an impious medieval man’s response to gender injustice

Rembrandt's portrait of dismay

In twelfth-century France, Niobe was destroying Walter. She was draining his purse and driving him sexually insane:

When I offer Niobe money,
I’m afforded the right to unlock her entrance.
If I come showing reverence for Love,
but nothing render, I’m locked out;
I push in nowhere.
If I pour out my entreaties,
I benefit as much as by pounding air.
From now on,
I won’t bang her box,
for I can’t wish a whore into a wife.

To top such great distress,
my groin’s requirement has now drained my sack.
The threat of that tumultuous tempest
has made me a ridiculous man.
After just a little longer,
I’ll be forced into shackles
unless I give a little to her voracious gullet.
Already my knob
and the length of my purse
have gone down the wildcat’s gaping throat.

{ Dum offero Niobe staterem,
ius affero, fores ut reserem.
Si uenero uenerans Venerem
nec dedero, tulero carcerem.
Nil egero,
si preces fudero,
tantum profecero uerberans aerem.
De cetero
non utar utero,
quia non lauero luteum laterem.

Ad cumulum tanti discriminis
iam loculum hausit lex inguinis.
Periculum turbidi turbinis
ridiculum me fecit hominis.
Post paululum
cogar ad uinculum,
nisi dem poculum gule uoraginis.
Iam nodulum
et burse modulum
abstulit patulum guttur uiraginis. } [1]

A troubled man is often told to get a grip on himself. But as Walter seems to have understood, simply getting a grip on oneself is draining and not satisfying. Men, who are fully human beings, crave intimate union with women. They should not suffer economic exploitation while engaging in heterosexual relations.

In response to the structural gender injustices that men suffer, some men retreat into defeatism and disengagement. About two thousand years ago, discussing a man’s funeral, another man said:

The mourning party was great, for he’d freed several slaves, but his widow was grudging with her tears, as if he weren’t the best of husbands! But a woman as a woman is a bird of prey. One should never do no good to none of them. It’s like throwing all you’ve got down a well. Yup, an old love is like a tumor.

{ Planctus est optime — manu misit aliquot — etiam si maligne illum ploravit uxor. Quid si non illam optime accepisset! Sed mulier quae mulier milvinum genus. Neminem nihil boni facere oportet; aeque est enim ac si in puteum conicias. Sed antiquus amor cancer est. } [2]

Not all women are like that. A Byzantine woman in war-torn tenth-century Italy bravely intervened to save her husband from being castrated. The trobairitz Castelloza in thirteenth-century Occitania spoke out against anti-men gender inequality in love. Saint Eugenia and Saint Marina exposed the injustice of false rape accusations against men. Heloise compassionately urged Abelard not to get married. And of course, Penelope remained faithful to Odysseus through his long absence.

Bitter from women’s mistreatment of them, some men become cynical. In thirteenth-century Occitania, Peire Cardenal declared:

I never won anything so great
as when I lost my mistress:
for, losing her, I won myself back
when she had won me over.
He wins little who loses himself,
but if one loses that which does one harm,
then I think it’s a gain.
For I had given myself in faith
to one who was destroying me,
I know not why.

Giving myself, at her mercy I put myself,
my heart and my life
were hers, who cast me aside and abandoned me
and changed me for another.
He who gives more than he keeps
and loves another more than himself
chooses a bad deal.
He has no care nor thought for himself,
and he forgets himself
for what doesn’t profit him.

I take my leave of her for ever
so that I may never more be hers,
for at no time I found in her fairness or faith,
only guile and deceit.
Ah! Sweetness full of venom,
how love blinds the seeing man
and leads him astray
when he loves that which ill benefits him
and that which he ought to love,
he quits and distrusts.

{ Anc non gazanhèi tan gran re
Com quam perdèi ma mia;
Quar, perden leis, gazanhèi me,
Qu’ilh gazainhat m’avia.
Petit gazainha qui pèrt se,
Mas qui pèrt sò que dan li te
Ieu cre que gazainhs sia.
Qu’ieu m’èra donatz, per ma fe,
A tal que.m destruzia,
Non sai per qué.

Donant me, mes en sa mercé
Mi, mon còr e ma via —
De leis, que.m vir’e.m desmanté
Per autrui, e.m cambia!
Qui dona mais que non reté
Et ama mais autrui que se,
Chauzís àvol partia,
Quan de se no.ilh cal ni.l sové,
E per aco s’oblia
Que pro no.ilh te.

De leis pren comjat per jassé
Que ja mais sieus non sia;
Qu’anc jorn no.i trobèi lei ni fe,
Mas engan e bauzia.
Ai! Doussors plena de veré,
Qu’amors eissòrba cel que ve
E l’òsta de sa via,
Quant ama sò qu.ilh descové
E sò qu’amar deuria
Gurp e mescré! } [3]

Christians have traditionally understood love as the complete gift of self to another. Christian love involves sacrifice of self. Christian love imitates Jesus coming to die on the cross to redeem humanity from iniquity. The passion of Jesus colors the meaning of passion for Christians in love.[4] Peire instead adopted the self-benefit model of love so prevalent today:

He who gives more than he keeps
and loves another more than himself
chooses a bad deal.

{ Qui dona mais que non reté
Et ama mais autrui que se
Chauzís àvol partia }

That’s the ethos for commercial trading, or for rational sexual relations and marriage under U.S. family law. Peire apparently “quit and distrusts {gurp e mescré}” Christianity.

Peire should be credited with endorsing gender equality in love. He resolved to treat his mistress with now-acclaimed norms of gender equality:

Never will my mistress possess me
if I have not possessed her;
nor will she ever have joy from me
if I had not joy from her.
I’ve made a decision, good and sure:
I’ll treat her as she treats me.
Then if she deceives me
she’ll find me a deceiver,
and if she goes straight for me,
for her I won’t make it rocky.

With a loyal mistress it’s required
that one be a loyal lover;
but with her who would be
relying on deception,
then one should deceive, with reason for that.

{ Ja m’amia no mi tenra
Si ieu leis non tenia;
Ni ja de mi non jauzira
S’ieu de leis non jauzia.
Conseilh n’ai pres, bon e certà:
Farai li segon que.m farà.
E s’ella mi galia
Galïador mi trobarà,
E si.m vai dreita via
Ieu l’irai pla.

De leial amia cové
Qu’òm leials amics sia;
Mas de leis estaria be
Qu’en galïar se fia,
Qu’òm galïès, quan sap de qué. }

Meninism, a progressive ideology of gender equality, asserts that women should treat men as they would like men to treat them. Peire favors a more conservative stance: “I’ll treat her as she treats me {Farai-li segon que’m farà}.” Both positions are consistent with gender equality in a social equilibrium.

Peire’s mistress ultimately got the lover she deserved. As Peire observed, women tend to favor jerks and bad boys for love: “the clown, the felon, and the trickster {li fòl e.l felon, e.l moyssart}.”[5] His mistress’s new lover played her along those lines, while preserving his own interests. Peire explained:

So I was pleased when it happened
that I found her with one who deceives her,
who guards himself and his honor
from harm and folly
and keeps her on a tight rein.

{ Per qu’a mi plai quan s’esdevé
Qu’ieu trob qui la galia,
E garda sa honor e se
De dan e de folia
E.il tira.l fre. }

Peire learned too late to be such a man to succeed in love as the women around him practiced it. Even some men in medieval Europe lacked sufficient knowledge of medieval Latin literature.

One might question the sincerity of Peire’s commitment to gender equality in love. Men commonly slide into gyno-idolatry. In practice, many men will do whatever women want them to do. Peire, however, told a fable about a world that went insane while one man took a nap. He ended this fable with a moralization:

The best sense mortals here have known
is to love God, fear Him alone
and always keep the Lord’s commands.
In our times such good sense is banned.

A reign of covetousness fell
over this world and us as well,
spreading a huge malicious pride
that preys on humans far and wide,

and if one man’s preserved by God,
it’s clear to all he’s sick or odd;
if he has sense they don’t all share,
they’ll leave him wriggling in the air.

God’s wisdom is called lunacy,
while the Lord’s friend, where’er he be,
knows they’re all mad, the whole damned horde,
who’ve lost the good sense of the Lord,

while they know he just crazy: he
refused this world’s mad sanity.

{ Que-l majer sens c’om pot aver
Si es amar Dieu e temer
E gardar sos comandamens;
Mas ar es perdutz aquel sens.

Li plueia sai es cazeguda:
Cobeitatz, e si es venguda
Un’ erguelhoz’e granz maleza
Que tota la gen a perpreza.

E si Dieus n’a alcun gardat,
L’autre-l tenon per dessenat
E menon lo de tomp en bilh
Car non es del sen que son ilh.

Que-l sens de Dieu lor par folia,
E l’amix de Dieu, on que sia,
Conois que dessenat son tut,
Car lo sen de Dieu an perdut.

E ilh, an lui per dessenat,
Car lo sen del mon a laissat. } [6]

The man who took a nap could equally as well have woken up in a world in which gender equality had come to mean gender bigotry. The truly impious today are those who see the world in a more enlightened way.

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Notes:

[1] Walter of Châtillon, St-Omer 22, “As I seek a cure for myself {Dum queritur michi remedium},” st. 4-5, Latin text from Traill (2013) p.46, my English translation benefiting from that of id. p. 47. In conjunction with his detailed philological and metrical analysis, Traill describes this poem as a “verbal tour de force,” with a light tone and “racy puns.” Id. pp. lvii-iii. This poem is part of the Niobe cycle, St-Omer 21-3. Preceding it is “In the autumn chill {Autumnali frigore},” and following it is “As the tender breasts of spring / were nourishing the young flowers {Dum flosculum tenera / lactant ueris ubera}.” Id. pp. 42-51 (full Niobe cycle).

For non lauero luteum laterem (4.10), Traill translates literally “I can’t wash a mud-brick clean” and notes “proverbial expression of futility.” My translation alludes to the related, present-day proverb, “you can’t turn a ho into a housewife.” Regarding 5.8-10, Traill notes, “this final description of Niobe’s insatiable pecuniary demands also suggests an act of fellatio.” Id. pp. 46-7.

[2] Petronius, Satyricon 42, Latin text from Heseltine & Rouse (1913), my English translation, benefiting from that of id.

[3] Peire Cardenal, “I hold him indeed for a fool and a timewaster {Ben teinh per fol e per musart},” st. 3-5, Occitan text and English translation (modified slightly) from Press (1971) pp. 282-5. The subsequent four quotes are similarly from “Ben teinh per fol e per musart”: “He who gives more than he keeps…,” st. 4; “Never will my mistress possess me…,” st. 2, 7.1-5; “So I was pleased…,” st. 7.6-10 (end of song); “the clown, the felon, and the trickster,” st. 1.8. Here’s the full text, with a modern French translation. Here’s another Occitan text.

Peire Cardenal was a prolific and eminent thirtheenth-century man trobairitz. About ninety-six of his songs have survived. Press gave a tendentious and misleading summary of this canso:

rejecting the exaggerations of contemporary troubadours and reaffirming the original ideal of mutual devotion and loyalty, it neatly summarizes the poet’s concept of courtly love.

Press (1971) p. 280. Men’s self-abasement to women, not mutuality, characterizes courtly love.

Bernart de Ventadour condemned a trading approach to love, which he called “common love {amors comunaus}”:

This is not love; such
has only its name and its look,
which loves no thing if it doesn’t gain.

If I would speak the truth of it,
I know well from whom comes the delusion:
from those women who love for pay,
and they are commercial whores.

{ Aisso non es amors; aitaus
No.n a mas lo nom e.l parven,
Que re non ama si no pren.

S’eu en volgues dire lo ver,
Eu sai be de cui mou l’enjans:
D’aquelas c’amon per aver,
E son merchadandas venaus. }

“Chantars no pot gaire valer,” Occitan text from Press (1971) p. 66, my English translating, benefiting from that of id. p. 67. For alternate English translations, A.Z. Foreman and Paden & Paden (2007) pp. 74-5. Men surely deserve some blame for not insisting on equality in love with women. Peire Cardenal above condemns unequal trades, not trading per se. In short, he favors “fair trade” love.

[4] See John 10:13, 15:13, 1 John 3:16.

[5] Bernart de Ventadour complained:

But he gains more from love who courts
with pride and deceit
than one who every day supplicates
and goes about most humbly,
for Love scarcely wants one
who is so honest and noble as I am.
This has made nothing from all my doings,
because I was never false or tricky.

{ Mais a d’amor qui domneya
Ab orgolh et ab enjan
Que cel que tot jorn merceya
Ni.s vai trop umilian,
C’a penas vol Amors celui
Qu’es francs e fis si cum eu sui.
So m’a tout tot mon afaire:
C’anc no fui faus ni trichaire. }

“The nightingale makes merry {Lo rossinhols s’esbaudeya},” st. 2, Occitan text from Press (1971) p. 72, my English translation benefiting from that of id. p. 73. Here’s an online Occitan text of the full song. Recognizing reality is a good beginning. One must then decide how to respond to that reality.

[6] Peire Cardenal, “There was a town, I can’t say where {Una ciutatz fo, no sai cals},” st. 14-18 (end of song), Occitan text and English translation (W. D. Snodgrass) from Kehew (2005) pp. 274-7. Here’s the full Occitan text and a modern French translation. Cardenal probably wrote this fable/song about 1260.  The Boston Camerata’s album Provence Mystique includes a modern arrangement of this song. The man trobairitz Guilhem Montanhagol also wrote a song with the “new world after a long sleep” motif, “Non estarai, per ome qe·m casti.” This motif encompasses Washington Irvings’s early-nineteenth-century story of Rip Van Winkle, Jacob of Serugh’s early-sixth century story of seven sleepers from Ephesus, and the third-century historian Diogenes Laertius’s account of Epimenides of Knossos.

[image] Rembrandt self-portrait (excerpt). Painted in 1660. Preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) as accession # 14.40.618. Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913.

References:

Heseltine, Michael and W. H. D. Rouse, trans., revised by E. H. Warmington. 1913. Petronius Arbiter, Seneca. Satyricon. Apocolocyntosis. Loeb Classical Library 15. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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

Press, Alan R., ed. and trans. 1971. Anthology of Troubadour Lyric Poetry. Austin: University of Texas Press.

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

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