Malleus Maleficarum: gender, witches, and executing men

man being executed

In academic literature and popular culture, prosecuting witches is commonly associated with persecuting women. However, in early modern Europe, about twenty-five percent of persons formally charged with witchcraft were men.[1] Throughout history, persons executed for any reason have been vastly disproportionately men. Malleus Maleficarum, a leading medieval Latin work on witches, provides key insights into gender, witches, and punishment. Malleus Maleficarum and its modern reception illustrates gender bias toward constructing men as demons, blaming men for corrupting women, and fabricating hateful claims about men’s privilege.

Malleus Maleficarum recognizes that some witches are men. Its first chapter considers whether witches (maleficos: masculine plural) exist. Its second chapter addresses cooperation between a male demon (demon: masculine singular) and a male witch (malefico: masculine singular). Eight contemporary scholarly endorsers of Malleus Maleficarum explicitly supported a statement referring to male witches and female witches (maleficos aut maleficas).[2] Overall, Malleus Maleficarum gives more prominence to female witches. Yet, like other early modern witchcraft literature, Malleus Maleficarum includes numerous references to male witches.[3]

Malleus Maleficarum blames male demons for generating witches. The reproduction of witches depends on semen from criminals:

Witches {malefici: masculine plural} clearly derived their origin from a baneful mutual alliance … no one can deny that they derived their increase in number from these filthy acts, since demons {demones: masculine plural} engage in these acts not for the sake of pleasure but for the sake of corrupting. The arrangement will, therefore, be the following. The succubus demon releases a seed from a criminal man. If the demon is assigned personally to this man and does not wish to make himself the incubus for the female witch, he will hand the seed over to the demon assigned to the woman or female witch. Then the second one will make himself an incubus for the female witch under a certain configuration of stars that serves his purpose, so that the man or woman begotten will remain mighty in physical strength for the purpose of performing acts of witchcraft. [4]

Just as in nineteenth-century social-scientific study of prostitution and current claims about rape, the underlying narrative blames males:

Final conclusion. It can be said that the incubus demons are not merely aggressive towards women begotten from their filthy acts or towards those offered to them by midwives, but with their whole effort they hanker after all the holiest virgins of a given land or town. They have the female witches lead virgins astray or couple virgins and male demons. This is what experience, which is the instructor of facts, has taught. For example, certain women who were burned up in the town of Ravensburg asserted before final sentence something like this. The said that their masters enjoined them to strive with their entire effort to overthrow the holy virgins and widows.

Malleus Maleficarum has been socially construed as an exemplar of misogyny. Its misandry has scarcely been recognized even in the context of U.S. mass incarceration of men. Demonizing men generates relatively little deliberative concern.

The male authors of Malleus Maleficarum, like most men throughout history, were reluctant to disparage women. The chapter of Malleus Maleficarum that addresses the predominance of women among witches begins:

As for the first question, namely why a larger number of female witches is found among the delicate female sex than among men, it would certainly not be helpful to cite arguments to the contrary, since experience itself makes such things believable more than do the testimony of words and of trustworthy witnesses. Without looking down upon the sex in which God has always performed brave deeds in order to confound, let us say that while different reasons are given by different people for these facts, these reasons always agree in principle. Hence, this topic is quite worthy of being preached for the admonition of women. As experience has often shown, women are eager to listen, so long as it is propounded with circumspection. [5]

The male authors inject the claim of not looking down upon women. They implicitly acknowledge that women might be unwilling to listen to preaching. They advise circumspection so as not to offend women. They subsequently emphasize that advice:

Preachers should propound and mention these reasons for the preponderance of women among witches cautiously. In Scripture, they say bad things about women for the most part in the Old Testament — because of the first sinner Eve and her imitators. But later in the New Testament, because the name changed {Eve became Ave, Mary the mother Jesus} and because, as Jerome says, “All the evil that the curse {maledicto} of Eve brought in was removed by the blessing {benedicto} of Mary,” there are very many statements about women that should always be praised and preached. In modern times, however, this kind of Breach of the Faith {perfidia} is found more often in women than in men, as experience itself indicates

Authors cannot merely describe reality as persons perceive it. Prudent authors must be careful not to offend women in gynocentric culture.

Malleus Maleficarum rhetorically softens its explanation for the predominance of female witches. It adds two irrelevant assertions and a claim about variance rather than mean. Moreover, its explanation is distanced as not that of the authors, but of “some Doctors”:

Some Doctors give the following explanation. They say that there are three elements in the world that do not know how to maintain a middle course in terms of goodness or evil, and instead attain a certain pinnacle in goodness or evil when they pass over the boundaries of their condition, these three things being a tongue, a churchman and a woman. They do this in goodness when they are ruled by a good spirit, and as a result of this they become excellent. They also do this in evil when they are ruled by an evil spirit, and as a result of this they are rendered very bad.

Malleus Maleficarum elaborates at length on the extremes of good and evil for a tongue and a churchman. It does the same for a woman.

In one chapter, Malleus Maleficarum draws upon literature associated with men’s sexed protest. That chapter incorporates biblical wisdom, criticism of Helen of Troy, biographical stories of Xanthippe and Socrates, Jerome’s Theophrastus, the love letter of Valerius to Rufinus, Bernard of Cluny’s learned Latin play, and hagiography of Saint Pelagia. The chapter emphasizes women’s strong, independent sexuality. Yet the chapter also suggests that references to woman be read as non-gendered references to lusting of the flesh:

There is such praise of good women that it is read that they have even made men blessed and saved nations, lands and cities. … Hence, whatever diatribes against the lusting of the flesh are read can be interpreted in such as way that “woman” is always interpreted as the lusting of the flesh according to the passage, “I found woman more bitter than death,” and “A good woman is subordinated desire of the flesh.” [6]

Like women, men too experience desire of the flesh. Using “woman” to mean desire of the flesh corresponds to interpreting men’s sexuality as an other, demonic impulse.

The predominance of women among witches wasn’t sufficient to overcome the overall societal bias toward executing men. In New England from 1620 to 1725, 103 persons were formally charged as witches. About six women were charged for every man charged. About a third of those charged were found guilty and hung.[7] Throughout all the antecedent U.S. colonies across those years, 317 persons were executed for any charge. Five men were executed for every woman executed. In the antecedent U.S. colonies and the U.S. since 1608, about 15,400 persons have been executed. Forty-two men have been executed for each woman executed.[8]

In England and Wales, persons executed have also historically been overwhelming men. About 1,500 witches were executed in England and Wales from 1450 to 1750. Probably about nine women were executed as witches for every man executed as a witch.[9] In late seventeenth and early eighteenth century England (the earliest period for which good data are available), about five men were executed per woman executed among executions for any charge. Since 1715, about 12,500 persons have been executed for any charge. Within that total, nineteen times more men than women were executed.[10] The sensational story of executing female witches has attracted far more attention than the long and continuing story of executing a far larger number of men.[11]

Malleus Maleficarum includes wicked humor. One of its bizarre stories about castration ends with a female witch allowing a man to recover a penis from a disembodied collection of penises. The witch, however, forbids the man from taking a big penis “because it belonged to a parish priest.” Malleus Maleficarum concludes with an ironic claim about men’s privilege:

Conclusion. Everything is governed by carnal lusting, which is insatiable in women … for intelligent men it appears to be reasonably unsurprising that more women than men are found to be tainted with the Heresy of female witches. Hence, and consequently, it should be called the Heresy not of male witches, but of female witches, to name it after the predominant element. Blessed by the Highest One, Who has, down to the present day, preserved the male kind from such disgraceful behavior, and clearly made man privileged since He wished to be born and suffer on our behalf in the guise of a man. [12]

This thanks to God for preserving men from disgraceful behavior relies on abhorrence of homosexuality. Malleus Maleficarum took that thanks from a writer who argued:

Since demons abhor homosexuality, they restrict their sexual attentions to human females, and for this the writer is duly grateful to God. [13]

According to the prevailing demonology, demonic male heterosexuality corrupts women into witches. Men enjoy believing that their duty is to suffer and save the world. Humorless fantasy of men’s privilege now dominates public discourse far beyond beliefs about witches ever did.

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[1] In the Holy Roman Empire and Luxembourg, 1480-1760, the share of men among witch prosecution victims was “nearly 24 per cent” (“c. 23.1” percent for just the Holy Roman Empire). The share of men ranged from 13% to 35% across seven specified regions of the Holy Roman Empire. Shulte (2009a), p. 55, inc. Table 31. In Normandy, 1564 to 1660, the share of men witch prosecution victims was 73%.  In Iceland, 1625 to 1685, the share of men victims was 92%. Apps & Gow (2003) p. 45, Table 1. About two-thirds of the persons charged with being witches in Finland through 1620 were men. Toivo (2014) p. 91.

[2] Mackay (2006) v. 1, p. 193 (table of contents), Malleus Maleficarum, Approbation 4B, id. v. 1, p. 204. Eight members of the University of Cologne’s Faculty of Theology signed an approbation prefixed to the substantive text of Malleus Maleficarum. Mackay provides a modernized and annotated transcription of the first edition of Malleus Maleficarum. That was printed in 1487.

[3] In Malleus Maleficarum, 30% of the references to witch or witches (197 out of  650) use masculine forms. Johannes Nider’s Formicarius (written 1435-37) in its book on witches (book 5) used 47 masculine references to witches compared to 13 feminine references. For reference counts for these and other early demonological texts, Apps & Gower (2003) p. 104, Table 2. Schulte (2009b), Ch. 5, also reviews references in early demonological texts and finds considerable attention to male witches. Schulte exaggerates, in my view, the extent to which Malleus Maleficarum concerns female witches and condemns all women as potential witches. Malleus Maleficarum incorporates categorical criticism of women from literature of men’s sexed protest. Such criticism was not meant to be taken literally categorically.

[4] Malleus Maleficarum 109B (Pt. 2, Q. 1, Ch. 4), from Latin trans. Mackay (2006) v. 2, pp. 261-2, translation modified insubstantially for readability. The subsequent quote is similarly from id. 111B, p. 266. Mackay translated malefica, maleficus, and maleficium as sorceress, sorcerer, and sorcery (with corresponding plural forms). I’ve replaced these terms with female witch, male witch, and witchcraft, respectively, throughout quotations from Mackay’s translations.

Malleus Maleficarum is attributed to Heinrich Kramer (Heinrich Institoris) and Jacob Sprenger. Some scholars believe that Sprenger was only a nominal co-author. Kramer served as inquisitor, but other authorities challenged his views. The elaborate endorsements prefaced to Malleus Maleficarum indicate its struggle to assert authority. Other inquisitors reportedly denounced Heinrich Kramer’s views in 1490. In 1505, the Franciscan Samuel de Cassini strongly criticized the claims in Malleus Maleficarum. The book had little influence in Spain and the Netherlands.

Between 1487 and 1496, Malleus Maleficarum was printed eight times. Then from 1497 to 1510, none; from 1511 and 1520, five; from 1521 to 1573, none; 1574 to 1588, six; 1589 to 1594, none; and from 1595 to 1600, one. Maxwell-Stuart (2007) p. 34. Compared to popular works such as De Secretis Mulieris, Malleus Maleficarum didn’t have an impressive record of editions. Its practical effects are not readily apparent:

It may seem odd in light of its modern notoriety to say that from its inception the Malleus was a work which exerted a limited practical influence, but the fact is, its numerous early editions do not seem to have stimulated any witch-persecutions in areas where none had been brought earlier

Id. p. 35. Montague Summers’s English translation, first published in 1928, is available online, along with Summers’s colorful introduction. Summers’s translation isn’t reliable for close reading. Among other weaknesses, Summers obscured male witches in Malleus Maleficarum by translating all masculine references to witches as witch/witches without gender distinction.

[5] Malleus Maleficarum 40A-B (Pt. 1, Q. 6), id. p. 112. The reference to “the sex in which God has always performed brave deeds in order to confound” seems to be an invocation of 1 Corinthians 1:26-9. The subsequent two quotes are from id. 42A, p. 116; 40B, p. 112.

More more widely cited is the etymology of woman (femina) that Malleus Maleficarum took from Antoninus of Florence’s Summa:

the word “femina” is spoken as “fe” and “minus,” because she has and keeps less faith.

Malleus Maleficarum 42C (Pt. 1, Q. 6), id. p. 117, and n. 324. Much more socially significant was the pedestalizing of women through the ideology of courtly love.

[6] Malleus Maleficarum 41D (Pt. 1, Q. 6), id. p. 115. Malleus Maleficarum provides as exemplars of good women the biblical figures Judith, Delbora (probably mistaking Deborah for Jael), and Esther. It similarly cites Gisela (lived about 995), sister of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry II, and Chlothild (lived about 493), daughter of the King of the Burgundians.

[7] Witches charged by sex, Apps & Gow (2003) p. 45, Table 1. About 36 persons were executed as witches in the seventeenth century in the colonies that became the U.S. Godbeer (2013) p. 393. Witches were usually hung rather than burned in England and in New England.

[8] The U.S. execution figures I’ve calculated from the U.S. execution statistics compilation.

[9] The total number of witches executed is based on Hayton (2011), data appendix, and Behringer (2004) p. 150. Table 4.5. The sex ratio is based on Schulte (2009b) p. 71, Table 3.1 (data for prosecutions in the Home Circuit, England). Hayton (2011), data appendix, indicates about two-thirds of those charged were executed. Levack (2006) pp. 22-3, inc. Table 1, provides execution rates for localities in Europe covering in total a small number of prosecutions. For Essex, England, 1560-1672, 24% were executed, while the execution rate in Scotland, 1563-1727, was 67%. The data overall suggest about half those charged were executed. Available data on the execution rate by sex doesn’t show a clear sex difference. Id. pp. 66-7.

[10] The execution statistics for England and Wales I’ve calculated from the execution statistics compilations for England and Wales (London-Middlesex 1695-1839 sheet in Executions by year and sex about London before 1840; punishment yearly sheet in Punishment prevalence years by sex since 1715).

[11] At the general height of the European witch hunt in Danzig (1558-1608) and Nuremberg (1533-1632), about seven men were executed for each woman executed. Evans (1996) p. 44.

[12] Malleus Maleficarum 45A (Pt. 1, Q. 6), Mackay v. 2, p. 122.

[13] Id, editor’s note 141. The text was taken from William of Auvergne, De Universo (The Universe) 2.3.25.

[image] Murder of David van der Leyen and Levina Ghyselins, Ghent, 1554. Engraving by J. Luyken, from T. J. V. Bracht (or Thieleman van Braght), Het Bloedig Tooneel De Martelaers Spiegel. . . . Amsterdam: J. van der Deyster, et al., 1685. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress.


Apps, Lara, and Andrew Colin Gow. 2003. Male witches in early modern Europe. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

Behringer, Wolfgang. 2004. Witches and witch-hunts: a global history. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Evans, Richard J. 1996. Rituals of retribution: capital punishment in Germany, 1600-1987. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Godbeer, Richard. 2013. “Witchcraft in British America.” Ch. 22 (pp. 393-411) in Levack, Brian P., ed. The Oxford handbook of witchcraft in early modern Europe and colonial America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hayton, Darin. 2011. “How Many Witches Were Executed?!?” Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine blog (, Oct. 27 (data appendix).

Levack, Brian P. 2006. The witch-hunt in early modern Europe. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge.

Mackay, Christopher S., ed. and trans. 2006. Malleus maleficarum: the hammer of witches. 2 vols. Cambridge University Press.

Maxwell-Stuart, P.G., trans. 2007. The Malleus maleficarum. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

Schulte, Rolf. 2009a. “Men as Accused Witches in the Holy Roman Empire.” Ch. 3 (pp. 52-73) in Rowlands, Alison, ed. Witchcraft and masculinities in early modern Europe. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Schulte, Rolf. 2009b. Man as witch: male witches in Central Europe. Basingstoke {England}: Palgrave Macmillan.

Toivo, Maria Raisa. 2014. “Gender, Sex and Cultures of Trouble in Witchcraft Studies: European Historiography with Special Reference to Finland.” Ch. 4 (pp. 87-108) in Nenonen, Marko, and Raisa Maria Toivo. Writing witch-hunt histories: challenging the paradigm. Leiden: Brill.

men suffering lovesickness: viaticum in medieval Latin poetry

flame of lovesickness

In a flame went up
the whole of the philosopher.

{ In flammam abiit
totus philosophus. } [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.

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[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: γνῶθι σεαυτόν / 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.

study of De secretis mulierum enlightens mystified men

De Secretis Mulierum - anatomy of a woman

Written in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth centuries, On the Secrets of Women {De secretis mulierum} became a highly popular text.[1] Given the great power that women wield, men are naturally keen to understand the secrets of women. De secretis mulierum focuses on women’s sexually distinctive reproductive organs and bodily processes. While these are amazing and intriguing to men, they are not women’s most important secrets. Study of De secretis mulierum reveals that women’s distinctive social powers, which mystify men, are women’s most important secrets.

De secretis mulierum is primarily a work of popularized natural philosophy. The text itself describes sexual intercourse and conception as natural philosophy of a woman’s body:

When a woman is having sexual intercourse with a man she releases her menses at the same time that the man releases sperm, and both seeds enter the vulva simultaneously and are mixed together, and then the woman conceives. Conception is said to take place, therefore, when the two seeds are received in the womb in a place that nature has chosen. And after these seeds are received, the womb closes up like a purse on every side, so that nothing can fall out of it. After this happens, the woman no longer menstruates. [2]

Problemata Aristotelis and Secretum Secretorum, highly popular works in the European Middle Ages, included similar passages of natural philosophy. What makes De secretis mulierum distinctive relative to popular natural philosophy is its focus on women.[3]

The author of De secretis mulierum was amazingly ignorant of female biology. He believed that women urinate through their vaginas. For example, in discussing impediments to conception, he declared:

Sometimes it is caused by excessive fatness of the body because fat surrounding the opening of the womb constricts it and does not allow the male semen to enter. This can be seen in a woman whose kidneys are hidden and buried in fat on every side. If a woman of this sort receives semen during coitus, it cannot enter the womb, and so she ejects it with her urine. Thus if you examine her urine after coitus, you will be able to tell whether or not the semen is collected in the womb. [4]

No woman reader of this text could take its knowledge authority seriously after meeting such ignorance. Moreover, how women actually urinate probably wasn’t a secret to many medieval men.

De secretis mulierum stimulated sensational claims. A medieval commentary on it added discussion of miraculous conception:

it often happens that a woman conceives if she is in a bath where a man ejaculated because the vulva strongly attracts the sperm, and the sperm at this point is vigorous and has not evaporated, so that it can produce a fetus. This has been attested to by experience. [5]

Bath-water conception is a generating event in the deeply transgressive Pseudo-Sirach, written in Hebrew probably in the early Islamic world. The medieval commentary on De secretis mulierum also added discussion of hermaphroditic generation from cat semen:

If a cat ejaculated on some sage, and a man ate some of this sage, then cats would be generated in his stomach and would have to be expelled by vomiting.

The author of De secretis mulierum probably didn’t anticipate that his work would give rise to claims about bath-water conception and hermaphroditic generation from cat semen. But his misleading conception of women’s secrets encouraged elaborating upon female bodily functions and the biology of sexual reproduction.

De secretis mulierum provided sensational entertainment under the cover of informing. For good evolutionary-biological reasons, men are particularly concerned to ascertain the sexual fidelity of women with whom they seek a long-term intimate relationship. De secretis mulierum includes chapters entitled “On the signs of corruption of virginity” and “On the signs of chastity.” The chapter on corruption of virginity declares:

Sometimes virgins are gravely corrupted so that their vagina is greatly enlarged because the male member is exceedingly large and inept. When this happens the woman’s vagina becomes so widened that the man can enter there without any pain to his member, and this is a sign that the woman was first corrupted.

This is the reason why when young women first lose their virginity they have pain in the vagina for a time, because it is being enlarged and disposed for coitus. Another reason for this pain is that there is a certain skin in the vagina and the bladder which is broken. But the more they have sex, the more they become accustomed to it. [6]

The chapter on the exit of the fetus from the uterus discusses how women attempt to induce abortion and the grief that some women experience from having an abortion. The chapter includes sensational questions for discussion:

  • if, when a man and woman are having sexual intercourse, a thunderbolt strikes, can the seed receive a new impression at the moment of ejaculation which would dispose it to be something other than its particular nature intends?
  • if the lightning strikes at the moment of ejaculation, can the influences of the planets be prevented, and are the male and female seeds equally affected?
  • if the lightning should strike both male and female matter alike, can it influence the power within the seed that causes a masculine form in what was first destined to be a female form and disposition, and vice versa? [7]

Albertus Magnus, the purported author of De secretis mulierum, was an authority that Victor Frankenstein assiduously studied. The questions about lightening striking at the moment of conception generically relate to a sensational novel like Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The most important secrets of women are clarified in modern scholarly study of De secretis mulierum. Trumping medieval commentators claims about bath-water conceptions, a modern scholar declared:

I will now argue that pseudo-Albert’s accomplishment of exaggerating and popularizing the ideas about women developed by Albertus Magnus and other thirteenth-century natural philosophers directly influenced the fifteenth-century inquisitorial treatise on witches, Malleus Maleficarum, and that the authors of the Malleus used the Secrets and the tradition they represent as an ideological basis for concluding that women are prone to witchcraft, for which crime they deserve death. …

Both pseudo-Albert and the inquisitors build upon the misogyny, inherent in thirteenth-century scholasticism, that we saw already in Albertus Magnus. We can regard each of their treatises as moving progressively toward the ultimate consequences of such a mode of thinking — extermination of those who most embody the evil carnality that is so feared. Woman, the temptress, the follower of Eve, the “devil’s gateway” had long been suspect to the theologians. Now, with medieval schoolmen’s interpretation of Aristotelian natural philosophy, ecclesiastical statements on the evil nature of the lesser sex become buttressed by the weight of scientific authority. Pseudo-Albert fuses theological and scientific tenets and lays the groundwork for a new kind of misogynistic document. The Dominican authors then incorporate both the spirit and the letter of the Secrets into their virulent verbal attacks on the female gender, which forms the basis for a much more serious assault on women by the inquisitorial procedure itself. [8]

De secretis mulierum itself offered men little insight into the most important secrets of women. But modern study of De secretis mulierum clearly reveals them.[9] No claim about women’s victimization is too outrageous to be taken deadly seriously by many scholars, both women and men.

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[1] In the Middle Ages, De secretis mulierum was commonly attributed to the Dominican friar, bishop, and wide-ranging scholar Albertus Magnus. Scholars now generally regard the text as having been written by one of Albertus Magnus’s students. De secretis mulierum survives in 105 known Latin manuscript copies. Three-fourths of those manuscripts were produced in the fifteenth century. Green (2008) p. 212, n. 31. Fifty editions of the work were printed in the fifteenth century and seventy editions in the sixteenth century. Lemay (1992) p. 1. Among the editions available online are one from 1501 and one from 1669.

[2] De secretis mulierum, Ch. 1, “On the generation of the embryo,” from Latin trans. Lemay (1992) p. 65. Lemay’s text is based on the clearly printed, influential Lyons 1580 edition. That edition “from spot checking, correlates well with other witnesses to this redaction.” Id. p. 2. Barragán Nieto (2012) provides the first critical edition of De secretis mulierum. I unfortunately wasn’t able to conveniently consult Barragán Nieto’s critical edition.

[3] Other Latin medical texts focusing on diseases of women existed in the twelfth century. The most widely known are commonly called the Trotula. De secretis mulierum was more sensational and hence better positioned than the Trotula to be a popular text. Not surprisingly, surviving diseases of women literature is closely associated with De secretis mulierum. Green (2000).

[4] De secretis mulierum, Ch. 12, “Concerning Impediments to Conception,” trans. Lemay (1992) pp. 135-6.

[5] De secretis mulierum, Commentary A, from Latin trans. Lemay (1992) p. 66. The subsequent quote is from id. The commentaries, by unknown authors, “were frequently printed with the text and exist in many of the manuscripts.” The text of Commentary A is taken from the Lyons 1580 edition of De secretis mulierum. Id. p. 2.

[6] De secretis mulierum, Ch. 6, trans. Lemay (1992) pp. 126-7. Calabre of Paris, a fourteenth-century woman physician, reportedly could make a vagina small again. By 1499, Celestina, the heroine of Fernando de Rojas’s pioneering Spanish fiction, was depicted as claiming to be able to repair women’s lost maidenheads.

An atomistic view of individuals greatly affects modern scholarship and healthcare. A leading historian of women’s medicine peevishly noted:

Ensuring women’s fertility and making women sexually attractive to men: these are the main features of the Buch Trotula in Hartlieb’s eyes, not the care of women’s diseases because they are distressing or dangerous to women.

Green (2000) p. 28. Many women care greatly about being fertile and being sexually attractive to men. Moreover, gynocentric society has enacted legal structures that make being attractive to men and bearing children potentially highly profitable for women.

[7] De secretis mulierum, Ch. 5, “On the exit of the fetus from the uterus,” trans. Lemay (1992) p. 105. The labeling of the text and Commentary B with respect to the first question is clearly mistaken.

[8] Lemay (1992) pp. 50-1, footnotes omitted. Id. notes “De Secretis Mulierum and the Malleus Maleficarum certainly belong to two different genres.”

Green, today’s leading historian of women’s medicine, less sensationally claims that De secretis mulierum and associated medieval gynecological literature have “one profoundly distinctive feature: a tendency toward misogyny.” Moreover, “what pushes the Secrets of Women into the territory of misogyny is the attitude of suspicion {emphasis in original} it projects toward women.” Id. pp. 216, 218. The diction of projected suspicion suggests lack of self-consciousness. On the other hand, men have sexually and legally distinctive biological reasons for being suspicion of women’s sexual fidelity. Green presents a medieval illumination that she interprets as a man sticking his tongue out a woman and observes that it is “suggestive of the text’s attitude toward women.” Id. p. 217, Fig. 5.1.

Men’s freedom to read, learn, and write cannot be taken for granted. Like nineteenth-century social-scientific concerns about reading Latin literature, Green declares, “the effect of medieval habits of reading about women’s secrets was permanent: the misogynous potential of male-controlled intellectual traditions on the female body had been realized.” For a related lament about inability to control men’s reading, Green (2000) p. 29. Caballero-Navas (2006) accepts the authoritative declarations that De secretis mulierum is misogynistic, but reports lack of misogyny in the Hebrew medical tradition. Permitting men intellectual and expressive freedom as long as authorities don’t deem such freedom to have “misogynous potential” is a tenuous structure of liberty.

[9] Green (2009), a massive, erudite work on the “rise of male authority in pre-modern gynaecology,” contrasts men’s knowledge and women’s knowledge. It pays scant attention to actual health outcomes. Among fourteenth and fifteenth century British ducal nobles, women’s and men’s life expectancies at birth were 33 years and 24 years respectively. By the mid-nineteenth century, those figures had risen to 62 years and 50 years, respectively. The alleged rise of male authority in pre-modern gynaecology coincided with a near doubling in women’s lifespans and a gender protrusion favoring women with 12 extra years of life on average relative to men. Here’s the analysis and data on long-run gender differences in lifespan.

Leading international organizations today measure gender differences in life expectancy with indices that feature built-in anti-men gender inequality. Green (2009) concludes with a triumphant reference to an elite woman who “erected a statue … to herself.” Id. p. 324. Rather than erecting statues to themselves, women who care about men might work to reduce gender bias against men and to improve men’s health.

[image] Anatomy of a woman’s body. Based on illustration from Isagogae breves by Jacopo Berengario da Carpi, first published in 1522, digitized by the Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. The version shown apparently is from a Bologna, 1535 edition. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Barragán Nieto, José Pablo. 2012. El de secretis mulierum atribuido a Alberto Magno: estudio, edición crítica y traducción. Turnhout: Porto.

Caballero-Navas, Carmen. 2006. “Secrets of Women: Naming Female Sexual Difference in Medieval Hebrew Medical Literature.” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues. 12 (1): 39-56.

Green, Monica H. 2001. “From ‘Diseases of women’ to ‘Secrets of women’: the gynecological literature in the Later Middle Ages.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies. 30 (1): 5-39.

Green, Monica H. 2008. Making women’s medicine masculine: the rise of male authority in pre-modern gynaecology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lemay, Helen Rodnite. 1992. Women’s secrets: a translation of Pseudo-Albertus Magnus’s De secretis mulierum with commentaries. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.