poor Prodromos: an abused husband in 12th-century Byzantium

abused husband

In twelfth-century Byzantium, the poet Theodore Prodromos appealed to the Emperor John II. Prodromos, a forerunner of oppressed husbands crying out in marital wilderness, implored:

Although I seem, lord, to laugh and play at once,
I am oppressed by endless grief and burdensome affliction,
by grave indisposition and suffering — what suffering!
Hearing of suffering, don’t suppose I have a rupture,
or any of your graver and less obvious troubles:
it’s no eyesores, plain to see, nor shivering fever either,
it isn’t heartburn, nor inflammation of the lung,
no gut-knot shit-face, no dropsy, no bronchial troubles ..
No, I have a nagging wife whose tongue wags on and on,
pugnaciously parading parapets and predictions,
redundantly recounting me the rightness of her cause. [1]

Men’s keen sense of competition with other men makes them reluctant to complain about their wives. If husbands do complain, lack of compassion for men tends to compound their hurt. Prodromos, a highly sophisticated poet, found in a plea to the Byzantine Emperor a rare opportunity to make a pioneering first-personal literary account of a husband’s suffering from his abusive wife.

Just as gender norms teach men not to cry, men learn to be afraid to express fear. Yet within the particular circumstances of his appeal, Prodromos openly expressed fear:

I will make manifest this woman’s spitefulness,
yet, lord, I fear those more brazen fellows,
lest they should hear me, and go to my home
and write reports about me unexpectedly.
I would far rather, lord, they buried me alive,
and put me in the earth, and dug me into it,
than she should learn of what has just been written.
For I fear her cackling and fury, I fear
her threats and invective. It would take little
for the idea to pop into her head, and here we go,
she orders her servants and her nurse to grab me,
put me out and throw me in the street and
bash me in the head in three places. Who
will avenge me and get rid of such a shrew? [2]

Prodromos’s fear of his wife throwing him out of their house should be interpreted as realistic. Today men can be thrown out of their homes with a standard-form ex parte restraining order, or through gender-profiling men for domestic violence arrest. The same gynocentric social forces realistically would enable Prodromos’s wife to have him thrown out into the street. At the same time, the Byzantine Emperor was imagined to be all-powerful. A plea for relief from gynocentric oppression was thus figuratively appropriate to direct to the Byzantine Emperor.[3]

Prodromos’s wife complained about Prodromos in a way thoroughly realistic to men today. She complained:

You sit in my house, but pay no heed to upkeep:
the marbles are worn and faded, the floor has sagged,
the tiles are dangling loose, the roof’s completely rotten,
nothing is left of all the lettering, plaster, glass,
nor of marble cornices nor finely-wrought mosaics,
the walls are tumbling down, the garden has run wild,
while the doors have all turned inside out from warping,
the banisters are hanging loose from end to end,
the outside parapets have fallen inward to the garden.
You’ve never changed a door, there isn’t a sound floorboard,
you’ve never changed a tile, nor yet repaired a wall;
you haven’t even called a builder in to fix it,
nor bought a single nail to knock into a floorboard! [4]

Men must do more than merely earn enough money to provide a woman with a luxurious house. Men must also maintain the house through completing home-maintenance tasks that their wives assign to them on a to-do list. Modern scholarly studies of gender-egalitarian marriage don’t count such work as housework. With similar reasoning, Prodromos’s wife complained that she did almost all the housework:

As for me, I do your housework, direct
your servants, and take care of your children
better than would the best of nurses. I watch
over your business, I run around, get tired,
beat myself up, wearing a linen and cotton
dress made by my own hands. I am both your house
manager and your servant. I spin and weave
the wool, spin and work the linen, make shirts
and pants, and stitch together cotton. I serve
the church as deacon and sexton, head
of the chorus and notary, while like a chick,
you stay with open mouth for pecking and
pass your days waiting for when I will be able
to serve you well. [5]

Like Matheolus’s wife Petra, Prodromos’s wife complained that he didn’t serve her well according to traditional standards of chivalry:

That’s why I wonder what I need from you
and what you do for me. If you don’t
have the courage to stroke effectively,
it isn’t necessary to throw yourself
into my wetness, but continue to lead your
little, placid, quiet and nonchalant life,
scratch your leprosy, and leave me in peace. [6]

Even though his wife disparaged him, Prodromos remained fond of her and meals. Like most fathers, Prodromos also deeply loved his children and especially enjoyed eating meals with them.

Just as family courts today regularly deprive men of contact with their children, so too did Prodromos’s wife. Prodromos recounted one such occasion:

My wife took the children, returned with them
into the apartment and locked the door.
I could do nothing but go to bed alone,
without sexual or culinary comfort,
in darkness and despair. Awake early,
I headed straight to her room and, hand
on the doorknob, I shouted to her: “I wish
you good morning, my wife,” and “Will you not
open for me, my sweetheart? Do you not want
to see me?” I exhaled three deep sighs, but
heard no echo, no response, not a word,
not a murmur. I went back to sit down
and cry. When mealtime came, Sire, I went
to bed and fell asleep. But, in my sleep,
smell of stew came over my eyelids.
I jumped out of bed, and getting up hastily
and sniffing with more flair than a bloodhound,
I saw stew in the middle of the room.
The children were gathered and seated
for the meal, the table had been set and
covered with a tablecloth. Seeing this, your servant
could not contain his rejoicing, hoping that
he would be invited to sit down and share a meal.
But time passed and I saw nothing for me. [7]

Such circumstances drive men to despair. Is it any wonder than four times more men than women commit suicide?

Despite being deprived of a meal and the company of his children and wife, Prodromos didn’t succumb to despair. He recognized the importance of drama in women’s lives and acted accordingly:

I got up in haste, seized and put on my
mostly sleeveless jacket, wrapped myself in my
Tombritza nightgown, put on my head my wool
turban, grabbed my long stick and headed toward the room.
There I found a closed door, and I stayed on
the threshold. Then I started shouting incessantly:
“Hey, have mercy on me, my wife, do not leave
me outside!” My children, who weren’t informed
of anything, rushed forward, and immediately
armed themselves with cudgels, sticks, and stones,
and descended the stairs all four together.
But their mother, who had understood everything,
shouted to them: “Let him in, this is without
a doubt a poor wretch, a beggar, a pilgrim.”
Your servant was ecstatic because he was
hungry. The children returned to a better
disposition, and so I could climb the stairs
of my house along with them. I went in
and sat down without being asked, without
waiting for someone to invite me to the table.
As soon as I saw before me a plate
full of soup, salted meat, and large pieces of food,
I seized this dish with both hands, and this abundant
broth, these hearty dishes, warmed my heart.

Many husbands are no better than poor wretches and beggars in their own homes. Yet if they are willing to play along with their wives’ need for drama, they can still get a good meal. A husband’s stomach is more important to him than his heart.

Violence against men and social structures under which men are coerced into transferring resources to women are hazardous to discuss. Yet in his twelfth-century plea to the Byzantine Emperor, Prodromos addressed these issues forthrightly:

Such misfortunes, o crown-bearing overlord, have I suffered
from a combative and thrice-roguish wife,
when she saw me returning empty-handed to our house.
Should then your benevolence not reach me, o senior monarch,
and should you not satiate this insatiate woman with gifts and presents,
I tremble, I am scared, I fear lest I should be murdered before my time,
and you shall be deprived of your Prodromos – the best pronouncer of your praises. [8]

Courtiers in Byzantium, like courtiers in the ancient Islamic world, competed with poetry for imperial favor. Courtiers commonly produced poems praising a ruler. Prodromos alluded to that practice, but produced a much more sophisticated and innovative poem.

Poor Prodromos’s twelfth-century plea to the Byzantine Emperor is a literary pioneer of realism and the novel. Prodromos constructed a long, realistic but fictional poetic narrative of his mundane life. He positioned that narrative as having universal public significance. That’s essentially the literary strategy of the prose novels that rapidly proliferated in late-eighteenth century Europe.[9]

Like the medieval Latin lamentations of Matheolulus, Prodromos’s plea is an under-appreciated masterpiece of men’s sexed protest. Matheolulus’s work is more figurative, while Prodromos’s plea is more novelistic. Both provide vital insight into men’s social position. Both deserve more attention in socially conscious, critical literary studies that’s also fun.[10]

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[1] Ptochoprodromika I, “Prodromos, kyros Theodoros, to the Emperor Mavroiannes,” ll. 15-25, from Greek trans. Alexiou (2002) p. 131. The Emperor Mavroiannes {John the Black} was John II Komnenos (reigned 1118-43), who came to be called Kaloiannes {John the Good}. Id. p. 129. For the translation of l. 22, based on Alexiou (2016b) p. 53, I’ve inserted “gut-knot” so that the translation for σκορδαψόν is “gut-knot shit-face.” Id. notes:

the ailment involved obstruction of the intestines, with the result that the patient may shoot projectile faeces from the mouth

The above post should not be interpreted to imply that I suffer from such an illness.

The poem survives only in one thirteenth-century manuscript, Manuscript Bibliotheque nationale de Paris, grec 396 (additional manuscript description and bibliography). An image of the manuscript is freely available online. The manuscript poses significant editing challenges, including physical damage to the manuscript and indications of interpolations. Hesseling & Pernot (1910) is a well-regarded edition freely available online. The currently leading edition is Eideneier (1991). The French translation from the edition of Miller & Legrand (1875) is available online. The most detailed discussion of the poem in English is Alexiou (1999) pp. 93-102.

The author of the poem is commonly referred to as Ptochoprodromos (poor Prodromos). The poem is associated in style and manuscript collocation with perhaps three other poems (poem counts vary based on treatment of pieces as proems). Those poems together are known as Ptochoprodromika. For a review of the poems, Banev (2008).  Scholars dispute their attribution to Theodore Prodromos, a leading twelfth-century Byzantine literary writer. On Prodromos’s life and works, Bazzani (2007) pp. 211-4. Prodromos was “one of the most inventive Komnenian poets.” Zagklas (2016) p. 225. The treatment of men’s domestic concerns in the poem is highly inventive in its realism. Alexiou (1986), pp. 332-5, Alexiou (2002), p. 128, and Agapitos (2015), pp. 23-33, support attributing the Ptochoprodromika to Prodromos.

The Ptochoprodromika are written in vernacular Greek in fifteen-syllable accentual verse called politikos stichos (political verse). For a review of use of that verse form, Jeffreys (1974). The Ptochoprodromika have been confidently dated to 1140-1170. Agapitos (2015) p. 4.

Leading Byzantinist Margaret Alexiou has been working on an English translation and commentary of the Ptochoprodromika with a terminus ad quem securely datable to the early 1980s. Alexiou (1986) p. 301 noted that her article:

incorporates, inevitably, much of the collective work done during the course of the academic year 1983/4 by staff and postgraduate members of the Byzantine Text Seminar (Centre for Byzantine Studies, University of Birmingham), which is preparing for publication a translation, glossary and full commentary on the four poems. Work on the fourth is nearing completion.

Readers eagerly awaiting that edition read in 1999:

This paper is based on research carried out for an edition of the Ptochoprodromic Poems, with Greek text and facing English translation, introduction, commentary,and glossary,to be completed in collaboration with Michael Hendy. … I am currently compiling a glossary for the bilingual edition under preparation by myself and Michael Hendy.

Alexiou (1999) p. 91, note; p. 108, n. 42. Ardent followers of Alexiou’s work read in 2002:

These questions {about the Ptochoprodromika} will be fully addressed in an edition I am currently preparing with Michael Hendy

In 2010, Alexiou was a Summer Research Fellow at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. Her research project was “Ptochoprodromika: Edition, Translation, Commentary, with Introduction.” She reported:

This project aimed to bring as close to publication as possible the text, translation, and commentary of the Ptochoprodromika of Theodore Prodromos. A working text has been established for Poem I (MS G) (274 lines), Poem II (MS G) (117 lines) + (MS H) (150 lines), the so-called Maiuri Poem (65 lines), Poem III (MS H) (approximately 550 lines) + MSS CSA and g (approximately 200 lines), Poem IV (MS G) (167 lines), its Proem (MSS CSA) (56 lines), and the ending (MS g) (150 lines). Facing translation is now complete for all passages to be presented in the main section.

Dumbarton Oaks (2010) provides some additional translated sections of the Ptochoprodomika not available in other of Alexiou’s publications. Despite a mysterious blog excerpt, the full text of all the Ptochoprodomika seems not to have yet appeared in English translation. Those who deeply respect and closely follow Alexiou’s meticulous scholarship read in 2016 of “my forthcoming edition” and “my textual commentary (in draft).” Alexiou (2016a) p. 222; Alexiou (2016b) p. 53. Given the literary importance of the Ptochoprodomika, all men, women, and children should rally to Alexiou’s aid and provide her with all the support and encouragement necessary for her to complete this important work after more than thirty years of effort.

[2] Ptochoprodromika I, ll. 26-32 (trans. Alexiou (1986) p. 336), ll. 33-9, my English translation from the French prose translation of Bouchet (2012) p. 12. I lineate my translation from the French for consistency. All quotations from id. appear similarly.

[3] Like scholars in many other fields, Byzantinists have failed to recognize gynocentric oppression. Instead, Byzantine scholars have engaged with patriarchal myths:

In recent years some scholars have tended to imagine Byzantine women as living in a male-dominated environment, in a military society where men inevitably exercised power, under the oppression of “patriarchy.”

Kazhdan (1998) p. 1. Scholars who don’t recognize a wide range of injustices against men readily apparent today can hardly analyze credibly Byzantine history, society, or literature.

[4] Ptochoprodromika I, ll. 75-87, trans. Alexiou (2002) p. 136.

[5] Ptochoprodromika I, ll. 90-101, from Bouchet (2012) p. 14.

[6] Ptochoprodromika I, ll. 102-7, from Bouchet (2012) p. 14. Prodromos’s wife further told him:

If you wanted to play the fop, seduce
and marry a woman, you had only to choose
one of your condition, a tavern-keeper’s
daughter, freckled, lame, ragged and penniless,
or better a saleswoman of shameful herbs coming
from her village of Maninéa. Why did
you turn the head of the poor orphan that I
was by showing me sweet eyes and an assiduous
courting, you surrounded by the procession
of your male friends?

Id. ll. 108-13. In context, “shameful herbs” suggests sexual stimulants.

[7] This and the subsquent quote are from Ptochoprodromika I, ll. 221-67, from Bouchet (2012) pp. 17-8.

[8] Ptochoprodromika I, ll. 268-74, trans. Agapitos (2015) p. 28. Alexiou (2002) p. 132 provides an alternate English translation.

[9] The prominent late-eighteenth-century English historian Edward Gibbon called the Byzantines a “degenerate people.” Gibbon declared of Byzantine literature:

Their prose is soaring to the vicious affectation of poetry; their poetry is sinking below the flatness and insipidity of prose. The tragic, epic, and lyric muses were silent and inglorious: the bards of Constantinople seldom rose above a riddle or epigram, a panegyric or tale; they forgot even the rules of prosody; and with the melody of Homer yet sounding in their ears, they confound all measure of feet and syllables in the impotent strains which had received the name of political or city verses.

Gibbon (1781/1841) vol. 4, p. 26. That’s a failure of enlightenment, but not as culpable or damaging as failures of enlightenment today.

[10] A nineteenth-century Irish historian declared, “The history of the empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs and women.” Lecky (1869) p. 13. James (2010), p. 1, cites that quote and discusses it, but ignores the lack of attention to husbands. Id. p. 2, however, does acknowledge that Byzantine literature included fun.

More generally, it’s necessary to “rewrite the history of Byzantine literature.” Agapitos (2015) p. 41. More attention to men’s sexed concerns and comparative analysis with medieval Latin literature will be vital to such rewriting. For those who consider such a direction to be subversive, Alexiou (2013) offers lessons in the art of subversion. For a comparison of twelfth-century Greek and Latin begging poems, Kulhánková (2010).

[image] A husband being verbally abused by his wife. Image from the Vinegar Valentine, Valentine Comics Series # 1, dated 1908. Images of husbands being physically abused by their wives were common in medieval Europe. Domestic violence against men continues not to be taken seriously today.


Agapitos, Panagiotis A. 2015. “New genres in the twelfth century: the schedourgia of Theodore Prodromos.” Medioevo Greco. 15(1): 1-41.

Alexiou, Margaret. 1986. “The Poverty of Écriture and the Craft of Writing: Towards a Reappraisal of the Prodromic Poems.” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. 10 (1): 1-40. Reprinted, pp. 301-35, in Nagy, Gregory, ed. 2001. Greek literature. Vol. 9. Greek literature in the Byzantine period. New York: Routledge. I cite pages numbers from the Nagy reprint.

Alexiou, Margaret. 1999. “Ploys of Performance: Games and Play in the Ptochoprodromic Poems.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. 53: 91-109.

Alexiou, Margaret. 2002. After antiquity: Greek language, myth, and metaphor. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Alexiou, Margaret. 2013. “Literary subversion in Byzantium: A partial and personal perspective.” Ch. 15 Afterword (pp. 281-8) in Dimiter Angelov and Michael Saxby, eds. Power and subversion in Byzantium: papers from the 43rd Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Birmingham, March 2010. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Variorum.

Alexiou, Margaret. 2016a. “Of Longings and Loves: Seven Poems by Theodore Prodromos.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. 69: 209-24.

Alexiou, Margaret. 2016b. “On σκορδαψός: gut-knot or eyesore? A tribute to BMGS.” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. 40 (01): 49-54.

Banev, Guentcho. 2008. “Ptochoprodromos.” Encyclopaedia of the Hellenic World. World-wide web, from Constantinople.

Bazzani, Marina. 2007. “The Historical Poems of Theodore Prodromos, the Epic-Homeric Revival and the Crisis of the Intellectuals in the Twelfth Century.” Byzantinoslavica. 65: 211-228.

Bouchet, René, trans. 2012. Satires et parodies du Moyen âge grec. La roue à livres, 63e. Paris: Les Belles Lettres. (review)

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. 2010. Textual basis for  “Of Mice and Muses.” Byzantine Theatron performance on 29 July 2010, featuring Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Summer Fellows and colleagues as Muses, Slaves, and Chorus of Mice. Andrew White, Dramaturg.

Eideneier, Hans. 1991. Ptochoprodromos: Einführung, kritische Ausgabe, deutsche Übersetzung, Glossar. Köln: Romiosini.

Gibbon, Edward. 1781. The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire: By Edward Gibbon, Esq; in six volumes. Dublin: Printed for William Hallhead.

Hesseling, D.-C. and H. Pernot, eds. 1910. Poèmes prodromiques en grec vulgaire. Amsterdam: Johannes Müller, 1910.

James, Liz. 2010. “Byzantium: A Very, Very Short Introduction.” Ch. 1 (pp. 1-8) in James, Liz, ed. A companion to Byzantium. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell.

Jeffreys, Michael J. 1974. “The nature and origins of the political verse.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. 28: 141-95.

Kazhdan, Alexander P. 1998. “Women at Home.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. 52: 1-17.

Kulhánková, Markéta. 2010. “Vaganten in Byzanz, Prodromoi im Westen. Parallellektüre von byzantinischer und lateinischer Betteldichtung des 12. Jahrhunderts.” Byzantinoslavica 68: 241-256.

Lecky, William Edward Hartpole. 1869. History of European morals from Augustus to Charlemagne. Vol. 2 Vol. 2. New York: D. Appleton and Co.

Miller, E. and Emile Legrand, ed. and trans. 1875. Trois poëmes vulgaires de Théodore Prodrome. Collection de monuments pour servir à l’étude de la langue néo-hellénique, no. 7. Paris: Maisonneuve et Cie.

Zagklas, Nikos. 2016. “Theodore Prodromos and the use of the poetic work of Gregory of Nazianzus: Appropriation in the service of self-representation.” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. 40 (02): 223-242.