hateful castration culture: castrated Abelard disparaged & demeaned

castration of Saturn

Today, castration culture tends to treat men made into eunuchs as honorary women. Even if those men don’t have all the legal privileges that women have, they don’t bear the stigma of acting masculine. What man wouldn’t sit with his legs tightly crossed and his testicles brutally squeezed to avoid the crime of manspreading? The testicular harm is better than a man adding himself to the massive number of men incarcerated.[1] Castration culture was less finely honed and wielded in medieval Europe. In fact, Peter Abelard in twelfth-century France was disparaged and demeaned even as a castrated man.

Before he was castrated, Peter Abelard reportedly had strong, independent sexuality that challenged the historical repression of men’s sexuality. Fulk, a monk heading a monastic community at Deuil, near Paris, stated that Abelard allowed single women and whores to exploit him:

with regard to what was, as they say, your downfall, namely the love of single women, and the traps of their lust, with which they capture their whore-hounds, it seems better for me to remain silent rather than to say something not in keeping with our order or the rule of our religious life. … How much this small part of your body, which you have lost by the judgment and favor of omnipotent God, had injured you and did not cease injuring you as long as it remained, the diminution of your wealth teaches better than my words can show. In truth, whatever you were able to acquire by teaching in selling your knowledge, with the exception of food and what was needed for necessities, you did not cease to sink (as I have learned by report) into the maw of consuming fornication. The avaricious rapacity of whores took everything from you. No age has ever heard of a whore who wished to take pity on another or who spared available property of men seeking sex with them.

{ quod sic te, ut aiunt, pracipitem dedit, singularum scilicet feminarum amorem, et laqueos libidinis earum, quibus suos capiunt scortatores, melius mihi videor praeterire, quam aliquid dicere quod ordini nostro et regulae nostrae religionis non concordet. … Haec corporis particula, quam omnipotentis Dei judicio, et beneficio perdidisti, quantum tibi nocuerat, ac nocere, quandiu permansit, non desistebat, melius tuarum diminutio rerum, quam mea possit monstrare oratio, docet. Quidquid vere scientiae tuae venditione perorando praeter quotidianum victum et usum necessarium, sicut relatione didici, acquirere poteras in voraginem fornicariae consumptionis domergere non cessabas. Avara meretricum rapacitas cuncta tibi rapuerat. Nulla audierunt saecula meretricem velle alteri misereri, vel pepercisse rebus appetitorum, quas quoquo modo auferre potuerant. } [2]

Just as many thought leaders advise men today, Fulk told Abelard that he was better off castrated:

You should also consider it a great advantage that, no longer a suspect person, you may be received with the utmost safety as a guest by every host. The husband shall not fear from you his wife’s violation or the shattering of his marriage bed. With the utmost decency you shall you pass through the ranks of matrons without any violations. The choirs of virgins radiant in the flower of their youth – they who can usually kindle even old men to the heat of lust with their motions (even though old men are already deprived of the heat of the flesh) – you shall gaze upon safely and sinless, since you do not fear their walk and their traps. … And after the fluctuations of this most fragile fragility of men’s sexuality, the great gift of God in this situation to my mind is that just as you shall certainly not feel the nocturnal illusions of erotic dreams, so it is certain that, even if the will should be there, no effect will follow. A wife’s soft words and the touch of bodies, without which one cannot serve a wife, and the extraordinary care of children (by which you are less pleasing to God) – none of these shall hold you back. How great a good do you think it is that you have been removed from the dangers of sinning and settled in the safety of not sinning? Now you shall proudly be able to avoid the lion-like ferocity that whores show to those coming to them for the first time, the trickery of their snake-like deception, and the incontinence of their captivating luxury. You will know what I am talking about from experience better than I am able to explain in words.

{ Hoc quoque magni existimare debes, quod nulli suspectus, ab omni hospite hospes tutissime recipiaris. Maritus uxoris violationem ex te, vel lectuli concussionem minime formidabit. Decentissime ornatarum turmas matronarum inviolabiliter pertransibis. Virginum choros flore juventutis splendentium, quae etiam senes jam calore carnis destitutos suis motibus in fervorem libidinis inflammare consueverunt, non timens earum incessus et laqueos, securus et sine peccato miraberis. … Et omnino post hos hujus fragilissimae fragilitatis fluxus, quod magnum Dei gratiae munus in hoc ordine aestimo, nocturnas somniorum illusiones te minime sentire ita certum est, sicut certum est quoniam voluntatem, si forte aderit, nullus sequetur effectus. Blanditiae uxoris corporumque contactus, sine quo uxor haberi non potest, ac liberorum cura singularis, quominus Deo placeas minime retardabunt. Quam magnum aestimas bonum, peccandi periculis te subtrahi, et in non peccandi securitate constitui? Leoninam itaque meretricum ferociam, quam primum ad se introeuntibus ostendunt, serpentinae deceptionis astutiam, captivae earum luxuriae incontinentiam poteris vitare superbus. Quod loquor melius de reliquo rerum experientia es cogniturus, quam verbis valeam explicare. }

According to Fulk’s taunting words, the castrated Abelard could now avoid a first-time encounter with whores, the circumstances of which Abelard already knew from experience. Fulk offered to Abelard as instructive examples men who “rejoice in lacking genitals {gaudent genitalibus caruisse}.” What’s sorely lacking in Fulk’s letter is the heart-felt compassion and pity truly owed to a castrated man.

Abelard’s former teacher Roscelin of Compeigne treated him even worse. Growing beyond his teacher Roscelin, Abelard became a teacher who taught his students not just grammar, rhetoric, logic, philosophy, theology, and dialectics, but also love — the most important subject. Roscelin viciously disparaged Abelard for helping Heloise learn about love:

Not sparing the virgin entrusted to you whom you should have protected as entrusted to you and taught as a disciple, you were whipped up by a spirit of unrestrained debauchery and taught her not to argue, but to fornicate.

{ commissae tibi virgini non parcens, quam conservare ut commissam, docere ut discipulam debueras, effreno luxuriae spiritu agitatus non argumentaris, sed eam fornicari docuisti } [3]

Who enjoys arguing? Sexual love warms human lives. Without it, humanity would have long ago ceased to exist. Nothing is more important to teach than love. Anticipating modern, comprehensive criminalization of men seducing women, Roscelin found Abelard guilty of many crimes for having consensual sex with Heloise. Roscelin declared castration divine justice for Abelard’s crimes:

In one deed you are guilty of many crimes, namely of betrayal and fornication. You are a most foul destroyer of virginal modesty. But the God of vengeance, the Lord God of vengeance, has acted freely. He has deprived you of that part by which you have sinned.

{ in uno facto multorum criminum, proditionis scilicet et fornicationis reus, et virginei pudoris violator spurcissimus. Sed Deus ultionum, Dominus Deus ultionum, libere egit, qui ea qua tantum parte peccaveras te privavit. }

Today major media mendaciously report that nearly a quarter of men have raped women. God is not so fraudulent. The God of vengeance that Roscelin invokes is an incomplete representation of God. That God is also just and merciful. Gynocentric ideology in action, not God, castrated Abelard.[4]

Roscelin disparaged Abelard with the sort of pseudo-sophistication and sarcasm now prevalent in elite discourse. Writing before laws prohibited referring to a person by the wrong name or wrong-gender pronoun, Roscelin challenged Abelard identifying himself as Peter:

I’m unable to find a name by which I can consider you. Yet, to be sure, you are lying that you can be called ‘Peter’ from conventional usage. I’m certain that a noun of masculine gender, if it falls away from its own gender, will refuse to signify its usual thing. For proper nouns usually lose their significance when the things signified fall back from their own completion. A house is not called a house but an incomplete house when its walls and roof are removed. Therefore since the part that makes a man has been removed, you are to be called not ‘Peter’ but ‘incomplete Peter.’ It suits this heap of incomplete human disgrace that in the seal by which he seals his stinking letters he himself forms an image having two heads, one a man and the other a woman. This being the case, and he does not blush to honor her in such a conjunction of heads, who can doubt how much he still burns with love for her? I have decided to say many true and obvious things against your attack, but since I am writing against an incomplete man, I will leave the letter I began incomplete.

{ quo nomine te censeam, reperire non valeo. Sed forte Petrum te appellari posse ex consuetudine mentieris. Certus sum autem, quod masculini generis nomen, si a suo genere deciderit, rem solitam significare recusabit. Solent enim nomina propria significationem amittere, cum eorum significata contigerit a sua perfectione recedere. Neque enim ablato tecto vel pariete domus, sed imperfecta domus vocabitur. Sublata igitur parte, quae hominem facit, non Petrus, sed imperfectus Petrus appellandus es. Ad huius imperfecti hominis ignominiae cumulum vero pertinet, quod in sigillo, quo foetidas illas litteras sigillavit, imaginem duo capita habentem, unum viri, alterum mulieris, ipse formavit. Unde quis dubitet, quanto adhuc in eam ardeat amore qui tali eam capitum coniunctione non erubuit honorare? Plura quidem in tuam contumeliam vera ac manifesta dictare decreveram, sed quia contra hominem imperfectum ago, opus quod coeperam imperfectum relinquo. } [5]

As Roscelin suggested, Abelard’s seal probably indicated his continuing, burning love for Heloise:

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
As a seal upon your arm;
For love is as strong as death,
passion as fierce as the grave;
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
A raging flame. [6]

{ שימני כחותם על־לבך כחותם על־זרועך כי־עזה כמות
אהבה קשה כשאול קנאה רשפיה רשפי אש שלהבתיה }

After he was brutally castrated, Peter Abelard continued to identify as a man. He also continued to love Heloise. Peter wasn’t an “incomplete man.” He was a man whom hateful gynocentric ideology had horribly wounded. Many men today are similarly wounded. These men deserve respect, compassion, and justice.

In France late in the thirteenth century, the brilliant Jean de Meun in Le Roman de la Rose {The Romance of the Rose} had a figure appropriately called Genius explain the terrible harm of castration. Genius spoke with justified moral outrage that extends to broader concerns of men’s sexed protest and gender injustices:

But certainly, if we tell the truth, anyone who castrates a worthy man does him a very great shame and injury. Even though I may say nothing about his great shame and discomfort, anyone who takes away a man’s testicles robs him at least, without a doubt, of the love of his sweetheart, no matter how closely she was bound to him. Or if he is married, as he might be, his affairs will go so badly that he will lose the love of his loyal wife, no matter how good-natured she was. It is a great sin to castrate a man. Anyone who castrates a man robs him not just of his testicles, and his sweetheart whom he holds very dear and whose fair face he will never see, and his wife. These are the least he loses. He robs him especially of the boldness in human ways, the boldness that should exist in valiant men. We are certain that castrated men are perverse and malicious cowards because they have the ways of women. Certainly no eunuch has any bravery whatsoever in him, unless perhaps in doing some vice, something very malicious. All women are very bold at doing deeds of great devilishness. Eunuchs resemble them in this respect. In particular, the castrator, even though he may not be a murderer or a thief or have committed any mortal sin, at least he has sinned to the extent of doing Nature a great wrong in stealing the means of procreating. No one, no matter how well he has thought about it, could excuse him for it. At least I couldn’t, for if I think about it and tell the truth, I could wear out my tongue before I could excuse the castrator for such a sin, such a wrong as he has committed toward Nature.

{ Mes certes, qui le voir an conte,
mout fet a prodome grant honte
et grant domage qui l’escoille;
car qui des coillons le despoille,
ja soit ce neïs que je tese
sa grant honte et sa grant mesese,
au mains, de ce ne dout je mie,
li tost il l’amour de s’amie,
ja si bien n’iert a lui lïez ;
ou s’il est, espoir, marïez,
puis que si mal va ses afferes,
pert il, ja tant n’iert deboneres,
l’amour de sa leal moillier.
Granz pechiez est d’ome escoillier.
Anseurquetout cil qui l’escoille
ne li tost pas, san plus, la coille
ne s’amie que tant a chiere,
don ja mes n’avra bele chiere,
ne sa moillier, car c’est du mains,
mes hardemant et meurs humains
qui doivent estre en vaillanz homes;
car escoillié, certain an somes,
sunt couart, pervers et chenins,
por ce qu’il ont meurs femenins.
Nus escoilliez certainemant
n’a point en sai de hardemant,
se n’est, espoir, en aucun vice,
por fere aucune grant malice,
car a fere granz deablies
sunt toutes fames trop hardies:
escoilliez en ce les resamblent,
por ce que leur meurs s’entresemblent.
Anseurquetout li escoillierres,
tout ne soit il murtriers ne lierres
ne n’ait fet nul mortel pechié,
au mains a il de tant pechié
qu’il a fet grant tort a Nature
de lui tolir s’angendreüre.
Nus escuser ne l’an savroit,
ja si bien pansé n’i avroit,
au meins gié; car, se g’i pensoie
et la verité recensoie,
ainz porroie ma langue user
que l’escoilleür escuser d
e tel pechié, de tel forfet,
tant a ver Nature forfet. } [7]

Even if you care nothing for men’s lives, you should oppose castration, because castration is war on women.[8]

A world-wide day of mourning and remembrance for castrated men would serve social justice much more than Dicks Out for Harambe. Our modern educational institutions now do little more than perpetuate ignorance and bigotry. Most students don’t study medieval Latin literature, and they know nothing of Peter Abelard. The few students who study medieval Latin literature might be taught that Abelard’s masculinity was bad, and that after being castrated he sought to remasculinize himself, which is also bad.[9] Not surprisingly, most men today lack the courage and strength to thrust against gynocentrism. Women must take responsiblity for leading the struggle against castration culture and gynocentrism.

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[1] As Silverman unwittingly recognized, “Our dominant fiction … urges both the male and female subject … to deny all knowledge of male {sic} castration … {as subsequently negotiated in many words}.” Silverman (1992) p. 42. Others have recognized the ubiquity of castration culture:

Far from originating in twentieth-century culture, the castration crisis is a cultural constant in the West, negotiated and renegotiated in each era, particularly by reference to ancient mythic representations of castration.

Desmond & Sheingorn (2003) p. 57. Castration culture is easly recognized in much modern scholarship. The physical reality of male genitals is sorely lacking. While many men have written, men’s writers are scarcely known; the masculine pen is painfully absent.

[2] Fulk, Prior of Deuil, Letter to Peter Abelard, Latin text from Patrologia Latina via Heloïsa und Abaelard, English trans. North (1998) (adapted slightly). Fulk (also known as Fulco) wrote this letter in 1117 or 1118. All subsequent quotes from Fulk’s letter are similarly sourced. The Latin text of Patrologia Latina’s collection of letters of Abelard and Heloise are available here.

[3] Roscelin of Compiegne, Letter to Abelard {Epistola ad Abaelardum} Latin text from Patrologia Latina 178:369BC, via Heloïsa und Abaelard, English trans. (adapted slightly) from Mews (2005) p. 59. Roscelin wrote this letter about 1120 in response to Abelard making a written attack on him for heresy. The subsequent quote above is similarly from id.

[4] Abelard understood his castration to be against God’s law. Murphy (2004). Roscelin taunted Abelard with the threat of further “divine” punishment:

But you should intensely fear that divine justice will make what happened to your penis also happen to your tongue. You used to prick with your penis promiscuously, and you were deservedly deprived of it due to your indecency. Similarly, your tongue, with which you now sting, may too be taken away from you.

{ Sed valde tibi divina metuenda est justitia, ne, sicut cauda qua prius, dum poteras, indifferenter pungebas, merito tuae immunditiae tibi ablata est, ita et lingua, qua modo pungis, auferatur. }

Roscelin further developed his insinuation that the castrated Abelard had shifted to cunnilingus. Immediately after writing that God has “deprived you of that part by which you have sinned {parte peccaveras te privavit},” Roscelin wrote:

For it was from this part that the rich man buried in Hell burned all the more the more he sinned, when he demanded that his tongue be cooled with a drop of water.

{ Ea enim de parte dives in inferno sepultus qua plus peccaverat plus ardebat, cum linguam suam gutta aquae refrigerari poscebat. }

Roscelin thus insinuates that Abelard desires to get his tongue wet with a woman. Cunnilingus was an activity of concern in medieval men’s sexed protest. For both the above quotes from Roscelin’s letter to Abelard, the Latin text is from Patrologia Latina, with my English translations.

[5] Roscelin of Compiegne, Letter to Abelard, Latin text and English translation (adapted insubstantially) from Irvine (1997) pp. 91-2.

[6] Song of Solomon 8:6. On metaphorical use of seals, Fulton Brown (2005) Ch. 5. In his Tractatus de unitate et trinitate divina, Abelard analogized the Trinity to bronze, a seal of bronze, and the impression in wax made by the bronze seal. Abelard, Theologia scholarium 2.463.1653-60. Church officials condemned that theological metaphor as heretically denying the unity of the Trinity.

[7] Guillaume Lorris & Jean de Meun, Le Roman de la Rose {The Romance of the Rose} ll. 20037-94, Old French text from Lecoy (1970), English trans. (adapted slightly) from Dahlberg (1995) pp. 329-30. Here’s an alternate Old French text.

[8] Fulk highlighted women’s lamenting about Abelard’s castration:

How shall I relate the lament of single women who, upon hearing the news, streaked their faces with tears, in the way that women do, for the sake of you, their knight whom they had lost, just as if each had discovered that her husband or lover had been killed in battle?

{ Quid singularum feminarum referam planctum, quae sic, hoc audito, lacrymis, more femineo, ora rigarunt, propter te militem suum, quem amiserant, ac si singulae virum suum aut amicum sorte belli reperissent exstinctum? }

Fulk, Letter to Peter Abelard.

[9] E.g. Wheeler (1997), Irvine (1997). Like men’s lifespan shortfall relative to women’s lifespan, castration culture tends not to be taken seriously. Consider a poem probably written about 1130:

Two jewels, Gaul, adorned you once:
Mathias the consul and Peter the philosopher,
one the glory of knighthood, the other light of the clergy.
A single cut removed from you both jewels.
Envious fate took away both these exalted men’s genitals.
Unlike cause made them alike in wound.
The consul was condemned by a just charge of adultery.
The philosopher fell by supreme betrayal.

{ Ornavere due te quondam, Gallia, gemme:
Mathias consul philosophusque Petrus.
Milicie decus hic, cleri lux extitit ille.
Plaga tibi gemmas abstulit una duas,
Invida sors summos privat genitalibus ambo,
Dispar causa pares vulnere fecit eos,
Consul adulterii damnatur crimine iusto,
Philosophus summa prodicione ruit. }

Latin text and English translation (adapted) from Dronke (1992) pp. 281, 263. Full Latin available via Heloïsa und Abaelard. The above poem refers to the castration of Peter Abelard and Mathias the consul. Mathias was probably Mathias, Count of Nantes and son of Duke Hoel. Both Mathias and Abelard were from the same region of Gaul. Duke Hoel was overlord of Abelard’s family. Id. p. 264. As these two castrations suggest, castration was more prevalent in ancient and medieval Europe than is commonly recognized. Nonetheless, the poet plays with verbal similarities between cutting off (both) testicles from a man, and castrating two men.

Like many scholars have, a leading medieval scholar of the twentieth century made castration culture into justification for pathologizing men. Discussing an eleventh-century French pilgrim’s reported self-castration, this scholar declared:

The idea of emasculation was linked to horror of women … men were terrified of women.

Duby (1983) p. 147. That’s abstract psychologizing and despicable victim-blaming. Medieval men loved women. Medieval men also had reason to fear women, just as men do today. Gynocentric society today, following medieval gynocentrism, teaches that men are morally defective and that masculinity is “toxic.” That’s the most relevant ideological link to emasculation.

[image] Castration of Saturn. In the middle on the far left, Venus emerges from an additional instance of Saturn’s genitals. Illumination from manuscript instance of Guillaume de Lorris & Jean de Meun, Roman de la Rose. Color-enhanced excerpt from folio 41r. Probably made about 1403 in the region of Paris. Preserved as Biblioteca Històrica València, MS 387.


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

Dahlberg, Charles, trans. 1995. Guillaume de Lorris & Jean de Meun. The Romance of the Rose. 3rd ed. Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Desmond, Marilynn, and Pamela Sheingorn. 2003. Myth, Montage, and Visuality in Late Medieval Manuscript Culture: Christine de Pizan’s Epistre Othea. Ann Arbor, Mich: University of Michigan Press.

Dronke, Peter. 1992. Intellectuals and poets in Medieval Europe. Roma: Edizioni di storia e letteratura. Ch. 9 (pp. 247-294) reprints Dronke, Peter. 1976. Abelard and Heloise in Medieval testimonies: the twenty-six W.P. Ker Memorial Lecture delivered in the University of Glasgow 29th October, 1976. Glasgow: University of Glasgow Press.

Duby, Georges. 1983. The Knight, the Lady, and the Priest: the making of modern marriage in medieval France. New York: Pantheon Books.

Fulton Brown, Rachel. 2005. From Judgment to Passion: devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800-1200. New York: Columbia University Press.

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

Lecoy, Félix, ed. 1970. Guillaume de Lorris & Jean de Meun. Le roman de la rose. Paris: Librairie Honoré Champion (online: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4).

Mews, Constant J. 2005. Abelard and Heloise. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (review by Linda M. Rouillard)

Murphy, Sean Eisen. 2004. “The letter of the law: Abelard, Moses, and the problem with being a eunuch.” Journal of Medieval History. 30 (2): 161-185.

North, W.L., trans. 1998. “Fulk, Prior of Deuil: Letter to Peter Abelard, (Epistola XIV).” From the edition in Patrologia Latina 178, cols.371-376, with omissions in the Migne text from text edited by Damien van den Eynde, O.F.M., “Détails biographiques sur Pierre Abélard,” Antonianum 38 (1963): 217-223 at 219. Online in the Internet Medieval Source Book, Fordham University.

Silverman, Kaja. 1992. Male Subjectivity at the Margins. New York: Routledge.

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