Matthew of Vendôme’s Tobias shows medieval ideal of marriage

marriage bed of Sarah and Tobias

In the Book of Tobit, written about 200 BGC, the parents led the newlyweds Sarah and Tobias to the marital bedroom. They saw Sarah and Tobias get in bed together, as married couples should. But behind the closed doors of the marital bedchamber unusual events occurred:

When the parents had gone out and shut the door of the room, Tobias got out of bed and said to Sarah, “Sister, get up, and let us pray and implore our Lord that he grant us mercy and safety.” So she got up, and they began to pray and implore that they might be kept safe. Tobias began by saying:  “Blessed are you, O God of our ancestors, and blessed is your name in all generations forever. Let the heavens and the whole creation bless you forever. You made Adam, and for him you made his wife Eve as a helper and support. From the two of them the human race has sprung. You said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; let us make a helper for him like himself.’ I now am taking this kinswoman of mine, not because of lust, but with sincerity. Grant that she and I may find mercy and that we may grow old together.” And they both said, “Amen, Amen.”

{ καὶ ἐξῆλθον καὶ ἀπέκλεισαν τὴν θύραν τοῦ ταμιείου καὶ ἠγέρθη Τωβιας ἀπὸ τῆς κλίνης καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῇ ἀδελφή ἀνάστηθι προσευξώμεθα καὶ δεηθῶμεν τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν ὅπως ποιήσῃ ἐφ’ ἡμᾶς ἔλεος καὶ σωτηρίαν καὶ ἀνέστη καὶ ἤρξαντο προσεύχεσθαι καὶ δεηθῆναι ὅπως γένηται αὐτοῖς σωτηρία καὶ ἤρξατο λέγειν εὐλογητὸς εἶ ὁ θεὸς τῶν πατέρων ἡμῶν καὶ εὐλογητὸν τὸ ὄνομά σου εἰς πάντας τοὺς αἰῶνας τῆς γενεᾶς εὐλογησάτωσάν σε οἱ οὐρανοὶ καὶ πᾶσα ἡ κτίσις σου εἰς πάντας τοὺς αἰῶνας σὺ ἐποίησας τὸν Αδαμ καὶ ἐποίησας αὐτῷ βοηθὸν στήριγμα Ευαν τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ καὶ ἐξ ἀμφοτέρων ἐγενήθη τὸ σπέρμα τῶν ἀνθρώπων καὶ σὺ εἶπας ὅτι οὐ καλὸν εἶναι τὸν ἄνθρωπον μόνον ποιήσωμεν αὐτῷ βοηθὸν ὅμοιον αὐτῷ καὶ νῦν οὐχὶ διὰ πορνείαν ἐγὼ λαμβάνω τὴν ἀδελφήν μου ταύτην ἀλλ’ ἐπ’ ἀληθείας ἐπίταξον ἐλεῆσαί με καὶ αὐτὴν καὶ συγκαταγηρᾶσαι κοινῶς καὶ εἶπαν μεθ’ ἑαυτῶν αμην αμην } [1]

How many married couples spent their first night together like that?

Sarah, it must be said, wasn’t like most brides today. She was young and very beautiful, respected her father, and lived with her still-married parents. She had no children from previous marriages. While most brides today have been married no more than a few times previously, Sarah had already been married seven times. On each wedding night, her husband had died in the marriage bed. Reportedly a “demon” killed them. A maid said that Sarah killed them. In any case, Sarah remained a virgin.

Tobias had his own personal trauma. One night, his father Tobit slept in the courtyard with his face uncovered because of the heat. Sparrows that landed on the wall pooped. Their fresh droppings fell into Tobit’s eyes and covered them with a white film. Physicians repeatedly treated Tobit with eye ointments for the bird droppings that were obscuring his vision. He then became completely blind.[2] As most children did before recent decades of intensive public indoctrination, Tobias loved his father. He deeply felt his father’s pain as his father struggled with the hardship of being blind.

In twelfth-century France, Matthew of Vendôme clarified how Tobias differed from Sarah’s previous husbands. Given that Sarah was very beautiful, her previous husbands had understandably lusted to have sex with her:

The demon destroys those for whom fleshly delight,
not offspring, urges the taking of her virginity.
Whoever delights, like a horse or a mule, in abusing
marriage, perishes, overcome by love of the flesh.

{ Hos daemon perimit quos delectatio carnis,
Non sobolis, stimulat virginitate frui.
Quisquis sicut equus aut mulus guadet abuti
Coniugio, carnis victus amore perit. } [3]

Tobias, in contrast, loved Sarah in accordance with medieval ideals of gender equality:

Like beauty blesses the pair alike in mind; a like grace of
customs, accordant wishes, and love of the same faith bless them.
A marriage is happy, a bond is equal, when they are united together
whose religion is the same, race is the same, faith is one.
The two are equals; the likeness of mind refuses to make unequal
those whom equality of looks and age make equal.
A chaste girl weds a pious husband, a faithful wife weds a law-abiding man,
a man worthy of the wife, a girl worthy of the husband.

{ Mente pares, par forma beat, par gratia morum,
Consona vota, paris religionis amor,
Felix coniugium, par copula dum sociantur,
Quorum par pietas, par genus, una fides.
Ambo pares, paritas quos comparat oris et aevi,
Mentis comparitas dispariare negat.
Nubit casta pio, iusto devota, puella,
Coniuge vir dignus, digna puella viro. }

Sarah was not only young and outwardly beautiful, but she was also beautiful in personal character:

Beyond her feminine sex, the young maiden flourishes
in good morals, a rare crop in a delicate bosom.
She strives to be pure and decent; her beauty to purity,
just as her purity to beauty, is eager to unite itself.
Sweet in conversation, succinct in speech, modest in
appearance, lacking in guile, obliging in gifts,
temperate of soul, free of rambling discourse, unknowing of
pride, pleasing in her practical simplicity,
her brow bears arms excluding favor
forbidden, her beauty refuses to favor Venus.
Her beauty swears an oath of peace with purity; and the enemy
being usually present, it is eager to perpetuate trust.
The woman couples being law-abiding, capable, pious, beautiful, and modest.
She thus binds opposites that are eager to flow away.

{ Ultra femineum sexum virguncula vernat
Moribus, in fragili pectore rara seges.
Esse pudica decens satagit se forma pudori,
Seque pudor formae conciliare studet.
Alloquio suavis, verbo succincta, modesta
Vultu, fraude carens, officiosa datis,
Sobria mente, vago discursu libera, fastus
Nescia, consulta simplicitate placens.
Arma supercilium gerit exclusiva favoris
Illiciti, Veneri forma favere negat.
Forma pudicitiae pacem coniurat, et hostis
Quae solet esse, fidem perpetuare studet.
Femina iusta, potens, pia, pulchra, modesta, maritat.
Sic adversa ligat, quae fluitare student. }

Tobias had much more to love in Sarah than just her beautiful body. She was a woman who wouldn’t talk incessantly while showing no interest in him. She would give him gifts, not just expect him to give her gifts. Moreover, she seemed unlikely to cuckold him. Not surprisingly, Tobias prayed that Sarah and he would grow old together.

Tobias married Sarah, not because of lust, but because she was a good woman with whom to beget children and to glorify God. According to Matthew of Vendôme, Tobias on his wedding night prayed:

May everything bless You, Almighty God. May fire,
water, air, and earth show their praises.
It pleased You to fashion our first parent from the mud
of the earth; he was alone, without offspring.
Your ordering determined that Eve be joined to him as a
companion; from this our race proceeds.
So unite us, so strengthen the covenant of our
marriage, so may You wish us to bear fruit.
Let not the wantonness of Venus stir us, but
children, but the love of offspring.
May harmony of lawful sentiments unite us and befriend us,
not bound by the robber of modesty, eros.
Give us offspring, I beg, who will strive through successive
ages of the world to extol Your glory.

{ Te, Deus omnipotens, benedicant singula, laudes
Exhibeant ignis, humor, inane, solum.
De limo terrae placuit formare parentem
Primum; solus erat posteritatis inops.
Huic Evam sociam tua dispensatio iungi
Disposuit, nostrum pullulat unde genus.
Sic nos consocia, sic firma foedera nostri
Coniugii, sic nos fructificare velis.
Non nos sollicitat Veneris lascivia, verum
Progenies, verum posteritatis amor.
Nos sociat, nos legitimae consensus amicat
Mentis, non teneri praedo pudoris amor.
Da sobolem, rogo, quae studeat per saecula saecli
Successiva tuum magnificare decus. } [4]

According to Matthew of Vendôme, Sarah added the prayer to God:

God, have pity, I pray, have pity on the two of us,
so that we might be allowed to grow old together.

{ Miserere, precor, miserere duorum
Ut nobis liceat consenuisse, Deus. } [5]

Drawing upon medieval Latin literature’s great appreciation for the power of women, Matthew of Vendôme allowed Sarah to conclude with the most important prayer for the couple. Sarah and Tobias had many children.[6] They didn’t impoverish themselves and traumatize their children by having lawyers fight for them a long, bitter divorce. They didn’t even get divorced. They grew old together.

Marriages today aren’t like that of Sarah and Tobias. Many marriages weren’t like theirs even in the twelfth century. Matthew of Vendôme griped:

How much the beauty of the previously described marriage stands apart
from marriages of today! What bed is without stain?

What woman weds, what man now takes a wife for love of
children? Who refuses to be Venus’s armor-bearer?

{ Quantum coniugii praefati forma modernis
Distat coniugiis, quis sine labe torus?

Quae nubit, vel quis nunc uxoratur amore
Prolis? quis Veneris armiger esse negat? }

Being Venus’s armor-bearer means fighting with the aim of gratifying lust. That’s not what marital wrestling typically is like. Marrying under the false belief that marriage provides ample, lustful sex is like buying a plane ticket to get the free packet of peanuts aboard the flight. Many men and women throughout history haven’t understood, to their great sorrow.

The Book of Tobit has delighted and instructed readers for more than two millennia. It includes sensational stories of husband-killing and bird-poop blindness. Yet the most impressive part of the Book of Tobit is more subtle. Readers have been deeply moved by Tobias and Sarah being destined for each other, by Tobias declaring that he married Sarah “not because of lust, but with sincerity,” and by his praying that he and Sarah would grow old together.[7] In twelfth-century France, Matthew of Vendôme described how special Tobias and Sarah were. Nonetheless, many couples romantically in love today still imagine themselves to be in part like Tobias and Sarah.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Book of Tobit 8:5-8, English translation from the New American Bible, revised edition; Greek text mainly from fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus (Greek II). On the manuscript tradition of the Book of Tobit, Di Lella (2007). The Greek text is available online via Kata Biblon. Fragments of the Book of Tobit in Aramaic and Hebrew were found in Cave IV near Qumran. A Jewish sect, perhaps the Essenes, stored manuscripts in that cave and others near Qumran.

The charming double “amen” that concludes Tobit 8:8 is best understood as a mimetic representation of Tobias and Sarah praying together. Translating those double speaking voices into linear narrative text may have been a matter of some uncertainty. The Greek I text has only a single “amen.” See Di Lella (2007) p. 469, column 2. The Tobit of the Vulgate, Jerome’s Latin translation of the fourth century, doesn’t have any “amen” concluding the wedding-night prayers. Jerome made his Vulgate translation of Tobit from an Aramaic (Chaldee) text. A double “amen” subsequently become common, but not as a creative literary device.

The Book of Tobit isn’t included in the Jewish biblical canon. The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, for which the Septuagint formed the basis for the Old Testament canon, include the Book of Tobit in the Bible. Most Protestant churches exclude it.

[2] Disparagement of physicians has been prominent for more than two millennia. Jesus was figured as a good physician. Anti-medical satire continued to be prominent in the Middle Ages.

[3] Matthew of Vendôme, Tobias (Poetic paraphrase of the Book of Tobit {Paraphrasis metrica in librum Tobiae}) ll. 1137-40, Latin text from Müldener (1855) p. 63 (see also Patrologia Latina 205.957C); English translation adapted from Pepin (1999) p. 116.

The Vulgate, but not the Greek sources of Tobit, includes the metaphor of the lustful husband having sex like a horse or mule. Just as in Tobias, the angel Raphael advises three days of sexual abstinence beginning from the wedding night. Vulgate Tobit 6:16-22.

Patrologia Latina 205 is available online via the Internet Archive, while the base text from that source is available in a machine-readable version via Corpus Córporum: repositorium operum Latinorum apud universitatem Turicensem. The currently best Latin text of Tobias is Munari (1982). That text isn’t available even in many high-quality libraries. I thus wasn’t able to consult it. Here’s an online digital reproduction of a fourteenth-century manuscript of Tobias (Lewis E 154 Tobias, from the Free Library of Philadelphia collection, hosted by the University of Pennsylvania).

Subsequent quotes from Tobias are (cited by line in the Latin text of Müldener (1855) and page in the English translation of Pepin (1999)): ll. 1225-32, p. 119 (Like beauty blesses…); ll. 1243-56, pp. 119-20 (Beyond her feminine sex…); ll. 1291-304, p. 121 (May all things bless You…); ll. 1305-6, p. 121 (God, have pity…); ll. 1257-8, 1265-6, p. 129 (How much the beauty…). I’ve adapted Pepin’s translation to follow Müldener’s Latin text and to adhere more closely to the Latin. The differences among the Latin texts of Tobias are relatively small in the quotes above. I’ve adjusted some of the punctuation, which isn’t original.

[4] According to Matthew of Vendôme, Tobias’s father similarly married for love of offspring and had a marriage of gender equality:

Lest he might have more women, like a stud, Tobias
chooses Anna to be the sharer of his bed.
Not by the inducement of Venus does he take a wife, but
for the love of offspring; he loves to be fruitful to God.
The young man’s license is curbed: a prudent bride
is given to a just groom, an equal to an equal.
Virtue is glad to marry virtue, honor rejoices
to be the companion of equal honor.
The joining of good people is more harmonious and agreeable;
a flower is more pleasing with a flower, color with color.

{ Ne plures habeat velut emissarius, Annam
Tobias sociam destinat esse tori,
Non incentivo Veneris, sed prolis amore
Uxoratur, amat fructificare Deo.
Est adolescentis frenata licentia, sponso
Sponsa datur, iusto sobria parque pari.
Nubere virtuti virtus laetatur, honestas
Gaudet honestatis, comparat esse comes,
Consonat et redolet melius iunctura bonorum,
Gratior est flos cum flore, colore color. }

Tobias ll. 119-28, p. 86.

[5] Matthew of Vendôme followed the Vulgate’s structure for the prayers of Tobias and Sarah, including having no ending “amen.”

[6] Exactly how many children Tobias and Sarah had is a textual difficulty. In Greek II (see Di Lella (2007)), Tobit refers twice to the “children” of Sarah and Tobias (Tobit 14:3, 14:8-9). Greek I (see Di Lella (2007)) refers to the “six sons” of Tobias (Tobit 14:3) and “his sons” (Tobit 14:12). The Vulgate describes Tobit as seeing “the children of his grandchildren” (Tobit 14:1), Sarah and Tobias as having “seven sons” (Tobit 14:5) and departing for Media with “children, and children’s children” (Tobit 14:14), and Tobias seeing “his children’s children to the fifth generation” (Tobit 14:15).

[7] Both ancient Greek texts of Tobit declare that Tobias and Sarah were destined for each other. The angel Raphael tells Tobias:

she was set apart for you from before the world existed. You will save her, and she will go with you.

{ σοὶ γάρ ἐστιν μεμερισμένη πρὸ τοῦ αἰῶνος καὶ σὺ αὐτὴν σώσεις καὶ μετὰ σοῦ πορεύσεται }

Tobit 6:18, Greek text from Codex Sinaiticus, English translation from the New American Bible, Revised. Tobias, following the Vulgate, doesn’t include this declaration, but has the angel Raphael assure Sarah’s father:

Believe me, your daughter is reserved for this youth; she alone
owes the treasure of her virginity to him alone.

{ Crede, reservatur puero tua filia: sola
Debet ei soli virginitatis opes. }

Tobias ll. 1195-6, English trans. Pepin (1999) p. 118. Cf. Vulgate Tobit 7:12.

[image] The Marriage bed of Tobias and Sarah. Oil on canvas painting by Jan Steen, c. 1660. Held in Museum Bredius (The Hague), acc. 112a-1946, Cat. nr.155. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Di Lella, Alexander A. 2007. “Tobit.” Parallel English translation of the two primary Greek editions. Ch. 19 (pp. 45-477) in Pietersma, Albert, and Benjamin G. Wright, eds. 2007. A new English translation of the Septuagint: and the other Greek translations traditionally included under that title. New York: Oxford University Press. See also correction and emendations (2009) and corrections and emendations (2014).

Müldener, Friedrich August Wilhelm, ed. 1855. Matthaei Vindocinensis Tobias. Gottingae: Sumptibus Dieterichianis.

Munari, Franco, ed. 1982. Mathei Vindocinensis opera. Vol. 2: Piramus et Tisbe. Milo. Epistule. Tobias. Roma: Edizioni di storia e letteratura.

Pepin, Ronald E. 1999. An English translation of Auctores octo, a medieval reader. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press.

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