killing Patricida frees men’s inner selves from political oppression

I am the leader, I am the victor, a gift I seek: grant it.
Yet, because he performs honorable services that you bestowed on him,
your king ceases to be king over himself.
Swiftly I lay aside the royal robes, swiftly your king divests himself —
Free, I am my own man again, unimpeded in fulfilling my own desires.

{ Dux ego, victor ego, munera quaero: date.
Sed quia muneribus vestri fundatur honoris,
rex ideo vester desinit esse suus.
Pono citus trabeam, vestrum citus exuo regem
liber et explicitus ad mea vota, meus. } [1]

Men to the empyrean

Mathematicus of Bernardus Silvestris isn’t widely recognized as a major medieval work of men’s sexed protest. It has none of the anguished impotence of Matheolus’s outcry. It lacks the daring intertextual reversal of Hildebert of Lavardin’s De querimonia et conflictu spiritus et carnis. Yet with intricate antitheses, Mathematicus eloquently depicts man’s inner struggle against Patricida. Men must shed the deceptive integument of their dominance in serving women and in administering father-killing. Men must assert their value in doing nothing more than being.

Mathematicus tells the fabulous story of a Roman knight and his wife. He was valiant in fighting other men, rich in material goods, and publicly prominent. Like most husbands, he was devoted to his wife.  She was superior to him, or at least his equal, yet modest:

His wife was no less nobly born than her husband, not inferior in character,
no older in years, no less trustworthy;
direct, modest, unassuming, not, as is often apt to be
for a beautiful woman, overbearing with her husband.

{ Sponsa vira non stirpe minor, non moribus impar,
non aevo senior dissimilisve fide;
prompta, modesta, timens, non, ut solet esse frequenter,
imperiosa suo femina pulcra viro. }

In describing the wife, Bernardus subtly evokes literature of men’s sexed protest, yet distinguishes the wife: not all women are like that (NAWALT). Subtle manipulation of men’s sexed protest is a vital current throughout Mathematicus.[2]

Although wife and husband ardently sought to have children, they remained childless. The issue wasn’t sexless marriage:

she cannot complain of the frosty age of an elderly husband,
nor he of the chilled limbs of his wife.

{ nec senis haec gelidos causari coniugis annos,
ille nec uxoris frigida membra potest. }

She consulted an astrologer. His calculations foretold that women’s cosmos-changing new creation “will bring fertility to your sterile womb.” The wife would give birth to a son who would have characteristics of excellent men and women, e.g., beautiful, but not overbearing.[3] This son was fated to kill his father.

When the husband realized that his wife was upset and weary with worry, he asked her about her troubles. She told him of the astrologer’s calculations. He listened to her attentively and was filled with sorrow. Lacking reproductive rights himself, as men have been throughout history, he begged her to have a post-birth abortion:

I thus pray, my wife, my love, my sole delight,
sharer of my soul and half of my being:
when the child has been conceived by this evil genius,
and your womb has given forth its timely burden,
forgetting tender feelings, forgetting motherhood,
do not hesitate to put your son to death.

{ Unde precor, meus uxor amor, mea sola voluptas,
altera pars animae dimidiumque meae:
cum fuerit soboles genio concepta sinistro
et tua maturum fuderit alvus honus,
affectus oblita pios oblitaque matrem
ne dubites puerum mortificare tuum. }

The “evil genius” to which the husband referred was his penis, fated according to the astrologer’s calculations. That night the wife and husband lay together and conceived a child.

Like many mothers throughout history, the wife loved her new-born son. He was beautiful, smiled with joy, and seemed to be the image of divinity in human substance. She couldn’t bear to kill him. She feigned his death and sent him far away. She ordered that his name be Patricida:

His name was ambiguous, but Patricida he is called,
as ordered by the secret shrewdness of his parent,
so that the youth at such great crime, such great madness,
might shudder as often as he heard his name.

{ Nomen in ambiguo, sed Patricida vocetur
imperat arcana calliditate parens,
ut iuvenis tantumque nefas tantumque furorem
horreat audito nomine saepe suo. }

Patricida means killing the father. Relative to mothers, fathers today are vastly disproportionately legally exiled from physical custody of their children, as well as vastly disproportionately incarcerated and killed. Patricida is personally horrifying, but it is socially supported in gynocentric society.

Patricida, not surprisingly, came to rule Rome. Patricida charged into an enemy horde of Carthaginians and overturned the Roman army’s defeat. Men’s battles against men put Patricida in power. Having men rule doesn’t indicate victory for men.

With Patricida ruling Rome, the issues of men’s sexed protest became prominent. Patricida’s mother understood that his father was now in grave danger. Yet she was reluctant to tell her secret to her husband. Like wives in the literature of men’s sexed protest, the husband made various emotional plays to get his wife to divulge her secret:

He rushes to embrace and tenderly kiss his beloved
wife, then breaks off and asks her why she is sad.
But she tells him nothing; he holds her roughly and clings to her,
he is insistent and overbearing, and he entreats her endlessly.

He asks, invoking the trust of marriage and its sacred rites,
what is the meaning, what is the cause from which her sorrow has arisen.
If a matter for deliberation, it will enter trustworthy ears;
if a crime, a loving husband can accept this.

{ Currit in amplexus et dulciter oscula carae
coniugis irrumpit et rogat, unde dolet.
Cui tamen illa nihil; premit importunus et haeret,
instat et incumbit multiplicatque preces.

Quaerit perque fidem thalamique sacros hymeneos,
quis, quibus ex causis fluxerit iste dolor.
Si res consilii, tutas descendet in aures;
si scelus, hoc poterit scire maritus amans. }

Like husbands in the literature of men’s sexed protest, the wife eventually revealed her secret to her husband. But before she told her secret, she forcefully rehearsed themes from men’s protests against women:

Mine is the sex to which simplicity is an enemy,
to which shame is unknown, to which trust is foreign.
Mine is the sex which detests integrity,
which claims as its right any crime whatsoever.
If it please the gods, be destroyed that wicked gender
womankind; then let man live for himself in a world of his own.
A destructive wind, the swelling waves of the ocean, the fury of war
do not result in murders equal to yours, ominous woman.
A plant or tree, to prolong life through the ages, has
seeds that ensure the perpetuity and continuity of its kind.
A woman likewise has the root of crime within herself,
seeds and substance of evil she harbors.
If the ancient days of open honesty should return,
and the spirit of crafty ingenuity should perish,
woman would be capable of restoring the destructive arts,
and might well add some new work of treachery.
In time, lions grow tame, laying aside their fierceness,
in time, tiger and bear usually become pacified.
Her step remains fixedly faced toward crime,
woman alone never changes her perverse nature.
Should any woman wholly separate herself from her sex,
she would make herself more of a marvel than a snow-white raven.

{ Is meus est sexus, cui simplicitas inimica,
cui pudor ignotus, cui peregrina fides.
Is meus est sexus, qui detestatur honestum,
qui, cuicquid scelus est, vidicat esse suum.
Si libeat superis, genus evertatur iniquum
femina, vivat homo tum suus orbe suo.
Aura nocens, maris unda tumens irataque pugna
non necat ad numerum, femina dira, tuum.
Planta vel arbor habet, quibus extendatur in aevum,
semina; perpetuant continuantque genus.
Femina non aliter radicuem criminis in se
sementemque mali materiamque tenet.
Tempora si redeant antiquae simplicitatis
argutique cadat spiritus ingenii,
femina sufficiet artes reparare nocendi
perfidiaeque noveum forsitan addet opus.
Tempore mitiscunt posita feritate leones,
tempore leniri tigris et ursa solent;
fixa pedem manet ad facinus numquamque malignam
mutat naturam femina sola suam.
Si qua suum penitus descivit femina sexum
plus niveo corvo prodigiosa fuit. } [4]

The concluding reference to a “snow-white raven” inverts the coloring of Juvenal’s black swan. Juvenal, however, merely and sensibly urged a friend not to marry. The wife’s categorical condemnation of women is better understood as similar to Andreas Capellanus’s sophisticated rhetoric of men’s protest. Working polarities like Andreas did, the wife repudiated her own rhetoric:

But why to a natural failing, why to innate
behavior do I ascribe the burden of this crime?
What evil, what vile, what monstrous, what damned acts
that I basely impute to my sex, I myself have done.
No elegant argument can disguise what my guilt colors;
my crime has no way to hide itself.

{ Sed quid naturae vitio vel quid genuinis
moribus ascribo criminis huius onus?
Quod mala, quod nequam, quot atrox, quod perdita feci,
ad sexum refero turpiter ipsa meum.
Non bene causa nitet, qua se mea culpa colorat;
seque meum facinus non habet unde tegat. } [5]

The mother preserved the life of Patricida, destined to kill his father. To do otherwise would have been to defy the order of fate. Yet she insisted on her own guilt in doing so. That guilt implies the inner freedom and responsibility associated with personal being.

Mathematicus extends personal being to men in the face of Patricida. The father that Patricida must kill is the man whom his mother addressed with pity:

Perhaps by obedience and tender devotion
you believed that you had won my heart.
From our earliest stages, your only desire,
your only affection, your only care was for me.

{ Forsitan obsequiis et blanda sedulitate
credebas animum promeruisse meum.
A primis aevi gradibus tuus unicus ordor,
unicus affectus, unica cura fui. }

In short, the father was an exemplar of the men that uphold gynocentrism. That’s a path of misery for men:

But your generous acts, responding poorly to your hopes,
did not receive a return of equal merit.
We counterbalance obedience with injury, hatred for love,
praise with abuse, trust with betrayal.

{ Sed benefacta tuis male respondentia votis
aequalis meriti non habuere vices.
Obsequium damnis, odiis pensamus amorem,
opprobrio laudem, proditione fidem. }

That summary applies equally well to recent activity for “gender equality.” With an allusion to the self-consciousness and magnanimity of Photis, the wife implored:

Husband, seek out a new form of punishment, draw your sword,
scatter my entrails on the earth, tear apart my limbs on the wheel!

{ Quaere, marite, novum poenae genus, exime ferrum,
viscera funde solo, distrahe membra rotis! }

In the radical medieval pastourelle Lucis orto sidere, dramatic masculine assertion redeemed men sheep from gynocentrism. But the husband here wasn’t the sort of man who would proudly and fearlessly display his sword. The husband welcomed and honored Patricida.

In a brilliant poetic figure, Patricida garnered public assent to destroying father-killing and asserted his personal freedom to realize men’s masculine being. He acted with guile, an art in which women typically are far superior to men. Patricida, king and hero to the Roman people, requested a gift from them. He requested “an ambiguous gift, concealing its name.”[6] The gift he requested was named Patricida. He guilefully secured from the Roman people the gift of himself. Men must recognize the value of their own being. By any means necessary, they must reclaim their being from gynocentric society.

Just as his request was ambiguous, the gift of Patricida goes two ways. After he received that gift, he described its political meaning in reference to his external covering as the ruler maintaining gynocentrism:

Instead, I seek what could be granted by a cruel enemy:
that it be permitted me to inflict my own death,
and hasten the last day of my wretched life.

Your gift, O Rome, is my death; you sin unknowingly,
the burden of beclouded error defends you.

{ ut liceat propriamque mihi consciscere mortem
et miseram vitae praecipitare diem.

Munus, Roma, tuum mors est mea; nescia peccas,
defenditque tuum nubilus error opus. }

Gynocentrism defines the socially sanctioned meaning of sin and error. Destroying gynocentrism is a cosmopoietic task. Mathematicus ends with dual clarity. Patricida — father-killing — is no longer clothed in royal robes. In the transcendent order, that’s the fated suicide of Patricida. Patricida — the man in his essential being — goes his own way. His own way, no longer within the cage of gynocentrism, abounds in possibilities. Don’t prescribe what he must do.[7]

*  *  *  *  *

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[1] Bernardus Silvestris, Mathematicus (The Astrologer), vv. 850-4, from Latin my translation, adapted from the translations in Wetherbee (2015) p. 241, Godman (2000) p. 266, Stone (1988) p. 55, and Dronke (1974) p. 134. Wetherbee (2015) and Stone (1988) feature full translations and the Latin text. The latter translation has been published as Stone (1996). The Latin text I quote is that of Wetherbee. Even persons with no knowledge of Latin can benefit from reading the Latin text. On the surviving manuscripts of Mathematicus, Stone (1988) Ch. 7.

These final lines of Mathematicus are polysemic. Liber explicit is a common concluding statement in a Latin text. The final line of Mathematicus could be translated alternately as “The book is finished to my satisfaction.” Stone (1988) p. 96. Wetherbee translates the final two lines:

I quickly lay aside my royal robes, quickly cease to be your king — my own man, set free to pursue my goal.

The translation “my goal” seems to incorporate Wetherbee’s judgment that Patricida, definitely or most likely given the weight of textual support, commits suicide. Id. pp. xxxvii-xxxviii, Wetherbee (1972) p. 157, n. 8. Dronke has “my own desires”; Stone, “my desires.” Godman (2000), p. 267, strongly dissents from Wetherbee’s judgment that Patricida commits suicide.

Subsequent quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from Mathematicus. I’ve adapted Wetherbee’s translation (in unlineated prose) to lines corresponding to the Latin text. I have also made a variety of small changes to that translation. None of my changes have meaning outside the overall range of meaning that Wetherbee’s and Stone’s translations support.

The subsequent quotes, cited by Mathematicus verse numbers and translation page numbers in Wetherbee (2015), are vv. 7-10, p. 185 (His wife was no less…); vv. 33-4, p. 187 (she cannot complain…); vv. 75-80, p. 189 (I thus pray…); vv. 107-10, p. 191 (His name…); vv. 309-12, 315-18, p. 205 (He rushes…); vv. 327-46, p. 207 (Mine is the sex…); vv. 347-52, p. 207 (But why…); vv. 355-8, p. 209 (Perhaps by obedience…); vv. 359-62, p. 209 (But your generous acts…); vv. 363-4, p. 209 (Husband, seek out…); vv. 739-40, 747-8, pp. 233, 235 (Instead I seek…).

[2] Godman characterizes the wife’s description with the threadbare cliché “patently misogynistic.” Godman (2000) p. 246. It’s actually sophisticated poetry important within a larger literary design.

Mathematicus is based on the fourth declamation of pseudo-Quintilian’s major declamations. Andreas Capellanus’s De amore similarly builds upon rhetoric of the Second Sophistic. Stories in the Gesta Romanorum are less imaginatively based on Seneca’s Controversiae.

[3] Compare the description of the wife, Mathematicus vv. 7-20, with the description of Patricida, id. vv. 51-4, and his concern about his proneness to lechery and vice, vv. 137-8.

[4] Today, women’s privilege within the criminal justice system makes a travesty of ideals of equal justice under law.

[5] Godman reads this invocation of themes of men’s sexed protest as similar to that of Hildebert of Lavardin and Marbod of Rennes. Godman (2000) pp. 253-4. Hildebert wrote a searing indictment of socially constructed gender in stimulating humans’ desire for death. Marbod of Rennes was an exponent of gender-equality double-talk. Men’s sexed protest in those two authors’ works is only superficially similar to that in Bernardus’s Mathematicus.

Stone describes the wife’s speech as “an anti-female tirade put in the mouth of a woman.” She associates it with text Heloise wrote to Abelard, and with De coniuge non ducenda. Stone (1988) p. 73. De coniuge non ducenda is a short romance about angelic intervention that saved Gawain from marriage. Most scholars now recognize Heloise to have been a strong, independent, highly intelligent woman who wrote her own words. She courageously urged Abelard not to marry her.

L.S. Davidson reads Mathematicus to present conflict that is “generational rather than sexual.” Davidson understand the text to offer an affirmation of love in which the “misogynistic rave emerges as parody.” See Davidson’s appendix in Stone (1988) p. 55. Deploying terms such as “misogynistic rave” and “parody” can function as an easy alternative to engaging in the specificity of the text. In a poem concerned with gynocentrism, Bernardus deploys rhetoric common under gynocentrism. He describes King Patricida’s behavior to his mother:

lofty power, not forgetful of its origin,
assumes the character of servility.

{ naturaeque suae non immemor alta potestas
personam servae conditionis agit. }

Mathematicus, vv. 469-70. That the wife, husband, and son Patricida deeply love each other seems to me beyond reasonable question.

Scholars today seem unable to imagine medieval women writers’ loving concern for men. While scholars now commonly assert false consciousness in men’s sexed protest by medieval women writers and medieval women characters, these scholars themselves seem to lack consciousness of the reality of men’s social position today. If scholars encountered greater diversity in viewpoints, they would recognize that influential voices of men’s sexed protest today include strong, independent women authors.

[6] Mathematicus, v. 665: ambiguum sublato nomine munus. Godman (2000), p. 260, mistranslates the gift as “nameless.” That error points to misunderstanding the theme of Patricida as a gift.

[7] Dronke highlights the elevation of men’s personal being:

{Patricida} reveals and affirms a more fundamental freedom: the freedom to solve one’s own guilt, the freedom to take the decision that seems finest, regardless of the pressures of the outside world. … The hero at the close establishes not so much his freedom to commit suicide as, more fundamentally, his freedom to choose.

Dronke (1974) pp. 136-7. Men’s liberation from their instrumental roles requires an assertion of being. Yet the pressures and constraints that the outside world places on men must be addressed. Godman highlights liberation from office as the meaning of Patricida:

Patricida’s separation of the two parts of his gemina persona amounts to an act of liberation from office. Liber through parricidium {killing the ruler} rather than despite it, Patricida, the exemplary ruler, has answered the question raised earlier in the poem about the civic doctrine of Cicero’s De inventione with ambiguous eloquence.

Godman (2000) p. 267. Godman, however, fails to recognize that the fundamental office of the ruler is to serve women. Public authorization for the death of Patricida is a particular, necessary political act. Silverstein insightfully explains the poetic strategy of Bernardus:

If he has seemed daring to certain modern critics, this is because the times and his group were daring, as they sought to understand the Christian universe. But within this group Bernardus himself was singularly circumspect. In a day when literature and philosophy were in a special sense still indissolubly allied, he possessed an instrument which his more prosaic colleagues very much missed. In its use he was perhaps more skilful than profound, elegant, and highly imaginative. He was, in short, a poet. And what philosophy could not do, poetry might.

Silverstein (1948) p. 116.

[image] Photograph by Douglas Galbi.


Dronke, Peter. 1974. Fabula: explorations into the uses of myth in medieval Platonism. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Godman, Peter. 2000. The silent masters: Latin literature and its censors in the High Middle Ages. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Silverstein, Theodore. 1948. “The Fabulous Cosmogony of Bernardus Silvestris.” Modern Philology. 46 (2): 92-116.

Stone, Deirdre M. 1988. The Mathematicus of Bernardus Silvestris. Ph.D. Thesis. Department of History, University of Sidney.

Stone, Deirdre M. 1996. “Bernardus Sivestris, Mathematicus: Edition and Translation.” Archives d’Histoire Doctrinale et Littéraire du Moyen-Âge 63: 209-283.

Wetherbee, Winthrop. 1972. Platonism and poetry in the twelfth century: the literary influence of the school of Chartres. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Wetherbee, Winthrop, trans. 2015. Poetic works: Bernardus Silvestris. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 38. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

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