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.

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