radical pastourelle: redeeming men sheep from gynocentrism

men sheep

In the poetic Old French pastourelle of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, a courtly knight wandering in the countryside sees a young shepherdess. He seeks her sexual favor. The reverse, like a professional woman today asking a day-laborer out on a date and paying for his dinner and entertainment, almost never occurs.[1] Women’s social privilege in gynocentric society can easily lead to women’s dominance of any social institution. In an astonishing poetic response to that reality, a Latin poem from about the year 1200 subtly adapted the theme of the pastourelle to redeem the Christian church from gynocentrism.

As soon as the morning star had risen,
a maiden emerged quickly
with the face of spring.
She had been ordered to rule the sheep
with a shepherd’s crook.

{ Lucis orto sidere,
exit virgo propere
facie vernali;
oves iussa regere
baculo pastorali. }[2]

The Latin poem Lucis orto sidere establishes from its first stanza its relevance to the institutional church. Its opening line echoes the well-known, sixth-century Christian hymn Iam lucis orto sidere. Medieval clerics commonly sang that hymn in the morning hour of their daily devotional practices. In medieval Christian literature, sheep and the shepherd typically figured the faithful of a local church and their pastor or bishop. The latter acted in the person of Jesus, the good shepherd.[3] In the opening stanza of Lucis orto sidere, a maiden has been placed in the church position of pastor. That occurs in the vernal dawn, signifying idealism of renewal.

The sun poured out its rays
and gave off too much heat.
The beautiful maiden
avoided the noxious sun
under a leafy tree.

{ Sol effundens radium
dat calorem nimium.
virgo speciosa
solem vitat noxium
sub arbore frondosa. }

The idealism of renewal is immediately scorched. Winter gives way immediately to its extreme opposite. The sun, pouring out its rays, gives off too much heat and becomes noxious. That isn’t “a heat that preludes loving languor” in an idyllic “happy amorous Arcadia.”[4] The specific description of the beautiful maiden (virgo speciosa) evokes the Virgin Mary and the Church through typological interpretation of the Song of Solomon.[5] The tree, in turn, is closely associated with the sin of Eve and Adam and Christ’s crucifixion. The specific wording connects to an important text of men’s sexed protest, probably from the twelfth century:

Beneath a tree Adam the clerk wrote
of how the first Adam sinned by means of a tree.

{ Arbore sub quadam dictavit clericus Adam
Quomodo primus Adam peccavit in arbore quadam. }[6]

Lucis orto sidere Christianizes Virgilian pastoral with Virgilian political concerns not excised, but updated.[7]

When I advanced a little,
I loosened the binding of my tongue:
“Greetings, lady worthy of a king!
Listen, I ask, to your lowly servant,
and be kind to me!”

{ Dum procedo paululum,
lingue solvo vinculum:
“salve, rege digna!
audi, queso, servulum,
esto michi benigna!” }

The courtly knight in Lucis orto sidere abases himself to the shepherdess-pastor. Medieval courtly love ideology celebrated men’s subordination to women. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus opened the ears of a deaf-mute man and loosened the binding of his tongue. That man then spoke “correctly” (recte). The courtly knight in this pastourelle loosens his tongue and speaks correctly as a courtly lover.[8] He addresses the shepherdess with words that echo a popular Marian antiphon, “Hail, holy queen!” (Salve, regina!). Lucis orto sidere transfers men’s subordination to the pastoral realm of a shepherdess-governed church.

“Why do you greet a maiden
who has known no man
since she was born?
God must know that no man
have I found in this meadow.”

{ “Cur salutas virginem
que non novit hominem,
ex quo fuit nata?
sciat Deus: neminem
inveni per hec prata.” }

The godly woman seeks a manly man. When the angel Gabriel informed her that she would become pregnant and bear a son, Mary told the angel that she had known no man. The context of such a claim in Lucis orto sidere is cuttingly reversed. The shepherdess-pastor wistfully makes a socio-sexual observation about men in her particular Christian church. Those men lack seductive skills in approaching women. They are mother-pleasers and feminized men. When the shepherdess claims that she has found no man in this meadow, she is mocking the courtly knight’s lack of manly allure.[9] She is also explaining why she became the pastor ruling over the sheep.

By chance a wolf lurked near,
driven out by the hunger
of its avaricious throat.
Grabbing a sheep it hastened off,
desiring to be sated.

When the girl realized
that she was thus losing a sheep,
she cried out with all her voice,
“If anyone returns this sheep,
may he have the joy of me as his wife!”

{ Forte lupus aderat,
quem fames expulerat
gutturis avari.
ove rapta properat,
cupiens saturari.

Dum puella cerneret,
quod sic ovem perderet,
pleno clamat ore:
“si quis ovem redderet,
me gaudeat uxore!” }

Men’s lack of self-confidence in their own intrinsic value corrupts their manhood. The wolf is an alternate to the sheep in figuring the unmanly man. The wolf’s “avaricious throat” (gutturis avari) is associated linguistically with the sins of gluttony and greed. The wolf’s “desire to be sated” (cupiens saturari) is associated with the sins of lust and greed.[10] The shepherdess, shifting from the virginal maiden (virgo) to the sexually guileful girl (puella), cries out for help and promises herself to the man who will do her bidding. That’s a common ruse in the Old French pastourelle. In the Latin poem, she offers herself not for a roll in the hay but as a wife. Lucis orto sidere thus develops the demeaning, unholy trinity of men’s being: sheep, wolf, and yes-dearing husband.

As soon as I heard this,
I unsheathed my sword.
The wolf was sacrificed.
The sheep from death
was carried back redeemed.

{ Mox ut vocem audio,
denudato gladio
lupus immolatur,
ovis ab exitio
redempta reportatur. }[11]

Dramatic display of masculinity redeems man and saves woman from the tedium, disappointment, and deprivation of man’s absence. Inspired with the goodness of his masculinity, the man unsheathed his sword (denudato gladio). The Latin word for sword (gladio) echoes the shepherdess’s call for joy (gaudeat). That underscores the poetic challenge to disparagement of men’s sexuality. Such disparagement commonly occurs through figuring a man as a wolf. The wolf here, a good that is offered in a holy sacrifice, is no more evil than is a sheep.[12] The sacrifice of the wolf and the redemption of the sheep, occurring in the passive voice, figures renewal of the church’s work. That begins when, in response to woman’s cry, masculine assertion replaces gynocentrism.

Could gynocentrism really have been a concern in the twelfth-century European Christian church? All the church officials and all the clerics were then formally men. In modern societies, men have vastly predominated among the politicians that have created and sustained unjust practices of paternity establishment, that have deprived men of reproductive choice, that discriminate enormously against men in child custody decisions, that have shown relatively little concern about violence against men, and that maintain vastly sex-disparate incarceration of men through laws that effectively criminalize men. In twelfth-century Europe, courtly love ideology celebrated men’s love-servitude to women. Devotion to the Virgin Mary was then becoming a potent spiritual force in the church. In Lucis orto sidere, a poet may well have poetically sought to overturn gynocentrism.[13] That hasn’t happened in reality yet. But the gates of the netherworld will not forever enthrall men.

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[1] The Old French pastourelle, which literary scholars have retroactively defined inductively, involves a cavalier wandering through the countryside. He encounters a young shepherdess and seeks her love. She typically rebuffs his love interest. He then typical offers persuasive words or gifts. Although most primate males naturally do not rape, in the pastourelle the cavalier sometimes rapes the shepherdess. Jones (1931) pp. 6-7.

Women raping men continues to be ignored and trivialized through to the present. The Old French pastourelle L’autre jour en un jardin is a rare medieval instance of breaking the silence. Its fifth stanza chillingly recounts:

Then she began embracing me
and was holding me, straining very tightly
for she wanted to kiss me,
but I was trying to get away.
she did to me all her desire
and tore off my clothes
and trampled and injured me
more than I can say.

{ Lors me prist a embracier
et molt m’aloit estraignant,
qu’ele mi voulout bezier,
mes je m’aloie eschivant.
de moi fist tout son talent
et me descouvri
et me foula et ledi
plus que je ne di. }

The Old French text is no. 75 in Rivière (1976) pp. 37-9. In Bartsch (1870), it’s pastourelle II:75.

Women’s sexual privilege and men’s sexual frustration is evident in a statistical summary of pastourelle. Out of 88 poems in a leading, nineteenth-century collection of Old French pastourelle, in 42 the cavalier fails to obtain sex. Moreover, in 28 out of the 46 in which the cavalier presumably obtains sex, the shepherdess initially rebuffs him. Id. p. 7. More generally, men suffer sexual deprivation and sexual rejection to a much greater extent than women do.

[2] Carmina Burana 157 (Lucis orto sidere), from Latin my English translation, adapted from the English translation of Walsh (1993) p. 175. Latin text from id. pp. 174-5. All subsequently quotes, unless otherwise noted, are similarly from Lucis orto sidere. A Latin text available online is substantially identical to Walsh’s text.

Walsh interprets the shepherdess as representing the Virgin Mary and the Church allegorically. He notes that “she had found no man in those fields, no pastor to be her husband.” Walsh (1976) p. 169. The absence of men in the church and the absence of a husband for the church implicitly explains the shepherdess taking the position of pastor in the first stanza. Walsh, however, doesn’t explain why there are no men.

Collationes vel Vitas Patrum included an account of a shepherd with a sexless marriage. To two old men who visited him to measure their moral standing, he stated:

I am a shepherd, and this is my wife.
{ Ego sum pastor ovium, et haec uxor mea est. }

After some urging, the shepherd revealed his way of marital life:

since I received this wife I have not been polluted nor has she. No, she is a virgin, and we sleep separately from each other and, moreover, at night we put on sackcloth garments, but in the day, our own clothes.

{ Ex quo autem accepi eam uxorem, neque ego pollutus sum, neque ipsa. Sed virgo est. Singuli autem a nobis remoti dormimus. Et quiden in nocte induimus saccos, in die vero vestimenta nostra. }

Liber Eliensis, from Latin trans. Fairweather (2005) p. 19. St. Benedict, Regula 48, recommended reading Collationes vel Vitas Patrum. Id. n. 64. The shepherd lived in the holy village of Illa in Egypt. His name was Eucharistus, and his wife’s name was Maria. Their story obviously allegorically figures Christ and the Virgin Mary. Lucis orto sidere developed a more sophisticated, more politically fraught pastoral allegory.

[3] John 10:1-18, Luke 2:20, building upon, e.g. Isaiah 40:11, Ezekiel 34:8, Psalms 28:9, Micah 7:14.

[4] Cf. Dronke (1975) pp. 258, 264.

[5] Walsh (1993) p. 176, noting the relation to Song of Solomon 2:13 (surge amica mea, speciosa mea).

[6] From Carmen de proprietatibus feminarum. For the manuscript sources, see note [1] in my post on medieval devaluation of masculine love.

[7] The pastoral in medieval Europe was a classical form with close connections to Christian imagery:

the Christian sense of pastor successfully insinuates itself into the Classical literary mode. From the fourth to the thirteenth centuries Pastoral was being written by men consciously aware of the fruitful possibilities inherent in exploiting the convergence of ‘pastor Vergilianus’ and ‘pastor Christianus’. … since the composers of such poetry {medieval Pastoral} are often clerics, readers must keep their minds open to the possibility of the double sense of pastor, Vergilian and Christian.

Walsh (1976) pp. 157, 169, with minor, non-substantial adaptation. Virgil (Vergil) added political significance to Theocritus’s Bucolica. The church-political significance of Lucis orto sidere is consistent with a significant aspect of Virgilian pastoral.

[8] Walsh (1993), p. 176, notes that the expression lingue solvo vinculum is Biblical and cites Mark 7:35. Adding to the contextual ridiculousness of the courtly knight’s loosed tongue, the sixth-century hymn Iam lucis orto sidere prays for a restrained tongue, a pure heart, and protection from folly.

Dronke observes that three later medieval drinking songs take the opening line into parody:

As soon as the morning star has risen,
I must immediately drink.

{Iam lucis orto sidere
statim oportet bibere.}

Dronke then adds:

Is the pastourelle {Lucis orto sidere}, then to be viewed as a parody? Only, I believe, if we can entertain a sense of parody that is delicate, not burlesque, witty not mocking.

Dronke (1976) p. 261. See also id., p. 263, which notes playfulness and a sense of comedy. The gentle parody of gynocentrism in the pastourelle Lucis orto sidere is sophisticated, subtle, and witty.

[9] Id. notes the connection to Luke 1:34, but doesn’t recognize the shepherdesses statements as disparaging men of her local community.

[10] The Old French pastourelle commonly includes a wolf. Jones (1931) Ch. III. The wolf in Lucis orto sidere, however, is distinctively characterized with the language of human sins.

[11] Parlett’s translation of Lucis orto sidere effaces the religious imagery and church-political content of the poem. It remakes the poem as a pastoral ditty:

One day when dawn was on the wing
a girl as pretty as the spring
sprang merrily from the sleep,
and with her pastoral rod a-swing
swung off to tend some sheep.

‘No sooner said than done,” I thought,
and with a sword that I had brought
wroke vengeance on that cur —
so saved the sheep that had been caught
and brought it back to her.

Parlett (1986) pp. 136-7. Even if you know no medieval Latin, you should be able to recognize easily from the Latin that this translation has strayed far from its original.

[12] Walsh (1976), pp. 168-9, and Walsh (1993), p. 177, interprets the wolf as representing the devil. The latter article of Walsh adds, “The allegory of the wolf does not of course extend to the extinction of Satan.” That’s special pleading for a faulty allegorical interpretation. As Walsh recognized, sacrificed (immolatur) and redeemed (redempta) are theological terms. The devil makes no sense as a sacrificial offering. The wolf is better interpreted allegorically as personally and socially treasured disparagement of men’s sexuality.

[13] The Old French pastourelle about the knight, the shepherdess, and the wolf was still being sung as a folk song when Jones wrote his book. Jones (1931) p. 89. The much more politically important Latin pastourelle has unfortunately received relatively little popular attention over the past century.

[image] Sheep at the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station near Dubois, Idaho. Thanks to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Wikimedia Commons.


Bartsch, Karl. 1870. Romances et pastourelles françaises des XXIIe et XIIIe siècles. Leipzig: F.C.W. Vogel.

Dronke, Peter. 1975. “Poetic Meaning in the Carmina Burana.” Mittelateinisches Jahrbuch 10: 116-37.

Fairweather, Janet. 2005. Liber Eliensis: a history of the Isle of Ely from the seventh century to the twelfth. Woodbridge: Boydell.

Jones, William Powell. 1931. The pastourelle; a study of the origins and tradition of a lyric type. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Parlett, David, trans. 1986. Selections from the Carmina Burana: a verse translation. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books.

Rivière, Jean-Claude. 1976. Pastourelles III: Texte des Chansonniers de la Bibliothèque nationale (suite) et de la Bibliothéque vaticane; Motets anonymes des Chansonniers de Montpellier et de Bamberg, avec notes; Tableaux et glossaires. Genève: Droz.

Walsh, Patrick Gerard. 1976. “Pastor and Pastoral in Medieval Latin Poetry.” Pp. 157-69 in Papers of the Liverpool Latin Seminar. ARCA Monograph 2. Liverpool.

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

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