wife calling husband home in the shadow of Corpus Juris Civilis

Tree of Affinity in Gratian's Decretum

Scholars in twelfth-century Bologna recovered for western Europe the Corpus Juris Civilis. That’s the body of Roman law systematically compiled under the sixth-century Roman Emperor Justinian. Study of the Corpus Juris Civilis in medieval Bologna established the field of jurisprudence — “the practical science of giving wise interpretation to the laws and making a just application of them to all cases.”[1] In the shadow of Corpus Juris Civilis and jurisprudence was medieval love literature addressing the problem of a wife with a long-absent husband.  Working at the heart of Roman law’s revival at the University of Bologna early in the thirteenth century, the brilliantly transgressive scholar Boncompagno recognized that law and jurisprudence are a poor substitute for heartfelt love.

Marriage has long been a matter of legal concern. Marriage under Roman law was an extensively elaborated contractual arrangement that required the consent of both parties. Roman marital law informed the medieval Christian doctrine of marriage as a conjugal partnership of equals requiring consent for validity. Roman family law had considerably less anti-men bias than modern family law. Yet men in ancient Rome with good reason were reluctant to marry. Even before Christians proclaimed that Jesus enacted the law of God’s love written on human hearts, perceptive persons surely recognized that law affects love.[2]

medieval law in action

In Bologna, Boncompagno set out model cases of women with absent husbands. Among a series of hypotheticals he proposed:

Suppose that another woman has a husband or lover who has gone off into a remote region and isn’t concerned to return.

{ Pone quod aliqua virum vel amicum habeat qui abiit in regionem longinquam nec reverti procurat } [3]

A wife might take legal action against a husband who failed to return to her. Boncompagno, however, offered a more excellent way. He set out a model love-letter for the wife to send to her husband to call him back to her:

Waiting, I have awaited my desire, the other half of my body, the light of my eyes, my first joy and lover. And now, after five years, I still remain alone, believing that with my corporal eyes I would see him without whom I see nothing nor would be able to see, unless by his presence he brought clear light to me. The dove returned to Noah through the window, bearing a branch of green olive as a token of gladness. I pray that my dearest one return, that he give life to her who, because of him, dies and yet is unable to die. If he doesn’t return I shall be like a turtle-dove who has lost her husband. In her fashion I have always loved and exceedingly desire to love. For she, having lost her mate, doesn’t sit upon a verdant branch. She sits upon a dry one and constantly laments with piteous voice. She disturbs the clear water when she desires to drink and expects no consolation but death. Thus shall I live and thus shall I die if I am unable to possess your ardently desired presence.

{ Expectans expectavi desiderium meum, alteram mei corporis partem, oculorum meorum lumen, primum dilectum et amicum; et iam lapso quinquennio, solivaga permansi credens illum videre corporeis oculis sine quo nichil video nec videre potero, nisi michi sue presentie contulerit claritatem. Rediit ad Noe columba per fenestram, ramum virentis olive in signum letitie reportans. Revertatur, queso, dilectissimus meus ut illam faciat vivere que pro illo moritur nec mori potest; alioquin faciam sicut turtur que suum perdit maritum, ad instar cuius amavi semper et amare peropto. Illa quidem postea non sedet in ramo viridi, sed gemit in sicco voce flebili iugiter et aquam claram turbat cum appetit bibere, nullumque nisi mortis prestolatur solatium. Sic ego vivam sicque moriar, si vestra desiderabili non potero presentia potiri. }

What husband wouldn’t be moved by such a letter from his wife? Such a wife offers a husband much more than merely getting him a beer while he is watching college basketball on television. This model love-letter apparently drew upon Aristophanes’s description of wholeness in love in Plato’s Symposium and allegorical understanding of light and seeing in Plato’s Republic and his Phaedrus.[4] The model love-letter may have drawn upon well-developed Arabic love literature coming into Europe through southern Italy or Iberia. In any case, the love-letter is a model of passionate learning.

In ancient and medieval times, women delighted in having sex with men. Another of Boncompagno’s model letters for a woman to call back her lover draws upon the image of the mourning turtle-dove, but it also asserts the power of the woman’s imagination:

Sitting on a dry branch branch like a turtle-dove, I mourn incessantly, troubling the water I drink with my tears. Talking to myself in a tearful voice, I draw grievous sighs, for I know not where he is, he whom my soul loves, or rather he whose body is joined to my soul. Surely it is he who holds the keys to my life, he without whom I think life to be death. And when he is away I do not exist, yet as long as I exist he cannot be away, for I have caught him through my will and ineffable longing and keep him secretly locked in my memory.

{ Sedens more turturis in ramusculo sicco gemo assidue turbans potum cum bibo et mecum voce flebili colloquens traho suspiria dolorosa, quia scire non possum ubi sit quem diligit anima mea, jmmo illum cuius corpori anima est unita. Ille nimirum est qui tenet vite mee claves sine quo vivere mori esse puto, quia spiritus est amoris qui praecordia mea vivificando regirat et cum deest non sum et donec sum deesse non potest, quia per voluntatem et ineffabile desiderium illum apprehendi et in memoriali meo secretius teneo circumclusum } [5]

The woman goes on to imagine appreciatively and humanely her lover’s masculine sexual gifts:

As some specific cure, I press him like a bundle of myrrh between my breasts, with arms of most desiring love. … Whenever I lie in deep sleep, he enters through the door of my bedroom, puts his left hand under my head, and his right hand delightfully touches my riding-place and bosom, and with pressing lips he sweetly kisses me. He carries me off in his arms into a blossoming orchard in which rivulets gently flow. In this same garden nightingales and various kinds of birds sing sweet melodies, and all kinds of perfumes fill the air. And there, with embraces and our favorite conversations, we enjoy one another for a long time in this utterly desirable paradise.

{  ipsum velut mirre fasciculum sub quodam speciali remedio inter ubera mea brachiis peroptabilis dilectionis astringo. … quia semper cum sopori sum dedita, intrat per hostia thalami, ponit levam sub capite meo, dextra suavius tangit renes et pectus et comprensis labellis me dulcius osculatur. Transfert me super ulnas in pomerium florigerum in quo suavis est rivulorum decursus et in eodem philomene ac diversa genera volucrum dulciter modulantur. Sunt ibidem omnia genera coloramentorum sicque amplexibus et colloquiis peroptatis diutius ad invicem fruimur in tam desiderabili Paradiso. }

Men delight in pleasing women. Men appreciate appreciation for their masculine sexual labor. That’s fundamental masculine nature. But there’s more to this letter than a woman displaying her delightful memories of her absent lover. With this letter she seeks to call her lover back to her. She subtly does that by reminding him of his sexual experience with her, which was probably as delightful for him as it was for her. She then rhetorically challenges him:

This ineffable joy visits me every time I sleep. Why then should I want to call him back, since he does not cease visiting me in so delectable a manner, particularly since I know that without me he cannot live or die?

{ Et istud inenarrabile michi gaudium in omni sopore occurrit; cur ergo illum revocare optarem ex quo tam desiderabiliter non desinit visitare, praesertim cum sciam quod sine me vivere non poterit neque mori. }

She asserts her value to him (“without me he cannot live or die”), yet declares that he can do no more for her. A self-confident, masculine man would thrill to the challenge of doing more indeed for her in bed. He would return home.

Scholars studying the Corpus Juris Civilis and developing jurisprudence of marital law overshadowed love literature in medieval Bologna. Consider Boncompagno’s model letter “From a beautiful wife who is calling back her husband, who is sweating at literary studies {De uxore formosa que revocat maritum litterarum studio insudantem}.”[6] The description of the wife as “beautiful” and the husband as “sweating at literary studies” together ironically suggest that the husband’s study concerns love literature or Arthurian romance. The wife, in contrast, has been observing the study of jurisprudence prominent in early-thirteenth-century Bologna. Her attention to law will dominate his interest in literature, but not to the benefit of love.

In the letter of the beautiful wife calling back her husband from his study of literature, fault-finding, belittling, and legal threats replace expressing love. Her letter is short and vicious:

For more than two years you have lingered at the university, flagrantly breaking the promise you made. You seem not to remember that I am a woman and young. Every day I begin lamenting that neither rain nor dew descends upon my farm-land, and if only your finger doesn’t care for its wedding ring, I wish that it would dry up! Since you have neglected to return without delay, I know you must be reading in another’s Codex. I intend to study a little in the Digest.

{ Ultra biennium promissionis federe penitus violato fecisti moram in scolis, nec quod sim femina et iuvenis recordaris. Unde cotidie ingemisco quoniam super meum agrum ros vel pluvia non descendit, sed utinam arescat digitus qui potiri coniugali annulo non procurat. Sed scio quod legis in Codice alieno, unde si mora postposita non redieris, studere disposui aliquantulum in Digesto. }

Prior to recent decades, young women were thought to benefit from having sex with men. Rain and dew are associated with fertility and germination. Ovid’s Amores 2.15 closely associated a finger and ring with heterosexual intercourse. This letter’s reference to the husband’s finger drying up emphasizes the finger’s metaphorical function. The wife is threatening to curse her husband with the epic disaster of men’s impotence. These literary allusions would have been obvious to medieval readers. “Codex,” in contrast, functions in a rather unusual metaphor. In ancient and medieval literature, references to a young woman’s vagina typically praise that organ as having the beauty of a rose. Codex here apparently figures a woman’s vagina as having an external linear structure similar to the pages of a book. The wife is insinuating that her husband is sticking his nose into another woman’s vagina. Her response is to study her legal recourse according to the writing of Roman jurists compiled in the Digest of the Corpus Juris Civilis.[7] That was an unloving development that accompanied pioneering medieval study of the Corpus Juris Civilis in Bologna.

Family law today is a mockery of any reasonable standard of jurisprudence. Unfortunately, the failure that developed from the new study of Roman law in medieval Bologna goes further than bad law. Bad law tends to drive out good love. In early-thirteenth-century Bologna, Boncompagno wrote letters for women to call back their lovers with beautiful and moving expressions of love. An alternative that Boncompagno himself recognized is for the wife to threaten her husband with legal action under marital law, i.e. divorce. Within circumstances of oppressive gynocentrism and rape-culture culture, expressing love for men is scarcely conceivable today as a feasible solution to serious problems.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Definition from Bouvier’s Law Dictionary, quoted in Pennington (2007) p. 44. The standard account of Roman law’s rebirth in medieval Bologna credits the eleventh-century scholar Pepo, followed by Irnerius, and then the “Four Doctors of Bologna”: Bulgarus, Martinus, Hugo, and Jacobus. On that account, which is based largely on the commentaries of thirteenth-century jurist Odofredus Denari, Pennington (2017). On the development of Roman law and its reception in medieval Europe, Atzeri (2017), Donahue (2018), Mather (2002) and McSweeney & Spike (2015). For a accessible guide to the Corpus Juris Civilis, Dingledy (2016). The great twelfth-century canonist Gratian, author of the Decretum, was also from Bologna.

American law schools today have astonishingly low intellectual standards. Study of law at the medieval University of Bologna shows that development of human reason is possible:

The medieval revival of ancient Roman law led to a vast improvement in the legal systems of Western Europe. What had been rather primitive bodies of law were transformed into modern and comprehensive systems, enlightened in their moral foundations and sophisticated in their practical details. In large part, this transformation was due to the skill with which medieval lawyers made careful and critical studies of ideas borrowed from legal history, comparative law, and philosophy. This skill was achieved by means of the curricular structure and teaching methods of the medieval law schools.

Mather (2002) p. 361.

[2] Jeremiah 31:31-34, Hebrews 8:8-13, 2 Corinthians 3:1-3.

[3] Boncompagno da Signa, Rota veneris {Wheel of Venus} 10.1, Latin text from Core (2015) p. 33, English translation from Purkart (1975) p. 84 (adapted to follow the Latin more closely). For a historical study of love letters as a literary genre, Navarro Gala (2012).

The subsequent quote from the corresponding letter in Rota veneris is sourced similarly. Purkart, following Baethgen’s Latin text, notes echoes in that letter of the Vulgate text for Psalms 40:1 and 38:11 in the modern Psalms numbering. On Noah and the dove, Genesis 10:11.

[4] The love-letter naturally doesn’t include allusions to the marriage and death of Socrates.

[5] Boncompagno da Signa, Rhetorica antiqua 1.24.10, “Of a woman who seeks to call back her lover {De muliere que amicum suum revocare intendit}” (also included in the Strassburg incunabulum of Boncompagno’s Rota veneris), Latin text from Core (2015) p. 61 (see also Basso (2015) pp. 178-9), English translation from Purkart (1975) pp. 89-90 (adapted slightly). The subsequent two quotes are from this letter and are similarly sourced. Dronke (1965) vol. 1, pp. 251-3 provides an alternate English translation, and id. vol. 2, p. 483-4, an alternate Latin text.

In twelfth-century France, Peter Abelard lovingly warned his son Astralabe against being absent at night from a wife:

If your wife doesn’t sleep with you, she will be downcast

{ Si non dormierit tecum, tristabitur uxor }

Carmen ad Astralabium 191, Latin text and English trans. from Ruys (2014).

In the subsequent quote, the Latin text sub quodam speciali remedio is contentious with respect to speciali. Dronke, transcribing MS Paris. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Lat. 8654. fol. 22r, has sub quodam spei remedio. Dronke (1965) vol. 2, p. 484. Basso, transcribing MS München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cod. lat. Mon. 23499, has sub quodam speciali remedio, and notes that MS Bibl. Apost. Vaticana, Arch. Cap. S. Pietro H 13 and MS Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Lat. 7732 have spei rather than speciali. Basso (2015) p. 179. Core has speciei with no textual note. Core (2015) p. 61. Purkart, translating the Strassburg incunabulum, reads spei. Purkart (1975) p. 89. I judge Basso to be the most authoritative, and thus follow her Latin text and provide the corresponding English translation.

[6] Boncompagno da Signa, Rhetorica antiqua 1.24.4, Latin text from Basso (2015) p. 175, my English translation, benefiting from that of Dronke (1965) vol. 2, p. 483, which also supplies an alternate Latin text. The meaning of literary studies can be more clearly understood in the previous letter, Rhetorica antiqua 1.24.3, which mockingly refers to Arthurian romance. Boncompagno read his Rhetorica antiqua publicly in Bologna in 1215.

[7] Navarro Gala interprets the wife to be threatening her husband with adultery. Navarro Gala (2012) p. 175. That interpretation doesn’t recognize the enormously important development of legal scholarship in twelfth-century Bologna.

[images] (1) Tree of Affinity (marriage). Illumination (excerpt) for Gratian’s Decretum, according to Bartholomew of Brescia, Glossa ordinaria, made in France or England, 1300-1310. From University of Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 262, fol. 71v. Until the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, medieval law forbid marriage within seven degrees of consanguinity (relationship by blood) and affinity (relationship by marriage). (2) Cardinal acting as judge in administering medieval law. From Novella in Decretales, illumination by Nicolò di Giacomo di Nascimbene, made in Bologna about 1355 to 1365. From University of Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 331, fol. 1r.


Atzeri, Lorena. 2017. “Roman Law and Reception.” In European History Online (EGO), published by the Leibniz Institute of European History (IEG), Mainz 2017-11-20.

Basso, Martina. 2015. Il 1 Libro del Boncompagnus di Boncompagno da Signa: Edizione Critica e Glossario. Ph.D. Thesis. Università degli Studi di Padova (Italy).

Core, Luca. 2015. La Rota Veneris di Boncompagno da Signa. Edizione critica. Ph.D. Thesis. Università degli Studi di Padova (Italy).

Dingledy, Frederick W. 2016. “The Corpus Juris Civilis: A guide to its history and use.” Legal Reference Services Quarterly. 35 (4): 231-255.

Donahue, Charles Jr. 2018. Legal History: Continental Legal History. Lecture and Class Outlines and Assignment Links. Harvard Law School, Course 2165, and Harvard University, Medieval Studies 119. Spring, 2018.

Dronke, Peter. 1965. Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Mather, Henry. 2002. “The Medieval Revival of Roman Law: Implications for Contemporary Legal Education.” The Catholic Lawyer. 41 (4): 323- 362.

McSweeney, Thomas J. and Michèle K. Spike. 2015. “The Significance of the Corpus Juris Civilis: Matilda of Canossa and the Revival of Roman Law.” Pp. 20-29 in Spike, Michèle K, ed. Matilda of Canossa & the origins of the Renaissance: an exhibition in honor of the 900th anniversary of her death. Williamsburg, VA: Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary.

Navarro Gala, M. Josefa. 2012. Retórica de la carta amatoria: de los orígenes a su manifestación en la prosa sentimental del siglo xv. ADDI (Universidad del Pais Vasco/Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea, Spain).

Pennington, Kenneth. 2007. ‘The “Big Bang”: Roman Law in the Early Twelfth-Century.’ Rivista Internazionale di Diritto Comune. 18: 43-70. (typescript version)

Pennington, Kenneth. 2017. “Odofredus and Irnerius.” Rivista Internazionale di Diritto Comune. 28: 11-27.

Purkart, Josef. 1975. Rota veneris: facsimile reproduction of the Strasburg incunabulum. With English translation and notes. Delmar, N.Y.: Schola’s Facs. & Reprint.

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.

2 thoughts on “wife calling husband home in the shadow of Corpus Juris Civilis”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current month ye@r day *