“I had a dream”: medieval imagining of gender justice

Men today seared in the flames of vicious gender injustice can scarcely imagine a comforting night of compassion and love. As if human rights weren’t men’s rights, men are persecuted for the gaze of their eyes and the spread of their legs. Men are convicted of serious crimes without even the possibility of speaking and being believed. Men carry the crushing gender burden of soliciting amorous relations and then paying for the check, as if the bank of justice is bankrupt and men’s lives don’t matter.

Burning inwardly with violent wrath,
in bitterness let me speak to my soul.

{ Estuans intrinsecus ira vehementi
in amaritudine loquar mee menti. }[1]

A young man in twelfth-century France had a dream one night. He sees in front of his eyes a beautiful woman. That day he had called out to a beautiful woman, but she ignored him. The young woman in the Song of Songs had a similar experience when she called to a young man whom she loved.[2] So who is this young woman who appears to the young man in his dream?

Her shapeliness at first fills me with doubt:
is this the young woman to whom I called by day?

{ Cuius forma mihi primum satis est dubitata,
an foret haec virgo fuerat quae luce vocata. }[3]

Women and men deserve better than being ignored by those they love. That amorous injustice predominately hurts men, as the dominant structure of prostitution historically attests. Men deserve medieval Latin poetic justice:

But after recognizing this woman to be lovelier than the other,
I forget the other and caress this one’s breasts.
She moves into my embrace, chest close to chest,
and that beautiful girl gives me kisses in a million ways.
I feel joy that almost no other woman would give me.

{ Postquam cognovi quod erat speciosior illa,
illa neglecta, fuit illico tacta papilla.
Venit in amplexus, pectus iacuit prope pectus;
oscula mille modis dum dat mihi pulchra puella,
gaudia persensi quae vix mihi nunc daret ulla. }

As the learned know, most men are romantically simple. So was this young man:

Her kisses join with mine, yet my hope vainly pushed up,
for when I seek to hug her tender neck,
she flees to I know not where, not even uttering a single word.

{ Oscula iungebat, sed me spes vana ferebat.
Namque sui tenerum volo dum circumdare collum,
nescio quo fugit, nec verbum protulit unum. }

Aeneas had a similar experience when he sought to hold on to his wife and his father.[4] Yet despite crushing gynocentric oppression, this man held onto the dream of gender justice. He retained hope in Aeneas’s mother Venus:

So I grieve much, but I judge I would grieve even more
if, what I held in my dream, I wouldn’t watchfully retain.

{ Unde nimis doleo, puto sed magis inde dolebo,
ni, quod per somnium tenui, vigilans retinebo. }

He held onto the dream that men one day would have poetic justice in love.

medieval dream lovers

Another young man in twelfth-century France had a dream. He recounted:

In April time, I was sleeping alone
in a green meadow already quite flowery,
when a most beautiful girl, with a shining face,
a descendant coming from royal blood,
appeared in front of me. With her ornate robe
and great effort she fashioned for me a breeze.
While enlivening me that way, she sometimes with sweet
kisses joined her honey-dripping mouth to mine,
and she would have joined flank-to-flank with me,
but at first she feared that I would respond harshly.

{ Aprilis tempore, dum solus dormio
In prato viridi, iam satis florido,
Virgo pulcherrima, vultu sidereo,
Et proles sanguine progressa regio,
Ante me visa est, que suo pallio
Auram mihi facit cum magno studio.
Auram dum ventilat, interdum dulcia
Ore mellifluo iungebat basia,
Et latus lateri iunxisset pariter,
Sed primum timuit ne ferrem graviter. }[5]

In the relatively tolerant Middle Ages, kisses were not considered to be equivalent to full-on, flank-to-flank sexual assault. Not a vicious rapist, this young woman sought to please the man she loved. She explained that she had come to him with a life-and-death problem:

At the call of Venus
I come to you, beloved young man;
Cupid’s torch has inflamed my heart.
I love you with my soul and whole body.
If you don’t love me as I love you,
trust me that I will die from excessive grief.
And so I beg you, the glory of young men,
that you not disregard me, but give me solace.

{ Monitu Veneris
ad te devenio, dilecte iuvenis;
face Cupidinis succensa pectore,
Mente te diligo cum toto corpore.
Ni me dilxeris sicut te diligo,
credas quod moriar dolore nimio.
Quare te deprecor, o decus iuvenum,
ut non me negligas, sed des solacium. }

In traditional Greco-Roman religion, no one could resist the love-spurring strike of Cupid, acting under gynocentrism according to the will of his mother Venus. In what’s known as the Great Commandment, the sacred law of the Jews declares: “love your neighbor as yourself { בְּנֵ֣י עַמֶּ֔ךָ וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ }.” Jesus of Nazareth urged his Christian disciples to follow the Jewish Great Commandment. He added, “love one another as I have loved you {diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos}.”[6] Neither of these commandments are quite equivalent to the Cupid-stricken young woman’s request: “love me as I love you {me dilxeris sicut te diligo}.” She shrewdly further supported her request with the threat of her death. Men have long striven to save women from death. Few men in the ancient world would be so harsh and unmerciful as to reject this woman’s Greco-Roman Jewish-Christian supplication.

Nonetheless, the beautiful young woman gave additional strong reasons for the young man to love her. She declared:

Nor can you rightly now disregard me,
since I am coming from royal blood.
Gold and ornate robes, purple vestments,
grey Celtic garments, and various animal-skins —
more I will give to you, if you will be welcoming
and, as I love you, so you will love me.
If you seek a beautiful and illustrious figure,
here I am. Take me, since I love you.
Because no more beautiful woman exists for you in our age,
I desire that you have the most beautiful lover.

{ Nec iuste poteris nunc me negligere,
quippe sum regio progressa sanguine.
Aurum et pallia, vestes purpureas,
rhenones griseos et pelles varias,
plures tibi dabo, si gratus fueris
et, ut te diligo, sic me dilexeris.
Si pulchram faciem quaeris et splendidam,
hic sum; me teneas, quia te deligam.
Cum nullus pulchrior te sit in saeculo,
ut pulchram habeas amicam cupio. }

Men tend to strive for high social status in order to be attractive to women. This woman offered to raise the man’s social status through her own high status. Moreover, husbands historically have disproportionately carried the gender burden of working outside the home to provide goods to their wives. This woman offered to provide luxurious material goods to the man she loved.[7] Most importantly, men tend to value highly a woman with an attractive physical figure and beautiful appearance. This young woman was the most beautiful woman of her time. Oppressed with men’s burden of soliciting amorous relationships, what man wouldn’t be delighted with this woman’s urgent request for love?

Men are generally generous and eager to please women. Not surprisingly, the sleeping young man promptly responded to the young woman’s plea:

Immediately aroused by these words of the young woman,
I seize her with a firm embrace.
I kiss her cheeks, caress her breasts,
after which I fill fully her sweet secret.
Thus I can deduce I would be exceptionally
happy, indeed so and more than exceptionally,
if I could hold that girl when I were awake,
whom I held in the field until I was awake.

{ His verbis virginis commotus illico,
ipsam amplexibus duris circumligo.
Genas deosculans papillas palpito,
post illud dulcius secretum compleo.
Inferre igitur possum quod nimium
felix ipse forem et plus quam nimium,
illam si virginem tenerem vigilans
quam prato tenui, dum fui vigilans. }[8]

He had a dream one day. He had a dream that men would no longer be shackled with repeated rejections in love. He had a dream that men would no longer be regarded as generic humans — “man” — but welcomed and treated with dignity as distinctively gendered persons. He had a dream that academia and all societies throughout the world would rise up and live out the true meaning of gender equality. While many men wallow in the valley of despair, committing suicide much more frequently than women, he had a dream in a green flowering field in April. He had a dream of gender justice and togetherness.

dream love

We must not be unmindful of the suffering that the men-abasing ideology of courtly love has generated throughout history. While a man had a dream of gender justice and togetherness in twelfth-century France, another man about that time and place sang of his despair, exile, and impending death:

All mercy’s gone, all pity lost —
though at the best I still knew none —
since she who should yield mercy most
shows me the least of anyone.
Wrongful it seems, now, in my view,
to see a creature’s love betrayed
who’d seek no other good but you,
then let him die without your aid.

Since she, my Lady, shows no care
to earn my thanks, nor pay Love’s rights
since she’ll not hear my constant prayer
and my love yields her no delights,
I say no more; I silent go;
she gives me death; let death reply.
My Lady won’t embrace me so
I leave, exiled to pain close by.

{ Merces es perduda, per ver,
Et eu non o saubi anc mai,
Car cilh qui plus en degr’ aver,
No.n a ges; et on la querrai?
A! can mal sembla, qui la ve,
Qued aquest chaitiu deziron
Que ja ses leis non aura be,
Laisse morrir, que no l.aon

Pus ab midons no.m pot valer
Precs ni merces ni.l dreihz qu’eu ai,
Ni a leis no ven a plazer
Qu’eu l’am, ja mais no.lh o dirai.
Aissi.m part de leis e.m recre;
Mort m’a, e per mort li respon ,
E vau m’en, pus ilh no.m rete,
Chaitius, en issilh, no sai on. }[9]

Women must do more to aid men. Men’s deaths should not be a matter of indifference. Men care for women and labor to protect them from death, even in dreams. Beginning from within their imagination, women should do the same for men.

Now is the time to make real the promises of gender equality. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of men-hating me-too-ism to the sunlit path of gender justice. Now is the time to lift our world from the quicksands of gender bigotry to the solid rock of sexual intimacy. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.[10]

A medieval man had a dream. His dream is still a dream today, a horribly unknown dream, a dream that deserves to be fulfilled one day.

On that day, blue-collar men operating garbage trucks in Florida will know their children, and their children their fathers, and men will be disproportionately incarcerated no more.

On that day, career women in New York City will live to ripe old ages with their satisfied lovers, not their cats and dogs.

On that day, a man speaking out for justice at the University of Cambridge won’t be smeared with a milkshake, and activists in Portland will fight for men thrown in debtor’s prison because they lack reproductive rights.

On that day, women and men academics at the University of Texas won’t discount men’s labor within the home, and a woman academic at Southwestern Illinois College will be embarrassed to have helped develop a sexism scale that is deeply sexist.

On that day, a woman executive leading a mega-corp in California will marry a handsome, young, penniless and uneducated immigrant from Mexico, and she will respect him for the work he does for their family within their home.

Love between women and men will not flourish until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. The vision still has its time, it presses on to fulfillment, and it will not disappoint.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Twelfth-century poem (c. 1165) known as the Archpoet’s Confession, ll. 1-2, Latin text from Latin wikisource, my English translation. A.S. Kline has a full translation, reproduced on linguae. This poem is included in the Carmina Burana as no. 191. Writing the poem with classical Latin spelling changes Estuans to Aestuans and mee to meae.

[2] Song of Songs 5:6, which is part of the dream sequence 5:2-7.

[3] Carmina Rivipullensia 8, titled “Aliud somnium {Another dream},” first line “Illud si verum fieret quod somnia monstrant {If it turns out to be true what dreams show},” ll. 5-6, Latin text from Wolff (2001), my English translation benefiting from the French translation of id. This poem is probably from the twelfth century and survives only in MS Ripoll 74. On that manuscript, see note [1] in my post on the medieval joy of sex.

The subsequent three quotes above are similarly from this poem, ll. 7-11 (But after recognizing…), 12-4 (Her kisses join with mine…), 15-6 (So I grieve much…). The poem has 16 lines.

[4] Aeneid 2.793-4 and 6.701-2. A woman had a similar experience in a dream:

I held out my arms and pressed my body to his.
Utterly drained of blood I froze,
for he had vanished! I was holding nothing!
Freed from sleep, I cried out loudly:
“Where are you fleeing, please. Why so swiftly?
Halt your step, or if you will, I too shall enter,
for I want to live with you for ever!”

{ Extensis brachiis corpus applicui,
exsanguis penitus tota derigui
Evanuit enim! nichil retinui!
Sopore libera exclamo fortiter:
“Quo fugis, amabo? Cur tam celeriter?
Siste gradum, si vis inibo partier,
nam tecum viver volo perhenniter!” }

“Foebus abierat subtractis cursibus {Phoebus had fled, his voyage done},” Latin text and English translation (modified to follow the Latin more closely) from Dronke (1965) v. 2, pp. 334-6. This poem apparently was written in northern Italy about 1000 GC. Here’s a less literal, poetic translation of the whole poem. Poetic imagination is wonderfully unbounded. Yet in relation to dominant social structures, a woman coming in love to a man in his dream is far more transgressive.

[5] Carmina Rivipullensia 7, titled “De somnio {About a dream},” first line “Si vera somnia forent, quae somnio {If the dreams I dream would be true},” ll. 3-12, Latin text from Wolff (2001), my English translation benefiting from the French translation of id. Here’s a partial Spanish translation. The subsequent three quotes are similarly from this poem: ll. 13(2nd half)-20 (At the call of Venus…), 21-30 (Nor can you rightly now…), 31-8 (Immediately aroused…). Line 38 is the last line of the poem.

[6] For the Great Commandment of Jewish law, Leviticus 19:18. The Hebrew text differs subtly from subsequent Greek and English translations. For Jesus teaching the Great Commandment to his disciples, Matthew 19:19, 22:39; James 2:8. For Jesus extending that commandment to imitating his love, John 15:12. The Gospels and Christian epistles were originally written in Greek. I have quoted John in Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, the Biblical text most widely read in medieval Europe.

[7] Dronke, a leading expositor of men-abasing courtly love, read the young women’s righteous offer to the young men as alluding to Satan tempting Jesus (Matthew 4:9, Luke 4:6-7). Dronke (1965) v. 2, p. 339. That seems to me a hellish misreading of a Christian gesture of turning the world upside-down for justice.

Dronke interprets “De somnio” as “a humorous piece of wishful thinking” with “delightful elements of burlesque.” Id. pp. 339, 341. That description, which might equally serve as a classical interpretation of the Gospels, expresses an aspect of “De somnio.” Yet Christian literary work and Christian beliefs incorporate such characteristics into a more profound understanding of the world. The tenth-century Latin epic Walthurius brilliantly displays that understanding.

[8] An earlier reading corrects the last line to “quam prato tenui dum fui somnians.” See. e.g. Raby (1959) p. 339 (no. 227). But the original text makes good poetic sense and should be preserved. Dronke (1979) pp. 23-4.

[9] Bernart de Ventadorn, “Can vei la lauzeta mover {Now when I see the skylark lift},” st. 6-7, Occitan text and English translation (W.D. Snodgrass) from Kehew (2005) p. 77. An alternate manuscript spelling is “Qan vei la lauzeta mover.” Here’s the full Occitan text of the song (another source). The song survives with a melody; here’s a performance of it. Bernart is regarded as “one of the greatest love poets among the troubadours.” Paden & Paden (2007) p. 74. He was active in the middle of the twelfth century.

Above I’ve made some insubstantial changes to Snodgrass’s translation. In addition, I changed line 7.8 from “I leave, exiled to pain for aye” to “I leave, exiled to pain close by.” That change preserves the meter and rhyme. It seems to me more understandable (the woman he loves curtly dismisses him from her presence) and more poignant. In Snodgrass’s text and translation, the subsequent stanza then gives the lover’s further action: “I leave to wander, none knows where.” A more literal translation of the Occitan text for 7.7-8 is “If she abandons me, I will go away / a wretch in exile, I know not where.” Paden & Paden (2007) p. 79 (from stanza 5 in that text).

[10] The text above draws upon Martin Luther King’s famous speech for social justice, “I have a dream.” He delivered that speech, which drew upon a wide range of sources, on August 28, 1963. The parallels between dominant institutions’ views of racial justice in 1963 and dominant institutions’ views of gender justice today provides a critical perspective on urgently needed change.

[images] (1) Medieval woman and man hugging each other in bed. The depicted man (minnesinger) is Herr Hug von Werbenwag. He lived in thirteenth-century Germanic lands. Illustration from Codex Manesse, Zurich, made between 1305 and 1315. Manuscript preserved as UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 252r. Thanks to University of Hiedelberg and Wikimedia Commons. (2) Medieval man dreaming while woman hugs him. The depicted man (minnesinger) here apparently is Herr Konrad von Altstetteng. He is known to have sung between 1320 and 1327 about the Upper Rhine Valley. Similarly from UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 249v.


Dronke, Peter. 1965. Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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

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

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

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

Wolff, Etienne. 2001. Le Chansonnier amoureux: Carmina Rivipullensia. Monaco: Rocher.

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