man in medieval Baghdad foolishly acted as a courtly lover

singing slave girl

A young man pretending to be an aristocrat arrived at a banquet in eleventh-century Baghdad. A slave girl  — beautiful, highly cultured, and wealthy — was singing there. She enthralled him.

In fashionable devotion to the singing slave girl, the young man refrained from eating even though he was dying of hunger. He became inebriated from drinking sweet date wine. Then the love-struck young man saw roses. He grabbed them and ate them. The slave girl whispered behind her tambourine to her master:

By God, I beg of you, call for something for this young man to eat, or else his shit will become honeyed rose jam!

The singing slave girl cared for the foolish young man.

The young man was dressed in only a brocade robe. The night was cold. He began to shiver, and his teeth chatter. He said to the slave girl, “I want to embrace you.” She said to him, “You poor thing, you need to embrace an outer garment more than to embrace me, if you had any sense!” She had worldly good sense. He was a foolish courtly lover. He left deeply wounded by her sensible words.

As foolish courtly lovers do, the young man then wooed the slave girl with letters. He wrote to her of “his love and his follies, his insomnia at night, his tossing and turning in bed as if he were lying on a hot frying pain, and his inability to eat and drink.” The shrewd narrator of the story added that the young man wrote “of such like vacuous drivel, which has no use or benefit” to men in love. The singing slave girl naturally rejected the vacuous drivel of the courtly lover.

Badly educated, the courtly lover turned to literary imagination and poetry. He wrote to the slave girl:

Since you have forbidden me to visit you, or to ask you to visit me, then order, by God, your specter to visit me at night, and quench the heat of my heart.

Guide me to your specter so that
I may claim a rendezvous with it.

Another poem:

If your abstinence is a come-on,
show your specter the way to me.

The young man sought to travel to meet the slave girl’s spirit, or to have it come to him. In worldly love, a spirit is a poor substitute for a flesh-and-blood woman.

With compassion and boldness, the singing slave girl taught the foolish man actually how to achieve his aim. She sent a message to him:

Woe upon you, you poor thing, I’ll do something for you that is better for you than my specter visiting you at night. Put two gold coins in a purse and I’ll come to you and that will be that.

In courting sophisticated slave girls in medieval Baghdad, poetry was much less useful than gold coins.

As the above story indicates, the eleventh-century Islamic world had both the intellectual capability and freedom to criticize the men-debasing ideology of courtly love. In western Europe, benighted scholars have ignorantly celebrated courtly love for about a millennium. Study of medieval Islamic literature might help to spur a true renaissance and enlightenment.

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The above story is from the Ḥikāyat Abī al-Qāsim {The Imitation Abū al-Qāsim}, a work written in Arabic and attributed to al-Azdī. The work and its author are closely associated with Baghdad. It was probably originally written between 1008 and 1020. The work has survived in a unique codex manuscript now held in the British Library as MS. ADD 19, 913. That manuscript, which isn’t the author’s autograph, includes a marginal note dated 1347. St. Germain (2006) pp. 10-14.

St. Germain provides an English translation of Ḥikāyat Abī al-Qāsim, along with extensive notes. For the story above, see id. pp. 287-8. The quotes above are from id., with some insubstantial changes for clarity.

The singing slave girl was Zād Mihr, a historically attested woman. The man in love with her isn’t named. He is described as “a young man who pretended to be an aristocrat of Baghdad.” The young man’s letters to Zād Mihr include symptoms of lovesickness recognized from antiquity.

[image] Portrait of young Egyptian singing slave girl. Painting by
Émile Vernet-Lecomte, 1869. Slightly cropped. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


St. Germain, Mary S. 2006. Al-Azdī’s Ḥikāyat Abī al Qāsim al-Baghdādī: placing an anomalous text within the literary developments of its time. Ph.D Thesis. University of Washington.

public discussion of rape based on ignorance, bigotry & superstition

flat earth diagram of medieval understanding

High-quality, nationally representative survey data indicate that rape of men is about as prevalent as rape of women. Moreover, under current understandings of rape, women rape men about as often as men rape women. At the same time, criminal justice systems are highly biased toward punishing men. That produces a stark gender inequality. On any give day around the world, about fifteen times more men than women are sitting behind bars as prisoners of authoritative criminal justice systems. When is the last time you heard any public concern about that life-destroying gender inequality?

While important, largely untold facts about rape aren’t difficult to learn, contemporary public discussion of rape is mainly based on ignorance, bigotry, and superstition. A recent scholarly study declared:

Contemporary understandings of sexual victimization have been informed by the reality that men’s sexual violence toward women was ignored for centuries and remains dangerously well tolerated in many regions of the world. [1]

In reality, claims that a man committed sexual violence upon a women have been taken with deadly seriousness throughout history. Roman men, and subsequent historians, accepted Lucretia’s claim of rape without questioning. Lucretia’s claim of rape reportedly generated a bloody war and led to the founding of the Roman Republic. The ancient lives of saints Eugenia and Marina show that accusations that a man raped a woman were extremely damaging for the accused. Around the world and throughout history (except for recent decades), false accusations of rape have been a matter of intense concern. If men’s sexual violence toward women was historically ignored, historical concern about false accusations of men’s sexual violence toward women makes no sense. Belief that “men’s sexual violence toward women was ignored for centuries” reflects ignorance, bigotry, and superstition among scholars studying sexual violence today.

Pressure to honor orthodox dogma produces astonishing intellectual contortions in studying rape and sexual violence. A study of female perpetration of sexual violence declared:

While in no way seeking to minimize the very real phenomenon of male perpetration, we examine female perpetration so as to explore the gender dynamics at play and to understand sexual victimization more fully. In so doing, we argue that new attention to female sexual perpetration serves important feminist goals. [2]

In order to be well-regarded, scholarly work today must strive to serve feminist goals. In fact, the very real phenomenon of female perpetration has been much more commonly minimized than that of male perpetration. This study itself referred to “professionals & a culture of denial”:

Perhaps even more troubling than misperceptions concerning female perpetration among the general population are misperceptions held by professionals responsible for addressing the problem. Female perpetration is downplayed by those in fields such as mental health, social work, public health, and law [3]

One means of downplaying female perpetration is playing up female excuses. This study advocated research that “attends to women’s past victimization issues” and urged “taking into account the troubled background many such women possess.”[4] In studying men perpetrators of sexual violence, no equal concern is shown for those men’s past victimization issues and the troubled background of those men. Not surprisingly, the study called for “feminist approaches” to studying female perpetration.[5]

Scholarly ignorance, bigotry, and superstition constrains understanding of sexual violence. Within the mass of thoroughly anti-men gender-bigoted scholarship relating to criminal justice, one can find a rare nugget of good reason:

We conclude by recommending that public health and policy responses embrace a new, gender inclusive response to sexual victimization. This ought to entail, among other things, the attention of healthcare and criminal justice professionals to the reality of female perpetration, the inclusion of inmates in our national conversation about sexual victimization, and an expanded research agenda to study sexual victimization more comprehensively. [6]

Providing more funding for established scholars to pursue “an expanded research agenda to study sexual victimization more comprehensively” isn’t necessary. The public response to sexual victimization should reject gender bigotry, recognize the reality of female perpetrators, and include inmates, who are vastly disproportionately men. Rejecting ignorance, bigotry, and superstition isn’t a matter of doing more research under current scholarly incentives. Embracing truth and good reason requires a new commitment to enlightenment.[7]

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[1] Stemple, Flores & Meyer (2017) p. 303. A nearly identical claim occurs in Stemple & Meyer (2014) p. e19. For discussion of the latter, see my post on rape of men.

Although about four times more men die from violence than do women, the international elite has prioritized violence against women:

For the last few decades, the prevailing approach to sexual violence in international human rights instruments has focused virtually exclusively on the abuse of women and girls. … There are well over one hundred uses of the term “violence against women” — defined to include sexual violence — in U.N. resolutions, treaties, general comments, and consensus documents. No human rights instruments explicitly address violence against men. … another term employed in human rights instruments dozens of times, “gender-based violence,” might reasonably be thought to include both males and females. … {however, } “gender-based violence” is used only to describe female victimization, thereby leaving no room for much-needed gender analysis of male rape.

Stemple (2009) pp. 605, 619. For related analysis, Stemple (2011).

[2] Stemple, Flores & Meyer (2017) p. 303. Stemple elsewhere explains that “neglecting male rape is bad for women and girls.” Stemple (2009) p. 606. Stemple, Flores & Meyer (2017) shows further concern to be consistent with the dominant ideology:

A focus on female perpetration might be skeptically viewed as an attempt to upend a women’s rights agenda focused on male-perpetrated sexual victimization. But attention to female perpetration need not negate concern about other forms of abuse. Moreover, a close look a sexual victimization perpetrated by women is consistent with feminist imperatives to undertake intersectional analyses, to take into account power relations, and to question gender-based stereotypes, as we explain.

Id. See also id. p. 309. This article doesn’t consider that it might be skeptically viewed as attempting to forestall thorough, deconstructive critique of the dominant ideology’s anti-men gender bigotry.

[3] Stemple, Flores & Meyer (2017) p. 309. A section heading in the article is “6. Professionals & a culture of denial.”

[4] Stemple, Flores & Meyer (2017) p. 309. The study declared, “female perpetration is frequently intertwined with women’s past experience of their own victimization.” Id. p. 304. It also urged “taking account of issues specific to lesbian and bisexual women,” thus excluding gay and bisexual men. Id. p. 309.

[5] Stemple, Flores & Meyer (2017) p. 309.

[6] Id. p. 303. The actual conclusion inserts excuses for female perpetration. See id. p. 309 and discussion above. Popular media has treated as stunningly revelatory Stemple’s reporting that women and men commit sexual violence in roughly equal proportions. What’s actually extraordinary is that a legal scholar has acknowledged that truth, even while striving to avoid undermining the dominant ideology.

[7] Lack of commitment to truth and good reason makes much scholarly literature on rape and sexual violence an ugly spectacle. Scholars have almost always lacked the courage to describe honestly the problem. Consider:

In 1975, Susan Brownmiller famously described rape as “nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.” With the might and imprecision of a sledgehammer, Brownmiller’s words forced sex and gender to the center of the rape discussion. This perspective, usefully provocative in its era, reads today as an unreasonable generalization, particularly the author’s accusation that all men consciously use rape to intimidate. By creating a perpetrator class of men, Brownmiller dangerously sets up men as implausible victims.

Stemple (2009) p. 634 (internal footnotes omitted), citing Brownmiller (1975) p. 15. Underscoring her equivocal appreciation for Brownmiller’s work, Stemple credits Brownmiller with concern for male prisoner rape, but comments, “her claims strike me as dated {sic} and unreasonable.” Id. p. 634, notes 240, 241. Brownmiller’s claims are more honestly described as false, sexist, and hateful toward men. Nonetheless, Brownmiller’s claims became famous and enormously influential. They have contributed to expanding the criminalization of men seeking women’s love.

[image] Depiction (Flammarion engraving) imagining medieval view of a flat earth. From Flammarion (1888) p. 163. Image thanks to Wikimedia Commons. Here’s a colored version.

The caption under the engraving states in English translation: “A missionary of the Middle Ages tells that he had found the point where the sky and the Earth touch.” The engraving itself dates to no earlier than the late eighteenth century. Since the 5th century BGC, learned persons, including those in medieval Europe, have recognized that the earth is spherical. See note [7] and associated text in my post “earth’s a square, heaven a circle.”


Brownmiller, Susan. 1975. Against our will: Men, women and rape. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Flammarion, Camille. 1888. L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire {The Atmosphere: Popular Meteorology}. Paris: Librairie Hachette.

Stemple, Lara. 2009. “Male Rape and Human Rights.” Hastings Law Journal. 60 (3): 605-646.

Stemple, Lara. 2011. “Human Rights, Sex, and Gender: Limits in Theory and Practice.” Pace Law Review. 31 (3): 824-836.

Stemple, Lara, and Ilan H. Meyer. 2014. “The Sexual Victimization of Men in America: New Data Challenge Old Assumptions.” American Journal of Public Health. 104 (6): e19-e26.

Stemple, Lara, Andrew Flores, and Ilan H Meyer. 2017. “Sexual victimization perpetrated by women: Federal data reveal surprising prevalence.” Aggression and Violent Behavior. 34: 302-311.

misandry & castration culture repress alternate lifestyles for men

In the growing movement for men’s liberation, Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW) has been highly influential. MGTOW is an alternate lifestyle for men that emphasizes men’s intrinsic human worth. MGTOW rejects men being merely tools in service to particular women and to gynocentric society in general. The backlash against MGTOW brings the dominant forces of misandry and castration culture to wage war on men. That isn’t a new phenomenon. When men in medieval Europe pursued an alternate lifestyle, they too were attacked with misandry and castration culture.

medieval Cistercian conversi at work

Men who sought to change their lives radically in medieval Europe could join monastic orders as conversi, also known as lay brothers. The conversi made monastic vows, but they were often illiterate and lacked deep knowledge of scripture and church teaching. Monks who were ordained as priests celebrated the sacraments, sang sacred music, and pursued advanced learning. The conversi worked in the fields and around the monastic houses to sustain the mundane life of the community. Some conversi sought to reform themselves from wrongful behavior in their prior, non-monastic lives. Others sensed oppressive, unholy circumstances in the secular world. Seeking an alternative, they became conversi.

According to the twelfth-century Latin masterpiece Speculum stultorum, the donkey Burnel threatened Cistercian conversi. Burnel had taken a path across the field of a Cistercian monastery near Lyons. The Cistercian brother Fromundus urged his dogs upon Burnel. The dogs tore into Burnel. One even bit off the end of his tail. Acting in the person of a papal envoy, Burnel cursed Fromundus for all his days.

Burnel’s lengthy anathema drew upon misandry and castration culture to threaten conversi. The papal envoy Burnel declared:

Those converts {conversi}, better known as perverts,
and from their actions drawing certain names —
if anyone catches them outside the church,
destroy their right-side eyes and feet.
And if bells not hang around their necks,
let the penises attached to them be cut off.

{ Istos conversos, quos perversos magis esse
constat, ut ex factis nomina certa trahant,
ecclesiae portam quisquis conspexerit extra,
mox oculos dextros auferat atque pedes.
Et nisi compana collo dependeat una,
mentula tollatur quodque cohaeret ei. }

Conversi were men pursing an alternate lifestyle relative to peasants and priestly monks. The papal envoy first attacked them by stereotyping them as sexual criminals. The papal envoy then sought to confine the conversi to church as if they were priestly monks. Like associating toxicity with masculinity (“toxic masculinity”), the papal envoy required that bells be attached to these men’s necks so that all would be warned of their coming. If men didn’t wear this signal of their menace, they would have their penises cut off. That’s how misandry and castration culture have functioned throughout history.

Men today have good reason to flee the lifestyle typically imposed on men. Be a worker drone, financially support women and children, and die for your country. Even before those roles were as devalued as they are today, what man would want only them for his life?  Few men would. Misandry and castration culture, among with myths of misogyny, patriarchy, and rape culture, are necessary to keep men confined within the soul-destroying structures of gynocentric society.

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The above quote is from Speculum stultorum ll. 977-82, Latin text from Mozley & Raymo (1960) p. 53, my English translation, with some help from Regenos. Regenos translated those lines as:

That all those converts, rather perverts as
They’re known, get certain names to suit their deeds.
Who catches sight of them outside the church
Let him forthwith their eyes and feet destroy.
And if a bell be hung not from their necks,
Then let them be emasculated too.

Regenos (1959) p. 66. My translation follows the Latin more closely in vital words, e.g. penis, and is more easily readable, I hope.

In the above quote, the context of specific physical organs (eyes and feet) make clear that the proper translation for mentula is “penis.” The same is true in Bernardus Silvestris’s twelfth-century Cosmographia, Microcosmus 14.166.

[image] Medieval Cistercian conversi at work. Illustration from a psalter on the life of Saint Bernard of Claivaux. By Jörg Breu in 1500. Image thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


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.