aetas Ovidiana: friar labored to ensure boy equipped with Naso

Ovid Naso

Medieval Latin literature highly valued the classical poetry of Naso, also known as Ovid. In fact, the twelfth and thirteenth centuries have become known among medieval scholars as “the Ovidian Age {Aetas Ovidiana}.”[1] Learned men in the Middle Ages recognized that studying Ovid was vital for intellectually preparing a boy for manhood. Not surprisingly, a Franciscan friar filled with love for neighbor vigorously engaged in erection labor to ensure that a boy became equipped with a nose.

The friar loved a lovely young woman recently married to one of his neighbors. The young woman soon became pregnant. Meeting with her and her husband, the friar prophesied that the child would bring them great unhappiness. The couple pressed to know more, but the friar refused to speak further. Anxious to know the nature of the impending calamity, the woman secretly summoned the friar and begged him to speak. After impressing upon her the necessity of maintaining secrecy, he declared that she would bear a son, but he would be born “without a nose {absque naso}.” According to the friar, not having a nose is “the foulest mark of all on a human face {turpissima omnium in facie hominis nota}.” That indicates how highly Naso was valued in the Middle Ages.

Terrified at the news that her son wouldn’t be equipped with Naso, the lovely young woman begged the friar for a remedy. He consented and explained:

it was necessary to set a certain day for a work of God when he would have sex with her and supplement her husband’s deficiency and add a nose to the child.

{ certa die opus esse, ut cum ea concumberet, et se suppleturum viri defectum, et puero additurum nasum. } [2]

Not wanting her infant to be born deformed, the woman reluctantly agreed. She submitted to the friar on the appointed day. That wasn’t enough:

Saying that he needed to perfect the nose, he came back and had sex with her many times. She, from a sense of modest, was lying still, but the friar ordered her to gyrate, since with friction the nose would better adhere.

{ cum ille nondum nasum perfectum esse diceret, saepius cum muliere concubuit. Illa, prae verecundia, cum staret immobilis, Frater moveri eam jubebat, ut ex confricatione magis nasus cohaereret. }

The young woman subsequently gave birth to a boy with a very prominent nose. She herself told her husband how their son had been equipped with a nose. He responded magnanimously, as husbands are prone to do:

he praised his wife, and didn’t disparage the work of his fellow-father.

{ maritus laudavit, et operam compatris non est aspernatus. }

Ovid would have been delighted with all of them.

We are no longer in an Aetas Ovidiana. In the Middle Ages, husbands were thought to preserve wives’ health through sex. Now a large share of husbands are disparaged as rapists. Moreover, the criminalization of men seducing women explicitly includes men having sex with women under the pretense of providing medical treatment.[3] What will be the result of this calamitous lack of appreciation for Ovid, no one knows.

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[1] Early in the twentieth century, the Latin scholar Ludwig Traube described an aetas Virgiliana (seventh and eight centuries), an aetas Horatiana (tenth and eleventh centuries), and then an aetas Ovidiana (twelfth and thirteenth centuries). In fact, aetas Ovidiana characterizes well most of the European Middle Ages. Monastic readers in Benedictine missions from the ninth century gave Ovid central importance in the surviving classical tradition. Clark (2011) p. 177. Interest in Ovid rapidly grew:

In the centuries of greatest monastic expansion — c. 950 to c. 1150 — Ovid emerged as the pre-eminent Latin master of the cloister, the companion of the schoolboys, novices and juniors, and also the corruption of their senior colleagues

Id. p. 178. Late medieval English monastic readers remained keenly interested in Ovid. In fact, most learned persons throughout the Middle Ages were interested in Ovid:

he {Ovid} belonged not only to the aetas Ovidiana — the twelfth and thirteenth centuries — or to Benedictine monks alone, but was shared among Christian readers of various religious affiliations until the end of the Middle Ages and beyond.

Wenzel (2011) p. 160. Preachers transmitted Ovid to the whole of medieval society. Among 2,500 sermons from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, over one hundred refer to Ovid. Id. Ovid was used in sermons much more often than either Virgil or Horace were. Id. p. 175.

On the reception of Ovid generally, Newlands & Miller (2014).

[2] Poggio, Facetiae 223, “A Minorite friar who made a child’s nose {De fratre minorum qui fecit nasum puero},” Latin text from Poggoi (1879) vol. 2, pp. 150-3. Here and subsequent quotes include my English translation, drawing upon that of id., but tracking the Latin more closely. All subsequent quotes above are similarly from id.

The Franciscans were originally called the Ordo Fratrum Minorum (“The Order of the Minor Brothers”), also known as Minorites.

[3] See, e.g., Boyett v. State (1964), 8 Div. 907, Court of Appeals of Alabama. 159 So.2d 628 (1964). Women deceiving men into having sex isn’t criminalized. For example, a woman who has breast enlargement implants and doesn’t inform a man of that reality before having sex with him isn’t subject to a criminal charge of sex by deception. Here’s more on the historical criminalization of men seeking sex with women.

[image] Portrait in profile of Ovid. This portrait (and its reflection about a vertical axis) is widely disseminated on the web, but not convincingly sourced. It appears to be a print from the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.


Clark, James G., Frank Thomas Coulson, and Kathryn L. McKinley, eds. 2011. Ovid in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Clark, James G. 2011. “Ovid in the monasteries: the evidence from late medieval England.” Ch. 9 (pp. 177-196) in Clark, Coulson & McKinley (2011).

Newlands, Carole Elizabeth, and John F. Miller, eds. 2014. A handbook to the reception of Ovid. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell.

Poggio. 1879. Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini. The facetiae or jocose tales of Poggio, now first translated into English with the Latin text. Paris: Isidore Liseux (vol. 1, vol. 2).

Wenzel, Siegfried. 2011. “Ovid from the pulpit.” Ch. 8 (pp. 160-176) in Clark, Coulson & McKinley (2011).

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