Anticlaudianus mocks ruling sisters creating garden without seed

Her breasts, descending to a gentle swelling,
do not hang flaccid and broken, but by their very
firmness display a sign of her own purity.
From her shoulders her arms openly extend
so that you might think they sought an embrace.
From the lower part to the highest, the least to the greatest,
her inward-curving waist submits to appropriate restraint.
Who does not know other and better parts lie hidden underneath,
for which her quiet exterior is but a prelude?

{Poma mamillarum, modico suspensa tumore,
nulla mollitie dependent fracta, sed ipsa
duritie proprii describunt signa pudoris.
Explicat explicito tractu iunctura lacertos
amplexusque suos deposcere bracchia credas.
Imaque conciliat summis extremaque primis
convallis laterum, modulo submissa decenti.
Cetera quis nescit meliora latere sub istis
quorum sola gerunt placidi praeludia vultus?} [1]

By their natural virtue, most men delight in women, especially young, beautiful, warmly receptive women. Men’s natural virtue helps to sustain relationships and relieve women’s lethargy and unhappiness. Medieval literature appreciated men’s natural virtue and even recognized that men are equal to women in goodness:

All things that have come from the immensity of God into the world through creation are equally good: for God saw all the things that he had made, and they were very good.

{Omnia enim quae a Dei immensitate in mundum per creationem venerunt aeque bona sunt: vidit enim Deus cuncta quae fecerat, et erant valde bona.} [2]

Equally good and very good doesn’t exclude some badness. In Christian understanding, a perfect man was born only with God sending forth the Holy Spirit to descend upon Mary and incarnate the God-man. Some have pursued a different way. Amid the confusion of language, Alan of Lille’s twelfth-century Anticlaudianus narrates women seeking to create a perfect man.

Now the whole earth had one language and few words. As men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” They had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. The Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language. This is only the beginning of what they will do. Nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down there and confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” [3]

The sisters who rule the world were dissatisfied with men. Too many men were gazing upon women. Not enough men were imitating the mendacious bishops who denied the carnal beauty of the actress-dancer Pelagia. Not enough men were studying technology, building the infrastructure of civilization, and providing goods to women and children. The sisters sought to create a new man — a novus homo. This homo wouldn’t look upon women with lust. This homo would be the one good man idealized today.[4]

Concord, a blonde wearing a very tight-fitting dress, displayed a parodic representation of man and woman’s biblical one-flesh unity. Her tight-fitting dress was the canvas for life-like paintings:

There the art of painting bestows a second life
on those whom chaste love, child-like agreement,
pure trust, and true devotion join, and one
is made from two through a pact of purified love.
Here David and Jonathon are two, and yet one.
Although they are separate, they in mind are not two, but one.
They divide their souls, and each shares himself with the other.

{Illic arte sua vitam pictura secundam
donat eis quos castus amor, concordia simplex,
pura fides, vera pietas coniunxit et unum
esse duos fecit purgati foedus amoris.
Nam David et Ionathas ibi sunt duo, sunt tamen unum.
Cum sint diversi, non sunt duo mente sed unus.
Dimidiant animas, sibi se partitur uterque.} [5]

This same-sex representation of unitive love isn’t just a surface detail. All the further examples of loving couples — Theseus and Pirithous, Tydeus and Polynices, Nisus and Euryalus, Orestes and Pylades — are couplings of men. Such coupling is the ideal among the sisters who rule the world. They created a new homo in concord with that ideal.[6]

Women not only created the novus homo, but also instructed him in proper behavior and deportment. One woman taught him to be mirthful, but not vulgarly mirthful, like those who twist their mouths with jeering. He must hold his head erect, not with eyes proudly looking upward on the heavens, nor with eyes dejectedly looking downward on the earth. He must be modest in speech. Another woman taught him to preserve in good faith the bonds of friendship and to be wary of friends who came and go like Fortune. He should not seek to buy friends, but give gifts freely without any thought of recompense. A woman-authority in honesty advised him to live inwardly for himself and outwardly for others. Most importantly, the homo received womanly advice on being himself (self-possession):

And don’t stretch forth your rough upper arms like a buffoon,
or shake your forearms in unsightly gestures,
or show disdain by setting your elbows to be akimbo,
she warns the man, nor move forward mincingly
with your toes to the earth, barely touching the earth;
she strengthens his footsteps to a proper gait.
Lest he be too wanton in arranging his hair so as to approach
feminine extravagance, detracting from the honor of his sex,
or lest it remain too unkempt, slovenly in its utter squalor,
and the young man through neglect of his proper dignity
become too much the philosopher, between these she insists on
her own style and arranges his hair according to her custom.

{Et ne degeneres scurrili more lacertos
exserat et turpi vexet sua bracchia gestu,
aut fastum signans ulnas exemplet in arcum,
admonet illa virum, vel ne delibet eundo
articulisque pedum terram, vix terrea tangens;
eius legitimo firmat vestigia gressu.
Ne cultu nimio crinis lascivus adaequet
femineos luxus sexusque recidat honorem,
aut nimis incomptus iaceat, squalore profundo
degener et iuvenem proprii neglectus honoris
philosophum nimis esse probet, tenet inter utrumque
illa modum proprioque locat de more capillos} [7]

Self-possession means to one’s own self being true. Without women’s instructions, how could a man be true to himself?

Overweening pride engendered not only the confusion of language, but also gynocentric domination. As value shifts from manual laborers’ construction of objects to gynocentric elites’ construction of social knowledge (the liberal arts), the sickness of pride pulls men toward different projects. At the Anticlaudianus’s center is Alan of Lille’s vehement denunciation of a particular effect of pride:

O sickness of pride to be shunned! O Charybdis to be fled!

{pride} which raised above itself, cannot endure itself, suffers
ruin within itself, for it cannot sustain itself, but rather
by its own weight is pressed down, crushed by its own bulk.
It drives a man to seek himself outside himself, even as
his manhood leaves him; once become the contrary of himself,
he is discrepant with himself and does not know himself …

{O fastus vitanda lues, fugienda Caribdis!

quae se ferre nequit, supra se lata, ruinam
infra se patitur nec sese sustinet, immo
mole sua premitur, proprio sub pondere lapsa.
Extra se cogit hominem se quaerere, dum se
exit homo, factusque sibi contrarius a se
discrepat oblitusque sui se nescit …} [8]

In ancient Greek mythology, the threatening female monster Charybdis is usually paired with the threatening female monster Scylla. In the envoi of the Anticlaudianus, Alan of Lille claims that his book has evaded Scylla and Charybdis. Yet through the proceeding pages he mentions the danger of Charybdis three times. He never mentions Scylla. Scylla is a subtle danger within the airy realm. Scylla is the hidden gynocentric shoal in the pursuit of knowledge.

Female monster Scylla

The ruling sisters’ project of creating a novus homo ends in an anti-sexual, unified world. Scholars have misinterpreted that ending as a Golden Age. Alan of Lille understood nature and virtue as intrinsically involving tension between opposites.[9] No such tension exists at the end of the Anticlaudianus. Heterosexual desire and action have completely vanished:

No longer is the field improved with a hoe, or by a plowshare
wounded, no longer does it lament wounds from the curved plow,
so that the earth, though unwilling, may obey the eager farmer
and return his seed greatly increased.

The rose emerges from her undergarments and colors the garden with crimson.
Without suggesting her mother’s thorn, she blossoms with spontaneous creation,
and produces new ones without seed in her garden.

{Nec iam corrigitur rastro, nec vomere campus
laeditur, aut curvi deplorat vulnus aratri,
ut tellus avido, quamvis invita, colono
pareat, et semen multo cum faenore reddat.

E tunicis egressa suis rosa purpurat hortos.
Nec spinam matrem redolet, sed sponte creata
pullulat, atque novos sine semine prodit in ortus.} [10]

The beauty of the ending garden represents the delusions of castration culture. At the center of a man’s earthly being is his penis. With the ruling sisters’ complete repression of his sexuality, the homo doesn’t even experience lust or sensual feelings toward other men. The sisters’ epic of creating a perfect man ends in lies and lacking.

The Anticlaudianus ends with multiple allusions to the Aeneid’s ending. Like the Aeneid, the Anticlaudianus is a tragic epic that women’s unchecked power drives forward.[11] In medieval Europe, pursuit of socially acclaimed arts and knowledge produced the man-degrading, dehumanizing ideology of courtly love. Alan of Lille recognized that proud men with false ideals of manliness were likely to attack his work. He implored:

Let none attempt to discredit this work who have committed themselves to the combat of higher learning. Let not even those who assail heaven from the lofty peaks of philosophy presume to dismiss this work.

{Huic operi derogare non temptent qui altioris scientiae militiam spondent. Huic operi abrogare non presumant qui caelum philosophiae vertice pulsant.} [12]

Amid the confusion of language, the arrogant project of working to make gynocentrism stronger, higher, and more oppressive continues to our day. The Anticlaudianus and other medieval Latin poetry provide effective critical language to address that folly and imagine a more humane world.

The heavenly
face and simple
laughter of Eurydice
plunder the eyes and
captivate the mind
of the singer Orpheus,

who the sun’s annual
and the moon’s monthly
used to explore,
the flight of the stars in heaven
by their numbers,

even now to another
labor is led,
his study transformed,
of a kiss,
of an embrace he speaks,
and follows
his beloved.

In a flame went up
the whole of the philosopher.
The lover’s spirit
of anxiety,
his lute silent,
stupefied Mt. Ismara.

Eurydice wants nothing
from her suppliant;
he would waste his prayers in vain,
but the passageway
of her modesty
and her lap
is opened to talk
and games
of love.

Consuming the offering
of the virgin,
at last the lutenist
and with a poem
sung as a song,
soon his spirit
of anxiety

{Predantur oculos
captivant animum
vocalis Orphei
vultus et simplices
risus Euridices

qui solis annuos
luneque menstruos
rimari solitus
celo fugam siderum
per numerum

Iam nunc ad alteram
traductus operam,
mutato studio,
de basio,
de amplexu loquitur,
et sequitur

In flammam abiit
totus philosophus.
Amantis spiritum
tacente cithara
stupebant Ismara.

Non vult Euridice
de suplice;
perdat preces vacuas,
sed ianus
et gremium
dat pervium
et lusibus

Sumpto libamine
de virgine,
suam tandem fidicen
et lirico
sub cantico
iam spiritum
removit.} [13]

*  *  *  *  *

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[1] Alan of Lille, Anticlaudianus 1.289-97 (describing Providence), Latin text from Wetherbee (2013) pp. 246-7, my English translation, drawing upon Wetherbee’s Latin and Wetherbee’s translation, as well as the translation of Sheridan (1973). By following the Latin lines closely and preferring English diction based on the relevant Latin, my translation seeks to encourage those with no formal training to explore the Latin. Subsequent quotes from the Anticlaudianus are translated similarly. They are cited by book.lines and page numbers in Wetherbee (2013).

The Latin text of the Anticlaudianus isn’t well-established. The widely used edition of Robert Bossuart (1955) has serious weaknesses. Wetherbee emends that text with the clean early witness of London, British Library, Ms Royal 13 B.VIII, from Canterbury. Id. pp. 549-50. Here’s an online Latin text of the Anticlaudianus with unspecified provenance.

Descriptio puellae (description of a young woman from top down, a particular application of effictio) was common in the relatively liberal and permissive discourse of medieval literature. Alan of Lille’s lavish appreciation for women’s genitals is, however, distinctive to that medieval Latin clerical author. In De Planctu Naturae (The Plaint of Nature), Alan similarly praised the more secret chamber {thalamus secretior} at the woman Nature’s waist. He declared, “On her body there lay hidden a still more beautiful face of which her visible face gave promise {In corpore etenim vultus latebat beatior cuius facies ostentabat praeludium}.” Alan of Lille, De Planctu Naturae 2.4, Wetherbee (2013) pp. 28-9.

Sex is a central concern in De Planctu Naturae. On sex in relation to grammar in that work, Ziolkowski (1985) Ch. 1. Alan presented a woman to a man as a subject to a predicate. However, generous women like Photis have loved men sexually in a variety of ways. Interpreting Alan’s work too earnestly has led to interpretations such as Simpson (1995). Alan probably would have considered a back-to-front approach like al-Jahiz did. In Alan’s work, Nature herself explicitly acknowledges engaging in “theatrical declamation digressing like a wanton jongleur {theatralis oratio ioculatoriis evagata lasciviis}.” De Planctu Naturae 10.2, Wetherbee (2013) pp. 120-1.

Alan isn’t merely an elite Latin cleric seeking to gain acclaim from fellow elites. He wasn’t merely a follower of the literary tradition of Plato and Virgil. Sweeney perceptively notes:

both Alan’s detractors and defenders seem to ignore the self-consciously artificial character, the irony and self parody of these poetic excesses which is, in my view, exactly their point. It is also what makes the view of Alan as simple moralist unconvincing. Alan’s poetry is sophisticated and exotic enough not only to be called into question but also to call itself into question.

Sweeney (2006) p. 161. Cf. Simpson (1995), esp. pp. 15-9. Alan almost surely read the Aeneid perceptively. With the Anticlaudianus, Alan shows that he, like the author of Lucis orto sidere, was critically engaged with dominant ideology.

[2] Alan of Lille, Sermon on the Intelligible Sphere 23, Wetherbee (2013) pp. 14-5. That statement echoes God in Genesis 1.

[3] Genesis 11:1-7.

[4] Working in service to dominant ideology, many scholars today prefer to obscure or trivialize sex. Evans declares:

Alan’s perfect man, like Adam, stands for perfect woman, too. … for the most part the perfectus homo of the Anticlaudianus is taken to represent the perfection of both sexes simultaneously.

Evans (1983) p. 155. In Alan’s work, sex isn’t merely a property of words with implications for correct grammar. The ruling entities of the cosmos are all female, except for the nominal, rubber-stamping figure of God the Father. The novus homoperfectus homo is a male human being. This sex structure is vital to appreciating the supercelestial meaning of the Anticlaudianus.

Some scholars have argued that the perfect man should be understood as an allusion to a specific male: Philip II (Philip Augustus), King of France from 1180 to 1223. See, e.g. Marshall (1979). The literary  and conceptual complexity of the Anticlaudianus suggests that it was meant as much more than just a panegyric to a particular male human being. Simpson (1995), p. 292.

Alan recognized both fluidity in sex roles and the oppressive position of men in gynocentric society. For example, the woman Grammar both punishes and nurtures boys:

In this role she is both father and mother:
with her lash she fulfills a father’s duty, with her breasts a mother’s.

{…. Facto pater est et mater eodem:
verbere compensat patrem, gerit ubere matrem.}

Anticlaudianus 2.402-3, pp. 286-7.

[5] Anticlaudianus 2.181-7, pp. 272-3. Alan favored women wearing tight-fitting dresses, In De Planctu Naturae, Truth wore a dress “so closely fitted to the virgin’s form that no dieresis of divestment would ever make them separate hypocritically from her virgin body {virgineo corpori tanta fuerant conexione iugatae, ut nulla exuitionis diaeresis eas aliquando a virginali corpori faceret phariseas}.” Falsehood, in contrast, was dressed sloppily in “an infinity quantity of rags {panniculorum infinita pluralitas}.” De Planctu Naturae 18.10-1, Wetherbee (2013) pp. 210-1.

[6] Alan chose exempla with much wit. Later, Noys sought a new and ideal form for creating the novus homo. She found what she sought in a model that included:

the beauty of Joseph, the intelligence of Judith, the patience of the just one
Job, the zeal of Phineas, the modesty of Moses, Jacob’s
simplicity, the faith of Abraham, the piety of Tobias.

{forma Ioseph, sensus Iudithae, patientia iusti
Iob, zelus Finees, Moisique modestia, Iacob
simplicitias, Abrahaeque fides, pietasque Thobiae.}

Anticlaudianus 6.439-41, pp. 428-9. The patience of Job and the faith of Abraham are commonplaces to the present. Joseph’s beauty caused him to be falsely accused of rape. Modesty doesn’t characterize well Moses. With respect to intelligence, choosing Judith rather than Solomon is ironically worthy of Marcolf. It’s also a sobering slap to presumptuous clerics.

The novus homo isn’t a soft, chair-bound cleric. Alan describes him as a man who “proves everything with steel, disputes not with words but rather with blows {ferro cuncta probat nec verbis disputat, immo / verberibus multisque modis concluditur hosti}.” Anticlaudianus 9.28-9, pp. 490-1. Underscoring Alan’s engagement with the Aeneid and literature of men’s sexed protest, the novus homo kills the woman Discord and cuts off her head. The woman Good Faith ironically instructs the novus homo to “avoid trickery {vitare dolos}.” Anticlaudianus 7.347, pp. 454-1.

[7] Anticlaudianus 7.142-53, pp. 440-3. All the advice in the above paragraph is from various women figures in id. Bk. 7. Cf. Polonius’s speech to Laertes in Shakespeare, Hamlet 1.3.

[8] Anticlaudianus 4.307, 314-18, pp. 350-1.

[9] Sweeney (2005), Ch. 3, emphasizes tension between opposites in Alan’s understanding. Konstan (1987) explores such understanding within the Aeneid. Otten (1995) sees De Planctu Naturae as pivotal in the development of disjuncture between Nature and Scripture. The interpretive assumption that Scripture is harmonious, with no contradictions or mistakes, doesn’t preclude recognizing in Scripture a variety of opposing forces intrinsic to the divine plan.

[10] Anticlaudianus 9.396-99, 405-7, pp. 514-7. Wetherbee (2011), p. 248, states that in the Anticlaudianus, “sexual desire is present only as a vice.” Many other fine scholars have similarly overlooked the sexual dimension of the Anticlaudianus. Simpson reads the final book of the Anticlaudianus as affirming “human perfection through natural resources.” Simpson (1995) p. 58. Moser declares that the Anticlaudianus proposes “the ideal of the celibate male cleric” for the novus homo. He further claims:

The power and danger of eros scarcely emerges as a subject of discussion. Cupid never appears as a character. … Alain has backed away from the optimism of his earlier work and toward a far more suspicious attitude about human sexuality. … as represented in the Anticlaudianus, Alain’s reservations about the force of eros dominated his thinking.

Moser (2004) pp. 183, 146-8. In his continuation of the Romance of the Rose, Jean de Meun seems to have recognized and greatly amplified the Anticlaudianus’s subtle, parodic affirmation of men’s heterosexuality.

Foreshadowing the anti-sexual ending of the Anticlaudianus, early in that epic Concord ironically holds in her right hand “a herald of good tidings and a figure of peace {praeco boni pacisque figura}”:

The virgin held in her right hand, with leaves of bushy hair,
flowers swelling, promising fruit, a sexually maturing olive branch,
yet seeking not the solace of mother earth.

{virginis in dextra, foliorum crine comatus,
flore tumens, fructus expectans, ramus olivae
pubescit, nec matris humi solatia quaerit}

Anticlaudianus 2.204-7, pp. 274-5. On solatia, see my post on the Consolation of Philosophy, especially note [12].

[11] Anticlaudianus 9.383 echoes the telling lines Aeneid 11.831, 12.952. Its envoi figures the Anticlaudianus as vessel that passes through a stormy sea. Then the mariners fear the rage of envy against them on land. That broadly parallels Aeneas’s sea voyage and battle against the Italians. Wetherbee notes:

Lines 412-13 (of Book 9 of the Anticlaudianus) echo Statius’s expression of reverence for the “divine” Aeneid in the concluding lines of his Thebaid (12.816-17).

Wetherbee (2013) p. 601. For the relevance of sex, see my post on gender in the Aeneid.

[12] Anticlaudianus Prose Prologue 4, pp. 222-3. With his allusion to Genesis 11:1-7, Alan is chiding philosophers for their pride. At the same time, Alan presents a terrible vision of envious others pursuing him to his death. The final line of the Anticlaudianus declares, saltem post fata silebit. That can be translated straight-forwardly as “she {personification of envy} will at least fall silent after his death.” That’s Sheridan’s and Wetherbee’s translation. The more subtle, even more terrible sense of the Latin is that she doesn’t stop her attacks on him after his death. She becomes silent for him because he is dead.

[13] Predantur oculos, Latin text based on Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 228, printed and translated in Moser (2004) pp. 345-7. For a similar text based on Auxerre MS 243 and an alternate English translation, Dronke (1968) v. 2, pp. 403-5. I’ve drawn on both translations for my translation above. My translation incorporates concern for visual poetry relevant to the above text.

Predantur oculos appears to have been circulating by early in the third quarter of the twelfth century. It’s associated in manuscripts with the poem Olim sudor, which also concerns the relation of sexual desire and study. Moser (2004) p. 299. For the text and English translation of Olim sudor, id. pp. 341-5. Olim sudor includes grammatical metaphors. Alan employed grammatical metaphors with unusually high frequency and complexity. Ziolkowski (1985) p. 141.

[image] The female monster Scylla in a pose of threatening. Decoration on a Boeotian red-figure bell-crater, 450–425 BGC. Held in the Louvre, Paris, item CA 1341. Thanks to Marie-Lan Nguyen and Wikimedia Commons.


Dronke, Peter. 1968. Medieval Latin and the rise of European love-lyric. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Evans, Gillian R. 1983. Alan of Lille: the frontiers of theology in the later twelfth century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Konstan, David. 1987. “Venus’s enigmatic smile.” Vergilius. 32: 18-25.

Marshall, Linda E. 1979. “The Identity of the “New Man” in the Anticlaudianus of Alan of Lille.” Viator. 10: 77-94.

Moser, Thomas C. 2004. A cosmos of desire: the medieval Latin erotic lyric in English manuscripts. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Otten, Willemien. 1995. “Nature and Scripture: Demise of a Medieval Analogy.” Harvard Theological Review. 88 (02): 257-284.

Sheridan, James J., trans. and com. 1973. Alan of Lille {Alanus de Insulis}. Anticlaudianus: or, The good and perfect man. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

Simpson, James. 1995. Sciences and the self in medieval poetry: Alan of Lille’s Anticlaudianus and John Gower’s Confessio amantis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sweeney, Eileen C. 2006. Logic, theology, and poetry in Boethius, Abelard, and Alan of Lille: words in the absence of things. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wetherbee, Winthrop. 2011. “Alan of Lille, De planctu Naturae: The Fall of Nature and the Survival of Poetry.” The Journal of Medieval Latin. 21: 223-252.

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. (online review)

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1985. Alan of Lille’s grammar of sex: the meaning of grammar to a twelfth-century intellectual. Cambridge, Mass: Medieval Academy of America.

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