medieval education: teaching demonology of men’s sexuality

medieval demonology: Lucifer being judged

Today in higher education, students are taught about the demonic male, the pathology of masculinity, and the oppressive power of the male gaze. Medieval education tended to be of higher intellectual quality. Nonetheless, Egbert of Liège’s early-eleventh-century schoolbook for young boys indicates that, even in the more enlightened medieval period, students were taught demonology of men’s sexuality.

Like Hesiod’s Theogony, demonology of men’s sexuality draws upon the cultural resources of castration culture. Medieval Latin literature addressed castration culture with acute perceptiveness in such masterpieces as Radulfus Tortarius’s Sincopus and John of Hauville’s Architrenius. Medieval authors dared to tell of Ovid being castrated for defying the great mother goddess Cybele. Medieval authors narrated the effects on Percival of his father being castrated. From this well-laden ship of castration culture, Egbert of Liège drew simple, disparaging lessons for young boys.

Silence and castrate yourself. This brutal teaching, so familiar to men today, Egbert drilled into young boys with heroic Latin hexameter poetry:

Cut off the member that impedes you the most, I say.
What is the source of evil? I argue it is these two: the tongue and the genitals.
If you want to be a strong man, use your strength, O conqueror.
If you are willing to cut, then do away with both of them like a man.

{ Hoc menbrum capula tibi, quod magis inpedit, inquam.
Unde mali caput? Haec duo linguam causor et inguen:
fortis et ut vir sis, tum viribus utere, victor,
si capulare velis, extingue viriliter ambo. }[1]

Act like a man! Be a strong man! The social imperatives of gynocentric society presume that men aren’t naturally virtuous. The demonology of men’s sexuality starts with denying men’s birthright. It depends on forcing men to work to be men. Silencing men is necessary to prevent men from speaking out about injustices against men.

Throughout history, some brave men have refused to silence themselves. Juvenal wrote boldly and frankly to dissuade his friend Postumus from marrying. Loqui prohibeor et tacere non possum. They forbid me to speak, and I cannot be silent. Thus Rufinus urged his friend Valerius not marry. Matheolus courageously shared his lessons from the school of hard knocks that was his marriage to Petra. With just a little exposure to masterpieces in literature of men’s sexed protest, even the most dim-witted boy can understand a fundamental lesson: get married under gynocentrism only at grave risk to your well-being.

Men often need to be pressured into marriage. Shaming men — “you’re afraid to get married” — has been a common tactic throughout history to pressure men into marriage. In the Middle Ages, Egbert taught young boys that even a man reluctant to have sex with an ugly woman is a coward. Egbert taught that lesson with a fable about a man and a bear:

A coward was ordered to lie down with an ugly beast.
But after he had kissed the bear, he shunned it.
He was then urged to poke his rod into its bowels.
“Men, I could scarcely bring myself to touch it with my lips. Where are you pushing me?” he said.
“Let no friend ask that I venture greater things after this.
Such terror infused me from what I have already ventured,
I was sure I was going to crap myself with a filthy pile.”

{ Ignavus deforme pecus concidere iussus;
oscula sed postquam libavit, abhorruit ursum.
Cogitur inde, feri ut venabula figat in alvum:
“Labra, viri, vixdum ammovi! quo truditis?” inquit,
“Me maiora audere dehinc ne poscat amicus:
tantus enim invasit terror pro talibus ausis,
certus eram me congerie foedare inhonesta.” }[2]

This fable concludes with the moral it teaches:

One terrified by the smallest things, balks at more serious ones in his fear.

{ In minimis veritus refugit graviora timendo. }

Heterosexual men tend to prefer beautiful, feminine women for mates. Egbert inverted such a female mate with the figure of an ugly, male bear. That simple literary move drills into young boys the lesson that men must be willing to marry any women, or they will be socially disparaged as not real men.[3]

In conjunction with urging young boys to be silent, to castrate themselves, and to go obediently into marriage with violent, ugly, mannish women, Egbert taught them not to struggle against men’s subservience to women. Young boys under Egbert’s tutelage learned that men’s physical strength and intellectual capabilities are no match for women’s actual superiority:

A woman laid low the first man Adam, Samson, and Solomon.
A woman conquered the newly formed man, the strong man, the wise man.
The weak sex struck down the strong one through temptations.

{ Primum hominem, Samson, Salemonem femina stravit,
plasma novum, fortem, sapientem femina vicit,
debilis allisit fortem per scandala sexum. }[4]

Misrepresenting women as the “weak sex” is obfuscation in the service of gynocentrism. If women actually were the weak sex, then men wouldn’t be dying from violence four times as frequently as women do, and men wouldn’t be subject to social injustices that are socially deprived of that name. Unlike many professors today, Egbert deserves credit for instructing students in the reality of men’s subservience to women.

While instructing young boys in silence, castration, forced marriage, and subservience to women, Egbert recognized that the quality of knowledge teachers offered students was declining. Egbert observed:

Scholarly effort is in decline everywhere as never before.
Indeed, cleverness is shunned at home and abroad.
What does reading offer to pupils except tears?
It is rare, worthless when offered for sale, and devoid of wit.

{ Ut numquam studium sic friget ubique scolare,
quippe domi sollertia militiaeque negatur;
lectio quid preter plorare ministrat alumnis?
Rara quidem, nauci, cum venerit, et salis expers. }[5]

Compared to Egbert’s time early in the eleventh century, the situation is even worse today. Critical gender theory is produced with little scholarly effort. Truly clever work is shunned and ignored. What pupil wouldn’t be reduced to tears while reading ignorant scholarship proclaiming misogyny? After many expensive years of higher education, a student is firmly indoctrinated in the demonology of men’s sexuality and knows nothing about real sexism.

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[1] Egbert of Liège, The Well-Laden Ship {Fecunda Ratis} 1.1190-3, Latin text and English translation from Babcock (2013) pp. 126-7. These verses are titled “Concerning the more unjust members {De menbris magis iniustis}”. Cf. id. p. x, “that such poison is being fed to children is still disturbing.”

Egbert reflected ideas about castration and violence against men that all humane persons should find deeply disturbing. In his schoolbook, Egbert included the proverb:

My hand is not clean: the dog isn’t cleansed of a testicle.

{ Nec mihi munda manus, canis et non teste solutus. }

Fecunda ratis 1.131, sourced as previously. Egbert or one of his students glossed this proverb with the words:

If anyone has begun to castrate a dog, when one testicle is torn out and the other remains, that person has neither a clean hand nor completed work. In the same way, having wounded an enemy and letting him remain alive, afterward one will experience an avenger of his death, whom he had earlier willingly left behind as a survivor.

{ Si quis canem ceperit castrare uno testiculo eruto, altero dimisso, nec mundam habit manum nec opus impletum. Sic aliquis, (si) inimicum vulnerans vivum dimiserit, postea experietur mortis suae ultorem, quem antea volens reliquit superstitem. }

Babcock (2013) p. 269, note to Fecunda ratis 1.131, with the Latin translation modified slightly, including to eliminate a sexist assumption about the castrator’s gender. This gloss personifies a man’s testicle as both an avenger and a being that can die.

Babcock’s Latin text is essentially that of Voigt (1889). In this and subsequent quotes, I’ve lineated Babcock’s translation to match the Latin text to help non-Latinists to examine the Latin.

Egbert, a cleric in Liège (in present-day Belgium), completed Fecunda Ratis between 1010 and 1026. Babcock (2013) p. xiii, xv. It consists of “2,373 unrhymed hexameter verse in two books.” Ziolkowski (2007) pp. 100. The work has survived in a single, eleventh-century manuscript: Cologne, Erzbischöfliche Diözesanbibliothek, Dombibliothek codex 196, fols. 1r-63r. Liège was within the archbishopric of Cologne. Ziolkowski (2007) p. 101; Babcock (2013) p. xxv, n 1.

Egbert’s Fecunda Ratis provides early Latin versions of influential stories. The earliest known version of “Little Red Riding Hood” occurs in Fecunda Ratis 2.472-85, “Concerning the girl saved from wolf cubs {De puella a lupellis servata}”. For thorough analysis of the history of “Little Red Riding Hood,” Ziolkowski (2007) Ch. 3.

The earliest known version of the story of the peasant and his domineering wife is also found in Fecunda Ratis. It’s 1.1378-84, “Concerning a wife hostile to her husband {De uxore infensa marito}”. The great medieval women writer Marie de France reworked this story to provide the earliest known representation of the inverted v-sign, a sexually insulting gesture that remains common in the United Kingdom today.

[2] Egbert, Fecunda Ratis 1.1419-26, Latin text and English trans. Babcock (2013) pp. 146-9 (including subsequent quote above), with my changes to the translation. These verses are titled “About the man who kissed a bear {De eo, qui osculatus est ursum},” Babcock called this fable “extremely puzzling.” Id. p. 328, n. to 1419-26. It immediately follows verses describing five stages of “flaming love {flagrantis …. amoris}”: sight, speech, touch, kisses, and sexual intercourse. Babcock notes that the fable “would be (and probably should be) interpreted sexually by the reader.” Id.

My changes to Babcock’s translation help to make clear the fable’s relevance to the gender oppression of men. Babcock translated concidere as “slaughter” and venabula figat in alvum as “stick his lance in the belly of the beast.” I follow Babcock’s suggestions for sexual meanings of these terms. The idiomatic phrase “belly of the beast” seems to me to have misleading connotations here; moreover, the Latin doesn’t repeat the noun “beast {pecus}” from the first verse. For audere / ausis, I use the verb “venture” rather than Babcock’s “dare” to be more consistent with the sense of the man’s reluctance. For “defile myself with a filthy mass,” I use more concrete, colloquial diction consistent with the Latin.

[3] Not understanding the fable’s meaning and corresponding literary device, Babcock misconstrued it with an excessively literal reading: “the bear, like the coward, is male, so it would be anal sex that is implied.” Babcock (2013) p. 328, n. to 1419-26. On a husband’s reluctance to consummate a marriage, see, e.g. the Vita of Galaktion and Episteme and John VIII Palaiologos’s behavior toward his wife Sophia of Montferrat.

[4] Egbert, Fecunda Ratis 2.515-7, Latin text and English trans. Babcock (2013) pp. 230-1. In discussing Solomon, who in Solomon and Marcolf showed malice toward men, Egbert’s work carries forth the understandable frustration and anger of men suffering under long-standing gynocentric oppression:

How many cups, always bitter, does this sex serve up?
The first man fell by this disease, and Samson and Solomon.
What wonder could this poisonous snake not topple?

{ Hic sexus quota pocula semper amara propinat!
Primus homo hoc morbo, Samson ceciditque Salemon —
quid non precipitet haec ydra venefica mirum? }

Fecunda Ratis 2.539-41, trans. id. pp. 232-3. Men deserve compassion for their personal suffering. But at the level of social structure, men share equal blame for the injustices of gynocentrism.

[5] Egbert, Fecunda Ratis 1.1093-6, Latin text and English trans. Babcock (2013) pp. 116-7. These verses are titled “Concerning Poor Scholarly Effort {De malo studio}”.

[image] Excerpt from Lucifer being judged by Christ in majesty. Illumination on f. 067v of Livre de la Vigne nostre Seigneur (Bodley Library, Oxford, MS. Douce 134). Created in France, c. 1450-1470. Image thanks to the Bodley Library’s Luna system. Here’s a brief review of medieval demonology.


Babcock, Robert Gary, ed. and trans. 2013. Egbert of Liège. The well-laden ship. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 25. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Voigt, Ernst, ed. 1889. Egberts von Lüttich Fecunda Ratis, zum ersten Mal herausgegeben, auf ihre Quellen zurückgeführt und erklärt von Ernst Voigt. Halle A.S.: M. Niemeyer.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2007. Fairy tales from before fairy tales: the medieval Latin past of wonderful lies. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

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