Liudprand’s rhetorical sophistication & a castrated man’s large penis

woman, man, and the worship of Mammon

Disparaging men is less dangerous than criticizing women. The tenth-century Italian court official, bishop, and historian Liudprand of Cremona disparaged men and narrated horrific violence against men in accordance with gynocentric acceptance of such abuse of men. Yet Liudprand, a highly sophisticated writer, used abuse of men as a rhetorical means for more subtly criticizing women.

Liudprand viciously disparaged Dominic, the chaplain to the tenth-century queen consort Willa of Tuscany. Liudprand described Dominic as:

short in stature, sooty in color, crude, bristly, restless, rough, a barbarian, harsh, hairy, endowed with a tail, shameless, mad, rebellious, and unfair

{ statura brevem colore fuligineum, rusticum, setigerum, indocilem, agrestem, barbarum, durum, villosum, cauditum, petulcum, insanum, rebellem, iniquum } [1]

What ostensibly began as a simple physical description became an abstract, highly prejudicial characterization of the man. Being endowed with a tail associates Dominic with the devil. In addition to describing him as “hairy {villosum}” here, Liudprand subsequently two more times in the short section on Dominic described him as “hairy {hirsutus}.” Liudprand thus emphasized that Dominic, by status a spiritual authority, was physically masculine. Being physically masculine is a suspect condition under gynocentrism. In contrast to Liudprand’s characterization, Dominic apparently was religiously and culturally sophisticated enough to become a royal chaplain. He was learned enough to be entrusted to teach the Queen’s daughters how to read.

Liudprand seems to have characterized Dominic as distinctively masculine and brutish in order to criticize Queen Willa’s lack of sexual self-control. Liudprand explained:

using the excuse of the girls, whom the priest Dominic, hairy and unwashed, taught amusingly, the mother seduced him, giving him delicate food and costly clothes.

{ Occasione itaque puellarum, quas presbiter Dominicus hirsutus inlotus facete docebat, mater ei propitiaverat, tribuens delicatum cibum vestesque preciosas. }

Like Hysmine sexually harassing Hysminias, Queen Willa sexually harassed her subordinate household employee Dominic. Most persons cannot conceive of the frequency with which women rape men. Willa’s behavior was similarly difficult to conceptualize:

Everyone wondered why a woman so unlikable, unpleasant, and unyielding to all should be so generous to him. That truthful saying, however, which goes: “For nothing is covered that shall not be revealed, nor hidden that shall not become public,” did not allow men to wonder about it for long. For on a certain night, with Berengar {King Berengar II, Willa’s husband} absent, that hairy fellow sought to get into the lord’s bed as usual. A dog was at hand. With its horrible barking the dog awakened those sleeping nearby, and it mauled the priest with a fierce bite.

{ Mirari omnes, cur cunctis invisa, ingrata, tenax huic existeret larga. Sententia tamen veritatis, quae ait: Nihil opertum quod non reveletur, et ocultum quod non in publicum veniat, diu mirari homines passa non est. Nam cum nocte quadam Berengario absente ad cubile dominicum more solito hirsutus isdem vellet accedere, canis isthic aderat, qui latratu horribili circumiacentes exitavit huncque morsu vehementi laniavit. } [2]

The awakened servants seized Dominic. They questioned him about where he was going. Answering for him, Willa said that Dominic was going to sleep with the maids. Dominic supported Willa’s lie in the hope that he would receive less severe punishment.

Willa, however, then turned upon Dominic. She attempted to kill him, and also offered a reward to anyone who succeeded in killing him. Willa’s husband Berengar eventually learned of the affair. Willa was fearful that her husband might not accept her cuckolding him:

Willa began to make inquiries of diviners and sorcerers so that she might be helped by their incantations. Whether she was aided, however, by their incantations or by Berengar’s softness, regardless his mind was so inclined that he spontaneously placed his head back into the marital muzzle.

{ Willa vero coepit aruspices maleficosque inquirere, quo eorum carminibus iuvaretur. Utrum autem horum carminibus an Berengarii sit adiuta mollicie, adeo mens eius est inclinata, ut sponte maritali porrigeret ora capistro. } [3]

Many husband’s throughout history have complacently accepted being cuckolded. Not surprisingly, paternity laws have institutionalized being cuckolded as equivalent to normal fatherhood. Moreover, punishment for adultery has long been gender-biased against men. Thus it was in this instance:

Thus the priestlet, since he neighed at the servants of the mistress, was sent away with his manhood amputated; and the mistress was loved all the more by Berengar. Those, however, who made him a eunuch said that the mistress had loved him for a good reason, as he proved to carry massive Priapic weaponry.

{ Presbiterulus itaque, quia dominae asseculas adhinnivit, virilibus amputatis dimittitur; domina vero a Berengario magis diligitur. Dixerunt autem qui eum eunuchizaverunt, quod merito illum domina amaret, quem priapeia portare arma constaret. }

Priapus is an ancient, mythic figure associated with deeply entrenched disparagement of men’s sexuality. Castration is horrific sexual violence against men. Liudprand didn’t condemn those who castrated Dominic. His story of Willa and Dominic exemplifies the social injustice of brutal violence against men — a social injustice that has been all too common throughout history and that continues today under a code of silence.

Liudprand’s concluding reference to Dominic’s large penis wasn’t gratuitous. Women historically have been thought to prefer sexually partners with large penises.[4] Nonetheless, only men as foolish as an ass strive to acquire a longer penis. According to surviving ancient and medieval literature, women who have sex with many different men, particular men with large penises, tend to develop enlarged vaginas. Liudprand allusively indicated that Willa’s mother had this condition.

The sexual behavior of Willa’s mother, also named Willa, was associated with avariciousness. She “burned with love for gold {phylargiriae … amore flagrare}.” Her marital situation was consistent with such desire:

Her husband Boso had a gold belt of wondrous length and width, which glittered with the splendor of many precious gems.

{ Vir ipsius Boso mirae longitudinis et latitudinis aureum habuerat balteum, qui multarum et pretiosarum splendebat nitore gemmarum. } [5]

The tenth-century Italian King Hugh of Arles captured Boso. Hugh particularly sought Boso’s belt. That belt was materially precious and was also, as a noble belt, a central social symbol of power.[6] But Hugh’s men couldn’t find it. Hugh suspected that Willa was hiding it. He instructed his men:

turn all the gear of her horses inside out, even the pillow upon which she sits while riding. And if you cannot find the belt even there, strip her of all her clothes, lest she hide anything anywhere on her person: for I have learned how crafty she is, and how greedy.

{ falerarum eius omnem apparatum, pulvinar etiam quod equitando premit evertite. Et si nec ibi quidem balteum poteritis repperire, vestimentis omnibus eam exuite, ne alicubi super se possit latere: novi enim quantum callida quantumque sit cupida. }

Men typically aren’t granted bodily privacy. Even today, strip-searching men prisoners is common practice, and the design of urinals in men’s bathrooms typically gives men no personal privacy. Hugh recognized Willa to be a strong, independent, crafty woman. By requiring her to be subject to a strip search, he, with a commendable sense of gender equality, didn’t privilege her above men.[7]

Hugh, moreover, apparently was humble enough to learn from Jacob’s wife Rachael. Another strong, independent woman, Rachel took her father’s household gods. Her father, searching for his gods, came to her camp. Rachel hid her father’s gods under herself. She then claimed that she couldn’t stand up because she was menstruating.[8] Menstruation, like men’s erection labor, is a sex-specific bodily function. Yet while male privilege is a recently constructed myth, Rachel’s father never recovered his household gods because Rachel successfully sat with female privilege. Unlike so many men ignorant of the profound insights in Hebrew scripture, Hugh shrewdly rejected the claim of female sitting privilege. He commanded that his men search even the pillow upon which Willa sat while riding.

All but one of Hugh’s men supported female privilege. Liudprand, narrating the events, also normatively colored the narrative for female privilege and against gender equality:

having gone back and obeyed the king’s command, they {Hugh’s men} found nothing after having searched everywhere. They thus stripped her of all her clothing. With eyes averted, none of the decent men would look upon this filthy and unprecedented crime {of stripping Willa}. But one of the servants directed his gaze to her and saw a purple string hanging below the sphere of her buttocks. When he impudently grabbed it and pulled it in a defiling way, the belt they were seeking came out of her most intimate part.

{ Igitur illis redeuntibus regisque iussioni paroentibus, cum requisitis omnibus nil invenissent, vestimentis eam omnibus nudaverunt. Hoc denique tam turpe facinus atque inauditum cum avertentibus oculis proborum nemo conspiceret, servorum quidam directo obtutu purpuream secus natium speroiden vidit dependere corrigiam, quam inpudenter arripiens foediterque trahens, e secretiori corporis parte eam secutus balteus est egressus. }

Willa had secreted the golden belt, studded with rubies and other gems, in her apparently quite large vagina. Perhaps she enjoyed sex with men endowed like Dominic. While Liudprand set up that allusion, he normatively disparaged the servant who successfully recovered the belt. Liudprand, like any author writing under gynocentrism, recognized the importance of supporting female privilege.

Liudprand prominently featured the transgressive servant defying gynocentric norms of honoring and serving women. Displaying at length the servant’s “shameless” wit, Liudprand wrote:

Then the servant, not just shameless, but rendered all the more giggly by his dirty deed, burst out: “Ha! Ha! He! What an expert midwife is this soldier! A red-headed boy was born to the lady: I ask that you be my witnesses! O, how fortunate I would be, indeed the happiest of men, if my wife bore me just two such children! Indeed, I would send them both as messengers to Constantinople since, as I learned when merchants told about it, the emperor graciously welcomes this kind of messenger!”

{ Servus itaque isdem non solum inverecundus, sed eo ipso turpi facinore hilarior redditus: “Há! há! hé! — ait — quam peritus obstetricandi miles! Ruffus puer est natus herae; quaeso, ut sit superstes! O me fortunatum, immo omnibus feliciorem, si tales saltem duos uxor mea mihi pareret natos! Hos quippe Constantinopolim dirigerem nuntios, quoniam quidem, ut institoribus narrantibus agnovi, huiusmodi libenter imperator nuntios suscipit!” }

Liudprand himself had been an envoy to Constantinople. He knew that the Byzantine emperor, whom he ridiculed in another work, sought precious gifts from envoys. Liudprand went on to quote the servant’s poetry, which the servant ostensibly composed spontaneously:

Willa, what madness is this? To store gold in the invisible
entrance of your genitals? O, I think your lust is unheard of!
By the name of the furies you stored gems in your body!
To produce such offspring is unusual for mothers:
from it the ten months’ gestation brought you no discomfort.
Noble mother, do not hold back from us such offspring,
who, once born, may overtake you, the mother, in age!

{ Willa quid insanis? Aurum quod condere caecis
Incipis in membris? Prô, non audita cupido!
Allectô furiis gemmas in corpore condis!
Matribus insolitum tales producere partus:
Hinc tibi nulla decem tulerant fastidia menses.
Alma parens, tales nobis haud desine foetus
Edere, qui nati superent te aetate parentem! }

This servant had impressive classical learning. His announcement of the birth of Ruffus (the ruby-studded belt) quoted Terence’s Andria. His subsequent celebratory poem quoted two of Virgil’s eclogues and the Aeneid. Liudprand seems to have approached the moral imperatives of gynocentrism with all the rhetorical sophistication of the Middle English Poet’s Repentance.[9]

Liudprand wasn’t afraid to criticize women directly. He declared:

the purpose of this work is this: namely, to depict, make public, and complain about the deeds of this Berengar who nowadays does not so much rule as tyrannize in Italy, and of his wife Willa, who is appropriately called a second Jezebel on account of the immensity of her despotism and a child-eating witch on account of her insatiable desire for robbery.

{ intentio huius operis ad hoc respicit, ut Berengarii huius, qui nunc in Italia non regnat sed tyranizat, atque uxoris eius Willae, quae ob inmensitatem tyrannidis secunda Iezabel et ob rapinarum insacietatem Lamia proprio apellatur vocabulo, actus designet, ostendat et clamitet. }

This was the Willa who seduced her chaplain Dominic, who then sought to have him killed, and who allowed him to be castrated. Before narrating the story of Willa’s mother hiding the jeweled belt in her vagina, Liudprand noted that Willa “managed things so her mother could not be considered the worst of women {hoc effecit, ne genitrix sua omnium esset mulierum nequissima}.” That direct reference foreshadows the more subtle allusion between the two stories.

Writing in support of gynocentric ideology, modern academics have called Liudprand a bad name for criticizing women directly. Liudprand, however, also deserves credit for his great rhetorical sophistication in criticizing women indirectly. Under gynocentrism, describing a man as a beast isn’t shameful, and a man being castrated doesn’t merit condemning. Under gynocentrism, a servant-man who recovers a large, precious belt from an enemy-woman’s vagina must be condemned as shameless, impudent, and dirty. Liudprand understood gynocentric gender values. He drew upon them with great rhetorical sophistication.

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Read more:


[1] Liudprand of Cremona, Antapodosis {Retribution} 5.32, 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 or to be more easily readable. The subsequent four quotes are from Antapodosis 5.32.

For earlier, freely available Latin text and English translation, Dümmler (1877) and Wright (1930). Both are of reasonably good quality.

[2] The quoted phrase is from Matthew 10:26. The Vulgate Latin for that quotation is:

For nothing is covered that shall not be revealed, nor hidden that shall not be known.

{ ne ergo timueritis eos nihil enim opertum quod non revelabitur et occultum quod non scietur. }

The text that Liudprand quoted is close to the Vulgate, but slightly different.

[3] Grabowski noted that malefici refers to male magicians and hence is better translated as “sorcerers” than as “witches” (although witches can be male). Grabowski (2015) p. 259, n. 60. I’ve incorporated Grabowski’s insight into the English translation above.

[4] In the relatively tolerant and enlightened Middle Ages, elite discourse didn’t suppress frank descriptions of men’s and women’s genitals. Balzaretti speculated that Liudprand’s story of the recovery of a precious belt from a captured queen’s vagina “may well have been intended to titillate his male readership with explicit treatment of Willa’s body.” Balzaretti (2002) p. 121. That seems to me about as plausible as a claim that Liudprand’s description of Dominic’s large penis was intended to titillate his female readership. Balzaretti, in accordance with dominant gynocentric ideology, didn’t put forward the latter speculation. Instead, he wondered:

Surely it is possible that Liutprand is here taking a swipe at Willa’s husband Berengar by implying that his penis could not satisfy Willa because it was too small?

Id. p. 122. That’s possible. Men commonly endure an onerous burden of performance. But a woman’s sexual satisfaction from a man typically depends more on him not acting like General Belisarius than on him being endowed with an unusually large penis.

[5] Antapodosis 4.12. The previous short quote on Willa burning with love is from id. 4.11. The subsequent four quotes above are from id. 4.12.

[6] On the symbolic importance of noble belts in early medieval European society, Grabowski (2015) p. 261.

[7] Grabowski stated that Pieniądz interpreted Willa in this story as follows: “her passive character during the whole shameful scene was meant by Liudprand to put her again in the proper place for woman.” Grabowski (2015) p. 266, referring to Pieniądz (2010). During this scene, Willa was a captive. Captives, both women and men, commonly are passive. Men captives being strip-searched aren’t typically active. Showing rare courage for a man in relation to a woman, Grabowski disagreed with Pieniądz’s interpretation.

[8] For the story of Rachel stealing her father’s gods, Genesis 31:33-5.

[9] The servant cited Terence, Andria 486-7 (at beginning of what’s commonly labeled Act 3, Scene 2) and Virgil, Eclogues 10.22, 4.61; Aeneid 2.591, as noted in Chiesa (1998) p. 104. Liudprand may have been alluding more generally to the birth imagery in Virgil’s fourth eclogue. Squatriti (2007) p. 149, n. 29.

Levine observed that the servant composed “nine hexameters on the event, demonstrating surprising metrical and rhetorical competence for his rank.” Levine sensibly recognized the incongruity of the text, but laughably missed the irony of Liudprand’s concluding moralization:

Pretending to disapprove of the servant’s behavior, and of the poem, which clearly was composed by the bishop of Cremona himself, Liudprand represents himself as puzzled by the problem of determining whose behavior was worse {that of King Hugh, who defeated an enemy, or his servant, who seized the precious belt from the enemy}.

Levine (1991) {note omitted}. Grabowski shows clearly the quality of today’s gynocentric scholastic reasoning:

Therefore, while the joke is at a woman, the wrongdoing is on the part of a man. This is a misogynistic tale, where in the end the male character is shown as evil and wrong.

Grabowski (2015) p. 264. Being able to declare that a story is misogynistic and that it shows a man as “evil and wrong” is a double win in modern academic scoring. Grabowski provided further clarity concerning gynocentrism:

This becomes even clearer when compared to how Otto acted toward the wives of rebels. While it is implied that they had some role in the rebellion, none of them was in any way punished by Otto. The price they paid was the death of their husbands in warfare. This shows clearly how wrong Hugh was because of greed and lack of mercy, where the latter was an important element of being a decent king.

Id. {footnote omitted}. Under gynocentrism, women receive no or very mild punishment for crimes for which men are killed. Moreover, since men devote their lives to serving women, men’s deaths, when rarely noticed, are scored as punishment of women.

Liudprand included as the final couplet of the servant’s transgressive poem the normative response:

One energetic man hit the neck of the one saying such things,
and reprimanded him with harsh words.

{ Talia cunctanti collum percusserat unus
Impiger, ac verbis ipsum culparat amaris. }

Antapodosis 4.12. Liudprand inserted this brilliant poem, which dilates upon the servant’s literary boasting, in the margin of the manuscript. Squatriti (2007) p. 149, n. 28. Liudprand perhaps thought that adding this poem would ensure that readers correctly understand his rhetoric. He apparently under-estimated the interpretive force of gynocentric ideology, at least with respect to modern academics.

[image] Woman, man, and worship of Mammon. Oil on canvas painting by Evelyn De Morgan, circa 1909. Her work shows extraordinary insights into the relationship of women and men under the prevailing gender structure of family law. Preserved in the De Morgan Centre (London, UK), via Wikimedia Commons.

The man’s hand gesture in De Morgan’s painting is appropriately similar to that of men displaying their emasculation. See, e.g., the illumination of Attis castrating himself on folio 343v of a manuscript of Augustine’s De civitate Dei {City of God}, trans. from Latin into French by Raoul de Presles. Made in Paris about 1475, 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.

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

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

Levine, Robert. 1991. “Liudprand of Cremona: History and Debasement in the Tenth Century.” Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch. 26:70–84.

Pieniądz, Aneta. 2010. “Kobieta, honor i polityka we wczesnym średniowieczu.” Pp. 408-24 in Bartoszewicz, Agnieszka, ed. 2010. Świat średniowiecza: studia ofiarowane Profesorowi Henrykowi Samsonowiczowi. Warszawa: Wydawnictwa Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego.

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.

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