still-relevant medieval advice for men: si non caste, tamen caute

wary young man

Having sexual relations with women has long been fraught with dangers for men. Men historically have risked false accusations of rape, anti-men gender bias in punishment for illicit sex, and heavy obligations under unplanned parenthood. Marriage could devastate a man’s life. In medieval Europe, the saying “if you can’t be chaste, at least be careful {si non caste, tamen caute}” was well-known. That medieval saying remains good advice for men considering sexual relations with women today.

Given laws such as the “four seas” law of paternity or the husband’s legal liabilities under coverture, a rational man would be reluctant to marry. Men in ancient Roman were in fact reasonably reluctant to marry. Men’s love for women, however, often isn’t rationally managed. Jerome and other early Christian church thinkers had to exhort Christians to chastity. Early in the fifth century, The Letter on Chastity {Epistula de castitate} linked chastity with perfection:

chastity promises to you the glory of the heavenly kingdom, the friendship of God and the fellowship of angels, so that you will consent. Wantonness seems to offer you fleeting worldly wealth and human riches. Be a just judge: choose certainly the one to which you belong by nature, whose gift are known better. Indeed, we are not ignorant of the stratagems with which the jealous enemy of chastity and perfection always attacks you, sometimes by means of suggestions of others, at other times through your own thoughts … For wantonness suggests often to you: “Are you not going to marry? Are you going to remain childless? And to whom are you going to bequeath such wealth, such a patrimony? Does it not suffice that your sisters have wanted to embrace this lifestyle?

{ Illa tibi, ut ei magis consentias, caelestis regni gloriam, familiaritatem Dei, angelorum consortium pollicetur; haec saeculares et caducas opes humanasque uidetur offerre diuitias. Iustus iudex esto; illam profecto elige, cui et natura deberis, et cuius munera constat esse meliora. Non ignoramus enim, quibus artibus modo per aliorum suggestiones, modo per cogitationes proprias te in hoc tempore pudicitiae semper et perfectioni inuidus inimicus infestet … Nam suggerit haec saepius tibi: Tu ergo non nubes? Tu sine liberis permanebis? Et cui tantas opes, cui tantum patrimonium derelinques? Non sufficit, quod sorores tuae hoc adprehendere propositum uoluerunt? } [1]

Men, especially within gynocentric societies, commonly do what women want them to do. In Europe in the ninth and tenth centuries, priests commonly married or had concubines. Pope Leo IX denounced these and other practices of clerical unchastity at the church council of Mainz in 1049.[2] Some time between 1049 and 1072, Archbishop Adalbert of Hamberg offered more nuanced and pragmatic advice to his clerics. According to a contemporary German chronicler:

We have heard the most pious archbishop of ours, Adalbert, say over and over again in counseling his clerics about preserving their chastity, “I admonish and command you,” he used to say, “to preserve yourself from destructive bondage to women. Yet if this proves too much for you — which, after all, is a state of perfection — at least preserve yourself from the disgraceful bondage of marriage, in accordance with the common saying: If you can’t be chaste, at least be careful.”

{ Audivimus sepenumero piissimum archiepiscopum nostrum Adalbertum, cum de continentia tenenda suos hortatus est clericos: “Admoneo vos,” inquit, “et postulans iubeo, ut pestiferis mulierum vinculis absolvamini, aut, si ad hoc non potestis cogi, quod perfectorum est, saltem cum verecundia vinculum matrimonii custodite, secundum illud, quod dicitur: “Si non caste, tamen caute.” } [3]

Like Juvenal to his friend Postumus and Valerius to his friend Rufinus, Archbishop Adalbert warned his clerics against getting married. In Adalbert’s view, a cleric living with a woman wasn’t as bad as a cleric marrying a woman.

Adalbert’s advice, “if you can’t be chaste, at least be careful {si non caste, tamen caute}” was applied more generally in medieval Europe to men having sex with women. Commonly said in the eleventh century, that advice became proverbial wisdom by the thirteenth century. The thirteenth-century chronicler Salimbene de Adam sharply observed:

many secular clerks, who hold high church offices and live in luxury, appear to care little about chastity. And they say that the Apostle Paul said, “If you can’t be chaste, at least be careful.” … (cites many biblical passages to show the impossibility of that saying)… I have cited all these passages because certain worldly clerks who want to live carnally cite the authority of the Apostle for the insane saying, “If you can’t be chaste, at least be careful.” I believe I have heard them say this a hundred times. And by no means did the Apostle ever teach such a doctrine.

{ multi clerici seculares, qui in dominio et in prelationibus sunt et in delitiis vivunt, parum de castitate curare videntur, et imponunt apostolo, quid dixerit: “et si non caste, tamen caute.” Sed apostolus hoc non dixit. … Hec omnia dicta sunt, pro eo quod duidam clerici mundani, qui carnaliter vivere volunt, rabiem imponunt apostolo dicendo, quid dixerit: “si non caste, tamen caute.” Credo, quod cencies audivi ab eis. Et certe apostolus telem doctrinam non tradidit } [4]

Salimbene was doctrinally correct. But like many men throughout history, he showed little actual concern for men’s disadvantaged social position in their relations with women.[5]

“If you can’t be chaste, at least be careful {si non caste, tamen caute}” has long been prudent advice for men living under gynocentrism. In Athens more than 2500 years ago, Peisistratus carefully avoided sex of reproductive type. A local priest in early-fourteenth-century southern France acted warily in carrying on a long-term sexual relationship with the married daughter of a tavern-keeper. A report on their affair noted in medieval Latin legal jargon:

said priest used to ask her, before he was joined to her, where the said herb was

{ dictus sacerdos petebat ab ea, antequam ei coniungeretur, ubi dicta erb erat } [6]

The herb was probably associated with a folk method of birth control. The husband of the tavern-keeper’s daughter was poor, and the priest was known to be having an ongoing sexual relationship with his wife. The priest probably feared, with good reason, that if the tavern-keeper’s daughter had a child, he would be burdened with financial responsibility for that child. The twelfth-century fabliau Richeut makes clear the danger of not taking such care.

In twelfth-century France, Peter Abelard offered his extra-marital son Astralabe profound advice concerning chastity. Abelard had a pre-marital sexual relationship with the great woman philosopher and religious leader Heloise of the Paraclete. That relationship produced for Abelard unplanned parenthood — the birth of his son Astralabe. Because Abelard suffered actual castration as punishment for his relationship with Heloise, he speaks with great authority to men living under castration culture. Abelard advised his son Astralabe:

The wise person conceals, feigns many things according to the circumstances
and accomplishes few thing by force, many by counsel.
In all things the wise considers times as much as places
and assumes as many faces as those render fitting.

{ Dissimilat, similat sapiens pro tempore multa
paucaque ui peragit, plurima consilio.
In cunctis sapiens tam tempora quam loca pensat
et facies multas sumit ut ista decent. } [7]

Today, men with guile engage in abortion coercion in response to their lack of reproductive rights and the risk of crushing “child support” payments merely for having consensual sex of reproductive type. Under long-standing formal disparagement of men’s sexuality, a medieval peasant youth used guile to have sex with a woman without paying the women for sex. Specifically in relation to chastity, Abelard instructed his son Astralabe:

If you are unable to live chastely, do not scorn to live carefully:
among the people your reputation avails you more than your way of life.
The more you would avoid offending divine eyes,
the more you should strive to live rightly everywhere for God.
This to the righteous is shameful: to carry out through fear of humans
what he would not have been drawn to by love of God.

{ Si nequeas caste, ne spernas uiuere caute:
in populo uita plus tibi fama ualet.
Quo plus diuinos oculos offendere uitas
plus studes ut recte uiuas ubique Deo.
Id iusto pudor est: hominum complere timore
ad quod non fuerit tractus amore Dei. }

Abelard recognized the wisdom of the proverbial saying “if you can’t be chaste, at least be careful {si non caste, tamen caute},” but he qualified that saying with respect and love for God. Men, while carefully making their way through the human constructs of gynocentric society, should be be oriented ultimately toward God, not women. Self-conscious men assuming many faces in their climb to God will ponder the issue of hypocrisy. Abelard told his son Astralabe:

I consider the life of a hypocrite wretched above all else;
vainglory makes that person doubly wretched,
crucifying the body in this life and the soul in the life to come.
All who buy praise at this price — let it be theirs!
One who flees the name of hypocrite by sinning openly
is doubly guilty for both committing and teaching the sin.

{ Ypocrite miseram super omnia censeo uitam;
dupliciter miserum gloria uana facit,
corpus in hac uita crucians animamque futura.
Hoc precio laudem quisquis emeit — sua sit!
Qui fugit ypocrite nomen pecando patenter
dupliciter reus est, qui docet hoc et agit. }

Life is complicated, especially for men living under gynocentrism.[8] If a man is unable to live chastely, he must be careful not to incur gender-biased punishment. He must also be careful to avoid social disparagement and harm to his reputation. In addition, he must strive not to provide a bad example to others. Most of all, he must continue to seek to live rightly, not for gynocentric society, but for God.

Men today should imagine themselves to be Peter Abelard’s sons. Within the oppressive circumstances of castration culture and gynocentrism, men should study insights from medieval Latin literature. In addition to the shrewd medieval Latin proverb “if you can’t be chaste, at least be careful {si non caste, tamen caute},” men should ponder the wisdom of Marcolf and the guile of Galo. Men should compassionately and sympathetically listen to the vigorous sexed protest of Matheolus. Abelard’s advice to his son Astralabe is complex and intellectually advanced. Men who feel that they are not yet ready for Abelard’s sophistication might begin with understanding the failings of the Disticha Catonis and with more positive insights from other works in the medieval school canon.

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[1] Epistula de castitate 17.1 (excerpt), Latin text from Caspari (1890) pp. 159-60, English translation (adapted slightly) from Racket (1997) pp. 229-30. A full English translation of Epistula de castitate is available in Rees (1998). On the intellectual context, Squires (2013).

[2] Robinson (1978) p. 109. With his Book of Gomorrah {Liber Gomorrhianus} issued in 1051, the Benedictine monk Peter Damien vigorously denounced bishops for condoning same-sex sexual acts among clerics. For an English translation of Damien’s Book of Gomorrah, Hoffman (2015).

[3] Adam of Bremen, Gesta Hammenburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, 3.31, scholia 76 (77), Latin text from Schmeidler (1917) p. 173, English translation (adapted slightly) from Baird, Baglivi & Kane (1986) p. 688, n. 51. Here’s an earlier edition of the Latin text. Adam of Bremen’s scholia makes clear that “si non caste, tamen caute” was already a well-known saying in the middle of the eleventh century. Fuhrmann (1992) describes the historical context of Adalbert’s advice. On the proverbial status of that saying in medieval Europe generally, Biller (1982) p. 17, n. 57, which cites Walther, Proverbia sententiaeque Latinitatis Medii Aevi 3.28730a. Adalbert’s advice has similarities to the conditional wisdom on friendship in Sirach 6:5-17.

[4] Salimbene de Adam, Cronica {Chronicle}, f. 372v-373r, Latin text from Holder-Egger (1905) pp. 391-2 ( = Scalia (1966) pp. 566-7), English translation from Baird, Baglivi & Kane (1986) pp. 393-4. Subsequent quotes from Salimbene’s Cronica are similarly sourced and cited by page in Holder-Egger’s edition ( e.g H-E p. x). Bernini (1942) “with respect to text alone (not to mention its inferior scholarly apparatus), cannot compare to Holder-Egger’s work.” Baird, Baglivi & Kane (1986) p. xxvii. Scalia (1966) is regarded at the best current text of Salimbene’s work. Salimbene wrote his Cronica from 1283 to 1288.

Salimbene was born on October 9, 1221 in Parma, Italy, to Guido and Immelda de Adam. They were wealthy, well-connected persons, but probably not of the nobility. Salimbene’s godfather Balian of Sidon baptised Salimbene. Salimbene originally took his godfather’s name. He was known within his family as Ognibene and took the name Salimbene after he joined the Franciscan order in 1238. As a Franciscan, Salimbene studied briefly at the University of Paris and traveled widely through France and Italy. He died about 1289. Baird, Baglivi & Kane (1986) pp. xxi, xxv.

Salimbene acknowledged men’s earthy behavior and interests. He reported that at the Dominican convent where Brother John of Vicenza lived, the Franciscan Brother Detesalve of Florence asked for a piece of John’s tunic as a relic. Detesalve later went to the privy, wiped himself with the piece of John’s tunic, and threw it into the privy:

And then taking a stick, he began to stir up the excrement, shouting, “Alas, alas, help me, Brothers! I have lost the relic of a saint in the privy, and I am searching for it.” And just as they bent their heads over the privy holes, he stirred all the harder so that they might receive the full brunt of the stench. Repulsed by this malodorous mess, they blushed in shame, realizing that they had been fooled by such a prankster.

{ Postmodum accipiens perticam stercora revolvebat, clamans et dicens: “Heu, heu! succurrite, fratres, quia reliquias sancti requiro, quas perdidi in latrina!” Cumque vultus suos inclinassent ad orificia camerarum, cum pertica stercora revolvebat valenter, ut stercorum fetorem sentiirent. Infecti itaque tali odoramento erubuerunt confusi, cognoscentes se a tali trufatore delusos. }

Salimbene, Cronica, H-E p. 79. On another occasion, Brother Detesalve slipped and fell on ice in Florence. While he was lying there, another Florentine asked him if he would like something more put under him. Detesalve responded, “Yes, your wife,” or translated literally as written, “Yes, the wife of him who asked {sic, scilicet interrogantis uxorem}.” Id. Writing in the spirit of Sanger’s influential, nineteenth-century study of prostitution, Coulton called Detesalve’s response “quite impossible in modern print.” Coulton (1907) p. 28. Cf. id. Appendix D, “Clerical Celibacy,” which compiles printed accounts of clerics engaging in sex in order to show “how strictly Salimbene has kept within the facts.” Auerbach, in contrast, highlights that Salimbene is an “extremely gifted author.” Auerbach (1957) p. 214.

[5] Salimbene’s scriptural evaluation of “if you can’t be chaste, at least be careful {si non caste, tamen caute}” parallels the earlier view of the influential Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas lived from 1225 to 1274. He commented on Ephesians 5:15-17, which states:

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.

{ βλέπετε οὖν ἀκριβῶς πῶς περιπατεῖτε, μὴ ὡς ἄσοφοι ἀλλ’ ὡς σοφοί, ἐξαγοραζόμενοι τὸν καιρόν, ὅτι αἱ ἡμέραι πονηραί εἰσιν. διὰ τοῦτο μὴ γίνεσθε ἄφρονες, ἀλλὰ συνίετε τί τὸ θέλημα τοῦ κυρίου. }

Aquinas commented:

Above he {Paul} forbade the old ways of carnal illusions {Ephesians 5:3}, now he exhorts them to the contrary newness. … Whence he states therefore from the preceding see how you walk circumspectly. … Some say: “If you do not act chastely, nonetheless act cautiously {alt. trans: if you cannot be chaste, at least be careful}.” The Apostle does not take it in such a sense; when he says circumspectly, it is as though he said: Beware of men who thwart chastity.

{ Supra prohibuit fallaciarum carnalium vetustatem, hic hortatur ad contrariam novitatem. … Dicit ergo itaque, scilicet ex praemissis, videte quomodo caute ambuletis. … Quidam dicunt: si non caste, tamen caute. Sed sic non accipit apostolus, sed dicit caute, ac si diceret: cavete ab hominibus contrariis castitati. }

Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Ephesians, Chapter 5 (Lecture 6), Latin text and English translation online from the Priory of the Immaculate Conception, Dominican House of Studies, Washington, D.C.

Salimbene described reasons for men to be cautious in relation to women. He recorded an account of Empress Constance cuckolding Emperor Frederick II by faking a pregnancy. Salimbene commented:

trickery of this kind is common among women, as I myself have frequently discovered.

{ bene consueverunt talia facere mulieres, ut pluries reperisse me recolo. }

Salimbene, Cronica, H-E p. 43. Much other medieval evidence exists of women’s superiority to men in guile; modern states, in fact, have institutionalized the cuckolding of men. Salimbene warned against the rule of women and showed concern that women’s voices not be allowed to overwhelm and silence men’s voices. Salimbene even recorded some sardonic poetry of men’s sexed protest:

Woman is flinty stone, a thistle, a burr clinging,
filthy water, sticky pitch, a hornet stinging.
Three fine things there are: wisdom, honor, worldly fame,
and all three women mar, completely destroy, bring to shame.

{ Est adamas mulier, pix, ramnus, carduus asper,
lappa tenens, vesspa pungens, urtica perurens.
Sunt tria grandia: laus, sapientia, glorai rerum.
Hec tria destruit, hec tria diruit ars mulierum. }

Salimbene, Cronica, H-E p. 133. Cf. Coulton (1907) pp. 96-7. Despite his awareness of women’s guile and his exposure to literature of men’s sexed protest, Salimbene strongly objected to the proverb, “if you can’t be chaste, at least be careful {si non caste, tamen caute}.” Salimbene apparently regarded that proverb formally and superficially as a doctrinally false rationalization for unchaste behavior.

[6] From inquisition of Jacques Fournier, the Bishop of Pamiers, in 1320 into Pierre Clergue’s sexual relationship with Grazida Lizier. Quoted in Biller (1982) p. 18, n. 61.

[7] Peter Abelard, Poem for Astralabe {Carmen ad Astralabium} ll. 967-70, Latin text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Ruys (2014). Here’s an online Latin text, with some discussion of the manuscripts. Ruys dates Carmen ad Astralabium to the early to mid-1130s. Id pp. 14-6.

I’ve adapted Ruys’s translation to eliminate generic use of “man.” Such use has historically tended to obscure men’s gender-distinctiveness. Where Abelard doesn’t explicitly indicate a male human being, I’ve used a non-gendered English translation.

Subsequent quotes from Carmen ad Astralabium are (cited by line numbers): 587-92 (If you are unable to live chastely…) and 305-10 (I consider the life of a hypocrite…). The distich 587-88 (if you are unable to live chastely…) was:

highly popular in the medieval reception of the Carmen {ad Astralabium}: it is included in Recension II and the Trier excerpt, marked by the annotator of MS B in both the left and right margins, and marked by a pointed hand in the left margin in MS P.

Ruys (2014) p. 212, note to ll. 587-592.

[8] By the early modern period, the pragmatic medieval wisdom “if you can’t be chaste, at least be careful {si non caste, tamen caute},” was buried in Reformation polemics and anti-meninist diatribes. For Reformation polemic invoking “si non caste, tamen caute,” see Hilairie (1554) and for context, Coulton (1907), Appendix D, and Parish (2012). For its use in anti-meninist diatribe, see Baldesar Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier {Il Cortegiano} 3.20. The Book of the Courtier was first published in Venice in 1528.

[image] Drawing (excerpt) of a young man’s face. Made by Agnolo Bronzino about 1550-55. Preserved in the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles). Via Wikimedia Commons.


Auerbach, Erich. 1957. Mimesis. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. (originally published in German in 1945)

Baird, Joseph L., Giuseppe Baglivi, and John Robert Kane. 1986. The Chronicle of Salimbene de Adam. Binghamton, N.Y.: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies.

Bernini, Ferdinando. 1942. Salimbene de Adam. Cronica. Bari: Laterza. (freely available online vol. 1, vol. 2).

Biller, P. P. A. 1982. “Birth-control in the West in the Thirteenth and Early Fourteenth Centuries.” Past & Present. 94: 3-26.

Caspari, C. P. 1890. Briefe, Abhandlungen und Predigten aus den zwei letzten Jahrhunderten des kirchlichen Alterthums und dem Anfang des Mittelalters. Christiania: Gedruckt in der Mallingschen Buchdr.

Coulton, G. G. 1907. From St. Francis to Dante: translations from the chronicle of the Franciscan Salimbene. 2nd edition (first edition, 1906). London: D. Nutt.

Fuhrmann, Horst. 1992. “Adalberts von Bremen Mahnung: si non caste, tamen caute.” Pp. 93-99 (in German) in Paravicini, Werner, and Frank Lubowitz, eds. Mare Balticum: Beiträge zur Geschichte des Ostseeraums in Mittelalter und Neuzeit: Festschrift zum 65. Geburtstag von Erich Hoffmann. Sigmaringen: Thorbecke.

Hilairie, Hughe (attributed to John Bale). 1554. The resurreccion of the masse with the wonderful vertues of the same, newly set forth vnto the greate hartes ease, ioye and comforte of all the catholykes. Strasburgh in Elsas.

Hoffman, Matthew Cullinan, trans. 2015. The Book of Gomorrah and St. Peter Damian’s Struggle Against Ecclesiastical Corruption. New Braunfels, Texas: Ite ad Thomam.

Holder-Egger, Oswald. 1905-1913. Cronica Fratris Salimbene de Adam. Monumenta Germaniae Historica 32. Hannoverae et Lipsiae: Impr. bibliopolii Hahniani.

Parish, Helen. 2012. “‘It Was Never Good World Sence Minister Must Have Wyves’: Clerical Celibacy, Clerical Marriage, and Anticlericalism in Reformation England.” Journal of Religious History. 36 (1): 52-69.

Rackett, Michael R. 1997. “Anxious for Worldly Things: The Critique of Marriage in the Anonymous Pelagian Treatise De Castitate.” Studia Patristica 33: 229-35, in volume Livingstone, Elizabeth A., ed. Augustine and his Opponents, Jerome, other Latin Fathers after Nicaea, Orientalia. Leuven: Peeters.

Rees, Brinley Roderick. 1998. Pelagius: life and letters. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press.

Robinson, Ian Stuart. 1978. “Periculosus homo: Pope Gregory VII and Episcopal Authority.” Viator. 9: 103-132.

Ruys, Juanita Feros. 2014. The Repentant Abelard: family, gender and ethics in Peter Abelard’s Carmen ad Astralabium and Planctus. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmsillan.

Scalia, Giuseppe, ed. 1966. Salimbene de Adam. Cronica. Bari: Laterza.

Schmeidler, Bernhard. 1917. Adam von Bremen, Hamburgische Kirchengeschichte (Magistri Adam Bremensis Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum). Hannover u. Leipzig: Hahn.

Squires, Stuart. 2013. Reassessing Pelagianism: Augustine, Cassian, and Jerome on the possibility of a sinless life. Ph. D. Thesis in Theology. Catholic University of America.

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