self-divided, Guibert of Nogent lacked his mother’s ideological purity

Like Dhuoda’s ninth-century Liber manualis, Guibert of Nogent’s twelfth-century Monodiae intimately concerns a mother-son relationship. Liber manualis is an artifact of Dhuoda’s presence, a book that she bequeathed to her son in her absence. Guibert’s mother, in contrast, was with Guibert in his everyday life and guided him in person. Both Dhuoda and Guibert’s mother had an ideological purity like today’s earnest reader of the New York Times. In a way nearly unimaginable today, Guibert recognized his impurity and trusted in God’s mercy.

Illumination beginning Guibert's commentary on Amos

Guibert’s mother was closest to him in his ladder of hope for salvation. She was his biological mother in the model of Mary, the Mother of the Church. Guibert declared to God:

To be born from this woman, who to speak as I believe and hope, was the best in truth, was what you granted me, the worst of all her children. I was her last child in two understandings: my brothers, who offered better hopes, have died, but I, living a life in all ways prompting despair, have survived. It was as if, after Jesus, the mother of Jesus, and his saints, she was the reason that I, still in the midst of these evils, held on to the hope for salvation promised to all. Indeed, I know, and to disbelieve would be sacrilege, that as lovingly as she treated me, as openly as she tended to me while she was in this world — for mothers are more affectionate for their last-born children — now in the presence of God she cares for me no less. From the earliest age she was filled with the fire of God in Zion. Not even when she slept, to say nothing of when she was awake, did she cease to care for me in her soul. Now she is overcome by death, the joints of her flesh broken. But I know that in Jerusalem the fire of her love for me burns beyond what can be said, especially since there she is filled with God, nor is she unaware of the miseries that torment me. She is happy, but the farther from the warnings so often she repeated to me, the farther from the her habits and from her footsteps she thinks I have strayed, the more she groans for me when I stumble. Lord God and Father, you know how and of how much evil I am — you gave me my origin from this woman, who is not falsely, but truly good. You offered me hope in her merits, a hope I would in no way presume to possess if I did not find under your grace at least temporary relief from fear of my sin.

{ Ex hac, inquam, uti credo et spero, verissima mihi omnium quos genuit ipsa, deterrimo tribuisti nasci. Proles ejus bifariam postrema fui; decedentibus enim sub spe meliore germanis, ego vita omnimodis desperatione supersum. In his adhuc mihi agenti malis, ut ejus merito, post Jesum et, Jesu matrem sanctosque ejus, spes salvationis universa resedit. Scio nempe, nec discredere fas est, ut sicut me in saeculo posita carius habuit, clarius coluit (erga enim extreme natos matres affectuosius agunt), magis Deo praesens non negligit. Ignis plena Dei ea a juventute fuerat in Sion, cum ne dormiendo quidem, nedum vigilando, solicitudo mei in ejus animo cessabat. At nunc morte sibi obita, interstitio carnis abrupto, scio in Hierusalem potentius quam dici queat fervere caminum, praesertim cum illic Deo plena, meas in quibus volvor miserias non ignoret, et tanto mihi oberranti, licet felix, ingemat, quanto a suis quae totiens ingeminabat, monitis, moribus atque vestigiis me exorbitare considerat. Pater et Domine Deus, qui ex hac, non fallaciter sed vere bona, mihi qualiter et quantum nosti malo originem tribuisti, spem quoque in ejus mihi merito praebuisti, quam tamen nullatenus habere praesumerem, nisi ad te, ex mei timore peccati, aliquantisper sub tua gratia respirarem. } [1]

The delivery of Guibert from his mother’s womb was painful and precarious. She was expected to die. To save her life, the family vowed to dedicate the newly born child to the Mother of God. Her life was saved. Thus Guibert was set on the life path of a cleric dedicated to the Mother of God. When Guibert strayed into sin, which was frequent, his mother reminded him of the pains he had caused her in his birth. She acted then as if she were groaning to have him born again to God.[2] She did all she could to ensure Guibert’s salvation according to Christian understanding.

Guibert’s mother was beautiful, chaste, and pious. When Guibert’s parents were adolescent newlyweds, a wicked stepmother cast a spell on his father so that he was unable to have sex with his bride for seven years. She remained faithful to her husband through seven years of sexless marriage until the wicked spell was penetrated. Before that happy resolution, her husband at the urging of friends tested his potency extra-maritally. His infidelity engendered a child who died before being baptized. Guibert’s father himself died about eight months after Guibert was born. Fearing that her husband was suffering in Purgatory for his sexual sin, Guibert’s mother adopted an orphan child who cried incessantly. Guibert’s mother bore the burden of that crying orphan out of loving concern for her dead husband’s soul. She also had masses said for him, regularly gave alms to the poor, attended the daily offices of the church, including the night office, and wore a hair shirt next to her skin day and night. She spoke lovingly of her dead husband despite their marital difficulties.

When Guibert was twelve, his mother left him to live a monastic life with another woman in a small house next to the church of the monastery at Fly. Guibert felt emotionally neglected from the ensuing loss of contact with his mother, but he understood and supported her choice:

Although she knew I would suddenly become an orphan and that I had no resources to fall back on — we had, in fact, numerous relatives and in-laws, but none of them would carefully tend to the needs of a boy at that tender age. Even though I had no need of food or clothing, still, a lack of the guidance and discipline necessary for that vulnerable age, care that only women can provide, often troubled me. Even though she knew I would be condemned to such neglect, her fear and her love of you, God, hardened her heart … No wonder if she felt as if her own limbs were being torn from her body! She began in fact to believe — or rather she heard it from others — that she was utterly wicked and cruel. She had barred from her soul, and sent away without any support, a child such as this, so deserving of affection. That at least is what people said, because not only our relatives, but also people outside the family, adored me. And you, good God, holy God, in your sweetness, in your charity, you miraculously hardened her heart, surely the most loyal heart in the world, so that it wouldn’t be loyal to its own detriment. Softening of her heart would have caused her soul harm. She would have put me before her own salvation and would have neglected God because of me and because of care for the things of the world.

{ cum sciret me prorsus orphanum, et nullam omnino habere sub qua niterer opem (parentum enim et affinium multiplex erat copia, at vero nullus, qui puerulo in omnibus tenerrimo pro indigentiis aetatulae sollicite curam ferret: victualium enim ac indumentorum etsi esset nulla necessitas, earum tamen providentiarum, quae illius aevi impotentiae conveniunt, quae sine foeminis administrari non possunt, me saepius vexabat inopia), cum ergo me sciret his addictum incuriis, timore et amore tuo, Deus, sua obdurante praecordia … Nimirum plane si veluti ab ejus corpore membra propria viderentur abrumpi, cum impiissimam et crudelem se profecto cognosceret, immo audiret vocari, quae tantam sobolem, tanto, ut ferebatur, affectu dignam (multum enim non modo a nostratibus, sed etiam ab exteris excolebar) ita ab animo exclusisset, subsidiique inopem dimisisset. Et tu, Deus bone, Deus pie, tua dulcedine, tua caritate jecur illud certe in saeculo piissimum, ne esset contra se pium, mirabiliter indurueras: contra se nempe mollesceret, si, nos suae saluti praeferens, Dei negligens pro nobis, mundana curaret. }

Guibert become a monk in the monastery at Fly. With his mother living in house next to the church at Fly, he could interact with her throughout much of his adult life.[3] Even through her leaving him as a child hurt him personally, Guibert regarded his mother as having admirable Christian ideological purity and strength,

Guibert lacked his mother’s Christian ideological purity and strength. He perceived that “my soul, titillated with worldly life, itched with desires and lusts {animam in concupiscentiis pro suo modulo et cupiditatibus prurientem saecularis vita titillaret}. ” Guibert had none of his mother’s firmness of resolve:

I have in serving you {God} no firmness, no constancy. Whenever it seemed that I had performed some proper work, my ambivalent intention reshaped it into something less and insignificant.

{ Nihil in te solidum, nil constans habui; si quid in evidentia visus sum exhibuisse operis, intentio multomultotiens reddidit minus recta pertenue. }

Guibert lamented his “inveterate zeal for depravity {inveterata pravitatum studia}” and his “great persistence in self-defilement {perseverantissimae impuritates}.”[4]

Guibert regarded his mother as God’s servant, like a priest and a prophet. Guibert’s mother preached to him:

God, you know how many warnings, how many prayers she daily poured into my ears, that I listen not to words of corruption. Whenever she had time alone free from family cares, she would teach me how and for what I should pray to you. You alone know how great were the pains she bore to prevent my unhealthy soul from ruining the healthy beginnings, the brilliant and distinguished youth, which you had given me.

{ Deus, tu scis quanta monita, quantas auribus meis preces quotidie instillabat, ne corruptionis cujuspiam verba susciperem. Docebat, quotiens a curis familiaribus solitudo vacabat, quomodo et super quibus te orare deberem. Tu nosti solus quantis angoribus parturibat, ne initia florentissimae ac spectabilis, quam tu dederas, aetatulae animus male sanus sana perverteret. }

God communicated Guibert’s failings to his mother through her dreams:

whenever my unstable conscience shifted from one state to another, sane or insane, by your judgement, Lord, an image of it then came to her in a vision. It is said that dreams come from many cares, which is certainly true, yet her cares did not arise from inner heat sparked by greed, but rather were born of sincere striving after inner goodness. She was quite an astute and discriminating interpreter of visions, and thus whenever a troubling one touched her most pious mind, whenever she understood that a disturbance in her dream was an omen, she would summon me and examine my studies, reviewing what I was doing alone with myself, how I was spending my time in private. I always obeyed her, and could in no way withhold the understanding that I shared with her. My soul seemed attached to her dreams. Everything in them that I recognized, I readily confessed to her. When she warned me to correct my ways, with a sincere desire I promised to do so immediately.

{ in quemcunque statum sanum utique vel insanum conscientia labilis vertebatur, visionem ejusdem species non sine tuo, Domine, judicio sequebatur. At quoniam multas curas prohibentur sequi somnia, et verum indubie constat, hae tamen curae non avaritiae aestibus citabantur, sed ex vera interni boni aemulatione creabantur. Mox igitur, ut piissimam ejus mentem visio importuna tangebat, et sicut erat in talibus exolvendis admodum subtilis et perspicax, — mox, ut id incommodi suo sibi somnio portensum intellexerat, accito me, super meo studio, quid agerem, quid tractarem apud me secretius rogitabat. Cui, cum sic morem gererem, ut ei meam nullatenus unanimitatem negarem, omnia illa quae secundum tenores quae audieram somniorum, in quae lentescere meus animus videbatur, alacri confessione prodebam, et, cum de correctione moneret, veris profecto statim affectibus id spondebam. }

In hearing his confessions and guiding him to amendment, Guibert’s mother effectively acted as a priest for Guibert. She also served as a prophet for him:

You also know, Lord, how with her inner sight she spoke of the good and bad that would happen to me if I were promoted to any kind of position. Even today I experience these things, and they do not pass unnoticed by me or by others. She also foresaw in numerous visions, where I appeared along with others, what would happen to me long afterward. Some of these events I regard without a doubt as occurring or as having already occurred, while some of the rest I expect no less to occur, but I have deliberately refrained from adding them here. God, what warnings she gave me to keep lusts away from my mind, assuring me in no uncertain terms of misfortunes (which I have since experienced) that were sure to come. She was always lamenting the immorality of youth, and she restrained my mind as it wandered along various paths of thought.

{ Tu etiam, Domine, nosti quo interiori oculo et bona et mala, si uspiam promoverer, mihi eventura loquebatur, quae hodieque experior nec me nec alios latent. Visionibus quoque quamplurimis, sub mea et aliorum specie, longis post futura temporibus praevidebat; quorum aliqua indubie fieri contemplor, et facta, nec minus residua quaedam fienda praestolor, quibus tamen attexendis supersedendum ex industria reor. Deus, quibus illa monitis cupiditates a mente arcere monebat! adversitatum infortunia, quae expertus sum, certissime pollicens, lubricam semper suspirare juventam, per varios cogitationum ambitus animos froenare vagantes }

But Guibert’s mother didn’t foresee Guibert’s actions and perceive him to the depth of his soul in the way that he did:

Good Lord, good God, if she had foreseen the heaps of filth in which I would bury the handsome appearance that you had given me, which with you had decorated me at her request, what would she have said? What would she have done? How she would have groaned beyond any consolation! … If her purest of eyes had penetrated to the recesses of my soul and seen there what’s utterly offensive to the pure of sight, it would be a wonder if she had not died at once.

{ bone Domine, bone Deus, si tunc praesciret quanto sordium cumulo obliteraturus eram bonas illas donorum tuorum superficies, quibus me, illa impetrante, ornaveras, quid dictura? quid actura? quam irremediabiles gemitus emissura! … Plane si penetralia animi mei mundis adeo indigna conspectibus mundissimus ejus oculus irrupisset, miror si ilico exanimis non fuisset. }

Guibert conflated his mother and God. He also conflated his mother and the mother of God — “O Lady, mother of the heavenly realm {o Domine, coelestis Mater imperii}.”[5] Men tend to imagine women as god-like beings. Guibert apparently ridiculed gyno-idolatry. But his mother was different.

Guibert recognized his impurity and trusted in God’s mercy. Guibert wrote of a dream he had and his hope:

One night I dreamed that I was in a church dedicated to your name {the name of the “heavenly Lady {coelestis Domina}”}, and it seemed to me that I was carried to the roof of the basilica by two demons. Then they fled, leaving me unharmed within the walls of that same church. I often recall this vision as I reflect upon my incorrigibility. While I keep committing the same sins, or rather add worse sins to ones that were the worst, I run back to you, most pious Mother. I do this not because I mistakenly rely on too great a hope or little faith in someone, but only to escape being lost in desperation. Although I always fail, that is because weakness drives me, not because pride hardens me. I never lose hope of amending my ways.

{ nocte quadam per visum in ecclesia tui nominis eram, et videbatur mihi, quod a duobus ab ipsa auferebar daemonibus, cumque ad basilicae me fastigium extulissent, aufugerunt, et intactum intra ejusdem septa ecclesiae dimiserunt. Haec multotiens, dum meam intueor incorrigibilitatem, reminiscor, et eadem peccata saepius repeto, immo pessimis pejora superfero, ad te, Piissima, pro evitando solum desperationis periculo, non nimiae spei aut alicujus parvae fiduciae abusione recurro. Etsi enim semper ex impulsu fragilitatis, non superbiae obstinatione delinquo, spem tamen nullatenus correctionis amitto. }

Guibert understood himself to be divided, with his fidelity to Christian ethics existing above his sordid inclinations:

I am always sinning and always returning to you from amid my sin. When I flee from piety or desert it, does piety lose any of its essence? Will piety choked by many offenses become something different? … You know that I do not sin because I know you are merciful. I am confident in stating that you are said to be merciful because if someone asks for forgiveness, you are there. I do not abuse you in your mercy every time I succumb to my compulsion to sin. It would be an abuse and truly sacrilegious if I always found pleasure in excessive sinning because it is so easy to return to you after sinning. Indeed, I do sin, but when I have recovered my rationality, I am ashamed to have yeilded to my heart’s desires. My spirit, entirely against its will, beds itself in baskets full of manure.

{ Semper ergo peccans, et inter peccandum semper ad te rediens, an pii fugax, piumve deserens, cum ad pietatem recurrero, perdet pietas quod est, et etiam, offensione multiplici obruta, invenietur insolens? … Tu scis quia non ideo pecco, quod te misericordem sentio, sed secure profiteor te ideo misericordem dici, quod sis veniam postulantibus praesto. Non te miserante abutor, quotiens per peccandi necessitatem peccare compellor; verum profana nimis esset abusio, si, quia perfacilis post peccatum ad te est reditus, semper me peccandi delectet excessus. Pecco siquidem, sed, ratione recepta, in affectum cordis transisse me poenitet, tamque stercorosis cophinis mens graviter invita succumbit. }

Guibert knew without illusions the divisions within himself. Self-conscious of the risks of rationalizing his wrongs, he had pure and unshakeable faith in God’s mercy.[6]

To retain a communicative identity distinctive from machines, humans must communicate with creativity, complexity, and self-consciousness. Recent advances in artificial intelligence and natural language processing enable massive-scale production of machine-generated texts that are indistinguishable from most news articles and social-media posts made today. Guibert of Nogent, writing in the twelfth century about his mother and himself, left a record of a distinctively human consciousness. Every real, flesh-and-blood human should aspire to nothing less.

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[1] Guibert of Nogent, Monodiae {Songs of Self} 1.3, Latin text from Bourgin (1907), English trans. mainly from McAlhany & Rubenstein (2011), with the benefit of Archambault (1996), and modified to follow the Latin more closely in some instances. Monodiae, Book 1, contains Guibert’s autobiography. Like Augustine’s Confessions, Guibert began his Monodiae with a confession to God: “I confess to your greatness, God {Confiteor amplitudini tuae, Deus}…”

All subsequent quotes from Guibert’s Monodiae are similarly sourced. The ones above are from Monodiae 1.14 (Although she knew I would suddenly become an orphan…), 1.16 (my soul, titillated…), 1.3 (I have in serving you no firmness, no constancy…), 1.1 (inveterate zeal for depravity; great persistence in self-defilement), 1.12 (God, you know how many warnings…), 1.16 (whenever my unstable conscience…), 1.19 (You also know, Lord, how with her inner sight…), 1.12 (Good Lord, good God…), 1.16 (O Lady, mother of the heavenly realm; One night I dreamed…), 1.1. (I am always sinning…).

[2] John 3:3-5, 1 Peter 1:3, Romans 8:22-3.

[3] Suffering from fellow monks’ envy for his learning, Guibert sought at one point to go to leave the abbey of Fly, called Saint-Germer, and go to another monastery. But his mother, with the force of interpreting her dream, dissuaded Guibert from leaving. Monodiae 1.16.

[4] Speaking of himself and other men, Guibert observed: “in us the disobendience of concupiscence reigns, calling us against our wills to indecent movement {in nobis concupiscentialis inobedientia regnat, quae etiam nolentes ad motus nos indecoros invitat}.” Guibert of Nogent, Moral Commentary on Genesis {Moralia in Genesim} 1.1, Latin text from Migne (1880) col. 33, English translation adapted from Benton (1970) p. 14. Guibert subsequently elaborated further on men’s difficulties with erections:

Certain people ask why we clothe the genitals so carefully, since we cover no other parts of the body with such attention. Not only do we hide them, but we also scarcely permit the places near them, including the navel and the thighs, to be seen. Why is this? When my finger, my eyes, or my lips move, they move at my direction, by my will. Since they act docilely under my authority, they cause me no shame. But those parts we are considering are driven against the rules of reason by a certain liberty toward unrestrained action. It is as if there were a separate law in our genitals, as St. Paul puts it, fighting against the law of our mind and leading us captive in the law of sin that is in our genitals. Therefore, quite properly we blush, since whether we like it or not, we appear to be shamefully erected out of passionate desire.

{ Quaeritur proinde a quibusdam quid causae sit, quod tantopere ea membra velamus, cum nullas corporis nostri partes ea intentione tegamus. Non enim ea sola celamus, sed etiam propinqua eis loca, uti sunt umbilicus et crura videri vix patimur. Quare hoc? Cum moventur digilus meus, oculi moi, labia mea, meo nutu, mea voluntate moventur; et quia placide sub meo agunt imperio, nullum mihi pudorem incutiunt. At quia partes, de quibus agimus, contra jura tolius rationis effreni quadam libertate feruntur, et quasi quaedam diversa lex est, juxta Aposlolum, in membris nostris repugnans legi mentis nostrae, et captivos nos ducens in lege peccali, quae est in membris nostris; idcirco juste erubescimus, quia velimus, nolimus, turpiter haec erigi ex desiderii passione videmus. }

Guibert of Nogent, Study on the Incarnation against the Jews {Tractatus de Incarnatione contra Judaeos} 1.5, Latin text from Migne (1880) col. 496, English translated (modified for clarity) from Benton (1970) pp. 13-4. Guibert refers in this passage to Romans 7:23.

In contrast to men’s unwilled erections, both men and women could engaged in willful sin. Guibert told of a monk “irrestibily drawn to abnormal vices, from which no form of human supervision could restrain him {viciis enormibus, a quibus custodia humana abstineri non poterat, irretractabiliter deditus}.” Recognizing that women are no less sinful than men, Guibert also told of a nun who “allowed herself to fall under some fithy sins, and no kind of admonishment could compel her to confess {sub peccatis aliquibus foedis sese receperat, nec quocunque monitu ad confitendum cogi potuerat}.” Monodiae 1.24.

[5] Guibert moved seamless between speaking about his mother and about the mother of the heavenly realm or God. Guibert spoke of God knowing his mind (and his mother’s mind) and of confessing to God. See, e.g. Monodiae 1.17, 1.19. To Guibert, the church was “the mother church {mater ecclesia}.” Monodiae 3.16.

[6] Archambault perceptively observed:

Guibert shares with some of the greatest ecclesiastical writers of his age an intense preoccupation with the sinfulness of his soul. … Like Augustine’s, Guibert’s belief in the corruption of the soul is matched by his overwhelming confidence in Christ’s infinite mercy. … There is something moving about his recurring confidence, his spiraling emergence from the depths of despair, his ultimate victory over the forces that might have crushed such a fragile but sensitive psyche.

Archambault (1996) pp. xxiv-xx. Unlike Augustine of Hippo in his Confessions {Confessiones}, Guibert described the sinfulness of his soul within extensive details of his relationship with his mother, whom Guibert regarded as not having a sinful soul. That makes Guibert sense of his conflicted self distinctive and particularly interesting.

Non-meninist literary critics have failed to understand adequately women in relation to men. They have anachronistically disparaged Guibert’s mother:

Guibert’s mother was a domineering person with puritanical {sic} ideas about sex; it seems reasonable to consider that she was responsible for her husband’s impotence during the early years of her marriage.

Benton (1970) p. 26. Blaming Guibert’s mother for her husband’s impotence isn’t reasonable. It’s an ideological projection. Guibert’s mother is best regarded as Guibert regarded her. She was in his view an ideological pure and strong Christian woman.

[[image] Prologue page for Guibert’s moral interpretation (tropology) for the biblical Book of Amos in his on Tropologies in Hosea, Jeremiah, and Amos {Tropologiae in Osee, Jermiam, et Amos}. Illumination from folio 100r, MS Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, lat. 2502.


Archambault, Paul J., trans. 1996. A Monk’s Confession: the memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Benton, John F., trans. 1970. Self and Society in Medieval France: the memoirs of Abbot Guibert of Nogent. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Bourgin, George, ed. 1907. Guibert of Nogent. Histoire de sa vie: 1053-1124. Paris: Picard.

McAlhany, Joseph, and Jay Rubenstein, trans. 2011. Guibert of Nogent. Monodies and the Relics of Saints: the autobiography and a manifesto of a French monk from the time of the crusades. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Migne, Jacques-Paul. 1880. The Venerble Guibert, Abbot of St. Mary of Nogent, Collected Works {Venerabilis Guibert, Abbatis S. Mariae de Novigento, Opera omnia}. Patrologiae cursus completus: Series latina (Patrologiae latina). Vol. 156. Garnier Fratres: Paris.

caution for learning Latin: the case of Maistre Mimin Estudiant

medieval university

Every young man, and every young woman interested in young men, should learn medieval Latin, and so equipped, study medieval Latin literature. Young men should be careful, as medieval Latin literature wisely teaches, or they might find themselves incarcerated as debtors, without even the benefit of counsel. In addition, young men can learn from medieval Latin literature tactics for avoiding the problem of sexual harassment. As those unschooled in the pervasiveness of misogyny know well, young men commonly find young women irresistibly alluring. From medieval Latin literature young men can learn to avoid extremes of gyno-idolatry. They can also learn to be wary of cruelty to women. Most importantly, young men can learn from the mistakes of Achilles and grow in appreciation for their masculine selves within the hostile academic environment.

Just as in using Facebook, safety should be a major concern for men in studying medieval Latin literature. The horrific abuse and bullying that Maistre Mimin Estudiant suffered in late-fifteenth-century France provides a sobering warning. Mimin’s father Raulet and his mother Lubine sent Mimin to study Latin for all the wrong reasons. Raulet explained to Mimin’s future father-in-law:

Here’s the full skinny: we stopped
the usual to hire a Latin teacher,
to make the kid a mover-n-shaker
and a practicing master of right.
Then he could guard the goods tight
that he might inherit from us two.
But we’re less happy as it came through.
With all that taking and undertaking,
learning, new learning, and textual inter-taking
and grand Latin public speechification,
he has forgotten French and in actual action
he can no longer say a single word.

{ Voicy tout: nous avons cessé
De le tenir au pidagogue
Pour en faire un grand astrilogue
Et un maistre praticien,
Affin qu’il gardast mieulx le sien
Qu’il peust susciter de nous deux.
Mais nous en sommes pou joyeulx;
Car il a tant prins et comprins,
Aprins, reprins et entreprins,
Et un grand latin publié,
Qu’il a le françoys oublié,
Tant qu’il n’en sçauroit dire mot. }

When asked to speak French, Mimin himself responded:

Ego don’t know.
I never speak Frenchus,
that’s why ego has forgotten.

{ Ego non sire.
Franchoyson jamais parlare;
Car ego oubliaverunt. }

Studying Latin to become a lawyer is wrong. Lawyers use merely a smattering of Latin to intimidate the defenseless so that they can extract higher fees. The right reason to study Latin is to connect with men across millennia in order to understand the reality of men’s position in relation to women. Mimin was engaged to be married. Mimin’s fiancée spoke only French. Not being able to speak with one’s wife is a bad way for a man to begin a marriage.

Just as some academics have addressed men getting raped, Mimin’s professor proposed to rehabilitate Mimin from his mis-directed learning. The professor who instructed him in reading Latin declared:

His reading
has taken him to what state he is,
and to let him continue to do this —
that would be a very great danger.
In order not to fail to make him better,
we must watch him day and night,
and if he sleeps, wake him with light,
and not let him have a book nor read,
for that intoxicated him like mead,
and disturbed him in his understanding.

{ Sa lecture
L’a mis au point en quoy il est;
Et de le laisser tout seulet
Ce seroit un très grand danger,
Par quoy ne le fault estranger
Qu’il ne soit jour et nuyt veillé;
Et, s’il dort , qu’il soit reveillé;
Et qu’il n’ayt livre ne livret,
Car cela du tout l’enyvroit
Et luy troubloit l’entendement. }

To cure Mimin of his Latin learning, his parents stuck his head into a bird cage. Like the imprisoned Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Mimin was horribly abused. He pathetically cried out:

I’m imprisoned in cage-atus
so can’t study my books-us,
and forgetting my Latin-us.
The professor no show me
and no establish for me
how now words can raise me.

{ Cageatus emprisonare,
Livras non estudiare
Et latinus oubliare.
Magister non monstraverunt
Et non recognossaverunt
Intro logea resurgant. }

Studying medieval Latin should serve as a means for men’s liberation, not their further imprisonment.

With his head imprisoned in a bird cage, Mimin once again became subject to gender subordination and post-structural gender oppression as established by Luce Irigaray, Judith Butler, Caroline Walker Bynum, and Phyllis Trible, among other professors. Mimin’s fiancée voiced the claims of female supremacists to Mimin’s father:

Women always are the rulers
of speaking. …
We have voices much sweeter
than men do; theirs are ruder.
A child who comes home from study
you don’t guide in the right way.

{ Femmes ont tousjours le regnom
De parler. …
Nous avons trop plus doulces voix
Que ces hommes; ilz sont trop rudes.
Un enfant qui vient des estudes
Ne ce doit point traicter tel voye. }

Mimin’s mother taught him to say “my darling {ma joye},” “my mother, I cry to you for mercy {ma mere, je vous crye mercy}.” Mimin’s fiancée taught him to say, “my lover, my cute little one {m’amye, ma mignonne}” and “my heart and my love I give to you {mon cueur et m’amour je vous donner}.” With such teaching, Mimin was restored to his normal position in the social order.

Women’s dominance in social communication keeps men in their cages. The professor of Latin understood the source of women’s social power:

This is women at their working.
I say it, without any blaming,
but in talking, they are renowned.

At least we have seen well how
women are renowned for talking.

To put it quite lightly,
sometimes without even trying.

{ Il n’est ouvrage que de femme.
Je le dy, sans que nul je blasme;
Mais pour parler ilz ont le bruit.

Au moins on a bien veu comment
Femmes ont le bruyt pour parler.

Bien legerement
Aucunesfois, sans riens celer. }

Apparently looking forward to marriage with Mimin, his fiancée declared:

There’s nothing else to say.
It’s not just parrots, various
magpies, starlings, and anti-meninists
that women by their soft languages
make to speak in their cages.
How could we not have done it,
my love?

{ Ausssi n’y a-il que redire.
Ce ne sont pas les papegays,
Les pies, les estourneaulx, les gays,
Que femmes, par leurs doulx langages,
Ne facent parler en leurs cages.
Comme ne l’eussons-nous fait parler,
Mon amy? }

Deprived of useful Latin learning and living in a socially constructed cage, Mimin sung gynocentric tunes until the end of his miserable days.

head cage (brank or bridle)

Unlike warring tribes, most men and women throughout history have lived intimately entangled lives. Amazons and other female separatists aren’t good role models for most men. As the tragic case of Maistre Mimin Estudiant makes clear, men, even as they urgently study medieval Latin literature, must retain the ability to talk with their mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, fiancées, and girlfriends in the vernacular. Medieval Latin literature, however, provides men with more than a slave’s escape from the vernacular. It can change how they engage with the gynocentric world through critical enlightenment.

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The story of Mimin is from Farce de Maître Mimin étudiant {La farce de maistre Mimin estudiant}, a play written in Normandy, France (perhaps Rouen) probably about 1480 to 1490. Mimin became a stock name for a silly pedant. From the mid-sixteenth century, local French authorities began to repress this and other transgressive farces. Such censorship of critical thought and literature supported the rise of absolutism in France. Beam (2007).

All the French text above is from Farce de Maître Mimin étudiant in the critical edition of Tissier (1996) v. 3, pp. 215-272. Philipot (1931) is an alternative. Viollet-le-Duc (1854) vol. 2, pp. 338f provides a reasonably good text freely available online. The English translations above are mine, benefiting from the much looser prose translations of Enders (2013) Ch. 12. Vigorously and repetitiously warning against play with popular songs without seeking permission, id. staunchly supports symbolic capitalism. No permission is currently required to ridicule professors for their narrow-mindedness.

[images] (1) Master Henricus de Alemannia teaching students. Miniature made by Laurentius de Voltolina in the second half of the 14th century. Preserved as Min. 1233 in the Kupferstichkabinett Berlin. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Photo of Belgian iron mask used to publicly humiliate and punish those speaking in unauthorized or unwelcomed ways. Artifact and photo preserved as item A138325 (photo L0035595) in the Wellcome Collection. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Beam, Sara. 2007. Laughing Matters: farce and the making of absolutism in France. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Enders, Jody. 2013. “The Farce of the Fart” and Other Ribaldries: twelve medieval French plays in modern English. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Philipot, Emmanuel. 1931. Trois farces du recueil de Londres: Le cousturier et Esopet. Le cuvier. Maistre Mimin estudiant. Rennes: Librairie Plihon.

Tissier, André. 1996. Recueil de Farces (1450-1550). Textes Littéraires Français. Genève: Droz.

Viollet-le-Duc, Eugène-Emmanuel. 1854. Ancien Theatre Francois: ou, Collection des ouvrages dramatiques les plus remarquables depuis les mysteres jusqu’a Corneille. Paris: Jannet.

male & female gaze: following Perseus against horror of Medusa

gazing on Andromeda

Andromeda was a ravishingly beautiful princess. Not surprisingly, her name in ancient Greek meant “ruler of men.” Beautiful women have ruled men through the male gaze. So misused and misunderstood in literary criticism of recent decades, the male gaze is a device like the face of Medusa. It’s meant to terrify men and turn them into stone-cold beings. With the help of gifts from gods, Perseus beheaded the hateful Medusa and turned her head into a weapon for good. With the support of medieval literature, men today deserve to be free to gaze as they wish, which isn’t the same as saying “I love you.”

modern head of Medusa

In the ancient world, Medusa was even worse than an Amazon. The Amazons were women who hated men. Medusa was a Gorgon. They were women who hated everyone:

the human-hating Gorgons with snaky locks,
whom no mortal can gaze on and still have life.

{ δρακοντόμαλλοι Γοργόνες βροτοστυγεῖς,
ἃς θνητὸς οὐδεὶς εἰσιδὼν ἕξει πνοάς. } [1]

Today Gorgons commonly find employment as campus sex police. Any person who seeks to enjoy the fullness of life must seek safety of thought against the chilling effects of Gorgons.

Though harm comes to me from love
I will not cease
to uphold joy and song
as long as I live;
and I am in such trouble
I don’t know what will become of me,
for she who has my heart,
I see that she does not deign to love me.

{ Per dan que d’amor mi veigna
Non laissarai
Que joi e chan no manteigna
Tan cant viurai;
E si.m sui en tal esmai
Non sai que.m deveigna,
Car cil on mos cors m’atrai
Vei q’amar no.m deigna. } [2]

Perseus required suitable equipment to behead the horrible Medusa, that Jezebel of Jezebels. Like medieval women who expressed loving concern for men, the lovely Hesperides nymphs gave Perseus a knapsack into which to place Medusa’s severed head. The father god Zeus gave Perseus a hard sword and a cloak of invisibility like the vixen outfit Ysengrimus wore to the medieval Latin literature lectures at Fox College. Hermes lent Perseus winged sandals so that when it was time to flee, he could flee quickly. The career woman-warrior Athena, who though a virgin had great wisdom in interpersonal relations, gave Perseus a polished-mirror shield. That’s an extremely valuable weapon against haters.

But since he chooses to let me go,
he could at least agree
to keep my heart in joy
with light and playful banter.
It should not matter to his lady
if I stir him up a bit,
for I don’t ask him to stop
loving or serving her.

Let him serve her but return to me,
not let me die completely.
I fear his love will kill me,
that now makes me languish.
O my friend, so strong and good,
since you’re the best that ever was,
don’t try to make me turn away!

{ e pos no.ill platz que.m retegna,
vueilla.m d’aitant hobesir
c’ab sos avinenz respos
me tegna mon cor ioios,
e ia a sidonz non tir
s’ie.l fas d’aitan enardir
qu’ien no.l prec per mi que s teg
de leis amar ni servir.

Leis serva mas mi.n revegna
que no.m lais del tot morir
… que m’estegna
s’amors don me fa languir.
Hai! Amics, valenz e bos,
Car es lo meiller c’anc fos
non vuillaz c’aillors me vir } [3]

Unreciprocated love expressed in words creates pain for women and men. When a woman doesn’t welcome a man’s expressions of love to her, he is now authoritatively defined to be sexually harassing her. In actual life, women also sexually harass men. However, as the sex-composition of prisoners clearly shows, the justice system is rife with anti-men bias. Men must be careful with words of love to women if they don’t want to be locked up. Women have much more expressive freedom in relation to men. That isn’t a complete blessing. Women hurt from having men ignore their words of love.

Using one’s eyes, like using words, creates dangers. Jesus warned men, and implicitly women too, of looking on others lustfully. Islamic tradition permits forgiveness for a first, heart-stirred glance at a woman, but warned against the second.[4] More generally, love-sickness has long been regarded as a serious disease transmitted primarily through the eyes.

But gazing can be life-saving. Medusa threatened to kill anyone who looked at her. Perseus beheaded Medusa, rescued Andromeda, married her, and didn’t allow her to rule over him. A woman troubadour in the thirteenth century sung of the life-giving effects of her gazing on a man who no longer wanted her love. The male gaze can work in the same salvific way today for men in relation to women. Modern-day Gorgons are assailable. Men must act, if even only with their eyes, to assert that their lives matter.

Fair friend, so strong I desire you
on whom I fix both eyes.
It truly pleases me to gaze at you,
for I cannot find another as fair.
God, I pray that I may press you in my arms
for no one else can so enrich me.

I am rich as long as you remember
how I might come to a place
where I could embrace and kiss you,
for just from that my heart
can recover — it’s so hungry
for you and full of eagerness.
Friend, don’t let me die.
Since I can’t leave you,
at least assure kind looks to revive me
and kill my painful thoughts.

{ bels amics, si faz fort vos
on tenc los oilz ambedos;
e plaz me can vos remir,
c’anc tan bel non sai chausir.
Dieus prec c’ab mos bratz vos segna
c’autre no.m pot enriquir.

Rica soi ab suvegna
com pogues en luec venir
on eu vos bais estregna,
c’ab aitan pot revenir
mos cors, ques es enveios
de vos mout e cobeitos;
amics, no.m laissatz morir.
pueis de vos no.m puesc gandir
un bel semblan que.m revegna
faiz que m’ausiza.l consir. } [5]

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[1] Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, ll. 799-800, Greek text from Perseus, English trans. from Podlecki (2005). Prometheus Bound was written and performed in fifth-century BGC Athens.

[2] Peirol d’Auvergne, canso “Per dan que d’amor mi veigna,” stanza 1, Occitan text online from Trobar, English trans. from Rosenberg, Switten & Le Vot (1998) p. 136. Peirol wrote in southern France in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. “Per dan que d’amor mi veigna” has survived with a melody. Here’s a performance of it.

[3] Lady Castelloza (attributed), canso “Per ioi que d’amor m’avegna” 2.2-3.7, Occitan text from Bruckner, Shepard & White (1995), English trans. from Paden & Paden (2007). An Occitan text is available online at Corpus des Troubadours. Butterfly Crossing provides a slightly different Occitan text, an alternate English translation, and a commentary.

Castelloza wrote in southern France during the thirteenth century. For a critical edition of Castelloza’s songs, Paden (1981). Castelloza’s “Per ioi que d’amor m’avegna” may have been a response to or a prompt for Peirol’s “Per dan que d’amor mi veigna.” Macdonald (1996) pp. 5-6.

[4] Matthew 5:27-30, 1 John 2:16, Sunan al-Tirmidhi 2777.  Of course, blocking one’s ears from hearing and shutting one’s eyes from seeing amounts to rejecting life. Inner disposition affects how one hears and sees.

[5] “Per ioi que d’amor m’avegna,” 4.5-5.10, Occitan text and English trans. (modified slightly based on my study and poetic sense) from Bruckner, Shepard & White (1995).

Bruckner, Shepard & White (1995) shows commitment to gynocentrism while grappling with the significance of whether a trobairitz (woman) or troubadour (man) wrote a given song. Bruckner elsewhere oxymoronically lamented:

But even with the most open mind and the best of feminist intentions, we cannot eliminate the indeterminacy that inevitably remains when we wish to verify not only who were the trobairitz, but also what constitutes their corpus of songs.

Bruckner (1992) p. 871. Macdonald provides a straight-forward, tendentious, you-go-girl interpretation of “Per ioi que d’amor m’avegna”:

our trobairitz is bolder than most. She does dare to challenge the delicate humilis – sublimis opposition in order to fight back against her possible elimination by her lover who repudiates her for another woman. She finds a bold strategy to vacate her lofty position without upset by accepting the other woman in it. She loves to humble herself and yet outmanoeuvres her man and claims her right to live, love and sing. She can still find satisfaction in her past love for she has memories and songs to make from them. Our trobairitz proves herself adept in all the genres and thereby keeps her lover’s attention in some measure, for he, too, must recognize the experience which she validates in her singing. She encroaches very much on the troubadour’s territory. Is her behaviour subversive enough to upset some of the male’s real underlying power and to prove to him that courtly love can bring her something positive too, that the manoeuvres of courtly love are not completely exploited in the traditional male canso. This could well be the case. … if Castelloza is the author of “Per ioi,” she shows herself to have a rich talent for love song which her lover or any troubadour would have to fight hard to rival.

Macdonald (1996) p. 11.

[images] (1) Andromeda. Oil on canvas painting by Edward Poynter. Made in 1869. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Head of Medusa. Oil on canvas painting by Caravaggio. Made between 1595 and 1596. Preserved as access. # 1351, Iffizi Gallery (Florence, Italy). Via Wikimedia Commons.


Bruckner, Matilda Tomaryn. 1992. “Fictions of the female voice: the women troubadours.” Speculum. 67 (4): 865-891.

Bruckner, Matilda Tomaryn, Laurie Shepard, and Sarah White, eds. and trans. 1995. Songs of the Women Troubadours. New York: Garland.

Macdonald, Aileen Ann. 1996. “A Refusal to be Silenced or to Rejoice in any Joy that Love may Bring: The anonymous Old Occitan canso, ‘Per ioi que d’amor m’avegna.'” Dalhousie French Studies. 36: 3-13.

Paden, William D. 1981. “The Poems of the Trobairitz Na Castelloza.” Romance Philology. 35 (1): 158-182.

Paden, William D., and Frances Freeman Paden, trans. 2007. Troubadour Poems from the South of France. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer.

Podlecki, Anthony J., trans. 2005. Aeschylus. Prometheus Bound. Oxford: Aris & Phillips.

Rosenberg, Samuel N., Margaret Louise Switten, and Gérard Le Vot. 1998. Songs of the Troubadours and Trouvères: an anthology of poems and melodies. New York: Garland Pub.