medieval wife’s sexual entitlement banged against her husband’s love

Guilhelm (William) IX of Aquitaine

In our age of ignorance, bigotry, and superstition, many believe that trobairitz and troubadours were medieval folk singers who sang only ennobling love songs. That’s fake history, the medievalism of fantasy, an ideological fabrication in support of today’s men-oppressing cult of courtly love. Trobairitz and troubadours were elite women and men. Their songs included earthy appreciation for sexuality and lower bodily functions as well as sophisticated, critical considerations of dominant structures of gynocentric gender oppression. A unjustly marginalized song of trobairitz and troubadour, wife and husband, deserves more attention than numerous conventional songs of men-abasing courtly love.

In this greatly under-appreciated song, a troubadour singing to a trobairitz described in the third person a difficult marital situation. He recounted:

I have heard a lady who complained
about her husband, and I can tell you her grievance:
he never put it in more than half-way when she gave herself to him,
and for this she wanted her right to be upheld,
so that the lacking and the harm to her
he would come to rectify at once,
no more doing her wrong
with what he holds out.

{ Una dona ai auzit que s’es clamada
de son marit. e sai·us dir de que·s rancura:
qu’anc non lo·y mes mas de mieg, pus li fon dada;
e d’aquo volia que·l fezes drechura,
que la falhida e·l dan
li esmende d’er enan
e que no·l fes tort en re
d’aquo que li·n arete. }

The medieval Christian ideal of marriage was an equal conjugal partnership, not courtly love. Medieval Christian spouses had an obligation to fulfill each other’s requests for sex. That was called the marital debt. Yet women’s sexuality has long been valued more highly than men’s. Women are thus prone to acquire a sense of sexual entitlement. The wife described herself as “giving herself” to her husband, and she didn’t appreciate her husband giving himself to her. She wanted more than he gave. Like a woman claiming child support from a man that she has raped, the wife asserted her sexual right.

Not sexually ungenerous, the husband didn’t go in more than half-way out of love for his wife. The troubadour recounted:

And her husband responded to her as it pleased him,
and told her the reason he gave it to her in moderation:
he had a bigger one than any man of that place,
and he feared that she surely would die
if he didn’t hold back,
for he had one so large,
that he could kill her with it
if he had no compassion for her.

{ E son marit li respos si com l’agrada,
et dis razo per que lo·j mes de mezura:
major l’a que negus hom de l’encontrada;
e temeria que fos de mort segura
si non l’anava palpan,
c’a desmezura l’a gran:
ausir la poiria be
si no·l avia merce. }

Dying in love passion is a gender-neutral poetic figure. Lucius, transformed into a donkey in Apuleius’s second-century Metamorphoses, wrongly worried about hurting a woman with his penis. Many men similarly internalize representations of their love-making organ as a weapon of violence. Such poetic simple-mindedness harms both men and women.

In response to the troubadour’s account, the trobairitz identified the husband as her husband. She asserted her evaluation of the matter:

All that you have heard him say is the boasting
of my husband, who doesn’t, I believe, have one so large.
I believe not even half of what he says he has,
such have I felt a lack and an inadequacy.
And he says that he might kill me with it,
yet of that I have no fear;
indeed, the one he has for me is too small,
and about this he has lied to me.

{ Tot aiso que l’auzes dir es guabaria
a mo marit, qu’ieu non cug n’aja sobreira;
ni la mitat d’aco que di cre que sia,
que·l frachur’ay ieu sentid’ e la nessieira.
E ditz que aussiria m’en,
et ieu no·n ai espaven;
ans l’a a mos obs petit,
e d’aco eys a mentit. }

Men’s bodies and men’s performance are subject to the female gaze and female evaluation. Is it any wonder that men feel pressure to put meat on table?

In response to the trobairitz belittling her husband, the troubadour identified himself as her husband. He strongly criticized his wife for not appreciating his compassion for her:

Wife, what you seek is grand madness!
And I should warn you well from the start,
that I could destroy one who has no other illness,
and you would want to die in such a way?
If I hadn’t had such sense,
as to have consideration,
it would be choosing sorrow
for you, and there’s no gratitude for me.

{ Molher, vos aves dezir de gran folia!
E deuria vos ben castiar la premieira,
qu’ieu l’ausis, c’anc non ac autra malautia:
e vos volriatz morir d’aital maneira?
S’ieu non agues tan de sen
com ai avut chauzimen,
pessaza for’ essernit
de vos: e no m’es grazit. }

Most husbands love their wives and seek to do what is best for their wives. Wives should show more gratitude for their husbands, as Boncompagno taught wives in twelfth-century Bologna.

The trobairitz, a strong, independent woman, instructed her husband on what he should do in bed with her. She declared:

Husband, you should cease the harm you do
and reduce the evil done to me, discerning a better way.
If you can do it so that you hear me cry out and yell,
by ruling over me in my loins and killing it,
I will give you a fighting partner
who triumphs, but doesn’t strike,
who is pleased when he is struck
and doesn’t become less daring.

{ Marit, de trastot lo dan vos fas fi faire
e del mal que·m podetz far, al mieu albire:
si me·n podetz far sentir qu’en crit ni·n braire
per iustiziar mi en ren e per ausire.
E darai vos batallier
que·us vensera, mas no fier;
e platz li cant es feritz,
e ies non es mens arditz. }

Throughout history, some women have enjoyed rough sex. Men naturally fear hurting a beloved woman. Men also rightly fear being wrongly prosecuted for sexual assault. But ultimately women rule over men. The husband declared:

Wife, since as a liar
you regard me, I’ll put it all in:
because you’re not grateful for restraint,
you will then give up your spirit!

{ Molher, pos per messongier
m’avetz, metrai lo·us entier:
pus lo fleis no m’es grazitz,
e issir n’a l’esperitz! }

Jesus’s passion ended with him giving up his spirit. For faithful Christians, that salvific act of love offers hope for abundant life and complete joy. The wife recognized that passion ultimately lives not in words but in action. She knowingly chided her husband:

Husband, I ask for us to abstain
from what is worth only a penny;
much boasting we have heard,
nothing more than empty words!

{ Maritz, ja part nous enquier
del valeissen d’un denier;
que mans gabs avem auzitz
que non eran mas los critz! }

In other words, the wife proposed that they engage in marital sex, rather than just talk about it. Men’s sexuality is enormously important to women. This song poignantly moved from a third-personal story to a first-personal negotiation of intimacy between spouses within a Christian understanding of passion.

troubadour-knight with big weapon

Vitally important medieval literature has been marginalized through men’s lack of meninist self-consciousness and the overwhelming force of gynocentric interests. Troubadours have been socially constructed as idealized instructors in courtly love. They in our day thus serve to instruct men in oppressive, fruitless self-abasement in loving women. Trobairitz have been falsely interpreted as proto-anti-meninists who further demonstrate the truth of dominant myths. Love separated from truth cannot stand the test of enlightenment. Study medieval literature and truly swerve now!

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The above quotes are from the medieval trobairitz / troubadour song (tenso) “Una dona ai auzit que s’es clamada {I have heard a lady who complained}.” The quotes cover the whole song. This song also exists in a somewhat different version “D’una domn’ai auzit dir que s’es clamada {I have heard of a lady who complained}.” In Chansonnier C (MS BnF 856), this song is wrongly attributed to Guillem de Sant Didier (Guillem de Sant-Leidier). Scholars now regard it to have been composed at least in part by the early fourteenth-century troubadour Peire Duran. Sakari (1992), Sansone (2000), Sansone (2001).

An anonymous trobairitz apparently co-composed this song. Some scholars wrongly deny a trobairitz authority to co-write such a song. However, medieval women, like medieval men, composed a wide range of works. Some scholars also regard this tenso as “fictive.” See, e.g. Taylor (2015) p. 483. This tenso likely draws upon a classical literary tradition represented by Lucius as a donkey having a sexual affair with an elite woman in Apuleius’s Metamorphoses. However, the tenso may be real in the sense that a trobairitz and troubadour, who were wife and husband, together composed and sung this song about a matter of personal concern to them in early fourteenth-century Occitania.

Troubadours lacked the privileged position of trobairitz. Like many wives pursuing careers today, trobairitz were more likely to compose and sing for their own aspirations and personal fulfillment, not because they were forced to earn money as sexually devalued persons.

The Occitan text above is that of Sansone (2000), which provides a scholarly critical edition of the song. The English translation is mine, benefiting from the Italian translation of id. and the English translation of a slightly different version in Nappholz (1994) pp. 92-95.

On giving up one’s spirit as Christian death, see Jesus’s death as described in Matthew 27:50, Mark 15:39, Luke 23:46, and John 19:30. In the Vulgate, Luke 23:46 states:

Father, into your hands a commend my spirit. Having said this, he breathed his last.

{ Pater in manus tuas commendo spiritum meum et haec dicens exspiravit. }

[images] (1) Troubadour-knight Guilhem IX of Aquitaine with thin spear. Illuminated initial on folio 142v of Recueil des poésies des troubadours, contenant leurs vies (Chansonnier I), made in second half of the 13th century. MS preserved as Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF). Département des manuscrits. Français 854. (2) Troubadour-knight carrying large weapon. Illuminated initial on folio 89v in BnF Français 854.


Nappholz, Carol Jane, trans. 1994. Unsung Women: the anonymous female voice in troubadour poetry. New York: Lang.

Sakari, Aimo. 1992. “L’attribution de D’una domn’ai auzit dir que s’es clamada (234,8).” Actes de Montpellier 1990, l’Association Internationale d’Études Occitanes (AIÉO). III: 1145-1152.

Sansone, Giuseppe. 2000. “Per il testo della tenzone fittizia attribuita a Peire Duran.” Romania. 118 (469): 219-235.

Sansone, Giuseppe. 2001. “Una difficile paternità: la tenzone di Peire Duran.” Pp. S. 478-486 in Kremnitz, Georg, ed. Le Rayonnement de la Civilisation Occitane à l’Aube d’un Nouveau Millénaire: 12-19 Septembre 1999. Wien: Ed. Praesens Wissenschaftsverl.

Taylor, Robert A. 2015. A Bibliographical Guide to the Study of the Troubadours and Old Occitan Literature. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University.

Christian comedy: epic jesting with the Lord in the Waltharius

raising Lazarus

With the heavily armed Frankish men rapidly approaching, Walter of Aquitaine went to the entrance of the cave where his beloved-betrothed Hildegund had retreated. There he said:

Now before the entryway I speak a haughty boast:
none of the Franks returning from here will be able to say
to his wife that he has with impunity taken any of our great treasure.

{ Hac coram porta verbum modo iacto superbum:
Hinc nullus rediens uxori dicere Francus
Praesumet se impune gazae quid tollere tantae. } [1]

Epic heroes generically boast to their fellow warriors. Walter boasted to his betrothed, and his boast addressed the household matter of what other men would say to their wives. Is epic struggle ultimately about husbands seeking to win their wives’ admiration?

Not yet having finished his speech, suddenly to the earth
he fell and begged forgiveness for such he had said.

{ Necdum sermonem complevit, humotenus ecce
Corruit et veniam petiit, quia talia dixit. }

Walter didn’t beg forgiveness for travestying epic conventions. He apparently begged forgiveness for his pride, the most serious sin in Christian thought of the time.[2] He went on to acknowledge that he would escape alive the forthcoming battle only “god willing {volens deo}.”

The epic’s ending isn’t obviously pious. Walter fought against his close friend Hagen and the Frankish king Gunther. Walter escaped that battle alive, but not unwounded:

After it was finished, each of them was marked:
there lay King Gunther’s foot, there Walter’s palm,
and here the still-quivering eye of Hagen.
In just such a way they divided the Avarish bracelets.
Two of them sat together (the third was still lying on the ground)
and they wiped the torrential river of blood off the flowers.
In the meantime, Alpharides called back the fearful girl
with a shout. She came and bandaged each wound.

{ Postquam finis adest, insignia quemque notabant:
Illic Guntharii regis pes, palma iacebat
Waltharii nec non tremulus Haganonis ocellus.
Sic sic armillas partiti sunt Avarenses!
Consedere duo, nam tertius ille iacebat,
Sanguinis undantem tergentes floribus amnem.
Haec inter timidam revocat clamore puellam
Alpharides, veniens quae saucia quaeque ligavit. }

The “Avarish bracelets” are treasure that Walter and Hildegund stole from the poem’s Pannonian Avar king Attila the Hun. The word “Avarish {Avarenses}” probably was meant to pun with “avarice {avaritia}.”[3] The wounds to the three men invoke self-punishment to prevent further sinning, as described in Mark 9:42-8. Mark there connects the ancient understanding of righting interpersonal wrongs to Christian self-consciousness in seeking forgiveness. The name Alpharides is an epic patronymic for Walter, son of King Alphere of Aquitaine. Despite his cut-off eye twitching on the ground, Hagen managed to help Walter wipe their blood from flowers. Resonating with that incongruity is the fearful girl. She is Hildegund, the strong, independent woman who administered the finances of Attila the Hun’s kingdom. She acted with Christian compassion for all, like Jesus the Good Physician. In addition to bandaging the men’s wounds, she offered them wine.[4] Then Walter and Hagen “playfully jest with each other while drinking {inter pocula scurrili certamine ludunt}.” That’s the epically bizarre ending to the fighting in the Waltharius.

The Waltharius closes off epic narration in a distinctly Christian way. Walter returned to his home kingdom. There Hildegund and he were married. After his father died, Walter reigned as king for thirty years:

What kind of battles and what great triumphs he often
received… behold, my blunted pen refuses to write any more.

This is the poetry of Walter. May Jesus save you!

{ Qualia bella dehinc vel quantos saepe triumphos
Ceperit, ecce stilus renuit signare retunsus.

Haec est Waltharii poesis. vos salvet Iesus. }

In Christian understanding, God became the fully human Jesus, born in a small provincial town to a carpenter and an undistinguished young woman. Jesus engaged in ordinary life, ate with everyone, and playfully mocked his disciples. Jesus healed the sick in earthy ways and raised the dead Lazarus to life through drama that non-Christian Greco-Roman elites would regard as ridiculous. God, like the pen of the Waltharius’s author, refused with Jesus to write the proper matter of epic.

The prologue to the Waltharius subtly sets out its Christian program. The difficulty in interpreting it comes from not fully appreciating Christianity historically. One medieval scholar explained:

The ludus poeticus (poetic play) requires leisure, it represents a jest or witty game by contrast with serious literature; it can be used almost synonymously with nugae ‘trifles’ and be equated with iocus ‘jest’; and on rare occasions it can designate poetry at large as opposed to serious, political work.[5]

Are the Christian gospels poetry, or serious, political work? An eminent medievalist, ignoring the problem and idealizing a distinction between jest and earnest, categorized the Waltharius unequivocally in medieval thought:

The epic of Waltharius, then, was considered lusus, like all poetry without a Christian-ethical trend.[6]

Such high-level interpretation has driven philological reading of the prologue:

One gets the sense that the poet is not entirely serious when using the commonplaces of epic narratives dealing with war; whether this sort of parodying is intended as critique, however, and what value we are to give such a critique, is far from clear. … the preface states unequivocally that the poem is not intended for edification, but for amusement [7]

Here’s what the last seven verses of the prologue say in a reasonable translation:

Servant of the highest God, do not look down on the words of this little book.
It does not sing of God’s nourishing, but resounds with amazing deeds of
the young man Walter, maimed through much fighting.
It requires one to jest with the Lord rather than to petition the Lord.
When read through, it shortens the undistinguished hours of the long-aged day.
May you, holy priest, be happy through further years,
may Gerald your dear brother be in your mind.

{ Serve dei summi, ne despice verba libelli,
Non canit alma dei, resonat sed mira tyronis,
Nomine Waltharius, per proelia multa resectus.
Ludendum magis est dominum quam sit rogitandum,
Perlectus longaevi stringit inampla diei.
Sis felix sanctus per tempora plura sacerdos,
Sit tibi mente tua Geraldus carus adelphus. } [8]

The final two lines invoke brotherly affection and simple happiness. That provides meaningful context for the key, central verse: ludendum magis est dominum quam sit rogitandum. That verse has been uniformly translated with the sense, “It requires one to play rather than pray to the Lord.” However, the words ludendum {play / jest} and rogitandum {pray / petition} bracket the line with dominum {Lord} in the middle. Grammatically, dominum could go with either participle, or both. Inter-personal jesting better reflects the Waltharius’s Christian sense than does the more ordinary Christian practice of petitioning God for help or nourishment. Not merely mocking classical epic, the Waltharius brings to classical epic an extraordinary Christian sense of human comedy.[9]

Jesus talking with Samaritan woman at well

The Christian gospels aren’t an epic story of a hero-savior. They are more like the Life of Aesop. They overturn the dominant order and offer salvation in ordinary life. That salvation comes through God who becomes the friend and companion of humans, humans who repeatedly act wrongly.[10] The Waltharius engages in the literary way of the Christian gospels.

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[1] Waltharius, ll. 561-3, Latin text and English trans. (modified slightly) from Ring (2016). My modifications to Ring’s translation benefited from also studying the translation of Kratz (1984). The subsequent three quotes are similarly from Waltharius ll. 564-5 (Not yet having finished…); 1401-8 (After it was finished…); 570 (God willing); 1424 (playful jest); 1451-2, 1456 (What kind of battles…). Line 1456 is the last verse of the poem.

[2] Stone (2013) p. 59. Walter indicates his Christian piety when, in receiving wine from Hildegund, he makes the sign of the Cross. Waltharius l. 225. Superbia is the Latin word corresponding to “pride.” Walter isn’t generally characterized with superbia, while King Gunther is. Id. p. 61. But Walter displays much pride in l. 805-17. Ghosh (2015) p. 165, Ring (2016) p. 180, n. 178-9.

[3] Waltharius, ll. 4-5, 11, associate the Pannonians with the Huns and state that King Attila ruled over them. The historical Pannonians, Huns, and Avars were three different populations. Ring (2016) p. 166, n. 22. The interpretation of Avarish {Avarenses} and the subsequent textual points in the above paragraph come mainly from the excellent textual notes in id.

[4] Women couldn’t be Christian priests in medieval Europe. Yet Hildegund quasi-sacramentally offers wine twice. On the first occasion, Walter made the sign of the Cross when receiving wine from her. Waltharius l. 225.

[5] Green (2002) p. 32. Green observed:

Hrotswitha meant her poetic legends to be regarded as fictional, she nonetheless dedicates them with a wish that they be read to pass away the time when the reader is worn out by labour.

Id. p. 33. In the tenth century in Lower Saxony (Germany), Hrotswitha wrote in her Dedicatio 7:

and, when worn out by various labour,
deign to read these verses for entertainment.

{ et, cum sis certe vario lassata labore,
ludens dignare hos modulos legere. }

Latin text and English trans. from id. p. 211, n. 103.

In addition to valuing entertainment, medieval thinkers recognized fundamental significance for laughter. About the end of the tenth century and writing at the Abbey of St. Gall, where some regard the author of Waltharius to have resided, Notker III (Notker Labeo) asserted: “the human is a animal that is rational, mortal, and capable of laughter {homo est animal rationale, mortale, risus capax}.” De Definitione, Latin text as cited in Adolf (1947) p. 251. That definition adopts a definition of “man” that Boethius cited to Lady Philosophy. Adolf insightfully observed:

laughter might have been considered the natural consequence of combining two qualities as contradictory as mortality and reason. Indeed modern theories on laughter have reached exactly this conclusion. … it all boils down to the opposition between ‘mortale’ and ‘rationale’ — strange bedfellows indeed, only to be reconciled by laughter.

Id. p. 253. Jesus embraced and transformed human’s mortality and ridiculousness. Thus, not surprisingly, Notker’s definition of the human was widely taught in medieval Christian Europe:

The standard school-example of a definition was homo est animal rationale, mortale, risus capax: “Man is an animal, rational, mortal and capable of laughing.” A ninth century grammar written in France offers the alternative porcus est animal mortale, irrationale, cibum capiens, quadrupedale, grunnibile: “A pig is an animal, mortal, irrational, food-taking, four-footed and capable of grunting.”

McKeown (2010), Ch. 8 supplement (modified insubstantially for readability). This view became summarized in describing humans as the species Homo ridens (the animal that laughs). Notker also declared “that which is laughable is human {quia quidquid risibile est, homo est}.” That gave rise to the species term Homo risibilis (the laughable animal). Cf. humans as an “animal capable of rationality {animal rationabile}.”

[6] Curtius (1953) p. 430. This statement comes in the section “Comic Elements in the Epic” within a lengthy, rambling excursus entitled “Jest and Earnest in Medieval Literature.” Medieval Europe differed from classical antiquity:

From what has so far been set forth, it follows that the polarity “jest and earnest” is, from the late antique period onward, a conceptual and formal schema which appears not only in rhetorical theory, in poetry, and in poetics, but also in the circle of the ideal of life established by the panegyric style (in this respect it is comparable to the topos puer senex). … We may, then, view the phenomenon as a fresh substantiation of the view that the Middle Ages loved all kinds of crossings and mixtures of stylistic genres. And in fact we find in the Middle Ages ludicra within domains and genres which, to our modern taste, schooled by classicistic aesthetics, absolutely exclude any such mixtures.

Id. p. 424. It’s not just that “the Middle Ages loved all kinds of crossings and mixtures of stylistic genres” like a person might love strawberry ice cream. The Christianity of the gospels authorized “all kinds of crossings and mixtures of stylistic genres.” The European Middle Ages were deeply Christian.

[7] Ghosh (2015) p. 181. In his Ph.D. Thesis, Ghosh stated that “in Waltharius Christian morality appears to have little of a role to play”; the Waltharius’s narrator “did not attempt to reflect deeply on any moral problems that might have been posed by his narrative.” Ghosh (2009) pp. iii (abstract), 167. For the latter quote, also Ghosh (2015) p. 182.

Ziolkowski presented a more nuanced view:

His reference {that of the author of the Waltharius, perhaps Gerald} to play points at once to the reader, who by perusing the Waltharius is opting not to perform the sacred task of praying, and to the contents of the poem, which despite the gore spilt in the battles have a playful side that precludes categorizing the Waltharius as either undiluted heroism or undiluted tragedy. The poem, like most of life, is far more artful and complicated than that.

Ziolkowski (2001) p. 51. Ordinary life usually isn’t undiluted heroism or undiluted tragedy, but it’s also not typically thought of as poetic. Through the incarnation of God as the man Jesus, ordinary life became poetic in a Christian perspective.

Responding to Ziolkowski, Ghosh shifted slightly toward a now-fashionable academic position of ambiguity and ambivalence. Ghosh stated:

But a refusal to portray just heroism or tragedy is coupled equally with a refusal to portray just a secular or religious moral, and perhaps the playful element of the poem can be read as a sophisticated rejection of such binaries in favour of (a rather modern-seeming) lack of commitment to any particular position.

Ghosh (2015) p. 183, n. 146. The author of the Waltharius more likely was committed to particular Christian perspective well-appreciated in the European Middle Ages, but little recognized today.

[8] Waltharius, prologue ll. 16-22. My translation above differs significantly in the Waltharius’s statement of how it should be read (prologue l. 19). Other translations emphasize mere entertainment. “It requires one to play rather than pray to the Lord” in Ring (2016). “It is for playing more than praying to the Lord” in Kratz (1984). “The aim is to delight, rather than to instruct in religious terms” in Murdoch (1996) p. 93. “If and when it is important to play rather than to pray to the lord” in Ziolkowski (2001) p. 51. “It is more for entertainment than for beseeching God” in Ghosh (2015) p. 181, n. 142. These translations aren’t incorrect. But “It requires one to jest with the Lord rather than to petition the Lord” seems to me a better translation in context. I’m grateful for an expert Latin philologist pointing out to me that ludere with the accusative generally means “mock,” but that lighter meanings are possible.

The influential fourth-century Archbishop of Constantinople and theologian Gregory of Nazianus described the Word (Logos / God) as playful:

For the Word on high plays in all sorts of forms,
mingling with his world here and there as he so desires.

{ Παίζει γὰρ λόγος αἰπὺς ἐν ἔίδεσι παντοδαποῖσι
Κίρνας, ὡς ἐθέλει, κόσμον ἑὸν ἔνθα καὶ ἔνθα. }

Gregory of Nazianzus, Poems on Morals {Poemata moralia}, Precepts for Virgins {Praecepta ad virgines} 1.2.2, Patrologiae graeca (PG) 37:624A-625A, cited from Bowers (2012) p. 200. For further examples of a Christian sense of play, Levine (1982).

[9] On the Waltharius mocking classical epic and Germanic folk legend, Kratz (1980). The Waltharius is a Christian epic that builds upon early Jewish Christians speaking in tongues with the coming of the Holy Spirit:

And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others mockingly said, “They are filled with new wine.”

{ ἐξίσταντο δὲ πάντες καὶ διηπόρουν ἄλλος πρὸς ἄλλον λέγοντες τί θέλει τοῦτο εἶναι ἕτεροι δὲ διαχλευάζοντες ἔλεγον ὅτι γλεύκους μεμεστωμένοι εἰσίν }

Acts 2:12-13. According to Stone, the Waltharius “glorifies lay noblemen as Christian warriors.” Stone (2013) p. 70. Cf. Ghosh (2015) pp. 165-70. The Christian warrior Walter isn’t an ideal. He is a human, comic figure.

[10] The gospels repeatedly depict the disciples falling asleep when they should be awake, seeking high positions as Jesus’s disciples instead of being humble, seeking to fight violently when they should accept God’s plan, and being weak of heart and willing to betray their friend and master Jesus. See, e.g. Luke 22:39-46, 54-62, John 18:10-11, Mark 14:45-50, John 6:66-7.

[images] (1) The Raising of Lazarus. Made by Duccio di Buoninsegna about 1310-11 to be part of the altarpiece for the high altar of Siena Cathedral in Italy. Preserved as accession number APx 1975.01 in the Kimbell Art Museum (Forth Worth, Texas). (2) Jesus conversing with the Samaritan woman at the well. Made by Jacob van Oost the Younger in 1668 in Bruges. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Adolf, Helen. 1947. “On Mediaeval Laughter.” Speculum. 22 (2): 251-253.

Blowers, Paul M. 20212. ‘On the “Play” of Divine Providence in Gregory Nazianzen and Maximus the Confessor.’ Ch. 12 (pp. 199-217) in Christopher A. Beeley, ed. Re-Reading Gregory of Nazianzus. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press.

Curtius, Ernst Robert. 1953. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Translated from the Germany by Willard R. Trask. New York: Pantheon Books.

Ghosh, Shami. 2009. The Barbarian Past in Early Medieval Historical Narrative. Ph. D. Thesis. University of Toronto.

Ghosh, Shami. 2015. Writing the Barbarian Past: studies in early Medieval historical narrative. Brill’s series on the Early Middle Ages, v. 24. Leiden: Brill (based on Ghosh (2009)).

Green, Dennis Howard. 2002. The Beginnings of Medieval Romance: fact and fiction, 1150-1220. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Levine, Robert. 1982. “Wolfram von Eschenbach: Dialectical Homo ludens.” Viator. 13: 177-202.

Kratz, Dennis M. 1980. Mocking Epic: Waltharius, Alexandreis, and the problem of Christian heroism. Madrid, España: J.P. Turanzas.

Kratz, Dennis M., ed. and trans. 1984. Waltharius and Ruodlieb. New York: Garland Pub.

McKeown, J. C. 2010. Classical Latin: an introductory course. Indianapolis, Ind: Hackett.

Murdoch, Brian. 1996. The German Hero: politics and pragmatism in early medieval poetry. London: The Hambledon Press.

Ring, Abram, ed. and trans. 2016. Waltharius. Dallas Medieval Texts and Translations 22. Leuven: Peeters. (A. M. Juster’s review)

Stone, Rachel. 2013. “Waltharius and Carolingian Morality: Satire and Lay Values.” Early Medieval Europe. 21 (1): 50-70.

Ziolkowski, Jan. 2001. “Fighting Words: Wordplay and Swordplay in the Waltharius.” Pp. 29-51 in Olsen, Karin E., Antonina Harbus, and Tette Hofstra, eds. 2001. Germanic Texts and Latin Models: Medieval Reconstructions; papers presented at an international conference held July 1-3, 1998, at the University of Groningen. Leuven: Peeters.

what men want most: honest, frank discussion in medieval France

man desiring woman

In our age of demonizing men’s sexuality, men perceiving an attractive woman to be attractive is nearly unthinkable. The male gaze has been disparaged and punished to the point of death. Men inducing women to love (“seducing them”) has also been thoroughly criminalized. Men’s perceptions and feelings, however, have not always been so harshly repressed. In the relatively liberal and tolerant circumstances of medieval Europe, men even discussed what they want most physically from a woman.

The man trobairitz Sifre shared a woman’s love with another man, probably her husband. He asked his professional colleague Mir Bernart which half of the woman he should seek. Mir Bernart compassionately responded:

Sifre, I think you’re fortunate
to have asked me for advice,
and I’ll give you the best of that,
because I’ve thought deeply of desired service.
I’ll tell you the truth without shading:
if in sharing you take my word, to be blunt,
you assuredly should prefer the part with the cunt.

{ Sifre, be·us tenc per arribat
car cosselh m’aves demandat,
et ieu donar lo·us ay onrat
car fort en cossir de prion:
so sapchatz ben en veritat,
que, si·m creziatz d’est mercat,
per ver penriatz daus la con.} [1]

Sifre chided Mir Bernart for speaking so knowingly and plainly. Sifre declared that he prefers the upper part, where a woman cuts her hair, but doesn’t remove all of it. Mir Bernart responded with a commitment to truth and the dignity of humanism:

Sifre, you’re refusing the best, the ultimate
and thus what every man loves most.
According to nature and custom
of good lovers through the world,
the lower part is worth more than the face.
And let no troubadour make excuses for me,
for none answers more nobly than I do.

{ Sifren, lo mielhs laissatz e·l pus
e so que mays ama cascus
segon la natura e·l us
que fan’autre bon drut pel mon
val may so d’aval no fa·l mus.
E ja trobaires no·m n’escus,
c’om genser de mi no’y respon. }

Even in the relatively liberal and tolerant circumstances of medieval Europe, men attacked other men for speaking frankly about women. So Sifre tore into Mir Bernart:

Mir Bernart, I am all but enraged
that you give an uncouth answer
and set a much higher value on that bringing
ruination to lovers and husbands alike:
a gentle advance is worth more,
embracing and caressing and kissing
mouth and eyes and face and forehead.

{ Mir Bernat, per pauc no·m n’irays
car mi respondes motz savays
e sela part prezatz trop mays
que los drutz e·ls maritz cofon,
que may ne val us gens assays
c’om embratz e manei e bays
boca et huelh e car’e froll. } [2]

While an unplanned pregnancy can bring ruination to men, that’s only because men are deprived of any reproductive rights whatsoever. Some men facing a disastrous unplanned pregnancy resort to abortion coercion. But that sad reality doesn’t usually change men’s preferences. Mir Bernart stood his ground and boldly insisted on truth-telling:

Sifre, do not imagine I shall shift my ground,
abandoning the best for the worst,
for every day I embrace and kiss
brother, cousin or second-cousin.
But I maintain that I am right in thinking
that all love-making arises
from the end where love is most hidden.

{ Sifren, no’us cuges qu’ie·m biais
ni·l mielhs per lo sordeior lais,
que tot dia abras e bays
fraire e cozi e segall.
Mas d’ayso die que soy verays,
que tota drudaria nays
d’aquel cap don pus se rescon. }

The discussion between Sifre and Mir Bernart then degenerated into trading insults. Having a serious, truthful discussion about men’s interests and concerns has never been easy.

troubadour sending song

In the thirteenth century, sophisticated trobairitz songs expressing men’s subordinate position in sexual feudalism and vigorously critiquing that structure of gender oppression were coming to an end. Crude wailing and sensational spectacles more easily attract attention. They also tend to support lies. Truth-telling is an art and a craft that must be cultivated. Late in the thirteenth century, a man trobairitz lamented:

For now no art is less admired
than the worthy craft of song.
These days the nobles’ tastes run
to entertainments less inspired.
Wailing mingles with disgrace:
all that once engendered praise
from the memory has died.
Now the world is mostly lies.

{ Qu’er non es grazitz lunhs mestiers
menhs en cort, que de belh saber
de trobar; qu’auzir e vezer
hi vol hom mais captenhs leugiers
e critz mesclatz ab dezonor;
Quar tot quan sol donar lauzor,
es al pus del tot oblidat,
que·l mons es quays totz en barat. } [3]

These words resonate among the prevalent lies of today.

Dare to think about what is true. Young, attractive, warmly receptive women have enormous power over men. That’s not just a matter of a pretty face. Men admire women’s breasts and women’s buttocks. But the ultimate foundation of men’s gyno-idolatry is almost surely women’s vaginas. With good evolutionary reason, that’s the part of a woman that most men want most.

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[1] Sifre and Mir Bernart “Mir Bernat, mas vos ay trobat {Mir Bernart, since I have found you} st. 2, Occitan text and English translation (modified) from Harvey, Paterson & Radaelli (2010) pp. 1168-9. Subsequent quotes from the same song are similarly sourced. This song probably was composed in Carcassonne (in Occitania, in southern France) in the later decades of the twelfth century. Id. p. 1170. Here’s an online Occitan text of the whole song.

[2] In a cobla (one-stanza song), the man trobairitz Raimon Rigaut supported Sifre’s position:

Never for love of her cunt
did I request my lady’s love,
but rather for her clear face
and smiling mouth;
I could easily enter the cunts
of many, if only I asked for them,
but I prefer frequent kissing
to the cunt that kills desire.

{ Anc per amor del con
A midons non quis s’amor,
Mas per sa fresca color
E per sa boca rien,
Qu’ieu pron cons trobaria
Ab mantas, s’ieu lo lur queria,
Per qu’ieu am mais baisar soven
Que’l con, qu’amorta lo talen. }

Occitan text and English translation (modified) from Lazar (1989) p. 263. Here’s a nearly identical Occitan text online. While a man generally experiences detumescence after ejaculating in a woman’s vagina, most men are quite eager to have that experience. Raimon Rigaut composed in the middle of the thirteenth century. For other trobairitz / troubadour songs frankly discussing sexuality, Bec (1984).

[3] Guiraut Riquier, “Be·m degra de chantar tener {It would be best if I refrained},” st. 3, Occitan text and English translation (Kehew) from Kehew (2005) pp. 308-9.  Born in Narbonne about 1230, Guiraut Riquier composed his songs from 1254 to 1292 in the courts of the Viscount of Narbonne, Alfonso X of Castile and León, and Henri II of Rodez. He is the last troubadour known, and this, his last song, was composed in 1292. Id. pp. 306-07. Here’s an online Occitan text of the whole song.

[images] (1) Man and woman in illuminated initials. From folio 2v and 2r in a chansonnier (Chansonnier Gil) made in the 14th century. Preserved as MS Barcelona Biblioteca de Catalunya 146. (2) Man trobairitz sending forth a letter. Illumination on folio 4r of the chansonnier of Matfré Ermengau, Breviari d’amor et Lettre à sa soeur {Breviary of love and Letter to his beloved woman}, made in the 14th century. Preserved as MS Bibliothèque nationale de France. Français 857.


Bec, Pierre. 1984. Burlesque et Obscénité chez les Troubadours: pour une approche du contre-texte médiéval. Paris: Stock.

Harvey, Ruth, Linda M. Paterson, and Anna Radaelli. 2010. The Troubadour Tensos and Partimens: a critical edition. Cambridge: Brewer.

Kehew, Robert, ed. 2005. Lark in the Morning: the Verses of the Troubadours: a bilingual edition. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.

Lazar, Moshe. 1989. “Carmina Erotica, Carmina Iocosa: The Body and the Bawdy in Medieval Love Songs.” Pp. 249-276 in Lazar, Moshe, and Norris J. Lacy, eds. Poetics of Love in the Middle Ages: texts and contexts. Fairfax, Va: George Mason University Press.

the now-inconceivable medieval joy of sex

medieval lovers

Sex in the age of mechanical reproduction commonly consists of robotic, minutely regulated affairs among persons earnestly trying to convince themselves that they’re alive. How many lovelorn persons desperately stroking their smartphones today even know what it means to have a roll in the hay? Why do they read a massively reproduced instruction book on the joy of sex? Fully alive, flesh-and-blood human beings acted differently in medieval times. Rather than faithfully believing in rape culture, medieval persons regarded sex as natural and pleasing.

Let the young man and virgin woman, both beautiful,
press against each other on the couch in the dark
and hug each other in turn repeatedly,
giving themselves many sweet embraces.

While holding her let the young man
kiss her with cheek close,
caressing her chest and nipples
and her fittingly satisfying little thing.

Thighs to thighs joined,
entering upon the fruit of Love,
let all clamor cease,
and so love be fulfilled.

{ Iuvenis et virgo pulcra
in obscuro premant fulcra,
et vicissim perconexus
dulces sibi dent amplexus.

Hosculetur hos, maxillam,
iuvenis dum tenet illam;
tangat pectus et papillam
satis aptam et puxillam.

Femur femori iungatur,
fructus Veneris summatur:
tunc omnino cesset clamor:
adimplebitur sic amor. } [1]

Late in the twelfth century, a monk at the Catalonian monastery of Santa Maria de Ripoll apparently copied the above poem about two young lovers. These two young lovers didn’t sign a series of formal affirmative consent forms at each step in their amorous relationship. They behaved the way most young women and men yearn to do:

Tenderly I held her legs, without her resisting,
and with her consent caressed her above her thighs.
She didn’t then forbid me to caress her snowy-white breasts,
which to caress was for me extremely sweet.
We went to bed, both our bodies were entwined;
the rest, which she permitted me to take, wasn’t done reluctantly.

{ Cuius crus tenerum tenui, quod non negat ipsa,
Insuper ex coxas, sponte sua tetigi;
Nec vetuit niveas post me tractare papillas,
Quas tractare mihi dulce nimis fuerat.
Venimus ad lectum, connectimur insimul ambo;
Cetera, que licuit sumere, non piguit. } [2]

Like most men throughout history, this young man didn’t want to rape the young woman that he loved. The young man’s concern for the young woman’s consent contrasts with how she burst into his bedroom without asking permission:

Although I intended to open the closed, latched doors by hand,
a Venus herself burst through while I was separating them.
A beautiful young woman approached via that means
to give me loving kisses in a thousand ways.
Flora was her name, and florid were her deeds.
She bore honey in her throat and spoke honeyed words.

{ Cunque manu clausas valvas aperire volebam,
fregit poste seram protinus ipsa Venus.
Venerat illius conductu pulcra puella,
hoscula mille modis que mihi cara daret.
Flora sibi nomen, quia florida sunt sua facta,
gutture mella gerens, mellea verba dedit. } [3]

That young man didn’t file a sexual assault charge against the young woman. With generosity of spirit, he delighted in her enthusiastic consent to sex with him.

Medieval young women enthusiastically consented to sex with young men. That was especially so in the spring:

All young persons then
are burning in love;
he seeks her who desires him,
and thus he loves and is loved.

And the young woman aptly
seeks such who is young,
so that in an equal way she wants
only to love and to be loved.

{ Omnis ergo adolescens
in amore sit fervescens.
Querat cum quo delectetur
et, ut amet, sic ametur.

Et amicum virgo decens
talem querat qui sit recens
atque velit modo pari
tam amare quam amari. } [4]

The joy of sex is dissipating amid the opening chasm of sexual totalitarianism. In 2017, a journalist, a Beijing Bureau Chief, had a drunken hook-up with a journalist friend studying Chinese. Months later, piling on to an accusation about a sexual encounter five years earlier, she publicly denounced him. He became a target of online mobbing, his friends turned against him, and he was forced to resign as the president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China. Then his employer, the Los Angeles Times, fired him. All this took place without any thorough, reasoned, multi-sided inquiry into the facts. A subsequent analysis that apparently attempted to be fair nonetheless declared:

Given the millennia during which women have had to take male abuse and suffer under institutionalized denial of and indifference to it, it is perhaps understandable that there is a willingness to shrug off the prospect that some unfairly accused men will become roadkill on the way to a more equitable future. [5]

That’s the childish sentiment that two wrongs will make a right. That’s the amoral consequentialism put forward by Walter Duranty, Ezra Klein, and other news-media thought leaders. That’s profoundly ignorant and narrow-minded history distorted with grotesque anti-men gender bigotry.

Earnestly believed, cartoonish stories of oppressors and victims provide foundations for unfathomable cruelty. Why did Stalin’s bureaucratic interrogators regularly stick heated metal rods into men’s anuses? Why did they crush men’s testicles with the toes of their jackboots?[6] Because those Russian men were bourgeoisie, whatever that means, and those Russian men were thus enemies of the working class, an ideological abstraction. A Spanish school teacher recently taught her students that boys should be castrated at birth. Sexual totalitarianism today teaches that men have been oppressors, and women have been victims throughout history.

How in such circumstances can women and men today experience the joy of sex as medieval men and women did? The great ancient poet-philosopher Lucretius provides the answer: women and men must make a true and authentic swerve from dominant delusions. They must live in the day-to-day reality of ordinary life, not in abstract ideology. Women and men today must conceive the vitality of medieval life, especially the imaginative vitality of medieval Latin literature.

medieval couple in bed

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[1] Carmina Rivipullensia 17, titled “De aestate {About summer},” first line “Redit estas cunctis grata {Summer returns promising pleasure to all},” ll. 21-32, Latin text from Stock  (1971) p. 52, my English translation benefiting from those of id. p. 53 and Lazar (1989) p. 255. Here’s an online Latin text. Latin texts of the Ripoll love poems are also available in Raby (1959) pp. 332-40. All the poems of Carmina Rivipullensia are available in the first published edition, d’Olwer (1923), which is freely available online. The leading critical edition is Moralejo (1986), which unfortunately is difficult to acquire.

Carmina Rivipullensia survives in a single manuscript, MS Ripoll 74, now preserved in the Arxiu de la Corona d’Aragó (Barcelona). The twenty-two Latin poems of Carmina Rivipullensia exist in a distinctive scribal hand written on three pages of a tenth-century Liber glossarum held at the monastery of Santa Maria de Ripoll in Catalonia. Based on the script, the songs were apparently written in that book late in the twelfth century. Dronke (1979) argues that Carmina Rivipullensia in MS Ripoll 74 represents an author’s work-in-progress. Traill (2006) convincingly argues that the poems are a copy. Traill suggests that a cleric wrote the love poems in Metz in the Lorraine region of northeastern France, perhaps in 1150 or 1151. A monk at Ripoll then copied those poems into the Ripoll glossary late in the twelfth century when the source book was to be returned to the monastery of St. Victor of Marseille.

[2] Carmina Rivipullensia 4, titled “Quomode prius convenimus {How we first came together in love},” first line “Sol nimium fervens medium dum scandit Olimpi {At noon the hot sun, climbing Mt. Olympus, blazed down excessively},” ll. 17-22, Latin text from Stock (1971) pp. 54-6, my English translation benefiting from those of id. and Lazar (1989) p. 254. On nimium rather than ramium as the second word of the first line, Dronke (1979) p. 23. Dronke interprets this text as a dream encounter, but it seems realistic to me. Id.

The poem’s reference to “the rest {cetera}” associates the poem with Ovid, Amores 1.5.23-4. A twelfth-century Latin love poem commented in conclusion:

But who ignores the “et cetera”?
It surpasses every expectation.

{ Sed quis nescit cetera?
Predicatus uincitur. }

Walter of Châtillon, “Declinante frigore {The winter cold was waning}” (St-Omer 17), ll. 48-9, Latin text from Traill (2013) p. 36, English trans. from Lazar (1989) p. 253. Traill provides the full Latin text and English translation for the poem. An alternate translation of the last line: “The one proclaimed victor was overcome.” Traill (2013) p. 37. On that translation with respect to the proverbial expression “we often see the victor vanquished by the one he has defeated {victorem a victo superari saepe videmus},” id. p. lvi. Cf. Horace, Epistles 2.1.156.

An eminent medieval Latin scholar aptly declared:

the erotic was a normal aspect of the love experience in the Middle Ages. The suppression of the erotic in medieval poetry is a distinctively modern prejudice

Stock (1971) p. 13.

[3] “Sol nimium fervens medium dum scandit Olimpi {At noon the hot sun, climbing Mt. Olympus, blazed down excessively},” ll. 11-6, Latin text from Stock  (1971) p. 54, my English translation benefiting from that of id. p. 55. This song provides a gender-critical perspective on a common figure of ancient Greek and Roman love elegy: “lament outside the door {παρακλαυσίθυρον}” and the “shut-out lover {exclusus amator}.” This gender-critical depiction of a love affair has the added poignancy of being a dream. Although the loving narrator was “deeply wounded by betrayal {alto vulnere lesus}” and had “weary members {pernimium membra},” he still felt the flame of love, especially at noon with a hot sun (ll. 1-7). He generously concludes his song:

I so desire this happy young woman to live across all time,
adding only this: that she live especially for me.

{ Hanc igitur cupio felicem vivere semper,
hoc tamen addendo, vivat ut ipsa mihi. }

“Sol nimium fervens,” ll. 23-4, sourced as for previous quote.

[4] “Redit estas cunctis grata {Summer returns promising pleasure to all},” ll. 13-20, Latin text from Stock  (1971) p. 52, my English translation benefiting from those of id. p. 53 and Lazar (1989) p. 255. The concern here for gender equality in love is similar to that of the Arundel Lyrics. Medieval church doctrine asserted that marriage should be a conjugal partnership of equals, in contrast to the men-abasing ideology of courtly love. This understanding of love expresses the commandment to love like the love between God and humans. See John 13:34, 15:12.

[5] Yoffe (2019).

[6] Described by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago, quoted in Morson (2019). Sexual assault against men has been prevalent historically, yet its magnitude today is almost wholly ignored.

[images] (1) Medieval lovers. Illuminated initial (C) in manuscript copy of Aldobrandino of Siena’s Le Régime du corps. Made in third quarter of the thirteenth century (perhaps c. 1285) in northern France. On folio 9v of British Library MS. Sloane 2435. (2) Medieval couple in bed. Illumination in manuscript of Laurent de Premierfait’s 1414 French translation of Boccaccio’s Decameron; illumination made about 1419 by the Cité des Dames Master for John the Fearless of Burgandy. Folio 91r in Vatican Library MS.


d’Olwer, Lluís Nicolau. 1923. “L’escola poetica de Ripoll en els segles X-XIII.” Anuari del Institut d’Estudies Catalans. 6: 3-84.

Dronke, Peter. 1979. “The Interpretation of the Ripoll Love-Songs.” Romance Philology. 33 (1): 14-42.

Lazar, Moshe. 1989. “Carmina Erotica, Carmina Iocosa: The Body and the Bawdy in Medieval Love Songs.” Pp. 249-276 in Lazar, Moshe, and Norris J. Lacy, eds. Poetics of Love in the Middle Ages: texts and contexts. Fairfax, Va: George Mason University Press.

Moralejo, José-Luis. 1986. Carmina Rivipullensia: (Ms. 74, Rivipullensis) = Cancionero de Ripoll. Barcelona: Bosch.

Morson, Gary Saul. 2019. “How the great truth dawned: On the Soviet virtue of cruelty.” New Criterion. Sept. 2019 edition.

Raby, F. J. E. 1959. The Oxford Book of Medieval Latin Verse. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Stock, Brian, trans. 1971. Medieval Latin Lyrics: Translated and introduced by Brian Stock, original woodcuts by Fritz Kredel. Boston: David Godine, Publisher.

Traill, David A. 2006. “The Origin of the Ripoll Poems.” In Actas do IV Congresso Internacional de Latim Medieval Hispânico (Lisboa, 12-15 de Outubro de 2005). Centro de Estudos Clássicos das Universidades de Lisboa.

Traill, David A., ed. and trans. 2013. Walter of Châtillon, the Shorter Poems: Christmas hymns, love lyrics, and moral-satirical verse. Oxford Medieval Texts.

Yoffe, Emily. 2019. “METOO: I’m Radioactive.” Reason. Oct. 2019 issue.