Tondberht and Ecgfrith in sexless marriages to Æthelthryth

Saint Æthelthryth (Etheldreda)

In seventh-century England, Tondberht, an earl, repeatedly offered to marry Æthelthryth, a beautiful, noble young woman. She wasn’t interested. Her father, however, supported the marriage, and so too did her mother and her relatives. Through divine prompting, Æthelthryth finally consented to marry Tondberht. But after the marriage, she wouldn’t consent to having sex:

Once married, Saint Audry {Æthelthryth} concentrated all her efforts
and intently set her mind on
emulating through her own life
Our Lady, Saint Mary,
who was married to Joseph
but who remained a virgin all her life. [1]

If a woman wants to remain a virgin all her life, she shouldn’t marry a man without making clear to him that he is being set up to emulate Saint Joseph. The literary corpus of the life of Æthelthryth doesn’t even bother recording Tondberht’s preference with respect to marital sex. In any case, he adapted to Æthelthryth’s insistent on a sexless marriage. After a short time, he died.

A twelfth-century Latin account of Æthelthryth’s life disparaged Tondberht. It declared approvingly that Æthelthryth “reduced the virile strength of her first husband to femininity.”[2] Most men value their masculinity. Most women who love men also value men’s masculinity. The Latin account explained that Tondberht had been Æthelthryth’s husband only if “one may give the name of husband to a man who does not inflict the loss of chastity.” Describing marital sexuality as husbands inflicting the loss of chastity on wives disparages husbands. The account also declared that Æthelthryth “could never be defiled by the violence of two husbands.” The literary tradition nowhere gives any indication that Tondberht was violent toward Æthelthryth. Accusations of violence against women are easily made and cause great harm to men.

Ecgfrith took up the husbandly position of Tondberht, but less effectively adapted his life to Æthelthryth’s marital demands. Ecgfrith was a young, strong, high-status medieval warrior-king:

Egfrid {Ecgfrith} was noble and valiant,
and was a young man thirty years old.
He was courtly and generous in giving
and very valiant in bearing arms,
and he had good relations with
the archbishop Saint Wilfrid. [3]

Ecgfrith was poorly informed about love:

This noble king developed a strong and honorable love
toward Saint Audrey {Æthelthryth}
because of the good things that he had heard of her.
In an effort to marry her
he offered to give her very great riches
and a large dower.

Did Ecgfrith not hear about what happened to Tondberht? The literary tradition doesn’t make clear what Ecgfrith knew about Æthelthryth before marrying her. She clearly was very reluctant to marry him. He knew that. Because her relatives strongly favored her marrying Ecgfrith, she finally agreed to marry him. Æthelthryth’s reluctance to marry ultimately was too weak to save Ecgfrith from his own disastrous marital judgment.

Ecgfrith, like Tondberht, entered into a sexless marriage with Æthelthryth. Ecgfrith strove to stimulate her ardor for him, without success:

Once she had married him,
he surrounded her with sweetness and love,
but he did not conquer her heart.
The king was truly amazed
that he could not direct her heart’s affection toward him.
Her religious fervor was so intense
that she was in prayer night and day.
Whenever the king lay
in his royal bed awaiting his pleasure,
it pleased God to have him fall asleep.
The queen would then get up
to pray and make supplication;
she did not want to get back in bed.

The life of Æthelthryth presents a husband having sex with his wife as the vice of corrupting, violating penetration:

She was kept from corruption.
She was strong against all vices
and disdained the pleasures of the world.
Never would her body be penetrated
nor her heart violated.

That’s not an unusual view of men’s sexuality.[4] A similarly disparaging view of men’s sexuality in readily apparent in pioneering nineteenth-century social science and long-standing support for criminalizing men seducing women.

Æthelthryth’s sexual preference dominated in her marriage with King Ecgfrith. She desired a sexless marriage:

She wished to keep the virginity
that she had promised to God.
That is the way she preferred to live
rather than to have intimacy with a man.
She was indeed united in marriage with her husband,
but not by carnal relations.

Having a sexless marriage with Æthelthryth greatly frustrated Ecgfrith. But the young, strong warrior king, like most male primates, was unwilling to rape the woman with whom he sought sex:

Unable to have his way with her,
the king became irritated.
Twice he argued with her,
but he could never vanquish her that way.
When he saw that he could not do
with her what he wanted,
he became extremely angry
and even more ardently wanted her to do his bidding. [5]

Apart from criminal circumstances, if a husband’s wife doesn’t want to have sex, the husband and wife don’t have sex, unless the wife is a truly loving person.

King Ecgfrith sought out the medieval version of marriage counseling and experienced a roller-coaster of emotions. He asked priests to talk with Æthelthryth about sex within marriage. Priests could not convince Æthelthryth to follow spouses’ Christian obligation to have sex with each other. Ecgfrith then convinced himself of his wife’s moral superiority:

King Egfrid {Ecgfrith} amended his ways and began to revere her.
He saw such goodness in her
that he did not ever want to force her
or argue with her or even touch her.
And so it was that they never had
carnal relations together.

The king was married in appearance,
but not in marital acts. [6]

But king could not completely repress his normal masculine sexual desire for his wife:

Yet the king was still desirous
to have that which a husband should have
and a wife should do for him.
But he could not persuade the virgin —
neither by promises nor by gifts,
nor by pleading with her, nor by admonishing her. [7]

The King even appealed for help to Wilfrid, Archbishop of York and later declared a saint. The earliest surviving literary account preserves a cutting emotional reality:

Ecgfrith had promised to give him {Archbishop Wilfrid} estates and money if he could persuade the queen {Æthelthryth} to consummate their marriage, because he knew that there was none whom she loved more than Wilfrid himself. [8]

Even apart from sex, Ecgfrith knew that he wasn’t the most beloved man in his wife’s life. As a marriage counselor, Archbishop Wilfrid didn’t urge upon Æthelthryth the Christian obligation of spouses to have sex with each other. Wilfred instead supported the wife in her determination to have a sexless marriage.[9]

Wifely nagging ultimately prevailed over what medieval scholars commonly label patriarchy. Æthelthryth continually asked her husband to end their marriage:

Not occasionally, but night and day
she begged her husband
for permission to leave him
in order to serve Jesus Christ.
The king granted her nothing of the sort,
and her request grieved him.

Although the glorious queen
was quite eager
to separate from the king,
he refused it time and again.
But the more he refused it,
the more she tormented and begged him. [10]

Despite his wife tormenting him, the king still loved her and did not want to separate from her. Many women throughout history have served Jesus Christ within their marriages, even within marriages in which they actually have sex with their husbands. The queen led an extraordinarily privileged life with her husband the king. None of that reality mattered:

Neither the fine clothes she had,
nor the friends she frequented,
nor the wealth of gold or silver
could change her mind.

Ultimately, after twelve years of sexless marriage, the king surrendered to his wife’s demand:

Despite all, she so troubled her husband
that finally, with great sorrow, he granted her request.
The queen was overjoyed
because of this permission to leave.

Soon thereafter, Archbishop Wilfrid ordained and blessed her as a nun.

Even after twelve years of sexless marriage, the collapse of his marriage devastated King Ecgfrith.  He just couldn’t get over what had happened:

King Egfrid {Ecgfrith} deeply regretted
the separation from her that he had made.
He was so tormented and full of anger
that he did not know what to do or say.
He constantly felt such grief inside
that he almost lost his mind.

After divorce, men commonly feel angry and depressed about their marital experience. That’s particularly true for the many men who are deprived of equal physical custody of their children through deeply entrenched anti-men discrimination in family courts. Being burdened with crushing, patently unjust “child support” obligations also contributes to men’s despair.

Social networks and divine intervention vitiated the king’s subsequent acts toward his ex-wife. As a king, Ecgfrith was skilled in battle, hostage-taking, and repelling enemy forces from his realm. His ex-wife was living in a convent within his realm:

The king, on the advice of his people,
who often saw his suffering,
sought to throw her out of his house
where she had taken up residence.
He was so consumed with anger
that he went all the way to the abbey
with a great company of people, and
sought to throw her out of this convent. [11]

The abbess of the convent forestalled the king’s action by secretly sending Æthelthryth to the island of Ely. She had received rights to that island when she had entered into her first sexless marriage with Tondberht. But the king didn’t want her there, either. He took his force to the island. But his ex-wife climbed a hill with two of her closest female companions. Preposterously re-figuring the extraordinarily privileged ex-queen as Hebrews escaping from slavery in Egypt, the sea rose up like a wall around the hill to protect the ex-wife from her ex-husband. Ecgfrith realized that pursuing Æthelthryth was futile. Within their marriage Æthelthryth had been “ruler over him.”[12] Within gynocentric society extending up to God, the king’s ex-wife remained beyond his power.

The king did have some agency within central aspects of his personal life. The king recognized that Archbishop Wilfrid had betrayed him in relation to his wife. The king had the archbishop removed from his realm. The king also chose to remarry. He almost surely didn’t have any difficulty finding a new wife. But he had lost twelve years of what could have been joyful, Christian family life.

More than 1300 years after the lives of Tondberht and Ecgfrith, their experiences should be contemplated and avoided. The same ideology that supports tendentious and prejudicial labeling of men as rapists and naturalizes vastly disproportionate incarceration of men also tends to depreciate men’s entitlement to sex and to demonize men’s sexuality. That ideology is readily apparent in versions of the life of Æthelthryth across many centuries. It’s also readily apparent in recent decades’ medieval scholarship on Æthelthryth’s life. If more humane ideology and society isn’t possible, men can at least think about what they must do personally to avoid sexless marriage.[13]

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[1] Vie seinte Audree ll. 335-40, from Old French (Anglo-Norman) trans. McCash & Barban (2006) p. 43. Tondberht and his marriage to Æthelthryth are described in ll. 281-394. Subsequent quotes from Vie seinte Audree are specified with line numbers and pages in id., with modifications in translation noted.

Throughout this post I have standardized names based on the Anglo-Saxon forms. They are appropriate to the life’s historical context. In Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, the first surviving account, the Latin name forms are close to the Anglo-Saxon forms. Later Latin literature often uses the name Etheldreda for Æthelthryth.  In Vie seinte Audree, Tondberht is spelled Tonbert, Ecgfrith is spelled Egfrid, and Æthelthryth is named Audree, commonly modernized to Audrey.

I treat the various versions of the life of Æthelthryth as the relevant textual corpus for this post. I usually don’t distinguish narratives between instances. On changes in versions across time, Blanton (2007) (Table 2, pp. 9-10, lists surviving versions with date of authorship) and Turner (2007). The changes in versions provide different degrees of expression of prevalent ideas relevant to the main points above.

Vie seinte Audree survives in only one manuscript, British Library Additional 70513, f. 100v-134v. The manuscript is a copy made at the end of the thirteenth century. Vie seinte Audree seems to be a adaptation of a life, miracles, and bodily translations of the saint. It was translated linguistically from Latin into Old French in the late-twelfth century or early-thirteenth century. McCash & Barban (2006) Introduction, pp. 3-4. The coda to the text indicates its author is “Marie.” Recent scholarship strongly supports identifying that author as Marie de France. Id. pp. 5-8.

[2] Liber Eliensis, from Latin trans. Fairweather (2005) p. 29. Subsequent quotes in the above paragraph are from id. pp. 17, 33. Liber Eliensis is close to the primary source for the life portion of Vie seinte Audree. It’s the first surviving text to provide many details of the conflict between Ecgfrith and Æthelthryth. It dates to the early-twelfth century.

[3] Vie seinte Audree ll. 849-54, p. 67. King Ecgfrith reigned over the Bernicians in the north. York was his chief city. This and most of the other quotes from Vie seinte Audree provide information also in the Liber Eliensis version. The subsequent four quotes above are from ll. 782-7, p. 63 (This noble king…); ll. 924-36, pp. 69-71 (Once she had married…); ll. 940-4, p. 71 (She was kept…); ll. 949- 54, p. 71 (She wished…).

[4] Bede’s Ecclesiastical History 11 associated a wife having sex with a man as corrupting her post-mortal body:

the divine miracle whereby her flesh would not corrupt after she was buried was token and proof that she had remained uncorrupted by contact with any man.

From Latin trans. Colgrave & Mynors (1969) p. 393.

Gregory of Ely’s life of Æthelthryth, written in Latin verse in the twelfth century, disparages men’s sexuality even more harshly. It analogizes Æthelthryth and Ecgfrith to Judith and Holofernes (Judith 12-13). It also describes “her flight from the marriage-bed in terms of a flight from Sodom and Gomorrah.” Thompson & Stevens (1988) p. 345.

[5] Vie seinte Audree ll. 955-62, p. 71. The Old French for ll. 957-8:

Par deuz foiz estriva a lui,
Unkes ne pur ceo la venqui.

McCash & Barban translate those lines:

and twice he tried to force her,
but he could never subdue her that way.

The English word “force” rather loosely translates estriva. Id. ll. 881-2, p. 67, notes:

Egfrid {Ecgfrith} vanquished his enemies on all sides
and maintained peace in his country.

The young warrior king surely was physically strong enough to rape his wife if such ugly action actually appealed to him.

Blanton takes criminalization of men further. Audrée {Æthelthryth} “endured an attempted rape, and retained her purity in the face of male aggression.” Blanton (2010), p. 96.  Audrée “resisted sexual assault.” Id. p. 106. Imagine the active, young warrior-husband Ecgfrith and his wife Audrée. Then consider this extra-textual misandristic fantasy:

the second marriage is recast as a variation of the faithful resistance model when the husband, thinking to consummate the union through force, assaulted his wife. Æthelthryth, or here Audrée, wrestled the aggressive husband to the ground {sic}, physically overcoming him {sic}, and then persuaded him to allow her to leave their marriage for a religious career.

Id. p. 95. Such scholarships contributes insight into rape-culture culture, ongoing sexual repression and travesties of criminal justice on college campuses, and the vastly sex-disproportionate incarceration of men.

[6] Vie seinte Audree ll. 991-4, 999-1000, p. 73. The Old French for ll. 993-4:

Ne le voleit mes esforcier
N’estriver a lui n’atochier;

McCash & Barban translate l. 994:

or quarrel with her or even lay a hand on her.

Above I’ve use “argue” for estriver to be consistent with the translation for l. 957. I’ve translated atochier more literally as “touch”. The context isn’t drunken belligerence (“don’t lay a hand on me!”), but rather extreme wifely sanctity:

Inspired by his wife
Saint Audrey the glorious,

ll. 989-90, p. 73.

[7] Vie seinte Audree ll. 1005-10, p. 73. The Old French for ll. 1006-7:

D’avoir ceo qu’avient a espous
Et que l’espose li doit faire,

McCash & Barban translate those lines:

of having a husband’s due
from his wife.

That translation flattens the corresponding personal senses of entitlement and obligation.  A similar flattening and trivializing occurs for ll. 1017-8:

Rendist a lui ce qu’el devoit
Si come espouse a espous doit.

McCash & Barban translate those lines:

and to give him what she ought,
as was her wifely duty.

A more appropriate translation:

to give to him what she ought,
as a wife to a husband should.

l. 1018 could carry the translation “as a spouse to a spouse should.” In gendered languages, gender-specific terms commonly carry a universal sense, e.g. “man” used for human beings generically. Such language should be avoided, however, because it tends to obliterate men’s distinctive gender identity. In this specific case, using the previous line to gender-specify the subsequent line, relative to a universal statement, seems reasonable.

[8] Bede, Ecclesiastical History Ch. XIX, from Latin trans. Colgrave & Mynors (1969) p. 393.

[9] Vie seinte Audree ll. 1071-3, p. 77, explains:

Politely but cleverly,
Saint Wilfrid brought about the separation
of the lady from her husband

On Christian understanding of spouses’ sexual obligations to each other, 1 Corinthians 7:3-5.

[10] Vie seinte Audree ll 1149-54, 1159-64. The subsequent three quotes are ll. 1171-74, p. 81 (Neither the fine clothes…); ll 1175-8, p. 81 (Despite all…); ll. 1273-78, p. 87 (King Egfrid…).

[11] Vie seinte Audree ll. 1279-86, p. 87. Lines 1281 (La vout geter de sa maison) and 1286 (La vout geter de ceo covent) are similar in the Old French. McCash & Barban translate these lines as “decided to force her out of the convent” and “intending to take her by force out of the convent.” I’ve translated la vout geter above more closely as “sought to throw her out” and made sense of the other words more precisely.

Subtle issues of translation in the life of Æthelthryth have served to support dominant patterns of criminalization. Liber Eliensis 11 states:

Hence at the suggestion and instigation of his people, he began to attempt to snatch her away from the convent, despite the fact that she was under the protection of the veil of holiness. Without delay, he went up quickly, with fury and hullabaloo, to the convent where the holy virgin was living.
{Unde suorum suggestione atque instinctu, de monasterio illam, licet iam sanctitatis velamine obtectam, eripere conabatur. Nec mora, ad monasterium ubi virgo sancta degebat cum furore et fremitu festinanter ascendit.}

Trans. Fairweather (2005) p. 33, my adaptation. Blanton provides a lengthy discussion tending to associate eripere with rape. Blanton (2007) pp. 149-50. That word, however, probably didn’t have a sexual connotation in twelfth-century Latin. Gretsch (2005) p. 212. Blanton, however, like current college sex tribunals, judged that all possible circumstances indicate that the man attempted to rape:

The chronicler’s decision to utilize more elusive language suggests too that the assault is intentionally metaphoric and that direct terminologies of rape cannot be used to describe the king’s act. … The periphrastic representation of rape in the Liber Eliensis does not state clearly that the king is a rapist, but this indirect language allows the monastic community to critique royal aggression without the reprisal that a direct accusation might have. Periphrastic language also positions the virgin’s symbolic body as a site of potential (but not realized) violence. In other words, the rape is attempted but not completed.

Blanton (2007) p. 150. Blanton’s book won the 2008 Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship Best First Book Prize. This sort of scholarship makes clear the communicative principle of rape. It also helps men in college understand their hostile environment.

[12] Liber Eliensis explains: “he {Ecgfrith} revered her in all respects, not as his queen or his consort but as ruler over him.” Trans. Fairweather (2005) p. 28. On the sea as a wall of water, Exodus 14:22, 29; 15:8.

Liber Eliensis records an additional divine act against Ecgfrith.  Once, when he sought to enter the royal bedchamber when Æthelthryth was there, the room “all lit up inside, as if it were on fire!” Ecgfrith “was seized by very great terror and retreated in astonishment.” Id. p. 29. That event isn’t included in Vie seinte Audree.

[13] A life of Æthelthryth written about 1420 omitted vicious representations of Ecgfrith and added a poignant plea from Ecgfrith to Archbishop Wilfrid. Ecgfrith, with self-effacement, justified his desire for sex within his sexless marriage:

For I would much desire to have an heir between the two of us to inherit our high heritage, a child or two, if God wills it should be so, now in our young fresh age.

From Middle English trans. Dockray-Miller (2009) p. 351.

[image] Saint Æthelthryth of Ely from the Benedictional of St. Æthelwold. Illumination, c. 973. British Library MS Additional 49598, fol. 90v. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Blanton, Virginia. 2007. Signs of devotion: the cult of St. Aethelthryth in medieval England, 695-1615. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Blanton, Virginia. 2010. “Chaste Marriage, Sexual Desire, and Christian Martyrdom in La vie seinte Andrée.” Journal of the History of Sexuality. 19 (1): 94-114.

Colgrave, Bertram, and R. A. B. Mynors, trans. 1969. Bede’s ecclesiastical history of the English people. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Dockray-Miller, Mary, trans. 2009. Saints Edith and Æthelthryth: princesses, miracle workers, and their late medieval audience: the Wilton Chronicle and the Wilton Life of St Æthelthryth. Turnhout: Brepols.

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

Gretsch, Mechthild. 2005. Aelfric and the cult of saints in late Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

McCash, June Hall and Judith Clark Barban, ed. and trans. 2006. The life of Saint Audrey: A Text by Marie de France. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland.

Thompson, Paula A. and Elizabeth Stevens. 1988. “Gregory of Ely’s Verse Life and Miracles of St. Æthelthryth.” Analecta Bollandiana 106: 333–90.

Turner, Stacie. 2007. “The Changing Hagiography of St. Æthelthryth.” The Heroic Age: A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe 10 (May).

men should be paid for their erection labor

erection labor produces fireworks

You probably understand that construction workers are hard workers. But do you realize that many men are continually engaged in erection labor? Women have no idea how draining men’s natural reproductive functioning can be.

Men’s reproductive labor is less visible and less appreciated than women’s reproductive labor. The raucous medieval French text The Fifteen Joys of Marriage {Les Quinze Joyes de Mariage} explored the issue:

Now it’s quite true that a woman is sorely beset for so long as she’s pregnant or bearing children, and that during childbirth she suffers untold grief and pain. But all this is nothing compared to the travail a reasonable man must endure when pondering any of his important undertakings. And as for the discomfort of pregnancy or childbirth, it impresses me not a bit more than that of a hen or goose laying an egg as big as my fist, and this through a hole too small for my pinkie just a moment before. One process is just as great as the other in Nature’s scheme.

{ Bien est vray que la femme, tant que elle porte enfans et est grousse, qu’elle est bien empeschée, et à l’enfantement a grant paine et douleur ; mais ce n’est rien à comparer envers un soussy que ung homme raisonnable prent, de pencées profondes pour aucune grant chose qu’il a affaire. Et quant est de la paine de l’engroisse ou de l’enfantement, je ne m’en merveille nyent plus que d’une geline ou d’un oaye, qui met hors un grous euf comme le poing par ung pertuis où paravant vous n’eusses pas mis ung petit doy. Et si est aussi grant chouse à nature de faire l’un comme l’autre }

In pioneering comparative ethological analysis embracing humans and chickens, Les Quinze joyes de mariage reasoned:

Thus you’ll see the hen remains plumper than the cock, despite the fact that she lays daily. The rooster is so stupid, he spends the whole day scratching for food to bill-feed his mate, while her sole concerns are eating, gabbling, and resting easy. And the same holds true for good, respectable husbands. That I say to their credit.

{ et si verrez une geline se tenir plus grasse en ponnant chacun jour que ne fait un coq : car le coq est si beste qu’il ne fait à journée que li querre vitaille et la luy bailler ou bec, et la geline ne s’esmoye que de menger et de caqueter, et se tenir bien aise. Ainsi le font les bons proudes hommes mariez, qui en sont bien à louer. }

Adjusting for hours worked and years of job experience, women working the same jobs as men earn about the same pay.  But women and men make significantly different job choices. Men have more dangerous, dirty, unpleasant jobs. That why about eleven times more men than women die from occupational fatalities. Moreover, women control 80% of consumer spending. Spending money is more enjoyable than earning it. Men who work longer hours for more years in more dangerous, unpleasant jobs so that women can spend more money are stupid.

But those economic issues are trivial compared to the physiological burden of a normal, healthy man’s frequent, large erections. Women cannot imagine a man’s labor in producing a massive erection. It’s like rapidly donating several quarts of blood. Can you imagine rapidly donating several quarts of blood every ten or fifteen minutes throughout the day? And not just for nine months, but for twelve months a year, year after year. That’s what it’s like to be a man.

Men deserve to be paid for the biological burden of being a man. Men deserve to be paid for their erection labor. The simplest policy would be an erection tax credit. Modern smart watches with bio-sensing could easily generate documentation for erection tax credit claims. Men’s smart watches could automatically detect their erection labor, estimate the magnitude of the blood flow, and wirelessly report the event to a central IRS erection tax credit claim database. The erection tax credit could be automatically applied to men’s tax returns. The ability of impotent men to engage in erection tax credit fraud would be minimal with modern bio-sensing and centralized database technology.

Men naturally engage in erection labor. But men shouldn’t be exploited just because of the way their bodies naturally function. Men deserve to be paid for their erection labor.

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The above quotes are from The Fifteen Joys of Marriage {Les Quinze Joyes de Mariage}, Seventh Joy, Middle French text of Jannet (1857), English translation (modified insubstantially) form Pitts (1985) pp. 67-8. Les Quinze joyes de mariage is thought to have been written about the year 1400.

[image] Eiffel tower fireworks on Bastille Day, 15 July 2005. Thanks to Beivushtang and Wikimedia Commons.


Jannet, Pierre, ed. 1857. Les quinze joyes de mariage. Seconde édition de la Bibliothèque elzévirienne conforme au manuscrit de la Bibliothèque publique de Rouen. Avec les variantes des anciennes éditions, une notice bibliographique et des notes.. Paris: E. Thunot. Alternate presentation of first edition (1853).

Pitts, Brent A., trans. 1985. The Fifteen Joys of Marriage = Les XV joies de mariage. New York: P. Lang.

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.

sexual harassment of men in the Middle Ages: the case of Galo


During the Middle Ages in the king of Asia’s court, the queen fell in love with Galo, a foreign knight. He prudently and appropriately declined her advances. But she gave him rich presents and persisted in soliciting him from her position of superior authority. Even if the king’s court had a human resources department, it probably would have trivialized a woman’s sexual harassment of a man, as many do today. Fortunately, Galo’s close friend Sadius intervened to help end the sexual harassment. Such peer support is crucial for addressing sexism, domestic violence, and rape.

Sadius, who was the king’s nephew, approached the queen privately about her relationship to Galo. He began by praising her noble birth, her beauty, and her virtue. Noting that no man could resist her sexual allure, he praised her firm chastity. Then he added:

Yet one, and one only, do I know whom I could praise for like firmness, if the God of Love hadn’t made him impotent. In this matter for which we all admire and are amazed at him, there is entirely no doubt about him. [1]

The queen inquired about the man’s name. Sadius responded coyly:

Truly, he who is not to be compared to any man; yet the Lord who has enriched and endowed him with every kind of good fortune, in this alone has condemned him, or as he himself avers, saved him.

Suspecting that he was referring to Galo, the queen questioned and flattered Sadius, urgently seeking the man’s name. Sadius made her promise to keep the matter secret. After she so promised, he said:

It is my Galo, who, though he could extort every favor from women, confesses to me alone that he is completely empty of working potency. [2]

The queen inwardly groaned. She didn’t manage to completely suppress her tears. She quickly retreated into privacy and solitude. Sadius brought the news to Galo. They both rejoiced at the apparent success of their scheme to end the queen’s sexual harassment of Galo.

The queen, however, wasn’t willing merely to believe a horrifying story. Unlike today, in the Middle Ages persons sought actual evidence for sensational claims. The queen resolved to investigate whether Sadius lied about Galo. She summoned the noblest palace maiden:

She instructed and guided her to slid with wiles into nakedly embracing with Galo, to touch his penis, and then chastely bring back word whether he was potent or not. [3]

The queen greatly envied the maiden performing the task that she had assigned to her. The queen lay down on a couch and thought about Galo:

With what gentle reproof would he tell me that I was married and consecrated to the king, that he was his sworn man, and that he would for my sake do everything — but added: “Except that!” Good God! how huge was that “that”! All that I sought was “that”: “that” was everything. What, then, did he say? “All except that?” No, it was “all except all”, which is, being interpreted, nothing. And certainly he could have said more truly, “My lady, for your sake I will do all nothing.” And I wish that by such a nonsensical phrase he had shown me his true meaning and condemned me with an eternal repulse. O God, who ever snatched himself so harshly from such an embrace? Either the sighs of the young and old are false, or this face could rouse the ardor of any man. Yet my mirror is true. O, but I had forgotten! Sadius is faithful and truthful: he lost his genitals. The more fool is he, to conceal his disgrace from me, that he cannot be touched, to spurn me that I might not spurn him in return! Truly if he had favored me, I would have been his most closely joined and clinging friend, and if there were a delay in discovering him, a hand could stray that certainly would be able to detect whether he is female or male or neuter. O, it is not as I believed! Sadius lies, he is a man, the signs are certain that he is a man, intact, without defect. O what a wretch and fool I am to have sent the cleverest of girls on my own errand!

The queen then, blaming herself and still pondering at length Galo’s potency, agonized about the possibility of her maiden enjoying a tryst with Galo. The maiden had gone to him all dressed up. The maiden’s name was Ero, just an ‘s’ short of eros.

When Ero returned from her meeting with Galo, the queen anxiously and peevishly questioned her. Ero explained:

I came to him, I touched, but was repulsed. Nonetheless, I have no doubt that he is potent.

The queen then pressed questions about why she had taken so long and why she went dressed as if she were going to her wedding. Ero said:

It was good for me to be able to please him, until I knew him, and I nearly pleased; I perceived him fully a man and willing, if you had known him. But when he noticed that I was smaller, and less suited to him than you, I was cast out at once.

The queen understood what had happened. She declared that Ero had “wickedly committed adultery.” The queen then furiously attacked Ero:

she seized her by the hair and maltreated her, and wounded her with fists and feet, and handed her over half dead to her companions, to be strictly watched and have no license allowed to her. [4]

The queen had intensely desired to commit adultery with Galo. She now intensely hated him. She now sought to publicly humiliate him and get him killed.

Although Sadius and Galo’s impotency ruse was exposed, they succeeded in ending the queen’s sexual harassment. Challenges to public honor and personal safety were the sort of problems that medieval knights were much more accustomed to addressing. With a long knightly romance, disguised identities, and fierce personal combat, Galo and Sadius subsequently preserved Galo’s honor and his life. Those knightly affairs matter little to men in today’s modern societies.

Sexual harassment of men and boys continues to be a problem. Even sexual assault tends not to be taken seriously. Many persons refuse to believe that, according to the leading U.S. national survey, about equal numbers of women and men are raped. When a woman rapes a minor, newspapers commonly report that she “had sex,” not the legal fact that she raped. Women who rape boys and men are entitled to collect child support from them. A female teacher who sexually exploited a boy got less punishment than a woman who had sex with a dog. In such circumstances, men must learn to claim convincingly that they are impotent.

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[1] De societate Sadii et Galonis (Of the friendship of Sadius and Galo), in Walter Map, De nugis curialium, Dist. 3, c. 2, from Latin trans. James (1983) p. 215. McDonough (1985) provides a detailed list of textual corrections. Id., p. 301, observes that the translation “lacks clarity” in some lines concerning sexual matters. I’ve checked McDonough’s corrections and amended the translation to track more closely the Latin. What I’ve translated as the God of Love is in the Latin Veneris (Venus). All the above quotes are similarly from James (1983) pp. 215-23, with modifications for clarity.

Levine (1988), a comically mistitled scholarly article, sneers at Map’s story of Sadius and Galo:

Presumably, Walter’s bitterly misogynistic posture is sufficient justification for his apparent carelessness, if not triviality.

Levine also reads Map’s story to reveal the “bitter­ness of his anti‑feminism.” Id. pp. 99, 98. That’s the name-calling school of literary criticism. It supports the perpetuation of patriarchal ideology and the devaluation of literature of men’s sexed protest.

Other scholars have provided more thoughtful and appreciative readings. Bennett (1941) explores the intricate structure of the story. Bennett describes Sadius and Galo as:

an outstanding example of the art of fiction in the late twelfth century … one of the finest, if not the finest of Latin chivalric romances — a civilized and polished narrative, urbane, sophisticated, and vigorous.

Id. pp. 34, 56. Hume (1975) considers how Map constructed the story. She similarly describes it as “a splendid piece of work.” Id. p. 423.

[2] For the Latin uacuum se penitus ab opere, James (1983), p. 215, has “he cannot.” I’ve supplied a clearer translation above.

[3] The Latin:

Instruit eam et docet aditum, quo possit in Galonis amplexus illabi, nudamque se nudo iungere, manum iubet inicere pudendis, et ut casta referat utrum possit an non.

Id. translates:

She gave her all instructions, told her how to insinuate herself into Galo’s good graces, with no holds barred; to put her finger on the spot, and without risking herself, to bring back word whether he was a man or no.

That translation obscures amplexus nudamque se nudo iungere, as well as the specifics of the spot. I’ve provided a more explicit translation above.

Andreas Capellanus, De amore 1.6.471, advocates lacertique amplexum et verecundum amantis nudae contactum (“embracing with the arms and chaste contact with the unclothed lover”). Walsh (1982) p. 180-1. That peculiar concept is similar to the peculiar advice that the queen gives her maiden with respect to Galo. De nugis curialium apparently didn’t circulate in the Middle Ages. If there was influence, and that seems probable, it apparently went from De amore to De nugis curialium. The latter is thought to have been drafted mainly in 1181 and 1182. Map died between 1208 and 1210. Brooke’s Introduction, pp. xviii, xxiv-xxxi, in James (1983). These facts suggest that De amore was written before 1210, and probably before 1182.

[4] Modern medieval literary scholarship, like modern public discourse generally, tends trivialize women as perpetrators of domestic violence. In reality, women are fully as capable and as active as men in committing domestic violence.

[image] Prince Don Carlos of Austria wearing his codpiece, painted c. 1558. Held in the Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain. Thanks to Web Gallery of Art and Wikimedia Commons.


Bennett, R. E. 1941. “Walter Map’s Sadius and Galo.” Speculum. 16 (1): 34-56.

Hume, Kathryn. 1975. “The Composition of a Medieval Romance: Walter Map’s ‘Sadius and Galo.'” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen. 76 (3): 415-423.

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.

Levine, Robert. 1988. “How to Read Walter Map.” Mittellateinsches Jahrbuch. 23: 91-105.

McDonough, Christopher J. 1985. Review of James, Brooke & Mynors (1983), De nugis curialiumMittellateinisches Jahrbuch 20: 294-302.

Walsh, P.G., trans. 1982. Andreas Capellanus on love {De amore}. London: Duckworth.