Abelard rejected gender injustice in planctus on Dinah and Shechem

massacre of the men of Shechem

As a result of his consensual sexual affair and marriage to Heloise in twelfth-century France, Peter Abelard was castrated. Heloise suffered no punitive violence. She in fact declared herself “wholly innocent” in their affair. The gender injustice of Abelard’s castration seems to have motivated him to provide in his Planctus a critical perspective on what has been wrongly called “the rape of Dinah.”

The biblical story of the massacre of men at Shechem (“the rape of Dinah”) exemplifies deeply rooted gender bias against men. Careful scholarly analysis of the biblical text points to a specific problem:

The widespread opinion that the verb ‘innâ in the Pi’el {story of the massacre at Shechem} refers to “rape” or “sexual abuse” is not acceptable. It suffers from a lack of analysis of all the biblical material and of the distribution of ‘innâ with a female object in the Hebrew Bible. … ‘innâ in Gen. xxxiv 2 does not describe Shechem’s rape or sexual abuse of Dinah, but evaluates Shechem’s previously described actions (“take” and “sleep with”) as a debasement of Dinah from a social-juridical point of view. [1]

Interpreting a man having sex with a virgin woman as debasing her — “deflowering” her — is a social construction that Ausonius trenchantly parodied in the fourth century.  Anti-men bias goes further in the gynocentric tendency to criminalize men’s heterosexuality. Moreover, men’s lives are socially devalued relative to women’s lives. Violence against men is normalized as merely violence and commonly passes without particular notice. That has occurred in the historical reception of the biblical story of the massacre of men at Shechem.

A perceptive philosopher and a highly skilled poet, Peter Abelard wrote an astonishing planctus concerning the massacre of men at Shechem. Abelard entitled it The Lament of Dinah, the Daughter of Jacob {Planctus Dine filie Iacob}. He wrote this poem in the voice of Dinah. That’s a poetic choice consistent with gynocentrism. The poem begins with a conventional lament demonizing the heterosexuality of an unnamed man:

Descendant of Abraham, daughter of Israel,
bright with the blood of the patriarchs:
of an uncircumcised man I was made the plunder,
of an unclean man the prey;
the greatest stain upon a holy race,
mocked as the sport of an enemy people.

{ Abrahe proples, Israel nata,
patriarchum sanguine clara:
incircumcisi uiri rapina,
hominis spurci facta sum preda;
generis sancti macula summa,
plebis aduerse ludis illusa. } [2]

This beginning is thematically similar to women’s incitement of their tribal men to kill men of another tribe (tahrid) in classical Arabic poetry. Yet the concluding Latin phrase ludis illusa emphasizes sport and play. Sports are social constructions typically at considerable distance from mundane reality. The following verse is a jarring refrain:

Woe to wretched me, by myself betrayed!

{ Ve michi misere, per memet prodite! }

Abelard gives Dinah astonishing self-consciousness.[3] Abelard’s Dinah recognizes that femininity was both the reason for Shechem’s desire for her and the basis for the gynocentrism that motivated the massacre of the men at Shechem. Femininity betrays itself in hostility to men’s heterosexuality.

In the subsequent stanza, Abelard’s Dinah underscores her own culpability. She declares:

What did it aid me to behold the foreign women?
How evilly am I known, wanting to know them!
Woe to wretched me, by myself betrayed!

{ Quid alienigenas iuuabat me cornere?
Quam male sum cognita, uolens has cognoscere.
Ve michi misere, per memet prodite! }

Within the tribal societies of the time, the young woman Dinah going by herself to mingle with foreign women would be regarded as outrageously promiscuous behavior. Abelard adds an allusion to female same-sex desire with Dinah wanting to “know” the foreign woman.[4] Planctus Dine filie Iacob doesn’t directly refer to the concluding complaint of Simeon and Levi:

Should our sister be treated like a whore?

{ הכזונה יעשה את־אחותנו } [5]

Abelard’s implicit response within the logic of intention would be that if Dinah acts like a whore, men should treat her like a whore. Men typically don’t want to marry a whore. Within the biblical text, Prince Shechem wanted to marry Dinah. Despite her behavior, he didn’t treat her like a whore in ordinary understanding apart from gynocentric idolization of women. Abelard’s Dinah rejects gynocentric idolization of herself.

Abelard’s Dinah even more daringly expresses sympathy for Shechem in the context of him being persecuted for sexually desiring her. In order for Shechem to be allowed to marry Dinah, Jacob’s sons, speaking on behalf of their father, required Shechem and all the men of his tribe to mutilate their genitals (be circumcised). At the infatuated Shechem’s urging, his men mutilated their genitals. Then, with all the men of Shechem in pain from having mutilated their genitals, Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi attacked the city of Shechem. They killed all the men and took all the women captive. Dinah humanely lamented:

Shechem, born to the ruin of your race,
made an everlasting disgrace for our descendants.
Woe to wretched you, by yourself destroyed!

In vain did circumcision make you a Jewish proselyte,
for you couldn’t remove the foreskin of shame.
Woe to wretched you, by yourself destroyed!

{ Sichem, in exicium nate tui generis,
nostris in obprobrium perpes facte posteris.
Ve tibe misero, per temet perdito!

Frustra circumcisio fecit te proselitum,
non ualens infamie tollere prepucium.
Ve tibi misero, per temet perdito! } [6]

Dinah places in parallel her feminine self and Shechem’s masculine self. His masculine desire for the feminine Dinah was natural. It was something that could be predicted from his birth. Yet gynocentric persecution of men’s heterosexual desire was also a structure at Shechem’s birth. In the clash between men’s natural heterosexual desire and gynocentric persecution of men, the latter disastrously prevailed. Thus Shechem was killed and his tribe ruined. To underscore the disaster, Abelard recast the biblical story to give Dinah and Shechem children (“our descendants”). Their descendants received the social curse of everlasting disgrace.

Dinah lamented that Shechem was persecuted as a man even as he sought to change his social identity. So that he could marry Dinah, Shechem sought to become a Jew. So that he could marry Dinah, Shechem mutilated his own genitals and had the men of his tribe do likewise. A man can remove the foreskin of his penis or cut off his testicles. But he individually is powerless to remove the shame and persecution that gynocentric society imposes on men’s heterosexuality.[7] Woe to wretched men, socially set up to be shamed and destroyed by their own heterosexuality.

Dinah compassionately gives reasons by which Shechem should have been treated with mercy. Genesis’s account of the massacre of men at Shechem describes Shechem’s soul being drawn to Dinah. It declares that he loved her, longed for her, and spoke tenderly to her. Yet Dinah’s thoughts and feelings aren’t reported. Planctus Dine filie Iacob reciprocally doesn’t report Shechem’s feelings.[8] Abelard’s Dinah establishes the formal poetic reciprocity lacking in the Genesis account:

Forced to seize me,
seized by my beauty,
before no judge of any kind
would you have been deprived of mercy

The incitement of love,
satisfaction for the crime:
in any sentence these are
a mitigation of the crime.

{ Coactus me rapere,
mea raptus spetie,
quouis expers uenie
non fuisses iudice.

Amoris impulsio,
culpe satisfactio:
quouis sunt iudicio
culpe diminutio. }

Both of these stanzas have the same semantic structure: two verses of reciprocal action, followed by two verses arguing for mitigation of the wrong. Both stanzas present a juridical framework as if a crime had been committed. The Vulgate was the dominant text of the Bible in medieval Europe. Misrepresenting the Hebrew, the Vulgate declared that Shechem “seized the girl and lay with her by force {rapuit et dormivit cum illa vi opprimens virginem}.” That’s rape. Rape and false accusations of rape were regarded as serious crimes in the ancient and medieval world. Abelard seems to have sensed the falseness of the Vulgate’s representation of what Shechem did with Dinah.[9] Abelard’s Dinah questions gynocentric persecution of a reciprocal heterosexual love affair satisfactorily ending in marriage.

Abelard’s Dinah directly challenges the men who are the penal administrators of gynocentric persecution of men. Like the father Jacob, gynocentrism is an absent authority. The penal administrators are the brothers Simeon and Levi:

You did not think rightly, my brothers Simeon and Levi,
in this deed both too cruel and too dutiful:
in your punishment you make the innocent equal with the guilty,
and truly you dishonor our father, cursed be for this!

A man light-hearted and youthful, less wise,
ought to have borne from the wise lesser punishment.

The wrath of my brothers should have been softened by the honor
he did them: a prince of the land, leading forth a foreign bride.

{ Non sic, fratres, censuistis, Symeon et Leui,
in eodem facto nimis crudeles et pii:
innocentes coequastis in pena nocenti,
quin et patrem perturbastis, ob hoc execrandi!

Leuis etas iuuenilis minusque discreta
ferre minus a discretis debuit in pena.

Ira featrum ex honore fuit lenienda
quem his fecit: princeps terre, ducta peregrina. } [10]

Perhaps Abelard understood that Shechem was innocent of raping Dinah. In any case, the other men of Shechem’s city were innocent of any wrong. Jewish law reveres justice and mercy. Simeon and Levi, brothers of Dinah, sons of Jacob, acted with neither justice nor mercy. They were “too dutiful” to non-Jewish gynocentric imperatives. They thus dishonored their father Jacob and deserved to be cursed.

Abelard’s Planctus Dine filie Iacob ends in despair. Dinah laments:

Woe to me, woe to you, young man to be pitied,
in the general massacre of your great race you fall.

{ Vi michi, ue tibi, miserande iuuenis:
in stragem communem gentis tante concidis. } [11]

Scholars have debated at length whether the post-castration Abelard sought to remasculinize himself rhetorically. Scholars have debated at length whether being castrated served Abelard’s desired identity.[12] Those are narrow, self-interested concerns. The lament of Abelard’s Dinah extends to all of humane civilization. Drawing upon his own horrific experience, Abelard sought to warn all women and men about gynocentric persecution of men’s sexuality. Listen to him!

Simeon and Levi slaughter men of Shechem

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[1] Wolde (2002) pp. 543-4. Similarly, Joseph (2016). The biblical story is Genesis 34. Shechem is also commonly spelled Sechem and Sichem. Dinah similarly is also common spelled Dina. On ancient and medieval interpretations of the massacre of men at Shechem, Thibodeau (1990). On recent interpretations, Musija (2014). Musija refuses to “rule out” that Shechem raped Dinah:

even if it is difficult according to Genesis 34 to conclude that Dinah was really raped, it is quite clear that Shechem has done something to Dinah very evil in the eyes of the narrator. … it seems to me that it is more likely that Shechem, a young man, seduced Dinah, a girl under age and had a sexual relationship with her. Because such act is today considered as something very bad, even culpable, I suppose that it was at least so wrongful at ancient time. That can be the reason why Jacob’s sons were so eager to punish Shechem but not Dinah. … according to the text it is not appropriate to imply so convincingly either that Dinah was raped, or that Dinah was not raped. According to the text it is clear that Shechem has done something very bad to Dinah in the eyes of the narrator. In my opinion, the text speaks about seduction of a girl under age, but rape also remains one of the possibilities.

Musija (2014) pp. 6-7 (internal note omitted). That’s vicious rhetoric. One can’t rule out the possibility that Musija or any other person is a rapist. That’s not a fair basis for suggesting that a person is a rapist, even if another person believes that she has “done something very evil.” The gender injustice of vicious rhetoric is magnified when grotesquely misleading claims about men raping women are disseminated in widely read media, when men are vastly disproportionately represented among persons under criminal justice control, and when incarceration of men is at extraordinarily high levels.

[2] Peter Abeland, Planctus Dine filie Iacob ll. 1-6, Latin text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Ruys (2014) pp. 245-6, 257-8. For illusa, Ruys translated “abused.” Mocked is closer to the Latin root meaning and seems to me more appropriate in context.

Abelard’s Planctus is a quite unusual work in literary history. Ruys (2014) pp. 61-2. All six Planctus that Abelard wrote are preserved in only one manuscript, Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica, Reg. Latin. 288, dated to the late twelfth century. Abelard apparently wrote the Planctus in the mid-1130s. Id. pp. 8, 65.

All subsequent quotes from the Planctus are sourced as above and are, with the exception of one stanza, in the order of the poem’s lines. Paul Zumthor’s Latin text and French translation (1992) of the Planctus is freely available online.

[3] Ruys finds it perplexing that Dinah would declare that she was betrayed by herself. She also finds Abelard’s Dinah to be “strident and unconvincing in terms of a lament in the feminine voice.” Ruys (2014) pp. 82, 71. Sweeney, in contrast, states:

Abelard’s Dinah is far more real than the Dinah of scripture; we are touched by her suffering and edified by the insight borne of that suffering. Her significance is not just as a cog in the wheel of providence or as an allegorical figure embodying some virtue or vice to Abelard; nonetheless, his focus on imagining her concrete individuality, paradoxically, manages to increase her ethical and religious significance rather than the contrary.

Sweeney (2016) p. 110. Thibodeau similarly appreciates the personal depth of Abelard’s Dinah. Abelard depicts her consciousness “with its full depth of reflection and its full range of emotion.” Abelard’s Planctus represents “the searing personal anguish of Dinah in the face of Shechem’s downfall and death”; Abelard’s Dinah displays “very human suffering.” Thibodeau (1990) pp. 241-2. Part of the problem is that scholars today seem unable to fathom medieval women’s loving concern for men.

[4] E.g Genesis 4:1, in the Vulgate, “Adam vero cognovit Havam uxorem suam {And Adam knew his wife Eve}.” Similarly, Genesis 19:8, “habeo duas filias quae necdum cognoverunt virum {I have two daughters who have never known a man}.”

[5] Genesis 34:31. Ruys comments:

This defense clearly recalls what Abelard has described as Fulbert’s justification for commissioning his castration, namely, the belief that Abelard had used and then put aside his niece to the lasting shame of the family. Not surprisingly, in a lament in which Sechem is intended to appear undeserving of his fate, this consideration has to be excised.

Ruys (2014) p. 82. Ruys apparently assumes that Shechem actually did treat Dinah as a whore, and Abelard similarly treated Heloise. I think neither are true. Abelard’s Dinah seems to me to make a compelling critique of the claim that Shechem treated her as a whore.

[6] I’ve inserted “Jewish,” which isn’t in the Latin, in front of “proselyte” for clarity. Ruys has for the subsequent verse, “incapable of removing the foreskin of shame.” Above I’ve rephrased that line to clarifying that being a proselyte isn’t related to being incapable of removing the shame of being falsely charged with raping Dinah.

[7] According to Ruys:

Abelard has Dinah enunciate in the Planctus Dine a doctrinal discussion of the Old Testament covenant of circumcision and its efficacy. Her lament revealed the failure of circumcision as a means of salvation, as she regretted that in Sechem’s case, it proved ineffective in preventing his death

Ruys (214) pp. 85. That seems to me a cramped and wooden reading of Planctus Dine filie Iacob. Woe to wretched men, so badly understood.

[8] Ruys argues that Abelard elides Shechem’s love for Dinah because “mutual love plays no part in the lament that Abelard’s Dinah speaks.” Ruys (2014) p. 81. Abelard’s Planctus seems to me best understood as an addition to the biblical account. Its reciprocity works as part of an over-all poetic form that includes Genesis 34 and Abelard’s Planctus.

[9] Abelard may have known Hebrew or had access to teaching from a learned Jew. Thibodeau (1990) pp. 245-7. Abelard thus may have had access to a more accurate translation of Genesis 34 than the Vulgate provides. From another perspective, Abelard might have meant the juridical framework in Dinah’s exoneration of Shechem to be interpreted ironically. That’s more plausible than Abelard using irony in the ending of his Planctus Israel super Sanson. Cf. Dronke (1970) pp. 137-45.

[10] In the first line quoted above, for sic Ruys translated “so.” I’ve changed that to “rightly.” The latter word brings in a broader interpretative context that’s helpful for understanding the line.

For the second stanza quoted above, Ruys translates:

An age light and youthful, less wise,
ought to have borne less punishment from the wise.

“Leuis etas iuuenilis” seems to me not an abstract reference to “an age,” but a specific reference to “a man” (Shechem). The Latin lines end in “wise” and “punishment.” I think that’s a significant poetic structure. I’ve preserved it above.

[11] Ruys translation has “youth to be pitied.” The Latin text more specifically refers to one young man (Shechem). Thus above I’ve used “young man.” Ruys’ translates strages as “slaughter.” Animals are slaughtered for their meat. I’ve used the word “massacre” to emphasize that men are human beings.

Dronke perceptively interpreted Planctus Dine filie Iacob, but didn’t quite go far enough:

The almost identical refrain, sung first for herself {Dinah} and then for him {Shechem}, reinforces the bond between them. Through this she reveals to herself her true feelings for him, feelings that begin in pity but reach out into love. They express themselves first in anger: his fate is unjust — the fault was small, the punishment far too great. Her own brothers are hateful, their righteousness having been only a pretext for their base cruelty. Then her thoughts move to love: if a true impulse of love was there, as she knows it was, can even the violation of a young girl be judged a grievous fault? Her brothers talked of family honour — was it not an honour too that he, a prince, should have wanted her so much as not only to possess her but to ask his kindred’s leave “to marry an alien”? Suddenly, with this thought, her love and admiration for him blossom so much that her final words extend this love and admiration to his whole people (gens tanta), to those whom her family had taught her to regard as “the enemy race” (plebs adversa).

Dronke (1970) pp. 114-5. Shechem’s “whole people” and “the enemy race” are Abelard’s astonishingly insightful metaphors for men as gynocentrism represents men to women.

[12] Irvine (1997) argues that Abelard “engaged in a project of remasculinization” for himself. Wheeler (1997), reversing her claims about remasculinization, argues that despite being punitively castrated, Abelard remained as oppressive as men have always been. Abelard was no vicious, jealous eunuch of the sort so prevalent under castration culture. Abelard sought to overturn castration culture for the benefit of all women and men. In her analysis, Ruys concludes that Planctus Dine reflects the voice of Abelard, “a man with particular axes to grind and some things he would rather hide.” Ruys (2014) p. 83. In reality, much scholarly study of Abelard in recent decades has borne axes to grind and things to hide.

Ferroul (1997) rightly points out the castration of Abelard probably meant excising only his testicles. If Abelard’s penis had also been cut off, he probably would have died from complications associated with urination and infection. Men who have their testicles excised in adulthood remain capable of engaging in erection labor. Moreover, in having sex of reproductive type, such men don’t risk contributing to a pregnancy. Ferroul goes on to argue:

His blissful castration enabled Abelard to become what he really wanted to be: a paragon of a Christian and the greatest of philosophers

Ferroul (1997) p. 144. That’s absurd. Like other forms of male genital mutilation, castration hurts men. Some men who aren’t castrated become malicious gynocentric apparachiki. Despite his castration, Abelard was no despicable eunuch. Even as a castrated man, he was an admirable Christian, a great philosopher, and an under-appreciated advocate for gender justice.

Irvine (1997), Wheeler (1997), and Ferroul (1997) were all published in a book entitled Becoming Male in the Middle Ages. That book and its contents should be understood with respect to a peculiar social construction of scholarly merit in the humanities. Willful ignorance of biology and non-empirical beliefs about the population evolution of reproducing organisms contribute to prestige within that peculiar social construction of scholarly merit. Of course, men who act like eunuchs can choose to act like men in their middle ages or even as old men.

[images] (1) The massacre of the men of Shechem. Copper engraving (excerpt) made by Caspar Luyken in the Netherlands about 1700, perhaps for his Historiae celebriores Veteris Testamenti Iconibus representatae. Preserved in Phillip Medhurst Picture Torah 172, via Wikimedia Commons. (2) The massacre of the men of Shechem. Image in book by Flavius Josephus, published in 1704. Via Pitts Theology Library. (3) The massacre of the men of Shechem. Image in book by Nicolas Fontaine, L’histoire dv Vieux et dv Nouveau Testament : representée avec des figvres & des explications édifiantes, tirées des SS. PP. pour regler les moeurs dans toute sorte de conditions, published in Paris in 1670. Via Pitts Theology Library.


Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, and Bonnie Wheeler, eds. 1997. Becoming Male in the Middle Ages. New York: Garland Publishing.

Dronke, Peter. 1970. Poetic Individuality in the Middle Ages: New departures in poetry 1000-1150. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Ferroul, Yves. 1997. “Abelard’s Blissful Castration.” Pp. 129-150 in Cohen & Wheeler (1997).

Irvine, Martin. 1997. “Abelard and (Re)Writing the Male Body: Castration, Identity, and Remasculinization.” Pp. 87-106 in Cohen & Wheeler (1997).

Joseph, Alison L. 2016. “Understanding Genesis 34:2: ‘Innâ.” Vetus Testamentum. 66 (4): 663-668.

Musija, Zlatko. 2014. “The Function and Meaning of Genesis 34 — The Story of Dinah in its Context.” In Bruinsma, Reinder, ed. Faith in search of depth and relevancy: festschrift in honour of Dr Bertil Wiklander. St. Albans, UK: Trans-European Division of Seventh-day Adventists.

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.

Sweeney, Eileen. 2016. “Abelard’s Christian Socratism.” Pp. 101-121 in Bequette, John P., ed. A Companion to Medieval Christian Humanism: essays on principal thinkers. Leiden: Brill.

Thibodeau, Lucille Claire. 1990. The relation of Peter Abelard’s Planctus Dinae to biblical sources and exegetic tradition: a historical and textual study. Ph.D. Thesis. Harvard University.

Wheeler, Bonnie. 1997. “Origenary Fantasies: Abelard’s Castration and Confession.” Pp. 107-128 in Cohen & Wheeler (1997).

Wolde, Ellen van. 2002. “Does innâ denote rape?: a semantic analysis of a controversial word.” Vetus Testamentum. 52 (4): 528-544.

Simeon and Levi slaughter men of Shechem

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