she for him: healthy, potent husbands vital to wives’ health

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In Italy early in the fifteenth century, a woman named Giovanna become ill. A “handsome, little-knowing and untaught physician {scitulus et indoctus medicus}” came to treat her. Making a pretense of an ancient medical diagnostic procedure, the physician asked for a specimen of her urine. Giovanna’s young, unmarried daughter gave him a specimen of her own urine. The physician immediately prescribed sexual intercourse.

While the doctor may have been untaught, he had good physical instinct. Many young, unmarried women today self-prescribe sexual intercourse. Self-prescribing medicine is dangerous. Doing that can lead to terrible addictions and other health problems. But the situation with respect to married women is rather different. Married women commonly fail to realize the health benefits of having sex with their husbands.

Like most husbands, Giovanna’s husband cared deeply for her welfare. He took up the work of filling the doctor’s prescription:

When the husband rose for that prescription, he first arranged to take a lavish meal into his stomach, and then starting having sex with his wife. She in her debilitated condition found this irksome, being ignorant of what the physician’s advice was. She cried out frequently from the novelty of the experience, “What are you doing, my husband? You’re killing me.”

{ Cum id viro nuntiatum extitisset, curato in coena opipara stomacho, cum uxore concubuit. Illa, cum hoc sibi ex debilitate molestissimum esset (ignara enim Medici consilii erat), clamaretque saepius ob rei novitatem, “Quid agis, mi vir? Me quidem occidis.” }

Men’s sexuality tends to be disparaged with violent imagery, even though it commonly functions as a peacemaker. Despite his wife’s offensive language, the kind-hearted husband didn’t get angry. He showed marital leadership, and then continued with his work:

“Be quiet,” the husband responded. “This is the best treatment for curing you, according to the physician’s knowledge, because this is the settled way that someone will be saved and restored to health.”

{ “Tace,” vir inquit, “haec optima est, ex Medici sententia, ad te curandam medela; nam isto quidam pacto liberaberis, et restituetur valetudo.” }

Husbands are seldom recognized for being right. But the husband was right:

He wasn’t mistaken in his opinion. For after humping her four times, the next day her fever disappeared. Thus the deception that was served upon the physician was the cause of her being restored to good health.

{ Neque eum fefellit opinio. Nam cum quater eam subagitasset, postero die omnis febris abscessit. Ita Medici deceptio causam praebuit sanitatis. }

The young, unmarried daughter offering her urine to the handsome physician worked out for the benefit of her mother. That’s an astonishing lesson from medieval Latin literature. It’s worth, if not imitation, at least careful consideration.

If only to preserve their own health, wives should strive to keep their husbands in good health. That requires moderation of sexual exuberance to preserve strength for medical necessity. Consider the tragic case of a young man from medieval Verona:

A young man of Verona was excelling in guiding his beautiful, young wife. When he indulged rather too frequently in conjugal relations, his face became pale and emaciated, and his body thin and debilitated.

{ Adolescens quidam Veronensis praestanti forma adolescentulam uxorem duxit. Is cum plus aequo indulgeret matrimonio, pallorem vultus macies ac debilitas corporis secuta est. }

Wives must be on guard against their husbands loving them too much. If a wife doesn’t take sufficient care of her husband, his mother might take protective action. That’s what happened in this case:

His mother, concerned for her son and fearing that his illness would worsen, sent her son into the countryside, far away from his wife. She, grieving with desire for her husband, saw a pair of sparrows mating. “Go somewhere else,” she said, “so that my mother-in-law will not see you, for she would pull you apart to different locations.”

{ Mater filio sollicita, ac deteriorem morbum verita, filium rus longe ab uxore ablegabat. Illa, viri moerens desiderio, coeuntes passeres conspicata: “Abite” inquit, “ne si vos socrus conspiciat, et vos alio in diversa distrahat loca.” }

Despite men’s aspirations and delusions, most men aren’t sexual superheroes. Women should support men’s health. She should be for him. As a practical application of that loving maxim, wives should gently discourage their husbands from attempting to be sexual superheroes. Women should publicly and forcefully affirm that ordinary men’s sexuality is wonderful and fully sufficient for them.

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The above quotes are from two accounts that the great medieval church official Poggio Bracciolini preserved. The first is Facetiae 111, “About an untaught physician who, thanks to urine, declared that a wife needed sexual intercourse {De medico indocto qui urinae gratia indicavit mulierem coitu indigere},” Latin text from Poggio (1879) vol. 1, pp. 178-9, my English translation with help from that of id. The second account is Facetiae 201, “About the young woman separated from her husband {De adolescentula segregata a viro},” similarly from id. vol. 2, pp. 122-3. Here are the Latin texts in machine-readable form. The second account apparently includes an allusion to 1 Timothy 2:15.

[image] Logo for the United Nations HeForShe campaign. Used in accordance with fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


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).

men-loving Venus victorious; she shames Juno and Minerva

Venus de Milo in Paris

A delicate and vulnerable young woman, Venus, also known as Dione (“Divine One”), appealed to Paris for help. Juno had sharply criticized her. Minerva had been mean to her. Venus implored:

If the Divine One is faithful, understanding and cruel to no one,
consider what misfortune presses on my case, from where comes the tumult,
the threats! Since the first light of the sunrise on my going forth,
I have warmed man, tenderly consoling him through his hard labors,
and sympathizing with his grave misfortunes. Thus in gratitude
men have built for me public temples, and their incense I have deserved.
This is the cause for the goddesses’ anger and hatred. Have pity on me, at least
you, to whom I am driven in exile. Accused by the heavens I appeal to the earth,
which I honor; peoples, defend your fellow citizen!

{ si pia, si facilis, si nulli dura Dione,
pendite, quis causam casus premat, unde tumultus,
unde mine! cum prima meos lux extulit ortus,
fovi hominem duros tenere solata labores
et casus miserata graves. sic publica grati
templa michi struxere viri, sic thura merebar.
hinc ire, hinc odii cause. miserescite saltem
vos, quibus exul agor. celi rea deprecor orbem,
quem colui; vestram, populi, defendite civem! }

Venus was well-known to be an earthy goddess. She was deeply engaged in the fundamental work by which human life continues.

Minerva, in contrast, frivolously engaged in fictions of poetry. Venus spoke simply and truthfully about Minerva:

“She is credited with being called the greatest of the Muses.”
That I don’t deny, for she’s truly second to none in the art of fabricating;
she teaches fiction-writers her schemes, teaches them to exploit weak ears
and to lead blind senses to the frivolous.

{ …“at emeruit Musarum maxima dici”:
non nego, fingit enim nullique hac arte secunda
falsigraphos commenta docet, docet auribus uti
mollibus et cecos per frivola ducere sensus }

Many scholars in the humanities today foolishly follow Minerva rather than Venus. Those scholars write about trivialities instead of writing almost exclusively about what’s most important: sex.

Venus boldly challenged the dominant ideology that imagines glory in violence against men. Minerva, also known as Pallas Athena, was the first woman warrior to receive the epithet “bright-eyed {γλαυκῶπις}.” Venus argued that Minerva deserved little credit for this first for women:

Let her, victorious,
carry standards dripping with gore; our triumphs are without killing.
Or am I being tormented because I don’t fight my nature?
If I was alluring to Anchises, did I betray my sex?
If I gave birth, whom did I harm? My Cupid dwells in the stars,
your Aeneas in Phrygia: so where’s the fault?
Venus thus strives to destroy the gods and the world?
Offspring such as these I bestow upon men and gods. Thus unmarried Pallas
would criticize the morals of meritorious Venus? Is she beloved,
beloved among men, whom war destroys? Is she revered among girls,
whose gender she disdains?

{ … rorantia tabo
signa ferat victrix, nostri sine cede triumphi.
an, quia nature non obluctata, fatigor?
Anchise si blanda fui, sexumne fefelli?
si peperi, cui facta nocens? meus astra Cupido,
Eneas Frigiam vester colit, heccine culpa?
hoc Venus exicium superis molitur et orbi?
hiis homines, hiis dono deos. ergo innuba Pallas
sic merite mores Veneris notet? illane grata,
grata viris, quos Marte vorat? placanda puellis,
quarum fastidit sexum? }

The answers are no and no. Men inexplicably don’t favor for amorous affairs high-achieving, aggressive career-women like Minerva. Most women inexplicably don’t like to work for such women. Can this really be? Venus considered that question with respect to Minerva:

“But she is a virgin.” Aglauros says no, the enclosed serpent says no.
Nonetheless I keep silent about that. “But she has a beautiful face.”
The water’s wave expressly cries out to the contrary.
“But the ghostly Gorgon’s head from Perseus’s victory
has wrenched away titles and honors from cowardly Olympus.”
So Pallas says about herself. So it’s proper to believe.

{ “at virgo est”: negat Aglauros, negat anguis opertus.
sed taceo. “at facie pollet”: consulta reclamat
unda tumorque gene.
… “at victrix Persee Gorgonis umbra
extorsit titulos palmamque imbellis Olimpi”:
sic de se meminit Pallas. sic credere oportet }

Here Venus is being sarcastic. As she well understood, men shouldn’t just listen and believe. Men’s propensity to believe women, along with women’s potential for horrific violence, drove Venus to tears. Her tears undoubtedly evoked Paris’s solicitude.

Venus then turned to the case of Juno, the wife of Jove. Like Venus’s husband Vulcan, Juno was a jealous spouse. Her jealousy was associated with considerable ugliness:

Of being harmed by fate I have no complaint; my fear is divine
jealousy. Semele conceived under a favorable star.
Pregnant by a god, she was going to give birth to a god. Through ten months
her pregnancy swelled, when Juno, disguised as an old serving woman,
arrives, persuades, and leaves. Why did that credulous, simple,
unknowing Semele press upon Jove with an oath? From this perspective,
Cadmus, your faith, through such a long way of a year, deserved
this mistake? With the abduction of your sister, you were arranging
to reconcile Jove with the abandoned Juno. Behold, with grief
Juno rewards you and attacks your children with lightening.
Let her rejoice, look with what a triumph the wrinkled deity
strives for glory! While her weapon is a trembling walking-stick,
she feigns a nurse’s faith. No work was necessary to
confabulate the rest. White hair comes easily to her temples,
and wrinkles to her face. She had to hide her senility,
not make a pretense of it. O, if in this beauty contest
that powerful fake-nurse Beroe were standing alongside the Divine Venus,
her ape-like appearance would impel a famous laughter!

{ de fatis nil lesa queror, metuenda deorum
invidia est. blando Semele conceperat astro,
plena deo, paritura deum, denusque tumebat
mensis, cum vultum Iuno mentita severum
accedit, persuadet, abit. quid credula, simplex,
inscia iurato premitur Iove? sic tua longis,
Cadme, fides perspecta viis, sic annuus error
emeruit? cum rapta soror viduamque parares
Iunonem sancire Iovi, te luctibus ecce
munerat inque tuos flammis armatur alumpnos.
gaudeat, en quali deitas rugosa triumpho
molitur titulos! tremula dum militat hasta,
altricis mentita fidem. nam cetera nullus
confinxisse labor; faciles ad tempora cani,
ad faciem veniunt ruge; fallenda senectus,
non fingenda fuit. o si ad certamina forme
illa potens Beroe staret socianda Dione
incuteret celebrem simulatrix simia risum! }

Venus believed that a husband like Jove, with an old, ape-like wife, was likely to stray and even to commit a terrible crime:

Agenor, you fool, why do you seek Europa back from the begettor Jove?
She deserved to be seized. The abduction is excused by his need
and her more able marital love-making. Jove’s wife should blame herself
most of all for frequently being widowed. She would have had a more auspicious
and stable marriage-bed if the first wedding-contract had brought forth
more beauty and less talk. A shameless, despicable,
garrulous woman causes her lover to violate proper morals.

{ stulte, quid Europen genero Iove queris, Agenor?
illa rapi meruit, raptorem excusat egestas
et thalami pocioris amor. sibi maxima debet
quod tociens vidua est coniunx Iovis. alite fausto
nupsisset stabilique thoro, si prima tulissent
federa plus forme, lingue minus. improba, turpis,
garrula legitimi mores incestat amantis. }

Men throughout history has commonly been punished more severely for adultery than women have. Venus asserted that women bear responsibility for adulterous affairs, just as they do for violence against men. Venus has long been recognized as a goddess of love. Juno, in contrast, had a cold and distance marriage. Minerva was a virgin, career-woman. Venus’s wisdom about women, men, and love should be taken at least as seriously as that of Juno and Minerva.

Venus had keen understanding about how a woman can please heterosexual men. She appealed to Paris:

“What can riches, kingdoms, and arms add to the life
of a strong man, whose kingdom is greater than half the world,
whose riches are Phrygia, and whose strength is the Trojan people?
But if the comforting of a royal marriage-bed is lacking,
if strength, if scepter are nothing without the experience of having a wife,
then have Venus’s gift, a gift that Sparta proudly holds,
a gift that Juno would like to be called, and Minerva to be!
Why delay? Come closer to probe Dione’s inners;
the thing is to be handled openly. Now we uncover our naked breasts.
With this face I guide Phoebes among the stars,
with this appearance I lead forward the dawn. Beautiful judge,
reward the deserving and the similar, do not despise my appearance!”
So saying, she seizes and pulls off her mantle and reveals her cheeks
and her naked shoulders. Exposing her hollow, the day rose fully
in the opening. The other goddesses shamefully yielded the triumph to Venus.

{ “…quid opes, quid regna, quid arma potenti
adiciunt, cuius sceptrum pars amplior orbis,
cuius opes Frigie, cuius gens Dardana vires?
at si solanda est thalami regalis egestas,
si vires, si sceptra nichil sine coniugis usu,
munus habe Veneris, munus quo Sparta superbit,
munus quod Iuno dici velit, esse Minerva!
quid moror? internam propius rimare Dionem,
res agitur tractanda palam, iam pectora nuda
pandimus: hac facie Phebo duce metior astra,
hoc vultu produco diem. formose, merenti
gratare et similem, iudex, ne despice vultum!”
sic effata genas rapto depromit amictu
nuda humeros, exerta sinus totoque diescit
ore. pudet divas Veneri cessisse triumphum. }

The other goddesses were ashamed for not understanding what men seek. Venus loved men, and men loved her. Not surprisingly, Paris choose Venus as being more beautiful than Juno and Minerva.

Paris’s choice of Venus led to the deaths of many men in the brutal violence against men of the Trojan War. Today, the Judgment of Paris illustrates the grave public offense of gazing upon a beautiful woman. Within the logic of contemporary gynocentric myth-making, the Trojan War is best understood as collective retribution that men rightly suffered as a consequence of Paris favoring the beautiful, naked Venus.

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The quotes above are from Joseph of Exeter’s twelfth-century epic poem, Ylias Daretis Phrygii {Iliad of Dares Phrygius}, also known as De Bello Trojano {About the Trojan War}.

For the quotes in English above, I’ve drawn upon the prose translation of Bate (1986) and the verse translation of Rigg (2005) to make a nearly line-by-line translation closer to the Latin than either of those translations.

My Latin text is from Bate (1986). Bate’s Latin text draws upon all the surviving manuscripts except one (which is secretly held) and is close to that of Gompf (1970). Bate (1986) p. 10. The Latin text of Artopoeus (1825), which is freely available online, is quite close to that of Bates.

The quotes above are (cited by book and line number in the Latin text): 2.464-72 (If the Divine One..); 2.483-6 (She is credited…); 2.497-507 (Let her, victorious…), 2.510-2, 518-20 (But she is a virgin…); 2.531-49 (Of being harmed by fate…); 2.550-56 (Agenor, you fool…); 2.595-609 (What can riches…).

[image] Venus de Milo / Aphrodite from Melos. Parian marble, ca. 130-100 BGC. Item Ma 399 (LL 299), preserved in Louvre Museum (Paris). Derived from photo by Mattgirling, via Wikimedia Commons.


Artopoeus, Samuel, ed. 1825. Dictys Cretensis et Dares Phrygius De bello trojano. Vol. 2. London: A.J. Valpy.

Bate, Alan K., ed. and trans. 1986. Joseph of Exeter. Trojan war I-III. Oxford: Aris & Phillips.

Gompf, Ludwig, ed. 1970. Joseph of Exeter. Werke und Briefe. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Rigg, A. G., trans. 2005. Joseph of Exeter: Iliad (Josephus Iscanus: Daretis Phrygii Ilias). Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto.

The Poet’s Repentance, updated: apology for man’s wrongs to women

repentance of Saint Peter

Weeping has made my cheeks all wet
for wicked words and lack of wit!
Unhappy I’ll be till I’ve atoned
for truthful telling, as conduct codes command,
regarding ladies’ love, which I have let,
that enlightens all with lovely light.
Often in jest I have them set,
in an unseemly way — there it sits!

It sits and seems for nought,
where it is said in song.
What I of them have wrought,
indeed, it is all wrong!

All wrongly I acted because of a wife
who caused us woe fully world wide:
She robbed us of riches rife,
who needed not hold the reins and us ride!
A strong one stopped her stormy strife,
who is with Heaven’s heart inside.
In her, one alighted who leads life
and shone through her worldly side:

Through her side he shone
as sun does through the glass.
No woman has ever been wicked, none,
since Christ aborn was!

There’s none who’s wicked, of whom I know,
who must for sin her cheeks wet;
They all live in blameless show,
and all are gracious as hounds where a table’s set.
Therefore in the mud I grow mad,
that wise saws I have spoken unspeakably —
my deceitful flesh, my false blood! —
on fields many times I fall to fete them fawningly:

At their feet I often fall
for falsehoods fifty-fold,
for all untruths to be tallied
with tongue as I’ve here told!

Now woe in the world has gone away,
And joy has arrived, as we would,
through a mighty, hating maiden,
who’s cast us from concerns cold.
Always my praise for women is fully laden,
and ever I publicly for them in defense hold,
and ever, as needed, I deny
that I ever said anything they didn’t like:

I didn’t and wouldn’t say aught,
for now nothing, of necessity to spout,
is true of that of them I wrought,
as Suzie was last to point out.

Suzie, source of reason right,
paragon of verse and poetry,
over hating maidens you hold might!
In mud I consider you the most mirthful lady,
of pedigree as fine as Judith Butler,
scholar starry, versed in verbiage,
everywhere students your heroics mutter,
and all heroes are in on your heritage:

tenure have those nobles obtained,
with scholarly play in hall.
May happiness for them remain
in the land of ladies all!

{ Weping haveth myn wonges wet
For wikked werk ant wone of wyt!
Unblithe Y be til Y ha bet
Bruches broken, ase Bok byt,
Of levedis love, that Y ha let,
That lemeth al with luefly lyt.
Ofte in song Y have hem set,
That is unsemly — ther hit syt!

Hit syt ant semeth noht,
Ther hit ys seid in song:
That Y have of hem wroht,
Ywis, hit is al wrong!

Al wrong Y wrohte for a wyf
That made us wo in world ful wyde:
Heo rafte us alle richesse ryf,
That durthe us nout in reynes ryde!
A stythye stunte hire sturne stryf,
That ys in heovene hert in hyde.
In hire, lyht on — ledeth lyf —
Ant shon thourh hire semly syde:

Thourh hyre side he shon
Ase sonne doth thourh the glas.
Wommon nes wicked non
Seththe he ybore was!

Wycked nis non, that Y wot,
That durste for werk hire wonges wete;
Alle heo lyven from last of lot,
Ant are al hende ase hake in chete.
Forthi on molde Y waxe mot
That Y sawes have seid unsete —
My fykel fleishe, mi falsly blod! —
On feld hem feole Y falle to fete:

To fet Y falle hem feole
For falsleke fifti-folde,
Of alle untrewe on tele
With tonge ase Y her tolde!

Nou wo in world ys went away,
Ant weole is come, ase we wolde,
Thourh a mihti, methful mai,
That ous hath cast from cares colde.
Ever wymmen Ich herie ay,
Ant ever in hyrd with hem Ich holde,
Ant ever, at neode, Y nyckenay
That Y ner nemnede that heo nolde:

Y nolde ant null yt noht,
For noþyng nou a nede,
Soth is that Y of hem ha wroht,
As Richard erst con red.

Richard, rote of resoun ryht,
Rykening of rym ant ron,
Of maidnes meke thou hast myht!
On molde Y holde the murgest mon,
Cunde comely ase a knyht,
Clerk ycud, that craftes con,
In uch an hyrd thyn athel ys hyht,
Ant uch an athel thin hap is on:

Hap that hathel hath hent,
With hendelec in halle!
Selthe be him sent
In londe of levedis alle! }

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The Poet’s Repentance is a poem in Middle English written in the Harley manuscript (London, British Library MS Harley 2253). The poem’s first line, by which it is also known, is “Weping haveth myn wonges wet.” The Harley manuscript is dated to about 1330. Fein (2014) provides the full text of the poem, a modern English translation, and textual notes. I’ve found all three helpful.

The version above is a parody of The Poet’s Repentance. Relative to Fein’s translation, I’ve used more alliteration, more rhyming, and more unusual syntax to come closer to the Middle English. I’ve inserted a few more direct or alternate references to make the poem more accessible and interesting to modern readers. I’ve also eliminated the fourth stanza. The original Middle English poem had six stanzas. Compared to medieval readers, modern readers are less likely to attach significance to the number six, and more likely to tire in reading poetry. Eliminating the fourth stanza thus makes the poem more accessible today.

Some differences between my version and Fein’s translation reflect what I consider to be a better translation of the Middle English. In the original, the final clause of l. 5 is “that Y ha let.” Fein translated that as “which I have hindered.” Another meaning of “let” in Middle English is “granted.” I’ve used “let” to retain that ambiguity and the rhyme. Moreover, the ambiguity of “let” plays with the ambiguity of “Bruches broken” (“transgression committed” or “transgression enjoyed”). On the later ambiguity, Ransom (1985) pp. 5-6. “Bruches broken” I’ve translated conceptually, consistent with its ambiguity, as “truthful telling.”

Based on Ransom’s learned critical discussion of “Ant are al hende ase hake in chete” (l. 28), I’ve translated that line as “and all are gracious as hounds where a table’s set.” The word “chete” is attested in only this single instance (it’s a hapax legomenon). Following the argument of Olof Arngart, it’s best understood as “some kind of hut or outhouse.” For “hake” (an earlier, widely reproduced reading of the manuscript facsimile here was “hak”; see Ker (1965) p. 33), scholars have implicitly or explicitly amended the text to “hauk {hawk}.” In Middle English, “hak” can mean “a heavy agricultural tool for grubbing, chopping, or cutting.” “Hende in hall” is a common alliterative phrase. Ransom argues convincingly that “hende ase hake in chete” is a parody of that phrase. In that way it’s similar to “as hende as hounde is in kychyne”  from Piers Plowman B v. 261. Ransom (1985) pp. 15-6. My translation uses a rhyming variation following the insight from the Piers Plowman verse.

In l. 29, Fein translated “mot” as “sorry.” However, Ransom pointed out that if “mot” is derived from Old English or Old Norman, it most plausibly means “mad” or “silly.” Id. pp. 16-7. In l. 35, “on tele,” coming from the Old English tael, means “in calumny” / “slanderously.” Id. p. 17. Fein translated the word as “in slander.” But tael could also come from the Old English (ge)tael, which means “number, tally, or reckoning.” Id. That’s the meaning I’ve used above.

Critical interpretations of The Poet’s Repentance reflect our age of ignorance, superstition, and bigotry. Within the relatively liberal expressive circumstances of medieval Europe, men’s sexed protest didn’t evoke vicious, vacuous, gynocentric name-calling. Now, however, scholars perceive in The Poet’s Repentance “veiled misogyny” and the poet’s “former {unveiled?} misogynistic stance.” Fein (2014), introduction, Margherita (1994) p. 72. The Poet’s Repentance is a riotous marvel of verbal sophistication, Nonetheless, one scholar opined, “all that he can engage in are misogynistic and antifeminist clichés.” Choong (2006) p. 28. Despite the poem containing pervasive, subtle ambiguity, another scholar declared it to be a “tendentious joke about women and language.” Margherita (1994) p. 75. Other scholars read it as “an essay in mock contrition on the part of a poet who remains wedded to his anti-feminist prejudices.” Bishop (1989) p. 304, attributing such a view to Ransom. The concept of “anti-feminist prejudices” is a prejudicial gynocentric anachronism. It should have no place in enlightened study of medieval literature of men’s sexed protest.

By far the best scholarly work I’ve read concerning The Poet’s Repentance is Ransom (1985), Ch. 1. While Ransom repeatedly used the gynocentric term “antifeminism,” he applied great learning and considerable imagination to close reading of the poem. He perceptively observed, “our poet is smiling at the female pretension to a privileged and perpetual virtue.” Id. p. 15. Scholarly reviewers, not surprisingly, condemned Ransom’s study. Stemmler went as far as to claim that, with respect to The Poet’s Repentance, “Ransom bases his argumentation on line 28.” Stemmler (1986) p. 234. That seems to me patently false.

In recent decades, study of The Poet’s Repentance has been concerned with citing talismanic scholarly authorities and making abstract, totalizing claims. Thus Margherita on The Poet’s Repentance:

According to Freud, obscene jokes uncover the mutually dependent relationship between wooing or seduction and sexually-based aggression. … As the absent other, woman legitimizes the narcissistic moment in courtly discourse. Her presence-as-absence facilitates the equation of femininity and psychic danger; she is, within the courtly lyric, both desired object and jettisoned abject. The ostensible paradox provides the epistemological bases of the metaphoric condensation of feminine instability and linguistic indeterminacy. Elusive or perfidious women stand in for slippery signifiers, and for the sexual undecidability that is a condition of psychic life. It is thus through the representation of women that the explicitly homosocial and implicitly homoerotic exchange that marks the lyric event becomes an affirmation of patriarchy rather than a threat to it;

Margherita (1994) p. 71. This criticism is similar to a recent theoretical approach to Aucassin et Nicolette, but less entertaining, I think. Further developing such literary scholarship, here’s Choong on The Poet’s Repentance:

Recent gender criticism influenced by the psychoanalysis of Freud and Lacan has similarly alerted us to the collapsible distinctions between pen/phallus, paper/vagina, ink/sperm, by highlighting how textuality is inextricably linked with sexuality and the corpus (“body”); and being the key both to unlock meaning in a text as well as to problematize it, it is impossible for us to ignore the implications. … The homosocial context, where the poet-persona includes himself within a comitatus (community) of troubadours and trouvères engaged in the use of women as “token of exchange”, necessitates his gazing upon the “body” of Richard, the “man” who has truly embodied “woman” in his poetry, so conducting his eulogy of Richard through the extant body of his writings. However, the assertion, that “Richard” is the “man” who has fully embodied the masculine ideal of courtly poetry, is charged with irony, since “Richard” himself is performed as an empty referent, one whose life has been claimed by “hendelec” (“fortune”), and has thus ascended to heaven very much like Mary. The final four verses of the lyric ends with a masculinized fantasy that remains at best incorporeal, of Richard ending up in a paradise filled with ladies enamoured of him – an allusion to the Muslim idea that those who are martyred for their holy beliefs will end up in heaven with seventy black-eyed virgins to serve them (Richard for his “holy” beliefs of “love”, amor courtois).

Choong (2006) p. 31. Such analysis shows no awareness of the danger to men in engaging in sexed protest about gender injustices against men. Such danger helps to explain the verbal sophistication of The Poet’s Repentance.

Fein (2014) includes a misprint for the Middle English text for l. 58. For that verse Ker (1965) has “for noþyng nou a nede.” That in turn could be transliterated as “for nothyng now a nede.” Fein’s modern English translation reflects the correct Middle English text for that verse.

[image] Repentance of Saint Peter. See Matthew 25:69-75, Mark 14:16-72, Luke 22:54-62, John 18:15-18, 25-27. Excerpt of painting by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo; painted between 1650 and 1655. Preserved as item DEP632 in the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum (Spain). Via Wikimedia Commons.


Bishop, Ian. 1989. “Book Review: Poets at Play: Irony and Parody in the Harley Lyrics.” The Yearbook of English Studies. 19: 304-305.

Choong, Kevin Teo Kia. 2006. “Bodies of Knowledge: Embodying Riotous Performance in the Harley Lyrics.” Pp. 13-32 in Barfoot, Cedric Charles, ed. 2006. “And never know the joy”: sex and the erotic in English poetry. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Fein, Susanna Greer, ed. and trans. 2014. “Weping haveth myn wonges wet.” The Complete Harley 2253 Manuscript, Volume 2, Art. 33 (Booklet 5).

Ker, N. R., ed. 1965. Facsimile of British Museum Ms. Harley 2253. Early English Text Society (Original Series) 255. London, New York, Toronto: Publ. for the Early English Text Society by the Oxford Univ. Press.

Margherita, Gayle. 1994. The romance of origins: language and sexual difference in Middle English literature. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

Ransom, Daniel R. 1985. Poets at play: irony and parody in the Harley lyrics. Norman, Okla: Pilgrim Books.

Stemmler, Theo. 1986. “Book Review: Poets at Play: Irony and Parody in the Harley Lyrics by Daniel J. Ransom.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer. 8 (1): 233-236.