horace described Venus’s practice much differently:

It is the will of Venus,
Who has a lot of fun,
With the cruel joke of putting
Like and unlike together
In the same brazen yoke.

Horace, Odes 1.33, trans. Ferry (1997) p. 87.

[9] Arundel Lyrics 28 (Quam velim virginum, si detur opcio) l. 12, Latin with English translation McDonough (2010) pp. 140-1. This understanding of gender equality obviously abstracts from physical sex differences.

[10] Arundel Lyrics 9 (Dum rutilans Pegasei) ll. 57-64, Latin with English translation id. pp. 44-7 and Wetherbee (1972) p. 142. The translation above I’ve adapted from both sources. This poem survives only in MS Arundel 384, a late fourteenth-century manuscript.

McDonough’s Latin text includes exclamation points at the ends of lines 58 and 60. Exclamation points didn’t come into use until the fifteenth century. Lack of bodily passion seems to me to be a theme of the stanza. I have re-punctuated the Latin text to suggest a cool, intellectual mood.

A few decades after the Arundel Lyrics were written, Lotario dei Segni’s De miseria humanae conditionis offered a stern warning about the misery of sexless married men. De miseria humanae conditionis 2.4 also took up the legal-nonsense theme of Arundel Lyrics 16 (Partu recenti frondium) ll. 31-36.

[11] Godman (1990), p. 168, in reference to Arundel Lyrics 10 (Grates ago Veneri). That poem offers the appearance of a man raping a woman and the substance of love satisfaction. The poem is a highly sophisticated, transgressive treatment of disputes about the Eucharist. Meecham-Jones (2007) pp. 147-52.  Recent scholarly treatment of rape in literature confirms a fundamental communicative principle of rape. More generally, the Arundel Lyrics self-consciously construct and resolve a conflict between militia amoris and ideals of gender equality.

[12] Wetherbee (1972) p. 142, n. 35.

[image] flower photo by Douglas Galbi.


Dronke, Peter. 1976. “Peter of Blois and Poetry at the Court of Henry II.” Mediaeval Studies. 38: 185-235.

Ferry, David, trans. 1997. The odes of Horace. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Godman, Peter. 1990. “Literary Classicism and Latin Erotic Poetry of the Twelfth Century and the Renaissance.” Pp. 149-82 in Peter Godman and Oswyn Murray, eds. Latin Poetry and the Classical Tradition. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

McDonough, Christopher J., ed. and trans. 2010. The Arundel lyrics; The poems of Hugh Primas. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 2. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Meecham-Jones, Simon. 2007. “Sex in the Sight of God: theology and the erotic in Peter of Blois’ ‘Grates Ago Veneri.'” Pp. 142-54 in Amanda Hopkins and Cory Rushton, eds. The erotic in the literature of medieval Britain. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Moser, Thomas C. 2004. A cosmos of desire: the medieval Latin erotic lyric in English manuscripts. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Wetherbee, Winthrop. 1972. Platonism and poetry in the twelfth century: the literary influence of the school of Chartres. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

NAWALT refuted: king demonstrates all women are unfaithful

king refuted NAWALT

Men typically praise and defend women. For example, in response to accounts of women’s abuse of men, men commonly assert that Not All Women Are Like That (NAWALT). But not all men are like that. Long ago, once upon a time, a wise and well-advised Arab king empirically refuted NAWALT and demonstrated that all women are unfaithful and wonderful.

The Arabic king’s important study is recorded in Joseph ibn Zabara’s Sefer Shaashuim, a book he wrote in Hebrew in Spain about the year 1200. Here’s the beginning of the story:

A king of the Arabs, wise and well-advised, was one day seated with his counselors, who were loud in praise of women, lauding their virtues and their wisdom. “Cut short these words,” said the king. “Never since the world began has there been a good woman. They love for their own ends.” [1]

The one good man is a well-recognized figure today. That there has never been a good woman since the beginning of the world — that’s an extraordinary claim. The king’s counselors knew better than to call the king nasty names — bitter old man, involuntary celibate, video gamer, men’s human rights activist, hater, troll, misogynist, etc. The king’s sages instead gently urged more thorough consideration of women and poignantly pleaded the virtues of women:

“But,” pleaded his sages, “O King, thou art hasty. Women there are, wise and faithful and spotless, who love their husbands and tend their children.”

Rejecting what might be regarded as platitudes and stereotypes, the king put the matter to empirical test:

The King said, “Here then is my city before you: search it through, and find one of the good women of whom you speak.”

The king knew the wisdom of Solomon and practiced the empiricism of modern science.[2]

The king’s counselors produced an exemplar of what they thought to be a good woman. Back in ancient times, the good woman wasn’t a career professional with strong, independent sexuality. She was “chaste and wise, fair as the moon and bright as the sun.” In other words, the ancient good woman was smart, hot-looking, and just for her man. This particular woman was married to a wealthy trader who loved her dearly.

The king sent for the woman’s husband to come for a private visit. The king then offered the husband a shocking proposition:

“I have something for thy ear,” said the king. “I have a good and desirable daughter. She is my only child. I will not give her to a king or a prince. Let me find a simple, faithful man, who will love her and hold her in esteem. You are such a man. You shall have her. But you are married. Slay your wife tonight, and tomorrow thou shall wed my daughter.”

The husband sought to decline respectfully the king’s proposition:

“I am unworthy,” pleaded the man, “to be the shepherd of your flock, much less the husband of your daughter.” But the king would take no denial. The man pleaded, “But how shall I kill my wife? For fifteen years she has eaten of my bread and drunk of my cup. She is the joy of my heart. Her love and esteem grow day by day.” “Slay her,” declared the king, “and be king thereafter.”

The husband returned home, shaken and greatly troubled. At home he saw his wife and his two little children. The husband cried out to himself:

Better is my wife than a kingdom. Cursed be all kings who tempt men to sip sorrow, calling it joy. [3]

When the king learned of the husband’s steadfast love for his wife, the king sneered at him, “You are no man. Your heart is a woman’s.” That’s odd disparagement for a man’s steadfast love for his wife.[4] But few care if men aren’t insulted correctly, or even if men are killed much more frequently than women are.

The king sent for the woman to come for a private visit. The king then committed the crime of a man seducing a woman:

The king praised her beauty and her wisdom. His heart, he said, was burning with love for her, but he could not wed another man’s wife. “Slay thy husband tonight, and tomorrow be my queen.” With a smile, the woman consented. The king gave her a sword made of tin, for he knew the weak mind of woman. “Strike once,” he said to her. “The sword is sharp. You need not attempt a second blow.”

The woman returned home. She made a big meal for her husband, served him much wine, and got him drunk. Then she put him to bed. When he had fallen asleep, she struck him on the head with the tin sword. The sword bent. The husband awoke. He couldn’t understand what had happened. She quieted him and put him back to sleep. The husband never suspected his wife’s treachery.

The king subsequently summoned the woman, her husband, and his counselors. The king ordered the woman to tell publicly the story of what she had done.[5] When the woman finished her astonishing story, the king declared triumphantly:

Did I not tell you to cease your praises of women?

Don’t believe claims that we live in a culture of misogyny.[6] A man like that Arabic king now can hardly be found.

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[1] Joseph ibn Zabara, Sefer Shaashuim, story of the devoted husband and the faithless wife, from Hebrew trans. Davidson (1914) pp. XLIX-LI. Davidson’s translation condenses the story considerably.

All the subsequent quotes above are from Davidson’s condensed translation. I have made non-substantial changes to the quoted text to enhance readability.

[2] Solomon declared that not one good woman can be found among a thousand women. Ecclesiastes 7:28. On the development of modern social science, see Sanger’s mid-nineteenth-century study of prostitution.

[3] Davidson’s translation leaves out the husband’s temptation:

And it came to pass in the night, when she was sleeping upon her bed, that he arose in confusion of heart to slay her. He took his sword in his right hand and a lamp in his left, and removed the covering from upon her. But when he saw her lying asleep, with her two babes at her breast, he took pity upon her and said, “Woe is me, how can I slay her, wither can I take my shame, who will bring up my children, who are the very apple of my eye? Surely it is but the multitude of my transgression and of my iniquity.” And he returned the sword to its sheath, and his soul melted in sorrow, and he said in his heart running tears, “Lo, my wife is better than all the kingdoms. Cursed be all kings, for they do but pursue after their own desires, and seduce the hearts of men with their vanities and pour waters of sorrow with the wine of their joy.” And he ascended her couch and lay by her and kissed her and put his left hand under her head and embraced her.

Hadas (1932) pp. 63-4. One interesting aspect of the full story is that the king didn’t give the husband a tin sword. The husband, who already had a sword, probably couldn’t have been duped with a tin sword. But that didn’t matter. The king apparently was confident that the husband wouldn’t actually slay his wife.

Hadas’s translation is based on Davidson’s edition of the Hebrew text. Davidson’s condensed version seems to me to make a better story.

[4] Perhaps the king’s point was that the man lacked will to act with heartless brutality. Alternatively, having a woman’s heart may have been an ironic reference to “excessive love.” According to Isidore of Seville:

Others believe that through a Greek etymology femina is derived from “fiery force,” because she desires more vehemently, for females are said to be more libidinous than males, both in human beings and animals. Whence among the ancients excessive love was called feminine (femineus) love.

Etymologies XI.ii.24, from Latin trans. Barney et al. (2006) p. 242. Either interpretation disparages men as a sex.

[5] While the woman told her story publicly, the story of what she did is much less well-known and is generally regarded as less significant than the story of David, Bathsheba, and Uriah. See 2 Samuel 11.

[6] Anticipating extensive scholarly evaluation and judging of whether long-dead authors were misogynists or anti-feminists, an ibn Zabara scholar, writing in 1912, declared:

It is hard to say from the “Book of Delight” whether he {ibn Zabara} was a woman-hater, or not. On the one hand, he says many pretty things about women. The moral of the first section of the romance is: Put your trust in women; and the moral of the second section of the poem is: A good woman is the best part of man. But, though this is so, Zabara does undoubtedly quote a large number of stories full of point and sting, stories that tell of women’s wickedness and infidelity, of their weakness of intellect and fickleness of will. His philogynist tags hardly compensate for his misogynist satires.

Abrahams (1912) p. 14. Academic scholarship has now largely settled into a consensus that any writer who depicts women as having an undesirable characteristic or as acting badly is a misogynist.

[image] Stephen of Blois, King of England 1135-54. Painting made c. 1620. I’ve digitally eliminated lettering in the painting (at top “Stephanus Rex”) and cropped the painting. The painting is held in the rapacious National Portrait Gallery, London. Image thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Abrahams, Israel. 1912. The book of delight, and other papers. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society of America.

Barney, Stephen A., W.J. Lewis, J.A. Beach, and Oliver Berghof, trans. 2006. The etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Davidson, Israel, ed. and trans. 1914. Joseph ben Meir ibn Zabara. Sepher Shaashuim: a book of mediaeval lore. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Hadas, Moses, trans. 1932. Joseph ben Meir ibn Zabara. The book of delight. New York: Columbia University Press.