men suffering lovesickness: Viaticum in medieval Latin poetry

flame of lovesickness

In flammam abiit
totus philosophus.
{In a flame went up
the whole of the philosopher.} [1]

Late in the eleventh century, Constantine the African brought from Tunis in North Africa to Salerno on the Italian coast a large collection of Arabic medical manuscripts. Arabic literature then encompassed leading medical knowledge in western Eurasia, including Greek and Indian medical knowledge. Constantine adapted one of these Arabic manuscripts into Latin as the Viaticum. It provided medical knowledge about lovesickness:

The love that is “eros” is a disease touching the brain. It is a great longing with intense sexual desire and affliction of thoughts. From this certain philosophers say: Eros is a word signifying the greatest pleasure. For just as loyalty is the ultimate form of affection, so also eros is a certain extreme form of pleasure. [2]

The Arundel Lyrics, exquisite erotic poetry written in Latin in twelfth-century England, thoroughly explore the Viaticum’s polarities of lovesickness — pleasure and disease, body and thought. The poetic breadth of lovesickness in this learned Latin poetry represents a poignant call for broad sympathy in meeting men’s needs.

The Arundel Lyrics play across the polarities of lovesickness in a variety of ways. Love is a “wonderful plague” (mira peste). The poet declares that he is “happy in my unhappy disease” (morbo felix infelici). More subtle are material figures of the lovesick mind:

Poised on a tipsy scale
in balance,
my mind, suspended, fluctuates
and whirls about
in anxious confusion,
as it turns itself upside down
and splits into
warring emotions.
{Vacillantis trucine
mens suspensa fluctuat,
et estuat
in tumultos anxios,
dum se vertit
et bipertit
motus in contrarios.} [3]

A scale, balanced but tipsy, whirls about and turns upside down. Those verbs destroy any understanding of balance. The mind, an abstract concept, undergoes the material commonplace of splitting, but its split parts consist of the abstractions of warring emotions. The figure of a scale re-emerges in peculiar reasoning:

On a scale I weigh
what is better
and still uncertain
I deliberate with myself.
Now I recall to mind
of love:
that to me my darling Flora
gives kisses,
how she laughs, what tender lips,
what face,
brow, nose, and hair!
{Sub libra pondero
quid melius
et dubius
mecum delibero.
Nunc menti refero
que mea michi Florula
det oscula
qui risus, que labellula,
que facies,
frons, naris aut cesaries!}

This reasoning is only imagining sensuous delights. Reason subsequently torments, pokes, and threatens, but doesn’t provide any substantive reasons. A battle between reason (Athena) and love (Venus) is a conventional figure in ancient and medieval Latin poetry.[4] In the Arundel Lyrics, those battle lines are deliberately blurred.

The Arundel Lyrics satirize a physician treating lovesickness. The poet declares that the only remedy for lovesickness that he has received is habituation: familiarity with the experience of being lovesick. In a subsequent stanza the poet describes the faulty thinking of the physician who diagnosed him:

The healer doesn’t see the torch
that secretly destroyed me;
and he contributed
no cure;
he who examined my urine
took no thought of my semen,
and a bodily fluid,
not my penis,
he pronounced the cause of my sickness.
{Medenti se fax oculit,
que me latenter perculit;
nec contulit
qui urinam,
non urine consulit,
cum humorem,
non amorem,
causam morbi protulit.} [5]

The poet declares that fever consumes him with a fierce heat. Yet at the same time, using technical medical terms he asserts his intellectual superiority to the physician:

With what feebleness I fight,
now I have revealed well enough
with sure prognosis.
I am not ignorant
of why I suffer.
In contrast, in making a self-diagnosis,
even as an invalid
I know
more of myself than does a physician.
{Cum quo languore dimico,
iam certo satis indico
Nec ignoro,
cur laboro.
Set, ut de me iudico,
vel egrotus
magis notus
michi sum quam medico.}

The successful diagnosis of lovesickness results not from narrow medical art, but from the ancient Greek ideal of knowing oneself. The poet’s prognosis is lovesickness unto death, delayed only by blind hope for a visit from his beloved.[6]

The medical knowledge that Constantine the African brought to Italy included cures for lovesickness. The Viaticum quotes the Roman physician Rufus of Ephesus’s recommended remedy of having sexual intercourse, even with a woman one doesn’t love. The Viaticum suggests other treatments to raise the spirit of a lovesick man: drinking fragrant wine, listening to music, conversing with close friends, reciting poetry, experiencing bright, fruitful gardens with clear-running water, and conversing with beautiful, wise, or virtuous companions (women or men).[7] From perhaps the last decades of the twelfth century, the earliest surviving commentary on Constantine’s Viaticum adds about lovesickness:

This disease cannot be perfectly cured without intercourse and the permission of law and faith. For then the faculties and the body return to their natural disposition. Before it is established, therefore, consider whether there may be burning of humor; if there is, purge it. Then administer lengthy sleep, humectation {moistening}, and good nourishment, and freshwater baths. Occupy the patient with various things, so that they are distracted from what they love. In this, moreover, the counsel of old women is very useful. They may relate many disparagements and the stinking dispositions of the desired thing. Also useful is consorting with and embracing girls, sleeping with them repeatedly, and switching various ones. Hunting and various types of games also help. [8]

Leading love authorities for men today similarly prescribe sex with multiple women as a cure for lovesickness, now more commonly called oneitis. Love authorities for men today also teach an understanding of love that reduces the risk of lovesickness.

In contrast to medical cures, the poet’s hope is faith in all-conquering love. A refrain in one of the Arundel Lyrics proclaims:

Oh! Love conquers all.
Love is a blessed affliction!
Ah! I am faint from a sweet disease,
from this I happily die!
{O! vincit amor omnia.
Felix amor miseria!
Ha! dulci morbo langueo,
quo sic beate pereo!} [9]

Yet a refrain in another of the Arendel Lyrics offers a more philosophical prayer:

I seek to be thrust into the flames,
I thirst to be burned less.
May I be less inflicted with desire,
when delivered to the fiery heat of old.
{Flammis volens ingeri
minus uri sicio;
minus urar veteri
traditus incendio.} [10]

The philosopher’s praise of moderation goes up in the flames of love. At least for some men, love is a consuming fire.

May God and women have compassion and mercy for men in love. If that’s not possible, may men at least know medical cures for lovesickness.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Predantur oculos, 1b, Latin text from Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 228, transcribed and trans. Moser (2004) pp. 346-7, with my minor adaptation.

[2] Constantine the African, Viaticum peregrinantis (Provisions for the Traveler) I.20.1-7, from Latin trans. Wack (1990) p. 187, with my non-substantial changes to improve readability. The Viaticum is an adaptation of ibn al-Jazzar’s Zad al-musafir. Ibn al-Jazzar practiced medicine in the medieval capital of Tunisia, Qayrawan. On Constantine’s adaptation of al-Jazzar’s Zad al-musafir, Brachtel (2005). Constantine probably produced the Viaticum some time between 1058 and 1087. Wack (1990) p. 32.

Constantine’s description of the love that is called eros was through misunderstanding transformed into the love of heroes. That change associated lovesickness with noble men. Id. pp. 60, 182-5. Reflecting the textual confusions, Arcite in Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale (ll. 1373-4) suffers “the lover’s malady of Hereos.” The Knight’s Tale, like Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde shows how lovesickess and courtly love encouraged violence against men.

[3] Arundel Lyrics 14 (Vacillantis trucine) ll. 1-8, Latin text and English translation in Dronke (1976) pp. 200-1 and McDonough (2010) pp. 66-7.  I’ve adapted the English translation from both. The subsequent quote is ll. 33-44, sourced similarly. This poem also occurs as Carmina Burana 108.

[4] Its source is “the ancient motif of Hecules at the crossroads, being tempted by Virtus and Voluptas.” Dronke (1976) p. 200, citing the influence of Cicero, De officiis 1.32.118. Another medieval example is Carmina Burana 56 (Ianus annum circinat).

[5] Arundel Lyrics 5 (Iam vere fere medio) ll. 55-64, Latin text and English translation in McDonough (2010) pp. 58-9. I’ve adapted the English translation using McDonough’s helpful notes about Latin sexual vocabulary. Id. pp. 239-40. The subsequent quote similarly is from Arundel Lyrics 5, ll. 73-81, id. pp. 58-9. Carmina Burana 176 (Non est in medico semper, relevetur ut eger) is another example of medieval Latin anti-medical satire.

[6] “Know yourself” (Greek: gnothi seauton, Latin: nosce te ipsum) was a Delphic maxim. It’s a theme in Shakespeare’s Ion. On blind hope in the context of suffering, cf. Prometheus Bound l. 250.

[7] Viaticum I.20.9-11, 33-68, trans. Wack (1990) pp. 189-91.

[8] Gerard of Berry, Glosses on the Viaticum ll. 50-6, from Latin trans. Wack (1990) p. 203. Gerard wrote his glosses no later than 1236 and probably in the last decades of the twelfth century. Id. p. 52.

[9] Arundel Lyrics 2 (Preclusi viam floris), refrain, Latin and English text from McDonough (2010) pp. 10-1.

[10] Arundel Lyrics 5 (Estivali Clarius), refrain, Latin and English in Moser (2004) pp. 255-6 and McDonough (2010) pp. 24-5. I’ve adapted the translation from both.

[image] Photo of a fire taken with a 1/4000th of a second exposure; detail. Thanks to Awesomoman and Wikimedia Commons.


Brachtel, Mirja Martha. 2005. Ibn al-Jazzar’s Zad al-Musafir and Constantinus Africanus’ Latin Version Viaticum Peregrinantis: A Comparative Study. Kulliyah of Human Sciences. International Islamic University, Malaysia.

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

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.

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

Wack, Mary Frances. 1990. Lovesickness in the Middle Ages: the Viaticum and its commentaries. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current month [email protected] day *