mother’s emotional abuse pushed Burnel to study in Paris

Growing up in Cremona in twelfth-century Italy, Burnel had a difficult childhood. His mother and father often quarreled. Even worse, Burnel’s mother subjected him to vicious emotional abuse. The effects of this abuse endured into Brunel’s adulthood. As an adult, Burnel didn’t feel the natural goodness of his own masculine sexuality. He sought to establish his self-esteem through foolish quests to lengthen his penis, acquire a liberal arts degree at the University of Paris, and become an eminent religious leader.

Burnel’s mother dominated his father. An issue of contention among them was interpreting dreams. Burnel explained:

Indeed and dreams, contrariwise, must be explained
to mean the very opposite, I’d have you know.
If dreams are good, then trouble will result;
if bad, doubt not that great success will come.
‘Tis thus my mother used to speak of dreams,
and she was very well informed and wise.
‘Twas over this my mother often used
to quarrel with father, answering word for word.
For he with mother always disagreed,
maintaining that her theories were all wrong.

{ Sed vice conversa sunt exponenda vicissim
atque per antiphrasim somnia, crede mihi.
Si bona vidisti, tunc aspera multa sequentur;
si mala, non dubites prospera multa sequi.
Sic mea consuevit exponere somnia mater,
sicut erat prudens atque diserta nimis.
Mater ob hanc causam litem cum patre frequenter
instituit, super his plurima verba serens.
Ipse tamen matri semper contraria sensit,
et sua dicebat dogmata falsa fore. } [1]

While his father showed extraordinary courage in challenging his wife’s views, Burnel followed his mother’s theory of dream interpretation. More generally, Burnel repeatedly referred to what his mother had said to him and discussed her words at length. He said relatively little about his father.[2] Like many fathers today, Burnel’s father seems to have been marginalized. His mother dominated their family.

With emotional abuse, Burnel’s mother scarred him for life. Burnel as an adult lacked a sense of self-worth. He even declared:

Why from the cursed womb did mother send me?
Why did she sever not my throat with a sword?
If, sorrowful one, I had been still-born, an age
how fortunate and blessed would have been!
Why did a hungry wolf not come to bear
away the babe while still of tender age?
Why did my mother curse me in my youth
and often ask the wolf in haste to come?

{ Cur mea me mater maledicto fudit ab alvo?
Cur gladio jugulum non dedit ipsa meum?
Tristis abortivum si me peperisset, in aevum
quam fortunata quamque beata foret!
Cur lupus esuriens partes non venit in illas,
tolleret ut partum dum tener esset adhuc?
Cui mea me mater primis devovit in annis,
atque venire citum saepe rogavit eum? } [3]

As an adult on a trip abroad, Burnel dreamed that his parents — undoubtedly with his mother leading his father — prayed:

Be kind to us, O God, and from the jaws
of wolves snatch our Burnel; bring him home.
May he who is abroad come safely home,
unharmed and unmolested by the wolves.
May neither lion, leopard, nor that worst
of beasts, the peasant, stop him on the way.
In safety may he travel all the roads,
may he escape the scent of every beast.
May dogs be tongueless, ears of cats be closed,
and may the wolf have gout so he can’t run.
For since we fear him more than other beasts,
from him protect Burnel; bring him home.

{ Esto, Deus, nobis clemens et ab ore luporum
eripe Burnellum, facque redire domum.
Sanus et incolumis patrias peregrinus ad oras
Burnellus redeat, liber ab ore lupi.
Non leo, non pardus, nec peste nocentior omni
rusticus obsistat vel dominetur ei.
Transeat immunis per compita quaeque viarum,
olfactu careat bestia quaeque suo.
Sit canis elinguis, catulo non calleat auris;
currere ne possit sit mala gutta lupo.
Quem quia nos aliis plus formidamus, ab ipso
protege Burnellum, facque redire domum. } [4]

As his mother taught him, Burnel interpreted this dream-prayer to mean its opposite. In his dream, his mother had cursed him just as she had done in his youth. Burnel feared for his life. He knew the popular saying that emphasized a mother’s power:

Swift fulfillment, if the saying’s true,
is always present for a mother’s prayers.

{ Nam celer eventus, si fas est credere famae,
maternis precibus semper adesse solet. }

The dream-prayer of Burnel’s mother failed, as she would have understood it. A wolf didn’t attack Burnel.

Burnel’s mother often told him a story about three goddesses of fate. It was a non-Christian story of divine equalizing:

These three {goddesses} had one concern and one desire:
to bring to nature’s flaws good health and strength.
Where nature grudged or lavishly bestowed,
they very much desired to make amends.

{ Unus erat cultus tribus his eademque voluntas,
naturae vitiis ferre salutis opem.
Et quod avara minus dederat vel prodiga multum,
his emendandi plurima cura fuit. }

Walking about in the world, the goddesses encountered a beautiful, young woman of noble birth. The young woman cried, slashed her lovely face, and beat her attractive breast. Two of the goddesses wanted to help the woman. But the head-goddess refused. She explained that the woman was already privileged, and that if they helped her, she might suffer worse evils. The goddesses soon came across another beautiful, young woman. Because of “weight and pain in feet and hips” {pedis et femorum tum pondere tumque dolore} this beautiful woman couldn’t get up from her couch. Two of the goddesses sought to restore her to her feet. But the head-goddess was unmoved. She explained that the woman had keen mind, strong voice, ample breast, and graceful hands. In short, the woman was already extraordinarily privileged.

The goddess then came across a peasant girl. She was squatting in the road to defecate:

She raised her dress behind and drew it back.
She flexed her knees and squatted on the ground.
One hand held grass; the other, hunk of bread.
Both hands performed due service for the wench.
And she cared not for people as they passed,
nor for the holy deities nearby.

{ Vestibus elatis retro nimiumque rejectis,
poplite deflexo, curva resedit humi.
Una manus foenum; panis tenet altera frustum.
Utraque dat dominae debita pensa suae,
sed neque pro populo cessavit praetereunte,
nec propter posita numina sacra prope. }

Two of the goddess blushed, hid their faces, and rushed away. The head-goddess stood still and called the other two back. She explained:

You’ve seen just now the other side of life.
Nought better had she than what she revealed
to us and showed in her simplicity.
Had nature given the wretch a better lot,
Not thus would the new moon have shown its horns.

{ Quod modo vidistis alter horizon erat.
Non habuit melius quam quod nobis manitestum
fecit et ostendit simplicitate sua.
Si natura potens miserae meliora dedisset,
non ita monstrasset cornua luna nova. }

Rather than being offended that the peasant girl had mooned them, the head-goddess sympathized with her:

There’s need, there’s need to pity, not to grudge,
to offer her our help right speedily.
There’s need, there’s need that we be generous,
and give abundant gifts with lavish hand.
To her, rich nature has left nought at all;
she’s poor. There’s need that we bring help to her.

Let us therefore to whom this power is given,
present huge gifts with an unstinting hand:
wealth, riches, money, offices, and farms,
estates in mountains, pasture lands, and herds.
And let us make her mistress of this town,
that nothing she be without which is ours to give.

{ Hic opus, his opus est, non parcere, sed misereri
et festinando ferre levamen ei.
Hic opus, hic opus est, ut diffundamus abunde,
et demus larga munera magna manu.
Huic nihil omnino dives natura reliquit,
haec eget, his opus est ut faciamus opem.

Nos igitur, quibus est super his collata potestas,
demus abundanti munera magna manu:
divitias et opes, census, fundos et honores,
praedia montana, pascua, prata, greges.
Urbis et istius dominam statuamus eandem,
ut nihil in nostro munere desit ei. }

This story that Burnel’s mother often told is a travesty of justice and equality. Burnel struggled to carry it with a sense of decency and reason:

My mother often told me things like this,
to mention which I surely have no shame.
Inside religious orders often happen
so many things like this which make no sense.

{ Haec mea multotiens genitrix narrare solebat,
cujus me certe non meminisse pudet.
Talibus exemplis in religione frequenter
multa solent fieri quae ratione carent. } [5]

His mother’s bizarre words to him worked on Burnel’s sub-consciousness and shaped his life choices.

Despite having no formal education and being a donkey, Burnel decided to seek a master’s degree in liberal arts at the University of Paris and then further advanced study at the University of Bologna. Paris and Bologna were the leading universities in twelfth-century Europe. Burnel was in some respects naturally qualified for academic study:

My legs are iron, my sides like sheaths of iron,
in all my body there is not a vein.
Just like a brazen vessel is my skin,
which may be beaten but receive no pain.
It’s not for me to die from curse or blows;
With mallets could I scarce be killed, I think.

{ Ferrea crura mihi, latus est quasi lamina ferri,
non est in tot corpore vena puto.
Aenea ceu pelvis cutis est mea, quae tamen ictus
excipit incassum, nam nihil inde dolet.
Non ego verberibus, non per maledicta perire
possum, malleolis vix puto posse mori. }

Burnel reasoned that he would be a better student than young men:

Long hours of study and of sleepless nights
my mind and body both can well endure.
I still have many years to pass before
I reach an age as great as was my sire’s.
I’ll not, like boys, be hurt by heavy blows.
The wanderlust won’t dull my love for school
which from my seriousness will grow and grow.
The weight of my long years will banish levity,
and strict routine alleviate the load.
No shame for my age, though boys learn
as now an elder, will force me from studies.
Nor fear or disappointment shall prevent
my pressing toward my goal both day and night.
Since I’ll be brave, hard work will conquer all,
and God himself is wont to aid the brave.

{ Pervigiles studii longa de nocte labores
et caput et corpus hoc bene ferre potest.
Restat et annorum numerus de jure legendus
plurimus, usque patri comparer ipse meo.
Nec sub veste leui tenuis tenere diaeta
me poterit certe nec revocare domum.
Non mihi virga gravis puerorum more nocebit;
a puero didici multa flagella pati.
Pes vagus a studii non me revocabit amore,
qui magis accrescit ex gravitate mea.
Aetatis gravitas mihi de levitate cavebit,
alleviabit onus consuetudo frequens.
Nec pudor annorum, quamvis puerilia discam
jam senior, coget deseruisse scholas.
Non timor impediet vel desperatio, coeptis
quo minus insistam nocte dieque meis.
Utque nihil timeam labor improbus omnia vincet,
et Deus audaces ipse juvare solet. }

As a donkey studying at a leading university, Burnel would contribute significantly to diversity in the student body. Taking seriously Burnel’s mother’s story, one might hope that the goddesses of fate would favor him like they favored the country girl defecating in the road. On these or other grounds unknown, the University of Paris admitted Burnel.

At the University of Paris, Burnel joined the school of Englishmen. He admired the good manners and urbanity of the English. He also recognized that they had vices:

Feasting, drinking, lechery with bed-mates:
these three are vices always there with them.
Except for these you’ll find no fault in them;
take these away, all other things will please.
Yet these should not be always criticized,
for there can be a time and a place for these.
For two of them are largely free from pain,
and often lead to paths of happiness.
The third thing keeps the passion populating
France from being able to cause harm.

{ Washeyl et drinkheyl necnon persona secunda:
Haec tria sunt vitia quae comitantur eis.
His tribus exceptis nihil est quod in his reprehendas;
haec tria si tollas, cetera cuncta placent.
Nec tamen haec ita sunt semper reprobanda, quod illis
esse locus nequeat tempore sive loco.
Nam duo praecipue sunt exclusiva dolorum,
laetitiaeque vias insinuare solent.
Tertia res cohibet, quo dicitur esse referta
Gallia fermentum ne nocuisse queat. } [6]

These vices didn’t impede Burnel’s learning at the University of Paris. Moreover, as many students have learned through the ages, a university often is a good place for feasting, drinking, and lechery. For Burnel as for other students, these were the most propitious university paths for happiness and release of passion.

Burnel’s university experience was a failure for learning. He lacked both natural aptitude and gifts of fortune:

But since his mind was dull, and stiff his neck to bend,
he failed his courses; toil and pain were lost.
Burnel already had completed seven years
yet absolutely nothing had he learned
of what his master taught; nought but “heehaw” he said.
What nature gave and what he brought with him,
that still he had, and none could take from him.
The masters, having labored long and hard,
effaced with weariness, at last gave up.
His back was often beaten by a club,
his sides were lashed, his hands enduring the rod.
He always said “heehaw” and nothing more
could say, regardless of the kind of blow.
One pulled his ear or jerked his crooked nose,
another knocked out teeth or pricked his hide.
They slashed him, burned him, freed him, tied him up,
sometimes they uttered threats, sometimes they coaxed.
Thus art and nature in him vied by turns;
art begged, while nature bade; art left, it stayed.
It’s clear that those who have pedigree inapt
can seldom, if at all, grow learned.
Burnel as child said “heehaw”; nought else
could he retain except what nature gave.
What nature gives remains, but that acquired
by art takes flight like dust before the wind.
He lost his money, toiled in vain, and all
that he had spent had been for nought.

{ Sed quia sensus hebes, cervix praedura, magistri
dogmata non recipit, cura laborque perit.
Jam pertransierat Burnellus tempora multa,
et prope completus septimus annus erat.
Cum nihil ex tot, quodcunque docente magistro
aut socio, potuit discere praeter “hy ha”.
Quod natura dedit, quod secum detulit illuc,
hoc habet, hoc illi nemo tulisse potest.
Cura magistrorum multumque diuque laborans
demum defecit, victa labore gravi.
Dorso se baculus, lateri se virga frequenter
applicat, et ferulam sustinuere manus.
Semper “hy ha” repetit, nihil est quod dicere possit
affectus quovis verbere praeter “hy ha”.
Vellicat hic aurem, nasum quatit ille recurvum,
excutit hic dentes, perforat ille cutem.
Hic secat, hic urit, hinc solvitur, inde ligatur
intonat iste minas, porrigit ille preces.
Sic in eo certant ars et natura vicissim,
ara rogat, illa jubet, haec abit, illa manet.
Quorum principia constant vitiosa fuisse,
aut vix aut nunquam convaluisse valent.
A puero didict Burnellus “hy ha”: nihil ultra
quam quod natura dat retinere potest.
Quod fuit innatum servat natura, quod artis
sic abit, ut vento pulvis abire solet.
Perdidit expensas, periit labor omnis et omne
quod fuit impensum conditione pari. } [7]

Seeking a university education didn’t merely waste Burnel’s time and money. It caused Burnel profound harm:

You see me old and crushed by ten-years’ toil,
although I once was young and strong and brave.
How many ills have I now borne! Only
the cares of schools have wholly ruined me.
The peasant and the school are instruments
of pain and anguish both to heart and flesh.
The peasant pierces, strikes, and beats the flesh;
the school consumes the vitals, heart, and lungs.
I’d rather carry rocks and stones in mills
than study constantly inside the schools.

{ Ecce senem cernis fractumque labore decenni,
qui juvenis quondam fortis et acer eram.
Quam mala multa tuli pridem! Sed me tamen unum
funditus absumpsit sollicitudo scholae.
Rusticus atque schola duo sunt tormenta, dolores
intus et exterius quae mihi ferre solent.
Rusticus exterius pungit, ferit atque flagellat,
at schola depascit viscera, corda, latus.
Saxa sed et lapides mallem portare molares
quam sic assiduis invigilare scholis. } [8]

Burnel worried about his parents’ reaction to his failure to remember even where he went to university:

If I go home now, and father and mother ask
where I have studied, how shall I explain?
My parents will say worthless I am who failed
to learn a thing, but wasted all their means.

{ Ergo domum repetens patri matrique roganti
quonam profitear me studuisse loco?
Me fore trutannum, me nil didicisse parentes
dicent et sumptus deperiisse suos. }

Studying medieval Latin literature has been vitally important for bears. But a donkey attending the twelfth-century University of Paris makes no more sense than a rustic peasant girl instantly becoming fabulously rich and ruling a town. Burnel should have questioned what his mother taught him.

donkey Burnel as bishop in Speculum stultorum

Yearning to earn his mother’s love, Burnel fantasized about becoming a bishop. He imagined that a goddess of fate, which his mother described as promoting justice and equality, had destined him for the bishopric. He rationalized:

Indeed the world sees stranger things occur
than my advancement to the bishop’s chair.

{ Nam miranda solent magis his contingere mundo,
quam mihi contingat pontificale decus. }

He imagined himself, a donkey, rising above all others in public status:

Now when I’m raised to bishop in my town,
I’ll have no equal in the whole wide world.
The people from the city all will come,
and bowing low will say, “O Bishop, hail!”

{ Ergo cum fuero praesul promotus in urbe,
in toto mundo par mihi nullus erit.
Obvius exibit populus mihi totus ab urbe,
dicet et obstipo vertice, “Praesul, ave!” }

A peasant owned Burnel and made him carrying heavy loads. Burnel imagined his peasant-owner declaring:

The age belongs now to Burnel, while once
it was another’s; changes thus take place.
The life of this great bishop now is in
esteem, which was before quite different.

{ Tempora Burnelli modo sunt, quandoque fuerunt
alterius; vicis est non habuisse vicem.
Praesule defuncto modo plurima sunt in honore,
quae tunc alterius conditionis erant. }

Burnel’s primary concern seems to have been to win his mother’s love:

What can my mother say, I ask, when she
sees clergymen and laymen blessing me?
With joy she’ll bless the year, the day, and hour,
in which she bore in blessedness her child.

{ Quid mea tunc mater, cum me benedicere clerum
viderit et populum, dicere quaeso potest?
Exhilarata diem tempus benedicet et horam,
qua peperit natum me benedicta suum. } [9]

Such a blessing would reverse his mother’s curses against his life when he was a child. Only an emotionally damaged fool, whether a donkey or a man, would imagine earning his mother’s love by becoming a bishop, or by gaining an advanced university degree.

Domineering mothers and effectively absent fathers can cause enduring emotional damage to children. Under current paternity law, fathering a child entails nothing more than having sex of reproductive type. Family law treats fathers as nothing more than wallets. Family courts engage in massive anti-men gender discrimination in rulings on child custody and “child support” financial obligations. This acute gender inequality, socially supported with vicious anti-men gender bigotry, is generating children who grow up to be fools like Burnel, a donkey in the twelfth-century medieval Latin masterpiece Speculum stultorum.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Nigellus Wireker, Mirror of Fools {Speculum stultorum} 1645-54, Latin text from Mozley & Raymo (1960) p. 67, English translation from Regenos (1959) p. 89. Id. translated the introductory Sed as “but”. The context seems to me to imply an amplifying conjunction. Hence above I’ve translated Sed as “Indeed and”. Interpretation of dreams is a central issue in Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale, which refers to Speculum stultorum.

Speculum stultorum recognizes the suffering of a husband with a quarrelsome wife. In proclaiming a mock anathema against peasants, Burnel said:

may his wife and he {the peasant} always quarrel with each other
{ rixentur semper uxor et ipse simul }

Speculum stultorum, l. 816, Latin text from Mozley & Raymo (1960) p. 49, my translation.

Subsequent quotes from Speculum stultorum are (cited by line number and English translation in Regenos (1959)): ll. 1613-20, pp. 87-8 (Why from the cursed womb…); ll 1629-40, p. 88 (Be kind to us, O God…); ll. 1623-4, p. 88 (Swift fulfillment…); ll. 3283-6, p. 145 (These three…); l. 3347, p. 147 (weight and pain…); ll. 3389-4, p. 148 (She raised her dress…); ll. 3400-4, pp. 148-9 (You’ve seen just now…); ll. 3405-10, 3427-32, p. 149 (There’s need…); ll. 3433-6, p. 150 (My mother often told…); ll. 1607-12, p. 87 (My legs are iron…); ll. 1181-98, p. 73 (Long hours of study…); ll. 1521-30, pp. 84-5 (Feasting, drinking, lechery…); ll. 1541-68, pp. 85-6 (But since his mind…); ll. 2471-80, p. 118 (You see me old…); ll. 1927-31, p. 98 (If I go home now…); ll. 1671-2, p. 89 (Indeed the world…); ll. 1779-82, p. 93 (Now when I’m raised…); ll. 1795-8, p. 93 (The age belongs now…); ll. 1783-6, p. 93 (What can my mother say…). I’ve noted substantial changes I’ve made to Regenos’s translation, while silently making insubstantial changes. Punctuation and capitalization are predominately editorial in Mozley & Raymo’s Latin text. I’ve made changes in the Latin capitalization and punctuation to align it as closely as feasible with the English translation.

[2] Burnel rescued from being hung thieves caught stealing from his father. Speculum stultorum ll. 1805-1912. Burnel seems to have been more respectful and deferential toward his mother than toward his father.

[3] Regenos translated l. 1615 (Tristis abortivum si me peperisset, in aevum) as “If to her sorrow I had been still-born.” Burnel’s mother being sorrowful about him being still-born isn’t consistent with the context. My translation of that line above follows the meaning, but not the words, of Mozley (1963) p. 54.

[4] Regenos translated Burnellus as “Brunellus” and rusticus as “rustic”. Here and subsequently I translated those terms as “Burnel” and “peasant”. Mozely (1963) also uses “peasant”. The change from “Brunellus” to “Burnel” affects the iambic meter of the translation. Where a simple change to make the meter regular is possible, I make it. Otherwise I accept the metrical irregularity. In general, my adaptations have loosened the meter.

[5] Mann intepreted the story of the three goddesses as satiric:

The story, when analysed as a whole, proves to be satiric rather than exemplary; its appeal to immutable universals — Nature, Fortune, Fate — is blandly ironic, satire claiming the status of myth, for what it uncovers is not an eternal verity, but an injustice in the distribution of Fortune’s favours which could and should be redressed.

Mann (2009) p. 109. Burnel attributed the story to his mother both before and after telling it. Mann failed to recognize that Burnel’s relationship with his mother is crucial for understanding this story and his foolish choices.

[6] For l. 1521 (Washeyl et drinkheyl necnon persona secunda), Regenos translated “They hold gay parties, drink, and have their girls”. The phrase persona secunda implies intimate relations, not necessarily heterosexual. Above I translated the line as “Feasting, drinking, lechery with bed-mates”. For ll. 1529-30, Regenos translated:

The third thing keeps the ferment by which France
Is filled from being able to cause harm.

I’ve attempted a clearer translation above.

[7] For l. 1561-2, Regenos translated:

It’s clear that those who have a background that
Is weak can seldom, if at all, grow strong.

I’ve attempted a clearer translation of those lines above.

[8] In l. 2473, Regenos translated Sed as “And yet”. I’ve substituted “Only” to clarify the contrast.

[9] Burnel subsequently abandoned his dream of being a bishop. He instead planned to found his own religious order in which “I’ll be head teacher and in charge” {ero primus doctor et auctor ego}. Speculum stultorum l. 3260, trans. Regenos (1959) p. 144. Burnel invited the eminent scholar and medical authority Galen to join his order and be under him. Burnel’s dream of founding his own religious order is as foolish as his dream of becoming a bishop. The underlying maternal motivation seems the same.

[image] Drawing of Burnel (Brunellus) as a bishop. In a manuscript of Speculum stultorum, copied about the 1425 by John Streech, canon of the Augustinian Priory of Kenilworth. Folio 114v in Additional MS 38665, British Library.


Mann, Jill. 2009. From Aesop to Reynard: beast literature in medieval Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mozley, John H., trans. 1963. Nigellus Wireker. A mirror for fools: the book of Burnel the ass {Speculum stultorum}. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press.

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

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

Jan van Eyck, Canon van der Paele, and Galbert of Bruges

painting: Jan van Eyck, Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele

In 1547, the ruler of the Netherlands sought to acquire a painting held in St. Donation’s Church in Bruges in the Netherlands. The painting was Jan van Eyck’s The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele. Van Eyck had completed this painting about 1435. St. Donation’s Church refused to relinquish it to the ruler. Church officials declared that this painting had been treasured by St. Donation’s and the city of Bruges for many years. They declared that removing it from St. Donation’s would provoke “moans, protests, uproar, and complaints.”[1] More than four centuries earlier, Galbert of Bruges had chronicled the murder of Count Charles the Good in St. Donation’s Church. Galbert’s chronicle indicates how profoundly officials of St. Donation’s and people of Bruges understood Jan van Eyck’s The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele.

Joris van der Paele, a canon of St. Donatian’s church in Bruges, commissioned Jan van Eyck to create the painting in the early 1430s. Van der Paele is kneeling at the the Virgin’s left. With a book and eyeglasses in his hands, he looks across at St. Donation, the patron saint of the church. Next to van der Paele is St. George. Van der Paele’s given name Joris / George associates him with St. George. With a hand gesture and helmet lifted to show respect, St. George presents van der Paele to the Virgin. Van der Paele seems to have commissioned the painting as a memorial to be placed above his grave in St. Donation’s Church. An art historian observed:

Standing before the picture at the Groeningemuseum in Bruges, the viewer is transported into van Eyck’s imagined but convincing world, an immersive experience fostered by the painter himself: his reflected image in Saint George’s shield cues the viewer to position himself or herself in the same spot at which the painter purports to stand (three feet or so from the picture plane, directly opposite the Virgin). There, the beholder completes the circle of figures and thus becomes a participant in the visualization materializing in the mind’s eye of van der Paele. [2]

The viewer becomes a witness to van der Paele being led to God through the intercessions of saints and the Virgin Mary, mother of God.

While societies are typically gynocentric, Christian understanding of salvation centers not just on woman bearing child, but also on man being betrayed. In St. Donation’s Church in 1127, Count Charles the Good, ruler of Flanders, was betrayed and brutally murdered. Galbert of Bruges chronicled the events surrounding the betrayal of Count Charles. He urged his readers to:

wonder with new wonder at the things that are written down and were brought to pass by God’s decrees only in our time

{ nova admiratione quae scripta sunt et Dei ordinatione congesta nostro solummodo tempore admiretur } [3]

Both Galbert of Bruges and Jan van Eyck perceived in real, specific details the general salvific pattern of Christ betrayed and Christ resurrected.

In his Arnolfini Double Portrait, Jan van Eyck depicted a young man holding a young woman’s right hand with his left. Beyond her is a bed with open bed-curtains. A carving on the top-back of a chair next to the bed depicts St. Margaret. Like St. Pelagia and St. Marina, St. Margaret is associated with the sexual union of a woman and a man.

Love encompasses betrayal. In the Arnolfini Double Portrait, just above the joined hands of the woman and the man, a studious viewer discovers a malevolent image:

a creature with a wide face, distended mouth, goatee, broad nose, heavy eyelids, pointed ears, and cloven hooves, whose general shape is mirrored by the carved lion behind him and whose expression echoes the menacing look of a second lion on the adjacent chair [4]

The original frame for the painting seems to have contained an Ovidian inscription:

Betray promises; what harm is there in promising? In promises anyone can be rich.

{ Promissas fallito; quid enim promittere laedit? Pollicitis dives quilibet esse potest. } [5]

Van Eyck’s paintings “invite the viewer to discover meaning at ever-deeper levels.” Disguised symbols in his paintings interact “with other symbols, overt, embedded, and disguised, to create aesthetically satisfying enactments of fundamental concepts of Christian salvation.”[6] The betrayal of Christ is fundamental to Christian understanding of salvation. In his Arnolfini Double Portrait, van Eyck subtly leads viewers to consider women and men betraying each other in love.[7]

joined hands in the Arnolfini Portrait of Jan van Eyck

Within St. Donation’s Church in Bruges, Jan van Eyck’s The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele similarly leads thoughtful viewers to ponder betrayal in love.above Eve, Samson killing lion above Adam, Cain killing AbelThe Virgin at the center of the painting sits on a throne that has decorated armrests. On the lower parts of the armrests are Adam and Eve. They are looking toward each other and indicating shame by covering their genitals. Above Adam, Cain brutally kills his brother Abel. Above Eve, Samson displays marvelous strength that helped him to kill many men. Samson’s strength was no match for the vicious guile of his beloved Delilah. These betrayals in a painting physically and substantially located in St. Donation’s Church in Bruges plausibly recalled Flemish elites betraying and killing their ruler Charles the Good and the ensuing, bloody civil war. In the understanding of Galbert of Bruges and Jan van Eyck, the betrayal of Count Charles the Good was a specific betrayal in the general pattern of Christ being betrayed.[8]

Galbert initially refrained from describing Dedda suborning the murder of her husband Boldran so as to marry her lover Erembald. This vicious sexual betrayal was in the lineage of the Bertulf, Provost of St. Donation’s Church:

although I may seem to have here a good place to describe his genealogy, it nonetheless seems enough to me to labor diligently on the work in hand — in which I proposed to relate what happened during the siege and not the adulterous beginnings of the lineage of the provost and his relatives — and to refrain from such descriptions.

{ Et quamquam locum genealogiae ejus describendae hic obtinere videar, tamen videor mihi satis operae inceptae labore sufficere et eis descriptionibus supersedere, in qua eventum obsidionis et non adulterinum exordium generationis praepositi et suorum proposui me executurum. } [9]

But perceiving God’s design in this history, Galbert two-mindedly changed his mind:

If, finally, it were worth hearing, which it really isn’t but should nonetheless be written down out of simple wonder, God subsequently avenged the old betrayal with new ordeals, a new kind of casting down in the fourth or third generation of the family of the betrayers. It is appropriate, therefore, to retrace a little further the beginning of the family of the provost and his nephews.

{ Tandem si dignum esset auditu, quod vere non est, sed admiratione sola scribendum, in quarta vel tertia generis linea Deus vindicavit consequenter in genere traditorum scilicet antiquam traditionem novis periculis, novo genere praecipitationis. Paulo superius igitur principium generis praepositi et nepotum suorum recognoscere libet. } [10]

Actions long before the siege wouldn’t be worth hearing in a factual account of events surrounding the siege. Retracing the much earlier actions was appropriate because doing so directed the reader to the invisible reality of God’s historical design as Galbert perceived it.[11]

With much more artistic sophistication, Jan van Eyck incorporated the betrayal and murder of Count Charles the Good into The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele. Even if Galbert’s chronicle had remained unknown, the betrayal and murder of Charles was a notorious event in Flemish history.[12] Jan van Eyck’s painterly practice aligned with Galbert’s sense of the betrayal of Charles:

Jan van Eyck’s religious works always present the spectator with a transfigured view of visible reality. … Van Eyck did not portray earthly reality per se: he was not interested in simply recording what he saw. Rather, descriptive data were rearranged in all of Van Eyck’s religious works, so that they illustrated not earthly existence but what he considered supernatural truth. Visions of eternal truth were made accessible in what, especially for the modern viewer, are confusingly “real” terms. [13]

Canon van der Paele had become wealthy serving as a church official in Rome. He may have committed serious ethical betrayals for which he sought to atone.[14] In any case, St. Donation’s Church was certainly a place of wicked historical betrayal. It was also a place for regularly celebrating the triumph of Christ over death.

The woman at the center of The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele represents everyday gynocentric reality. Another level of reality arises from the Virgin Mary and the backgrounded betrayal of men. In the Christian understanding of salvation, the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against women and men.

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[1] Brine (2014) p. 265, quoting (in translation) from R. A. Parmentier, “Marie de Hongrie et la Madone vander Paele,” Annales de la Société d’Émulation de Bruges. 69 (1926): 388–91, at 391. For an online scholarly analysis of the painting, see Anne van Oosterwijk, “Madonna with Canon Joris Van der Paele,” at the Vlaamsekunstcollectie.

[2] Brine (2014) p. 265. Brine convincingly argues that the painting was originally a grave memorial, not an altarpiece.

[3] Galbert of Bruges, De multro, traditione et occisione gloriosi Karoli comitis Flandriarum {The murder, betrayal, and slaughter of the glorious Charles, Count of Flanders} Prologue, Latin from Rider (1994) p. 3, English trans. from Rider (2013) p. 3.

[4] Ward (1994) p. 19. Unlike other elements of the painting (“the dog, the discarded shoes, the chandelier, the single lighted candle, the oranges, the beads, the image of Saint Margaret”), the menacing figures next to the clasped hands were in the underdrawing. Billinge & Campbell (1995) pp. 56 (Fig. 11), 59,

[5] Quoted in Colenbrander (2005) p. 414, quoting Jakob Quelvis of Leipzig, who saw the painting at the Alcázar in Madrid in 1594. These verses quote Ovid, Ars Amatoria 1.443-4, except Promittas fallito replaces Promittas facito. That change may have been a mis-transcription. Ovidian verses are attested on the frame in other late sources. Whether the inscription was on the original frame isn’t clear. The frame with the inscriptions was removed some time after 1700.

Colenbrander interpreted the inscription to mean “Keep your promises! and: Be not liable to deceit, but also: Do not deceive yourself.” Id. p. 416. That interpretation doesn’t seem credible to me. It projects bland moralizing onto vibrant, transgressive medieval practices of sexed protest.

[6] Ward (1994) pp. 13, 27 (previous two quotes). Rider described Galbert’s chronicle as evoking a similar experience of encounter:

His work, that is, is not a product of thinking things through, it is a thinking-things-through. Writing — at least this kind of writing — was a studium for Galbert and, as we saw earlier, a modum: it required freedom, composure, equilibrium, sustained application, discipline, reflection, and judgment. It amounted to a mental, even spiritual, exercise, and the residue, the written text, was at once a record of the mental and spiritual exercise through which Galbert had gone and a mental and spiritual exercise through which, he thought, listeners or readers might also go as they heard or read it.

Rider (2009) p. 30.

[7] Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini had a mistress. She sued him to regain jewels he had given her. Arnolfini responded by attempting to use women’s privileged protection from court proceedings against her. Harbison (1990) pp. 282-3. While the man in the Arnolfini Double Portrait has long been identified as Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini, Lorne Campbell in 1997 showed that Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini married in 1447 and cannot be the man in the portrait. See Koster (2003), text associated with note 22.

In considering the Arnolfini Double Portrait, scholars in recent decades have engaged in story-telling in service of dominant ideology or self-absorption. With masculine sexual imagery, Harbison praised the woman in the Arnolfini Double Portrait (whom he, following others, mis-identified as Giovanna Cenami):

she does stand firm and erect; here is a woman who is not merely shrinking, soft or undulating. Remarkably for a woman shown with her husband in a fifteenth-century portrait, Cenami gazes across to her husband, not down toward the floor.

Harbison (1990) pp. 281-2. Seidel (1993) exemplified solipsistic scholarship that explicitly and proudly marginalizes truth-seeking. Professor Allen Farber’s Art History 214, taught at SUNY Oneonta, shows the normalization of Seidel’s post-truth scholarly approach.

An appropriately scathing but apparently uninfluential review of Seidel (1993) criticized analogizing the Arnolfini Double Portrait to donor portraits:

Donor portraits may have had many purposes, but their prime function was to remind the viewer to offer prayers that would shorten the time spent by the depicted in Purgatory. There surely is no question of this in Jan’s double portrait.

Gibson (1995) p. 424. Matheolus’s medieval masterpiece of men’s sexed protest explicitly associated marriage with time spent in Purgatory.

[8] Cain killing Abel and Samson killing the lion have well-established interpretations within Christian salvation history:

On the throne arm by St. Donatian, Cain kills Abel, a prefiguration of the Crucifixion (which, in turn, signified both the birth of the Church and the giving of the body and blood that paid for man’s sin). … The carving on the throne arm on the right, Samson opening the lion’s mouth, is a prefiguration of the Christ overcoming Satan or the Harrowing of Hell.

Ward (1994) p. 39. Those figures also connect to events within ordinary history: elites in Bruges betraying and murdering their ruler Count Charles the Good. As the murder of Boldran makes clear, women were intimately implicated in the betrayal and horrific violence against men.

[9] Galbert, De multro 57, Latin from Rider (1994) p. 108, English trans. from Rider (2013) p. 101.

[10] Galbert, De multro 70-1, Latin from Rider (1994) pp. 123, 125; English trans. from Rider (2013) p. 123.

[11] Rider insightfully invokes the thought of Hugh of Saint Victor:

In Hugh’s terms, the visible world forms one level of reality and was created precisely to manifest another, invisible, level of reality. He begins the essay {De tribus diebus} by writing that “the good Word and wise Life that created the world can be discerned by contemplating the world. But the Word itself cannot be seen; it created that it might be seen and is seen through that which it created.” It is in and through the visible created world, which Hugh terms a “simulacrum,” that the human mind may perceive the “three invisibilia” of God — His power, His wisdom, and His goodness — which manifest themselves respectively in the immensity, the beauty, and the utility of His creations

Rider (2009) p. 21.

In discussing his chronicle, Galbert repeatedly used the word commendare {commend}: “it seems that Galbert thought of his work as a handing over of something to someone.” Rider (2009) p. 31. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus, just before dying on the cross, cries out, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Luke 23:46. The Vulgate that Galbert knew renders that verse as:

et clamans voce magna Iesus ait Pater in manus tuas commendo spiritum meum et haec dicens exspiravit

Galbert’s use of commendare points to his sense of his work in relation to Christian salvation history.

[12] Rider declared:

No medieval copies of it {Galbert’s chronicle} survive, and there is no reason to believe that more than one copy of it ever existed during the period. This unique text slept through the Middle Ages locked, probably, in some chest in Bruges. The chronicle surfaces in the historical record at the end of the fifteenth century

Rider (2013) p. xviii. Joris van der Paele’s uncle Joos was canon of St. Donation’s Church in Bruges from 1364. Joris and his brother subsequently became canons there. Early in the fifteenth century at St. Donation’s Church in Bruges, Joris with his long-established local connections conceivably could have read Galbert’s chronicle.

[13] Harbison (1984) p. 589.

[14] On van der Paele and his actions to ensure “the salvation and good of his soul and the souls of his parents and benefactors,” Brine (2014) pp. 268-71.


Billinge, Rachel, and Lorne Campbell. 1995. “The Infra-red Reflectograms of Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of Giovanni(?) Arnolfini and his Wife Giovanna Cenami(?).” National Gallery Technical Bulletin. 16: 47–60.

Brine, Douglas. 2014. “Jan van Eyck, Canon Joris van der Paele, and the Art of Commemoration.” Art Bulletin. 96 (3): 265-287.

Colenbrander, Herman Th. 2005. “‘In promises anyone can be rich!’: Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini double portrait; a ‘Morgengave.'” Zeitschrift Für Kunstgeschichte. 413-424.

Gibson, Walter S. 1995. “Book Review: Linda Seidel. Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait: Stories of an Icon.” Speculum. 70 (2): 423-425.

Harbison, Craig. 1984. “Realism and symbolism in early Flemish painting.” The Art Bulletin. 66(4): 588-602.

Harbison, Craig. 1990. “Sexuality and social standing in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini double portrait.” Renaissance Quarterly. 43 (2): 249-291.

Koster, Margaret L. 2003. “The Arnolfini double portrait: a simple solution.” Apollo. 157 (499): 3-14.

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. 2009. “‘Wonder with Fresh Wonder’: Galbert the Writer and the Genesis of the De multro.”  Ch. 1 (pp. 13-35) in Rider & Murray (2009).

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.

Seidel, Linda. 1993. Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini portrait: stories of an icon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ward, John L. 1994. “Disguised Symbolism as Enactive Symbolism in Van Eyck’s Paintings.” Artibus et Historiae. 15 (29): 9-53.

Moschos in Pratum Spirituale told of women sexually harassing men

monk studying

Monks serving God in the deserts of North Africa and Mesopotamia about 1500 years ago commonly regarded women as creating a hostile work environment for them. Young, attractive women sexually harassed monks and made them less productive in their prayers. While it’s difficult for many persons today to comprehend, women in the ancient world often had loving concern for men. John Moschos recorded about 600 GC in his Pratum Spirituale {Spiritual Meadow} that women acted shrewdly and fearlessly, as well as strongly and independently, to end their sexual harassment of men.

Moschos in the Pratum Spirituale told the story of a monk who was temporarily staying in the home of a Christ-loving farmer. The farmer had a daughter who was a young, beautiful woman. By her presence she so sexually harassed the monk that he “burned with desire for her.” After her father left on a business trip, the monk sought to have sex with the daughter. With sharp reason she interrogated him:

“You, brother, how long have you been in your monastery, sir?” He said, “Seventeen years.” She replied: “Have you had any experience with a woman?” and he said he had not. The maiden answered the brother: “And you wish to destroy all your labour for the sake of an hour’s pleasure? How many times have you poured poured out tears that you might present your flesh spotless and without stain to Christ? And now you are willing to dissipate all that labour for the sake of a short-lived pleasure?” [1]

The price men pay for sex, which apparently lasted longer in the ancient world than it commonly does today, isn’t just spiritual. Today, financial “child support” laws impose massive income-based taxes on men merely for having had sex. The maiden reminded the monk of the less totalitarian, less punitive version of such laws in the ancient world:

And if you do as you wish and fall into sin with me, have you the wherewithal to assume responsibility for me and to support me?

The monk confessed that he lacked the financial means to support her. But he didn’t suggest that she get a job and support him. The maiden then put forward a further legal threat: if the monk continued to seek to have sex with her, she would hang herself. This strong, independent woman forcefully declared:

you will be judged as a murderer. Rather than become the cause of so much evil, go back to your monastery. You will have plenty to do in praying for me. [2]

The monk obeyed the maiden’s order. He went back to his monastery and resolved never again to go out into the world. The monk thus never again experienced sexual harassment. He never again faced the punishment imposed on men who are sexually harassed.

In the ancient world, strong, independent, fearless women acted decisively to end sexual harassment of men. Moschos’s Pratum Spirituale tells of a young man who felt a “satanic desire” in his heart from a young woman sexually harassing him. To save the young man from his desire for her, the young woman withdrew into the wilderness. She lived there for seventeen years, subsisting only on a basket of soaked beans. She told an anchorite:

so great has been the providence of God to me that I have been able to eat of them {the beans} all this time and they have not decreased. And this too you should know, father: that His goodness has so sheltered me that in all these seventeen years no man ever laid eyes on me until you did today. Yet for my part, I could see all of them. [3]

With her decisive action and the goodness of God, the woman didn’t sexually harass men for seventeen years. After that many years in the desert, like many years working in a highly stressful career, the woman was no longer young and probably much less likely to sexually harass men.[4]

Another strong, independent, fearless woman took even more dramatic action to end her sexual harassment of a young man. She was an anchoress and highly virtuous. She:

led a solitary life in her own home, cultivating her soul with fasting, prayers, vigils and by making many charitable donations. [5]

The anchoress, however, apparently was young and beautiful. She also occasionally left her home. She thus enabled the devil to inflame a young man “with Satanic lust for her.” That’s very severe sexual harassment. It created further harm:

The youth would wait for her outside her house. When she wished to go out, to go from her home to the oratory to pray, the youth would hinder her, forcing his attentions upon her in the way lovers do. The anchoress was so besieged by the attentions of the youth that she could not even set foot outside her own house.

To solve the problem at its roots, the anchoress fearlessly summoned the young man to her home. There she strongly interrogated him:

“Now, brother, why do you persecute me like this, sir, and why will you not even let me out of my house?” The youth answered: “Oh mistress, I want you so badly! Whenever I see you, I am all on fire, from head to toe.” She said to him: “What do you see in me that appeals to you so that you love me so?” The youth said: “Your eyes. It is your eyes which have seduced me.” When the anchoress heard this, that her eyes had led the youth astray, she picked up her shuttle and pierced and cast out both her eyes with it. When the youth realized it was because of him that she had put out her two eyes, he was so filled with remorse that he went away to Scêtê {a Christian monastic center in the Egyptian desert} and distinguished himself as a monk. [6]

Criminal law today tends to criminalize men both for seducing women and for being seduced by women. Yet seduction happens because women, intentionally or unintentionally, sexually harass men. Women in the ancient world weren’t passive and lacking in agency and responsibility. Women themselves took decisive action to end their sexual harassment of men.

Sexual harassment ultimately rests on men’s disadvantaged sexual position. Men are susceptible to sexual harassment because they are often sexually deprived. A pure heart protects a man from sexual harassment, yet many men fail in their struggle to purify their heart.[7] The wise ancient Greek law-giver Solon proposed enlightened public policies to end sexual inequality and sexual deprivation. Applying Solon’s wisdom in addressing sexual inequality would be a worthy complement to all the mind-numbing sexual harassment training seminars prevalent today.

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[1] John Moschos, Pratum Spirituale {The Spiritual Meadow} 39, from Greek trans. Wortley (1992) pp. 29-30. All the quotes in the above paragraph are from id.

John Moschos’s Pratum Spirituale “is probably the best known and the most neglected of the major documents describing the early centuries of Christian monachism.” John Wortley in Ihssen (2014) p. vii (Forward). Little is known about John Moschos. The available evidence suggests that John came from Damascus and was born between 527 and 565. John, along with his close friend and fellow monk Sophronios, traveled to Egypt, Mount Sinai, Palestine, Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome or Constantinople. The manuscript tradition of Pratum Spirituale is rich and diverse. No critical edition exists. On John’s biography, the text of Pratum Spirituale, and his political and religious circumstances, Booth (2014) Ch. 3, and Ihssen (2014) pp. 1-18.

Some of the chapters of Pratum Spirituale are available online in the English translation of Benedict Baker. Baker has also translated into English the Latin translation that Ambrosius Camaldulensis / Ambrose Traversari / Fra Ambrogio made about 1400. The set and numbering of stories varies across versions of Pratum Spirituale.

[2] Moschos, Pratum Spirituale 205 is an alternate version of the story. In that version, the maiden said to the monk:

I am having my period. Nobody can come near me or bear the smell of me for the stench which mars my body.

Trans. Wortley (1992) p. 184. With those shrewd words, the maiden helped the monk to feel less sexually harassed.

[3] Moschos, Pratum Spirituale 179, trans. Wortley (1992) p. 148-9.

[4] Ihssen (2014) pp. 28-33, sees this story as a chaste version of the life of Mary of Egypt. Ihssen doesn’t recognize, however, how seventeen years in the desert affects the extent to which a woman sexually harasses men. Changes in the woman’s appearance are explicitly described in the lives of Mary of Egypt and Pelagia.

[5] Moschos, Pratum Spirituale 60, trans. Wortley (1992) p. 46-7. All the subsequent quotes in the paragraph above are from id.

[6] Christian scripture described brutal bodily self-punishment in the context of stumbling and forgiveness. On taking care not to cause another to stumble, Romans 14:13-21.

[7] Moschos described a young monk with a pure heart spending time in a tavern. An elder monk said to him:

Do you not know that you are a young man? Are you not aware that the snares of the devil are many? Do you not know that monks who live in cities are wounded by means of their eyes, their hearing and their clothing? You went into the tavern of your own free will; you hear things you do not want to hear and see thing you would rather not see, dishononourably mingling with both men and women. Please do not do it, but flee to the wilderness where you can find the salvation you desire.

The young monk responded:

Away with you, good elder. God requires nothing but a pure heart.

Pratum Spirituale 194, trans. Wortley (1992) p. 169. Most men must take care not to be led into temptation. Booth interprets this story as showing “concealed urban holiness.” Booth (2014) pp. 121-2. The tale ends with concern for possible reversal. The elder says to the younger, “May God save you and not disappoint me in my hope.”

[image] Monk in white, seated, reading. Oil painting by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, made between 1850 and 1855. Held in Louvre Museum (Paris), accession # RF 2604. Image thanks to Bas van Houwelingen and Wikimedia Commons.


Booth, Phil. 2014. Crisis of empire: doctrine and dissent at the end of late antiquity. Berkley: University of California Press.

Ihssen, Brenda Llewellyn. 2014. John Moschos’ Spiritual Meadow: Authority and Autonomy at the End of the Antique World. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing.

Wortley, John, trans. 1992. The Spiritual Meadow (Pratum Spirituale) of John Moschos. Cistercian Studies Series 139. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications.