medieval Italian theatricality: a bed-trick & other acts of Apostles

naked St. Francis being clothed by Bishop of Assisi

In 1260 in Parma, Italy, Gerard Segarelli established the Order of Apostles as a mendicant religious order of the Catholic Church. Salimbene de Adam’s Chronicle, which he wrote from 1283 to 1288, is the most detailed surviving source about Segarelli and the Order of Apostles. Salimbene’s harsh criticism of Segarelli’s movement depicts vibrant theatricality in thirteenth-century Italy. As Salimbene shows, an intricate bed-trick and outrageously recast biblical acts existed within medieval imagination long before Shakespeare’s comedies.

Within circumstances of considerable and conflicted Christian attention to theater, Salimbene explicitly described Gerard Segarelli as an actor. Theatricality is deeply rooted in Christian sensibility. Romanos the Melodist’s sixth-century kontakia present realistic, emotional dialogue. De Maria Magdalena, a text that a Cistercian monk probably wrote in France about 1200, is a theatrical lectio divina. Closer to folk performance, the story of the tumbler of Notre Dame, probably from early in the thirteenth century, depicts a monk engaging in full-body devotional performance. Yet Christians also associated theater with ridiculous and immoral Greco-Roman beliefs and lewd popular performances. Salimbene linked Segarelli with that latter Christian sense of theater:

This Gerard Segarelli, who was their founder, became so demented that he took on the clothes of an actor and became a minstrel, that is, a mime, and went through the streets and squares like a fool. He has a vain heart, seeking after vanities and inventing vanities.

{ Iste Ghirardinus Segalellus, qui primus eorum fuit, ad tantum dementiam iam devenit, quod in habitu histrionum incedit et factus ioculator, id ist mimus, per plateas et vicos stulticando vadit. Habet enim cor vanum et vana sequitur et vana inveniet } [1]

Segarelli understood himself to be a mendicant monk following the practices of the first Christian apostles. But as Salimbene presented Segarelli, he was an insane monk-minstrel.

Just before Salimbene characterized Segarelli as an actor, minstrel, and mime, he told a story about three members of Segarelli’s Order of Apostles. The story features earthy wit and humor:

a certain wealthy young man with a father and a mother still living had recently married. On the first evening before he had sex with his wife, he received as guests into his house three rogues from those who say they are apostles and are not. They persuaded the young man not to have sex with his wife or sleep in the same bed with her on that first night until they indicated to him. This they said in order to forestall and deceive the young man and thereby sleep first with his wife. That they indeed did. All three of them that night went to her bed one after another at short intervals and had sex with her. When on the fourth time the young man went in to have sex with his wife, she was astonished and said to him, “Three times in succession tonight you have had me sexually, and still you have the strength to do this work?” Then the young man realized that those rogues had deceived him. He had them captured and complained strongly to the police chief. Then they were led to be executed by hanging.

{ quidam iuvenis dives, qui habebat patrem et matrem, noviter duxisset uxorem, primo sero, antequam uxorem cognosceret, tres ribaldos, recepit hospitio ex his qui se dicunt apostolos esse et non sunt, qui suaserunt iuveni, ne uxorem cognosceret nec cum ea in eodem lecto prima nocte dormiret, nisi quando dicerent ei. Hoc autem ideo dicebant, quia volebant iuvenem prevenire atque decipere et prius cum uxore eius dormire, sicut factum est, quia omnes tres illa nocte iverunt ad lectum eius, unus post alium facto modico intervallo, et cognoverunt eam. Cum autem quarta vice iuvenis sponsus eius vellet eam cognoscere, mirata uxor eius dixit ei: “Tribus vicibus in hac nocte carnaliter mecum fuisti et adhuc vis agere opus istud?” Tunc cognovit iuvenis ab istis ribaldis se esse deceptum, et fecit eos capi et conquestus est potestati, et ducti sunt ad suspendium }

According to Salimbene, Segarelli’s apostles included “rogues, seducers, deceivers, thieves, and fornicators {ribaldi et seductores et deceptores et latrones et fornicatores}.” These so-called apostles:

spend every day running throughout the cities seeking out women … as they themselves told me, when they travel through the world, they turn aside to prostitutes, or if, in the places they stay, lascivious women solicit them to sin or to transgressing, they consent to the women, and little is the apostles’ resistance.

{ tota die per civitates discurrunt mulieres videndo … ut michi dixerunt, quando vadunt per mundum, ad meretrices declinant et in domibus, in quibus hospitantur, si a lascivis mulieribus sollicitantur ad peccatum sive ad peccandum, consentiunt eis, et parva est pugna } [2]

These are the sort of monks who would perform a triple bed-trick long before Shakespeare’s plays.[3] Salimbene probably thought that those monks should pay for that act with their lives. So they reportedly did.

Salimbene’s tale of the three monks’ triple bed-trick is unlikely to be historical. The monks were mendicants. Characterizing the young man as wealthy sets up an inversion of the idea that a lord had the right to be the first to have sex with his serfs’ brides (droit du seigneur {right of the lord}, also known as jus primae noctis {law of the first night}).[4] The added detail that the young man had a father and mother still living suggests that the wedding night would have been carefully orchestrated. Segarelli’s three apostles apparently also duped the groom’s parents. The bride’s question to her groom late on their wedding night is too comically deadpan to be realistic. Moreover, if she said that, surely the bride or groom wouldn’t have reported it to Salimbene or anyone else. About a century and half after Salimbene wrote, the great medieval church official Poggio included two closely related versions of this story in his collection of courtly tales known as Facetiae. As Poggio recognized, the story that Salimbene recorded is truly a fantastic story. Salimbene apparently adapted it to serve in his disparagement of the Order of Apostles for not honoring chastity.

Salimbene described Segarelli himself behaving theatrically. Actors represent characters in part though choosing costumes and other externals:

This Gerard Segarelli, who was their leader, sought to be like the son of God. So he had himself circumcised, which is against the teaching of the Apostle

{ Igitur de Ghirardino Segalello, qui fuit istorum principium, sciendum, quod filio Dei voluit similari. Nam fecit se circumcidi, quod est contra apostolum }

Being a good representation of Jesus thus mattered more to Segarelli than following the apostolic teaching of Paul as conveyed through holy scripture.[5] Yet Segarelli also acted out a parable of Jesus in a misleading way:

standing in the middle of the road, from his excessive simplicity he said to passersby in a clear voice: “Go you also into my vineyard!” And those who knew him recognized his foolishness. They knew that he had no vineyard there. The actual mountain people, who did not know him, went into the vineyard toward which he stretched out his hand. There they ate grapes that were not his. They wrongly believed that they had received permission from the owner.

{ stans in media via ex nimia simpicitate transeuntibus clara voce dicebat: Ite et vos in vineam meam! Et qui cognoscebant eum, reputabant eum fatuum, scientes, quod nullam vineam ibi habebat. Montanarii vero, qui eum non cognoscebant, ingrediebantur vineam, versus quam manum extenderat, et comedebant uvas non suas, credentes sibi hoc a proprio vinee domino imperatum. }

Segarelli’s act didn’t involve him proclaiming in the person of Jesus. He proclaimed the words of the landowner in Jesus’s parable on laborers in the vineyard.[6] In Salimbene’s story, Segarelli, who sought to be like Jesus, wrongly acted as vineyard-owner.

Salimbene depicted Segarelli as acting out a sensational chastity test. Jerome’s late fourth-century Life of Paul the First Hermit recounts a Christian martyr successfully resisting a beautiful woman attempting to rape him in a bed within a sensuous garden. The early Christian martyr Chrysanthus retained his chastity despite his father procuring and placing in Chrysanthus’s bed young virgin women who solicited sex from him. Segarelli put himself to a similar sensuous test:

when he was living with a certain little widow, who had a beautiful, nubile daughter, he told the widow that God had revealed to him that he should sleep all night nude with her nude daughter in order to test whether or not he could preserve his chastity. And thinking herself blessed, the mother consented, and the daughter did not refuse.

{ cum hospitaretur apud aliquam muierculam viduam, filiam nubilem et speciosam habentem, dicebat siba a Domino revelatum, quod cum illa puella debebat illa nocte nudus cum nuda in eodem lecto dormire, ut probaret, si castitatem servare posset necne. Consentiebat mater reputans se beatam, et puella minime hoc negabat. }

Salimbene didn’t report the results of Segarelli’s self-created chastity test. Given Salimbene’s interest in disparaging Segarelli, apparently neither Segarelli nor the girl disappointed the girl’s widowed mother. Segarelli being heroically chaste would have been less significant to Salimbene than that Segarelli performed a sensational chastity test.[7]

According to Salimbene, Segarelli also acted out a variant of the lactation of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. One day, the Virgin Mary reportedly gave the adult Bernard of Clairvaux a squirt of milk from her breasts, the same breasts that nourished the baby Jesus. Salimbene claimed of Segarelli:

He also lay in a cradle, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and sucked milk from the breasts of a certain woman unaware of him

{ in cunnubulis iacuit fasciis involutus et lac et mammas suxit cuiusdam nescie mulieris. }

That’s a scarcely believable story. A full-grown man could hardly be wrapped in swaddling clothes in a cradle. A woman might give a man milk from her breasts, but she certainly would be aware of what she was doing. This story is best interpreted as a parody of the lactation of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. It depicts Segarelli as a ridiculously bad actor attempting to play Jesus.

Salimbene also presented Segarelli acting badly in attempting to play Saint Francis of Assisi. Francis reportedly took off all his clothes in the center of the city of Assisi in 1206 and vowed to follow a life of poverty.[8] Twelfth-century European sermons commonly exhorted Christians “to follow naked the naked Christ {nudus nudum Christum sequi}.” Francis and his order of monks early in their existence earnestly followed that path. According to Salimbene, Segarelli and his monks acted more pruriently:

he {Gerard Segarelli} and all the others {of his followers} undressed themselves completely, so that their penises had not even trousers or any other clothing covering their nudity. They stood stood all around against the wall like a barefoot army in formation, but neither one ordained nor decent nor honorable. He wanted to strip them so that naked they might follow the naked Christ. Following his master’s command, one of them placed in the middle of the room their clothing tied into a bundle. Then by the command of their master, while they were indecently standing there, a woman was brought in … Gerard Segarelli, that master of theirs, ordered her to distribute whatever clothing she wished to grant to these paupers deprived and denuded of their personhood.

{ se et omnes alios denudavit usque adeo, quod etiam membra genitalia sine bracis et aliquo velamine nuda essent, et stabant apodiati ad murum in acie circum circa. sed non in acie ordinata nec honesta nec bona. Volebat enim eos expropriare, ut nudi nudum Christum decetero sequerentur. Posuerat enim quilibet eorum ex precepto magistri vestimenta sua in medio domus ligata seorsum. Tunc ex precepto magistri, cum ita inhoneste starent, introducta est mulier … Cui Ghirardinus Segalellus, qui magister erat istorum, precepit, ut pauperibus sic expropriatis et a propriis denudatis vestimenta que vellet tribueret. }

Saint Francis of Assisi humbled himself relative to all of humanity. According to Salimbene, Segarelli humiliated himself and his followers to a particular woman. Men have a tendency to humiliate and abase themselves relative to women. In Salimbene’s account, Segarelli acted as a type of anti-Francis and enacted the folly of courtly lovers.[9] That’s not truly acting holy.

While Salimbene probably fabricated most of what he reported of the acts of Gerard Segarelli and the Order of Apostles, Salimbene convincingly witnesses to vibrant theatricality in thirteenth-century Italy. Salimbene’s theatrical disparagement of Segarelli and the Order of Apostles suggests that men in thirteenth-century Italy were thoroughly engaged in acting in loving women and serving God — two central and often wrongly conflated interests in men’s lives.[10] Men throughout history have often been confined to the narrow gender role of providing resources to women and children and fighting to protect gynocentric society. Outrageous acting, along with guile and bed-tricks, provide vital paths for men’s liberation.

* *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Salimbene de Adam, Cronica {Chronicle}, Latin text from Holder-Egger (1905) p. 620, English translation adapted from Baird, Baglivi & Kane (1986) p. 627. Segarelli is also known as Segarello, e.g. in id.

Medieval Italian theatricality could combine high and low culture. The brilliant rhetorician Boncompagno da Signa put on a outrageous performance in Bologna about 1195 to ridicule academic stupidity.

A Dominican inquisitor, a forefather of today’s university administrators, burned Segarelli as a heretic in Parma, Italy, on July 18, 1300. Ordinary Christians and church officials typically admired and supported Segarelli’s Order of Apostles through 1290. The Order of Apostles were entangled in complex rivalries among mendicant orders, including with Salimbene’s Franciscans, the Friars Minor.

Surviving historical sources about Gerard Segarelli and his Order of Apostles are meager. All are hostile towards that movement. They depict it as a Christian heresy. For studies concerning Segarelli and the Order of Apostles, Pierce (2012), Jacobs (2007), Carniello (2006), and Wessley (1976).

Subsequent quotes from Salimbene’s Cronica are sourced as described previously and cited by page in Holder-Egger (1905). The citations for the subsequent quotes above are: “a certain wealthy young man…”, p. 620; “rogues, seducers…”, p. 287; “spend every day running…”, pp. 256, 269; “This Gerard Segarelli…”, p. 257; “standing in the middle of the road…”, p. 257; “when he was living with a certain little widow…”, p. 257; “He also lay in a cradle…”, p. 257; “he {Gerard Segarelli} and all the others {of his followers} undressed themselves…”, p. 264. Holder-Egger’s page numbers are quite close to those of Baird, Baglivi & Kane.

[2] In disparaging the Order of Apostles, Salimbene repeated like a refrain his claim that they run through the cities seeking out women (less emphatically he also accused them of having sex with other men and with boys). Salimbene similarly repeated that the members of Segarelli’s Order of Apostles were men who “say they are apostles, and are not {qui se dicunt apostolos esse et non sunt}.” They are “a synagogue of Satan {synagoga Sathane}.” Cronica, p. 255. Salimbene adapted for both these phrases Revelation 2:9: “those who say they are Jews are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” Consistent with its members running around seeking out women, Salimbene mockingly described the Order of the Apostles as a dispersion: “About the congregation, or rather the dispersion, of those rogues {De congregatione seu potius dispersione illorum ribaldorum}…” Cronica, p. 255.

Salimbene was well-educated. He continually displayed his knowledge of scripture by quoting it. Salimbene characterized Segarelli and his followers are ignorant rustics:

Thus it truly was with these Apostles of Gerard Segarelli, who call themselves apostles, but are rogues and deceivers, who shun the hoe and keep themselves from labor. They are more suited to keeping themselves busy with tending cows or pigs or scouring latrines or some other base work or at least pursuing agriculture.

{ Revera ita accidit istis Apostolis fratris Ghirardini Segalelli, qui se apostolos nominant, cum sint ribaldi et deceptores, qui ligonem vitant et laborare recusant, quibus vaccas et porcos custodire magis incomberet seu purgare latrinas aut alia vilia opera exercere vel saltem agriculture insistere. }

Cronica, p. 293.

Salimbene recognized that women can seriously harm men, yet he lacked practical knowledge about intersexual dynamics. He quoted an ancient Christian warning: “Whenever a woman is with a man, the laughter of Satan isn’t lacking {Ubi femina erit cum viris, non deerit riscarium diaboli}.” Cronica, p. 270, quoting pseudo-Jerome, Letter 42. But not all men, nor all women, are that vulnerable. Salimbene also quoted Alan of Lille:

If you follow, she follows; if you flee, she is put to flight;
if you give in, she gives in; if you flee, she flees.

{ Persequitur, si tu sequeris, fugiendo fugatur,
si cedis, cedit, si fugis, illa fugit. }

Cronica, p. 271, quoting Allan of Lille, Liber parabolum I.37-8. The reality is rather the oppposite, as medieval women’s love poetry indicates. Medieval school texts were generally of better quality.

[3] The bed-trick, meaning one person taking the place of another in bed and then having sex without the sexual partner being aware of the switch, has a long literary history. Jacob suffered a bed-trick when on his wedding night he unknowingly had sex with Leah rather than his intended bride, Leah’s younger sister Rachel.

A bed-trick features in Boccaccio’s Decameron, Day 3, Story 9 (about Beltramo and Giletta). That story was the basis for Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure also include a bed-trick. For a review of the literary history of the bed-trick, Doniger (2000).

[4] The droit de seigneur was a claim known in fifteenth-century Europe. It apparently never was a common sexual practice at any time in history. Boureau (1998). However, droit de seigneur was invoked symbolically in fifteenth century Europe. It expresses symbolically a reasonable understanding of the relationship between men’s status and men’s mating success. Wettlaufer (2000). The droit de seigneur belongs with the chastity belt, the belief that the world is flat, and patriarchy as ridiculous modern myths about medieval European beliefs and practices.

[5] The Apostle Paul taught that Christians need not have themselves circumcised. Galations 5:2-6.

[6] Matthew 20:1-16.

[7] Jerome, The Life of Paul the First Hermit, s. 3, describes a sensational chastity test. The chastity test of Chrysanthus is from the Acts of Chrysanthus and Daria. Salimbene subsquently cited Chrysanthus’s chastity test. According to Salimbene, when Chrysanthus encountered the young virgins soliciting him in bed, he prayed to God to rise up and provide rain:

he lay immobile in prayer and, warding off their embraces and kisses like arrows off the shield of his faith, he called out to the Lord: “Rise up, Lord.”

{ Iacebat autem in oratione immobilis et amplexus earum et oscula quasi sagitarum ictus scuto sue fidei excipiens, clamabat ad Dominum dicens: “Exurge, Domine.” }

Salimbene, Cronica, p. 271. Chrysanthus didn’t bring charges of sexual assault against the young women. Moreover, not all men favor celibate life. Many men would be grateful for these young women taking on men’s burden of seduction. Many men would also be grateful if their father’s would take the sort of dramatic initiative that Chrysanthus’s father did, however misguidedly, to promote his son’s sexual welfare.

Syneisactism, meaning a man and woman living together under vows of chastity in a spiritual marriage, is an ancient Christian practice. It persisted as a Christian practice for at least a millennium. Reynolds (1968). Sexless marriage, a common situation in high-income secular countries today, was more unusual in medieval Christian Europe. Margery Kempe and her husband are, however, a medieval Christian example of a marriage turned sexless. Sexless marriage differs from syneisactism. In a sexless marriage, at least one spouse would strongly prefer to have sex within the marriage. Syneisactism, in contrast, includes a mutual preference to refrain from sex.

Gerard Segarelli’s night naked with the beautiful naked daughter was not a marriage of any sort. It was a simple, sensational chastity test similiar to the one that Jerome described and Chrystanthus reportedly underwent. Cf. Jacobs (2007) p. 153.

[8] The National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi in the U.S. explains:

The growing friction between Francis and his father exploded publicly in October of 1206 when Pietro Bernardone pursued his son to the central piazza of the city and demanded repayment for all that Francis had squandered in his generosity to the poor — and for the money Francis had spent in his {church} restoration work.

Before all the townspeople gathered there, Francis stripped himself naked, renounced his hereditary rights, and gave his fine clothes back to his astonished father. The Bishop of Assisi, who had witnessed the dramatic gesture, wrapped his cloak around the young man, who thereafter dressed himself in a simple flaxen tunic tied at the waist with a cord.

From the National Shrine’s account of the life of Saint Francis.

[9] On Gerard Segarelli as an anti-type of St. Francis more generally, Carniello (2006). Carniello perceptively noted:

Salimbene’s ‘Anti-Francis’ was part of a larger movement among Franciscans and Dominicans in the last quarter of the thirteenth century to construct their mendicant rivals as perverting mendicant piety and even as heretical enemies of the Christian faith. During this process, they activated religious sentiments that were bound to transform into radical dissent. By burning Gerardo Segarelli as a heretic in July 1300, Dominican inquisitors fuelled the fire for extremists who called for radical dissent against a ‘corrupt’ Church to find new followers. It was in this atmosphere of militant opposition between the condoned and the condemned that Fra Dolcino stepped forward in August 1300 and that the Order of Apostles completed its descent into heresy.

Id. p. 251. Major corporations now acting to represses communication and suppress dissent should learn from medieval failures.

[10] In contrast to his representation of Segarelli and the Order of Apostles, Salimbene depicted medieval women’s loving concern for men realistically rather than theatrically. Specifically, Salimbene observed that, as an expression of their commitment to poverty, Segarelli and his Apostles refused to own more than one robe. Salimbene disparaged them for that commitment:

they expose themselves to the hazards of colds or greater sickness or even death, which can very easily and quickly happen. No person has the right to kill oneself. … with one robe, which is all they possess, they expose themselves to many miseries, such as lice, which they cannot eliminate, and also sweat and dirt and stench, because they cannot take off the robe and wash it, without being completely naked. Thus once, a certain woman said to two Friars Minor derisively, “Do you know, I have a naked Apostle in my bed, and there he will be until his robe, which I have washed for him, has dried.”

{ exponunt se discrimini frigoris et magne infirmitatis seu etiam mortis, quam de facili cito possent incurrere. Nullus enim debet interficere semetipsum. … cum una tunica, qua solummodo utuntur, exponunt se mutis miseriis tam pediculorum, quos excutere non possunt, quam etiam sudoris et pulveris et fetoris, quia tunicam nec excutere nec lavare possunt, nisi remanserint nudi. Unde quadam di dixit quedam mulier duobous fratribus Minoribus diredendo: “Noveritis, quod habeo unum Apostolum nudum in lecto meo, et erit ibi, quousque tunica sua siccetur, quam lavi.” }

Cronica, p. 284. Along with Salimbene’s usual jab at the Apostle’s lack of chastity, this account has many realistic details.

[image] Naked Francis of Assisi being covered up by the Bishop of Assisi. Fresco made between 1297 and 1299 in the Upper Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi in Assisi, Italy. Artist unknown; formerly attributed to Giotto di Bondone. Image thanks to Web Gallery of Art and Wikimedia Commons.


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

Boureau, Alain. 1998. The Lord’s First Night: the myth of the droit de cuissage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Translation by Lydia G. Cochrane of Boureau, Alain. 1995. Le droit de cuissage: la fabrication d’un mythe (XIIIe-XXe siècle). Paris: Albin Michel.

Carniello, Brian R. 2006. “Gerardo Segarelli as the Anti-Francis: Mendicant Rivalry and Heresy in Medieval Italy, 1260-1300.” Journal of Ecclesiastical History. 57 (2): 226-251.

Doniger, Wendy. 2000. The Bedtrick: tales of sex and masquerade. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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

Jacobs, Robert C. 2007. Locating the Franciscans within the cities of thirteenth century northern Italy using the Chronicle of Salimbene de Adam. Master of Arts Thesis, University of Manitoba.

Pierce, Jerry B. 2012. Poverty, Heresy, and the Apocalypse: the Order of Apostles and Social Change in Medieval Italy 1260-1307. London: Bloomsbury Publishing (underlying 2004 Univerity of Arizona Ph.D. dissertation).

Reynolds, Roger E. 1968. “Virgines Subintroductae in Celtic Christianity.” The Harvard Theological Review. 61 (4): 547-566.

Wessley, Stephen E. 1976. Enthusiasm and Heresy in the year 1300: Guglielma of Milan, Armanno Pungilupo of Ferrara and Gerard Segarelli of Parma. Ph.D. Thesis, Columbia University.

Wettlaufer, Jörg. 2000. “The jus primae noctis as a male power display: a review of historic sources with evolutionary interpretation.” Evolution and Human Behavior. 21 (2): 111-123.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Current month ye@r day *