Boncompagno of Signa used ars dictaminis to debunk courtly love

restraining order form
In relatively enlightened medieval Europe, both children and adults were intellectually capable of quickly distinguishing between girls and boys in common practice. Neither children nor adults were compelled as a matter of public education to affirm elaborate, contradictory doctrine about the arbitrariness of gender (“the social construction of gender”) and the essential importance of gender identity, as determined by whatever a person declares at a given time under prevailing administrative rules about making and changing gender declarations enforced by law against persons refusing to recognize the validity of such essential gender declarations.

Medieval European culture wasn’t, however, a perfect model of rationality. The most damaging medieval failure of reason was the still-celebrated, twelfth-century elaboration of oppressive, unfruitful doctrines of courtly love. Boncompagno of Signa, a well-educated twelfth-century rhetor at the University of Bologna, sought to dispel medieval ignorance and irrationality with eloquent Latin and stunning performances. Writing authoritative forms for the art of letter-writing (ars dictaminis), Boncompagno ridiculed men-abasing doctrines of courtly love.

About 1195, the University of Bologna received a letter apparently from a learned scholar who had just arrived from Bavaria. This scholar described his intellectual qualifications and announced a sophisticated demonstration:

I have lived ten full years among the Arabs and Persians, and I applied myself extensively to both astronomy and to all the magical arts known in parts of Arabia and at Toledo. I went beyond the Sauromatas and the Glaciales, among whom I read Uranech, who used to make a deaf asp able to hear by smoke and incantations and who changed all snakes into flies. I also read the Fantasticum of Ramafitonus, who clarified much in Solomon’s Astrolabe by Almicatarath. I read Faunes and Almuchamir, which are the special books of the magical faculty. From Zenzalimach, I learned to understand dog barks and bird calls, up to the sparrow and cardinal. I know how to work marvels by images. But such should not be revealed in public, since one who divulges mystical things diminishes their majesty, and those things brought forth to the crowd cannot remain secrets.

Nevertheless, because they might seem impossible to the ignorant, I shall reveal them to you. Today, around noon or a little bit after, because the sun will then begin to be at its hottest, you shall come to St. Ambrose’s square. There I will first change an ass into a lion. When it reverts to an ass, it will appear horned just like a goat. Then it will assume feathers like an eagle and it will fly through the air for those of you watching. Nevertheless, it will remain an ass at the end. Snakes will plow the shore there with a fox, monkeys will foretell the future, and their tricks will be laughably memorable. All should take care not to dare cover their heads, but should turn their faces to the sun, since otherwise none can possibly see the secret marvels.

{ In partibus Arabie ac Tolleti tam in astronomia quam in omnibus magicis operibus operam exhibui diuturnam, quia per decem annorum spatium sum inter Arabes et Satrapas conversatus, ivi ultra Sauromatas et Glaciales, apud quos legi Uranech, qui aspidem surdam fumigavi et incantionibus faciebat audire, et serpentes omnes convertebat in muscas. Legi etiam fantasticum Ramafitoni, qui per Almicatarath multa distinxit in astrolabio Salomonis, transcurri Faunes et Almuchamir, qui sunt precipui libri magice facultatis. Intelligo per Çençalimach latratus canum et voces avium, usque ad passerem et cardellum. Item novi mirabilia per ymagines operari, sed non sunt quelibet in publico revelanda, quoniam qui vulgat mistica minuit maiestatem et que producuntur in turbam, non possunt manere secreta.

Verumtamen, quia ignorantibus impossibilia huiusmodi esse videntur, ideo vobis intimo, quatinus hodie circa vel parum ultra meridiem, quia tunc sol esse incipiet in suo fervore, ad plateam sancti Ambrosii veniatis, ubi transmutari prius faciam asinum in leonem, et cum in asinum revertetur, sicut yrcocervus apparebit cornutus et tunc assumet pennas, ut aquila et vobis videntibus per aera volitabit, verumtamen in fine asinus remanebit. Serpentes quidem arabunt ibi litus cum vulpe, vaticinabuntur scimie de futuris, que ludi facient memoriam derisivam. Provideat etiam quilibet, ne sibi caput operire presumat, sed vertat nudam faciem contra solem, quoniam aliter nemo posset videre mirabilia secretorum. }[1]

This letter created a sensation in the university-dominated Bologna:

What was heard from this letter became a rumor that spread throughout the city. Teachers and scholars of the university, young men and young women, old persons and young persons, filled the streets and housetops before the appointed hour. They came and stood for a long time, expecting the impossible to happen.

{ Auditis quidem litteris fuit rumor per civitatem diffusus et ita magistrorum et scolarium universitas, iuvenes et virgines, senes cum iunioribus preoccupaverunt ante horam statutam plateam et tecta domorum, venerunt et steterunt diutius, effectus impossibiles prestolantes. }

What most untaught persons know was taught to the learned:

Finally they {teachers and scholars of the university of Bologna} left burning with shame, publicly professing that they are similar to donkeys, because they believed that donkeys could fly.

{ Demum intollerabili calore atque pudore affecti recesserunt, publice profitendo se consimiles fuisse asinis, ex eo quod asinum volare credebant. }

Boncompagno himself had fabricated the letter from the internationally learned scholar from Bavaria. Boncompagno evidently sought to teach the relatively enlightened twelfth-century Bolognese university community just how stupid they could be.

Even this important lesson from Boncompagno isn’t appreciated today. A leading twentieth-century scholar of medieval Latin poetry and courtly love rated Boncompagno as “perhaps the greatest of the teachers of rhetoric.”[2] Yet a leading twentieth-century scholar of medieval rhetoric disparaged Boncompagno’s “bizarre claims,” called him a “dictaminal buffoon,” and declared:

he is virtually without influence, and he is best viewed as a biographical curiosity … Boncompagno seems to have made no lasting impact either on his own university or on Europe at large. [3]

At least medieval intellectuals knew better. The great early-fifteenth-century church official Poggio Bracciolini recorded an exemplum that closely parallels Boncompagno’s fake-flyer performance. According to Poggio, this exemplum had been passed down among church officials. Boncompagno’s lesson evidently had considerable influence across at least two hundred years of medieval intellectual life.[4] Boncompagno’s lack of influence today is the fault of today’s academic scholars working under oppressive conditions of ignorance and bigotry.

Boncompagno similarly debunked men-abasing doctrines of courtly love in his Rota veneris {Wheel of Venus}. That work is a “curious mixture of ars amandi {art of love}, ars dictandi {art of prose writing}, and rhetorical theory.” The Rota veneris is the “greatest letter-writing instruction on the art of love {summa dictaminis de arte amandi}.”[5] It’s an ingenious re-working of ars dictaminis.

restraining order form guns
By the twelfth century, ars dictaminis was a well-established field that provided students with technical instruction and forms for composing mundane letters. Letters were commonly specified as having five parts. For example, here’s a specification for a business letter:

some form of address in a salutation (“Worshipful master, I greet you well”); notification (“May it please you to know”); exposition (“the wool was shipped”); disposition (“and I want my money”); and valediction (“May God keep you well, at least until my bill is paid”). [6]

For students, an important form to learn was the letter to parents asking for money. A well-attested theme for study and imitation was this:

an impoverished scholar living in Paris sends a letter to his mother so that she will provide him with what is necessary

{ scolaris parisius pauperrime viuens litteras matri sue dirigat, ut in necessariis sibi prouideat }[7]

The letter deploys framing guilt-tripping and threatening proverbs and a central, direct request for material help:

Here’s the form for the greeting {SALUTATION}: “To his dearest mother B., from the humble Parisian scholar J. with greetings and filial love.”

STARTING POINT: “A boy’s mother who doesn’t alleviate her son’s poverty doesn’t show him that he is her son.”

STORY: “Know that, in the course of two months, I have spent my money on necessary expenditures.”

PETITION: “Please therefore send to me necessities, with pity and without delay.”

CONCLUSION: “What you fail to do when you have no experience of begging will be returned to you when you do.”

{ Hoc modo salutet {SALUTATIO}: “Karissime matri sue B., J. humilis scolaris parisius salutem et filialem dileccionem.”

EXORDIUM: “Pueri matrem se non exhibet que filii sui non subleuat egestatem.”

NARRATIO: “Sciatis quod numos meos, transactis duobus mensibus, in usus necessarios expendi.”

PETICIO: “Michi igitur compaciens, necessaria dirigere non differatis.”

CONCLUSIO: “Quod nisi feceritis, mendicare nesciens, ad propria remeabo.” }

A student today might text her mother “send $ pls”. That’s because ars dictaminis is scarcely known today even among scholars of medieval literature.

restraining order form - children
Boncompagno’s Rota veneris is much different from the once well-known business of ars dictaminis. After a literary recasting of Lady Philosophy’s concern for Boethius, Rota veneris begins conventionally with instruction on salutations. Boncompagno’s critical perspective on men-abasing courtly love appears when he presents this salutation:

To his sweetest friend G., crowned with beauty and elegance of manners, I. sends as many greetings and assurances of service as there are stars resplendent in the heavens, as there are leaves upon trees, and as there are sands which ring the ocean’s shore.

{ Amice dulcissime G., forma et morum elegantia redimite, I. tot salutes et servitia, quot in celo fulgent sidera, quot in arboribus folia et quot arene circa maris littora. }[8]

This sort of extravagant promise of serving a woman is characteristic of courtly love. Boncompagno disparaged it as a “rustic and ridiculous salutation {rusticana et ridiculosa salutatio}.” In fact, it shows no true learning about men seducing women and gender equality. Immediately after citing this salutation, Boncompagno bluntly communicated his sophisticated understanding of truth:

And remember: nearly all women wish to be praised constantly for their beauty, even if they happen to be ugly.

{ Et nota, quod fere omnes mulieres appetunt semper de pulcritudine commendari, etiam si fuerint deformes. }

Boncompagno turned his back on the pretty, futile poetry of courtly love. Rather than kissing women’s feet, he told ugly truth.

While the salutations in Rota veneris promise love service, Boncompagno didn’t put men in a position of servitude to women. Completely contrary to doctrines of courtly love, Boncompagno endorsed gender symmetry:

From these salutations you will be able to extrapolate all the ways by which men can greet their girlfriends and women their boyfriends, once you have learned to turn these expressions around and change what needs to be changed. Nor is any change necessary, other than to alter adjectives to suit the sex so that, where you have used the feminine gender for women, you shall substitute the masculine gender for men.

{ Ex hiis autem salutationibus poteris trahere omnes modos salutandi amicas pro amicis et amicos pro amasiis, si volvere sciveris et mutare mutanda. Nec est aliud necessarium in mutatione, nisi ut permutes adiectiva per sexus et, ubi posuisti femininum genus pro mulieribus, ponas masculinum pro viris. }

After setting out and discussing the salutatio, Rota veneris skips the exordium and moves right to the narratio. Instruction on the story (body) of the letter moves rapidly to a distinction between a letter ante factum (before having had sex with the woman) and a letter post factum (after having had sex with the woman).

Without instruction on any of the three other conventional parts of a letter in ars dictaminis, Rota veneris sets out bodies of sample letters in which a man seeks to seduce a woman. The woman devises a trick with a falcon:

Yet not wishing to spurn your prayers completely, so that you not be driven to the noose of desperation, I would advise you that, on Sunday, when the lords and ladies go to visit the shrine of the Lord, you release a falcon within my garden. Immediately thereafter, running away from the household servants, demand your bird back. I, then, shall see to it that it is denied you. The maidservants will say to you, “Away! What you seek does not belong to you.” Then indeed, in the midst of this very altercation, I shall have you summoned, and thus you will be able to reveal to me the secrets of your heart.

{ Nolens tamen preces tuas ex toto contempnere ne in desparationis laqueum traharis, consulo ut in die festo, cum domini et matrone templum dominicum visitant, prohicias infra meum pomerium falconem et subito postea currens a familiaribus domus tuam repetas avem. Ego vero illam tibi faciam denegari, diceturque tibi ab ancillis: “Recede, non enim tuum est, quod queris.” Ad istam siquidem contemptionem te vocari faciam, sicque michi tui cordis archana poteris aperire. }

The falcon (in Old French, faucon, which also carries the meaning “false cunt”) figures in medieval stories of deception and sexual intrigue. According to Rota veneris, the woman moves with this letter to the situation post factum (after first sexual intercourse). That’s not how courtly love plays out.

Apparently to insure that readers understood Boncompagno’s commitment to realism and incarnated humanity in love, a version of Rota veneris published about 1475 appended to the ars dictimanis marital advice to men and women. The appended texts comes from Boncompagno’s Rhetorica antiqua. Boncompagno shrewdly advised men to marry a wealthy woman:

Everybody is to be appropriately advised to take as his wife a woman from whom he can gain money and not care about nobility or eminent family stock, for money makes a person’s nobility. He who has money will grow abundant with riches, become noble and famous. Thus don’t postpone taking a wealthy wife, whether she be ugly or disgusting, yes, even if she were the oldest of hags and all her teeth had already fallen out of her mouth, so only her fluid and foaming gums remained.

{ Cuilibet est propensius consulendum ut talem recipiat in uxorem de qua pecuniam possit habere nec est curandum de nobilitate vel prosapia generosa, quoniam peccunia facit hominem generosum et qui habet denarios cui affluentur nobilis efficitur et famosus; unde uxorem peccuniosam recipere non postponas quantucumque turpis fuerit vel deformis, et etiam si esset vetustissima vetularum et cui iam omnes dentes cecidissent ex ore et sole remansissent gingive cum saliva fluida et spumosa. }[9]

Boncompagno advised women rather differently:

O unprecedented madness! O womanly folly! How could you listen, much less entertain the idea that you ought to tie yourself to a man who is already consumed by old age and feebleness, whose eyes already are suffering from dimness of vision? But even more abominably, he incessantly produces tears which drop by drop end up in his wine when he drinks, and his saliva remains in the goblet. When he eats, he hawks, belches, and wipes mucus from his nose and rubs it on the tablecloth. Furthermore, when he goes to bed, he sleeps, snores, farts, and emits the filthiest scoops of gas. Then, if he is aroused from his sleep, he coughs, spits, sighs, complains, and groans. His rod hangs down as if a lead pipe were on top of his ponderous penis. This is the man who will kiss you with the kiss of his mouth that has no teeth. But he will offer you slavering kisses with his decayed gums.

{ O vesania inaudita! O stultitia muliebris! Quomodo potuisti audire nedum intelligere quia tali viro copulari debeas qui iam senecta et senio est consumptus! Cuius oculi iam caligant imo — quod est abominabilius — assidue producunt lacrimas que guttatim cadunt in vinum dum potat et in sipho reliquitur de saliva; dum comedit screat, eruttat et mucilagines emungit de naso quem tergit sepe ad mantile. Praeterea cum vadit ad lectum dormit, stertit, pedit et fetidissimas trullas emittit. Porro cum excitatur a sompno tusit, spuit, suspirat, conqueritur, ingemiscit et virga eius velut plumbi fistula iacet super mentulam ponderosam. Hic osculabitur vos osculo oris sui, qui caret dentibus, sed cum gingivis marcidis praebebit tibi oscula salivosa. }

These two pieces of marital advice, like courtly love, are highly gender asymmetric. Yet courtly love in poems and stories completely lacks the vivid bodily realism of these two pieces of marital advice. Moreover, this marital advice parodies women’s interest in wealthy, successful (old) men and men’s interest in young, fertile (impecunious) women. Boncompagno recognized that courtly love is ridiculous and irrational.

While courtly love abases men relative to women, Boncompagno associated men’s sexuality with sacred figures and acts. He recognized that priests and clerics have special potency in their masculine sexuality. He urged women to marry them:

You shall be the daughters of Jerusalem if you take a priest or a cleric for a husband. You shall be deified in the temple of the Lord, for you shall bring forth a son who will be born from consecrated semen. Thus you shall be called a priestess or priest when with your husband you press oil out of the horn of the altar. In that way you will be blessed among wives.

{ Eris de filiabus Ierusalem si sacerdotem uel clericum receperis in maritum, et deificaberis in templo Domini, cum filium paries qui nascetur de semine consecrato. Unde sacerdotissa uocaberis uel sacerdos, quando cum uiro tuo oleum de cornu altaris exprimes et ita beata eris inter coniugatas. }[10]

Pressing oil out of the horn of the altar is a wonderful image of men’s erection labor and ejaculation. Historically, the penis has had an image problem. Boncompagno, however, associated men’s penises with the strength of God, God’s comforting presence, and God’s capacity to provide light:

A certain man who had sex with a nun said: “I did not defile the divine bed, but because the Lord had delighted me through His work, I was eager to raise his horn.” Also, a nun could say to her lover: “Your rod and your staff, they are a comfort to me.” Also women could say to their lovers: “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.”

{ Quidam qui cognoverat monialem dixit: “Non violavi thorum divinum, sed quia me in sua fatura Dominus delectavit, cornu eius studui exaltare.” Item posset monialis dicere amatori: “Virga tua et baculus tuus, ipsa me consolata sunt.” Item possent dicere suis amatoribus mulieres: “Date nobis de oleo vestro, quia nostre lampades extinguuntur.” }[11]

Men’s sexuality should be regarded as a sacred gift to women. Men and women together can work to raise an incarnate horn to God. A man’s sexuality offers the blessing of new life as numerous as the stars in the sky and sand on the seashore.[12]

Jesus and the wise and foolish virgins

Boncompagno of Signa is a shining light of medieval rationality that our benighted age of ignorance and bigotry desperately needs. The University of Bologna was arguably the most prestigious university in twelfth-century Europe. Boncompagno himself drew upon classical culture in which Cicero declaimed the value of pissing on learned hypocrites. In the past hundred years, elite scholars have celebrated at length courtly love as a moral ideal. Elite scholars with respect to many other subjects have similarly proclaimed that donkeys can fly. Let us join together and chant: Boncompagno of Signa, pity us and come to our aid!

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[1] Boncompagno of Signa, Rhetorica antiqua (also known as Boncompagnus) 1.18.14, Latin text from Basso (2015) and English translation (adapted slightly) from Wight (1998b) (which also provides a Latin text and notes). The subsequent two quotes are similarly from Rhetorica antiqua 1.18.15. This story is recounted in Waddell (1927) pp. 153-4. Boncompagno read his Rhetorica antiqua publicly at Bologna in 1215 and then at Padua about 1225. Tunberg (1986) p. 300, n. 4. For a brief, accessible presentation of Boncompagno’s life and work, Sedgwick (1913) pp. 231-42.

Boncompagno similarly fabricated a letter from a fictitious eminent French orator named Robertus. That orator promised to come to Bologna on a given day to debate Boncompagno about ars dictaminis. Both disparaged each other’s learning. A crowd assembled in the cathedral to see the debate. Robertus failed to appear. Boncompagno at the end revealed that he had fooled the city with a fake letter. See Rhetoria antiqua 1.18.1-5, discussed in Sedgwick (1913) pp. 233-4 and Purkart (1975) pp. 21-3.

Salimbene de Adam in his Cronica described Boncompagno as the “greatest trickster”:

Boncompagno the Florentine was a great teacher of grammar in the city of Bologna, and he wrote books on the art of letter-writing. In the way of the Florentines he was the greatest trickster

{ Boncompagnus Florentinus, qui magnus magister in gramatica in civitate Bononie fuit et libros de dictamine scripsit. Hic cum more Florentinorum trufator maximus esset }

Salimbene, Cronica, Latin text from Holder-Egger (1905) p. 77, English translation (adapted) from Baird, Baglivi & Kane (1986) p. 54. Salimbene, who had contempt for the Dominican Brother John of Vicenza, recorded a similar fake-flyer performance by Boncompagno:

this Master Boncompagno, seeing that Brother John presented himself as a miracle-worker, wanted to present himself likewise. Boncompagno predicted to the Bolognese that, before their very eyes, they would see him fly. What can one say? News of his claim soon spread throughout Bologna. And so on the appointed day the entire city congregates, man and woman, young and old, at the foot of the mountain called Santa Maria in Monte. Boncompagno constructed for himself two wings and stood at the peak of the mountain looking down on them. After they had been gazing at each other for a long time, he shouted down to them audaciously, “Go with divine blessing, and let it suffice that you have looked upon the face of Boncompagno.” They all departed, knowing that he had made a mockery of them.

{ Item iste magister Boncompagnus videns, quod frater Iohannes intromittebat se de miraculis faciendis, voluit et ipse se intromittere et predixit Bononiensibus, quod videntibus eis volare volebat. Quid plura? Divulgatum est per Bononiam. Venit dies statuta, congregata est tota civitas a viro usque ad mulierem, a puero usque ad senem, ad radicem montis qui appellatur Sancta Maria in Monte. Fecerat sibi duas alas et stabat in cacumine montis aspiciens eos. Cumque se diu mutuo aspexissent, protulit istud verbum: “Ite cum benedictione divina, et sufficiat vobis vidisse facium Boncompagni.” Et recesserunt cognoscentes se derisos. }

Salimbene, Cronica, Latin text from Holder-Egger (1905) p. 78, English translation (adapted) from Baird, Baglivi & Kane (1986) p. 55. Cf. Exodus 33:20-3, Isaiah 6:5.

Despite Boncompagno’s obvious importance to modern culture, scholarly work on Boncompagno is sparse. The Arlima entry for Boncompagno shows nothing for most of his works. Boncompagno’s Rhetorica antiqua and Rhetorica novissima apparently haven’t even yet been fully published. Steven M. Wight by far has made the largest contribution to study of Boncompagno. Yet Wight’s massive, generous, and important work (see Wight (1998a)) languishes on the Wayback Machine and other obscure sites. Currently among the best general studies of Boncompagno are Tunberg (1986) and Witt (1986).

Scholars have disparaged Boncompagno for asserting that Cicero isn’t worth reading. E.g. Murphy (1974) p. 254. Boncompagno declared:

This book is the prologue of my Rhetoric, although I have not imitated Cicero in rhetoric. For I do not recall that I have ever lectured on Cicero … Nevertheless I have never corrupted Cicero’s Rhetoric, nor have I dissuaded those wishing to imitate it.

{ Est preterea liber iste mee rethorice prologus, licet in rethorica Tullium non fuerim imitatus. Nunquam enim memini me Tullium legisse … Verumtamen nunquam Tullii depravavi Rethoricam nec eam imitari volentibus dissuasi. }

Boncompagno, Palma 1.2, Latin text and English translation from Wight (1998a). Boncompagno certainly read Jerome and knew of Jerome’s nightmare that God called him a Ciceronian rather than a Christian. That’s the context within which Boncompagno should be appreciated for asserting that he isn’t a Ciceronian.

[2] Dronke (1965) vol. 1, p. 251.

[3] Murphy (1974) p. 253. The reference to “bizarre claims” is from id., while “dictaminal buffoon” is from id. p. 362.

[4] Boncompagno was the first master in ars dictaminis at the University of Bologna. By 1205, Boncompagno’s rivals had created the rumor that he getting his knowledge from the “intercession of unclean spirits {suffragio spirituum inmundorum}.” Purkart (1975) p. 15. Boto da Vigevano’s Liber florum, written in 1234, declared of Boncompagno: “his fame now fills the expanse of heaven and earth {fama iam replevit spacium orbis terre}.” Id. p. 11.  In his Cronica written in the 1280s, Salimbene described Boncompagno as a “great teacher of grammar {magnus magister in gramatica}.” See note [1] above. The manuscript tradition of Boncompagno’s works indicates that he was influential. Core (2105) p. 41. Boncompagno’s Rhetorica Antiqua 4.5 apparently influenced the sixth canto of Dante’s Purgatorio. Raccagni (2013) pp. 599-600. That church officials would pass down a sensational story about Boncompagno is plausible.

[5] Purkart (1975) p. 28. The previous short quote is from id. p. 7.

[6] Adapted from the Wikipedia entry for ars dictaminis. For more on medieval letter-writing and ars dictiminis, Haskins (1898), Murphy (1974) pp. 194-268, and Cornelius (2010).

[7] Libellus de arte dictandi rhetorice (Cambridge University Library MS Dd.9.38, fols. 115ra-121ra), attributed to Peter of Blois, excerpt from section 20, Latin text from Camargo (1984) p. 36, my English translation. The subsequent quote is similarly from id. A similar letter exists in Floribus rhetoricis (British Library MS Add. 18382), a work written early in the 1180s. Id.

[8] Boncompagno da Sign, Rota veneris {Wheel of Venus} 2.3, Latin text from Core (2015), English translation from Purkart (1975) (adapted to follow the Latin more closely). All subsequent quotes from Rota veneris are similarly sourced, unless otherwise noted. Wight (1998c) provides a good Latin text with helpful notes. Rota veneris survives in nine manuscripts, the earliest dating to the end of the thirteenth century. Core (2015) pp. 41-7.

[9] Boncompagno da Sign, Rhetorica antiqua (also known as Boncompagnus) 6.2.22. included in Ch. 8 of the Strasburg incunabulum of Rota veneris, Latin text from Core (2015), English translation (adapted) from Purkart (1975). Preceding this advice is rubricated lead-in text: “Advice to take a woman on account of her abundant riches {Suasio pro muliere propter habundantiam divitiarum}.”

The subsequent quote is similarly from Rhetorica antiqua 6.2.34 and chapter 8 of the Strasburg incunabulum of Rota veneris. It has rubricated lead-in text: “Advice against taking a man on account of his old age {Dissuasio contra virum propter senectutem}.”

The Strasburg incunubulum of Rota veneris is dated 1473-1474.  It has the title Tractatus amoris carnalis subsequitur rota veneris nuncupatus per Boncompagnum editus sociorum annuens precibus {Treatise about Carnal Love, Called the Wheel of Venus, Published by Boncompagno as a Concession to his Colleagues’ Pleas}. Instances are held in the Huntington Library and in the Bayerische StaatsBibliothek. With admirable regard for promoting culture and knowledge for all, the Bayerische StaatsBibliothek has made a digital version of its instance freely available worldwide. Ocaña & Blecua (2005) notes that both pieces of marital advice aren’t in surviving manuscript versions of Rota veneris.

[10] Boncompagno da Signa, Rhetorica antiqua 6.2.14, Latin text and English translation (adapted to follow Latin more closely) from Purkart (1978) p. 328. Cf. Isaiah 4, Song of Solomon 2:7, Luke 1:42. The section heading is: “Advice so that priests and clerks would be received in their manliness {Suasio, ut recipiatur sacerdos vel clericus in virum}.”

[11] Boncompagno da Signa, Rhetorica novissima 9.2.18, Latin text and English translation (adapted to follow Latin more closely) from Purkart (1978) p. 329. Cf. Psalm 23:4, Matthew 25:1-13. This section carries the heading: “How good is transmuted into bad {Quomodo bona transumantur in mala}.” See Wight (1998d) Section 9. Whether the heading is original to Boncompagno isn’t clear. I suspect that it isn’t. Purkart declared of this passage:

he {Boncompagno} managed to discover not only a set of useful and appropriate sexual metaphors, but whole passages in the Scriptures which could be used in his rhetoric of carnal love … Boncompagno did not reserve his horny wit only for ecclesiastics.

Id pp. 339-30. Purkart refers to Boncompagno as turning “Holy Writ into horny wit.” Id. p. 325. Boncompagno’s purpose seems to me more serious in the context of historically entrenched disparagement of men’s sexuality. For a recent example of that symbolic-structural bias with respect to Troilus and Rota veneris, Newman (2014). Boncompagno is best regarded as a forefather of the critical insight that led to ostentatio genitalium.

Guérin reads Rota veneris as a playfully exercise in representation. Guérin (2016). His interpretation takes seriously Boncompagno’s declaration:

I want all and everyone to know that, to me, words have always been more pleasing than deeds, for in such matters it is more glorious to live in hope than in its fulfillment, according to the pronouncement of the most serene Capuan.

{ Unum tamen volo universos et singulos scire quod plus michi semper placuerunt verba quam facta quoniam gloriosius est in talibus vivere in spe quam in re, secundum sententiam serenissime Capuane. }

Rota veneris 15.3. That statement occurs in the context of Boncompagno defending himself against charges of “lasciviousness {lascivia}.” That’s a standard charge against those who appreciate love in the flesh. The Capuan’s pronouncement that “it is more glorious to live in hope than in its fulfillment” is a standard sentiment of courtly love. No source has been located indicating such a pronouncement of the Capuan (Cumaean Sibyl). Parkart (1975) p. 106, n. 98. That reference is probably Boncompagno’s fictitious construction. Just prior to the sentence above, Boncompagno claimed that he wrote Rota veneris “for the sake of courtliness {quam feceram causa urbanitatis}.” Purkart notes, “Unlike Andreas Capellanus, Boncompagno makes it easy for the reader to accept the irony of this statement.” Purkart (1975) p. 106, n. 97. Rota veneris concerns writing letters to achieve love in the flesh. Rota veneris parodies courtly love. Boncompagno’s declaration that “words have always been more pleasing than deeds” is best read as a playful exercise in mis-representation.

Jacques de Vitry issued an exemplum sternly warning about a cleric who had “mixed the language of spiritual love with that of carnal and foul love {verbum spiritualis amoris carnali et immundo amori coaptauerat}.” Purkart (1978) p. 331 for Latin text and English translation. For about two thousand years, the incarnation of Jesus has been contentious and difficult to appreciate fully even among Christians. For related discussion, see my post on ancient Latin Christian hymns, my post on the medieval poem Si linguis angelicis and Huot (1997) Ch. 2.

[12] The Strasburg incunabulum of Rota veneris includes from Boncompagno’s Rhetorica antiqua 1.24.10 a poignant letter from a woman dreaming of her absent lover. She declares, “Sitting like a turtle-dove on a dry branch, I moan incessantly {Sedens more turturis in ramusculo sicco, gemo assidue}.” The letter has the heading “Of a woman who seeks to call back her lover {De muliere que amicum suum revocare intendit}.” Latin text from Core (2015) and Basso (2015), my English translation. Dronke (1965) vol. 1, pp. 251-3 provides an English translation and an interpretation focused on “spiritual love {spiritus amoris}.” Id. vol. 2, p. 483-4 provides an alternate Latin text.

A love-letter inserted into a fifteenth-century manuscript of Rota veneris underscores Boncompagno’s concern for incarnated love. The letter is similar to Boncompagno’s letter “Of a woman who seeks to call back her lover {De muliere que amicum suum revocare intendit}.” In accordance with the gynocentric imperative, the letter elaborates on the importance of masculine sexuality to women:

In your wisdom you should indeed know what is the condition of women and that young women require conjugal intercourse.

{ Per sapientiam namque vestram intelligere deberetis que sit conditio feminarum et quod requirit in iuvenibus copula coniugalis. }

From MS Roma, Biblioteca Angelica, 505, fol. 12v, Latin text from Purkart (1984) p. 50, my English translation. In an associated spurious love letter, the woman’s lover promises her that he will return to her and make up for the time lost in bed with her. Id. p. 53.

[images] (1) Modern ars dictiminis: selected excerpts from temporary restraining order form for the state of California. (2) The Parable of Wise and Foolish Virgins (unfinished). Painting by Peter von Cornelius, made between 1813 and 1816. Preserved as inv. no. M 4011 in the Museum Kunstpalast (Düsseldorf, Germany). Via Wikimedia Commons.


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