against war on women: Byzantine wife saves husband from castration

satan castrating men

Tedald led Italian forces besieging Byzantine castles near Benevento in southern Italy early in the tenth century. When his forces captured some Byzantine soldiers, he castrated them and sent them back to the Byzantine side. Then he taunted the Byzantine military leader:

Since I have discovered that nothing is more precious to your holy emperor than eunuchs, I respectfully endeavor to send him just these few for now, but I will send him some more as soon as possible, with God favoring the enterprise.

{ Quoniam quidem vestro sancto imperatori spadonibus nil pretiosius esse cognovi, hos studui pauculos sibi verecunde trasmittere, plures quantocius Deo propitio transmissurus. } [1]

Eunuchs occupied high positions in the Byzantine imperial court. But castrated Byzantine soldiers serving in Italy weren’t likely to become elite courtiers in Constantinople.

The Byzantine force subsequently made a sortie against Tedald’s Italian force. The Italians captured many of the Byzantine soldiers. Tedald began castrating the captives and sending them back to the castle. But then a wife courageously intervened on behalf of her husband:

a certain woman, inflamed by love for her husband and not a little worried about his member, left the castle enraged, with loosened hair. Then she lacerated her face with bloody fingernails and cried with a loud voice before Tedald’s tent.

{ mulier quaedam, mariti amore succensa, eius pro membris non parum sollicita, passis crinibus de castello exiit furibunda. Quae cum cruentis unguibus ora discerperet atque ante Tedbaldi tentorium clamosis vocibus fleret } [2]

Women in ancient Greece mourned deaths by exposing their hair in disarray, lacerating their faces, and wailing loudly. This wife loved her husband and, like Maximianus’s beautiful and wise Greek girl, deeply appreciated his genitals. She was mourning her husband’s impeding castration.

She was also guilefully plotting to save her husband. Responding to her wailing, Tedald, as incredulous as a sexless husband today, asked the wife to explain herself. She declared:

It is a new and unheard-of crime, O hero, that you wage war on unarmed women. No bloodline of ours leads back to the Amazons; in fact, we are given over solely to the activities of Minerva {weaving, making handcrafts, and engaging in small-scale commerce}, and we are wholly ignorant of weapons.

{ Novum hoc inauditumque facinus est, heroes, ut bellum non repugnantibus mulieribus inferatis. Nostrarum nulla ex Amazonarum sanguine prosapiam ducit; Minervae quippe solum operibus deditae armorum poenitus sumus ignarae. }

The Amazons were ancient men-haters who waged war on men, to their own loss. The wife who loved her husband obviously wasn’t an Amazon; she was a woman who worked to provide material goods for her husband and herself. Tedald understood and affirmed men’s historical gentleness toward women. He also implicitly recognized that women determine who is a hero. He responded:

What hero with sound mind ever waged war on women, except in the time of the Amazons?

{ Quis umquam sani capitis heros praeter Amazonarum temporibus bellum mulieribus intulit? }

The loving wife explained to the ignorant Tedald:

What more cruel war on women could you wage, I ask, and how could you make it more uncomfortable for them, than to try to amputate the testicles of their men, in which lies the replenishment of our bodies, and, what is most important of all, in which lies our hope for future children? For you remove not what is theirs but what is ours when you turn them into eunuchs. … I shudder before, I flee, and I want to avoid by any means this particular great loss, as cruel as irreparable. Holy gods, all of you, avert such a plague from me!”

{ Quod, cedo, credulius mulieribus bellum inferre, quidve incommodius his potestis auferre, quam ut earum viris certetis orchidia amputare, in quibus nostri refocilatio corporis et, quod omnium potissimum est, nasciturae spes extat prolis? Dum enim eos eunuchizatis non quod illorum, sed quod nostrum est tollitis. … iacturam hanc tantum, tam crudelem tamque inrecuperabilem modis omnibus horreo, fugio, nolo. Sancti dei omnes talem a me avertite pestem! } [3]

This Byzantine Christian woman pretended to be so ignorant as not to know that God is one. All the men in and around Tadald’s tent laughed at her. But her loving appreciation for men gained their favor.[4] They not only returned her husband to her, with his genitals fully intact, but also returned to her animals that they had seized from her.

No pushover and no fool, the wife both dominated within the home and understood the social weight of institutionalized violence against men. Tedald sent a messenger to ask her to tell him what to do if her husband again came out to fight against the Italian men. The wife responded shrewdly and ironically:

Those eyes … are his, as are his nostrils, hands and feet. If he needs it, let Tedald remove what belongs to my husband, but let him leave alone what is mine, I mean, what belongs to his humble servant.

{ Oculi … sunt illi, nares, manus et pedes. Si hoc egerit, sibi quae sua sunt auferat; quae mea, suae scilicet ancillulae, derelinquat. }

The wife isn’t Tedald’s humble servant. She formally might be regarded as her husband’s humble servant, but she owns his genitals. If you own a man’s genitals, you own him. Castration culture, gynocentrism, and women’s actual dominance over men has changed little throughout history. What makes this wife special is her decisively intervening to save her husband from castration. Few wives today even understand the force of castration culture bearing down on their husbands.

The Byzantine wife’s bold action to save her husband is even more admirable in the context of the long, sordid history of ridiculing and disparaging men’s genitals. In tenth-century Italy, a prisoner appeared before the King:

when he was led before him {the King} without leggings, wearing only a short tunic, and he quickly fell prostrate at the king’s feet, all nearly died from laughter at the revelation of his genitals.

{ Enimvero dum ante eum sine femoralibus, curta indutus endromade ductus regis ad pedes pronus concite caderet, in genitalium ostensione membrorum risu omnes emoririer. } [5]

Men’s genitals aren’t ridiculous. Men’s genitals wonderfully contribute to the perpetuation of humanity.

Along with ridicule of men’s genitals comes contempt for men’s sexual welfare. To test the police in Constantinople, the Byzantine Emperor Leo VI (reigned 886 to 912) went out on the streets alone at night. When the police detained him and asked where he was going, he said that he was just one of the many men going to a brothel. The emperor Constantine the Great had built a large brothel in Constantinople to serve sexually deprived men, in accordance with the wisdom of Solon. Yet contempt for men’s sexual welfare subsequently re-emerged. The guards beat and held in custody the man who pathetically wanted to visit a brothel. When the detained man declared that he was actually Emperor Leo VI, a prison guard scornfully declared:

Am I to believe that the emperor is a dirty man who squanders his wealth on prostitutes?

{ Egon — inquit — hominem inpurum, bona sua cum meretricibus abligurrientem, imperatorem credam? } [6]

Many rulers have spent great wealth to gain the sexual favor of particular women. Men exchanging money for sexual access to women aren’t dirty. They might be more fairly characterized as being sexually impoverished, lacking in verbal and social sophistication, and pathetic.

The long-entrenched gender structure of war favors women. For example, consider the actions of Egyptian invaders attacking the Italian city of Genoa in the tenth century:

while the {Genoese} citizens were unaware, they entered the city, killing all except children and women

{ civibusque ignorantibus civitatem ingrediuntur, cunctos pueris exeptis et mulieribus trucidantes } [7]

Contrary to present-day dogma, violence against men has been and remains the dominant gender pattern of violence. So it was when Hungarians attacked the Saxon city of Merseburg in the tenth century:

they {the Hungarians} had taken captive no small number of children and women, and had made an immense massacre of men

{ eos non modicam parvulorum ac mulierum habere praedam, virorum vero inmensam fecisse stragem }

The heroic Byzantine wife accepted the gender structure of war as violence against men. She accepted in war mutilation of her husband’s body other than castration. A wife cannot individually overturn the gender oppression of war as it historically has been structured. But wives and mothers should strive to protect their husbands and sons from it as best as they can.

Mass-market commercials today use violence against men’s genitals for laughter. Castration culture has long been exploited for laughter. Under gynocentrism, scholars in recent decades have argued at length about whether the tenth-century story of a wife saving her husband from castration expresses misogyny.[8] One might perhaps charitably interpret that scholarship as a joke. There is a more excellent way: recognizing and promoting love for men.

Men will not save themselves. The Byzantine woman opposed war on women and saved her man from castration. Women of the world, do likewise!

*  *  *  *  *

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[1] Liudprand of Cremona, Antapodosis {Retribution} 4.9, Latin text from Chiesa (1998), English translation from Squatriti (2007). All subsequent quotes from Antapodosis are similarly sourced. In some cases I’ve made minor changes to Squatriti’s English translation to track the Latin more closely. For earlier, freely available Latin text and English translation, Dümmler (1877) and Wright (1930). Both are of reasonably good quality.

Liudprand wrote Antapodosis about 960. It circulated widely. This work is now known in whole or in part in 19 manuscripts. The earliest, Munchen, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 6388 (Freising manuscript), dates from the second half of the tenth century. This manuscript belonged to Abraham, the late-tenth-century bishop of Freising. It apparently contains Liudprand’s own handwriting.

The Latin text names the Italian leader Tedbald. Squatriti identifies him as Tedald, who died in 936 and was appointed military leader (margrave) by King Hugh of Arles in 929. Squatriti (2007) p. 145, n. 18. I follow Squatriti in referring to the Italian military leader as Tedald rather than Tedbald.

Liudprand, also spelled Liutprand, was a scholar, a court official, and bishop of Cremona. He lived from about 920 to 972. Liudprand was born into an elite Lombard family and became part of the household of Italian King Hugh of Arles at a young age. Berenger II, an Italian potentate, sent Liudprand in 949 on a diplomatic mission to the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus in Constantinople. Liudprand subsequently served the German King Otto I.

On his mission to Constantinople, Liudprand presented Emperor Constantine with many expensive gifts. These gifts included:

four carzimasia slaves, to this emperor the most precious of all these things. For the Greeks {Byzantines} call a child-eunuch, with testicles and penis cut off, a carzimasium. The merchants of Verdun do this on account of the immense profit they can make, and they are accustomed to bring them to Spain.

{ mancipia IIIIor carzimasia; imperatori nominatis omnibus preciosiora. Carzimasium autem Greci vocant amputatis virilibus et virga puerum eunuchum; quod Verdunenses mercatores ob inmensum lucrum facere et in Hispaniam ducere solent. }

Antapodosis 6.6. Castration culture has had a terrible effect on boys and men throughout history.

Liudprand himself disparaged eunuchs. He stated that the Byzantine emperor put a eunuch at the head of the Byzantine army. Liudprand referred to that eunuch as:

a sort of man — I called him “sort of” since he ceased to be male and did not become a woman

{ hominem quandam — sed quandam eo dixi, quia mas esse desiit, mulier fieri nequit }

Relatio de Legatione Constantinopolitana {Embassy} 29, Latin text from Chiesa (1998), English trans. (adapted slightly) from Squatriti. See also Relatio 63, which refers to a eunuch-bishop as a capon (castrated rooster) and a caupon (innkeeper). Neither situation was in accordance with canon law.

[2] Antapodosis 4.10. The narrative arc implies that the sortie was subsequent to Tedald’s first, mocking reference to castrating men and creating desired eunuchs. The subsequent four quotes concerning the wife saving her husband from castration are from id. On women’s mourning rituals in ancient Greece, Dillon (2003) Ch. 9.

[3] The term orchida is a rare Latin term for testicles. Pliny, Natural History 26.62.95 observes:

But very high on the list of wonders is the plant orchis, or serapias, which has the leaves of leek, a stem a span high, and a purple flower. The root has two tubers, like testicles, so that the larger, or, as some put it, the thinner, taken in water excites desire; the smaller, or softer, taken in goat’s milk checks it.

{ Sed inter pauca mirabilis est orchis herba sive serapias, foliis porri, caule palmeo, flore purpureo, gemina radice testiculis simili, ita ut maior sive, ut aliqui dicunt, tenuior ex aqua pota excitet libidinem, minor sive mollior e lacte caprino inhibeat. }

Liudprand added to orchida the interlinear gloss testiculos. Squatriti (2007) p. 147, n. 23.

The wife’s perspective on her husband’s castration differs significantly from the narrator’s in a way directly relevant to the historical practice of castration. The narrative voice describes the wife as worried about her husband’s membrum (penis). Yet when the wife herself spoke, she described the importance of her husband’s testicles in the context of women having children. Castration most commonly involved only the excision of testicles. Men so castrated retained the ability to have penis-in-vagina sex with women, but couldn’t contribute to a pregnancy. Liudprand artfully left uncertain the specific type of castration that Tedald was performing.

Scholars analyzing the story of the wife saving her husband from castration have ignored the difference between the narrative voice and the wife’s voice and different forms of castration. Balzaretti described the wife’s desire for her husband’s penis:

At the start of the story this woman’s love (amor) for her husband is set alongside her need for his penis but her love is not taken up later on, when only desire is important. We are left in no doubt that her relationship to her husband is primarily a sexual one, in which what we may care to see as her Freudian desire for his penis, although couched in terms of procreation rather than pleasure, is presented as something she needs and, indeed, has rights over.

Balzaretti (2002) p. 120. Grabowski similarly didn’t consider carefully male genital components, their specific values to women, and different forms of castration. He, like Balzaretti, merely assumed that the wife’s concern focused on her husband’s penis, not his testicles:

In the woman’s reasoning, the penis, a source of pleasure and giver of hope for a child, was property of the wives. … The woman’s explanation that the man’s penis is actually in the possession of his wife does not show her fixation on that part of human body. … it can be clearly said that Tedbald’s men laugh not at the sex-oriented woman who thinks only about a penis … The enumeration of parts and members he {Tedald} can cut off from his {her husband’s} body is meant to show how sex-oriented and penis-focused the woman was. … Both women seek pleasure and see penis as a way to achieve it … The soldier’s wife wants to save the penis to have children, secure herself in the society, and protect her husband from mutilation.

Grabowski (2015) pp. 248, 250, 256, 257, 260. Id., p. 258, In Chronicon Salernitanum 147 (alt. Latin text), Idta saves her husband Guaimar I of Salerno from castration about the year 897. Specifically, when a group of men ambushed Guaimar, one “would have amputated his testicles {amputaret testiculis}” if Idta hadn’t then pleaded to save Guaimar’s testicles. Nonetheless, Grabowski declared, “Idta wanted to save Guaimar’s penis.” Id. p. 260. The fundamental problem is socially pervasive lack of appreciation for men’s specific sexed being, including sexed injustices against men.

[4] The Byzantine wife’s physical and verbal performance for Tedald is highly sophisticated. Grabowski recognized its sophistication in a variety of dimensions, but not the Byzantine’s wife pretense of pagan polytheism to go with her references to Athena and Minerva. Grabowski (2015) pp. 256-7. Grabowski thus gave the gathered group of men too much understanding in their laughter:

The gathered people see it that way and laugh. They laugh at the well devised speech, as everyone must at least praise such a creation of a smart woman, but also at their lord who becomes a victim of his own words.

Id. Reifying contemporary academic gender ideology, Balzaretti speculated that the dominance of the wife over the husband perhaps was “the funniest aspect for contemporary readers.” Balzaretti (2002) p. 119. Women’s dominance probably wasn’t funny for learned, tenth-century readers who studied classical literature, knew the life of Aesop, understood without self-deception the position of General Belisarius, and read romances like Ruodlieb.

[5] Antapodosis 2.63. Men’s genitals clearly have a figurative problem in poetry.

[6] Antapodosis 1.11. Men typically prefer to have sex with a woman who isn’t a prostitute. Among other reasons, prostitutes are more likely to exploit men.

[7] Antapodosis 4.5. The subsequent quote is from id. 2.28. Cf. Deuteronomy 20:13, Numbers 31:7-9, 17-8 (Biblical gendercide). Men as a gender are not essentially preferable for fighting and dying. Women as soldiers potentially have significant combat advantages.

[8] Scholars have treated Liudprand as “prime example of medieval misogyny.” Grabowski (2015) p. 243. Balzaretti explained: “at the root of misogyny is not simple hatred of women but rather a refusal to portray women as they really are.” Balzaretti (2002) p. 125. Under today’s gynocentrism, the way women “really are” is socially constructed as essentially sugar and spice, and everything nice. Not surprisingly, “It is obvious that from today’s perspective Liudprand has to be considered a misogynist.” Grabowski (2015) p. 244.

Buc (1995) pointed out the Liudprand, in the evaluative framework of his time, contrasted admirable German women with whorish Italian women. In the evaluative framework of our time, Buc “tried to argue away Liutprand’s obvious misogyny.” Balzaretti (2002) p. 124.

Working under today’s dominant gynocentric ideology, La Rocca evaluated whether Liudprand should be posthumously charged with misogyny. She went through Liudprand’s Antapodosis chapter by chapter and classified each chapter as presenting a positive, neutral, or negative image of females. La Rocca (2007) p. 295. According to this line of analysis, even a fictional account of men-hating in academia must include a sufficiently large number of positive portrayals of women, or it’s subject to being arraigned on a capital charge of misogyny.

In gynocentric society, castrating men is considered with respect to misogyny. Does the story of the Byzantine wife saving her husband from castration indicate misogyny? Balzaretti warned against accepting objections against the charge of misogyny:

It might be objected that the woman gets what she wants as her husband is not castrated and is released. While true, this does not mean that Liutprand had an enlightened view of women but rather that he did not have a fully worked out, consistent view of gender in which all parts added up to a coherent whole.

Balzaretti (2002) p. 120. Enlightened persons now have a fully worked out, consistent view of gender: women are wonderful, and men are evil. In presenting men being castrated, Liudprand engaged in “abstract humour well suited to all patriarchal societies.” Id. p. 128. Abstract analysis ignoring injustices against men is well suited to all gynocentric societies.

[image] Satan devours children (foreground); Attis and other Galli castrate themselves to serve Cybele (background). Illumination from manuscript of Augustine’s De civitate Dei {City of God}, trans. from Latin into French by Raoul de Presles. Made in Paris about 1475.  Excerpt from fol. 344v of MS. MMW 10 A 11, in Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague.


Balzaretti, Ross. 2002. “Liutprand of Cremona’s Sense of Humour.” Ch. 5 (pp. 114-28) in Guy Halsall, ed., Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Buc, Philippe. 1995. “Italian Hussies and German Matrons. Liutprand of Cremona on Dynastic Legitimacy.” Frühmittelalterliche Studien. 29: 207-225.

Chiesa, Paolo, ed. 1998. Liudprand of Cremona. Antapodosis; Homelia pachalis; Historia Ottonis; Relatio de Legatione Constantinopolitana. Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Mediaevalis, 156. Turnholt: Brepols.

Dillon, Matthew. 2003. Girls and women in classical Greek religion. London: Routledge.

Dümmler, Ernst Ludwig, ed. 1877. Liudprand of Cremona. Liudprandi episcopi Cremonensis opera omnia. Hannoverae: Imp. bibl. Hahniani. (alternate source)

Grabowski, Antoni. 2015. “From Castration to Misogyny. The Meaning of Liudprand of Cremona’s Humour.” Acta Poloniae Historica. 112: 243.

La Rocca, Cristina. 2007. “Liutprando da Cremona e il paradigma femminile di dissoluzione dei Carolingi.” Pp. 29-307 in La Rocca, Cristina, ed. Agire da donna: modelli e pratiche di rappresentazione (secoli VI – X); atti del convegno, Padova, 18-19 febbrario 2005. Turnhout: Brepols.

Squatriti, Paolo, trans. 2007. The Complete Works of Liudprand of Cremona. Washington: Catholic University of America Press.

Wright, F.A., trans. 1930. The Works of Liudprand of Cremona. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Dante in ring of lust saw men being purified of their sexual sins

Jacob embracing angel, by Rembrandt

Led by Virgil his guide, Dante in Purgatory came upon the ring of lust:

And here the walls shot out a blast of flame,
but the ring sent a breeze from down below,
driving it back and sheltering a slim
pathway along the unprotected edge,
for walking one by one. This side, I feared
the fire; that side, the sheer fall from the ledge.
“All round this ring,” my guide began to say,
“you’d better keep a tight rein on the eyes.
On small misstep and you’ll have gone astray.”

{ Quivi la ripa fiamma in fuor balestra,
e la cornice spira fiato in suso
che la reflette e via da lei sequestra;
ond’ ir ne convenia dal lato schiuso
ad uno ad uno; e io temëa ‘l foco
quinci, e quindi temeva cader giuso.
Lo duca mio dicea: “Per questo loco
si vuol tenere a li occhi stretto il freno,
però ch’errar potrebbesi per poco.” } [1]

Virgil was warning Dante about the male gaze. Many men enjoy gazing upon beautiful women, especially if the women are naked or nearly so. In the relatively enlightened medieval period, the male gaze wasn’t dogmatically defined as an act of violence against women. The male gaze was more rationally understood as tempting men into lust, including lust within men’s hearts. Men, especially lively and wonder-filled men, have difficulty controlling their eyes.

So it was with Dante walking about the burning ring of lust. A song caught his attention, and his eyes roamed:

Out of the bosom of the ardent fire
“God of the greatest clemency” was sung,
and turning toward them, equal in desire,
I beheld spirits walking through the flame —
so, portioning my glances here and there,
I looked at them, and watched the way I came.

{ “Summae Deus clementiae” nel seno
al grande ardore allora udi’ cantando,
che di volger mi fé caler non meno;
e vidi spirti per la fiamma andando;
per ch’io guardava a loro e a’ miei passi,
compartendo la vista a quando a quando. } [2]

Those singing had committed sexual sins — some heterosexual sins, some homosexual sins, and probably some gyno-idolatry. Dante humbly and rightly regarded himself as “equal in desire” to these passionate sinners. They weren’t condemned to the inferno of Hell. They were being purified of their sins through fire in Purgatory.

The spirits were singing, “O God of greatest clemency {Summae Deus clementiae},” a frightening, seventh-century exemplar of long-enduring castration culture. In this hymn, the chanting men beg God to castrate them:

God of greatest clemency,
who made the world’s machinery,
one in power of action,
three in persons,

Devotedly, with kindness,
receive our tears mingled with songs,
so we, hearts of foulness purified,
may enjoy you more abundantly.

Our diseased loins and livers,
cauterize with fitting fire,
so that they may be continually in our pants,
far away from the worst lust.

{ Summae Deus clementie
mundique factor machinae,
unus potentialiter,
trinusque personaliter,

Nostros pius quum canticis
fletus benigne suscipe,
quo corda pura sordibus
te perfruamur largius;

Lumbos iecurque morbidum
adure igni congruo,
accincti ut sint perpetim
luxu remoto pessimo } [3]

The spirits in the ring of lust in Dante’s Purgatory were being purified with fire, not being castrated with fire. They were self-consciously appealing for forgiveness, not literally calling for themselves to be castrated. Within their earthly life, men should exercise self-control to keep their pants on when doing so is right. But even if men have failed to keep their pants girt around their waists, Dante’s Divine Comedy offers them a way to Heaven.

Dante’s way to Heaven for lustful men draws upon the biblical account of Jacob wrestling at Peniel. In Hebrew scripture, the blessing of God is primarily fecundity: offspring as numerous as the stars of the sky and the sand of the sea. With help of his mother’s guile, Jacob took the blessing his father intended for his first-born son, Jacob’s older twin brother Esau. Esau subsequently sought to kill Jacob. To make matters worse, Jacob, like Dis in celibate Hell, struggled to gain a wife. Jacob had to work fourteen years in order to be allowed to marry his beloved Rachel. After Jacob has gained Rachel, he still had to face an attack from Esau. Jacob had to protect his blessing by protecting his family.[4]

One night Jacob sent his family across the Jabbok ford and remained alone on the near side. Then someone started wresting with him. With his strong, dog-like sexuality, Jacob continued wrestling until daybreak. The other, moving sharply and unexpectedly, wrenched Jacob’s hip in its socket. Jacob, however, refused to let go until he was further blessed. The God-woman then conceded, declaring that Jacob had wrestled with God and women and had prevailed. Jacob thus received the blessing of God and continued to enjoy the blessing of women. He had engaged God face-to-face and survived. Yet, with his injured groin, he could no longer could be as sexually vigorous as he had been. His dog-like sexuality had been domesticated.[5]

The fourth-century scholar and bishop Ambrose of Milan provided keen insight into Jacob’s wrestling. Ambrose explained:

For what is wrestling with God if not venturing upon the fight for virtue, and coming to grips with one more powerful and stronger than the rest, becoming an imitator of God?

{ quid est enim luctari cum deo nisi virtutis suscipere certamen et cum superiore congredi potioremque ceteris imitatorem fieri dei? } [6]

Jacob initially thought he was wrestling with a man in usual man-on-man violence. But his wrestling had called forth someone stronger than himself, a woman. Jacob had imitated God’s action as Adam explained it with an enveloping Hebrew phrase:

this one shall be called woman,
for out of man was taken this one.

{ לְזֹאת יִקָּרֵא אִשָּׁה כִּי מֵאִישׁ לֻֽקֳחָה־זֹּֽאת } [7]

In extracting a woman from a man, Jacob had become an imitator of God. He thus encountered God. That’s what men’s sexuality does for women and men. Yet a price was paid for this blessing. That price was the sexual wounding of men.

The biblical account of Jacob’s wrestling is complex and enigmatic. Prudentius’s fourth-century poem, “Night and darkness and dense clouds {Nox et tenebrae et nubila},” summarizes well the story and its meaning:

Through the dark night Jacob
dared wrestle with an angel
until the light arose,
sweating in an unequal fight.

But when the sunbeam shone,
his hamstring gave in, lamed,
defeated, his thigh crippled,
he lost the power to sin.

He grew weak in his wounded groin,
far below the heart,
the lower part of his body,
that feeds lust’s ominous flames.

From such examples we are taught,
that a man enclosed in darkness,
if he refuses to yield to God,
loses his rebellious strength.

So much more he will be blessed,
with his unruly member lamed,
when day’s dawn will discover him,
diminishing from wrestling.

{ Sub nocte Iacob caerula,
luctator audax angeli,
eo usque dum lux surgeret,
sudavit inpar proelium;

Sed cum iubar claresceret,
lapsante claudus poplite
femurque victus debile
culpae vigorem perdidit.

Nutabat inguen saucium,
quae corporis pars vilior
longeque sub cordis loco
diram fovet libidinem.

Hae nos docent imagines
hominem tenebris obsitum,
si forte non cedat Deo,
vires rebellis perdere.

Erit tamen beatior,
intemperans membrum cui
luctando claudum et tabidum
dies oborta invenerit. } [8]

From no later than the seventh century, Christians lit candles to begin their Easter Vigil. Celebrating the coming of light, they sang, “O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer! {O felix culpa quae talem ac tantum meruit habere redemptorem!}.”[9] Jacob, wrestling with the one who accosted him, lost the ominous, rebellious element of his lust through daringly exercising it. He became more blessed. The universal implication is this: men’s dog-like sexuality, even with resulting wounds, can bring blessings in unexpected ways.

Jacob wrestling, 13th-century Exultate hymn

The spirits being purged of their sexual sins through fire in Dante’s ring of lust sung more than “O God of greatest clemency.” They also sung of marital love:

Returning to their singing, they would cry
of wives and husbands who were chaste and lived
as virtue’s laws and marriage both demand.

{ Indi al cantar tornavano; indi donne
gridavano e mariti che fuor casti
come virtute e matrimonio imponne. } [10]

Paul of Tarsus advised men that it’s better to marry than to burn.[11] In considering marriage, men today must consider the danger of a marriage becoming sexless, being cuckolded and then enduring large financial obligations for being a cuckold, being summarily stripped of everything, including the right to live in their own home, to say nothing of anti-men sex discrimination in child custody and child support rulings. But the alternative isn’t just castration with a burning implement. From the story of Jacob at Peniel, men might hope that their non-marital sexual wrestling will lead to blessing. From Dante’s Purgatorio, men at least have the comfort of knowing that their sexual sins can be forgiven.

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[1] Dante, Divine Comedy, Purgatory 25.112-20, Italian text and English translation from Esolen (2004). Esolen’s translation is poetic yet quite faithful to the Italian text. The Princeton Dante Project provides the Latin text, Robert Hollander’s English verse translation, and a variety of other resources for studying the Divine Comedy. Dartmouth’s Dante Lab Reader provides the Italian text and the English translation of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1867).

[2] Dante, Divine Comedy, Purgatory 25.121-6, from Esolen (2004). As Hollander commented, Jacopo della Lana’s near-contemporary commentary (written 1324-28) on Purgatorio 25.121-124 provides the Latin text of Summae Deus clementiae as Dante likely knew it.

[3] “O God of greatest clemency {Summae Deus clementiae},” st 1-3, Latin text from Walsh (2012) p. 148, my English translation. My translation benefited from Walsh’s. I’ve sacrificed the meter to make the translation more literal and accessible. The original text of this hymn has only one additional, concluding stanza:

So we who break the hours of night
now singing together,
with the gifts of our blessed fatherland
may all be amply enriched.

{ Ut quique oras noctium
Nunc concinendo rumpimus,
Donis beate patrie
Ditemur omnes affatim. }

Id., similarly my English translation.

The phrase mundi … machinae in the first stanza echoes Lucretius, De rerum natura 5.96. Lucretius sought to dispel men’s delusions about women, including the delusion that women are angels. Walpole (1922), p. 274, provides helpful textual notes in addition to Walsh’s.

Summae Deus clementiae exists in various forms (list of manuscripts). The above version is an Ambrosian hymn from the seventh century. It exists in the New Hymnal from the tenth century and the Mozarabic Breviary. Walsh (2012) p. 149, McGrath (1939) p. 118. Pope Urban VIII in 1632 muted the sexual references in the third stanza and changed the first line to Summae Parens clementiae {Father of greatest clemency}. Here’s the revised version as translated by Edward Caswell (1849) and by John David Chambers (nineteenth century). Here’s a chanted version. The different forms are easily conflated and confused. See, e.g. Donahoe (1908) pp. 44, 261.

[4] On the blessing of numerous offspring, Genesis 15:5, 22:17, 26:4, Exodus 32:13. On Jacob’s personal history, Genesis 25:19 – 35:29.

[5] For Jacob’s wrestling, Genesis 32:22-32. The text describes the one who initially started wrestling with Jacob as “a man” (אִישׁ ‘iysh). His opponent declares that Jacob has struggled “with God and with men” (אֱלֹהִים ‘elohiym, אֱנוֹשׁ ‘enowsh), but the term “men” might best be understand as adult human beings. I’ve used “with God and with women” above because that seems to me the most relevant meaning in context.

Beginning with the third-century BGC Septuagint, translators have differed on the meaning of this passage. Kugel (2003) pp. 29-30. Jacob says of his experience of wrestling, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” Genesis 32:30. One interpretation is that Jacob initially saw an angel. That angel was actually God. Id. pp. 27-32.

[6] Ambrose of Milan, Of Jacob and blessed life {De Iacob et vita beata} 2.7.30, Latin text and English translation from O’Daly (2012) p. 77. Ambrose’s interpretation is similar to many others in the fourth century. Sheridan (2012). It has roots in Philo of Alexandria’s allegorical exegesis of Hebrew scripture:

We shall also find that the change of Jacob’s name to Israel is much to the purpose. Why so? Because Jacob is the supplanter, and Israel he who sees God. It is the task of a supplanter in the practice of virtue to disturb and shake and upset the supports on which passion rests, and all the firmness and stability which they have. That is a work which cannot commonly be done without hard effort and the stains of the arena, but only when one maintains the contests of wisdom to the end, and drilled in the gymnastics of the soul wrestles with the thoughts which oppose and hold it fast in their grip.

{ Ἀλλὰ καὶ τὸν Ἰακὼβ μετονομάζεσθαι συμβέβηκεν εἰς τὸν Ἰσραήλ, οὐκ ἀπὸ σκοποῦ. διὰ τί; ὅτι ὁ μὲν Ἰακὼβ πτερνιστής, ὁ δὲ Ἰσραὴλ ὁρῶν τὸν θεὸν καλεῖται. πτερνιστοῦ μὲν οὖν ἔργον ἀσκοῦντος ἀρετὴν τὰς βάσεις τοῦ πάθους, αἷς ἐφίδρυται, καὶ εἴ τι ὀχυρὸν καὶ ἱδρυμένον ἐν αὐταῖς κινεῖν καὶ σαλεύειν καὶ ἀνατρέπειν—ταῦτα δὲ οὐ δίχα ἀγωνίας ἀκονιτὶ φιλεῖ γίνεσθαι, ἀλλ’ ἐπειδάν τις τοὺς φρονήσεως ἄθλους διαθλῶν γυμνάζηταί τε τὰ τῆς ψυχῆς γυμνάσματα καὶ πρὸς τοὺς ἀντιπάλους καὶ τραχηλίζοντας αὐτὴν λογισμοὺς παλαίῃ }

Philo of Alexandria, De mutatione nominum 81, cited in Sheridan (2012) p. 319. See id. pp. 318-27 for related analysis. In contrast to Philo’s exegesis, the wrestling of Jacob the sexual athlete isn’t against his dog-like sexual passion, but with the God-woman. The unwilled, blessed result is to cripple his dog-like sexual passion and supplant it with domesticated sexual desire for a fully human wife.

[7] From Genesis 2:23. That passage includes etymological reasoning: “woman” (אִשָּׁה ‘ishshah) is derived from “out of man” (אִישׁ ‘iysh). The account of Jacob wrestling is also centrally concerned with etymology. Genesis 32:28, 30. For etymological analysis of Jacob wrestling, but not recognizing the sexual level, Kugel (2007) pp. 160-2.

[8] Prudentius, Cathemerinon 2, Morning Hymn {Hymnus Matutinus}, O night and darkness and dense clouds {Nox et tenebrae et nubila}, st. 19-23, Latin text from O’Daly (2012), my English translation, benefiting from those of id., Walsh (2012), and Richardson (2016). Pope (1895) provides an online Latin text and English translation.

Richard translates stanza 23 to contrast, rather than elaborate upon, stanza 22:

These figures teach us that the man
who is in darkness overwhelmed,
if he does not give way to God,
is ruined by rebellious strength.

But far more blessed will he be,
whose body dawning daylight finds
with his unruly member lamed,
and wasted from the bitter strife.

Richardson (2016) pp. 36-7. He explains, “This stanza {st. 22} describes the man who does not give way to God, and so his ‘rebellious strength’ destroys him (cf. 20.3 culpae vigorem), by contrast with st. 23, where one who eventually yields like Jacob is ‘far more blessed’.” But losing the power to sin is a victory / blessing that st. 23 elaborates upon. That’s the interpretation of O’Daly:

His wrestling is an image of the victory of virtue over vice, a victory that, paradoxically, involves a defeat against an unequal, because divine, adversary (l. 76). His victory‐in‐defeat entails the loss of the power to sin (l. 80), and this is reiterated in the generalizing l. 88, applicable to all humans who wrestle with the divine: there is loss of the energy to rebel.

O’Daly (2012) pp. 77-8. This interpretation I find more convincing.

[9] From the Exsultet (full Latin text and English translation; its liturgical history). The Vulgate version of Psalm 80 (now typically numbered Psalm 81) begins:

Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob.

{ laudate Deum fortitudinem nostram iubilate Deo Iacob }

By the early 13th century, psalters began this psalm with exultate rather than laudate. See, e.g. British Library Royal 1 D X, folio 74v. It is now commonly titled Exultate Deo. These changes appropriately associate Jacob with a “happy fault.”

[10] Dante, Divine Comedy, Purgatory 25.133-5, from Esolen (2004).

[11] 1 Corinthians 7:9.

[images] (1) Jacob wrestling with the angel (woman). Oil on canvas painting by Rembrandt about 1659. Preserved under accession no. 828 in Gemäldegalerie (Berlin, Germany). Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Jacob wrestling. Historiated initial “e” for exultate beginning Psalm 80 (Vulgate numbering; now typically numbered Psalm 81) in manuscript created in Oxford, England, between about 1200 and 1220. From manuscript preserved in British Library, Royal 1 D X, folio 74v.


Donahoe, Daniel Joseph. 1908. Early Christian Hymns: translations of the verses of the most notable Latin writers of the early and middle ages. New York: The Grafton Press.

Esolen, Anthony M., trans. 2004. Dante Alighieri. Purgatory {second section of the Divine Comedy}. New York: Modern Library.

Kugel, James L. 2003. The God of Old: inside the lost world of the Bible. New York: Free Press.

Kugel, James L. 2007. How to Read the Bible: a guide to scripture, then and now. New York: Free Press.

McGrath, George Warren. 1939. The Revision of the Hymns of the Roman breviary under Urban VIII. Thesis (M.A.). Loyola University of Chicago, 1939.

O’Daly, Gerard J. P. 2012. Days Linked by Song: Prudentius’ Cathemerinon. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pope, R. Matin, trans. 1895. The Hymns of Prudentius. London: J.M. Dent.

Richardson, Nicholas J., trans. 2016. Prudentius’ Hymns for Hours and Seasons: the Liber Cathemerinon. New York: Routledge.

Sheridan, Mark. 2012. “Jacob and Israel: A Contribution to the History of an Interpretation.” Pp. 316-34 in Mark Sheridan, From the Nile to the Rhone and Beyond: studies in early monastic literature and scriptural interpretation. Analecta monastica, 12; Studia anselmiana, 156. Roma: Pontificio Ateneo Sant’Anselmo.

Walpole, Arthur Sumner, ed. 1922. Early Latin Hymns: with introduction and notes. Cambridge Patristic Texts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Walsh, Peter G., ed. and trans., with Christopher Husch. 2012. One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, vol. 18. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

John Climacus endorsed Bishop Nonnus gazing on actress-dancer Pelagia

icon of Saint John Climacus

Living in the Sinai desert in seventh-century Egypt, John Climacus was a monk writing for monks, a man writing for men. John recounted a story he had heard:

There was a man who, having looked on a body of great beauty, at once gave praise to its Creator and after one look was stirred to love God and to weep copiously, so that it was marvelous how something that could have brought low one person managed to be the cause of a heavenly crown for another. And if such a man feels and behaves in similar fashion on similar occasions, then he has already risen to immortality before the general resurrection. [1]

That’s the story of Bishop Nonnus gazing upon the semi-naked actress-dancer Pelagia as she paraded past him. John endorsed that story with a parallel:

The same guideline ought to direct us when when we sing songs and hymns, for the lovers of God are moved to holy joy, divine love, and tears by songs both worldly and spiritual, just as lovers of pleasure are moved to the opposite.

By lovers of pleasure, John meant men loving worldly pleasures as merely worldly experiences. The pleasure that most men naturally receive from gazing upon beautiful women and hearing beautiful songs can inspire rightly oriented men to divine love.

Worldly love and divine love usually are regarded as opposite poles, yet John perceived a common pattern. He explained:

Someone truly in love keeps before his mind’s eye the face of the beloved and embraces it there tenderly. Even during sleep the longing continues unappeased, and he murmurs to his beloved. That is how it is for the body. And that is how it is for the spirit. A man wounded by love had this to say about himself — and it really amazes me — “I sleep (because nature commands this) but my heart is awake because of the abundance of my love.” [2]

The man wounded by love was the great King Solomon in the Song of Songs, the wonderful biblical poem of natural love. Divine love expresses the perfected pattern of natural, worldly love. That’s the sense in which divine love overcomes worldly love.[3] About three centuries after John wrote, Symeon the New Theologian poetically and evocatively expressed John’s insight.

John Climacus understood men’s propensity to sexual sin. With respect to young, beautiful, warmly receptive women’s awesome bodily attractiveness, John urged his fellow monks:

We should strive in all possible ways neither to see nor to hear of that fruit we have vowed never to taste. It amazes me to think we could imagine ourselves to be stronger than the prophet David, something quite impossible indeed. [4]

John perceived in the dominant sexual division of labor and reward the providence of God:

The great concern of the good Lord for us is shown by the fact that shyness acts as a curb on the shamelessness of women. For if the woman chased the man, no flesh would be saved.

John’s belief might help to explain the vibrant and dynamic sex lives of many homosexual men. But for heterosexual persons, the burden of chasing is allocated more complexly. Women in today’s decaying democracies aren’t generally shy. However, even low sexual-status women shamelessly chase only men at the top of the sexual-status hierarchy. One result is acute sexual inequality: a small share of men have abundant sexual opportunities, and many men suffer total sexual impoverishment. Another result is that many men, even given their propensity to sexual sin, have relatively good opportunities to live as monks and to cultivate divine love. Many men today should consider whether they should join with John Climacus in acknowledging “the great concern of the good Lord for us.”

Women and men should at least sympathetically understand men’s difficult position. Writing to men, John Climacus declared:

All demons try to darken our minds so that they may then suggest to us what they want us to do, and so long as the mind stays awake we will not be robbed of our treasure. But the demon of fornication tries harder than all the others. … it urges and inclines us in the presence of other people to do things that only the mad would think of.

Men and women should not be passive in the face of the demon of fornication and the criminalization of men seducing women. Men have reason to hope that God may forgive themyes, even men — for fornication. Yet women and men keeping their minds awake and striving to understand truly is a better way.

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[1] John Climacus, Κλῖμαξ {Ladder of Divine Ascent}, from Step 15 (Περὶ ἁγνείας {On Chastity}), from Greek trans. Luidhéid & Russell (1982) p. 179. The subsequent quote is similarly from id. Here’s the ancient Greek text (right column).

The Ladder of Divine Ascent has circulated widely since the seventh century. From the eighth century to the nineteenth century, 511 Greek manuscripts have survived. The earliest of the surviving manuscripts are two from the eighth century. Popova (2016) p. 369. Bishop Kallistos stated:

With the exception of the Bible and the {liturgical} service books, there is no work in Eastern Christendom that has been studied, copied and translated more often than The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus. Every Lent in Orthodox monasteries is is appointed to be read aloud in church or in the refectory, so that some monks will have listened to it as much as fifty or sixty times in the course of their life.

Luidhéid & Russell (1982) p. 1 (from Kallistos’s Introduction).

[2] Ladder of Divine Ascent, from Step 30 (Περὶ ἀγάπης, ἐλπίδος καὶ πίστεως {On love, faith, and hope}), from Greek trans. Luidhéid & Russell (1982) p. 287. Cf. Matthew 26:41, Song of Songs 5:2.

[3] Eros plays an important part in John’s thinking. He “delights in the imagery of erotic love and fire.” Chryssavgis (2004) p. 202. On John’s understanding of eros, id. pp. 124-5, 202-8, and Kordochkin (2003) pp. 267-7.

[4] Ladder of Divine Ascent, from Step 15, trans. Luidhéid & Russell (1982) p. 180. The subsequent three quotes are from id. pp. 181, 185. David committed adultery with Bathsheba. 2 Samuel 11. Medieval literature frequently reminded men that they should not regard themselves as stronger than the prophet and king David, or stronger than Samson, Solomon, Uriah, Naboth, or Joseph. With the intensification of gynocentrism, literature recognizing men’s weakness relative to women has been more strongly repressed.

[image] Icon of Saint John Climacus, with Saint George (on left) and Saint Blaise (on right). Made in second half of the thirteenth century. Preserved under accession number ДРЖ-2774 in the State Russian Museum (St. Petersburg, Russia). Via Wikimedia Commons.


Chryssavgis, John. 2004. John Climacus: from the Egyptian Desert to the Sinaite Mountain. Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate Pub.

Kordochkin, Andrey. 2003. John Climacus and the spiritual tradition of the IV-VII centuries. Ph.D. Thesis. Durham: University of Durham.

Luibhéid, Colm and Norman Russell, trans. 1982. John Climacus: the Ladder of Divine Ascent. New York: Paulist Press.

Popova, Tatiana G. 2016. “The Most Ancient Greek Manuscripts of the Ladder of John Climacus.
” Scrinium. 12 (1): 368-374.