Alan of Lille’s knotty knot more twisted in modern authoritative norms

undoing knot

I can scarcely unknot a knotty knot,
and demonstrate an undemonstrable monstrosity

{Vix nodosum valeo nodum denodare,
et indemonstrabile monstrum demonstrare} [1]

So begins Alan of Lille’s brilliant, twelfth-century Latin poem on love and sex. The first part of the poem condemns love broadly, without differentiating between the starkly different social positions of men and women.[2] Then, in a scholarly mode, the poem considers whether an unmarried man should seek sex with a virgin woman or a married woman.

Alan of Lille argued strongly in favor of unmarried men having sex with virgin women. The choice in his view is obvious:

Who, not bereft of wit, an enemy to reason,
brings together tears with joy, laughter with suffering,
brings together mud with gems, the owl with the peacock,
compares straw to flowers, Thersites to Adonis?

Just as a summer day is more pleasing than a frosty one,
the nascent rose than a flower that has withered,
so the Venus of a married woman might be called positive,
while the love of tender virgin is superlative.

{Quis, nisi mentis inops, hostis rationi,
flectum confert gaudio, risum passioni,
lutum gemmae conferens, noctuam pavoni,
flori faenum comparat, Tersitem Adoni?

Sicut bruma gratior dies est aestiva,
floreque decrepita rosa primitiva,
sic matronae Venus est quasi positiva,
cum Venus virgunculae sit superlativa.}

Unlike women, men often feel the need to pay for sex. In the Middle Ages, love with a married woman was a losing transaction:

Once she is lured by love of money,
a woman is prepared for the crime of adultery.
Though exhausted by adultery, she commits adultery to exhaustion
so that coin may be squeezed from the purse of her adulterer.

Once he is drunk by the drink of Venus,
his purse’s sated belly is forced to vomit.
Then he is totally lost, wholly plucked bare,
and he, once rich, now plays the philosopher.

{Amore pecuniae postquam inescatur,
ad moechie facinus mulier armatur.
Dum moechando teritur, terendo moechatur,
ut a moechi loculo nummus emungatur.

Ille, postquam Veneris potu debriatur,
cogitur ad vomitum venter bursae satur,
Totus perit igitur, totus deplumatur,
et qui dives fuerat, iam philosophatur.}

Throughout history, men have been punished more severely for adultery than women have. So it was in medieval Europe:

No one who is wise attempts such sport,
or takes pleasure in a pleasure that fear sours,
where dread, horror, and grief appear,
where security is wholly absent,

where the adulterer is often drugged by the sleep of death
as he, adulterer, mechanically commits adultery,
where often the purse below the penis is cut away,
where often the twin brothers are beheaded

{Nullus qui sit sapiens talem ludum temptat,
tali gaudet gaudio, timor quem fermentat,
metus, horror, gemitus ubi se praesentat,
ubi se securitas penitus absentat,

Ubi saepe sompnio mortis soporatur
moechus, dum mechanice cum moecha moechatur,
ubi saepe mentulae bursa sincopatur,
ubi saepe geminus frater decollatur.} [3]

Most persons today are ignorant of bias against men in defining crimes and administering criminal justice. Most persons today are ignorant about the proportion of men among victims of sexual assault. Yet even in our ignorant age, most persons can understanding the force of medieval reason in unmarried men preferring to have sex with virgin women rather than married women.

Here some enlightenment: in the U.S., having sex with a married woman is now more rational for a man than having sex with a virgin woman. The U.S. “child support” system now effectively awards a woman roughly 25% of a man’s income for eighteen years or more if she manages to have sex with him and bear a child. The government imposes those sex payments on a man even if the woman raped the man. The only way a man can legally avoid the system of state-imposed sex payments is by having sex with a married woman. Under long-established law, the husband, not the biological father, is legally obligated to pay “child support” for any children that his wife bears within their marriage. Hence by having sex with a married woman, an unmarried man is free of potentially enormous financial obligations under current sex law.

Most learned persons in the Middle Ages surely would recognize that “child support” in today’s sex law reflects ignorance, bigotry, and astonishing irrationality. Most learned person today are simply afraid to discuss publicly this vital issue.

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[1] Undoing the Knot / Vix nodosum valeo, Latin text and English translation (lightly adapted) from Wetherbee (2013) pp. 520-1. Subsequent quotes are similarly from id. pp. 520-5. Wetherbee’s Latin text is based on that of Häring (1978).

Vix nodosum valeo shows intimate knowledge of Alan of Lille’s De Planctu Naturae. The former has many verbal correspondences with the later. Vix nodosum valeo is also associated with De Planctu Naturae in manuscripts. In one manuscript, it is explicitly attributed to Alan. Id. pp. xxxvii-i, 550-1. Wetherbee considers the poem’s attribution to Alan of Lille plausible, but not beyond question.

[2] The treatment of love in Vix nodosum valeo extensively uses antithesis. In trivializing literature of men’s sexed protest, Bernard of Cluny’s De contemptu mundi extensively used antithesis in referring to women.

[3] The Latin term alluding to castration, sincopatur, has common roots with the name Sincopus. Sincopus is the main character in a medieval Latin poem in which castration is a key motif. That poem was written about 1100.

[image] Undoing a knotty knot. Photo thanks to Don Harder, who made it available under a Creative Commons By-NC 2.0 license.


Häring, Nikolaus M. 1978. “The poem Vix nodosum by Alan of Lille.” Medievalia 3: 165-85.

Wetherbee, Winthrop, ed. and trans. 2013. Alan of Lille {Alanus de Insulis}. Literary works. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, vol. 22. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

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