no ordinary sexless marriage: the life of Andronikos & Athanasia

Andronikos and Athanasia

Athanasia and Andronikos apparently lived in sixth-century Antioch. In recalling their lives, a surviving Greek manuscript from the tenth or eleventh century describes Antioch as “the mother and excellent nourisher of both God-loving men and women in the past and until today.”[1] In the life of Andronikos and Athanasia, the privileged position of the maternal nourisher is insightfully paired with a wife’s long path toward developing true love for her husband.

Andronikos, who was from a highly distinguished family of Antioch, initially took up the profession of banking. In gynocentric society, men typically must work and achieve to be highly regarded as men. Men’s opportunities to express love for their spouses and neighbors are thus commonly impoverished. Andronikos, however, didn’t allow his demanding financial work to choke his love for his neighbors:

He gave no offence to anyone at all in his trade and was concerned more with his soul than his body, for he was not characterized by greed. In pursuing his aforementioned profession {banking}, drawing {money} by the bucketful as the saying goes, he gave the honest earnings he accrued daily from his profession freely, with both hands, in order to take care of the poor and provide succour for monks.

Jesus expelled money-changes from the temple. Early Christians regarded usury as a sin.[2] Within that context, Andronikos provided a shining example of a banker who also acted as a faithful Christian.

After Andronikos was established as a banker, Athanasia married him. Despite obvious financial advantages from that marriage, she didn’t regard her husband as merely a provider of money and personal services to her. She is described as a “helper” (βοηθὸς) to her husband. That’s the Greek word that the Septuagint used to describe Eve as a helper for Adam.[3] Moreover, Athanasia didn’t spend lavishly and pressure her husband to earn more:

Athanasia did not proposed to her husband ways by which they would increase and add to their wealth and fortune, but said and did everything {she could} so that both of them would be pleasing to God rather than by throwing away their wealth. For they always distributed their income into three parts. The first was sufficient for the household and for those in it, the second for the feeding and clothing of the poor, and the rest for the care of those who came to stay in Antioch, visitors and monks.

The name Athanasia (Αθανασία) means as a Greek noun “immortality.” Underscoring Athanasia’s importance to her husband and her righteous behavior, their Greek life declares that Athanasia and Andronikos were “allotted the true immortality after which she was named.”

Athanasia and Andronikos had two children. The first was a boy named John. They probably named him after John the Baptist. Jesus said of John the Baptist: “among those born of women no one is greater than John.”[4] Athanasia and Andronikos then had a daughter named Mary. From a Christian perspective, Mary was the mother of God and the first Christian disciple. Mary has been honored much more greatly than John in Christian life throughout the ages. That’s to be expected under gynocentrism. Yet Andronikos and Athanasia showed no indications of treating their son as naturally more evil than their daughter.

After having two children, Andronikos and Athanasia mutually agreed to a sexless marriage. They lived before spouses had non-sexual freedom. As a husband, Andronikos was required to serve Athanasia’s sexual needs even if he didn’t feel like doing it on a particular occasion. But under their mutual agreement, they “pledged with unfailing trust to unite no longer with each other for the rest of their lives.” Many married couples today effectively follow such an agreement because passion within their marriages has shriveled. The sexless marriage of Athanasia and Andronikos had a much different spiritual motivation:

having bid farewell to the flesh and all carnal desires, they devoted all their effort to the spirit and spiritual works. For three of the days of the week — I mean, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday — the holy Andronkos together with his fellow bankers and other like-minded men, were preoccupied with caring for disabled and poor men as if they themselves were servile, and caring for those whose bodies were suffering, with baths, and dispensing other relief. The remarkable Athanasia, with other women of equal birth, provided exactly the same care as her husband to women whose lives were stricken by poverty or any harsh or difficult situation. On Sundays, they both kept the Lord’s service from dawn until evening, offering prayers to the Lord.

Lack of sexual polarity commonly causes lack of sexual passion in relationships. Athanasia and Andronikos provided “exactly the same care” to their neighbors. But their companions and the persons they cared for were separated by sex. Sex remained an important reality for them even after they solemnly agreed to a sexless marriage and renunciation of carnal desires.

Tragedy befell the family when their children were ages ten and twelve. Their children were overcome with a violent fever. While the children were ill, Athanasia departed from a Sunday service to check on them. She found them completely stretched out in bed, “crying with deep moans.” Athanasia ignored the risk of catching their fever:

Immediately, worried in her innermost being and struck violently in her heart, she threw herself on the bed and embraced her own children, placing herself in-between so as to soothe their suffering. It would not have been bearable to anyone to see both her children worn down by disease, especially a mother who loved her children so much. For even though the woman was God-loving, she was nevertheless tortured by maternal love and, indeed, by the demands of nature.

Andronikos later returned and scolded his wife for departing from Sunday service to sleep. She in response didn’t violently attack her husband. She told him of her pity for their feverish children. He too loved their children greatly. But in response to their worsening fever, he didn’t lie down between them in bed. He instead went to pray for about five hours in the church of the Holy Martyr Julian.

Andronikos returned to his children at the sixth hour of the day. The sixth hour was when darkness had come over the land while Jesus was hanging on the cross.[5] Andronikos likewise encountered a time of darkness:

On his return from praying, he heard wailing and lamentation as he drew near to the house. A great crowd streamed to his house. Entering, he found both his children lying dead in one and the same bed and his wife already clearly overcome with grief. So at once he went to the private chapel in their home and fell to the ground face downwards, looking like another Job, doing and uttering the same things. There, praying feverishly to the Lord and making frequent obeisance, he thanked God, and kept saying, “The Lord gave, the Lord has taken away. As it appeared fit to the Lord, thus it has come to pass. Blessed be the name of the Lord to the ages.”

After thus strengthening himself, he tried to encourage his wife:

Going out, he attempted to plead with his wife who wanted to die with her children, and who could not bear at all to live any longer. She said, “Why should I live?” She went on crying and wailing as is natural for a mother who loves her children. {She said,} “Both my young shoots have been taken away from me. To whom shall I look from now on, with the help of what shall I extinguish the flame of my grief? I, who had beautiful children, am suddenly childless.”

Athanasia thus ignored Andronikos’s presence in her life, counted as nothing his love for her, and forgot his ability to console her. Andronikos didn’t respond angrily to her. He instead responded with kind, Christian exhortation:

Do not be so, wife. Do not lament for our children with inappropriate words like this, like one of the foolish ones who have no hope for the Resurrection. For though they are dead to us, at least they live in God by whom they were received, who wisely managed this for their and our own good. For he received our children, unblemished, before they had even tasted the evils of life, while he pledged us in marriage to pay attention to salvation of the soul, now that there is nobody to distract and attract our attention.

Christians believe in the goodness of God, a goodness expressed ultimately in the Resurrection of Christ after his death on the cross. As a Christian, Andronikos urged Athanasia to understand their children’s death as part of God’s plan “for their and our own good.”

A wife will sometimes discount the words of her husband, but follow the same advice heard from another. Athanasia didn’t find consolation in her husband’s Christian exhortation:

Athanasia remained by the tomb of her children, suffering terribly, flowing with hot tears, not accepting any consolation until sleep crept over her and made her rest involuntarily.

When Athanasia finally fell asleep, she had a dream. She dreamed that Saint Julian the Martyr was standing before her “as if reprimanding her for unyielding lament and unchecked tears.” Saint Julian said to Athanasia:

For whose sake, woman, do you wish to grieve, untimely and inconsolably? Do you not know that since you are mortal you have given birth to mortal children whom recently the kind God clearly deemed worthy to receive for salvation? Do not weep now for the children, for you will not raise them. Rather, weep for the mistakes of your life, which you will be able to wipe out easily with your tears.

Those words of Saint Julian immediately relieved Athanasia of her despondency. Yet what Saint Julian said to her was substantively identical to what her husband had said to her earlier.

Rather than getting angry at his wife’s devaluation of him, Andronikos responded sympathetically to her. Athanasia told him of her dream encounter with Saint Julian and his advice to her. Andronikos didn’t respond, “I told you so.” He listened patiently and understandingly as his wife proposed a marital separation for them:

My sweetest husband, when our beloved children were still alive, it was a desire {of mine} to renounce worldly life and desert to the peaceful one. But my love for my children in this life persuaded me to remain with them in this life. But now, since nothing impedes us, if you obey me, tonsure me and send me to a convent of women, so that through asceticism and first of all, because of God’s kindness, I may wash off the shame of my many sins.

Most husbands simply obey their wives even as their wives declare their husband’s insignificance. Andronikos, however, dared to advise his wife to give the matter time for serious thought:

Go, wife. Give serious thought on this for a week and test yourself. And if you remain committed to this, it will be the will of God.

After a week, Athanasia clearly told her husband that she wanted him to do what she had told him to do a week earlier. Andronikos then acquiesced to her instructions.

Andronikos shouldered the responsibility for arranging their finances and planning their trip and followed his wife’s lead in entering religious life. In accordance with gynocentric-paternalistic kinship structure, he gave almost all their wealth to his wife’s father. Obscuring their plans to enter religious life, he said to her father:

My lord, eager desire has gripped us to see and revere the Holy Places together. If it happens that we die during the course of these travels, with God as the judge and witness, dispose of our property according to his Will. Build a hospital and a lodging-house for monks in our home.

Andronikos planned for Athanasia and himself to die to the world and enter religious life. His shrewd plan didn’t require her father to acquiesce explicitly to his daughter’s intention.

After they had traveled together to Alexandria, Andronikos was strong enough to refuse his wife’s entreaties to go with him to Sketis. He explained to her that the Sketis monastic community in the Egyptian desert was limited to men. Respecting men’s desire to have a special place for men, he courageously refused to take her there. Andronikos told Athanasia that he would return to her shortly and arrange for her entry into a convent in accordance with her orders to him. He then traveled to Sketis alone. There he venerated the holy fathers. Andronkilos went on to consult with the “great and celebrated” monk Daniel of Sketis.[6] As an old man, Daniel apparently lived outside of Sketis, but nearby in a place called Tambok. After listening to Andronikos describe his and his wife’s plans, Daniel requested to speak with her. Andronikos brought his wife to Daniel in accordance with his instructions.

Daniel acted as a father to both Athanasia and Andronikos. Daniel guided Athanasia in advancing as a woman in her intended profession:

the old man instructed her on many things, advised her to remain faithful to her aim, and sent her forth to the Thebaid with his letters {of recommendation} to the monastery, which is named “of the Tabennesiotoi.” The remarkable Andronikos was present with her and, having tonsured her, enrolled her there among the nuns

Daniel also guided Andronikos in his new profession:

He {Andronikos} receive the holy and angelic habit from his saintly hands and remained with him for twelve years, following his footsteps, adopting every quality {of his teacher Daniel}

A great teacher can profoundly instruct both women and men. Daniel was such a teacher for Athanasia and Andronikos.

After spending twelve years as a nun, the holy Athanasia decided to travel to the Holy Land. She traveled in the garments of a monk. On a hot day about noon, she walked by a tree under which she saw another, weaker monk resting:

When they spoke to each other, the holy Athanasia recognized the blessed Andronikos. But he did not know her at all. How could he know her, as her face had been altered with suffering, and moreover she looked like an Ethiopian? When she questioned him and learned that he was going to Jerusalem, she asked to accompany him. He consented and they both set out on the journey, concentrating on keeping an irreproachable silence as far as they could.

After they had traveled together for a fairly long distance, the blessed Athanasia seemed to have doubts about whether she really was once again with her husband Andronikos. She initiated a dialog:

the most revered of women, Athanasia, asked the marvelous Andronikos, “Really, brother, are you not a disciple of Father Daniel?” He replied, “Yes.” Then she asked again, “Are you not called Andronikos?” Having agreed to this too, Athanasia again said, “May the prayers of the revered man accompany us.” To which the holy Andronikos responded, “Amen.”

Like many husbands, Andronikos tended to talk less than his wife. He didn’t pry into her personal affairs. He accepted her as a monk carrying the name Father Athanasios, ignored any apparent racial differences, and treated her as a brother.

Athanasia and Andronikos spent the rest of their lives together as brothers living in a single monastic cell. When Andronikos sought to travel alone to see Daniel and receive his blessing, Athanasia told him:

If it is pleasing to you, brother, then return after you have embraced the revered man. For as we have traveled the road to Jerusalem and back in silence, in the same way let us, with equal silence and peace, follow the road of life until we arrive in the Kingdom of Heaven, led by his hand.

When Athanasia’s children died, she regarded her husband’s presence as giving no value to her life. Now, Athanasia spoke up to implore her husband to return to living with her as a brother. Athanasia’s love for her husband grew greatly in their time of monastic companionship.

Andronikos himself may have felt some internal difficulties that motivated him to seek Daniel’s blessing. Andronikos didn’t know that Daniel knew that Father Athanasios was really Andronikos’s wife Athanasia. Daniel advised the blessing-seeking brother to remain with his “brother” and said of her, “this one is ranked with the greatest of the servants of God by the highest virtue.” After receiving these words from Daniel, Andronikos returned to Athanasia “with much speed.” From then on, he lived with her as a brother monk, “living under the same roof, eating together, and being known as completely inseparable from him.”

The life of Andronikos and Athanasia traversed different types of conjugal relationship. They experienced at least twelve years as sexually obligated spouses, then a period of sexless marriage in intensified service to neighbors, then twelve years of separate monastic life, then twelve years of sexless, brotherly monastic companionship. During their time living as sexually obligated spouses and in sexless marriage, both Andronikos and Athanasia were “loved exceptionally by almost everyone in the city {Antioch}, because of their God-pleasing way of life.” Yet when their children died, Athanasia showed little regard for her husband. She acted as if he had merely been a companion of convenience in making a good life. Only when they lived together as brothers devoted to God did she cherish his presence.

Sexless marriage commonly indicates a wife’s shriveling love for her husband. In the life of Andronikos and Athanasia, sexless marriage was a step along a path in which a wife developed much greater love for her husband.

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[1] Vita of Andronikos and Athanasia 1, from Greek trans. Alwsi (2011) p. 256. Id. provides the Greek text, an English translation, and commentary on the life. Surviving, written accounts of the life (vita) of Andronikos and Athanasia apparently have descended from a Greek manuscript of the tenth or eleventh century. That manuscript is held in the Biblioteca Franzoniana (Genoa, Italy) as Codex Urbani 36. Vita of Andronikos and Athanasia is on folios 183-193r. Alwis (2011) p. 7, p. 16, n. 2.

Subsequent quotes from the Vita of Andronikos and Athanasia are from Alwis’s translation, id. pp. 256-63. Id. p. 15 describes the translation as “literal.” I’ve made some non-substantial changes to the selected quotations to make them more easily readable and more suited to a general audience. In particular, Alwis incorporated quotes from the Bible in italics using the New King James Version English translation, which includes non-current English forms. I’ve adapted the quotations to modern, American-standard English without any distinctive marking for biblical quotations or pronominal references to God. I’ve also eliminated some awkward phrasal constructions arising from a literal translation of the Greek.

Antioch was an city on the Orontes River near Antakya in present-day Turkey. Acts 11:19-30 records the founding of a Christian church there. It was the first local Christian church to include persons who weren’t Jews. Acts 11: 26 states: “it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians’.” The Vita of Andronikos and Athanasia adds:

There are many and diverse things adorning the great city of Antioch. … it was pre-eminent and the first of all cities in the East, after the Queen City, called New Rome, I mean the city of Constantine {Constantinople}. For I will not speak of its greatness or beauty, the strength of its walls or the multitude of its people, as those contribute little or nothing to virtue.

Trans. id. p. 256. By the fourth century Antioch was wealthy and had great political importance:

By the fourth century the span of the city’s administrative and economic powers eventually extended to an area of 2500 square miles.

Id. p. 263, commentary for 1/3-4, internal note omitted.

Andronikos and Athanasia are honored as saints on October 8 in the Orthodox Christian calendar. Here’s a commemoration of them on an Orthodox calendar (alternative version, another version). The Church of Saints Andronikos and Athanasia was built in Frenaros in Cyprus in the twelfth century. Another church honoring the Saints Androikos and Athanasia was built near Rizokarpaso, Cyprus, perhaps in the ninth century.

[2] Matthew 21:12–17, Mark 11:15–19, Luke 19:45–48, John 2:13–16. On usury, Alwis (2011) pp. 264-5, commentary for 2/22.

[3] Genesis 2:18.

[4] Matthew 11:11, Luke 7:28.

[5] Matthew 27:45, Mark 15:33, Luke 23:44. Athanasia came to see her children before the Sunday morning service (Lauds) had yet finished. In early Christianity, Lauds was part of the Night Office that terminated at dawn.

[6] Alwis convincingly identified the Daniel in Vita of Andronikos and Athanasia with Daniel of Sketis. Alwis ( 2011) pp. 7-8, 273-4, commentary to 8/208. Daniel founded a monastery at Tambok and returned there after a barbarian invasion of Sketis. Id. pp. 273-4.

[image] Icon of saints Andronikos and Athanasia. Made in the sixteenth century. In the Church of Panagia Aggeloktisti in Kiti, Cyprus. Photo by Dimitris Vetsikas. Image available on pixabay under CCO Public Domain license.


Alwis, Anne P. 2011. Celibate marriages in late antique and byzantine hagiography: the lives of Saints Julian and Basilissa, Andronikos and Athanasia, and Galaktion and Episteme. London: Continuum.

cock Chauntecleer nearly devoured for lack of good Latin learning

Nun's priest from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

In Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale, the cock Chauntecleer explained to his favorite wife, the hen Pertelote:

For as surely as in Genesis,
Mulier est hominis confusio —
Madame, the meaning of this Latin is,
“Woman is man’s joy and all his bliss.”

{ For al so siker as In principio,
Mulier est hominis confusio —
Madame, the sentence of this Latyn is,
“Womman is mannes joye and al his blis.” } [1]

Chauntecleer translated the Latin incorrectly. “Mulier est hominis confusio” actually means “woman is man’s troubling.” Moreover, Pertelote suggests in Old French “one who confuses someone’s lot or fate.”[2] Chauntecleer lacked respect and understanding of his wife and of the extent to which she could ruin his life. If he had studied carefully medieval Latin literature, particularly the Mirror of Fools {Speculum Stultorum}, he would have known better.

Chauntecleer allowed his wife Pertelote to manipulate him into disbelieving his ominous dream. Chauntecleer dreamed that while he was roaming in the yard, a beast tried to seize him and kill him. He fearfully told his dream to his wife. She in turned shamed and belittled him:

“Shame!” said she, “pathetic are you, coward!
Alas,” said she, “for, by that God above,
Now you have lost my heart and all my love!
I cannot love a coward, by my faith!
For certainly, whatever any woman says,
We all desire, if it might be,
To have husbands hardy, wise, and generous,
And discrete — and no miser, nor no fool,
Nor him who is afraid of every weapon,
Nor any boaster, by that God above!
How dare you say, for shame, unto your love
That anything might make you afraid?
Have you not man’s heart, and have a beard?
Alas! And can you be frightened of dreams?

{ “Avoy!” quod she, “fy on yow, hertelees!
Allas,” quod she, “for, by that God above,
Now han ye lost myn herte and al my love!
I kan nat love a coward, by my feith!
For certes, what so any womman seith,
We alle desiren, if it myghte bee,
To han housbondes hardy, wise, and free,
And secree — and no nygard, ne no fool,
Ne hym that is agast of every tool,
Ne noon avauntour, by that God above!
How dorste ye seyn, for shame, unto youre love
That any thyng myghte make yow aferd?
Have ye no mannes herte, and han a berd?
Allas! And konne ye been agast of swevenys? } [3]

Given that serious violence is many times more prevalent against men than against women, men have good reason to be relatively fearful. Women should recognize the reasonableness of men being afraid.[4] Pertelote, however, dismissed Chauntecleer’s fearful dream as mere foolishness. She advised him to take laxatives. That was crappy advice.[5]

While Chauntecleer rejected his wife’s advice to take laxatives, the labor of finding food for his wives and sexually servicing them distracted him from taking appropriate action in response to his dream. Early in the morning, he flew down onto the ground and starting searching for seeds. Whenever he found some, he called to his wives to come and feed. He also engaged in strenuous erection labor. In fact, the cock Chauntecleer had sex with his wife Pertelote twenty times that morning before six in the morning. Given that he had six more wives to satisfy sexually, you can be sure that was one tired cock by the end of the day.[6] While he was busy with a husband’s double burden of duties, a fox was stalking him. That was exactly the sort of danger that Chauntecleer’s dream had forebode.

While he caught sight of the fox just in time, Chauntecleer didn’t know the medieval Latin poem that would have provided him with life-saving guidance. The fox had previously eaten Chauntecleer’s father and mother. He sought through flattery to gain an opportunity to grab Chauntecleer by the throat. With a story summary, the fox praised the craftiness of Chauntecleer’s father:

I have well read in “Sir Burnel the Ass,”
Among his verses, how there was a cock,
Because a priest’s son gave him a knock
Upon his leg while he was young and foolish,
He made him lose his land.
But certainly, there is no comparison
Between the wisdom and discretion
Of your father and of his craftiness.

{ I have wel rad in “Daun Burnel the Asse,”
Among his vers, how that ther was a cok,
For that a preestes sone yaf hym a knok
Upon his leg whil he was yong and nyce,
He made hym for to lese his benefice.
But certeyn, ther nys no comparisoun
Bitwixe the wisedom and discrecioun
Of youre fader and of his subtiltee. }

“Sir Burnel the Ass” refers to the twelfth-century Latin poem Mirror of Fools {Speculum stultorum}. That poem concerns the foolish donkey Burnel. If Chauntecleer had studied that poem, he would have gained precious insights into lessening the danger of foxes and thriving within the constraints of marriage.

The Mirror of Fools contains a vitally important story about a cock and his priest-owner. The priest had a wife, a son, and a wealthy homestead. One day the son Gundulf was guarding their granary when the hen Coppa with her chicks attempted to enter to peck some grain. Gundulf angrily chased them away with a whip, whipping so hard that he broke one chick’s leg. That chick eventually grew into a cock on the estate that Gundulf then controlled in his father’s place. The cock never forget the injury that Gundulf had committed against him.

The cock finally found an opportunity for revenge against Gundulf. To be installed fully in his father’s estate, Gundulf had to be ordained as a priest. The day of the ordination was set. Family and friends came together the day before for a magnificent feast. After much food and wine, the household went to sleep. Gundulf needed to get up at dawn of the next day to travel to town to be ordained. As always, the household counted on the cock’s crow to wake them at dawn. The cock, knowing the occasion, planned to keep silent and have Gundulf miss his ordination.

Keeping silent was no easy task. The cock himself struggled mightily:

Enheartened indeed so greatly, he
Could hardly keep his lips from shouting praise.
And what by silence he was eager to delay,
He almost hastened by his shouting out.
A voice muffled by grief cries out with joy;
Joy fosters crowing; grief bids one be quiet.
Between the two he stayed, consenting not, both
overcome and overcame, his voice was still.

{ Tanta quidem super his fuit exultatio cordis,
Ora quod a laude vix cohibere potest.
Quodque praeoptabat multum differe tacendo
Vocibus explosis accelerare parat.
Quam dolor excludit immittunt gaudia vocem,
Haec sua plectra monent, hic reticere jubet.
Inter utrumque manens neutri consentit, utroque
Vincitur, et vincit, voce tacente tamen. } [7]

While the cock was manfully maintaining silence, his wife chided him for his performance:

His hen, long wondering why the cock was still
And why he failed to carry out his task,
Drew near her mate and whispered in his ear
That both the time and hour had now passed.

{ Admiransque diu gallina silentia galli
Et quod ab officio cederet ipse suo,
Leniter accendens sponso suggessit in aure
Quod jam transissent tempus et hora simul }

In response to this abusive domestic behavior, the cock prudently didn’t call the police to make a claim of domestic violence:

He thus replied: “Don’t bother me, shut up!
You’ll always be a fool; away you fool!
Oh, woe to him that’s wedded to a fool!
His bed will never be absent from grief.”

{ Qui respondit ita, “Noli vexare, quiesce!
Semper eris stulta; stulta, recede, precor!
Vae cui stulta comes sociali foedere nupsit!
Non erit illius absque dolore torus.”

His wife nonetheless persisted:

Not less, but even more, she begged her spouse
To herald forth the stages of the night.
But he, opposing, tried to keep her still,
And now he begged and then he threatened her.
She swore, however, that unless he crowed
She’d sing and shake the rafters of the house.
And tired of waiting, from her throat she poured
A raucous cry, the best that she could do.

{ Nec minus illa tamen nimis importuna marito
Institit, ut noctis tempora certa notet.
Ille sed e contra tentans cohibere loquacem
Porrigit inde preces, intonat inde minas.
Illa tamen jurat, nisi tanta silentia solvat
Ille, quod illa canet concutietque domum;
Impatiensque morae raucas de gutture voces
Promit quaque potest voce sonare sonat. }

A hen screeching was no substitute for a cock crowing:

A certain one on hearing her replied:
“Stop, hen, I pray, for nothing do you gain.
Although a chicken cackle in the night,
No sooner will she make the sun arise.”

{ Qua tamen audita quidam respondit eidem,
“Desine, Coppa, precor, nam nihil est quod agis.
Quamvis gallina nocturno tempore cantet,
Non ideo citius lux oriunda venit.” }

Only a cock crowing makes the day begin. Gundulf thus slept through the beginning of the day. He arose only when sunlight burst through every window of the house. That was too late. The ordination ceremony was over. Gundulf wouldn’t follow his father as a priest. On hearing that news, Gundulf’s family and friends wept and beat their breasts. Both his parents died shortly thereafter. Gundulf was subsequently evicted from his priest-father’s estate. He became a wretched, wandering beggar. By remaining silent and not following his wife’s advice, the cock achieved devastating revenge on the person who had wronged him.[8]

If the cock Chauntecleer had studied Speculum stultorum, he would have known to remain silent and not follow his wife’s advice. Instead, the cox attempted to sing, as the fox had urged him to do. The fox then sprang at the cock, grabbed him by the throat, and ran off to devour him in the woods. A leading scholar of Chaucer observed:

Of all the married couples in the Canterbury Tales, it is Chauntecleer and Pertelote who give us a classic illustration of the distribution of roles in a conventional marriage. [9]

That observation underscores the importance of men learning from Speculum stultorum what Chauntecleer didn’t: remain silent when advantageous to you, ignore your wife’s attempts to shame and belittle you, and exercise your own good judgment about the dangers you face.

The teller of the tale of Chauntecleer’s near-fatal mistake was a man called the Nun’s Priest, also known as Sir John. The former name highlights his subordination to a woman; the latter, his high social status relative to other men. The Nun’s Priest traveled with two other priests in the entourage of a Prioress called Madame Eglentyne. The entourage of the Prioress Madame Eglentyne also included a nun who served as the Prioress’s secretary. The Prioress, who apparently was fat, wore about her neck a golden brooch inscribed “Amor vincit omnia {Love conquers all}.” A crown on the “A” crowned this Virgilian-Ovidian reference to love.[10] The Prioress’s greatest concern was to cultivate courtly manners in speaking and eating. She also practiced sensational acts of compassion:

She was so charitable and so compassionate
She would weep, if she saw a mouse
Caught in a trap, if it were dead or bled.
She had some small hounds that she fed
With roasted meat, or milk and fine white bread.
But sorely she wept if one of them were dead,
Or if someone smote it smartly with a stick;
And all was feeling and tender heart.

{ She was so charitable and so pitous
She wolde wepe, if that she saugh a mous
Kaught in a trappe, if it were deed or bledde.
Of smale houndes hadde she that she fedde
With rosted flessh, or milk and wastel-breed.
But soore wepte she if oon of hem were deed,
Or if men smoot it with a yerde smerte;
And al was conscience and tendre herte. } [11]

In short, Madame Eglentyne was the sort of woman that would be highly respected among the global elite today. The Nun’s Priest, in contrast, was a highly learned man who rode on mere nag, “poor and lean.”[12] His subordination to the nun who served as secretary to the lavishly living Prioress shows the extent to which merit becomes meaningless under the hierarchies of gynocentrism.

Just as Chauntecleer did with respect to his wife Pertelote, men like the Nun’s Priest allow high-ranking women to shame and silence them. In his tale, the Nun’s Priest at one point said:

Women’s counsels are very often fatal;
Woman’s counsel brought us first to woe
And made Adam to go from Paradise,
Where he was very merry and well at ease.
But because I know not to whom it might displease,
If I would blame counsel of women,
Pass over, for I said it as a joke.
Read authors, where they treat of such matter,
And what they say of women you may hear.
These are the cock’s words, and not mine;
I can know no harm of any woman divine.

{ Wommennes conseils been ful ofte colde;
Wommannes conseil broghte us first to wo
And made Adam fro Paradys to go,
Ther as he was ful myrie and wel at ese.
But for I noot to whom it myght displese,
If I conseil of wommen wolde blame,
Passe over, for I seyde it in my game.
Rede auctours, where they trete of swich mateere,
And what they seyn of wommen ye may heere.
Thise been the cokkes wordes, and nat myne;
I kan noon harm of no womman divyne. } [13]

While being poorly compensated for serving the secretary of a morally vacuous Prioress, the Nun’s Priest nonetheless apparently feared to displease her. Criticism of women in literary history has generated quarrels about women, apologies to women, and defenses of women. The Nun’s Priest might well have lost his livelihood and social standing if he had dared to present directly issues of men’s sexed protest.

The cock Chauntecleer nearly being devoured underscores the importance to men of studying medieval Latin literature. No man should consider getting married without pondering the medieval Latin masterpieces Dissuasio Valerii ad Rufinum and Lamentationes Matheoluli. All men should know of Marcolf’s courage in confronting elite malice toward men. Just as the bear Ysengrimus sought to study medieval Latin literature, so too can any man, irrespective of his personal attributes and educational background.

Medieval Latin literature isn’t just for men. Repression of discussion about injustices against men ultimately threatens to undermine civilization and cause grave harm to women as well as men. Medieval Latin literature historically played an important role in supporting freedom of speech under gynocentrism. Women writers of the Middles Ages courageously expressed concern and compassion for men. Drawing upon the rich intellectual and imaginary resources of medieval Latin literature, women today can also advocate on behalf of men.

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[1] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, ll. 3163-6, Middle English text from Benson (1987) and translation into modern English by Larry D. Benson. Lines are specified with respect to the full Canterbury Tales in the Riverside edition. Both the Middle English and modern English texts are freely available online via Benson’s outstanding website, the Geoffrey Chaucer Page. All subsequent quotes from Chaucer are from Benson’s Chaucer website. I’ve made some minor changes to the modern English translations to make them easier for general readers to understand.

Chaucer probably wrote the Nun’s Priest’s Tale in the 1390s. Here are some additional resources on the Nun’s Priest’s Tale.

[2] “Mulier est hominis confusio” comes from the Life of Secundus, the Silent Philosopher. Modern scholars have also mis-interpreted and mis-contextualized that phrase.

The name Pertelote plausibly is rooted in the French perte, which came from the Latin perdita. Pratt (1972), p. 655, cited in Benson (1987) p. 937, note to l. 2870. Hough (2013) derives Pertelote from the Middle English pert (attractive, comely) and a double diminutive. That yields an etymology “petite beauty.”

[3] Chaucer, Nun’s Priest’s Tale ll. 2908-21. Pertelote quoted Cato as an authority for disregarding dreams. Id. ll. 2940-1. Cato at least had a realistic sense of wives’ authority over their husbands. The subsequent quote describing verses from “Daun Burnel the Ass” is from id. ll. 3312-9.

[4] Under the men-abasing ideology of courtly love, men are expected to rush fearlessly to be maimed and killed in the service of women. The Nun’s Priest declared his tale to be as true as the story of Lancelot, paragon of courtly love:

This story is as true, I declare,
As is the Book of Lancelot of the Lake,
Which women hold in very great reverence.

{ This storie is also trewe, I undertake,
As is the book of Launcelot de Lake,
That wommen holde in ful greet reverence. }

Nun’s Priest’s Tale ll. 3211-3.

[5] All the herbs that Pertelote prescribed to form a laxative were wrong for the medical problem she diagnosed. Following his wife’s advice could have seriously endangered Chauntecleer’s life:

her compound {of herbs} is so powerful as to endanger even the most virile and durable digestive system. Three of the seven herbs, laurel, hellebore, and catapuce, are described in the herbals as “gnawing,” “fretting,” “scorching,” and violently caustic. The same three are to be used only under extreme conditions as a last resort and even then with great caution and accompanied by soothing agents, certainly not raw and certainly not in random dosage. … So corrosive a medication would, in fact, have hastened the departure of even the mightiest epic heroes, either human or rooster.

Kauffman (1969) p. 47.

[6] Medieval literature recognized cocks’ strong, independent sexuality. Metamorphosis of a Flamen into a Rooster {Metamorphosis flaminis in gallum} tells how a priest serving Jupiter (a flamen), under the spell of Venus, ravished sexually excited Vestal Virgins:

Now the flamen entirely possesses her heart.
Eyes invite; chastity refuses. Venus boldly
assails chastity and triumphs. Swollen, the flamen
rushes against her, and lest any of her sisters laugh at her defeat,
he lavishly shows his favors to them all.
And soon he cannot dismiss without sin any from
so great a crowd (thus do the gifts of Venus overflow).

{… iam totus habet praecordia flamen.
invitant oculi, renuit pudor. ausa pudorem
aggreditur vincitque Venus. tumefactus in illam
fertur et, oppressam ne rideat ulla sororum,
prodigus in cunctas promit sua munera flamen.
mox quoque de tanta nullam sine crimine turba
dimisisse potest (Veneris sic dona redundant). }

Latin text and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Gervais (forthcoming). Though known for his own strong, independent sexuality, Jupiter nonetheless punished the flamen and Vestal Virgins by transforming them into a rooster and hens, respectively.

Metamorphosis flaminis in gallum survives in only one manuscript, Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Patetta.314. There it’s a marginal inscription to a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. See image 85. This manuscript was written in the late fourteenth to early fifteenth centuries. Since the priest is described as having a mitre, and priests didn’t have mitres before the eleventh century, the poem apparently dates no earlier than the eleventh century. Id. p. 9.

[7] Nigellus Wireker, Mirror of Fools {Speculum stultorum} 1343-50, Latin text from Mozley & Raymo (1960) p. 61, English translation from Regenos (1959) p. 79, with my minor adaptation of the later. Regenos translated the above passage as:

So pleased indeed was he by this that he
Could hardly keep his lips from shouting praise.
And what by silence he was eager to delay
He almost hastened by his shouting out.
A voice made still by grief cries out with joy;
Joy fosters lyrics; grief bids one be still.
Betwixt the twain he stayed, nor did he yield;
By neither overcome, his voice was still.

Subsequent quotes from Speculum stultorum are (cited by line number; English translation similarly from id. p. 61): 1361-4 (His hen long wondering…); 1365-8 (He thus replied…); 1369-76 (Not less, but even more…); 1377-80 (A certain one on hearing…).

[8] While being able to remain silent and reject the advice of one’s wife are vitally important capabilities for married men, speaking of such capabilities is dangerous under gynocentric. Apparently seeking favor in a letter to William of Longchamp, chancellor England and Bishop of Ely, Nigellus Wireker omitted mention of marital relations in interpreting the story of the cock:

The story that comes next, concerning the priest’s son and the little chicken which later retaliated because of his broken leg, requires no explanation, for its meaning is clear. Indeed it is a very normal trait of character for those who are injured or offended in childhood, even though the wrong be slight, to hold in their minds thoughts of revenge even to an advanced old age, nor do they ever forget a wrong done to them until it has been fully satisfied by punishment.

Nigellus, Letter to William, from Latin trans. Regenos (1959) pp. 27-8. On Nigellus interpretation of his Speculum stultorum for William, Mann (2007).

Showing great intellectual courage, a scholar writing in 1970 expressed the clear meaning to husbands of the story of the cock:

Nigel’s rooster succeeded because he did not listen to his wife. … , they {the allusions to Speculum stultorum in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale} also indicate some of the morality that we good men might take.

Schrader (1970) pp. 289-90. Mann (1975) shows no awareness of Schrader’s insight, nor of the serious meaning for husbands of the story of the cock in Speculum stultorum.

[9] Mann (2002) p. 145.

[10] The Prioress “was nat undergrowe {was not undergrown}.” Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, General Prologue 156. In its context, that phrases seems to me to mean most plausibly that she was fat. Scholars working under the gynocentric imperative of not offending women have interpreted that phrase to mean that she was “tall and slender.” See Wu (2014) pp. 2-3.

The Prioress’s golden brooch is described in General Prologue 160-2. The phrase “omnia vincit Amor: et nos cedamus Amori {“love conquers all: let us too yield to love}” occurs in Virgil, Eclogues X.69. The Eclogues were well-known in late medieval England. McGowan (2003) p. 199. The power of the god of Love is a central Ovidian theme. Scholars working under the gynocentric imperative of not offending women have interpreted the Prioress’s broach to be expressing her Christian piety. Id.

[11] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, General Prologue 143-50. The Prioress’s entourage of her nun-secretary and three priests is described in ll. 163-4.  The Prioress fed her dogs much better food than most persons in medieval England had:

Wastel-bread {which the Prioress fed to her dogs}, the second {ranking bread} in quality, was a fine wheat bread, probably white, and far superior to the third and fourth grade breads. We cannot imagine that it was found on any tables other than those of the well-to-do. The roast meat lavished upon the ‘smale houndes’ would be judged an extravagance by even the most lenient of fourteenth-century standards.

Broes (1963) p. 160, quoting Muriel Bowden, On the Sources of the Nonne Prestes Tale, Radcliffe College Monographs, No. 10, Boston, 1898, p. 59.

[12] The Nun’s Priest’s horse is described in the Nun’s Priest’s Prologue, ll. 2812-3.

[13] Nun’s Priest’s Tale ll. 3256-66. On the range of meanings of the line “I kan noon harm of no womman divyne,” Besserman (1977). The Nun’s Priest didn’t lack masculine strength:

“Sir Nun’s Priest,” our Host said straightway,
“Blessed be your buttocks, and every testicle!
This was a merry tale of Chanticleer.
But by my oath, if you were a layman,
You would be an excellent copulator of hens.
For if you have as much desire as you have strength,
You would have need of hens, as I think,
Yes, more than seven times seventeen.
See, what muscles this gentle priest has,
So big a neck, and such a large chest!

{ “Sire Nonnes Preest,” oure Hooste seide anoon,
“I-blessed be thy breche, and every stoon!
This was a murie tale of Chauntecleer.
But by my trouthe, if thou were seculer,
Thou woldest ben a trede-foul aright.
For if thou have corage as thou hast myght,
Thee were nede of hennes, as I wene,
Ya, moo than seven tymes seventene.
See, whiche braunes hath this gentil preest,
So gret a nekke, and swich a large breest! }

Nun’s Priest’s Epilogue ll. 3447-56. The Nun’s Priest, however, apparently wasn’t strong enough to challenge directly his women overlords. Perhaps he was too nice: “This sweet priest, this goodly man sir John.” Nun’s Priest’s Prologue l. 2820.  The Nun’s Priest’s Tale merely contains a subtle current of satire against the Prioress. Broes (1963).

With worn-out, anachronistic, delusional claims about anti-feminism, misogyny, and men, Mann suggests that the minds of some academics cannot be reconstructed, socially or medicinally. Consider:

The same interpretative facility with which the cock so successfully fended off the medicinal dose {of deadly laxatives} is here set to work by the teller of the tale to conjure up a male alibi out of the ready store of antifeminist clichés, with a sublime indifference to the facts of the case. … the accusation-cum-apology is revealed as a pure smokescreen. Like all the rhetorical paraphernalia superimposed on the action in this tale, it functions as a verbal strategy behind which men can disguise from themselves the realities of their own lives.

Mann (2002) pp. 150-1.

[image] The Nun’s priest, illumination (with color enhancement) of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale in the Ellesmere manuscript of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Manuscript created c. 1400-1410. From manuscript EL 26 C9 (Ellesmere manuscript), f. 179r, held in the Huntington Library, in San Marino, California. Here’s the version on Wikimedia Commons.


Benson, Larry D., ed. 1987. Geoffrey Chaucer. The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd. ed. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Besserman, Lawrence L. 1977. “Chaucerian Wordplay: The Nun’s Priest and His “Womman Divyne.” The Chaucer Review. 12 (1): 68-73.

Broes, Arthur T. 1963. “Chaucer’s Disgruntled Cleric: The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” Proceedings of the Modern Language Association (PMLA). 78 (3): 156-162.

Gervais, Kyle. Forthcoming. “No cock-up: Sophisticated classical allusion in the medieval pseudo-Ovidian Metamorphosis flaminis in gallum.” Classical Philology.

Hough, Carole. 2013. “Names in Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” Pp. 215-229 in Richard Dance and Laura Wright, eds. The Use and Development of Middle English: Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference on Middle English, Cambridge 2008. Studies in English medieval language and literature 38. Peter Lang: Frankfurt, Germany.

Kauffman, Corinne E. 1969. “Dame Pertelote’s Parlous Parle.” The Chaucer Review. 4 (1): 41-48.

Mann, Jill. 1975. “The Speculum stultorum and the Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” The Chaucer Review. 9 (3): 262-282.

Mann, Jill. 2002. Feminizing Chaucer. Cambridge, England: D.S. Brewer.

Mann, Jill. 2007. “Does an Author Understand his Own Text? Nigel of Longchamp and the Speculum stultorum.” The Journal of Medieval Latin. 17: 1-37.

McGowan, Joseph P. 2003. “Chaucer’s Prioress: Et Nos Cedamus Amori.” The Chaucer Review. 38 (2): 199-202.

Mozley, John H., and Robert R. Raymo, ed. 1960. Nigellus Wireker. Speculum stultorum. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pratt, Robert A. 1972. “Three Old French Sources of the Nonnes Preestes Tale (Part II).” Speculum. 47 (4): 646-668.

Regenos, Graydon W.. 1959. Nigellus Wireker. The book of Daun Burnel the ass: Nigellus Wireker’s Speculum stultorum. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Schrader, Richard J. 1970. “Chauntecleer, the Mermaid, and Daun Burnel.” The Chaucer Review. 4 (4): 284-290.

Wu, Hsiang-mei. 2014. “Measuring the Prioress’s Forehead: Beauty and Piety.” Intergrams 14.2.

Dedda suborned murder of her husband Boldran in medieval Flanders

ladies dueling

Around the world in 2010, about fifteen times more men than women were prisoners. That’s a much greater gender imbalance than among tech-industry CEO’s, political leaders, tenured professors, and other categories of elite persons. Part of the explanation for the lack of gender parity in prisoners is that women’s criminal acts tend to be less salient than men’s. When women induce men to commit criminal acts, criminal justice typically recognizes only men’s culpability. The great medieval historian Galbert of Bruges, in contrast, forthrightly recognized that Dedda suborned the murder of her husband Boldran in eleventh-century Flanders.

Dedda sought to have her husband murdered because she wanted to marry Erembald. Dedda’s husband Boldran was castellan of Bruges. Erembald was a vassal and knight under Boldran. Galbert recounted:

Erembald had often debauched himself in adultery with the wife of his lord the castellan. And that adulteress, so they say, had promised her adulterer the viscountship {her husband’s title} if her husband were, by chance, to die soon. For this reason the adulterer was always plotting the death of his lord.

{ Erembaldus adulterio abutebatur saepe uxore domini sui castellani. Illa quoque adultera, sicut aiunt, promiserat adultero suo vicecomitatum si forte vir ejus cito moreretur. Unde adulter domino suo semper machinabatur mortem. } [1]

In describing Erembald as debauching Boldran’s wife, Galbert echoed the long, oppressive history of contempt for men’s sexuality. Erembald no more debauched Boldran’s wife than she debauched him. An Old French account of the murder described Dedda as “an evil and dishonest ribald … who encouraged him in this lechery.”[2] Not surprisingly, Dedda consented enthusiastically to having sex with Erembald and sought to marry him.

With keen social insight, Galbert sarcastically muted Dedda’s criminal culpability. He described her criminal act of suborning murder through an abstract hypothetical: “if her husband were, by chance, to die soon.” Erembald knew what Dedda was actually saying. Readers similarly should recognize the actual significance of her words. Typical gynocentric behavior of providing excuses for women exacerbates gender inequality among prisoners. Justice demands fair recognition of culpability: Dedda suborned the murder of her husband Boldran.

The murder of Boldran highlights additional patterns of gender oppression. According to Galbert:

The men of Flanders were ordered to go on a certain expedition, and they traveled by horses and ships all the way to the place of danger where the land was being invaded in order to defend the fatherland. Night came while the ships were gliding along the River Scheldt, and the castellan Boldran and his knight Erembald, in whom he trusted more than anyone else, and many others, dressed in full mail coats and prepared for battle, dropped anchor in the middle of the river in order to wait for daylight. … When the silence of the night had come, while the castellan was standing urinating at the edge of the ship, Erembald ran up from behind and cast down his lord, flung far from the ship, into the depths of the watery torrent. This was done while the others were sleeping, and no one other than the adulterer knew what had become of the castellan, who had been drowned without children.

{ Imperata fuit quaedam expeditio Flandrensibus, et itum est equis et navibus pro defensione patriae usque ad locum periculi et insultus terrae. Cum vero navibus prolaberent Scaldim fluvium, Boldrannus castellanus et Erembaldus miles suus, cui prae ceteris confidebat, ceterique plures omnes loricas induti et ad pugnam praeparati, venit nox et fixerant anchoram in medio amne ut diem expectarent. … Facto quoque noctis silentio, dum castellanus ad mingendum in ora stetisset navis, ille Erembaldus retro accurrens, longe a navi projectum dominum in profundum torrentis aquosi praecipitavit. Hoc vero dormientibus ceteris factum est et nemo praeter adulterum illum sciebat quo devinisset castellanus ille, qui absque liberis submersus erat. }

Societies throughout history have used men as instruments for fighting enemies. Galbert ironically described the men “ordered” to engage in violent action as defending the “fatherland.” The “fatherland” is a gendered term used to obscure reality. Gynocentric society orders men to fight and die to protect women. They live in what is more appropriately called the motherland.[3]

Galbert apparently was sensitive to the disposable status of men. Boldran committed his life and considerable expense (a full mail coat) to defending the motherland. Yet Boldran and the men with him didn’t even have the benefit of chamber pots for conveniently urinating. As Boldran urinating sent his watery torrent into the watery torrent of the river, the man’s personal, human being is reduced to the anonymous, inhuman natural world. Another account of murdering Boldran describes Erembald stabbing Baldran with a sword and throwing him off a bridge into a river.[4] Galbert may have invented the detail of Boldran being pushed off the ship from behind while urinating into the river. Galbert’s version makes more shameful Erembald’s killing of Boldran at the behest of Dedda. It also more subtly underscores the disposability of men.[5]

Men gain social status through their subservience to women. Concerning Erembald’s subservience to Dedda, Galbert reported:

When Erembald returned {after killing Boldran}, therefore, he married his adulteress and bought the viscountship with the means provided by his lord’s {Boldran’s} labors.

{ Reversus ergo Erembaldus, adulteram suam duxit uxorem et facultatibus opum domini sui emit vicecomitatum. }

A different source recorded:

the wife of this Holdran {Boldran} married her adulterous lover, the betrayer of her husband, from which fact it became obvious that Erembald committed such a great sin on the unfaithful wife’s advice.

{ Uxor vero Holdranni adulterum suum, mariti proditorem, accepit in maritum, unde innotuit, quod consilio perfidae coniugis Eremboldus tam grande piaculum subiit. } [6]

Erembald, who had been Boldran’s vassal, married Boldran’s wife Dedda after Boldran died. That would have been publicly known and documented. As Boldran’s former vassal, Erembald would have been socially subordinate to Dedda. He almost surely would not have killed her husband without her advice and encouragement. To impress her lady friends with her rule over her new husband, Dedda may well have told them that she suborned her former husband’s murder. She plausibly also told them how Erembald carried out that murder, as she heard from him. The lesson of this sensational story would have resonated with men’s life experiences: do whatever women desire, no matter how despicable, and you will advance in the gynocentric world.

The vastly disproportionate imprisonment of men shows the reality of gender power and the fundamental injustice of gynocentrism. Women’s criminal behavior is commonly overlooked or excused, while men as a gender are criminalized. In his account of the murder of Boldran in eleventh-century Flanders, Galbert of Bruges courageously identified Boldran’s wife Dedda as having suborned her husband’s murder. Women commonly and highly effectively incite men to violence. Recognizing women’s culpability, as Galbert did, would be an important step toward less gender disparity in criminal punishment. Criminal justice should serve justice, not gynocentric interests.

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[1] Galbert of Bruges, De multro, traditione et occisione gloriosi Karoli comitis Flandriarum {The murder, betrayal, and slaughter of the glorious Charles, Count of Flanders} 71, Latin from Rider (1994) p. 125, ll. 11-15, English trans. from Rider (2013) p. 124. Subsequent quotes from De multro are similarly from sec. 71, Latin from Rider (1994) p. 125, and English from Rider (2013) pp. 124-5.

Earlier editions of the Latin text of De multro are freely available online. See Pirenne (1891) and Köpke (1856a).

[2] The Old French: “meschante et deshoneste rybaulde … laquelle l’entretenoit en ces luxures.” From the Register of Roland and Antoine de Baenst (commonly called the de Baenst manuscript) 37r, preserved in Bruges, Stedelijke Openbare Bibiliotheek, 442, s. 15. It  The relevant Old French text is printed in Rider (1994) p. 173. The quoted text is from Rider’s English translation given in Cooper & Edsall (2009) p.  227, n. 46.

The de Baenst manuscript is the earliest surviving evidence of the existence of Galbert’s De multro. The de Baenst family was one of the leading families in Flanders. The de Baenst manuscript, a de Baenst family register, dates from the end of the fifteenth century. It summarizes “Galbert’s account of the servile and adulterous origins and ultimate fate of the Erembalds.” Rider (2013) p. xix. The de Baenst manuscript indicates the public importance of knowing that Dedda suborned the murder of her husband Boldran.

De multro 71 gives the name of Boldran’s wife as “Dedda or Duva.” Demyttenaere referred to Dedda as Dove:

Was it not natural for a Christian writer to interpret the machinations of Dove, whose name, moreover, was homophonous with Eve’s (Duva, Eva), within the context of original sin and the fall of mankind, and to see in Dove a new Eve?

Demyttenaere (2009) p. 149. That’s straining for an inapt allegory. Most women aren’t like Dedda. Galbert presented Dedda’s criminal culpability with historically specificity and realism.

[3] In the spirit of her praise of the action of Walter of Vladslo’s wife in cuckolding him, Partner observed of the “countess of Holland, a major player in the high-stakes game of replacing the dead count of Flanders”:

We should note that the countess’s aggressive maneuvering for power, using males as placeholders and pawns, deploying the seduction of promises, favors, gifts, is quite similar to Dedda’s strategy.

Partner (2009) pp. 124, 125. Animalizing men as “males” and using men as placeholders and pawns is prevalent in gynocentric society.

[4] “Passio Karoli comitis auctore anonymo,” printed in Köpke (1856b). Häcker (2009) p. 127, n. 2, describes this account as a “contemporary source.” Ross dated it to “the late thirteenth century or early fourteenth century.” Ross (1960) p. 73, n. 47. The murder of Boldran can be convincingly dated to about 1055. Rider (2001) p. 82.

[5] Rider didn’t recognize Galbert’s literary seriousness in his representation of this incident. Rider instead offered a trivializing conjecture:

this part of the story, at least, was made up and seems to have been shaped at the rumor mill to titillate a popular palate.

Rider (2001) pp. 25-1, n. 61. Cooper & Edsall similarly perceived the murder of Boldran as recalling “the comic plots of fabliaux.” Cooper & Edsall (2009) p. 227. The devaluation of men’s lives isn’t comic. Academics today are indoctrinated in misandristic ideology. Galbert’s concern for men, like medieval women writers’ concern for men, is difficult for academics today to comprehend. Cf. Häcker (2009) p. 141.

Murray argued that Galbert’s account of the murder of Boldran “has all the hallmarks of a calumny repeated to discredit the descendants of Erembald after their treachery toward Charles.” It’s part of Galbert’s depiction of Bertulf’s kin “as agents of the Devil: deceivers, betrayers, and destroyers of God’s creation.”  Murray (2009) pp. 194, 199. Galbert’s account of Boldran’s murder, however, is more complex than that. Why did Galbert even bring Dedda into the story of Boldran’s murder? Why not claim that Erembald threatened and forced Dedda into marrying him in accordance with the typical pattern of blaming women’s bad acts on men? Galbert apparently wanted to document Dedda’s culpability in the murder of Boldran.

[6] “Passio Karoli comitis auctore anonymo,” Latin from (1856b) p. 620, English trans. Häcker (2009) p. 137.

[image] Ladies dueling. Painting (oil on canvas) by Jusepe de Ribera, 1636. Held in Museo del Prado (Madrid), accession # P001124. Thanks to the Yorck Project and Wikimedia Commons.


Cooper, Lisa H. and Mary Agnes Edsall. 2009. “History as Fabliau and Fabliau as History: The Murder of Charles the Good and Du provost a l’aumuche.” Ch. 10 (pp. 215-239) in Rider and Murray (2009).

Demyttenaere, Bert. 2009. “The Tears of Fromold: The Murder of Charles the Good, Homoeroticism, and the Ruin of the Erembalds.” Ch. 7 (pp. 145-79) in Rider and Murray (2009).

Häcker, Martina. 2009. “The Language of Misogyny in Galbert of Bruges’s Account of the Murder of Charles the Good.” Ch. 6 (pp. 126-144) in Rider and Murray (2009).

Köpke, Rudolf, ed. 1856a. “Passio Karoli comitis auctore Galberto.” Pp. 561-619 in Monumenta Germaniae Historica 12. Stuttgart: Hiersemann.

Köpke, Rudolf, ed. 1856b. “Passio Karoli comitis auctore anonymo.” Pp. 619-23 in Monumenta Germaniae Historica 12. Stuttgart: Hiersemann.

Murray, Alan V. 2009. “The Devil in Flanders: Galbert of Bruges and the Eschatology of Political Crisis.” Ch. 8 (pp. 183-199) in Rider and Murray (2009).

Partner, Nancy. 2009, “Galbert’s Hidden Women: Social Presence and Narrative Concealment.” Ch. 5 (pp. 109-125) in Rider and Murray (2009).

Pirenne, Henri, ed. 1891. Galbert of Bruges. Histoire de meurtre de Charles le Bon Comte de Flandre (1127 – 1128); suivie de poésies latines contemporaines = Passio Karoli comitis Flandriae. Paris: Picard.

Rider, Jeff, ed. 1994. Galbert of Bruges. De multro, traditione, et occisione gloriosi Karoli comitis Flandriarum. Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Mediaevalis (CC CM) 131. Turnhout: Brepols.

Rider, Jeff. 2001. God’s scribe: the historiographical art of Galbert of Bruges. Washington: Catholic University of America Press.

Rider, Jeff, and Alan V. Murray, eds. 2009. Galbert of Bruges and the Historiography of Medieval Flanders. Washington: Catholic University of America Press.

Rider, Jeff, trans. 2013. Galbert of Bruges. The murder, betrayal, and slaughter of the glorious Charles, Count of Flanders {De multro, traditione et occisione gloriosi Karoli comitis Flandriarum}. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Ross, James Bruce, trans. 1960. Galbert of Bruges. The murder of Charles the Good, count of Flanders, by Galbert of Bruges. Translated with introduction and notes. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mirror of Fools: the eminent doctor Galen on short tails and penises

medieval speculum

In the brilliant medieval Latin poem Mirror of Fools, a man wanting a longer penis is figured as the donkey Burnel seeking a longer tail. The Mirror of Fools connects Maximian’s foolish devaluation of his penis (particularly Maximian’s Elegy 5) to medieval critique of demonizing men’s sexuality (particularly the twelfth-century Latin poem The Flea). For men as well as donkeys, lengthening of the penis occurs naturally with sexual arousal. At the same time, men’s sexual shortcomings are inseparable from social disparagement of men’s sexuality. The medieval mirror of knowledge encompassed knowledge of the whole world. Fools look into a mirror and see only themselves.

The tale of Burnel the donkey seeking a longer tail is set with subtle double-talk. Its opening fairy-tale simplicity of “once upon a time” immediately leads to undercutting sophistication:

It happened once an ass with ears immense
desired to have a tail in size to match.
Since with his head his tail could not compare,
he deeply groaned about its brevity.
‘Twas not because it failed to suit his needs;
instead, because it was so very short.
The doctors he consulted, with the thought
that they might work what nature could not do.

{ Auribus immensis quondam donatus asellus
institit ut caudam posset habere parem.
Cauda suo capiti quia se conferre nequibat,
altius ingemuit de brevitate sua.
Non quia longa satis non esset ad utilitatem;
ante tamen quam sic apocopata foret.
Consuluit medicos, quia quod natura nequibat
artis ab officio posse putabat eos. } [1]

With his big ears, big head, and anxiety about his tail’s shortness, Burnel alludes to the celibate medieval scholar dedicating his life to the wisdom of Athena. His tail doesn’t fail to suit his needs, for he has no need of it.[2] Yet he laments his organ’s perpetual shortness. Nature, understood to encompass a beautiful other, could make his tail grow longer. The foolish, narrow-minded scholar doesn’t understand. He consults doctors.

Galen, the medieval world’s most admired medical authority, provided uncharacteristic medical advice. The historical, boastful Galen championed true medical knowledge and skill. The Galen of the Mirror of Fools advised non-intervention and depreciated medical skill:

You must not scorn the gifts of nature, but
regard among your riches what she gives.
Believe me, that old tail upon your rump
is better than a brand-new tail would be.
Yet this annoys — you want a better tail;
you’ll get a worse one through the surgeon’s skills.
A new tail could not easily be grown,
not even if the old could be removed.

{ Quod natura dedit non sit tibi vile, sed illud
inter divitias amplius esse puta.
Crede mihi, vetus est tibi cauda salubrior ista
natibus innata quam foret illa nova.
Nec placet ista tamen, sed habere cupis meliorem;
artibus et curis insita pejor erit.
Sed neque de facili posset nova cauda creari,
qaumvis deposita cauda vetusta foret. }

According to this Galen, human knowledge is highly fallible. God alone is the only true doctor:

Physicians often fail and are deceived,
and things that harm are, vice versa, good.
Though he hold strictly to what art requires,
still things will not turn out as he may wish.
For God alone is healer of the sick;
it’s ours to wish, but his the power to do.
Without his help and guidance we are nought,
but he can do all things without our help.
Herbs, medicines, and sundry drugs we use,
but he by word alone makes all things well.
The people call us doctors, just in name;
but God is doctor both in name and deed.
Be sure to keep the tail he gave to you,
and seek not, fool, for anything besides.

{ Saepe quidem medici fallunt, falluntur et ipsi,
et vice conversa quae nocuere iuvant.
Esto, quod ars mandat, faciat, nec abinde recedat,
non tamen evenient quae cupis ipse tibi.
Solus enim Deus est morbis medicina salutis;
nos tantum velle possumus, ipse potest.
Nos nihil absque suo vel eo nos praeveniente
possumus; ipse sibi sufficit absque meo.
Nos herbis variis, pigmentis et speciebus
utimur; hic verbo singula sana facit.
Dicimur a populo medici, sed nomine solo;
sed Deus est medicus nomine reque simul.
Quam dedit ille tibi caudam retinere memento,
stulte, nec ulterius ulteriora petas. }

Using a direct quotation from Maximian’s elegy on his sexual impotence, Galen recognized that some men engage in idle sexual boasting while failing to perform:

All men can talk, but if you give good heed,
not everyone can thus join words to deeds.

What nature does not grant no one can do.

{ Dicere quisque potest, sed dictis jungere facta,
si bene perpendas, non ita quisque potest.

Quod natura negat reddere nemo potest. } [3]

Most men cannot perform like sexual superheroes. Yet most healthy, non-elderly men possess wonderful sexuality capabilities. A man with a short penis doesn’t need the learned skill of a doctor. As medical Latin lyrics observed, such a man needs only a caressing touch.

Galen then told Burnel a pseudo-realistic beast fable about two female cows. When Galen was a child, his father had on his farm two sister cows — Brownie, a black-haired cow, and Two-Horns, an auburn-haired cow.[4] One winter night, both cows lay down in a muddy pasture to sleep. The next morning they found their tails frozen to the ground. They couldn’t get up to journey home.

Two-Horns argued for cutting off their tails to get free and go home. She was worried about her calf, not yet five days old, back at home. She reasoned:

Why have a tail, or what’s it ever brought me?
What good or honor does a tail bestow?
Behold, I’m kept a captive by it! Why?
No honor but a burden is my tail.
Suppose with tail intact I could escape,
a muddy tail will ever weigh me down.
A dangling tail’s a burden and holds mud;
what can I see it bringing me but woe?

{ Quid mea cauda mihi vel quid sibi contulit unquam?
Quis fructus vel quae gloria cauda mihi?
En per eam teneor tanquam captiva, quid ergo?
Non honor est, sed onus, haec mea cauda mihi.
Esto quod hinc possem cauda remanente redire,
semper erunt oneri cauda lutumque mihi.
Attrahit ipsa lutum pendens oneratque ferentem;
quid tribuat video nil nisi triste mihi? }

Many unhappy women reason similarly about their boyfriends or husbands. Two-Horns took a knife and cut off her tail. She then gave the blade to Brownie. She urged her to cut herself free. A woman without a man strives to have her sisters be like her.

Brownie refused to follow the devilish advice of her sister Two-Horns. Brownie exclaimed:

No way that I should do what you advise!
When things go wrong there’s need for self-control;
you must not be too fast in time of grief.

A sweet relationship makes friendly ties;
ties made with me are very strong indeed.
What one unblessed by fortune fails to have,
another from his richer store may satisfy.
No creature is so excellent or grand
that it can do without another’s help.
The changing times with varied risks contend,
nor are all partnerships on equal terms.

{ Quod mihi persuades absit ut illud agam!
Rebus in adversis opus est moderamine multo,
non decet in gravibus praecipitare gradum.

Dulce relativum socialia foedera jungit;
fortius incedunt foedera juncta sibi.
Quod minus alter habet, sua quem fortuna gravavit,
suppleat alterius copia grata magis.
Nil ita praecipuum vel tam sublime creatum,
ut non alterius possit egere manu.
Tempora sive vices vario discrimine certant,
nec coeunt nexu foedera quaeque pari. }

Brownie went on to strengthen her relationship with her tail. Performing an aspect of a commendatio (commendation ceremony), Brownie proclaimed an encomium of her tail.[5] Her encomium was worthy of the Greek dancing girl’s encomium of Maximian’s penis:

Although my tail remains my hindmost part,
yet I deem nothing of more use to me

My tail’s a shield to me, a sword, and axe,
a lance, sling, rock, and club, an arrow, torch.
The tail provides my skin a faithful nurse,
and brushes off the dust that clings to it.
It washes, cleanses, and alone serves all
the members, being last, in service first.
If we note well what glory and what use
each member to its lady has served,
then it alone is worth more to its head
than other members; more busy too than they.

{ Corporis ergo mei quamvis pars ultima cauda,
utilius tamen hac nil reor esse mihi }

Cauda mihi clypeus, gladius mihi cauda, securis,
lancea, funda, lapis, clava, sagitta, faces.
Cauda colit corpus, cutis est fidissima nutrix,
pulveris abstergens quicquid adhaesit eis.
Haec lavat, haec tergit, haec omnibus una ministrat,
ultima membrorum, prima labore suo.
Si bene pensetur, quid honoris et utilitatis
contulerint dominae singula membra suae.
Sola suo capite membris sed et omnibus una
plus valet; est et eis officiosa magis. }

The Latin word for “member” (membrum), like the Latin word for “tail” (cauda), can also refer to a man’s penis.[6] The above appreciation for the member that best serves its lady leads immediately to more direct sexual imagery:

It alone prevents discerning the weak sex
openly in public; the tail covers the vagina.
These {personal tools} my tail unites at various times,
yet at certain times it pleases more.

{ Omnibus una cavens fragilis discrimina sexus
publica ne pateant, cauda pudenda tegit.
Haec mea cauda mihi vario pro tempore confert,
quae tamen est certo tempore grata magis. } [7]

The Latin word for vagina (pudendus) is linguistically rooted in “that which is a source of shame.” In prophecy of Isaiah about the ravaging of Jerusalem, unmarried women begged ordinary men to marry them so as to take away their shame. That’s the shame of a vagina without a tail. The central thrust of the passage isn’t obscure. For many persons other than those mired in rape-culture culture, a man pleases more at those certain times when he’s united with a woman. Appreciation for the tail “being last, in service first” draws upon both the Christian ideal of servant-leadership and the servant-leadership of a husband within the traditional understanding of chivalry.[8]

Like other desires, sexual desire can be disordered. Flies, especially fleas, biting a girl insistently and beyond any limits of clothing or resistance figures disordered masculine sexual desire. The twelfth-century Latin poem The Flea {De pulice} is an example of that sexual imagery. Consistent with the elaborate literary structure of the Mirror of Fools, Galen’s fable of the two sister cows confronts the masculine sexual imagery of biting flies with the masculine sexuality imagery of a comforting tail. That confrontation occurs in different feminine encompassing environments. One is summer’s raging heat like a women burning with excessive sexual desire. Another is beauty and fertility that inevitably incites sexual activity:

In the meantime the fruitful summer had come
to decorate the fields with early flowers.
It now had clothed the trees with leaves, the earth
with grass, and fashioned flowers with equal skill.
Birds freed from winter’s prison had escaped
to pay due tribute to the neighborhood.
The nightingale, to compensate her loss
of speech, fills all the woods with lovely song.
The swallow and the turtledove appear
at nature’s summons, each at time ordained.
The lark, dawn’s harbinger, comes with the thrush,
nor do they change the schedule of their lives.
The cuckoo with his repetitious song
declares the springtime, as he always does.
A blend of disharmonious sounds is heard,
and through the woods a thousand organs play.
The scent of flowers excels the songs of birds,
their songs excel the pipes; the flowers, sweet balm.
The wood resounds, the fields are sweet with thyme,
the flowers and fruits a spicy fragrance yield.

{ Venerat interea tempus quo fertilis aestas
prata solet primo pingere flore novo.
Induerat jam fronde nemus, jam gramine terram
texerat, intextis foribus arte pari.
Exierant volucres hiemis de carcere fracto,
solvere finitimis digna tributa locis.
Verba negata sibi redimens philomena sonoris
vocibus insistit, personat omne nemus.
Quos natura vocat, cum turture venit hirundo,
adventusque sui tempora certa tenent.
Nuntius aurorae merulam comitatur alauda,
nec sua permutant tempora lege nova.
Semper idem repetens veteri nova tempora voce
ostendit cuculus, nil novitatis habens.
Concentu parili vocum concordia discors
intonat, et silvis organa mille sonant.
Certat odor florum cantus superare volucrum,
organa vox superat; balsama vincit odor.
Dulce sonant silvae, redolent thymiamata campi,
floribus et fructu gignit amoma solum. }

The Song of Songs is similarly filled with gardens, fruits, and spices. In the Mirror of Fools, both the summer’s raging heat and this spring-like environment breeds flies and wasps. They passionately and hurtfully attack Brownie and Two-Horns. Brownie, who always has her tail with her, deflects the attacks. But the manless, tailless Two-Horns succumbs to them. She dies as an example for those who would disregard limits and enter into castration culture or inordinate sexual activity.[9]

Men who don’t appreciate their short penises are easy prey for mercenary doctors. Burnel didn’t understand Galen’s fable about the two sister cows. Burnel rejected Galen’s advice to accept the natural goodness of his tail. To satisfy Burnel, Galen then adopted the practices of a mercenary doctor. He advised Burnel:

Your tail from there can reach a proper length,
provided it keep contact with flesh.
But in the case of treatments and their costs,
it’s quite important that you have much means.
Strong remedies require a bulging purse,
large wounds demand much wealth and capital.

If then you do not fail to pay the bills,
I shall not fail to give you special care.
If you keep up the payments, I shall try
my skill, provided I still have my strength. [10]

{ Unde satis longa poterit tua crescere cauda,
dummodo cum reliqua foedera carne tenet.
Et tamen in curis et sumptibus enumerandis,
ut decet et debet, copia larga subest.
Ardua praegnantem poscunt medicamina bursam,
res et opes magnas vulnera magna volunt.

Sumptibus ergo tibi nisis tu defeceris ipse,
non tibi deficiet cura laborque meus.
Sumptibus insistas, nos artibus experiemur,
si valeant nostrae quod valuere manus. }

Galen sent Burnel to get medicines from Salerno, a leading medieval center of medical knowledge. The medicines Galen requested were as nonsensical as Burnel’s request to lengthen his tail. Among those medicines:

a small amount of milk of goose and kite,
a little flash of light and fear of wolf,
a dram of seven-year truce ‘twixt dog and hare,
the kisses which a lark has sent her hawk,
a pound of special peacock’s sweet refrain,
before however he has grown a tail

{ Anseris et milvi modicum de lacte recenti,
de lucis cursu deque timore lupi,
de canis et leporis septenni foedere drachmam,
oscula quae niso misit alauda suo,
pavonis propria libram do voce sonora,
ante tamen cauda quam sit adepta sibi }

With a subtle allusion to a donkey’s large penis, Galen urged the donkey Burnel to give himself a fifth foot to make the trip to Salerno quickly. When Burnel asked Galen for a blessing, Galen, speaking in what was Greek to the donkey, petitioned God to bring him a thousand woes.

Treatments for “erectile dysfunction” have become a big business. Those treatments assume that a man’s penis isn’t functioning properly. Yet the fundamental cause of men’s penises remaining short is cultural hostility to men’s sexuality. Men’s penises typically remain short because they lack encounters with young, beautiful, warmly receptive women, or at least a woman lovingly remembered as being among such. The “erectile dysfunction” business caters to fools.[11]

donkey Burnel in Nigel's Speculum stultorum

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Read more:


[1] Nigel, Mirror of Fools {Speculum stultorum} 81-8, Latin text from Mozley & Raymo (1960) p. 32, English translation from Regenos (1959) p. 12, both with my adaptations. Regenos uses the name Brunellus for the donkey. The Latin text has Burnellus. See, e.g. ll. 595, 791, and comment in Mozley & Raymo (1960) pp. 148-9. I use the English form Burnel. That’s also the form that Chaucer used in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale (ll. 3312-16) of the Canterbury Tales.

Wright’s Latin text of Speculum stultorum is freely available online. Wright (1872) pp. 11-145. Regenos’s translation is based on that text, but incorporates corrections to that text from the subsequent scholarly literature. Regenos commented:

although Wright’s edition leaves much to be desired, it can be said with some degree of assurance, I think, that this translation is based on a reasonably sound text.

Regenos (1959) p. 20. To the best of my ability, I’ve checked Regenos translation against the Latin text of Mozley & Raymo (1960) and made any necessary corrections. Since I’ve supplied the relevant Latin text from the latter above, others can similarly verify the translations.

The Latin text consists largely of elegiac couplets that form a single, complete sentence. Regenos’s translation closely follows the lines of the Latin text. Readers who haven’t studied Latin can thus easily and beneficially compared the English to the Latin. To make both the English translation and the corresponding Latin text more accessible to such readers, I’ve used standard English sentence capitalization, and I’ve both capitalized and punctuated the English and Latin texts in parallel to the extent sensibly feasible. Where I’ve made a substantial change to the words of Regenos’s translation, I’ve noted the change at the end of the Latin text of the quotation.

Regenos’s translation is “a fairly literal translation” into iambic pentameters. He stated:

it has been my constant aim to render as faithfully as possible the full meaning of the original text, and certainly not to take undue liberties. Sometimes it has been most difficult to compress within the limits of two iambic pentameters the complete thought of a couplet, but patient endeavor has usually, if not always, made it possible.

Id. p. 19. Mozley (1963) is a considerly looser translation into many end-rhyming couplets. To my ear, Mozley’s translation now seems archaic and trivializing. Speculum stultorum ingeniously mixes the absurdly comic with respected wisdom and serious social commentary.

Speculum stultorum is sadly under-appreciated today. In the relatively liberal, tolerant, and enlightened time of the European Middle Ages, Speculum stultorum “enjoyed great success … {it} circulated especially widely from the end of the fourteenth century through the Reformation.” Ziolkowski (1994) p. 2. See also Mozley & Ramo (1960) pp. 8-9. A leading scholar of medieval Latin literature judged Speculum stultorum to be the finest example of twelfth-century European satire. Pepin (1988) p. 119. For a review of the contents of Speculum stultorum, id. Ch. 5.

Speculum stultorum was written at Canterbury, England, late in the twelfth century.  It survives in forty manuscripts, with thirty-four containing complete or nearly complete texts. Id. pp. 9-15, Mann (2007) p. 5.The specific date of composition is a matter of some scholarly controversy. According to Ziolkowski, “most of it was written around 1179-80, but one section (perhaps a later revision by Nigel himself) is believed to date from 1185-87.” Ziolkowski (1994) p. 2. According to Mann, Speculum stultorum was written “some time in the 1190s.” Mann (2007) p. 34.

The author of the Speculum stultorum is variously specified in English as Nigellus Wireker, Nigel Whiteacre, Nigel of Langchamp (also Nigel Longchamp and Nigel de Longchamps), and Nigel of Canterbury. On the basis for these different names, Ziolkowski (1994) pp. 7-9, Mann (2009) pp. 99-100. In the references below, I use the WorldCat uniform author identifier Nigellus Wireker. Elsewhere I refer to the author as only Nigel.

Born about 1140, Nigel was a highly learned Benedictine monk living in the monastic community at Christ Church, Canterbury, in England. Nigel also wrote Miracles of the Holy Virgin Mother of God Mary, in verse {Miracula Sancte Dei genetricis uirginis Marie, uersifice}. That lengthy work consists of 2690 lines of elegiac distichs covering seventeen miracles. It is “the earliest surviving collection of versified Marian miracles in Latin.” Ziolkowsk (1994) p. 4. Nigel also wrote, in 2345 lines of dactylic, end-rhymed hexameters, The Passion of Saint Lawrence the Martyr {Passio Sancti Laurentii martiris}. For a brief review of all Nigel’s works, id. pp. 3-5.

Subsequent quotes above from Speculum stultorum are constructed in the same way as the first. The citations for the subsequent quotes, by line number for the Latin text in Mozley & Raymo (1960) and by page for the English translation in Regenos (1959): ll. 95-102, pp. 32-3 (You must not scorn…); .. 117-30, p. 33 (Physicians often fail…); ll. 171-2, 186, p. 35 (All men can talk…); ll. 243-50, pp. 37-8 (Why have a tail…); ll. 284-6, 345-52 (No way that I should do…); ll. 367-8, 375-84 (Athough my tail remains…); ll. 385-8, p. 42 (It alone prevents…); ll. 503-22, p. 47 (In the meantime the fruitful summer…); ll. 609-14, 623-6, pp. 50-1 (Your tail from there…); ll. 645-50, p. 52 (a small amount of milk…).

[2] As a highly learned monk, Nigel undoubtedly understood well devotion to Athena rather than to Venus. He wrote on the flyleaf of his manuscript of Peter Comestor’s Historia scholastica:

As studious Nigel applied himself and avoided times of idleness,
he embroidered from various sources the writings of the present little book,
which he wished to survive him after death as the future of
his name and the undying memorial of his worthiness.

{ Ocia cum fugerit studiosi cura Nigelli
texuit ex uariis presentis scripta libelli,
quem superesse sibi uoluit post fata futurum
nominis et meriti memorabile non moriturum. }

From MS B. 15.5 (342) of Trinity College Cambridge, Latin text and English translation (which I’ve lineated) from Ziolkowski (1994) p. 282.

[3] Speculum stultorum 186 (Quod natura negat reddere nemo potest) quotes Maximian, Elegies 5.54. Speculum stultorum includes three other citiations of Maximian’s elegies (listed by line in Speculum stultorum / elegy.line in Maximian): 76 / 5.70, 496 / 1.222, 571 / 1.115. All four citations are from the context of Burnel and Galen’s initial interaction.

[4] In the Latin, Brownie has the name Brunetta. Two-Horns has the name Bicornis. Both Regenos (1959) and Mosley (1963) use the names Brunetta and Bicornis in their translations. However, both Latin names have clear English translations with meanings relevant in particular contexts of the Speculum stultorum. Thus I’ve used translated versions of the names above.

[5] Maximian’s elegies, with their beautiful commendation for a sexually functioning penis, became part of the medieval school curriculum in the eleventh century. Hunt (1991) vol. 1, p. 68. That outstanding education undoubtedly helped to inspire men to develop the vigorous culture of learning and literature that characterized twelfth-century Europe.

With lack of appreciation for Speculum stultorum’s citations of Maximian’s elegies and Speculum stultorum’s over-all figurative strategy in relation to penises, Brownie’s encomium has been badly contextually and misinterpreted. Mann stated:

Brunetta {Brownie} then launched into a full-scale encomium of her tail, headed Commendatio Caudae, which obviously has it source in rhetorical school-exercises in praise of base or banally ridiculous objects.

Mann (2009) p. 125, with the above sentence citing via a footnote Pease (1926). Pease, in turn, explained the subject:

it is not this large field of the laudatio as a whole that I shall here plough over, but rather a curiously miscultivated portion of it to which the term “adoxography” has been given, in which the legitimate methods of the encomium are applied to persons or objects in themselves obviously unworthy of praise, as being trivial, ugly, useless, ridiculous, dangerous, or vicious.

Id. pp. 28-9. Tails, like penises, aren’t intrinsically contemptible, but they have historically been subject to disparagement. That’s particularly true in academia today.

[6] On tail {cauda} meaning a man’s penis, consider Horace, Satires 1.2.45-6: cuidam testis caudamque salacem demeterent ferro, translated as “a certain person cut off the testicles and lustful penis {of an adulterer}”; and Horace, Satires 2.7.47-50: acris ubi me / natura intendit, sub clara nuda lucerna / quaecumque excepit turgentis verbera caudae, / clunibus aut agitavit equum lasciva supinum, translated as “when insistent nature has made me stiff, whatever woman, naked in the lamp’s bright light, has taken my swollen tail’s blows.” For the English translation of the later, Cowan & Davie (2011).

On member {membrum} meaning a man’s penis or a woman’s vagina, e.g. Ovid, Amores 2.15.25: te nuda mea membra libidine surgent , translated as “my loving member to rise erect,” and De pulice 13: Ausus es interdum per membra libidinis ire , translated as “Sometimes you even dare to go through her loving member.” On these lines and their translations, see notes [2] and [3] in my post on De pulice.

[7] Regenos’s translation of these couplets show effects of pervasive, men-subordinating courtly love ideology:

Alone the tail protects the weaker sex
By hiding their pudenda from full view.
These things my tail provides for various times,
Yet at certain times it pleases more.

Regenos (1959) p. 42. I’ve provided a significantly improved translation above.

[8] For the Christian ideal of servant-leadership, Matthew 20:25-8.

[9] Two-Horns provided a quasi-epimythium for her demise:

I’ve lived a warning to many, and my death
will be a warning to all who lack moderation.

{ Exemplum multis vixi moriorque futuris
omnibus exemplum, non habitura modum. }

Speculum stultorum 577-8 (adapted to translate exemplum consistently and be more precise; for the second line of the couplet Regenos has “Will teach them all the need for self-control”). Nigel had great respect for women’s sensual allure. He had Burnel observe of an order of nuns:

Beneath black skirts they hide their lovely legs.
No girdles do they wear, nor underwear
in former times — if now, I do not know.

{ Sub tunicis nigris candida membra laten.
Cingula nulla ferunt sed nec femoralibus uti
consuetudo fuit, nescio si modo sit. }

Speculum stultorum 2390-2, p. 115. Marginal notes that Nigel apparently added to his manuscript of Peter Comestor’s Historia scholastica indicate his concern for sexual moderation and restraint. He copied Ovid’s couplet of Phaedra to Hippolytus:

Let young men adorned like women be far from me;
a man’s beauty should be cultivated moderately.

{ Sint procul a nobis iuuenes ut femina compti
Fine coli modico forma uirilis habet. }

Latin text from Ziolkowski (1994) p. 289. Nigel also copied a version of On the Twelve Abuses of the World {De duodecim abusivis saeculi} that included the abuse “a woman with no respect {for modesty} is like a wild mind” {Assimilata feris mens nulla uerens mulieris}. Latin text from id. p. 294. Yet Nigel also provided a figure of the natural goodness of men’s sexuality:

Between the legs of the betrothed, in the dwelling of the father, and in the belly of the mother,
a man lays down for father, for betrothed, for mother.

{ In sponse gremio, patris in lare, matris in aluo,
pro patre, pro sponsa, pro genitrice iacet. }

Nigel, Epigrams 13.1-2, Latin text and English trans. (with my adaptation of the English translation) from id. pp. 264-5.

[10] “Keep contact with the flesh” and “bulging purse” allude to sexual activity and sexual potency. Using the later figure, Matheolus protested his wife’s lack of respect for his “shriveled purse.”

At a more literal level, Galen is acting as a greedy doctor. Nigel denounced love of money and greed:

let money and a packed purse be far from a monk.

{ ergo sit a monacho procul es et bursa referta. }

Nigel, Epigrams 8.10, Latin text and English trans. from Ziolkowski (1994) pp. 258-9. Nigel also was deeply engaged in the struggle of the monks of Christ Church Canterbury to continue their practice of disbursing money on causes they choose as worthy rather than financially supporting the Archbishop of Canterbury and the King of England. Id. pp. 21-22, 25-30, 41-2; Mann (2009) pp. 144-7.

[11] Mann argued that Two-Horns’s choice to cut off her tail “is dictated by her natural urge to reunite herself with her calf,” while Burnel’s choice to seek a longer tail “is dictated by his asinine nature.” Mann (2009) p. 128. That’s a misleading distinction. Both Two-Horns and Burnel are contingently foolish in lacking respect for their natural tails. At the higher figurative level of the Speculum stultorum, females’ natural desire for calves naturally prompts them to appreciate penises, while males’ natural response to such females lengthens their penises.

[images] (1) Illumination of Vincent of Beauvais in a manuscript of his Speculum historiale translated into French by Jean de Vignay. Made in the late-fifteenth century. From British Library Royal MS 14 E 1 vol. 1, f. 3r. Thanks to the British Library and Wikimedia Commons. (2) Brunellus (Burnel) with Galen and a jester. Woodcut book illustration from a 1490 edition of the Speculum stultorum, Leipzig: Kachelofen, Konrad, leaf a1r. From book held in Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. The British Library holds a manuscript with another medieval illustration of Brunellus / Burnel.


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