ultimate cuckold recorded in medieval Flanders near Ghent

ram with big horns

As medieval literature makes clear, medieval men sought to avoid being cuckolded. Medieval literature advised men to believe what they saw, rather than what their wives told them. Men were advised that, if their wives told them they were dead, not to believe it. Before he left on a business trip, one medieval husband even painted a guardian lamb on his wife’s abdomen. Underscoring men’s concern about being cuckolded, a twelfth-century Latin text written in Flanders near Ghent recorded the ultimate cuckold: Ysengrimus, an elderly wolf.

cuckolded wolf

One day, Renard the fox entered Ysengrimus’s home while he was out hunting for food for his family. Ysengrimus’s wolf-wife, weary from having recently given birth to cubs, was in bed. Renard pretended to have friendly relations with Ysengrimus. Renard even referred to him as his uncle. Renard chatted warmly with Ysengrimus’s children about their father:

Then, raising his leg and pouring forth a stream from both orifices,
he said, “Here’s a milk-soaked rusk — doesn’t it taste good?
Lap it up, dear little cousins, lap it up! To you
I present this tidbit, which I was retaining for my own children.
Far be it for me to be reluctant to give you a present;
you are the beloved children of my uncle.”

{ Tunc sua crura levans et utroque foramine largus
intulit: “Hoc mixtum est, nonne suave sapit?
Sugite, dilecti patrueles, sugite! Vobis
traditur haec natis mulsa retenta meis.
Non me subsidium vobis impendere taedet;
vos estis partui pignora cara mei.” } [1]

The children groaned at Reynard’s freshly pushed, urine-soaked excrement. Their mother leaped up from bed upon hearing their groans. She chased Reynard outside. Unable to catch the fox, the wolf-mother called out to him:

“Why,” she therefore inquired, “friend, are you preparing to run away on the sly?
You don’t follow etiquette, you who were my guest!
You’ve gone off, boorishly robbing me of thanks for your entertainment;
your hostess invites you back, speak, stay a little!
Before you go, you should thank me and receive a farewell,
and take from me the kisses which are signs of affection.”

{“Cur,” ergo inquit, “amice, paras sic currere furtim?
Non sequeris morem, tu meus hospes eras!
Turpiter hospitii grates furatus abisti;
hospita te revocat, fare, resiste parum!
Ante michi gratans et commendatus abito,
nunciaque affectus basia sume michi!” }

Reynard explained that he had gone outside only to piss, and that he would return. The wolf-mother hid behind the entrance of her home. She sought to ambush Reynard when he entered. The sly fox put a foot on the entrance threshold and then jumped back when the wolf appeared. He pelted her with dirt and stones. Then he ran away.

With the wolf-mother in hot pursuit, Reynard ran into his den. It had a lovely pastoral setting, with a nearby river murmuring gently and a valley filled with flowers. Reynard darted into its living-room entrance hole. The recently pregnant wolf chasing after him tried to follow. She got firmly stuck in the narrow entryway. Reynard went out another door and came up behind her:

And then, showing little concern for his uncle’s marriage,
the base adulterer mounted the immobilized lady.
“Someone else,” he said, “would do this, if I didn’t; better therefore
I should do this, than some passerby on the sly.
If the love of a stranger is less than that of a relation,
I’m closest to you, in terms of kinship and friendship.
Let my affection appear in my services; no one would venture,
while I’m virile, to cuckold my uncle.” [2]

{ atque parum curans patruelis foedera lecti,
assilit in fixam pravus adulter heram.
“Alter,” ait, “faceret, si non ego; rectius ergo
hoc ego, quam furtim quis peregrinus, agam.
Si consanguinei minor est externus amore,
sum generis serie proximus atque fide.
Clareat obsequio pietas mea; nolo quis ausit
sospite me patruum zelotipare meum.” }

Today in high-profile international surveys, a wife showing love for her husband is recorded as him raping her. Under such a standard, Reynard the fox unquestionably raped the wife of Ysengrimus the wolf. That’s quite unusual behavior among non-human animals. Yet the wolf-wife also behaved unusually in speaking an articulate and witty response to Reynard:

Warming to the game, she said: “Reynard, you
push forward a polished performance worthy of your public fame.
If you had as much hardness as craftiness,
you’d be declared an upright house-slave for the ladies.
I’d hardly have to be urged to enter your home,
if only your doorway were a little wider!”
Scripture recounts that she enjoyed the sport,
and so the adulterer cuckolded his uncle.

{ Illa iocum cupiens “Reinarde, facetius,” inquit,
“Publica quae de te fama fatetur, agis.
Si tibi, qualis inest industria, robur inesset,
verna penes dominas assererere probus.
Vix egomet cogenda tuos intrare penates,
ianua si paulum latior esset, eram!”
Gavisam scriptura refert his lusibus illam
et moechum patruum zelotipasse suum. }

A fox isn’t equipped like a donkey. The wolf-wife in praising Reynard’s craftiness disparaged his sexual strength. Disparaging men’s sexuality isn’t nearly as bad as criminalizing it. Modern literary critics shouldn’t contradict history and condemn the wolf-wife for enjoying the sport.

A man could hardly be cuckolded worse than by having his children fed urine-soaked feces and his wife raped. Ysengrimus surely understood the full enormity of the situation:

he stood where his wife
was stuck fast, wedged tight up to the middle of her body.
He got the wretched woman out, and they recounted to each other
Reynard’s crimes and swore that a cruel death should expiate them.

{ … staret, ubi uxor
haerebat, medio corpore vincta tenus.
Extraxit miseram, referunt iurantque vicissim
crimina Reinardi morte pianda gravi.}

For what he had done, Reynard deserved a cruel death. Yet Ysengrimus didn’t actually seek to kill Reynard.

Rather than seeking to kill Reynard purposefully, Ysengrimus continued to treat him as if he were a friend. With mock graciousness, Ysengrimus recalled Reynard’s shameful deeds and offered him intimate lodgings as a friend:

“Why should I recount the abuses you did to me, to my children,
and to my wife? They were public enough, weren’t they?
Now lodgings are prepared for you in our stomach;
cut in,” (opening his lips) “push in, friend!
Although you’re a depraved colleague to me, I won’t be one to you.
Degenerate, and deforming; degenerate! I won’t follow your lead.
I open up lodgings for you, although you deserve to be turned away.
Cut in gladly, I am happy to open wide for you!”

{ “Quid mea, quid referam, quae natis probra meaeque
feceris uxori? Nonne fuere palam?
Hospitium nostro tibi nunc in ventre paratur,
incide!” (pandebat labra) “Sodalis, ini!
Sis collega licet pravus michi, nolo tibi esse.
Deteris, ut debes; detere! Nolo sequi.
Pando tibi hospitium, quamquam mereare repelli;
incide iocunde, laetus adhisco tibi!”

With his mouth wide open, Ysengrimus pulled softly with his teeth upon the fur of Reynard’s back. Reynard, however, refused Ysengrimus’s invitation to immigrate. He preferred to remain where he was.

Ysengrimus’s open-mouthed invitations led to disaster. Anticipating an opportunity to eat sheep, Ysengrimus offered to mediate a pasture-land dispute between four brother-rams. Each claimed the other was venturing onto his land. Ysengrimus hoped to eat all four. He pretended that he would serve them as a surveyor. He said, however, that he needed to eat them first. Ysengrimus opened wide his mouth and invited them to enter. Even animals as dumb as sheep recognized Ysengrimus’s folly.

Ysengrimus subsequently suffered brutal violence symbolically associated with being a cuckold. The brother rams decided to have the wolf Ysengrimus serve as a boundary marker:

Let the wolf be the midway boundary of the four-sided field,
so that each section covers an equal space;
when he’s interposed, dividing up the four sections equally,
let us each rush from opposing corners into him,
but such that, to this boundary (heavy will be the penalty under the
judge) no one ventures to approach before the others;

He wants to slice up us for himself, not the field for us.
The long delay is irritating the surveyor, we must be brief,
so this is how we’ll make the attack:
I’ll take the head; you, Bernard, the tail; Belinus, into the left side
cut; you, Colvarianus, the right side.
Let’s give him good appetizers from our hard horns

{ Finis tetragoni medius lupus ipse sit agri,
aequale ut spatium portio quaeque trahat;
iamque interposito partes aequante quaternas
motus ab opposito cardine quisque ruet,
sic tamen, ut stadium (gravis est emenda sub isto
iudice) prasumat nullus adire prior.

nos sibi, non nobis dividere arva cupit.
Mensorem mora longa gravat, breviemus oportet,
sic igitur nobis assiliendus erit:
frontem ego; tu caudam, Bernarde; Beline, sinistrum
incute; tu dextrum, Colvariane, latus.
Cornibus ex rigidis prima et bona fercula demus }

Horns have long been affixed to a man to indicate that he’s a cuckold. The eldest brother-ram Joseph urged Bernard, who was to ram his horns against Ysengrimus’s ass, to be particularly vigorous:

Utilize your power, Bernard, you have the strength of a bear;
Rush in, and if he doesn’t know how to divide fields, teach him.

{ Utere vi, Bernarde, tua, tu fortis ut ursus;
irrue, si nescit dividere arva, doce. }

The four rams struck the wolf with heavy blows from all four sides:

Bernard’s battering ram rushed forward with such violence
on course {to Ysengrimus’s ass}, that if Joseph had continued to help
on the reverse course {to Ysengrimus’s head}, Bernard when he met in mid-stomach his brother’s
horns, would have either broken them with his own horns,
or certainly would have been carried up to the greedy jaws,
violently dragged through the long, empty stomach cavity {as Joseph, with his horns locked with Bernard’s, backed away after ramming Ysengrimus}.
Although faster than all was Joseph, the innocent one,
afraid of being corrected, wary of hollowing out others’ honors;
fearing the greedy mouth, he pierced from the side the right
temple, and no small part of the brain spilled out;
and had not the temples drawn back before the mighty onslaught,
the blow would have penetrated both temples at once.
But boldness was mingled with caution. Joseph shattered the ear
and temple, and five teeth sprang out.
And the brothers on opposing sides of the middle missed the heart
as they drove their horns through the hollow of the chest.
If there were an echo on plains, from every corner
the field would have resounded with their clashing horns.
They withdrew their horns to venture on a second attack;
Bernard then immediately aimed at the hindquarters. [3]

{ Machina Bernardi tanto ruit acta tumultu
obvia, si Ioseph continuasset opem
obvius, aut fratri media Bernardus in alvo
cornua fregisset cornibus acta suis,
aut certe cupidas ad fauces usque volasset,
per longum ventris raptus inane cavi.
At citior cunctis Ioseph licet afforet, insons
emendare timens, praecelerasse cavet,
os avidum metuens, obliquus dextra peregit
timpora, nec cerebri portio parva fluit;
et nisi cessissent prae vasto timpora pulsu,
plaga penetrasset timpus utrumque simul.
Sed temere cautum est, Ioseph perfregerat aurem
timporaque, et quinae dissiluere molae.
At fratres medii praeter discrimina cordis
obvia per vacuum cornua pectus agunt.
Si foret in planis echo, iam cardine ob omni
cornibus oblisis assonuisset ager.
Cornua subducunt impulsus ausa secundos;
Bernardusque obiter posteriora petit }

The rams subsequently started arguing over the position of the battered-wolf boundary marker and the boundaries of their pasture lands. They repeatedly rammed Ysengrimus this way and that. Reynard stepped onto the field and considered skinning his uncle alive. Instead, he urged the rams to batter Ysengrimus many times more. They finally left Ysengrimus brutally beaten and half-dead.

In the epic of Ysengrimus and Reynard, learning, piety, and civility are a parodic veneer over deceit and treachery. The Ysengrimus frequently refers to peace. Yet it begins with Ysengrimus looking for food for his hungry children after Reynard has abused them and raped his wife.[4] Ysengrimus himself had been beaten fiercely after he followed a malicious, faked example that Reynard presented to him. Ysengrimus figured the situation in ethnic terms:

Who am I, you know, I am that guest of yours,
to whom the Slavic drink was administered before your hearth.
Oh, Reynard, on that night you were like a Brabanter!
Here, unless Satan swallows you up, you’ll be an Englishman!

{ Quisne ego sim, nosti, siquidem tuus hospes ego ille,
cui Sclava ante tuum potio sumpta larem est.
Ha, Reinarde, illa quam Brabas nocte fuisti!
Hic, nisi te Satanas glutiat, Anglus eris! }

The Slavic drink is a savage beating. Brabanters were fierce, Germanic men living northeast of Flanders and frequently serving as mercenaries. English men had a reputation for being meek, weak, and cowardly.[5]

Internal evidence has convinced scholars that the Ysengrimus was written between 1148 and 1149 near Ghent in the county of Flanders. Scholarly interpretation of the Ysengrimus’s contemporary references has focused on rapacious abbots and greedy monks. Historians of medieval Flanders have largely ignored the Ysengrimus.[6] Yet the satire of the Ysengrimus plausibly relates to deceit and betrayal in political conflict in early twelfth-century Flanders.

From 1119 to 1128, Flanders was under the rule of four different counts with four different regional roots. Baldwin VII, who inherited rule of Flanders from his father, died in 1119. Just before he died, Baldwin, who was childless, gave Flanders to Charles the Good of the House of Denmark. In 1128, the Erembalds, a family alleged to have servile origins through an act of cuckolding, arranged for the vicious murder of Charles the Good. Charles was also childless. After Charles was killed, the French King Louis VI installed William Clito of Normandy as ruler of Flanders. Ghent, however, went against William. William died in 1128 fighting to consolidate his power. Thierry of Alsace then became Count of Flanders. With the civil war of 1128 and four different ruling families in less than a decade, the Flemings surely experienced intense questioning of identity and allegiance.[7]

The troubles in early twelfth-century Flanders relate narrowly to cuckolding. Both Baldwin VII and Charles the Good were childless, though married. In ancient Rome, men who were incapable of producing children sometimes secured cuckolders to produce heirs for them. While that was a disreputable practice, it might be reasonably regarded as preferable to a destructive war of succession. Yet the Erembalds, who were deeply implicated in the murder of Charles the Good, were disparaged as a family rooted in betrayal and cuckolding.[8]

Cuckolding also had broader political contexts in early twelfth-century Flanders. The succession of non-hereditary rulers in Flanders from 1119 to 1128 may have caused members of the Flemish elite to feel cuckolded. In an even broader political perspective, Flemish mercenaries had fought with the Normans in the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. Many Flemings then settled in England. Writing in the 1190s, Gervase of Canterbury, who may have read the Ysengrimus, complained:

Flemings were called to England by {Stephen, King of England from 1135-1154}… they like hungry wolves proceeded energetically to reduce the fecundity of England to nothing.

{ Vocati sunt igitur a rege Flandrensis in Agliam …. famelicorum more luporum Anglicanae terrae foecunditatem ad nihilum redigere studuerunt.} [9]

Other evidence indicates that the Flemings integrated well into English society.[10] While some in the English elite may have regarded the Flemings as wolves, others in the Norman elite may have regarded them as crafty foxes who betrayed their Norman allies to bed down with the English. The rich possibilities for sense of betrayal help to explain the many invocations of betrayal in Gilbert of Bruges journal of the murder of Charles the Good.

In the Ysengrimus, the wolf Ysengrimus represents the ultimate cuckold. Reynard fed Ysengrimus’s children urine-drenched feces. Reynard raped Ysengrimus’s wife. After those outrages, Ysengrimus suffered much worse abuse himself. No cuckold has ever been beaten with horns as severely as Ysengrimus was. A large sow subsequently led pigs to kill and eat Ysengrimus.

In medieval politics, marriage signified public political alliance. Cuckolding was associated with hidden betrayal. Interpreted politically, the Ysengrimus suggests that intense hostility existed underneath a surface of political agreement and civility in early twelfth-century Flanders.

The Ysengrimus isn’t just medieval Latin literature with twelfth-century political-historical relevance. In many countries today, forced financial fatherhood is imposed on men without respect to the facts of paternity. Under a widely acclaimed ideal of gender equality, vastly disproportionate violence against men is ignored, and profound anti-men biases in criminal justice are trivialized despite vastly disproportionate incarceration of men. Social scientific surveys superficially claiming to measure sexism are deeply rooted in anti-men sexism, and the highly regarded World Values Survey is similarly deceptive. Not surprisingly, many men today feel politically cuckolded.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Ysengrimus 5.739-44, Latin and English trans. on facing pages in Mann (2009) pp. 344-5. To encourage general readers to examine the Latin, above I adapted Mann’s translation to lineate it and to make it into a good crib for non-specialists examining the source Latin text. My translated excerpts above are also meant to be readable, accurate English translations. Those carefully studying the text should consult Mann’s translation to see the changes that I made. Subsequent quotes from Ysengrimus I have made similarly. Cited by book.line and page for the Latin in id., they are: 5.751-6, p. 344 (Why, so she inquired…); 5.818.1-8, p. 350 (And then, showing little concern…); 5.818.11-8, p. 350 (She, warming to the game…); 5.1119-22, p. 374 (he stood where his wife…); 1.51-8, pp. 2, 4 (Why should I recount the abuse…); 2.483-8, 492-7, p. 112 (Let the wolf be the midway boundary…); 2.499-500, p. 112 (Utilize your power, Bernard…); 2.543-62, p. 116 (Bernard’s battering ram rushed forward…); 1.48-50, p. 4 (Who am I…).

[2] Mann translated the last line and a half as: “I don’t want anyone else to have the cheek to cuckold my uncle while I’m alive.” That makes little sense in the context of Ysengrimus’s action and the preceding lines, particular 5.818.3-4. Ysengrimus’s humorous point seems to be that no one can feasibly cuckold his uncle while he himself is actually engaged in doing it.

Medieval Latin literature includes works that would be effectively suppressed in the less liberal, less tolerant, and more narrow-minded circumstances of today’s westernized countries. Yet medieval texts were subjected to some expressive constraints. In particular, some or all of the lines in the above quote are missing in four of the five primary Ysengrimus manuscripts. These lines probably were “erased from the original text by a scribe or reader because of their sexual content.” Mann (1987) p. 461, note to 5.1818.1-18.

[3] The field resounding with clashing horns is an humorous allusion to the battles of ancient epics. Here, four rams are pummeling a wolf without any resistance.

With his horns, Bernard penetrated Ysengrimus’s anus. Forcible penetration of a man’s anus is rape under a reasonable definition of rape. The Latin text refers to this crime ironically in using the Latin word raptus in describing the possibility of Joseph violent dragging Bernard through Ysengrimus’s stomach. Scholars today commonly interpret raptus to mean rape. While that’s a reasonable understanding of raptus in this context, scholars today also use absurdly broad definitions of rape.

In her six-page summary of the Ysengrimus, Mann referred to Reynard raping Ysengrimus’s wife, but not to Bernard much more brutally raping Ysengrimus. See Mann (1987) p. xiii; Mann (2013) p. xxiv. Mann also didn’t mention Reynard sexually assaulting Ysengrimus (furiously biting his genitals) in the Ysengrimus 4.641-50. Rape of men and sexual assaults on men have been shamefully trivialized throughout history. Under a reasonable, non-sexist definition of rape, the best social-scientific surveys indicate that about as many women rape men as men rape women.

[4] On frequent references to peace in the Ysengrimus, Mann (1987) pp. 26-9, 183-4; Mann (2013) pp. xiii-xv. Mann interprets the Ysengrimus as an apocalyptic poem repeatedly representing the world turned upside down. Yet superficial civility concealing sharp hostility isn’t the Christian apocalyptic vision.

Following classical epic form, the Ysengrimus includes a narrative flashback. The narrative begins after the abuse of Ysengrimus’s wife and children (5.705 – 5.818.18). The narrative flashback ends with Ysengrimus rescuing his wife (5.1121-4).

[5] Brebner (2015) states:

Some Brabanters, like the Flemings, joined William the Conqueror’s invasion of Britain, but others remained in continental Europe. Of the latter group, 1,500 Brabanters under William of Cambray joined the Emperor Barbarossa’s third venture into Italy. They did not travel with Barbarossa himself but instead became a “self-catering” force travelling through Burgundy. The Abbot of Cluny described the Brabanters as a terrible plague who move through all places “with iron and blood and nothing is able to protect against them.”

Commenter Alexander Stevenson (May 20, 2015) helpful added:

{Brabanter} is probably best understood as a generic term for mercenaries of Germanic origin. A letter of the mid-1160s from the abbot of Cluny to the king of France refers to “German {mercenaries}, who are called ‘Brabantiones’…” (Recueil des historiens des Gaules et de la France, vol. 16, p.181).

MS D of the Ysengrimus glosses Brabas as “superbus” and Anglicus as “coactus, patiens, humilis.” Mann (1987) p. 209, n. to 1.48-50. Ysengrimus 3.659 refers to an Englishman as having a tail. That was a well-established insinuation of cowardice. Id. p. 334, n. to 3.659.

[6] On the date and place of the Ysengrimus, Mann (2013) pp xv-xvii. It is “relatively easy to locate the poem in time and place.” Id. p. xvii. For interpretations of the poem, e.g. Mann (1987) pp. 10-20, Ziolkowski (1993) pp. 213-34, Mann (2013) pp. ix-xv. Rider & Murray (2012), a wide-ranging collection of articles concerning Galbert of Bruges’s De multro, doesn’t include a single reference to the Ysengrimus. Oksanen (2012), a political history, also doesn’t include a single reference to the Ysengrimus. Ziolkowski observed:

{complexities of the Ysengrimus} arise not so much from its style as from its dark references to topical events and places, to aspects of monastic rites, and to the liturgy. The actions of the anthropomorphized animals seem often to have a satiric “other meaning,” but the precise meaning of the satire is elusive. It is easy to agree with a glossator who wrote in one of the manuscripts that “certain things seemed to me so unheard of and uncommon that for want of knowledge and insight I could not come to understand their meaning.”

Ziolkowski (1993) pp. 211-1 (internal references omitted). This glossator, like other scholars, seems to have allowed his perplexity about particular trees to prevent him from seeing the forest. Ziolkowski’s insightful interpretation focused on monastic rites and the liturgy.

[7] From at least the reign of Baldwin I (862 to 879), political succession in Flanders “proceeded with biblical regularity from father to son until the death of Count Baldwin VIII in 1119.” Rider (2013) p. xvii. On the Flemish civil war in 1128, Oksanen (2012) pp. 26-9.

[8] Galbert of Bruges, De multo (The murder, betrayal, and slaughter of the glorious Charles, Count of Flanders) ch. 71, trans. Rider (2012). De multo, ch. 89, discusses the cuckolding of Walter of Vladslo.

[9] From Gervase of Canterbury, Gesta Regum, quoted in Oksanen (2012) p. 219.

[10] Oksanen (2012) pp. 219-31.

[images] (1) Bighorn ram in Wallowa Mountains, Oregon, in 2012. Thanks to the Oregon Dept. of Fish & Wildlife and Wikimedia Commons. (2) Wolf. Excerpt of image available under CC0 Public Domain license thanks to Huskyherz and pixabay.


Brebner, John. 2015. “Brabant and the Brabanters.” Scotland and the Flemish People (blog). Entry for April 24. St. Andrews Institute of Scottish Historical Research.

Mann. Jill, ed. and trans. 1987. Ysengrimus: text with translation, commentary, and introduction. Leiden: Brill.

Mann, Jill, ed. and trans. 2013. Ysengrimus. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, Vol. 26. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Oksanen, Eljas. 2012. Flanders and the Anglo-Norman World, 1066-1216. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rider, Jeff, and Alan V. Murray, eds. 2012. Galbert of Bruges and the Historiography of Medieval Flanders. Washington: Catholic University of America Press.

Rider, Jeff, trans. 2013. Galbert de Bruges. The murder, betrayal, and slaughter of the glorious Charles, Count of Flanders. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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

Saint Eugenia with female advantage refuted false accusation of rape

Saint Eugenia falsely accused of rape

After Eugenia had spent only three years as a monk, her monk-brethren elected her abbot of their monastery near Alexandria in the second-century Roman Empire. The monks regarded Eugenia as first in virtue among them. They also admired her modesty and love for everyone. When she entered the monastery, she brought with her two eunuchs who had served her in her former life of female privilege. The eunuchs became monks and strove to imitate Eugenia from their advantageous position relative to the other men in the monastery.

Seeking healing from a terrible illness, a rich woman named Melanthia came to the abbot Eugenia. Eugenia was renowned for healing. With her own hands, Eugenia anointed Melanthia with holy oil. Melanthia was thus cured.

Melanthia subsequently became sick again. This time she was sick with lovesickness for Eugenia:

upon seeing a man, youthful in appearance and beautiful in his face, desire (albeit not a degenerate sort) entered her, and little by little, her soul was seduced. Soon, she was burning intensely, thinking that Eugenia could not remain chaste forever [1]

Melanthia summoned Eugenia to heal her of her sickness. Melanthia wasn’t coy about seeking a cure:

she urged eagerly for an illicit union; “And if you do not want this,” she said, “then I shall take you openly as my husband by law; and you will be the lord of great wealth, gold, silver, fine clothing, fields, herds, and slaves, and together with these things, you will also have me as your slave rather than a woman who is free and of equal worth. And you alone will take pleasure in these things in every way, for I am without husband, children or relatives.” [2]

Most men have to work for a living. Some men who are married live in addition as little more than personal servants and handymen for their wives. Many husbands face the horrors of sexless marriage. Given these realities, many men would find Melanthia’s offer to be highly appealing.

Eugenia, however, decisively rejected Melanthia’s proposition. At her many words Eugenia continually sighed and felt strong disgust:

Finally, becoming dizzy with Melanthia’s excessive prattling, she plugged her ears with wax, as the saying goes, unable to tolerate even the sound of another word. “Stop,” she yelled, “woman, stop, and keep these things far from me; you are spewing at me the very venom of the ancient serpent. … For me the only wedlock is yearning for Christ; my only wealth is heavenly goods; my only possession is knowledge of the truth.”

Unlike men, women have little life experience of romantic rejection. Much more than men, women feel entitled to the love of any man. Melanthia had expected Eugenia to accept her love proposition.

When Eugenia rejected her, Melanthia’s love turned to hate. She sought to use criminal justice, which has long had strong anti-men bias, to punish Eugenia:

bursting with terrible fury against Eugenia, she left for Alexandria. Then, she also devised a terrible and false accusation against her and went to the eparch Philip, since she knew nothing about Eugenia, neither that Philip was Eugenia’s father, nor that she had changed her appearance from that of a woman to that of a man. [3]

Before the eparch Philip, Melanthia lodged against Eugenia the gravely serious charge of attempted rape:

he {Eugenia} approached me. Thinking that I was one of those indecent women, that brazen man first used deceitful words and then assaulted me with his hands. If I had not called out loudly, causing my handmaid to come running, I too would now be defiled as if I were a slave woman.

Just hearing this charge enraged Philip against Eugenia. Like a college president condemning a whole fraternity after a sexual charge against only one member, Philip ordered that Eugenia and all her fellow monks be brought before him in chains. Like tyrannical college sex police today, this tribunal didn’t make a fair and thorough fact-finding. The judges largely condemned Eugenia and her brethren by default.

The punishment of Eugenia was procedurally similarly to the punishment of college men accused of kissing girls without affirmative consent and other such sex crimes. In short, it was an exercise of mob justice:

whole multitudes gathered from the surrounding cities and the eparch came too. Eugenia was led into their midst, dragged along with the heaviest of chains; shouts erupted from every corner of the amphitheater; all with one accord declared that Eugenia must die. Wild beasts were readied; instruments of torture were prepared, wheels, fire, other types of punishment, and above all, the harsh torturers, most savage and quick in the exacting of vengeance.

When Eugenia came before the eparch Philip, he harshly condemned her to death. Eugenia, wanting to make clear the extent of the conspiracy of lies against her, called Melanthia’s maidservant to speak about what happened. The maidservant declared:

This depraved man many times assaulted me as well. Then his habitual lasciviousness convinced him to impose his mad lust even on my mistress herself, forcing himself on her against her will, until she cried out as loud as she could and I came to her help, and with my fellow slave women, whom I had called to my aid, we were barely able to restrain him from his shameless attack; and if you want to summon them, you will see how they concur with my statement.

Then, in a way that no man could, Eugenia decisively refuted the women’s false accusations of rape:

{Eugenia said,} “It is time to speak the truth boldly, so that her lies may no longer exult over the truth and so that the Christian faith may not be misrepresented by the Greeks.” Then what does she do? She was forced by the great shamelessness of her accuser to do something beyond the bounds of modesty; grabbing her tunic she ripped it apart from top to bottom; and, exposing certain parts of her truly holy body, she showed everyone that both by nature and in truth she was a woman.

In ripping her tunic from top to bottom, Eugenia re-enacted the tearing of the curtain of the temple at Jesus’s crucifixion.[4] She also re-enacted Phyrne exposing her breasts to a Roman jury to gain acquittal on a serious charge. Eugenia refuted the false accusation of rape by showing that her accusers falsely thought that she was a man. Yet none of her accusers directly claimed knowledge of Eugenia’s alleged penis. The decisive refutation of the false accusation rested at least in part on the myth that women don’t rape women. That’s a myth like the myth that women don’t rape men.

False accusations of rape have been recognized as a serious problem throughout all of recorded history, except for recent decades. A false accusation of rape can do terrible harm to a man. Yet the currently dominant ideology has grotesquely trivialized the problem of false accusations. Men falsely accused of rape today have little worldly hope. They can only pray that the early Christian Saint Eugenia, along with Saint Marina, the patron saint for men falsely accused of rape, will intercede for them.

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[1] Symeon Metaphrastes, Menologion, “Life, Conduct, and Passion of the Holy Martyr of Christ Saint Eugenia and Her Parents” para. 40, from Greek trans. Papaioannou (2017) p. 219. The Greek text is on facing pages in id. Subsequent quotes above are (cite by paragraph and page of English translation in id.): 42, pp. 219, 221 (upon seeing a man…); 43, p. 221 (Finally, becoming dizzy…); 44, p. 221 (bursting with terrible fury…); 44, p. 223 (he {Eugenia} approached me…); 47, pp. 223, 225 (whole multitudes gathered…); 50, p. 229 (The depraved man…); 51, p. 229 (Eugenia said…).

Metaphrastes probably wrote his Menologion in late tenth-century Constantinople. Metaphrastes “often chose sexually loaded legends for his collection.” Kazhdan (2006) p. 242. For his account of Eugenia, Metaphrastes drew upon a much earlier Greek and Latin tradition. Eugenia now is regarded as a saint. She is honored on December 24 in the Orthodox Christian calendar.

[2] The narrator suggests that Melanthia intended, if necessary, to rape Eugenia:

the shameless Melanthia dared to attribute her own loathsome behavior to the pure Eugenia, and pretended that she had suffered the very fate she herself had intended to inflict.

Para. 45, p. 223. In the U.S. today, women raping men is as common as men raping women.

[3] Eugenia had secretly left home. She entered the monastery without informing her parents of her whereabouts and intentions.

[4] Matthew 27:51, Mark 15:38, Luke 23:45.

[image] Icon of Saint Eugenia, made about 1900. Image thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Kazhdan, Alexeander, with Christine Angelidi. 2006. A history of Byzantine literature. Vol 2,  (850-1000). Athens: National Hellenic Research Foundation, Institute for Byzantine Research.

Papaioannou, Stratis, ed. and trans. 2017. Christian novels from the Menologion of Symeon Metaphrastes. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, Vol. 45. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

barbarian lover: Goth as good husband to Euphemia

a barbarian: the dying Gaul

In 396 GC, nomadic men warriors from central Asia besieged Edessa. Within that ancient cultural capital lived the pious widow Sophia (which means wisdom) and her beautiful daughter Euphemia (which means pleasant-sounding). The Romans brought Goths into Edessa to help defend the city. The Romans regarded the Goths as barbarians like the men besieging the city. To the Romans, barbarians lacked wisdom from classical Greco-Roman and Christian learning. Barbarians spoke harsh-sounding languages. Worst of all, barbarian men, unlike the Roman elite, were strong, fearless, and heterosexually vigorous.[1] Barbarian men were courtly eunuchs’ worst nightmare.

Roman women regarded barbarian men more lovingly. Consider what Euphemia said about the Goth soldier stationed at her house in Edessa:

having come with sinister step to my own house, the Goth, barbarous in mind, forsworn in his speech, given over almost entirely to sexual desire, saw me, a maiden keeping house as a maiden does, and being completely maidenly in my sober demeanor, my judgment, and my comportment. And he, when he saw me, his eyes melted and his whole heart was inflamed with burning desire. But I did not know the danger that I was facing lurking within his very countenance or the misfortunes that were buried in the midst of his handsomeness. [2]

Despite knowing that the Goth is a barbarian and describing his barbarian characteristics, Euphemia didn’t perceive the danger he presented. She sensed “his handsomeness.” She also noted that the Goth was “one who was so obedient to his sexual urges and fanned by all the winds of desire.” Barbarian men weren’t the sort of men who would have sexless marriages. Barbarian men aspired to be as fecund as Genghis Khan.[3]

With her mother’s reluctant permission, Euphemia married the Goth. That marriage was for Euphemia a peaceful haven amid the siege of Edessa. Euphemia perceived that her husband had genuine affection for her:

The Goth was a loving husband in every respect, and for me he became everything that a good husband might be for a wife.

Euphemia and the Goth conceived a child. Many Roman women would have regarded with envy Euphemia’s marriage to the Goth.

Eupphemia and the Goth’s marriage existed under the shadow of gynocentrism. Accounts of the development of their relationship tell of the Goth giving expensive jewelry to Euphemia’s mother.[4] That reflects the gynocentric norm that men must provide material goods in exchange for love. To gain permission to marry Euphemia, the Goth “became my mother’s slave completely, both in speech and in appearance.” Moreover, the Goth pledged in marrying Euphemia, “I will be ready to fulfill her every wish.”[5] Men’s subservience to women isn’t a good foundation for joyful, enduring marriage.

In important medieval thinking, erotic desire was understood to create a relationship of close friendship and equality. An account of Euphemia written in early tenth-century Byzantium declared:

erotic desire strikes up friendship, it does not create separation

{ κιρνῶσι γὰρ φιλίας, οὐ διϊστῶσιν οἱ ἔρωτες. } [6]

The context distinguishes a relationship of erotic desire from a master-servant relationship. This text doesn’t merely state a Christian ideal of love. In two eleventh-century manuscripts, this line is labeled as a gnome.[7] Women and men in love have always struggled for friendship against the imperative for gynocentric relationships.

The marriage of Euphemia and the Goth ended horribly. The Goth had endured great danger to earn a living fighting for the Romans in Edessa. When the barbarian siege of Edessa lifted, the Goth’s job ceased to exist. Underscoring the economic insecurity that plagues men’s lives, the Goth seems to have been forced to return to his home town and his Gothic abusive wife. Apparently not wanting to shame Euphemia by abandoning her, he brought Euphemia with him to be a servant to his Gothic wife.

The Gothic wife treated Euphemia terribly. Euphemia was young and beautiful. The Gothic wife resented, suspected, and envied Euphemia. The Gothic wife thus abused Euphemia:

The girl’s unlawful mistress was jealous of her and would abuse her, ordering her to perform the most onerous tasks, as if the girl’s labors could provide relief from the jealousy that burned within her. And the worst evil was that she would not even deign to speak to her. When with time she found out that the maiden was also pregnant, the flame of her jealousy was kindled even more, and she would demand that she do the heaviest work. Why did she do that? She was striving to bring about the maiden’s death by a premature abortion of the fetus. [8]

The Gothic wife failed to cause Euphemia to have an abortion. Euphemia gave birth to a beautiful son. The Gothic wife then poisoned Euphemia’s son.[9]

The spiral of women-driven violence continued. In retribution for the Gothic wife poisoning Euphemia’s son, Euphemia poisoned the Gothic wife. Her relatives correctly blamed Euphemia for that crime. They enclosed Euphemia in a tomb with stinking corpses for a night. They intended to bring her out the next morning and impale her on a stake and shoot arrows at her.[10]

The Goth eventually was punished for his acts. He was lured into a trap in Edessa and apprehended. The military commander of Edessa ordered an annihilating punishment with a gynocentric flourish:

{he} ordered that his head be cut off with a sword and his body thrown into the flames, so that neither his dust touch dust, nor be given to the earth, the common mother of all [11]

Perhaps recognizing anti-men bias in criminal punishment, a bishop intervened and pleaded for fairness for the Goth.[12] The commander thus rescinded his order that the Goth’s body be burned and had him only beheaded. No account records any punishment of the Gothic wife.

The story of Euphemia and the Goth has enduring relevance. The barbarian lover continues to be a figure that dominant ideology condemns and that many women erotically desire. Collapse of civilization may be tragically the only way to make civilization truly welcoming to barbarians and to eliminate anti-men bias in criminal punishment.

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[1] On Roman perceptions of Goths, Charis & Papaioannou (2013) pp. 16-22. Societies throughout history have exploited men as instruments of violence. Goth men were particularly associated with institutionalized men-on-men violence. Goths were represented as enemies of Constantinople’s courtly eunuchs. Id. p. 19. Goths were disparaged in ways typically for disparaging vigorously masculine men:

The grouped characteristics “barbarity, crudeness, and strong, soldierly masculinity” of the Goths … was opposed to Romanitas and its positive values

{ L’ensemble “barbarie, inculture et machisme de soldat” des Goths, … s’oppose à la romanità et à ses valeurs positives }

Id. p. 20, my translation from the French.

[2] Nikephoros Basilakes, Progymnasmata Ethopoeiae 27.1 (“What the girl from Edessa would say after being deceived by the Goth”), from Greek trans. Beneker & Gibson (2016) p. 323 (Greek on facing pages). I’ve made non-substantial changes to the translation to make it more readily understandable. Subsequent quotes from this ethopoeia are (cited by paragraph and page in id.): 2, p. 325 (one so obedient to his sexual urges…); 3, pp. 325, 327 (The Goth was a loving husband…); 2, p. 325 (became my mother’s slave…).

Edessa is now Urfa in present-day Turkey. The story of Euphemia and the Goth goes back at least to a Syriac version probably from the fifth century. Burkitt (1913) provides the Syriac text and translation. On dating the story, , Charis & Papaioannou (2013) pp. 26-32.

[3] Genghis Khan and his relatives contributed to the conceptions of many children. Worldwide, 0.5% of persons are lineal descendants of Genghis Khan. Zerjal et al. (2003).

[4] Basilakes, Progymnasmata Ethopoeiae 27.2.

[5] Symeon Metaphrastes, Menologion, “Miracle Concerning Euphemia the Young Maiden” para. 10, from Greek trans. Papaioannou (2017) p. 125. Metaphrastes probably wrote his Menologion in late tenth-century Constantinople. Id. pp. x-xi. It was a highly influential work in both liturgy and in subsequent literature.

[6] Metaphrastes, Menologion, “Euphemia” para. 19, Greek text and trans. from Papaioannou (2017) pp. 132-3. On erotic desire and friendship in the ancient Greco-Roman world, Konstan (2015) and Konstan (1997).

[7] Id. p. 298, note to 19.

[8] Metaphrastes, Menologion, “Euphemia” para. 18, trans. id. p. 131.

[9] The fifth-century Syriac version underscores the Gothic wife’s resentment and viciousness:

one of the days when the baby was crawling along it cuddled up against her supposing that she was its mother, and threw itself upon her; and she forthwith became exceedingly embittered.

“Euphemia and the Goth,” para. 21, from Syriac trans. Burkitt (1913) p. 139.

[10] The Syriac version provides these final details. Para. 24, trans. Burkitt (1913) p. 141. That version also notes that the people dragged Euphemia to the tomb and beat her while doing so. Id.

[11] Metaphrastes, Menologion, “Euphemia” para. 41, trans. Papaioannou (2017) p. 149.

[12] The intriguing figure of the interceding bishop is similarly present in the Syriac version.

[image] A barbarian: the dying Gaul. Marble sculpture from the first century BGC, made as a replica of a sculpture dedicated to Pergamon by Attalus I to commemorate the victories over the Galatians in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BGC. Held in the Capitoline Museums (Rome), Palazzo Nuovo, first floor, Hall of the Galatian (accession # S 747). Cropped version of a photo by Jean-Pol Grandmont, generously contributed to Wikimedia Commons.


Beneker, Jeffrey, and Craig Alan Gibson, ed. and trans. 2016. The rhetorical exercises of Nikephoros Basilakes: progymnasmata from twelfth-century Byzantium. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, Vol. 43. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Burkitt, Francis C., ed. and trans. 1913. Euphemia and the Goth: with the acts of the martyrdom of the confessors of Edessa. London: Williams and Norgate.

Messis, Charis, and Stratis Papaioannou. 2013. “Histoires ‘gothiques’ à Byzance: Le saint, le soldat et le Miracle d’Euphémie et du Goth (BHG 739).” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. 67: 15-47.

Konstan, David. 1997. Friendship in the classical world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Konstan, David. 2015. Beauty: The Fortunes of an Ancient Greek Idea. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Papaioannou, Stratis, ed. and trans. 2017. Christian novels from the Menologion of Symeon Metaphrastes. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, Vol. 45. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Zerjal, Tatiana, Xue, Yali, Bertorelle, Giorgio, Wells, R. Spencer, Bao, Weidong, Zhu, Suling, Qamar, Raheel, et al. 2003. “The Genetic Legacy of the Mongols.”  American Journal of Human Genetics. 72 (3): 717-21.