De pulice: women can sleep either with fleas or with men

Flea Hunt by Gerard van Honthorst

Criminalization of men desiring women undermines men’s self-confidence and contaminates their love with fear. These effects are starkly apparent in comparing Ovid’s Loves {Amores} 2.15 to a twelfth-century recasting of it, The Flea {De pulice}. Women who love men must strive to understand and counter the unsympathetic social construction of men.

Ovid’s Amores 2.15 reveals a man’s thoughts about his gift of a precious ring to a woman whom he loves. Ovid, a master of the art of love, surely knew that men need not actually give women expensive gifts in order to enjoy love with them. Yet many men throughout history have felt the need to pay for sex. Emphasizing the commodification of men’s love, Ovid’s lover closely identifies his inanimate gift with the gift of his own masculine sexuality:

Go, little ring, whose worth will prove
nothing except the giver’s love.
Circle my fair one’s finger, be
a pleasing gift to her from me.
I hope she’ll welcome you and over
her knuckle slip you, from her lover,
and straightaway you’ll neatly hug
her finger, fitting just as snug
as she fits me.

{ Anule, formosae digitum vincture puellae,
In quo censendum nil nisi dantis amor,
Munus eas gratum! te laeta mente receptum
Protinus articulis induat illa suis;
Tam bene convenias, quam mecum convenit illi,
Et digitum iusto commodus orbe teras. }[1]

This poem reverses the gender of sexual figures (ring, finger). It thus insightfully indicates that commodification of men’s sexuality implies commodification of women’s sexuality. Gynocentric society punishes men in relation to women continually more severely in seeking to end commodification of women’s sexuality. That’s self-defeating folly.

Second-personal fear in love is caring. Ovid’s man imagines reciprocal, second-personal fears:

I’d not embarrass you, my dear —
no weight your finger wouldn’t wear.
Wear me when your bath is warm,
don’t fear the stone may come to harm,
Though, seeing you naked, I’d expect
my loving member to rise erect.
Vain fantasies! Go on your way,
you little gift of mine, and may
my darling realize with you
I give her love that’s firm and true.

{ Non ego dedecori tibi sum, mea vita, futurus,
Quodve tener digitus ferre recuset, onus.
Me gere, cum calidis perfundes imbribus artus,
Damnaque sub gemmam fer pereuntis aquae—
Sed, puto, te nuda mea membra libidine surgent,
Et peragam partes anulus ille viri.
Inrita quid voveo? parvum proficiscere munus;
Illa datam tecum sentiat esse fidem. }[2]

With their ardent love, he fears harm to her reputation (embarrassing her). He in turn imagines her fearing that their ardent love might damage his penis (finger) and testicles (stones). In our age of tyrannical college sex police and sexless marriages, Ovid’s Amores 2.15 provides critical imagination for humane loving.

Learned medieval Latin poets recognized the vital importance of Ovid’s loving imagination. With the oppressive, men-degrading ideology of courtly love gaining strength in the twelfth century, men were increasingly positioned as women’s servant-defenders. De pulice begins with the white-knight good man comically striving to defend a young woman from a flea:

O puny flea, yet a bitter plague harmful to girls,
with what song shall I act against your deeds, fierce one?
You lacerate a tender body, hard one, with your bite,
which fills your skin with blood from her skin.
You cause her body to send forth darkening stains;
her smooth members with stains become moistened.
And when you fasten your sharp prow into her side,
the maiden is compelled to arise from her heavy sleep.
While you wander along her curves, you can penetrate other members.
You go wherever you please: nothing to you, savage one, is concealed.
Oh, it pains me to tell: when the girl reclines spread out,
you pluck at her thigh and go up into her open shanks.
Sometimes you even dare to go through her loving member
and arouse the pleasures born in those places.

{ Parue pulex, sed amara lues inimica puellis,
Carmine quo fungar in tua facta, ferox?
Tu laceras corpus tenerum, durissime, morsu,
Cuius cum fuerit plena cruore cutis,
Emittis maculas de corpore fuscas,
Leuia membra quibus conmaculata rigent.
Cumque tuum lateri rostrum defigis acutum,
Cogitur e somno surgere virgo graui;
Perque sinus erras, tibi peruia cetera membra,
Is quocumque placet: nil tibi, seue, latet.
A piget et dicam: cum strata puella recumbit,
Tu femur auellis cruraque aperta subis.
Ausus es interdum per membra libidinis ire
Et turbare locis gaudia nata suis. }[3]

While the narrator serves his gynocentric function in attacking the flea’s masculine sexuality, he cannot suppress the sense of sexual pleasure. A young woman’s hymen might bleed during her first vaginal intercourse. The poem metaphorically associates that natural effect with the staining of sin, but also with the natural moistening of female sexual arousal. The violent imagery of a hard, sharp tool that penetrates and lacerates contrasts with Christian jubilation in arising from the heavy sleep of death:

Arise, shine, for your light has come
And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

Awake, you who sleep,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.

Arise, my love, my fair one, and come,
for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.
Flowers appear on the earth, the time for singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.

{ Surge, inluminare, quia venit lumen tuum
et gloria Domini super te orta est.

Surge qui dormis,
et exsurge a mortuis,
et inluminabit tibi Christus.

Surge, propera amica mea, formosa mea, et veni.
Iam enim hiemps transiit, imber abiit et recessit.
Flores apparuerunt in terra, tempus putationis advenit,
Vox turturis audita est in terra nostra. }[4]

The Latin phrase used for the woman’s genitals (membra libidinis) refers to that phrase in Amores 2.15.25. There it refers to a penis becoming erect in the context of loving concern for men’s sexuality. In the medieval Latin poem, the flea is ironically attacked for providing the young woman with sexual pleasure.

the flea: your enemy

In the medieval Latin poem, the white-knight good man recognizes his perversity in acting as the young woman’s servant-defender. Claims that men are pigs or men are dogs have long circulated in gynocentric society, along with more profound and less appreciated figuring of men as donkeys. In this poem, the man turns to pray to be a flea:

May I die, if now I don’t desire to become my own enemy
so that the way to my prayers might become more readily passable.
If nature allowed me to be turned into you,
and granted the power to return to my natal form,
or if I could be changed by any songs,
my prayers by songs would transform me into a flea.
Or by potions, if potions are able to do more,
I would wish to alter the laws of my nature.
What songs conferred upon Medea or potions upon Circe,
those acts have been made sufficiently well-known.

{ Dispeream, nisi iam cupiam fieri meus hostis,
Promptior ut fieret ad mea vota via.
Si sineret natura mihi, quod verterer in te
Et, quod sum natus, posse redire daret,
Vel si carminibus possem mutarier ullis,
Carminibus fierem ad mea vota pulex,
Aut medicaminibus, si plus medicamina possunt,
Vellem nature iura nouare mee.
Carmina Medee vel quid medicamina Circes
Contulerunt, res est notificata satis. }

Medea and Circe are females who loved men. Songs (incantations) and potions helped them personally in their quests for love. Men have been historically under-represented among persons expert in these love resources. With the institutional church often failing to provide for men’s welfare, the narrating man, probably a cleric, proposed to change the laws of his nature and direct his prayers to act through songs and potions. The erotic Song of Songs {Canticum Canticorum} was sufficiently well-known to medieval clerics. Yet the narrator, in his desperation, looked to non-Christian love resources.

The laws that must be transformed are not laws of nature, but laws of gynocentric society. These laws keep men in fear. Even if men had access to the spell-binding songs and potions of Medea and Circe, men would still face sex-based criminalization. Fleas have more liberty than men. The narrator explicitly recognized the threat of him, as a man, being shackled:

By these means transformed, if so being transformed could be,
I would cling to the edge of the maiden’s nightgown.
From there moving over the thighs and under the clothing of the girl,
I would go quickly and stealthily to the places I chose,
just as I desired, not harming her at all with having lain down,
until I turned from a flea back into a man.
But if by chance the girl, terrified by these monstrous omens,
forced her servants to shackle me,
either excited by my entreaties she would yield,
or else I would soon turn from a man back into a flea.

{ His ego mutatus, si sic mutabilis essem,
Hererem tunice margine virginee.
Inde means per crura mee sub veste puelle
Ad loca que vellem me cito subriperem,
Sicut et optarem, nil ledens ipse cubarem,
Donec de pulice rursus homo fierem.
Sed si forte nouis virgo perterrita monstris
Exigeret famulos ad mea vincla suos,
Aut temptata meis precibus subcumberet illa,
Aut mox ex homine verterer in pulicem. }

Men escape being shackled for their sexuality by turning into fleas. Fleas act with force that gynocentric society cannot suppress:

Once changed back and pouring out humble beseechings
I would induce all the gods to fulfill my prayers
until I held, by entreaties or by force, all the goods I longed for,
and then she would prefer nothing to having me as her companion.

{ Rursus mutatus fundens humilisque precatus
Afferrem cunctos in mea vota deos,
Dum bona, vel precibus vel vi, sperata tenerem
Et iam nil mallet quam sibi me socium. }

The ending is pathetic. Being changed back suggests that the man would be shackled and turn back into a flea. But only men make prayers to gods and entreaties to girls. Having received sexual pleasure from a man or a flea, the girl would be satisfied with either as a bed companion.

You have before you fleas and men. Choose men!

*  *  *  *  *

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[1] Ovid, Amores 2.15.1-6, from Latin trans. Melville (2008) p. 48. This poem is commonly known as “The Ring.” The Latin text is freely available online in the Latin Library. Likewise available is A. S. Kline’s fine English translation.

[2] Amores 2.15.21-8, trans. Melville (2008) p. 48. Mevillle translated mea membra libidine as “that virile ring.” Libidine is the ablative singular of libīdō (“with lust”). I’ve replaced “that virile ring” with “my loving member” to better capture, in my view, the contextual relations of membra libidine and its connection to a nearly identical phrase in De pulice. McKeown observed:

Mea membra (“my limbs”) is not just politely coy but also an outstanding example of the curious convention in Latin poetry of using the plural when the singular is intended.

McKeown (2010) p. 195.

The final line Melville translated as “I give her love that’s staunch and true.” I’ve replaced “staunch” with “firm” to better represent the erotic allusions of the poem.

[3] De pulice vv. 1-14, Latin text from Lenz (1962) p. 313 (a critical edition of the poem). In its theme of bodies transformed, De pulice is also similar to Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

I’ve adapted the above English translation of De pulice from that of Ziolkowski (1993) App. 19, pp. 289-90. My adaption follows the Latin phrase structure more closely, makes translation changes within the semantic range of the Latin words to reflect better my understanding of the poem, and adds lineation to make reference to the Latin text easier. Subsequent quotations above from De pulice provide the full text of the poem in serial order, with the English translation and Latin text likewise sourced.

Underscoring the importance of the issues De pulice addresses, the poem has survived in at least fifty-six manuscripts. Lenz (1962) pp. 304-311. De pulice may have influenced John Donne’s The Flea. Donne’s poem begins:

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do.

[4] Ephesians 5:14, Isaiah 60:1, Song of Songs 2:10b-12. The Latin translation is Jerome’s fourth-century translation that formed the standard Vulgate bible of the European Middle Ages.

[image] (1) The Flea Hunt, detail. Oil on canvas painting by Gerard van Honthorst, 1621. Held in Dayton Art Institute, OH. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.

A catalogue note for another version of The Flea Hunt by van Honthorst observes:

From antiquity, the flea has been used as a symbol for sex owing to its proclivity to sucking blood from its targets. Writers as early as Aristotle, Pliny and Ovid, and continuing on to Honthorst’s contemporaries John Donne, Peter Woodhouse and Christopher Marlowe, all wrote on the intimate and intense associations of the flea with sex. Honthorst eliminates any subtle innuendo here as he depicts the procuress helping the smiling, half naked woman search for fleas on her clothing, all lit by Honthorst’s quintessential candlelight.

From Sotheby’s auction entry for The Flea Hunt.

(2) U.S. Army poster (detail), made during World War II (note Japanese caricature for the face of the flea). From the U.S. National Museum of Health and Medicine, Otis Historical Archives, Reeve Photograph Collection 088266. Illustration by Cpl. Charles W. Brannon, Pfc. Andrew M. Hube (?). Thanks to the Otis Historical Archives flickr feed.


Lenz, Friedrich Walter. 1962. Maia: Rivista di litterature classiches. N.S. 14: 299-333.

McKeown, J. C. 2010. A cabinet of Roman curiosities strange tales and surprising facts from the world’s greatest empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Melville, A. D., trans. 2008. Ovid. The love poems. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1993. Talking animals: medieval Latin beast poetry, 750-1150. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

7 thoughts on “De pulice: women can sleep either with fleas or with men”

  1. A cornucopia of esoteric erotica. The cross referencing leads you to so many metaphorical mazes and unexplored avenues of sumptuous delights. The bylanes and culture de sac are yet yo be explored.

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