courtly love ideology leaves bitter men with only fantasies

courtly love failure

In medieval Latin love lyrics, courtly lovers yearn for carnal love. They praise women’s bodily beauty, they beg for love and pitifully lament being rejected, and they plaintively foretell their death through lovesickness. Medieval clerics, white knights, and courtiers are standard-bearers of courtly love. They display ignorance, dogma, and fantasy that endures to our day as an alternative to the empirical science of seduction.

For long now I have shown myself
to be a devoted soldier of Love,
at whose bidding I rushed headlong
to commit foolish, daring deed,
loving at great hazard
one who never casts a kindly eye on me.

If I now entirely ceased,
I would serve myself well,
But only the inferior man
flees the clamor of battle.
Let it be, as I will!
Carelessly I offer my life to fortune’s hazards.

She must know of my soul’s greatness,
greater than my bodily form,
for I climb the loftiest bough
seeking for fruit on the tree
and claiming: guile
has no place in a lover who knows no fear.

{ Iam dudum Amoris militem
devotum me exhibui,
cuius nutu me precipitem
stulto commisi ausui,
amans in periculo
unam que numquam   me pio respexit oculo.

Si adhuc cessarem penitus
michi forte consulerem,
sed non fugat belli strepitus
nisi virum degenerem.
fiat, quod desidero!
vitam fortune   casibus securus offero.

Me sciat ipsa magnanimum
maiorem meo corpore,
qui ramum scandens altissimum
fructum queram in arbore,
allegans: ingenio
non esse locum   in amante metus nescio. }[1]

Soldiers of love are men who believe in the ideology of courtly love. They are men such as Ulrich von Liechtenstein, Suero de Quinones, and Nitin Nohria. Living in fantasies, they are generally not successful in love with women. They commonly became bitter men who hate themselves and other men. They tend to marry as beta-provider hubbies. They face a high risk of sexless marriage and being cuckolded. You don’t want your son, if you have one, to become that kind of man.

In the Middle Ages, just as in our current Dark Age, a few transgressive poets challenged the benighted scholars, gynocentric apparatchiks, and sophistic social-climbers that construct and re-enforce the ideology of courtly love. Drawing upon the full resources of classical, biblical, and contemporary culture, these poets offered a messianic secret. Their secret is accessible only to those who read medieval Latin poetry knowingly.

If I were to speak with angelic and human tongues,
I could not describe the prize, no worthless one.
By that I am rightly set above all Christians,
while unbelieving rivals envy me.

Sing, my tongue, therefore of causes and effects!
Yet keep the lady’s name cloaked,
so that it isn’t spread widely among the people,
and the secret is kept apart and hidden from the masses.

{ Si linguis angelicis loquar et humanis,
non valeret exprimi palma, nec inanis,
per quam recte preferor cunctis Christianis,
tamen invidentibus emulis profanis.

Pange, lingua, igitur causas et causatum!
nomen tamen domine serva palliatum,
ut non sit in populo illud divulgatum,
quod secretum gentibus extat et celatum. }[2]

The medieval Latin poem Si linguis angelicis, written in a Latin meter associated with satire, subtly mocks the delusions of courtly love. The lover’s case history begins with plausible circumstances of despair:

In a beautiful, flowering bush I stood,
turning around in my heart this: “What should I do?”
I hesitate to plant seeds in infertile soil.
Loving the flower of the world, behold, I am in despair.”

{ In virgultu florido   stabam et ameno,
vertens hec in pectore:   “quid facturus ero?
dubito, quod semina   in harena sero;
mundi florem diligens   ecce iam despero. }[3]

This stanza thoroughly mixes sexual and biblical imagery: standing erect in a beautiful bush, God from a burning bush instructing Moses, sexual intercourse not propitious for creating descendants as numerous as the sand on the seashore, and the microcosm-macrocosm flower of the world / vulva of God. Life is wonderfully complex. The question in despair for every man conscious of his human nature: “what should I do?”

In the context of deeply rooted social hostility toward men’s sexuality, men increasingly are choosing to do nothing. As an alternative to life in the flesh, historically much more prevalent than pornography has been fantasies of courtly love:

I saw a blossoming flower, saw the flower of flowers,
saw a May rose more beautiful than all others,
saw a shining star brighter than the rest,
by which I passed into the experience of love.

{ Vidi florem floridum, vidi florum florem,
vidi rosam Madii cunctis pulchriorem,
vidi stellam splendidam, cunctis clariorem,
per quam ego degeram sentiens amorem. }

The experience of courtly love centers on other-worldly idealization of the beloved woman. The deluded lover, feeling ineffable joy from this imaginary woman, rushes to her and greets her on bended knee:

Hail, most beautiful one, precious jewel!
Hail, glory of virgins, maiden glorious,
hail, light of lights, hail, rose of the world,
a Blanchefleur and a Helen, a noble Venus!

{ Ave, formosissima, gemma pretiosa,
ave, decus virginum, virgo gloriosa,
ave, lumen luminum, ave, mundi rosa,
Blanziflour et Helena, Venus generosa! }[4]

Yes, even in medieval times, most women would regard this guy as creepy. She doesn’t even know him. He had seen her at a summer feast, fully five or six years ago. Since then, he has been suffering grievously from lovesickness. He has never spoken to her, but he thinks of her:

Drink, food, and sleep have deserted me,
By medicine I am unable to be healed.

These privations and many more have I endured,
No consolations fortify against my cares,
except repeatedly in the darkness of night
I am with you in forms shaped by the imagination.

{ Fugit a me bibere,   cibus et dormire,
medicinam nequeo   malis invenire.

Has et plures numero   pertuli iacturas,
nec ullum solacium   munit meas curas,
ni quod sepe sepius   per noctes obscuras
per imaginarias   tecum sum figuras. }

Offering a fantastic alternative to the folklore motif “man gets sex without paying for it,” the imaginary woman declares:

So tell me, young sir, what you have in mind;
do you ask for silver, so as to enrich yourself,
or for precious stones to adorn yourself?
For if it be possible, I will give you whatever you seek.

{ Dicas ergo, iuvenis, quod in mente geris;
an argentum postulas, per quod tu diteris,
pretioso lapide an quod tu orneris?
nam si esse poterit, dabo quidquid queris. }

Imagine — while he was secretly pining for her, she was also secretly in love with him! Even better, she wants to give him expensive gifts. Needless to say, real life five or six years after seeing a beautiful woman, but not speaking to her, isn’t like this. Continuing more realistically, the man dallies further verbally. Recognizing that he needs additional, explicit instruction, as many students do after being terrified in mandatory affirmative-consent classes, the loving woman declares:

Whatever you want to do, such I cannot foreknow,
however to your entreaties I desire to consent.
Therefore, what I have, sedulously investigate,
undertaking, if you can find it, whatever you seek.

{ Quicquid velis, talia nequeo prescire;
tuis tamen precibus opto consentire.
ergo, quicquid habeo, sedulus inquire,
sumens si quod appetis, potes invenire. }

She speaks like a true scholastic. She even offers a hint of now-fashionable gender ambiguity. The lover throws his arms around her neck and kisses her a thousand times. As Ovid said after hugging his mistress Corinna’s lovely, naked body, who doesn’t know what then ensued?[5] Men bitter with the failures of courtly love will find pleasure in this fantasy. They must not lose heart, but have stronger hope that repeated failures of courtly love indicate forthcoming success.[6] Can anyone doubt that triumph in courtly love comes from fantasy, not empirical science?

Medieval Latin poetry shows a still more excellent way. With guile, amused mastery, and fear for his holiness, a man can aspire to be like God to the woman he wants to love:

Game, he may game, you all game! In your jesting now listen,
the sweet joys of the present life soothe and make merry:
the player roles the dice,
the student by his embraces
would delude women.

Love must be sung in sweet melodies;
It should not be held back in the shackles of grave homilies.
A little maiden should pledge her hand,
she flowering like a rose,
overcome by pious words.

She should say “yes!” readily, not refusing when asked,
Not inquiring of the aforesaid man’s standing.
She should do what is asked;
what is neglected to be requested,
the lauded young woman should provide.

{ Lude, ludat, ludite! iocantes nunc audite,
quos presentis gaudia demulcent leta vite:
histrio tesseribus;
clericus amplexibus
deludat mulieres.

Amor est iam suavibus canendus melodiis,
qui non tardet gravibus detentus homiliis.
spondeat puellula
florens quasi rosula,
verbis devicta piis.

Dicat “ita!” facile, nil deneget rogata,
non viri notitiam rimetur prenotata.
faciat, quod petitur;
quod prece negligitur,
prestet virgo laudata. } [7]

The Virgin Mary said yes to the mysterious words of the angel Gabriel. About two millennia later, the Mystery Method has been extensively field-tested. Among all possible outrages —  and medieval Latin provided now inconceivably broad latitude for outrageous words — the greatest of these is love.

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[1] Carmina Burana 166, For a long time now a soldier of love {Iam dudum Amoris militem}, from Latin my English translation, with borrowings from the English translations of Marshall (2014) p. 205 and Walsh (1993) p. 187. In the final Latin line, Walsh replaces non from the manuscript with nunc and translates the last two lines thus:

claiming that in a lover who knows no fear there is now a role for native talent.

Perhaps climbing trees is a “native talent,” but that makes little poetic sense in context. For the original manuscript text, Walsh provides the alternate translation:

in a lover who knows no fear, there is no place for the crafty approach.

Id. pp. 187-8. My translation is similar, but makes more clear that the relevant craft is social ingenuity (ingenio): guile.

The phrase amoris militem (soldier of Love) “sounds the keynote of the poem; this is to be the proclamation of the courtly lover.” Id. p. 187. Ovid explored that theme, but with much more insight and sophistication.

[2] Carmina Burana 77, Were I to speak with the tongues of angels and men {Si linguis angelicis loquar et humanis} st. 1-2, from Latin my English translation, with borrowings from the English translations of Marshall (2014) p. 101-5 and Walsh (1993) pp. 65-8. Here’s a complete Latin text of the poem from Biblotheca Augustana. Above I provide the Latin text from id. pp. 62-65. That Latin text has some small differences from Bibliotheca Augustana‘s Latin text. All the subsequent quotes above, except the final one, are similarly from Si linguis angelicis, stanzas 3, 6, 8, 20 (ll. 1-2) & 21, 26, and 28. This poem has survived only in the Carmina Burana manuscript (Bavarian State Library, Munich, clm 4660/4660a).

The opening line of Si linguis angelicis cites 1 Corinthians 13:1, not as an ideal, but as an insufficiency. The next three lines are boastful and arrogant. Cf. 1 Corinthians 13:4. Robertson (1976/1980) p. 141 insightfully notes:

the assertion of that self-esteem after the suggestion of charity in the first line is more than a little ridiculous and hence humorous. I do not mean that it produced loud laughter, but I am confident that it did produce a smile.

The reference in the second line to the prize (palma) plausibly derives from Apocalypse 7:9. Id.

The second stanza’s first two words Pange, lingua evoke the crucifixion hymn of Venantius Fortunatus. Fortunatus wrote that hymn for the presentation of a cross relic to Queen Radegund at Poitiers in 570. It subsequently was commonly used in the Christian liturgy for Good Friday. Robertson provides a learned exegesis of the phrase causas et causatum:

The rare participle causatus (from causo rather than the usual Classical causor) used substantially occurs prominently in only one familiar {sic} work: the translation of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics by Boethius. It appears in 1.7 toward the close in the clause “cum non ex causatis sciat causis,” which forms part of an argument to show that demonstrative principles appropriate to one discipline cannot be used for demonstration in another discipline unless the axioms of the two are the same, or unless one discipline can be thought of as being logically subordinate to the other.

Without being able to draw upon insights from the subsequently developed body of seduction field reports, Robertson makes a false distinction:

Divinity and seduction do not have the same axioms, since it is an axiom of Divinity that fornication is forbidden. For the same reason Divinity cannot be subordinated to seduction. The two are incompatible, and our lover is speaking foolishly.

Id. p. 142. On the messianic secret, Mark 8:29-30 and Romans 16:25-6. On men’s love for women in relation to crucifixion, Ephesians 5:25. The issue of divinity and seduction is further elaborated in the discussion of Lude, ludat, ludite! above.

The satire on courtly love in Si linguis angelicis hasn’t been recognized within Latin literary scholarship that largely celebrates man-oppressing courtly love. Considering Si linguis angelicis, Dronke declares:

The poet makes constant liturgical allusions — yet these are not in any way parodistic or blasphemous: they are not to establish an incongruity but to overcome one.

Dronke (1965) p. 318. Si linguis angelicis is written in a “goliardic” meter. That form is commonly associated with “satirical or jocular purposes.” Walsh (1993) p. 69. The poem has technical similarities with the immediately preceding poem in the Carmina Burana, Dum caupona verterem. Id. pp. 59-60. Dum caupona verterem is about a man of distinction who spent three months in a brothel having sex with Venus. He left as a pauper with fantastic memories. In contrast to Dronke’s and Walsh’s views, both poems seem to me to ridicule men’s ignorance and folly in love.

[3] The phrase in harena more literally means “in sand.” Cf. Mark 4:5-6. Ovid, Heroides 5.115 associates sowing seed in sand with prophecy of death. The context is Paris leaving Oenone for Helen. Walsh (1993) p. 70, which notes that reference, observes “the crudity of this double entendre is lightened by the literary reminiscence.” Male sexual function isn’t crude; it’s natural, beautiful, and in some instances fruitful. In context, the reference to sand evokes barrenness. The reminiscence of Helen and the Trojan War adds a dark note of brutal violence against men.

[4] The first three lines of the above stanza evoke Marian hymns. The fourth line refers to a secular romance and traditional Roman myth. Walsh (1992) p. 197 observes:

The identification of the loved one with Helen, who is cited as an exemplum of peerless beauty without animadversion to morals, should not have troubled Dronke, since it is a prominent feature in other lyrics and is recommended in the rhetorical handbooks.

Robertson offers broader insight:

Although it is true that in the twelfth century after it became commonplace to see the bride in the Canticle as Mary, the attractiveness of her physical attributes was sometimes indicated in very frank terms, and love for her was often expressed in what is today startling imagery, no one would seriously have sought to combine the Blessed Virgin, Blanchefleur, Helen and Venus in the same person. To deny that the effect of this line is humorous seems to me to be insensitive. Whatever we may think of Blanchefleur, Helen had an unsavory reputation in the twelfth century; and it would hardly have been possible for a girl to be a “virgo gloriosa,” which Helen certainly was not, and a “Venus generosa” at the same time.

Robertson (1976/1980) p. 145. Being humorous doesn’t exclude the serious purpose of challenging the dominant ideology of courtly love.

Medieval writers fearlessly combined sacred and profane themes. Carmina Burana 215 (Lugeamus omnes in Decio) uses the form of the Mass as a disparaging liturgy against the god of dice. The mid-fifteenth-century Middle English poem Kyrie, so kyrie rewrites Jankyn’s subordination to Alisoun. The Arundel Lyrics is a wide-ranging collection that evokes the extraordinary mixture of the Incarnation. Boncompagno da Signa (c. 1170- c. 1240) in his Rhetorica novissima declared:

A certain man who had sex with a nun said: “I did not defile the divine bed, but because the Lord had delighted me through His work, I was eager to raise his horn.” Also, a nun could say to her lover: “Your rod and your staff, they are comfort to me.” Also women could say to their lovers: “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.”

{ Quidam qui cognoverat monialem dixit: “Non violavi thorum divinum, sed quia me in sua fatura Dominus delectavit, cornu eius studui exaltare.” Item posset monialis dicere amatori: “Virga tua et baculus tuus, ipsa me consolata sunt.” Item possent dicere suis amatoribus mulieres: “Date nobis de oleo vestro, quia nostre lampades extinguuntur.” }

Boncompagno da Signa, Rhetorica novissima 9.2.18, Latin text via Scrinem, my English translation, benefiting from that of Huot (1997) p. 67. Cf. Psalm 89:24, 112:9 (exalting the horn of God), 23:4 (“thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me”), and Matthew 25:8 (“foolish virgins”). On Boncompagno, cf. Dronke (1965) p. 318.  Luke 2:23 offered possibilities for celebrating the sacredness of men’s sexuality. For relevant discussion, Huot (1997) p. 67.

[5] Ovid, Amores 1.5.23-24. Acting in the great tradition of kissing from Catullus to Secondus, the poet of Si linguis angelicis declares:

I gave her a thousand kisses, and received a thousand,
and I kept repeating again and again:
“This, this is definitely that for which I’ve panted.

{ mille dedi basia, mille reportavi,
atque saepe saepius dicens affirmavi
“Certe, certe istud est id quod anhelavi.” }

Si linguis angelicis 77.29-2-4, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Traill (2018).

[6] Cf. the last two stanzas of Si linguis angelicis. Those stanzas offer platitudinous inspiration for courtly lovers:

So let every lover be mindful of me. He must not lose heart, though at that point his lot is bitter. For certainly some day will dawn upon him at which he will later triumph over his troubles.

Indeed it is from bitterness that pleasant joys are sprung; the greatest gains are not won without toils. Those who seek sweet honey often feel the sting, so those whose lot is more bitter should maintain the stronger hope.

Trans. Walsh (1993) p. 68. A later hand inserted amara (bitternesses) to make the first line of the final stanza to be in part “it is from bitterness that bitternesses are sprung.” With some dissent, modern scholars have tended to amend amara to grata (pleasant joys). Id. p. 73.

Interpretations of Si linguis angelicis have varied considerably within common respect for courtly love. Walsh declared:

The poem is serious insofar as the poet enthusiastically associates himself with the courtly experience, but the theme is handled wittily as a literary mode rather than with deep emotional involvement. In short, the composition is a stylized exercise

Id. p. 68. Robertson didn’t take the poem seriously. He speculated its “original purpose may have been to serve as a grammatical exercise for students.” Robertson (1976/1980), p. 150. Dronke read the fantasy of courtly love in Si linguis angelicis to cover seriously amour courtois generally:

‘Si linguis angelics’ draws together some of the poetically most notable attitudes of the twelfth-century courtois love-lyric. … In many ways I am tempted to see this poem almost as an emblem of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century European poetry of amour courtois.

Dronke (1965) p. 330. The above quote is part of the concluding paragraph for the whole interpretive volume of Dronke’s learned and influential work on medieval Latin love lyric.

Scholars haven’t recognized the seriousness of the parodic critique of courtly love in Si linguis angelicis. Courtly love ideology has deep psychological roots among elite men. Walsh’s view of twelfth-century clerics probably applies more accurately to many leading modern scholars of medieval literature: their understanding of seduction is “filled in imagination by love encounters with the pen rather than by personal approaches to ladies in real life.” Walsh (1992) p. 203. The modern empirical science of seduction and online documentary field reports enable much better appreciation for extraordinary medieval Latin love poetry.

[7] Carmina Burana 172, You play, let him play, everyone play! {Lude, ludat, ludite!}, from Latin my English translation, with borrowings from the English translations of Marshall (2014) p. 210. Flowering like a rose, interpreted as blushing, suggests an erotic aspect of pious words. Marshall, id., entitles the poem Magicians of Love. Mystery, the eponym of the Mystery Method, seduced women under the persona of a magician.

Dronke declares:

All mankind {humanity} is one in love, all aspects of love are linked. This is the basic assumption of a poem such as ‘Si linguis angelicus’. It is grounded in a unity of experience which can affirm divine love and every nuance of human love without setting up dichotomies: all are involved together in the ‘Rota Veneris’.

Dronke (1965) p. 318. Those abstract assertions, which have little connection to the text of Si linguis angelicus, can be given considerable textual and practical meaning with respect to Lude, ludat, ludite!

[image] Knight knocked off his horse. From Kottenkamp, Franz, and Friedrich Martin von Reibisch. 1842. Der Rittersaal, eine Geschichte des Ritterthums, seines Enstehens und Fortgangs, seiner Gebräuche und Sitten. Stuttgart: Carl Hoffmann. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Dronke, Peter. 1965. Medieval Latin and the rise of European love-lyric. Vol. 1 — Problems and interpretations. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Huot, Sylvia. 1997. Allegorical play in the Old French motet: the sacred and the profane in thirteenth-century polyphony. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Marshall, Tariq. 2014. The Carmina Burana: Songs from Benediktbeuren: a full and faithfull translation with critical annotations. 3rd edition. Los Angeles: Marshall Memorial Press.

Robertson, D. W. 1976/1980. “Two Poems from the Carmina Burana.” American Benedictine Review 27 (1): 36-59, reprinted pp. 131-50 in Robertson, D. W. 1980. Essays in medieval culture. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press (cited to  pages in 1980 reprint).

Traill, David A. 2018, ed. and trans. Carmina Burana. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 48-49. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Walsh, Patrick Gerard. 1992. “Amor Clericalis.” Ch. 12 (pp. 189-203) in Woodman, Anthony. J., and Jonathon G. F. Powell, eds. Author and audience in Latin literature. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Walsh, Patrick Gerard. 1993. Love lyrics from the Carmina Burana. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

horse saves foolish, slumbering Raso in De Nugis Curialium

Raso's horse Walraven

Medieval Latin literature recognized that a dog is a man’s best friend. But horses too can be worthy companions for men. Consider the story of Raso in Walter Map’s twelfth-century Latin work De Nugis Curialium.

Raso was a Christian knight. A Muslim emir ruling a neighboring city threatened Raso’s castle. Although the emir had more wealth and men than Raso, through superior fighting spirit Raso and his son successfully defended their castle. They were like the Greeks who beat back the Persians in ancient history.

Raso, an aging widower, married again for strategic advantage. He married a wealthy woman with many allies. She was also very beautiful. Raso loved her dearly and completely trusted her claims of fidelity. He gave his new wife total freedom and total rule over her step-son and his band of skillful fighting men.

One day, the emir and a large number of his knights attacked Raso’s castle. Raso and his son vigorously fought against the emir’s force and took the emir and others as prisoners. With the look of his eyes, the emir, an attractive Muslim youth, captured the love of Raso’s wife. She guilefully took charge of maintaining him in captivity:

She assigned him a separate cell, dark and strongly built, and hung the key of it at her own girdle. She tamed her prisoner by scant measure of food and drink, and the little she thought fit to allow him she cast in to him through the window as if he were a bear. She allowed no one access to him, as if she trusted no one; she knew well that all pride is tamed by hunger. [1]

The Muslim emir, betraying his beliefs, agreed to love Raso’s Christian wife. Raso believed in his wife’s fidelity, but he should have been an unbeliever. The emir and Raso’s wife together fled to the emir’s city. They rode away on Raso’s favorite horse.[2]

Raso realized he had been foolish. He exclaimed:

I am the worst befooled, that in defiance of tales and of history and of the advice of all wise men from the beginning, I trusted myself to a woman.

Raso lost the emir as a prisoner, he lost his wife, and he also lost goods those two had taken with them. But what Raso mourned endlessly without consolation was the loss of his beloved horse.

Seeking to recover his horse, Raso disguised himself as a beggar and sneaked into the emir’s city. Raso’s wife, however, recognized him and betrayed him to the emir. At his wife’s urging, the emir arranged to execute Raso. But Raso’s son learned of the planned execution. From ambush, Raso’s son and his men attacked the execution party, slaughtering many. Raso’s son killed the emir, but his step-mother escaped on his father’s beloved horse. Raso, although saved from death, was disconsolate. He longed to recover his horse.

Again Raso disguised himself as a beggar and entered the city. He overheard a rich knight propositioning Raso’s wife and proposing that they flee. She agreed to meet the rich knight an hour before dawn at the southern gate of the city. Raso went back to his castle, put on his knight’s armor, and took up watch at the southern gate of the city. His wife, sleepless from desire for the rich knight, arrived in the pre-dawn darkness with Raso’s horse. She mistook Raso for her rich knight. Raso mounted his horse and gave her the horse he had brought. He then merrily set off with his horse and his wife.

Unfortunately, Raso was so tired from his long night that he fell asleep on his horse. Leaning on his spear and sleeping, he started to snore. His wife recognized his snore. She also saw the rich knight and his force of men off in the distance. She urgently gestured them to come to her and the snoring Raso. When the rich knight and his force closed in, Raso’s horse, not willing to be taken without a fight, raised his head, neighed, and dug his hooves against the ground. Raso then awoke. He bravely confronted the attack and called to his son, who was patrolling nearby. Raso and his son devastated the rich knight’s force. His son beheaded his step-mother and rode off in triumph. Raso happily returned home on his horse.

A husband must do more than just love his wife. He cannot know for certain what his wife will do. He should always take care to preserve his relationship with his dog or his horse.[2]

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[1] De Rasone et eius uxore (Of Raso and his Wife), in Walter Map, De nugis curialium, Dist. 3, c. 4, from Latin trans. James (1983) p. 265. The text notes, “The emir she thought could give her all that an old husband could not.” The subsequent quote is from id. p. 267. The Latin and English translation of this story span id. pp. 262-71. The story of Zetus in Petronius Redivivus (piece VII, Analecta Dublinensia), written in England late in the twelfth or early in the thirteenth century, has considerable similarities with the story of Raso in De nugis curialium. Colker (2007) p. 3.

[2] Cooper (2011), pp. 103-4, comments:

These adventures {of Raso} … are recounted without humour or a sense of irony, but do allow a modern reader — although this is certainly not Map’s intention — to gain a great sympathy for the wife’s decision to run away while perhaps feeling frustrated at so useless a story.

Most modern readers lack sympathy for violence against men or men being incarcerated for nothing more than having consensual sex and being poor. Walther Map had a better sense of humor and irony than have many modern readers.

[image] Elisabeth’s horse Walraven. Horses can be worthy companions for women, too. Thanks to Elisabeth for sharing the image of her horse under a Creative Commons By-2.0 license.


Colker, Marvin L. ed. 2007. Petronius Rediuiuus et Helias Tripolanensis: id est Petronius Rediuiuus quod Heliae Tripolanensis videtur necnon fragmenta (alia) Heliae Tripolanensis. Leiden: Brill.

Cooper, Alan. 2011. “Walter Map on Henry I: The Creation of Eminently Useful History.” Pp. 103-14 in Juliana Dresvina, Nicholas Sparks, and Erik Kooper, eds. 2011. The medieval chronicle VII. International Conference on the Medieval Chronicle. Amsterdam: New York.

James, M. R. trans., C. N. L. Brooke, and R. A. B. Mynors, eds. 1983. Walter Map. De nugis curialium {Courtiers’ trifles}. Oxford, Oxfordshire: Clarendon Press.

Resus saves medieval Rollo, ignorant of feminine imperative

knight greeting others

The medieval Rollo, an eminent, prosperous knight but ignorant of the feminine imperative, had a beautiful wife. His neighbor, a youth named Resus, fell madly in love with her. She strongly rebuffed his amorous entreaties.

Realizing that he had a much lower sexual market value than Rollo, Resus resolved to improve himself. Ignorant men in the Middle Ages believed in courtly love and ideals of chivalry. Men foolishly thought that valiant acts of violence against other men intrigued women more than jerk-boy attitude towards them. Resus thus proceeded ignorantly:

Now with breathless speed he sought out warfare, took part in all encounters everywhere, learned well the tricks, changes and chances of battle and received the knighthood from Rollo himself … where he {Resus} found a quarrel slackened or slumbering he stirred it up and brought it to a head, or where he did not, he was still the foremost and strongest of all. Superior to all, he soon went beyond the praises of his own neighborhood, and, unsurpassed, burned to attain wider fame. [1]

Despite his impressive feats, his inner man was weak. He wept and mourned and pined for the woman who rejected him. Nothing he did could outweigh his self-degrading, self-pitying attitude toward women. In response, Rollo’s wife repelled and spurned him. She thrust him further down in despair.

Significant developments ignited Rollo’s wife’s love for Resus. One day Resus happened to meet Rollo, his wife, and other eminent persons journeying. Resus briefly joined the traveling party. He conversed courteously with the men. He gave no indication of caring about Rollo’s wife. When he rode away from them, he didn’t look back. Rollo for a long time gazed after him in silent contemplation. Rollo’s wife asked why he was so preoccupied with the departing figure of Resus. Rollo said to her:

I looked with delight on what I wish I could always see, the noble wonder of our time, a man distinguished for birth, beauty, character, wealth, renown, and every earthly gift, and what the book could not find  — at all points blessed.

Love for Resus welled up in Rollo’s wife. When she returned home, she rushed into an inner room. There she wept for having rejected Resus.

Rollo’s wife resolved to seek a tryst with Resus. She sent a messenger to him with her proposition. Inflamed with desire, he came to her. They stole into a secret chamber prepared for their love-making. She said to him:

You are wondering, perhaps, dearest one, what it is that has made me yours all at once after so many harsh repulses. Rollo was the cause: I had not believed common report, but his words — for I know him to be most truthful — persuaded me that you, as far as time, place, and means allow, are wiser than Apollo, kinder than Jove, more lion-like than Mars; nor is there any blessing enjoyed by the gods save immortality which he omitted in your praises. I believed, I confess it, and surrendered, and here with joy I offer you the pleasure you covet. [2]

In other words, she believed that Resus was even more of an alpha male than her husband. She lay down on the bed and beckoned Resus. He, however, suddenly restrained himself. He admired the goodness of Rollo. He recognized that Rollo had in effect given him his wife. Now enlightened, he refused Rollo’s unknowing gift. He refused to cuckold the good man Rollo.

The medieval “good man” was a euphemism for a man who got cuckolded. Some would say today’s Rollo, who seeks to educate men about the feminine imperative, isn’t a good man. Judge for yourself.

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[1] De Rollone et eius uxore (Of Rollo and his Wife), in Walter Map, De nugis curialium, Dist. 3, c. 5, from Latin trans. James (1983) p. 273, with my non-substantial adaptations.The subsequent two quotes are similarly from id. pp. 273, 275. The Latin and English translation span id. pp. 270-7.

Walter Map wrote De nugis curialium in the court of Henry II, probably in the early 1180s. The text apparently didn’t circulate. It survives in only one manuscript, Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Bodley 851 (3041). Id. pp. xxvi, xlv.

Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) in his Gemma ecclesiastica (Jewel of the church). 2.12, tells a similar story about the French knight Reginald de Pumpuna. Hinton (1917) p. 208. Gerald of Wales presented a copy of Gemma ecclesiastica to Pope Innocent III. Id. Gerald of Wales told a second version of the story of Rasso and Resus. Opera 2.226-8, as noted in James (1983) p. 270, n. 3.

[2] Walter Map, with his keen appreciation for interpersonal relations and feminine psychology, has the lady read the knight’s mind (“You are wondering, perhaps, …”). In Gerald of Wales’s version, the knight explicitly asks the lady why her attitude toward him has reversed. That explicit question also occurs in the similar version in Ser Givoanni Fiorentino’s Il Pecorone (The Blockhead), 1.1. Il Pecorone is a collection of fifty short stories written in Italian between 1378 and 1385. So too for the version in Il Novellino 3.1 (21st novel). Il Novellino, by Masuccio Salernitano (1410–1475), was first published in Naples in 1476. For the text of all these versions, Hinton (1917).

A common feature across all these versions is men’s ignorance of women, women’s privilege in love relations, and the importance of men’s solidarity with each other for constraining women’s dominance. Cf. Mann (2001) pp. 106-7.

[image] Re-enactor in armour at the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival, 13 July 2008. Image by Andy Dolman, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Hinton, James. 1917. “Walter Map and Ser Giovanni.” Modern Philology. 15(4): 203-9.

James, M. R. trans., C. N. L. Brooke, and R. A. B. Mynors, eds. 1983. Walter Map. De nugis curialium {Courtiers’ trifles}. Oxford, Oxfordshire: Clarendon Press.

Mann, Jill. 2001. “Wife-Swapping in Medieval Literature.” Viator. 32: 93-112.

Gyges & Candaules: controlling men's sexuality and seduction

Candaules covertly shows wife to Gyges

“When a woman takes off her clothes, she takes off her modesty.” That was an old saying in Greece about 2,500 years ago.[1] Ancient authors discussed it with respect to wives’ behavior in the marital bedroom. Yet in its context in the ancient Greek story of Gyges and Candaules, that aphorism concerned controlling men’s strong, visually stimulated sexual desire and seductive power.

A man seeing naked a woman other than his wife was primarily a violation of the social order. In the story of Gyges and Candaules, King Candaules arranged for his favorite bodyguard Gyges to see his queen naked in their bedroom at night. When that occurred, the queen sensed Gyges covertly looking at her. According to an ancient Greek tragedy, the next morning the queen woke the king early and sent him out to provide law for the people. She simultaneously rationalized presenting Gyges with a murderous ultimatum:

when arose the brilliant star, forerunner of the dawn of the first gleam of day, I roused {King} Candaules from bed and sent him forth to deliver law to his people. Ready on my lips was persuasion’s tale, the one that forbids a king, the guardian of his people, to sleep the whole night through. And summoners {have gone to call} Gyges to my presence [2]

She told Gyges to either kill Candaules, seize the throne, and marry her, or be himself killed. Since she proposed that Gyges marry her, the queen wasn’t horrified by the act itself of Gyges seeing her naked. Her concern, like concern about men having sex without being subject to forced financial fatherhood, was that Gyges saw her naked without being married to her. Her concern was to uphold the law controlling men’s sexuality.

Another ancient Greek account of Gyges and Candaules similarly concerns control of men’s sexuality. In Plato’s Republic, an ancestor of Gyges acquired a golden ring of invisibility.[3] He then subverted the sexual-political order:

he immediately contrived to be one of the messengers to the king. When he arrived, he committed adultery with the king’s wife and, along with her, set upon the king and killed him. And so he took over the rule. [4]

Plato undoubtedly knew the story of Gyges seeing the queen naked. The implicit story in Plato’s account is that the ancestor of Gyges saw the queen naked, desired her, and seduced her. Control of what men can see is presented as necessary to control men’s sexuality.[5]

Fear of men’s sexuality informs the aphorism about women’s clothing in Herodotus’s story of Gyges and Candaules. According to Herodotus, an ancient Greek reporter-historian, Candaules continually praised the beauty of his wife’s body. He wanted Gyges to know without doubt the truth of that beauty. Candaules thus urged Gyges to contrive to see her naked. Gyges protested:

Master, what a sick word you have spoken, in bidding me to look upon my lady-lord naked! When a woman takes off her clothes, she takes off her modesty. Men of old discovered many fine things, and among them this one, that each should look upon his own, only. Indeed I believe that your wife is the most beautiful of all women, and I beg of you not to demand of me what is unlawful. [6]

Other authors interpreted the saying about a woman taking off her clothes to be about women’s behavior. Writing in the third century of the Roman Empire, Plutarch, a biographer of Greek philosophers, declared:

Herodotus was not right in saying that a woman lays aside her modesty along with her undergarment. On the contrary, a virtuous woman puts on modesty in its stead, and husband and wife bring into their mutual relations the greatest modesty as a token of the greatest love. [7]

Yet Diogenes Laertius, an influential Greek historian writing in the early years of the Roman Empire, presented a much different judgment. To the wife of Pythagoras, a leading Greek thinker who preceded Herodotus by about a century, Diogenes Laertius attributed contrasting advice:

she recommended a woman, who was going to her husband, to put off her modesty with her clothes, and when she left him, to resume it again with her clothes [8]

Within the story of Gyges and Candaules, the issue isn’t the behavior of a woman. Gyges and Candaules expected that Candaules’s wife wouldn’t perceive that Gyges viewed her naked. In that context, the aphorism about a woman taking off her clothes must relate to a man illicitly and covertly seeing a woman naked. Plato’s account points to a plausible concern. If a man illicitly and covertly sees a naked woman, he will desire her, seduce her, and overturn the sexual-political order. Gyges was self-conscious of his own potential weakness.

In Herodotus’s story, the queen validated legal control of men’s sexuality. Perceiving that Gyges had seen her naked, she responded with emotionless concern for punishment:

though she was so shamed, she raised no outcry nor let on to have understood, having in mind to take punishment on Candaules. [9]

Delivering her murderous ultimatum to Gyges, she declared:

either he that contrived this must die, or you, who have viewed me naked and done what is not lawful {must die}.

The queen could have sought to have both Gyges and Candaules killed. Such vengeance would have detracted from the structure of Greek law controlling men’s sexuality. In ancient Greek understanding, Candaules being killed is the natural result of Gyges seeing Candaules’s wife naked. If law is to prevent that killing, Gyges must be killed.

Although scarcely recognized, social and legal control of men’s sexuality has been harshly oppressive. Men throughout history have been highly vulnerable to charges of rape. Punishment of men for illicit sex has historically been brutal and even included castration. Criminalizing men seducing women has encompassed behaviors far beyond any reasonable understanding of violent threats and acts. Current “child support” laws force enormously oppressive financial fatherhood on men who explicitly consent to nothing more than consensual sex. Broad trends point to even more oppressive social and legal control of men’s sexuality. That will affect significantly the course of human history.

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[1] The saying about a woman taking off her clothes occurs within Herodotus’s story of Gyges and Candaules, Histories 1.8.3-4. For detailed philological analysis of that saying, Cairns (1996). My translation of the saying is consistent with a variety of highly knowledgeable translations.

Herodotus describes the saying as one of the fine things that men of old discovered. Id. 1.8.5. Herodotus wrote his Histories in the mid-fifth century BGC. The saying, and the story of Gyges and Candaules, subsequently becoming a common text in Roman rhetorical schools. Smith (1920). For the relation of the story of Gyges and Candaules to folktale motifs, Cohen (2004).

[2] P.Oxy. XXIII 2382, from Greek trans. Page (1951) p. 3. I’ve made insubstantial changes to lessen the awkwardness of dangling phrases. The text is on a re-used papyrus dating to 200 BGC. An alternative translation:

When the radiant dawn arrived
the courier of the day’s first glimmer,
I woke him and from the bedchamber sent him,
to judge the people’s affairs — I had a plan
worthy of consideration, which would not allow
the king to sleep the entire [night …
[to] Gyges’ herald …

Kotlinska-Toma (2015) p. 127, which also provides the Greek text. The translation “I had a plan / worthy of consideration, which would not allow / the king to sleep the entire {night}” seems to me less plausible than “Persuasion’s tale was ready on my lips, the one that forbids a king, the guardian of his people, to sleep the whole night through.” The latter is the verbatim relevant translated text from Page (1951) p. 3. Page’s translation makes sense in the context of the queen waking the king and sending him out to judge the people’s affairs. It also provides a rationalization for the queen having the king killed. In Kotlinska-Toma’s translation, the queen describes to herself obliquely her plan to have the king killed. That seems inconsistent with the queen’s emotional turmoil and her strong actions.

[3] Plato, The Republic Bk. II, 360a-b. The ancestor of Gyges took the golden ring from the finger of a naked corpse lying inside a hollow bronze horse revealed through a thunderstorm and earthquake. Corpse-stripping in the context of these ominous portents suggests a bad man and ill fortune. Plato’s story seems to paint with ill fortune Gyges’s similar, but externally motivated acts.

[4] Plato, The Republic Bk. II, 360a-b, from Greek trans. Bloom (1968) pp. 37-8.

[5] Nicolas of Damascus, perhaps conveying a report from the fifth-century historian Xanthus of Lydia, provides another version of the story of Gyges and Candaules. In Nicolas’s version, Gyges goes to fetch the bride of King Adyattes (King Candaules). The bride is Toudo, daughter of Arnossus, king of the Mysians:

Gyges fell in love with Toudo, lost his head, and tried to force his attentions on her. She declined his advances, threatened him, and told all when she reached the king’s presence.

Nicolas of Damascus, FGRHist 90 F 47, from Greek epitomized in Pedley (1972) p. 16 (no. 35). Candaules then resolved to kill Gyges. But with the help of a female slave in love with him, Gyges killed Candaules in his bedchamber before Candaules could kill Gyges. Gyges then became king, married Toudo, and thus made her his queen.

While Nicolas of Damascus’s version of the story of Gyges and Candaules doesn’t involve a man seeing a woman naked, it does involve a man sexually desiring a young woman after seeing her. Seeing her prompts him to attempt to seduce her. Ultimately, his actions overturn the sexual-political order.

In Xenophon’s Cyropaedia 5.1, Cyrus avoids gazing upon a beautiful woman so as not to be induced to neglect his duties. In Greek myth, men illicitly seeing females naked suffered harsh punishments, e.g. Teiresias blinded for seeing Athena naked, Actaeon tore apart by his hounds for seeing Artemis bathing, Erymanthos blinded for seeing Aphrodite having sex with Adonis. Cohen (2004) Appendix.

[6] Herodotus, Histories 1.8, from Greek trans. adapted from Grene (1987) p. 36. Other translations of the story of Gyges and Candaules (including the above quote) are available here and here.

[7] Plutarch, Moralia, Conjugalia Praecepta 10.1 (Loeb Classical Library, 1928), trans. from Latin, probably originally written in Greek.

[8] Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinion of Eminent Philosophers, Life of Pythagoras 22, from Greek trans. C.D. Yonge. Diogenes attributes the advice to Theano, wife of Pythagoras.

[9] Herodotus, Histories 1.10, trans. Grene (1987) p. 37. The subsequent quote is from id. 1.11, p. 37. Herodotus offers a rationalization of the queen’s action apart from specific law:

For among the Lydians and indeed among the generality of the barbarians, for even a man to be seen naked is an occasion of great shame.

1.10.3, trans. id. In Greece, men were commonly naked in public baths and gymnasiums. The queen responds to being seen naked not with passion, but with a rational plan consistent with the law controlling men’s sexuality.

Flory (1987), Ch. 2, interprets the story of Gyges and Candaules as representing accident and unpredictable passion in contrast to Persian reason for war. However, contrast between passion and reason is a fundamental element within the story of Gyges and Candaules itself.

In Herodotus’s Histories, the Persians are generally associated with externalized values — countable objects. Internal values of honor, shame, and culture drive the Greeks. Konstan (1987). Yet men illicitly seeing naked women seems for the Greeks to be primarily a rational matter of maintaining the visual-political order.

[image] Gyges sees Candaules’s wife naked. Painting by William Etty, 1830. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Cairns, Douglas L. 1996. “‘Off with her ΑΙΔΩΣ’: Herodotus 1.8.3–4.” The Classical Quarterly. 46 (1): 78-83.

Cohen, Ivan M. 2004. “Herodotus and the Story of Gyges: Traditional Motifs in Historical Narrative.” Fabula. 45 (1-2): 55-68.

Flory, Stewart. 1987. The archaic smile of Herodotus. Detroit: Wayne State university press.

Grene, David trans. 1987. Herodotus. The history. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Konstan, David. 1987. “Persians, Greeks and Empire.” Arethusa. 20(1): 59-73.

Kotlinska-Toma, Agnieszka. 2015. Hellenistic tragedy: texts, translations and a critical survey. London: Bloomsbury Academic,

Page, D. L. 1951. A new chapter in the history of Greek tragedy. London: Cambridge University Press.

Pedley, John Griffiths. 1972. Ancient literary sources on Sardis. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Smith, Kirby Flower. 1920. “The Literary Tradition of Gyges and Candaules.” The American Journal of Philology. 41 (1): 1-37.