men’s unruly sexual imagination: a beauty white as whale’s bone

separated from a whale-white beauty

Hear me! I to you will tell
of such anxious distress in which I dwell.
There’s no fire so hot in Hell
reserved for a man
who loves secretly and dares not tell
what he cannot understand.

I wish I were a throstle-cock,
a bunting or a laverock,
sweet bird!
Between her kirtle and her smock
I would be hid.

I wish her well, and she wishes me woe;
I’m her friend, and she’s my foe;
I think my heart will break in two
for sorrow and sighing many nights.
In God’s favor may she go,
that beauty oh so white!

I wish I were a throstle-cock,
a bunting or a laverock,
sweet bird!
Between her kirtle and her smock
I would be hid.

A beauty white as whale’s bone,
a gem in gold radiantly shown,
a turtledove my heart’s set on,
truest one in all men’s days.
Her blissfulness will never be gone
while music I can play!

I wish I were a throstle-cock,
a bunting or a laverock,
sweet bird!
Between her kirtle and her smock
I would be hid.

No other woman’s so splendidly wrought!
When she’s blissfully to bed brought,
well were he who’s one with her in thought,
that excellent one!
Well I know she doesn’t want what I’ve got,
my heart is filled with woe.

I wish I were a throstle-cock,
a bunting or a laverock,
sweet bird!
Between her kirtle and her smock
I would be hid.

Those eyes have truly torn my heart amiss,
her curved eyebrows bringing bliss,
her comely mouth that one might kiss,
he’d be filled with mirth!
I would change my lot for this:
to with her share a hearth.

I wish I were a throstle-cock,
a bunting or a laverock,
sweet bird!
Between her kirtle and her smock
I would be hid.

May he who with her shares a hearth be so free,
and see worth in that he might accept a fee,
for that one woman I’d give three,
without haggling!
From Hell to Heaven, from sun to sea,
there’s none so beguiling,
nor with favors so free.

I wish I were a throstle-cock,
a bunting or a laverock,
sweet bird!
Between her kirtle and her smock
I would be hid.

{ Herkneth me! Y ou telle,
In such wondryng for wo Y welle!
Nys no fur so hot in helle
Al to mon
That loveth derne ant dar nout telle
Whet him ys on.

Ich wolde ich were a threstelcok,
A bountyng other a lavercoke,
Swete bryd!
Bituene hire curtel ant hire smoke
Y wolde ben hyd!

Ich unne hire wel ant heo me wo;
Ych am hire frend and heo my fo;
Me thuncheth min herte wol breke atwo
For sorewe ant syke.
In Godes greting mote heo go,
That wayle whyte!


A wayle whyt ase whalles bon;
A grein in golde that godly shon;
A tortle that min herte is on,
In tounes trewe!
Hire gladshipe nes never gon
While Y may glewe!


A wyf nis non so worly wroht!
When heo ys blythe to bedde ybroht,
Wel were him that wiste hire thoht,
That thryven ant thro!
Wel Y wot heo nul me noht;
Myn herte is wo.


Hyre heye haveth wounded me ywisse,
Hire bende browen that bringeth blisse!
Hire comely mouth that mihte cusse —
In muche murthe he were!
Y wolde chaunge myn for his
That is here fere.


Wolde hyre fere beo so freo,
Ant wurthes were, that so myhte beo,
Al for on Y wolde geve threo,
Withoute chep!
From helle to hevene, ant sonne to see,
Nys non so yeep,
Ne half so freo.

(refrain) }

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Read more:


manuscript text of A wayle whyt ase whalles bon

The Middle English text above includes most of the poem (minstrel song) known as “A wayle whyt ase whalles bon {A beauty white as whale’s bone}.” It is recorded only in the Harley manuscript (London, British Library MS Harley 2253), folio 67r. The Harley manuscript is dated to about 1330. “A wayle whyt ase whalles bon” is recorded in that manuscript in a condensed form, with the order of the stanzas apparently misplaced. Fein (2014) seems to me to provide the best reconstruction of the Middle English song. Millett (2003) follows more closely the manuscript presentation.

Relative to Fein’s reconstruction of the poem, I’ve made changes to help modern readers appreciate the poem as a minstrel song. I’ve used prose capitalization style in the modern English translation to lessen readers’ fears of poetry. The invocation “Who would of love be true, do listen to me! {Wose wole of love be trewe, do lystne me! }” I’ve eliminated as distracting. In addition, I don’t believe the song would have begun with its refrain. As Parker (2011) points out, “Hear me {Herkneth me}” is a common opening to Middle English poems.

I’ve eliminated the fourth stanza as potentially upsetting to readers in our more orthodox and doctrinaire age. That stanza declares:

When she is blissful,
Of all this world I ask no more
Than to be with her, my own, lodged
Without argument.
The distress I’m entangled in,
I blame upon a woman.

{ When heo is glad,
Of al this world namore Y bad
Then beo with hire, myn one, bistad
Withoute strif.
The care that Ich am yn ybrad
Y wyte a wyf. }

Trans. and text from Fein (2014). The specified circumstances “When she is blissful … Without argument” hint that wives could have difficult moods and be argumentative. In the last line of the stanza, the poet went as far as to blame a woman. That’s just not acceptable today, even if the woman is guilty of a criminal offense. Following current academic orthodoxy, Ransom describes the last two lines of this stanza as “antifeminist” and as having a “misogynistic ring.” Ransom (1985) p. 69.

I’ve also eliminated stanza six. That stanza invokes a man lovesick for a woman to the point of death. Modern academics are obsessed with myths of misogyny and scarcely comprehend that most men love women dearly. Even relatively innocent, unlearned persons tend not to appreciate how much men love women. That makes the stanza difficult for readers to understand.

Another problem is the last two lines of the stanza:

Greet her well, that sweet thing
With eyes of gray.

{ Gret hire wel, that swete thing
With eyenen gray. }

Trans. and text from Fein (2014). A leading medieval scholar has noted that “eyenan gray” is a fairly common medieval English expression meaning eyes of clear blue color. But my sense is that the song focuses on behavior and action, not physical description of the beloved. The phrase “eyes gay” would suggest a way of behaving; “eyes of clear blue” doesn’t. Moreover, eyes of clear blue, at least to readers today, might allusively connect to a whale through water / sea. I think such a connection detracts from the emotional tension of “whyt ase whalles bon.” For these reasons, I believe that “gray” plausibly might be a scribal miscopying of “gay.”

The modern English translation above is mine, benefiting mainly from that of Fein. Relative to Fein’s translation, I’ve more strictly preserved the end rhymes and inter-stanza keyword / conceptual linking. I’ve also used some different diction to add alliteration and to bring out my sense of the song. Parker (2011) provides an alternate translation of Millett’s Middle English text.

The poem’s refrain figures the masculine poetic voice’s sexual longing for the beautiful woman. In contrast to the devaluation of men’s bodily desire in “courtly love,” the refrain boldly thrusts forward with a vigorous image of a bird. In ancient Greek myth, Zeus seduced Leda by taking the form of a swan. According to Pausanias, Zeus also ingratiated himself with his future wife Hera by turning himself into a cuckoo:

The presence of a cuckoo seated on the sceptre {of Hera} they explain by the story that when Zeus was in love with the virgin Hera, he changed himself into this bird, and she caught it to be her pet.

{ κόκκυγα δὲ ἐπὶ τῷ σκήπτρῳ καθῆσθαί φασι λέγοντες τὸν Δία, ὅτε ἤρα παρθένου τῆς Ἥρας, ἐς τοῦτον τὸν ὄρνιθα ἀλλαγῆναι, τὴν δὲ ἅτε παίγνιον θηρᾶσαι. }

Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.17.4, Greek text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Perseus. There is no other ancient account of these events. Nonetheless, in accordance with a fundamental communicative principle, Wikipedia charges Zeus with raping Hera.

The Middle English poem more directly refers to delightful heterosexual intercourse. With learned analysis, Ransom showed that in fourteenth-century England, “cock” plausibly signified male genitals, as well as more typically a rooster. He poetically observed, “the assimilation of cock-rooster and penis would be perfectly natural, especially for any male compounder of metaphor.” Ransom (1986) pp. 71-2. Moreover, a woman’s “smok” was used in Middle English to refer to her genitals. Id. pp. 70-9.

The eminent classical Latin poet Catullus produced a fine poem about the delights of a woman and a bird:

Sparrow, my girl’s darling,
with whom she plays, whom she holds in her lap,
to your approaching she gives her finger-tip to peck and
provokes you to bite sharply,
whenever she, the bright-shining desire of my love,
has a mind for some sweet pretty play.
She hopes, I think, that when the sharper pang of love abates,
she may find some small relief from her longing.
Ah, might I but play with you as she does,
and lighten the gloomy cares of my heart!
This is as welcome to me as was
to the swift maiden the golden apple,
which, they say, loosed her girdle too long tied.

{ Passer, deliciae meae puellae,
quicum ludere, quem in sinu tenere,
cui primum digitum dare appetenti
et acris solet incitare morsus,
cum desiderio meo nitenti
carum nescio quid lubet iocari
et solaciolum sui doloris,
credo ut tum grauis acquiescat ardor:
tecum ludere sicut ipsa possem
et tristis animi leuare curas!
Tam gratum est mihi quam ferunt puellae
pernici aureolum fuisse malum,
quod zonam soluit diu ligatam. }

Catullus, Carmen 2, Latin text and my English translation building on that of Harry Walker. Here’s Catullus 2 with a different translation and commentary.

The concluding stanza of the Middle English poem contrasts transactional sex-seeking with freely given sexual favors. Ransom perceives in the poem a humorous debunking of courtly love. Ransom (1986) p. 69. Yet it is more than that. Men often feel compelled to purchase sex.  With its repeated invocation of “sweet bird,” the Middle English song subtly affirms the intrinsic value and intimate goodness of men’s sexuality.

[images] (1) Whale bones on show at Burton Constable Hall, Burton Constable, East Riding of Yorkshire, England. Excerpt from an image thanks to Lawson Speedway and Wikimedia Commons. (2) The only surviving manuscript text of “A wayle whyt ase whalles bon {A beauty white as whale’s bone}.” From British Library manuscript Harley 2253, excerpt from folio. 67.


Fein, Susanna Greer, ed. and trans. 2014. “A wayle whyt ase whalles bon: Introduction, Text, and Translation.” The Complete Harley 2253 Manuscript, Volume 2, Art. 36 in Booklet 5 (online).

Millett, Bella, trans. 2003. “A wayle whyt ase whalles bon: Introduction, Text, and Translation.” Wessex Parallel WebTexts (online).

Parker, Eleanor. 2011. “A Medieval Love Poem: White as Whale’s Bone.” A Clerk of Oxford (online).

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

ancient Exeter riddles highlight contradictions of men’s sexuality

The Exeter Book, an Anglo-Saxon (Old English) manuscript surviving from the tenth century, includes about ninety five riddles. These riddles describe a wide variety of objects and phenomena. The Exeter Book provides no answers to its riddles. The necessity of pondering the Exeter riddles gives them critical potential, particularly the riddles concerning men’s sexuality.

The literary context of the Exeter riddles is difficult for persons today to grasp. In the relatively liberal and humanistic culture of early medieval England, authors were permitted to produce outrageous texts. For example, Warner of Rouen early in the eleventh century wrote extraordinarily vibrant, diverse, and dynamic poetry. His poetry covered highly technical grammatical points while at the same time poetically abusing a fellow poet: “he knows more about his own goat’s cunt / than what force dialectic carries {nota magis proprie uesica capelle, / quam dialectica uis}.”[1] Medieval poets even criticized women. The medieval Latin poem Jezebel, which Warner probably also wrote, characterized Jezebel as a sexually voracious whore. Recent scholarly work indicates that Jezebel satirizes Ælfgifu (Ælfgyvu) of Northampton, the first wife of King Cnut of England and Denmark.[2]

Ælfgyvu sexually imagines cleric attempting to heal her

The Bayeux Tapestry, probably created in England in the 1070s, apparently represented a woman’s sexual objectification of a man. The woman is named specifically Ælfgyvu. The man is described generically as a single cleric. He touches her head with his outstretched hand. That’s a gesture associated with a cleric praying for a person’s healing. Underneath Ælfgyvu, in a mirror perspective of her viewing the cleric, is him reduced to a bare outline of a man with his genitals showing prominently. Ælfgyvu apparently had an earthy view of even a cleric ministering to her.[3] In interpreting gendered works, modern scholars have made elaborate claims about the male gaze, yet have resolutely ignored the female gaze. Medieval chroniclers had a less ignorant and bigoted understanding of gender. Readers today must consciously struggle to expand their understanding when pondering men’s sexuality in early medieval works such as the Bayeaux Tapestry and the Exeter riddles.

Some of the Exeter riddles are superficially rather straightforward. Consider:

I heard of something rising in the corner,
swelling and standing up, raising its covering.
The proud-hearted bride grabbed that boneless thing
with her hands. The prince’s daughter
covered with a garment that bulging thing.

{ Ic on wincle gefrægn weaxan nathwæt,
þindan ond þunian, þecene hebban.
On þæt banlease bryd grapode,
hygewlonc hondum. Hrægle þeahte
þrindende þing þeodnes dohtor. } [4]

A reader might readily figure that the “thing” being described is a man’s tumefying and then fully erect penis. Before the modern immiseration of erection labor, most men performed an enormous amount of erection labor. Women then highly valued men’s labor. A similar Exeter riddle makes explicit women’s joy in having men’s penises:

I am a wondrous being, a joy to women,
profitable to neighbors; I harm no one
in the town, except only my killer.
My base is steep and high, I stand in the bed;
underneath, in a remote place, I’m hairy. Sometimes dares
the very beautiful daughter of a peasant-farmer,
a maid proud in mind, to grab hold of me.
She rubs me to redness, ravages my head,
forces me into a stuck position. Immediately she feels
my meeting, the one who confines me,
the curly-haired woman. Wet is that eye.

{ Ic eom wunderlicu wiht, wifum on hyhte,
neahbuendum nyt; nængum sceþþe
burgsittendra, nymþe bonan anum.
Staþol min is steapheah, stonde ic on bedde,
neoþan ruh nathwær. Neþeð hwilum
ful cyrtenu ceorles dohtor,
modwlonc meowle, þæt heo on mec gripeð,
ræseð mec on reodne, reafað min heafod,
fegeð mec on fæsten. Feleþ sona
mines gemotes, seo þe mec nearwað,
wif wundenlocc. Wæt bið þæt eage. } [5]

“Wet is that eye” apparently figures the penis ejaculating in the women’s vagina. Such sexual intercourse was highly valued in the early medieval period. Even if they didn’t feel like it, medieval husbands were legally required to perform sexually for their wives if their wives sought sex. Husbands didn’t have sex with their wives merely to provide their wives with joy. Husbands having sex with their wives was regarded as a matter of life and death for wives.

These Exeter riddles literally describe a woman raping a man and metaphorically evoke a fundamental riddle. A woman grabbing a man’s penis and sticking it under her skirt without any indication of his consent is rape. A woman grabbing a man’s penis, rubbing it with her hands to an erection, and then forcing it into her vagina is also rape. Literary scholars have declared many ancient and medieval stories to represent men raping women. Leading newspapers have recently declared nearly a quarter of men rapists using an extremely selfish and narrow-minded definition of rape. Yet the Exeter riddles’ representations of women raping men aren’t read to represent rape.[6] High-quality U.S. national surveys indicate that women rape men about as often as men rape women. While men raping women has been recognized as a serious crime throughout history, social concern about women raping men has been virtually nonexistent, even in our age of intense focus on gender equality. That is a profound riddle.

The Exeter riddles depict an alternative to women raping men. Consider this riddle:

Often a beautiful woman, a wife, enclosed me
firmly in a strongbox, sometimes she drew me up
with her hands and gave me to her husband,
gracious prince, as she was commanded.
Then he stuck his head into the heart of me,
upward from beneath, fitted it into the tight space.
If the strength of my receiver was suitable,
something hairy surely satisfied
me, the adorned one. Advise of what I speak.

{ Oft mec fæste bileac freolicu meowle,
ides on earce, hwilum up ateah
folmum sinum ond frean sealde,
holdum þeodne, swa hio haten wæs.
Siðþan me on hreþre heafod sticade,
nioþan upweardne, on nearo fegde.
Gif þæs ondfengan ellen dohte,
mec frætwedne fyllan sceolde
ruwes nathwæt. Ræd hwæt ic mæne. } [7]

Can any man today imagine, without fear of punishment, that which is the subject of the riddle? Men readers, avert your male gaze: the subject is a beautiful woman’s vagina!

Some less obvious aspects of the riddle can be explained easily. When her husband was out risking death, a medieval princess who wasn’t interested in cuckolding her husband might lock herself within their castle, figured in the riddle as a “strongbox.” That’s particularly prudent wifely behavior when strong, young, handsome knights are marauding about the neighborhood. The reference to the subject of the poem as the “adorned one” doesn’t require imagining vagina rings or other such jewelry, or contraceptive devices in place.[8] The “adorned one” can be more naturally imagined as a vagina adorned with the beautiful woman’s body surrounding it. Many men appreciate much more than merely a woman’s vagina.

Careful scholarly analysis of the riddle reveals an inner meaning nearly incomprehensible today. The medieval author had a bizarre view of sex and marriage:

Riddle 61 recommends that a wife should restrict her sexuality to the pleasure of her husband, but be sexually available to him at his request; she should trust her husband and do as he directs. Yet a husband has duties and responsibilities to his wife in return: he should have courage and be worthy of his wife; he should satisfy and fulfill her, at least sexually. In these sentiments, the Exeter Book riddler echoes traditional Pauline doctrine: ‘‘uxori vir debitum reddat similiter autem et uxor viro’’ (let the husband render the {conjugal} debt to his wife: and the wife also in like manner to the husband) (1 Corinthians 7: 2–3), and also ‘‘ulieres viris suis subditae sint sicut Domino quoniam vir caput est mulieris sicut Christus caput est ecclesiae’’ (let women be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife; as Christ is the head of the church) (Ephesians 5:22–23). In his idealisation of marriage, characterised by sexual relations and wifely obedience, the riddler is doctrinally correct and reiterating biblical morality. [9]

That’s not biblical morality today. More importantly, present-day sexual doctrine is primarily concerned with rape and affirmative consent. In addition, many couples today regard sexless marriage as a natural state of relations, particularly after the first few years of marriage. Is it any wonder that highly learned medieval authorities such as Heloise of the Paraclete and Walter Map strongly advised against marriage?

Across thousands of years of human history, the wisdom of the eminent law-giver Solon wasn’t influential enough to dispel sexual inequality and the disparagement and suppression of men’s sexuality. Ordinary men and women coming to a new, existential awareness of reality is an alternate possibility for change. Ponder the Exeter riddles about men’s sexuality. Find answers for them in your own lived experience.[10]

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Read more:


[1] Warner of Rouen, Moriuht, ll. 49-54, Latin text and English trans. McDonough (1995) pp. 74-5.

[2] Galloway (1999). See also my post on Warner of Rouen.

[3] The image on the Bayeux Tapestry includes the title, “Ubi unus clericus et Ælfgyva {When a single cleric and Ælfgyva}.” The missing verb allows the phrase to be completed as either “she was healed” or “she sexually assaulted him.”

Ælfgyvu was a relatively common female name in England prior to the Norman Conquest. Recent scholarly work suggests that the Ælfgyvu depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry is Ælfgyvu of York. She plausibly was the daughter of Thored of York, the first wife of Æthelred the Unready, and the great grandmother of Edgar the Ætheling. Edgar the Ætheling contended with William the Bastard for the English throne. The Bayeux Tapestry plausibly questions the bloodline of Edgar the Ætheling by representing Ælfgyvu’s strong, independent sexuality. Laynesmith (2012).

[4] Exeter Book, Riddle 45. In this and subsequent quotes of Exeter riddles, I use the riddle numbering from Krapp & Dobbie’s edition in Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records. The divisions into discrete riddles is a matter of scholarly contention, hence numbering can vary slightly. Old English text and translations of the Exeter riddles are widely available. The translations above represent my best poetic sense of the riddles. In making those translations, I’ve drawn mainly on Baum (1963), Cavell (2013-), Hostetter (2017), and Williamson (1983), as well as the individual texts and translations within Heyworth (2007), Higl (2017), and Salvador-Bello (2011). For the full text of the Exeter Book and an English translation, Thorpe (1842).

[5] Exeter Book, Riddle 25. Megan Cavell’s translation of this riddle has provided the wonderfully specific, bodily double-entendre for sexual intercourse (from the penis’s perspective): “my meeting.” Within the starvation-level living conditions for most persons in the Middle Ages, getting some meat was cause for joy indeed. “Profitable to neighbors” plausible refers to the market-expanding benefit of increasing population. The sentence, “I harm no one / in the town, except for my killer” figures the penis as creating a love wound and the bodily reality of penile detumescence. With respect to the former, love wounds have long been associated with Cupid shooting arrows. With respect to the latter, women are fully capable of horrific interpersonal violence, including killing men. But here, the figure of “killing” the erect penis is associated with the woman stimulating the penis to ejaculation.

[6] Cavell makes clear the extent to which scholars have read the Exeter riddles without any concern for women raping men. With respect to riddle 25, Cavall comments:

the poem also hands us a pretty interesting picture of a sexually assertive woman. LOTS of people have written on this topic (see Davis, Hermann, Kim, Shaw and Whitehurst Williams, for example), so of course there’s disagreement about whether or not the poem judges the woman’s assertiveness – perhaps even aggressiveness, given how grabby those hands seem to be.

The riddle author has thus been tried for the crime of “judging the woman’s assertiveness.” Cavall refers to the woman in the poem not as a rapist, but as a “grabby-handed woman.” Literary scholars pretend that sexual harassment of men isn’t possible. Prominent academics have recently spoken out forcefully to question sexual harassment allegations against a female professor. That action doesn’t seem to be a result of enlightened reason, but merely crude gender bigotry.

[7] Exeter Book, Riddle 61.

[8] In her commentary on Riddle 61, Cavell states:

This very brief reference to adornment is what reminds us we’re dealing with a constructed object instead of a sexual encounter. This was before vajazzling, after all. Though Sarah Higley suggests the text may be hinting at contraceptive items (and reminds us that we don’t know an awful lot about such things in early medieval England (pages 48-50)), I think it’s safe to say that it would be pretty impractical to adorn whatever sorts of things were used.

Cavell seems to me to read “adornment” too narrowly and too literally.

[9] Heyworth (2007) pp. 180-1. Exeter Riddle 20 promotes marriage:

In Riddle 20, then, marriage is a joy and a delight and something to be longed for by the individual participants, the bride, the wife, the would-be husband sword. Further, marriage is semantically associated with sexual activity in this riddle, and part of the joy of marriage comes with its inherent association with sexual intercourse.

Id. p. 177.

[10] Don’t be afraid to play with different ideas and different perspectives. That’s a vitally important aspect of the Exeter riddles:

{Andrew Higl} explores what it means to play the riddles in their original context, making the individual reader the riddle hero (hæleþ) whom the text calls on to construct playful worlds of imagination and language. He examines how the Old English riddles demand to be played and how they oscillate playfully between the mundane, the sacred, and the obscene.

Higl (2017), from Abstract. Scholars in their own work on the Exeter riddles should strive to come closer to them.


Baum, Paull F, ed. and trans. 1963. Exeter Book: Anglo-Saxon Riddles of the Exeter Book. Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press.

Cavell, Megan, ed. 2013-. The Riddle Ages: An Anglo-Saxon Riddle Blog (online).

Galloway, Andrew. 1999. “Word-play and political satire: solving the riddle of the text of Jezebel.” Medium Aevum. 68 (2): 189-208.

Heyworth, Melanie. 2007. “Perceptions of Marriage in Exeter Book Riddles 20 and 61.” Studia Neophilologica. 79 (2): 171-184.

Higl, Andrew. 2017. “Riddle Hero: Play and Poetry in the Exeter Book Riddles.” American Journal of Play. 9 (3): 374-394.

Hostetter, Aaron K., trans. 2017. “Exeter Book Riddles.” Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry (online).

Laynesmith, J. L. 2012. “The Bayeux tapestry: A Canterbury Tale.” History Today. 62 (10): 42-48.

McDonough, Christopher J. 1995. Warner of Rouen. Moriuht: a Norman Latin poem from the early eleventh century. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. 2011. “The Sexual Riddle Type in Aldhelm’s Enigmata, the Exeter Book, and Early Medieval Latin.” Philological Quarterly 90(4):357-385.

Thorpe, Benjamin, ed. and trans. 1842. Codex Exoniensis: a collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry, from a manuscript in the library of the Dean and Chapter of Exeter. London: Society of Antiquaries of London.

Williamson, Craig. 1983. A Feast of Creatures: Anglo-Saxon Riddle-Songs. London: Scolar Press. (online texts and translations)

medieval lesson in winning women’s love: aloofness, not groveling

Denmark map outline

Many men today think that they can gain women’s love by showing intense interest in female gender gaps. Self-centered women won’t object to men denouncing men’s crimes and men striving to reduce the number of women in prison. Self-centered women will praise men who champion women’s reproductive rights and advocate for the interests of elite women in being promoted further into high-status, high-stress jobs. Moreover, almost all women will smile smugly at men who proclaim that women throughout history have been treated as men’s property. But men proclaiming “the future is female” and ardently supporting female supremacists won’t stir women’s sexual desire any more than will a yes-dearing husband. Men who seek women’s love must act with more sophistication and more guile.

A thirteenth-century French poetic work called “The Little Debate {Le Petit Plet}” explains clearly and concisely a man’s position in love in relation to a woman. Le Petit Plet states of a woman:

As soon as she notices that someone loves her,
then she clamors that she’s being treated disrespectfully,
and quickly gets hard-to-please,
and very malicious and angry too.
If you say something she doesn’t like,
she looks at you with an unfavorable eye.
But if there’s someone who has no liking for her at all,
she readily jokes with him,
embraces him and kisses him fondly,
and tries to attract him by putting on an act.
Yet if there’s anyone she’s sure of,
you know, she scarcely gives a damn about him.

{ Si ele se aparceit ke l’em la eime
Dunc por hunie ben se cleime,
Si tost ne deuenge dangeruse,
V mult enreuere e trop irruse.
Si ren dites cuntre sun uoil
Ele vus regardera de l’autre oil.
Mes celui ki ne la eime de ren,
A celui juera ele ben
E acolera e suef beisera,
E per beal semblant ben le atrerra.
Mes de celui dunt est seure,
Sachez, ne en predendra gueres cure. } [1]

In the introduction to his adaptation of The Life of Barlaam and Josaphat, Chardri, the thirteenth-century writer whom scholars think authored Le Petit Plet, highlighted the importance of exempla for instruction.[2] Chardri’s account of women in relation to men in love has great value for instructing men on how to gain women’s love.

Men seeking women in love must strive to raise their sexual market value. The classical author Seneca provided the fundamental insight in his De remediis fortuitorum:

a woman who regards herself too highly is little different from a woman who has contempt for men

{ non multum abest a contemptu viri, quae se nimis conspicit } [3]

According to modern sexual economic theory, both men and women seek sexual partners of highest sexual market value within the constraints of their own sexual value and overall market conditions. Women, who are more socially sophisticated than men, tend to be more sensitive to sexual market value than men are. To gain a women’s love, a sexually rational man should display sexual self-confidence to women. That means acting somewhat aloof, not being overly eager, and certainly not groveling to her like a chivalrous fool and all the mis-indoctrinated men today. Being able to exercise guile in displaying self-confidence in itself raises a man’s sexual market value.

Men’s sexual behavior is becoming a matter of acute public concern. Men must study literature and sexual economics to become thoroughly enlightened. Men, support the new Spanish sex czar. If that’s not enough motivation, do it for Denmark!

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[1] Chardri, The Little Debate {Le Petit Plet} ll. 1353-64, Old French (Anglo-Norman) text and English translation (with my adaptations) from Cartlidge (2015) pp. 143, 159. Merrilees (1970) provides Old French text for the full work. In Cartlidge’s Old French text, I’ve used “v” where “u” functions as a consonant to help non-specialists to hear the sound of the Old French. In l. 1362, Merrilees has “par” for Cartlidge’s “per.”

Le Petit Plet survives in three manuscripts: London, British Library, Cotton, Caligula A. IX, f. 249rb-261rb (C); Oxford, Jesus College Library, 29, f. 244va-257vb (J); and Vaticano, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Reginensi latini, 1659, f. 91-100 (V). Manuscripts C and J appear on paleographic grounds to be from the second half of the thirteenth century, while Manuscript V is from the fourteenth century. Carlidge argues that Le Petit Plet cannot be convincingly dated more precisely than the thirteenth century. Cartlidge (2015) p. 6.

Le Petit Plet is a debate poem within a long literary tradition of debate poems. It shares closely a “common cultural and intellectual tradition” with The Owl and  the Nightingale. Cartlidge (2015) p. 37. Other influential medieval debate poems are The Thrush and the Nightingale and Ecloga Theoduli.

[2] Chardri, The Life of St. Josaphaz {La Vie de Seint Josaphaz} ll. 1-24, trans. Cartlidge (2015) p. 71. Chardri also apparently authored a life of the seven sleepers of Ephesus.

[3] Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Younger), De remediis fortuitorum, Latin text from Palmer (1953) p. 64, my English translation. De remediis fortuitorum has survived in more than 250 manuscripts. Medieval authorities William of Conches, Vincent of Beauvais, and Roger Bacon quoted from De remediis fortuitorum. They, along with Petrarch and Erasmus, regarded De remediis fortuitorum to be a work of Seneca. Here’s a version of De remediis fortuitorum printed in 1474. From the 17th century, scholarly consensus turned against belief that Seneca authored De remediis fortuitorum. Newman (1988) has made a convincing case for Seneca as its author.

[image] Outline map of Denmark. Derived from image thanks to Angr and Wikimedia Commons.


Cartlidge, Neil, trans. 2015. The works of Chardri: three poems in the French of thirteenth-century England; The Life of the Seven Sleepers, The Life of St. Josaphaz and The Little Debate. Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

Merrilees, Brian S., ed. 1970. Chardri. Le petit plet. Oxford: Blackwell.

Newman, Robert J. 1989. “Rediscovering the De Remediis Fortuitorum.” The American Journal of Philology. 109 (1): 92-107.

Palmer, Ralph Graham, ed. 1953. Seneca’s De Remediis Fortuitorum and the Elizabethans. An essay on the influence of Seneca’s ethical thought in the sixteenth century, together with the newly-edited Latin text and English translation of 1547 by Robert Whyttynton. Institute of Elizabethan Studies: Chicago.