how do you solve a problem like Helen of Troy?

Helen of Troy, problem solved

She had a face that launched a thousands ships and caused the deaths of tens of thousands of men. Yet more than two thousand years later, a man dreamed of receiving a sweet kiss from Helen of Troy.[1] Matthew of Vendôme, a learned, twelfth-century cleric, understood that the problem was more than Helen’s beautiful face. Matthew observed in his imagination:

Her sides narrow at her waist, up to the place where
the luscious little belly rises.
The altar of modesty makes festive nearby areas,
friend of Nature and delightful home of Venus.
The sweet taste that lies hidden in Venus’s realm,
a judicious man by touch can prophesy.

{Artatur laterum descensus ad ilia, donec
surgat ventriculo luxuriante tumor.
Proxima festivat loca cella pudoris, amica
Naturae, Veneris deliciosa domus.
Quae latet in regno Veneris dulcedo saporis,
judex contactus esse propheta potest.} [2]

As a man, Matthew of Vendôme understood personally Helen’s awesome power to raise up and tear down:

She induces sexual desire; such a one I choose.
He of Vendôme describes such as he loves.
With such a gift did the daughter of Leda wound the Trojans, thus
the abduction by Paris, the burning of Troy, the fall of princes.
If the Greeks ask why the son of Priam abducted Helen,
well, set Hippolytus before her and he would become a Priapus.

{Haec facit ad Venerem, mihi tales eligo, tales
Describit quales Windocinensis amat.
Hoc pretio Frigios laesit Ledea, rapina
Priamidae, Trojae flamma, ruina ducum.
Cur hanc Priamides rapuit si Graecia quaerit,
illic Ypolitum pone, Priapus erit.} [3]

Men not being paid for their erection labor is bad enough. Must that labor also exacerbate the terrible problem of violence against men?

The medieval cleric Gerald of Wales described a humane solution to the problem of Helen of Troy. Gerald imagined Nature creating an even more beautiful woman:

Her soft lips are pink, an ivory row decorates her mouth,
her kisses taste of honey, the smell of nectar issues forth.
Ivory teeth, rosy mouth, soft lips, moisture in these
tastes sweetly, her lips pressed with a kiss taste of the honeycomb.

The upper hips stand firm, and, with a certain moderation,
extend themselves. The abdomen goes down as far as the pubic region.
Full of modesty, the pudenda lurk in the region of Venus,
well-disposed in worthy service of their nature.
The soft, smooth, milky flesh of the thighs invites
the eyes; milky whiteness, firmness, and softness invite the hands.

{Mollia labra rubent, os ornat eburneus ordo,
oscula mel sapiunt, nectaris exit odor.
Dens ebur, os roseum, labra mollia, succus in illis
dulce sapit, sapiunt oscula pressa favum.

Subsistunt renes, et se moderamine quodam
amplificant. Subeunt ilia pube tenus.
Plena pudore latent Veneris regione pudenda,
munere naturae digna favore suae.
Invitat femorum caro lactea, lubrica, mollis,
lumina; lac, glacies, mollitiesque manus.} [4]

Appreciating this other woman, Gerald of Wales declared:

If just once the eyes of Paris had seen her, Troy would
still be standing, and Helen would not have meant so much to him.

{Si semel hanc Paridis vidissent lumina, starent
Pergama, nec tanti Tyndaris esset ei.}

The way to solve a problem like Helen of Troy is to have many, even more beautiful women available and receptive to men.[5] Solon’s wise social-welfare program for men probably wouldn’t be enough to end war. Government policy should also encourage women to lose weight, exercise, and remediate surly dispositions. Give peace a chance!

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Notes:

[1] In Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus (first performed about 1592), Faustus declares:

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Her lips suck forth my soul; see where it flies! —
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for Heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.

Scene XIII ll. 88-93 (Act V, Scene 2, in some editions).

[2] Matthew of Vendôme, Ars Versificatoria (The Art of the Versemaker) I.57, from Latin my translation, adapted from Parr (1981) p. 38 and Gallo (1974) p. 70. The Latin text is from Faral (1924) p. 130. Bourgain (1879) provides a lower-quality text, but one freely available online. Matthew is thought to have written Ars Versificatoria between 1150 and 1175 in France. The description is from head to toe (effictio). The verses above describe moving down from the upper waist.

In Ars Versificatoria 1.58, Matthew describes an ugly woman (Est Beroe rerum scabies). Boccaccio may have drawn upon that description in writing his under-appreciated masterpiece, Il Corbaccio.

Epp (1991) highlights Matthew’s liberal use of sexual references. Id., however, shows no understanding of gynocentric society’s repression of men’s sexuality.

[3] Id. The final Latin line quotes Ovid, Amores 2.4.32. Hippolytus spurned the sexual advances of his stepmother Phaedra. See, e.g. Euripides, Hippolytus.

[4] Gerald of Wales, Mundus ut insignis, from Gerald’s collection Symbolum electorum. It’s the second poem following Gerald’s Cosmographia. From Latin my translation adapted from Moser (2004) p. 181. The Latin text is available in Brewer (1861) vol. 1, pp. 349-50. The subsequent quote is from id., with translation at Moser (2004) p.412, n. 71. The poem is probably from the second half of the twelfth century. It survives in only one manuscript, Cambridge Trinity College MS R.7.11. Id. p. 173.

Gerald of Wales was no pedastalizer. He recognize women’s well-developed guile and power to incite deadly violence against men:

Since woman is always adapting and responding to circumstances, she made herself booty of the plunderer by her own contrivance. As Mark Anthony and Troy are witnesses, almost all the greatest evils in the world have arisen from women.

{quoniam varium et mutabile semper femina, ut praedoni praeda fieret ipsa procuravit. Sed quoniam mala fere cuncta majora, tam Marco Antonio quam Troja testante, mundo per mulierem constat exorta}

Expugnatio Hibernica (Conquest of Ireland) Bk 1, Ch. 1, my Latin translation from the Latin text of Brewer (1861) vol. 5, p. 226. Gerald finished Expugnatio Hibernica in 1189.

[5] Medieval commentary on Constantine’s Viaticum described having sex with many women as a cure for a man suffering from lovesickness. Healthy men, however, highly value quality in women.

[image] Helen of Troy, problem solved. Painting by John William Waterhouse, 1896. Held in Manchester Art Gallery. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.

References:

Bourgain, Louis. 1879. Matthaei Vindocinensis ars versificatoria, thesim proponebat Facultati Litterarum Parisiensi L. Bourgain. Paris: V. Palmé.

Brewer, J.S. 1861. Giraldi Cambrensis: Opera. London: Longman. (description of book, vol. 1, vol. 5)

Epp. Garrett P.J. 1996. “Learning to Write with Venus’s Pen: Sexual Regulation in Matthew of Vendôme’s Ars versificatoria.” Pp. 265-79 in Murray, Jacqueline, and Konrad Eisenbichler. Desire and discipline: sex and sexuality in the premodern west. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Faral, Edmond. 1924. Les arts poétiques du XIIe et du XIIIe siècle; recherches et documents sur la technique littéraire du moyen âge. Paris: E. Champion.

Gallo, Ernest. 1974. “Matthew of Vendôme: Introductory Treatise on the Art of Poetry.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 118 (1): 51-92.

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

Parr, Roger P., trans. 1981. Matthaeus Vindocinensis. Ars versificatoria (The art of the versemaker). Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press.

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