pious man’s hypocrisy exposed him to being raped by woman

medieval representation of lust

Introducing a story about “a certain blessed Paul {Paulo cuidam Beato}” who lived in Pisa, the eminent medieval church official Poggio Bracciolini declared:

The hypocrite is, of all types, the worst that lives.

{ Hypocritarum genus pessimum est omnium qui vivant. }

Paul was one of those destitute persons who sat outside a doorway, yet never asked for alms. Rather than speaking of his need, he waited for others to recognize his need and provide for him. That’s not what made Paul a hypocrite.

Paul sometimes sat outside a widow’s doorway. She always gave him alms in the form of food. The widow developed keen appreciation for Paul’s masculine beauty:

She, from often seeing Paul (he was beautiful), became inflamed with him. Once after giving him food, she asked him to come back the next day, saying that she would take care that he was well fed. He thus became a frequent visitor to her house. She at last asked the man to come in to take his food. He consented to this, and when he had richly stuffed his belly with food and drink, the woman, amorously impatient, embracing and kissing him, asserted that he shouldn’t depart before knowing her intimately.

{ Illa, conspicata saepius virum (erat enim formosus) exarsit in Paulum, ciboque dato rogavit, ut postridie rediret, se curaturam ut bene pranderet. Cum frequens domum mulieris accessisset, illa tandem rogavit hominem ut intus accederet ad sumendum cibum; annuit hic, et cum opipare ventrem cibo potuque farsisset, mulier, libidinis impatiens, virum amplectitur, osculaturque, asserens non inde abiturum, priusquam se cognoscat. }

From a medieval Christian perspective, Paul committed the sin of gluttony. Moreover, he hypocritically pretended to reject the sin of fornication:

He feigned reluctance and pretended to detest the woman’s fervent desiring. The widow pressed upon him lewdly, until he finally gave way to her importuning. “Since,” he said, “you are determined to bring about such a sin, I take God as my witness that all this work is yours. I am far from having any guilt. You therefore take the cursed meat (his shaft was indeed already erect) and use it as you please. I will not even touch it.” Thus he unwillingly submitted to the woman and adhering to abstinence didn’t touch the meat nearest to him. The whole sin he attributed to the woman.

{ Ille reluctanti similis, ac detestans mulieris ferventem cupiditatem, cum illa obscenius instaret, tandem cedens viduae importunitati: “Posteaquam,” inquit, “tantum malum patrare cupis, testor Deum, opus tuum erit: ego procul absum a culpa. Tu ipsa,” inquit, “cape hanc maledictam carnem” (iam enim virga erecta erat), “et ipsamet utere, ut lubet: ego enim eam minime tangam.” Ita invitus mulierem subegit, licet propter abstinentiam non tangeret carnem suam, totum peccatum tribuens mulieri. }

According to modern rape doctrine interpreted with respect for equal justice under law, Paul didn’t affirmatively consent to having sex with the widow. She therefore raped him. But today women raping men often isn’t recognized as real rape. With their more enlightened and humane understanding, medieval jurists would regard the woman as deserving blame. They probably also would attribute some culpability to Paul. His fault wasn’t that he had an erection. He would be blamed because he stuffed himself with meat from the table and treated the meat in his pants hypocritically.

Men, while pretending that they are innocent and unwilling, shouldn’t entice women into having sex. Most men don’t do that. Women shouldn’t do that, either, especially given today’s viciously anti-men judgments of rape.

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The quotes above are from a story preserved by the great medieval church official Poggio Bracciolini. Poggio recorded the story as Facetiae 6, “About a widow lustfully inflamed with a pauper {De vidua accensa libidine cum paupere},” Latin text from Poggio (1879) vol. 1, pp. 21-4, my English translation with help from that of id. Poggio attributed this story to a person he met at a party. That person told this story when the subject of hypocrites became the subject of vigorous discussion.

Medieval authorities believed that widows had strong, independent sexuality. Medieval thinkers also closely associated the sins of gluttony and lust.

[image] A demon masturbating to satisfy his lust. From a 13th-century manuscript. Image via Grammaticus VII and 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).

Luke’s diptych of Zechariah & Mary shows men’s weakness

Zechariah and Mary

After its dedicatory preface to Theophilus (literally, “lover of God”), the Gospel of Luke presents a diptych of birth narratives in which Zechariah and Mary have sharply contrasting positions. Zechariah served the Jerusalem temple altar that was central to Jewish religious life. He was a descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses.[1] Mary, in contrast, was a lowly young Jewish woman living in the provincial town of Nazareth. Yet the angel Gabriel treated Mary with much more respect and generosity than he treated Zechariah. Moreover, Mary had a much stronger sense of self than did Zechariah. Luke’s diptych of Zechariah and Mary should be understood as a stunning revelation of men’s weakness.

When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, he treated her kindly and respectfully. He greeted her warmly and affirmatively:

Greetings, highly favored one, the Lord is with you.

{ Χαῖρε κεχαριτωμένη ὁ κύριος μετὰ σοῦ } [2]

Mary, not surprisingly, was confused by these words. She kept pondering what sort of greeting this was. Then Gabriel said to her:

Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.

{ μὴ φοβοῦ Μαριάμ εὗρες γὰρ χάριν παρὰ τῷ θεῷ }

Gabriel went on to tell Mary that she would conceive a great son who would reign over the house of Jacob forever. Gabriel told Mary to name her son Jesus. Mary, confused, questioned the angel and offered a reason for doubt:

How can this be, since I am a virgin?

{ πῶς ἔσται τοῦτο ἐπεὶ ἄνδρα οὐ γινώσκω }

Gabriel then patiently explained to Mary that the Holy Spirit would come upon her, and that nothing is impossible with God.

The angel Gabriel treated Zechariah, in contrast, quite harshly. While Zechariah was hard at work incensing the Lord’s altar in Jerusalem, Gabriel appeared to him without any greeting and terrified him. Gabriel calmed Zechariah as he had calmed Mary, but without any personal affirmation:

Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your petition has been heard.

{ μὴ φοβοῦ Ζαχαρία διότι εἰσηκούσθη ἡ δέησίς σου }

Zechariah had found favor with God in the sense that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son. Just as Gabriel instructed Mary in naming, he instructed Zechariah to name his son John. Gabriel told Zechariah that John, like Jesus, would be a great son. Like Mary, Zechariah, confused, questioned the angel and offered a reason for doubt:

How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.

{ κατὰ τί γνώσομαι τοῦτο ἐγὼ γάρ εἰμι πρεσβύτης καὶ ἡ γυνή μου προβεβηκυῖα ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις αὐτῆς }

While to Mary’s questioning Gabriel responded warmly and receptively, to Zechariah’s questioning Gabriel responded agonistically, emphatically asserting his superior status:

I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring to you this.

{ ἐγώ εἰμι Γαβριὴλ ὁ παρεστηκὼς ἐνώπιον τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ ἀπεστάλην λαλῆσαι πρὸς σὲ καὶ εὐαγγελίσασθαί σοι ταῦτα }

Then Gabriel declared that Zechariah would be punished for his questioning:

you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their proper time.

{ ἔσῃ σιωπῶν καὶ μὴ δυνάμενος λαλῆσαι ἄχρι ἧς ἡμέρας γένηται ταῦτα ἀνθ’ ὧν οὐκ ἐπίστευσας τοῖς λόγοις μου οἵτινες πληρωθήσονται εἰς τὸν καιρὸν αὐτῶν }

Why did Gabriel treat Zechariah so harshly?[3] Could this biblical text provide insight into why ruling authorities today hold behind bars fifteen times more men than women, and hardly anyone cares?

Mary apparently had a much stronger sense of self than did Zechariah. When Mary’s relative Elizabeth called her blessed, Mary responded:

My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One had done great things for me, and holy is his name.

{ μεγαλυνει η ψυχη μου τον κυριον και ηγαλλιασεν το πνευμα μου επι τω θεω τω σωτηρι μου
ὅτι ἐπέβλεψεν ἐπὶ τὴν ταπείνωσιν τῆς δούλης αὐτοῦ ἰδοὺ γὰρ ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν μακαριοῦσίν με πᾶσαι αἱ γενεαί
ὅτι ἐποίησέν μοι μεγάλα ὁ δυνατός καὶ ἅγιον τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ } [4]

In these verses, Mary is centrally concerned with herself. Compare those verses with the first three verses that Zechariah sang in joy for the birth of his son John:

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people,
and has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old

{ εὐλογητὸς κύριος ὁ θεὸς τοῦ Ἰσραήλ ὅτι ἐπεσκέψατο καὶ ἐποίησεν λύτρωσιν τῷ λαῷ αὐτοῦ
καὶ ἤγειρεν κέρας σωτηρίας ἡμῖν ἐν οἴκῳ Δαυὶδ παιδὸς αὐτοῦ
καθὼς ἐλάλησεν διὰ στόματος τῶν ἁγίων ἀπ’ αἰῶνος προφητῶν αὐτοῦ }

Zechariah never referred to himself. His joy was all for his people. While Zechariah was at work in the temple in Jerusalem, he was murdered by order of King Herod.[5] Dying on the job poignantly alludes to far too many men’s fates.

Most men and women are deeply deluded about men’s social status. The formal elite of modern societies — the persons who hold positions like Zechariah did about two millennia ago — have been primarily men. They have been a very small share of men. Moreover, far from serving the interests of all men, elite men have had little consciousness even of themselves as men.

The contrast between Zechariah and Mary in the Gospel of Luke echoes the more general theme of Jesus overturning worldly status hierarchies. But that story has not yet been fully revealed and accomplished. Christians have said almost nothing about the contrast between Zechariah and Mary. The world is still groaning under the hidden hierarchy of gynocentrism.

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[1] Zechariah is also known as Zachariah, which is a more accurate transliteration of the Greek form of his name. Zechariah belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron. Luke 1:5. Abijah headed one of the houses of the descendants of Aaron. 1 Chronicles 24:10. Connecting Zechariah less directly than Elizabeth to Aaron in Luke 1:5 might be another way in which Luke signals gynocentrism. While Zechariah periodically traveled to work in Jerusalem, his home was in the hill country of Judea. Luke 1:39. That may have been Hebron. Joshua 21:11. Hebron is about 25 miles south of Jerusalem.

As Luke’s formal address to Theophilus indicates, the Gospel of Luke was written for a relatively learned Greek audience. Luke is written in more learned Greek than is the Gospel of Mark.

[2] This and subsequent quotes are from Chapter 1 of Luke. The Greek text is the Morphological GNT from the Blue Letter Bible. The English translation is mainly the Revised Standard Version, but in some instances I’ve used a more literal translation for particular words, or adjusted the clause order to follow the Greek.

[3] Orthodox Christian tradition indicates that Zechariah was punished for the weakness of his faith in doubting the angel Gabriel’s prophecy. See the Orthodox life of Saint Zachariah. Mary also seems to have doubted Gabriel’s prophecy for her.

The Qur’an treats Zechariah (Zachariah) less harshly than Luke. It describes his muteness as a sign indicating the truth of Gabriel’s prophecy, not punishment of Zechariah for some offense. Qur’an 19:10. It also places Zechariah among the righteous with Jesus. Qur’an 6:85.

[4] This text is from the Mary’s song known as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). Subsequent verses of the Magnificat don’t include first-personal address. The subsequent quote is from Zechariah’s song known as the Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79). None of the subsequent verses of the Benedictus include first-personal address.

[5] Matthew 23:35. Both Christian and Muslim traditions identify Zechariah, the son of Barachiah, with Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist.

[image] Zechariah and Mary. Image constructed from a medieval Georgian fresco of Zechariah in the Holy Cross Monastery in Jerusalem (via Wikimedia) and a mosaic of Mary, the mother of Jesus, made about 1118 GC in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (via Josep Renalias and Wikimedia Commons).

medieval men regarded themselves as inferior to women

optical illusion: man & frog

The women-are-wonderful effect has been scientifically established only in recent decades. Yet men have long regarded themselves as inferior to women. Medieval men rightly recognized that women as masters of persuasion who thoroughly dominate men.

In Chardri’s thirteenth-century work The Little Debate {Le Petit Plet}, a young worldly man bluntly explained to a naive old man the reality of men’s inferiority to women:

There’s no man living under the sky
who she can’t deceive by pretenses of beauty.
She’d make you perceive weak is strong,
she’d make you perceive what’s right is wrong,
she’d make you perceive what’s cold is hot,
she’d make you perceive what’s low is high,
she’d make you perceive what’s white is black,
what’s foolish a woman would make you perceive as wise.

There’s no woman under the clouds,
whether she’s young or old,
who if she wants to hurt you somehow,
won’t bring you to ruin.

{ N’ad suz cel home ki seit vivant
Ke ele ne deceive par beau semblant.
Ele vus fet de feble fort,
Ele vus fet de dreit le tort,
Ele vus fet de freit le chaut,
Ele vus fet de bas le haut,
Ele vus fet de blanc le neir,
De la folie vus fra le saveir.

N’ad femme ke seit desuz la nue,
Ke jofne seit u seit chanue,
Si ele vus vout gures grever,
Ke ele ne vus face mal achever. }

Even in medieval Europe, men were astonishingly willing to listen and believe women. A medieval woman convinced a medieval man that he didn’t actually see his wife having sex with another man. Another medieval man believed what his wife told him when she told him he that he had died. A man’s estate hardly mattered: a medieval priest, knight, and townsman all believed they were responsible for a woman’s pregnancy. All three surely weren’t the sperm donor.

Some men have tried to overcome their inferiority to women. Pitas Payas in medieval Brittany painted a lamb on his wife’s groin to protect her chastity while he was on a business trip. His painting skills didn’t help. Another scholarly medieval man attempted to compile a encyclopedic book of women’s wiles. He soon gave up on his scholarly project. At least both rape of women (but not of men) and falsely accusing a man of raping a woman have been regarded as serious matters throughout history until recent decades. Nonetheless, only gods saved a medieval man from his adulterous wife.

Unlike the Middle Ages, our more ignorant, bigoted, and repressive age doesn’t understand that sex differences in guile have great public significance. In the fourth century, Gregory of Nazianzus told the young bride Olympiada that then-prevalent talk about the equality of the sexes was silliness, for women are morally superior to men. That lesson has been forgotten. Gender equality will not be achieved until men penetrate the gender gap in guile.

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The quote above is from Chardri, The Little Debate {Le Petit Plet} ll. 1217-32, Old French (Anglo-Norman) text from Merrilees (1970) pp. 40-1, my English translation, benefiting from that of Cartlidge (2015) p. 140. Marie de France and Matheolus also deployed the rhetorical technique of enantiosis in describing women’s ability to persuade men to deny their own personal experience. See note [1] in my post on men’s inferiority in guile. Ovid, Ars amatoria, 1.249-253, advises men to be wary of judging women’s appearance at night. Medieval scholars recognized that warning to be insufficient.

[image] Optical illusion disc. From McLean’s Optical Illusions or Magic Panorama Box, published in 1833. Via 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.

punctuation poems subtly subvert dominant social order with lineation

Challenging the ideology of the dominant social order tends to anger persons entrenched in it. That’s dangerous for dissidents. Creative poets, however, developed means to pass under orthodoxy while offering subversive views. With punctuation poems, poets allowed readers to nod in complacent affirmation of the dominant ideology. Yet these poems with an alternate lineation enabled alert readers to encounter a different view of the dominant social order.

Law, particularly criminal law, is a central aspect of the dominant social order. Consider this perspective on reigning law in England in the fifteenth century:

Now the law is led by clear conscience.
Very seldomly covetousness has dominion.
In every place right has residence.
Neither in town nor rurally {exists} deception.
There is truly in every case consolation.
The poor people at no time has {nothing} but formal right.
Men may find neither {by} day nor night adulation.
Now reigns truth in every man’s sight.

Here’s a radically different view:

Now the law is led by clear conscience very seldomly.
Covetousness has dominion in every place.
Right has residence neither in town nor rurally.
Deception there is truly in every case.
Consolation the poor people at no time has {anything} but formal right.
Men may find neither day nor night {but all confused}.
Adulation now reigns {over} truth in every man’s sight.

Both these readings are encoded in same Middle English poem:

Nowe the lawe is ledde by clere conscience .
ffull seld . Couetise hath dominacioun .
In Every place . Right hath residence .
Neyther in towne ne feld . Similacion .
Ther is truly in euery cas . Consolacioun .
The pore peple no tyme hase . but right .
Men may fynd day ne nyght . Adulacioun .
Nowe reigneth treuth in euery mannys sight . [1]

Reading textual lines as the units of sense, the dominant reading practice, gives the ideology of the dominant order. Transgressing the end-stopped lines to the mid-line break (caesura) gives the subversive reading. That non-dominant Middle English poetic lineation is known as enjambment.

Lawyers in seventeenth-century England imprisoned through private action an extraordinarily large number of men for debt. A punctuation poem from the mid-seventeenth century critiques lawyers’ role in that terrible structure of justice:

Lawyers themselves maintain the commonweal.
They punish such as does offend and steal.
They free with subtle art the innocent
from any danger, loose {them} of punishment.
The can, but will not, save the world in awe
with any false or mis-expounded law.
They ever have great stock of charity,
and love they desire not, keeping amity.

Lawyers themselves maintain.
The commonweal they punish such as does offend and steal.
They free with subtle art {the guilty}.
The innocent from any danger, loose of punishment, they can, but will not, save.
The world in awe, with any false or mis-expounded law, they ever have great stock.
Of charity and love they lack,
not keeping amity.

{ Lawyers themselves maineteyne . ye common weale .
They punish . such as doe offend and steale .
They free with subtill arte . The Innocent .
From any danger, loose of punishment .
They can but will not save . ye world in awe .
With any false or mixexpounded law .
They euer haue great store . of charite .
And loue they wante not, keeping amitie . } [2]

This poem is relatively crude in its use of rhyme. But, as in the previous punctuation poem, breaks within the lines are associated with the critical version that breaks from affirming the dominant social order.[3]

Another aspect of dominant ideology is the dominant religious faith. In seventeenth-century England, orthodox faith meant not merely ideological fervor in upholding dominant ideology, but membership in an actual Church of England. With a break down its middle, like the break a priest makes to a communion wafer in celebrating Mass, a seventeenth-century punctuation poem encoded a fierce Catholic declaration within an Anglican affirmation:

I hold as faith what England’s church allows.
What Rome’s church says my conscience disavows.
Where the King’s the head that church can have no shame.
The flock’s misled that holds the Pope supreme.
Where the altar’s dressed {with holy images}, there’s service scarce divine.
The people’s blessed with table, bread, and wine  {and no holy images}.
He’s but an ass who the {Anglican} communion flies —
who shuns the {Catholic} Mass is catholic and wise.

I hold as faith
what Rome’s church says.
Where the King’s the head,
the flock’s misled.
Where the altar’s dressed {with holy images},
the people’s blessed.
He’s but an ass
who shuns the {Catholic} Mass.

What England’s church allows,
my conscience disavows.
That church can have no shame,
that holds the Pope supreme.
There’s service scarce divine
with table, bread, and wine {but no holy images}.
Who the {Anglican} communion flies
is Catholic and wise. [4]

Catholics rebels plotted in 1605 to blow up the House of Lords and kill King James I. In previous decades many Catholics were harshly treated and sometimes even killed for their faith. Affirming Catholicism within a statement of Anglican orthodoxy wasn’t a trifling poetic game.

Criticizing women is even more dangerous under the dominant gynocentric order than is dissenting in how to worship God. Not surprisingly, men resorted to punctuation poems for the treacherous activity of expressing their feelings about women:

In women is rest, peace, and patience.
No {mere} season for truth, everything {they say is} with generosity.
Both by night and day, they have {their men’s warranted} confidence.
All ways of treason out of blame they be.
At no time, as men say, {have they} mutability.
They have, without nay, {nothing} but steadfastness.
In them may you never find, I guess, cruelty.
Such qualities they have more & less.

In women {there} is {for} rest, peace, and patience no season.
For truth everything {including their sexual favors} with generosity {they give} both by night and day.
They have confidence {in} all ways of treason.
Out of blame they be at no time.
As men say, mutability they have.
Without nay, but {even just} steadfastness in them may you never find.
I guess cruelty — such qualities — they have more & less.

{ In women is rest peas and pacience .
No season . for soth outht of charite .
Bothe be nyght & day . thei haue confidence .
All wey of treasone . Owt of blame thei be .
No tyme as men say . Mutabilite .
They haue without nay . but stedfastnes .
In theym may ye neuer fynde y gesse . Cruelte
Suche condicons they haue more & lesse . } [5]

The concluding “more & less” indicates the diffidence of this poem’s protest. But another punctuation poem moves forward to protest more vigorously women’s abusive behavior toward men:

All women are virtuous, noble & excellent.
Who can perceive that they do offend?
Daily they serve god with good intent.
Seldom they displease their husbands to their lives’ end.
Always to please them they do intend.
Never man may find in them shrewdness.
Commonly such conditions they have more & less.

What man can perceive that women be evil?
Every man that has wit greatly will them praise.
For vice they abhor with all their will.
Prudence, mercy & patience they use always.
Folly, wrath & cruelty they hate as man says.
Meekness & all virtue they practice ever.
Sin to avoid, virtues they do procure.

Some men speak, “Much evil be women!”
Truly therefore they are to blame.
Nothing a man may disparage of them.
Abundantly they have grace & good fame.
Lacking {are they} few virtues to a good name.
In them you find all constantness.
They lack, obviously, all shrewdness as I see it.

All women are virtuous, noble & excellent: who can perceive that?
They do offend daily.
They serve god with good intent seldom.
They displease their husbands to their lives’ end always.
To please them they do intend never.
Man may find in them shrewdness commonly.
Such conditions they have more & less.

What man can perceive that women be evil? Every man that has wit.
Greatly {they} will them praise for vice.
They abhor with all their will prudence, mercy & patience.
They use always folly, wrath & cruelty.
They hate, as men says, meekness & all virtue.
They practice ever sin.
To avoid virtues, they do procure.

Some men speak, “Much evil be women truly!”
Therefore they are to blame {for} nothing.
A man may disparage of them abundantly.
They have grace & good fame lacking.
Few virtues to a good name in them you find.
All constantness they lack, obviously.
All shrewdness {they have}, as I see it.

{ All women have vertues noble & excelent
Who can perceyve that they do offend
dayly they serve god with good intent
Seldome they dysplease there husbandes to theyr lyves end
Always to plese them they do intend
neuer man may fynd in them srewdnes
comonly suche condycyons they haue more & lese

What man can percyve that women be evyll
euery man that hathe wytt . gretly wyll them prayse
ffor vyce : they Abhorre with all theyre wyll
prudence mercy & pacyence . they vse always
ffoly wrathe & cruelte they hate As men says
meknes & all vertue . they prattyse euer
syn . to Avoyde vertues they do procure

Sum men speke muche evyll be women
truly . theyfore they be to blame
nothyng . A man may chekk in them
haboundantly . they haue of grace & good fame
Lakkyng . few vertues to A good name
in them fynd ye . All constantnes
they lak perde . all srewdnes As I gese } [6]

Like law, lawyers, and the church, women had a dominant position in medieval gynocentric society. In punctuation poems, the dominant way of reading poems expressed that dominant position. One such poem explained:

Read this verse according to its meter
and it says women are good, but read it {according} to
its {punctuation} marks to gain the contrary {meaning}.

{ Reid this werss acording to ye meitter
& It is guid of wemen bot reid it to
ye nott ewin the contrair } [7]

The contrary meaning was the subversive, dangerous meaning within gynocentric society.

Surviving Middle English punctuation poems lack the artistic brilliance of Optatianus Porfyrius’s fourth-century carmen cancellatum to a cuckolded husband. But they have a similar social position and a similar critical strategy. Within the oppressive circumstances of gynocentric society, speaking about gender injustices against men requires unusual poetry.

rabbit-duck illusion

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[1] Middle English text exactly from Robbins (1952) p. 101 (poem no. 111), my modern English versions. The Middle English text is punctuated as in the manuscript source, MS Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Library Hh.2.6, f. 58ra. Five other surviving manuscripts are known to contain this poem, DIMEV 3804. Nutall (2014) points out the change in verse form with the change in lineation.

Subsequent examples of punctuation poems are Roister Doister’s mispunctuated love letter to Dame Christian Custance, in Nicholas Udall’s comedic play Roister Doister, “Sweete mistresse where as I loue you nothing at all”, 3.4.36ff ; and the poetic prologue to the play in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, “If we offend, it is with our good will.” 5.1.108ff. Here’s a recent poem that reveals anti-meninist sentiments if the lines are read in reverse order. Here’s a review of modern punctuation poetry.

[2] Original English text from Robbins (1939) p. 207, my modernizations. Id. describes it as “A poem of the time of King Charles II {that} was printed in an edition limited to 102 copies at Bristol in 1814.”

[3] A punctuation poem written in the mid-sixteenth century is inconsistent with that pattern. Consider:

Trusty seldom, to their friends unjust.
Glad to help no Christian creator.
Willing to grieve, establishing all their joy & lust.
Only in the pleasure of God having no care.
Who is most rich with them, they will be protective.
Where need is, {they are} giving {of} neither reward nor fee.
Unreasonably thus priests love, obviously.

Trusty, seldom to their friends unjust.
Glad to help.
No Christian creator willing to grieve.
Establishing all their joy & lust only in the pleasure of God.
Having no care who is most rich with them.
They will be protective where need is.
Giving neither reward nor fee unreasonably.
Thus priests love, obviously.

{ Trvsty seldom . to their ffrendys vniust .
Gladd for to helpe no crysten creator .
Wyllyng to greve . settyng all ther ioy & lust
Only in Þe pleasour . of gode havyng no cure .
Who is most riche with them Þei wil be sure .
Wher nede is gewyng nether rewarde ne ffee .
Vnresonably thus lyve prestys, Parde. }

Middle English text from Kreuzer (1938) p. 323 (version B, punctuated for disparaging priests), my modernizations. The poem survives in Pembroke College, Cambridge MS. 307, fol. 197b. The poem survives to two versions of the Middle English text, differently punctuated to indicated the different readings. Id. prints both versions. Robbins (1952) p. 101 prints the A version (punctuated for praising priests), and notes:

The poem is written twice: first in a mid-sixteenth-century hand, and second in a somewhat latter hand. It appears on the end flyleaf of a Confessio Amantis along with other scribblings — a location which indicates the experimental nature of the verse.

Id. p. 262. Kreuzer (1938), p. 323, less carefully suggests that both versions were written in the fifteenth century.

Priests were part of the dominant order in medieval England. Who would have authored a fifteenth-century English poem that in its dominant lineation disparaged priests, yet contained an alternate lineation that praised priests? The most plausible answer seems to me a priest. The point might be that, despite superficial appearances of corruption, priests have a less visible goodness. Such social positioning of a punctuation poem seems to me likely to be quite unusual.

[4] Original English text in Robbins (1939) p. 207, my modernizations. The original text is like the first modernization except in spelling and punctuation. Id. states of the poem:

it comes from a broadside of 1655, which the antiquary Robert Bell two hundred years later found posted on the wall of a Gloucestershire public-house.

The poem probably was written well before the English Civil War (1642–1651).

[5] Middle English text exactly from Robbins (1952) p. 102 (poem no. 112), my modern English versions. The Middle English text is punctuated as in the manuscript source, MS Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Library Hh.2.6, f. 58ra. (the same folio page containing above “Lawyers themselves maineteyne . ye common weale .”). This poem is found only in this manuscript.

[6] Poem by Richard Hattfield, Middle English text from the Devonshire Manuscript, London, British Library Addit. 17492, f. 18v, my modernizations. The first stanza of this poem (DIMEV 406) is found in four other manuscripts, but the second and third stanzas are unique to the Devonshire Manuscript.

[7] Middle English text from Robbins (1939) p. 206, printed from the early sixteenth-century MS. Cambridge UK, Magdalene College Pepys 2553 (Maitland Folio Manuscript) p. 356, printed in Craigie (1919) vol. 1, p. 433. This rubric follows the first stanza of a version of “All women have virtues noble and excellent” (DIMEV 406). See above.

[image] “Rabbit and Duck” double (ambiguous) drawing. From the 23 October 1892 issue of Fliegende Blätter. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Craigie, William Alexander. 1919. The Maitland Folio Manuscript, Containing Poems by Sir Richard Maitland, Dunbar, Douglas, Henryson, and others. Scottish Text Society n.s. 7.

Kreuzer, James R. 1938. “Some Earlier Examples of the Rhetorical Device in Ralph Roister Doister (III. iv. 33 ff.).” The Review of English Studies. 14 (55): 321-323.

Nuttall, Jenni. 2014. “One Poem: Two Ways.” Stylisticienne, Mar. 27 (online).

Robbins, Rossell Hope. 1939. “Punctuation Poems — A Further Note.” The Review of English Studies. Old Series 15(58): 206-207.

Robbins, Rossell Hope. 1952. Secular lyrics of the XIVth and XVth centuries. Oxford: Clarendon Press.