risus paschalis for Christmas: laughing with Sarah, begetter of Isaac

Begin, little boy, to get to know mother with a laugh.
Ten months have brought a mother’s long labor.
Begin, little boy; for whom parents do not laugh,
no god honors at his table, no goddess honors in bed.

{ Incipe, parve puer, risu cognoscere matrem,
matri longa decem tulerunt fastidia menses.
Incipe, parve puer, cui non risere parentes,
nec deus hunc mensa, dea nec dignata cubili est. }[1]

Andrei Rublev, Trinity icon

Even at age seventy-four, Sarah was beautiful enough to be a wife for the King of Egypt. But she hadn’t produced any children. Eager for children, Sarah ordered her husband Abraham to have sex with her slave-girl Hagar. Like most husbands, Abraham did what his wife told him to do. He was potent enough at age seventy-five to have a child with Hagar. Sarah then blamed Abraham for Hagar, a mother, looking down on her, a barren woman. Whatever happens, men get blamed. With the passivity of a man who understands his subordination to women, Abraham told Sarah to do to Hagar whatever she wanted to do. Sarah then kicked Hagar and Hagar’s son Ishmael out of their home. Such is the cruel futility of family life in gynocentric society.

God intervened in history to provide a different family destiny. When Abraham was a hundred years old and Sarah was ninety-nine, God promised Abraham a son with Sarah. In response, Abraham fell on his face before God and laughed.[2] Laughing is not what a pious person usually does prostrate before God. But Abraham didn’t keep his laughter inside himself. God, who loves human beings as creations of his own hands, wasn’t offended by Abraham’s laughter.

Later, three mysterious visitors appeared to Abraham at Mamre. They said that Sarah and Abraham surely would have a son. But Sarah’s menstrual cycle had ceased long ago:

And Sarah laughed inwardly, saying, “After my being shriveled, shall I have pleasure, and my husband is old? [3]

{ וַתִּצְחַ֥ק שָׂרָ֖ה בְּקִרְבָּ֣הּ לֵאמֹ֑ר אַחֲרֵ֤י בְלֹתִי֙ הָֽיְתָה־לִּ֣י
עֶדְנָ֔ה וַֽאדֹנִ֖י זָקֵֽן׃ }

Sarah doubted her husband’s capability to provide her with pleasure and her own ability to bear a child. Husbands, however, will make extraordinary efforts to please their wives. The Lord, who knows every person’s inner being, questioned why Sarah laughed. Sarah, who hadn’t laughed openly, denied having laughed. But the Lord, wise enough not to always believe women, pointed out Sarah’s lie: “Yes, you did laugh.”

Despite their old age, Sarah and Abraham had a son, as the Lord had foretold. They named their son Isaac. That name literally means “he who laughs.” Sarah didn’t confess explicitly that she had been wrong:

And Sarah said:
God has made me laughter,
whoever hears will laugh at me. [4]

{ וַתֹּ֣אמֶר שָׂרָ֔ה צְחֹ֕ק עָ֥שָׂה לִ֖י אֱלֹהִ֑ים כָּל־הַשֹּׁמֵ֖עַ
יִֽצְחַק־לִֽי׃ }

The Hebrew verb used above for “laugh” could alternately mean “mock” or “scorn.” Whether others laughed with Sarah or laughed at Sarah doesn’t seem to matter. Either way, laughter highlights the astonishing reality that in her old age, Sarah had a son Isaac with Abraham.

Isaac was subject to a trial that to Christians prefigured Jesus crucified and resurrected. God told Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering atop a mountain in Moriah. Resolutely faithful to God, Abraham complied with this horrid request for human sacrifice. Isaac carried the wood to which his father Abraham then bound him to be killed. But God at the final moment stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac.[5] Isaac must have been terrified. How could Isaac have gone on to get married and have children of his own? Perhaps he overcame his emotional trauma with cathartic laughter at the inscrutable ways of God.

In twelfth-century Europe, laughter was associated with celebrating the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday. An Easter sequence by the great Parisian hymnist Adam of Saint Victor sings of Isaac:

The boy, figure of our laughter,
for whom the ram was slain,
signifies the joy of life.

{ Puer, nostri forma risus
pro quo vervex est occisus,
vitae signat gaudium. }[6]

Isaac’s salvation, Jesus’s resurrection, celebrating Easter, laughter, and the joy of life are united in this stanza. Heloise of the Paraclete’s husband Peter Abelard wrote hymns for the Oratory of the Paraclete’s nuns to use for the all-important liturgical hours of Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Thirteen of these hymns conclude with a stanza associating the resurrected Jesus’s glory with Christians’ “laughter of Easter grace {risus paschalis gratiae}”:

Make us, Lord, so to suffer with you
that we may become sharers in your glory;
so to conduct these three days in grief
that you may grant us the laughter of Easter grace.

{ Tu tibi compati sic fac nos, Domine,
tuae participes ut simus gloriae;
sic praesens triduum in luctu ducere,
ut risum tribuas paschalis gratiae. }[7]

This sense of laughter and comedy at the culmination of Christian salvation history probably existed much earlier than the twelfth century. Perhaps in the ninth century, the Latin epic Waltharius was written with a preface that declared that reading it “requires one to jest with the Lord rather than to petition the Lord {ludendum magis est dominum quam sit rogitandum}.”

In Europe from the fifteenth through early-eighteenth centuries, “Easter laughter {risus paschalis}” apparently was a popular practice. A modern scholar and church official explained:

In the Baroque period the liturgy used to include the risus pachalis, the Easter laughter. The Easter homily had to contain a story that made people laugh, so that the church resounded with joyful laughter. That may be a somewhat superficial form of Christian joy. But is there not something very beautiful and appropriate about laughter becoming a liturgical symbol? And is it not a tonic when we still hear, in the play of cherub and ornament in Baroque churches, that laughter which testified to the freedom of the redeemed? [8]

Among the York Corpus Christi Plays registered about the year 1470 is a staging of Christ before Herod. In that play, King Herod is a extravagantly comic character leading an unsuccessful attempt to get Christ to speak. Prior to being confounded by Christ, Herod exclaimed:

Oh, my heart hops for joy,
to see now this prophet appear!
We shall have a good game with this boy;
take heed, for in haste you shall hear.
I believe we shall laugh and have liking,
to see how this scoundrel alleges our laws.

{ O, my harte hoppis for joie
To se nowe this prophette appere.
We schall have goode game with this boy;
Takis hede, for in haste ye schall here.
I leve we schall laugh and have likyng
To se nowe this lidderon her he leggis oure lawis. }[9]

Soldiers (“knights”) brought Christ before Herod and told of Christ’s wondrous sayings and acts. Christ himself, despite questions, mockery, and threats, refused to speak before King Herod. That was an astonishing act of silence. One of Herod’s sons declared:

My lord, all this muteness amends not a mite.
To mess with a madman’s a marvel to me.
Command your knights to clothe him in white;
let him go as he came to your country.

{ Mi lorde, all youre mutyng amendis not a myte,
To medill with a madman is mervaille to mene;
Comaunde youre knyghtis to clothe hym in white
And late hym carre as he come to youre contré.}

King Herod agreed:

Sir knights, we’ll endeavor to make you be glad;
our counsel has warned us wisely and well.
White clothing is fitting for this foolish lad.
Fully all of his folly in faith we feel.

{ Sir knyghtis, we caste to garre you be gladde,
Oure counsaile has warned us wisely and wele:
White clothis we saie fallis for a fonned ladde,
And all his foly in faith fully we feele. }

For the Christian audience in relation to Christ, truly “fully all of his folly in faith we feel.” Herod, lacking Christian consciousness, enacted a joke upon himself.[10] For Christians celebrating Easter, weeping at Christ’s crucifixion is turned to joy at his resurrection. Medieval Christians then had the blessing of laughing with the risen Christ.

Who has ever heard of such,
tell me, I pray, about these doings.

{ Quis audivit talia,
Dic, rogo, facta }[11]

Christian laughter isn’t only for Easter. When he heard that his wife Sarah would have a son, Abraham prostrated himself before God and laughed. Those who will celebrate the birth of Christ at Christmas should laugh like Abraham. Christ showed comedic spirit in raising Lazarus, in healing the sick, and in playing with the Canaanite woman. Christians, fools for Christ, now more than ever live in a world of clowns. Over here, over there, funny things are everywhere. With men subject to bizarre paternity laws and men deprived of any reproductive rights whatsoever, what are men to think of Joseph, foster-father of Jesus? Who can believe that women and men can still love each other and have children?

Tomorrow let love whoever has never loved; whoever has loved, let tomorrow love.

{ Cras amet qui nunquam amavit quique amavit cras amet. }[12]

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[1] Virgil, Eclogues 4.60-4, Latin text from Greenough (1900) via Perseus, my English translation, benefiting from those of Mackail (1910) and A. S. Kline (2001).

[2] Genesis 12-18; in particular, Genesis 12:4 (Abraham 75 years old), 12:14-5 (beautiful Sarah taken into Pharaoh’s house), 16:1-6 (Sarah, Hagar, and Abraham), and 17:17 (Abraham 100 years old, Sarah 99 years old, Abraham laughed before God).

[3] Genesis 18:12, Hebrew text via BlueLetterBible, English translation from Alter (1996), where I have inserted “my” before “being shriveled.” For God’s response, Genesis 18:15.

[4] Genesis 21:6, sourced as previously, with my change from “Laughter has God made me” to “God has made me laughter.” Alter notes:

The ambiguity of both the {Hebrew} noun tsehoq (“laughter”) and the accompanying preposition li (“to” or “for” or “with” or “at me”) is wonderfully suited to the complexity of the moment. It may be laughter, triumphant joy, that Sarah experiences and that is the name of the child Isaac (“he-who-laughs”). But in her very exultation, she could well feel the absurdity (as Kafka noted in one of his parables) of a nonagenarian becoming a mother. Tsehoq also means “mockery,” and perhaps God is doing something to her as well as for her. (In poetry, tsahaq is often linked in parallelism with la’ag, to scorn or mock, and it should be noted that la’ag is invariably followed by the preposition le, as tsahaq here.) All who hear of it may laugh, rejoice with Sarah, but the hint that they might also laugh at her is evident in her language.

Alter (1996) p. 97, note.

[5] Genesis 22:1-19.

[6] Adam of Saint Victor, “Let the old leaven be purged {Zyma vetus expurgetur}” (Easter sequence) st. 9, Latin text from Brittain (1962) p. 198, my English translation benefiting from that of id. Here’s a Latin text with German translation, and the English translation of Neale (1867). The Christian letter to the Hebrews associates Christ rising from the dead with Isaac. Hebrews 11:17-9. Galatians 4:28 calls Christians “children of the promise, like Isaac.”

[7] Peter Abelard, hymns for the Sacred Triduum, e.g. “On Friday for the hour of the morning {in parasceve ad laudes},” st. 4, Latin text from Woods (1992) p. 168, my English translation benefiting from that of id. “Christ, the new Isaac, both is risus paschalis, and the new laughter of Easter, and gives that laughter to Christians in the rejoicing that follows his death.” O’Connell (2002) p. 51. John 16:20 tells of sorrow turned into joy. Luke 6:21 explicitly refers to laughter:

Blessed are you who now weep, for you shall laugh.

{ beati qui nunc fletis quia ridebitis
μακάριοι οἱ κλαίοντες νῦν ὅτι γελάσετε }

Cf. Ecclesiastes 3:4.

In his hymns for the Sacred Triduum, Abelard clearly intended to emphasize risus paschalis. His poetic form has been presented slightly differently by different authors. O’Connell states that “each of the fifteen hymns” that Abelard wrote for Good Friday and Holy Saturday concludes with the above stanza. Id. p. 50. In her careful study, Woods point out that the manuscript arrangement sets out fourteen hymns, with the first hymn for Good Friday ending with this, its ninth stanza:

Let this night of weeping and these three days
when tears shall linger, be the evening,
until the most welcome morning of joy is restored
to us in our sorrow, with the rising of the Lord.

{ Nox ista flebilis praesensque triduum
quo demorabitur fletus sit vesperum
donec laetitiae mane gratlsslmum
surgente Domino, sit maestis redditum. }

Latin text and English trans. from Woods (1992) p. 149. Editors have split this hymn into three hymns and added the “risus paschalis gratiae” stanza to the end of two of them. Id. p. 145. In Woods’s learned judgment, that change isn’t warranted. In either case, the importance of risus paschalis is beyond doubt.

Abelard also remembered and represented laughter in his Easter sequence Epithalamica. When the bride is re-united with her bridegroom, she sings:

Now I see what I had desired,
now I clasp what I had loved;
now I laugh, I who had so wept:
more I rejoice than I had grieved.
I laughed at dawn, I wept at night;
at dawn I laughed, at night I wept.

{ Iam video quod optaveram,
iam teneo quod amaveram;
iam rideo que sic fleveram:
plus gaudeo quam dolueram.
Risi mane, flevi nocte;
mane risi, nocte flevi. }

“Speak bride, your wedding song {Epitalamica dic, sponsa, cantica},” st. 7, Latin text from Ashlock (2013) pp. 47-8, my English translation, benefiting from that of Waddell (1986) p. 251. Ashlock newly transcribed the Latin to more accurately represent the manuscripts than does Waddell’s Latin text. Ashlock (2013) p. 19. For this stanza, the only difference is Waddell’s classical spelling of que as quae.

The Epithalamica draws heavily on the Song of Songs. In traditional Christian topological interpretation of the Song of Songs, the bride represents the church, and the bridegroom, Christ. The bride’s desire for her bridegroom also has an obvious earthly correlate. The medieval manuscripts treat the Epithalamica as a Marian sequence and associate it with the liturgical Birth of Mary office. Waddell (1986) pp. 246-7. In Christian understanding, Mary is intimately and uniquely associated with the birth of Christ. The laughter of the Epithalamica can thus also be felt as Christmas laughter.

Waddell highlighted the importance of laughter to Abelard. He observed:

the laughter/weeping, morning/evening couples … bear the stamp of Abelard, or, more correctly, Abelard and Augustine. As early as pre-Lent Septuagesima Sunday, Abelard’s sermon for that day had begun by ringing the changes of Qoheleth’s Tempus flendi/ tempus ridendi, “A time to weep/a time to laugh.”

Id. p. 263. In addition to his repeated invocations of laughter in his hymns for the Sacred Triduum, Abelard also explicitly referred to laughter after weeping in his Easter sermon. Id. p. 265. Just as for Isaac and his experience of nearly being slaughtered by this father, Abelard may have found in laughter some release from the horror of his castration.

Some scholars now attribute the Epithalamica not to Peter Abelard, but to Heloise of the Paraclete. Wulstan (2002), Ashlock (2013). My sense is that Abelard wrote the Epithalamica. Scholarship attributing the Epithalamica to Heloise seems to me to draw upon motifs in Martianus Capella’s On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury {De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii}, suitably interpreted.

[8] Ratzinger (1997) pp. 50-1. Another authority explains:

The ‘risus paschalis’ referred to the widespread practice of the pastor telling jokes on Easter Sunday to celebrate Christ in this resurrection enjoying “the last laugh” over Satan and death; that was done in the spirit of “those who laugh last laugh best.”

O’Collins (2013) p. 79.

[9] York Corpus Christi Plays, Play 31: Christ Before Herod, ll. 163-8, Middle English text from Davidson (2011), English modernization from Scoville & Yates (2003). The subsequent two quotes are similarly from Christ Before Herod, ll. 335-8 (My lord, all this muteness…), 349-52 (Sir Knights…). A white robe is a Christian symbol of purity. Revelation 3:4-5, 7:13-4.

This play is based on Luke 23:6-12. It was performed by York’s craft of litsters (dyers). Its anonymous author is known as the “York Realist,” a highly accomplished literary author.

[10] O’Connell summarizes:

If English townsfolk also laughed at preachers who told silly stories, capered about, enacted nonsense and animal noises at Easter, then Herod’s performance here participates in that tradition of absurd preaching and reinforces the promise of triumph and laughter in the larger play.

O’Connell (2002) p. 56.

In his interesting, wide-ranging book, Pound declared:

a socially comic and critically informed role for the church in postmodernity, a counter-joke to the joke of capitalism. … we fail to appreciate the central dynamism of trinitarian love directly with the comic, and the task of the church in maintaining love’s comedy: the joke that God sets before us, the counter-joke to a world in which laughter is far too often on the side of the capitalist.

Pound (2019) pp. 13, 215. Capitalism in the U.S. might be regarded as a joke; so was socialism in the Soviet Union. Anti-meninism seems to me a more significant joke that most persons around the world aren’t getting. Anti-meninism can be overcome with comedic integrity. See the discussion of Lacan in note [6] of my post on Arnaut’s “Pòis Raimons e’N Truc Malècs.” Lacan shameless exploited castration culture. The point isn’t merely to create for oneself a crazy-cult following like that of Foucault, but to change the world for the better.

[11] Notcerus Balbulus {Notker the Stammerer}, also known as Notker of Saint Gall, “O, let us recall, worthy of faithful praise, / songs of this day {Eia, recolamus laudibus piis digna / Huius diei carmina},” 13.3-4, Latin text from Brittain (1962) p. 159, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. Here’s an online Latin text. Notker probably wrote this Christmas sequence in the ninth century in what is present-day St. Gall, Switzerland.

[12] First line (and refrain) of an anonymous poem conventionally titled “The Virgil of Venus {Pervigilium Veneris},” Latin text from William Harris of Middlebury College, my English translation, benefiting from the various English translations presented in Herz (2018). Dating of this poem ranges from the second century to the fifth century GC.

[image] The Trinity, as figured as the three angelic visitors to Abraham and Sarah at Mamre. Icon made by Andrei Rublev between 1411 and 1425. Preserved as accession # 13012 in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Via Wikimedia Commons. For thoughts on this icon in relation to the Trinity, dancing, and laughter, London (2017).


Alter, Robert, trans. 1996. Genesis. New York: W.W. Norton.

Ashlock, Taylor Ann. 2013. “New Music to the Very Ears of God”?: Heloise the Composer. Undergraduate Honors Thesis. Paper 580. College of William and Mary.

Brittain, Frederick. 1962. The Penguin Book of Latin Verse: with plain prose translations of each poem. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books.

Davidson, Clifford, ed. 2011. The York Corpus Christi Plays. Kalamazoo, Mich: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University.

Herz, Bob. 2018. “A Translation & Notes on Pervigilium Veneris.” Nine Mile Magazine: Talk About Poetry. May 29, online.

London, Deforest. 2017. “The Sound of One God Laughing.” Online (June 2) at Deforest London.

O’Collins, Gerald. 2013. “Easter Grace.” Ch. 5 in Winter, Sean. Immense Unfathomed Unconfined: the grace of God in creation, church and community : essays in honour of Norman Young. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers.

O’Connell, Michael. 2002. “Mockery, Farce, and Risus Paschalis in the York Christ before Herod.” Pp. 45-58 in Hüsken, Wim N. M., Konrad Schoell, and Leif Søndergaard. Farce and Farcical Elements. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Pound, Marcus. 2019. Theology, Comedy, Politics. Minneapolis: MN Fortress Press.

Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal, from German trans. by John Rock and Graham Harrison. 1997 / 2006. Images of Hope: Meditations on Major Feasts. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

Scoville, Chester N. and Kimberley M. Yates. 2003. The York Plays: a modernization. Toronto.

Waddell, Chrysogonus. 1986. “Epithalamica: An Easter Sequence by Peter Abelard.” The Musical Quarterly. 72 (2): 239-271.

Woods, Patricia Hilary, and Peter Abelard. 1992. The Festival Hymns of Peter Abelard: a translation and commentary of the Hymnarius Paraclitensis Libellus II. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Glasgow.

Wulstan, David. 2002. “Novi modulaminis melos: the music of Heloise and Abelard.” Plainsong and Medieval Music. 11 (1): 1-23.

melodious nightingale & heavenly Jerusalem: medieval re-imaginings

heavenly Jerusalem, in Beatus by Facundus

The melodious nightingale and heavenly Jerusalem, two ancient figures, are significantly gendered. As all are now taught from a tender age, gender is socially constructed. That’s beyond question by definition. Poets in the relatively liberal and enlightened medieval period, however, dared to re-imagine the female genderings of the melodious nightingale and heavenly Jerusalem. They re-imagined these female gender figures with keen appreciation for men’s sexual interests and men’s social subordination.

In the reality of the natural world, the male nightingale sings melodies to attract a female mate. An ancient myth-maker, however, reversed the singing nightingale’s gender. That was to enable the Philomela myth and foster social silence about men being raped and violence against men. In the seventh century, facing down this mythic horror, Eugenius of Toledo pushed aside men’s gender burden of soliciting amorous relationships and re-imagined the nightingale as a woman pleasing a man with her sweet words. He wrote:

No other bird can ever imitate your singing;
sweet honey flows with your fluent, rippling notes.
Speak with vibrant tongue your tremulous warbling,
and pour liquid melody from your smooth throat.
Offer attentive ears food with sweet-sounding flavor,
never to silence cease, never to silence cease.
Glory and blessings and praise to Christ our Savior,
who grants his servants good gifts such as these.

{ Nulla tuos unquam cantus imitabitur ales,
Murmure namque tuo dulcia mella fluunt.
Dic ergo tremulos lingua vibrante susurros
Et suavi liquidum gutture pange melos.
Porrige dulcisonus, attentis auribus escas;
Nolo tacere velis, nolo tacere velis.
Gloria summa tibi, laus et benedictio, Christe,
Qui praestas famulis haec bona grata tuis. } [1]

In Eugenius’s highly sensuous poem, the woman bird pleases the man with her bodily gifts, which ultimately are from God. God grants persons the pleasure of enjoying each other bodily. Stating that was possible in seventh-century Europe. In our Dark Age of totalitarian anti-meninism, honoring and praising a bird for providing bodily pleasure to a man is scarcely tolerable.

In fourteenth-century Italy, Boccaccio recognized the gender mutuality implicit in Eugenius’s figure of the melodious nightingale. He told the story of Caterina, a highly privileged, beautiful, young single woman. She fell in love with Ricciardo. He was a noble young man who loved her as she loved him. They sought to get together to save each other from dying of lovesickness. But Caterina’s parents guarded her carefully, as if young men threatened her like dangerous beasts.

Caterina ingeniously contrived to sleep with Ricciardo. She explained to her parents that her bedroom was too hot for her. She said that to be cooler, she wanted to sleep out on the balcony over the garden. In that garden, a nightingale sang. Caterina told her parents that the nightingale, undoubtedly a male bird, gave her delight. Her mother responded that their house wasn’t hot and that Caterina should sleep inside. Caterina, however, explained to her mother that young women are much hotter than older women. Her mother and father finally allowed her to sleep outside on the balcony over the garden.

As they had pre-arranged, that night Ricciardo climbed up to the balcony to where Caterina had placed her bed. Then they saved each other from dying of lovesickness:

After many kisses, they lay down together, and almost for the entire night, they took delight and pleasure in one another, many times making the nightingale sing.

{ dopo molti basci si coricarono insieme, e quasi per tutta la notte diletto e piacer presono l’un dell’altro, molte volte faccendo cantar l’usignuolo. } [2]

As Boccaccio understood, the singing nightingale is a male bird. But what specific form of bird? The course of events soon revealed:

But, short being the night and long their pleasure, when daybreak was near (although they wished it not), having gotten heated up by the time and their play together, they fell asleep while completely naked. As she slept, Caterina’s right arm cradled Ricciardo’s neck, while her left hand held him by that part that you ladies are too modest to name in the presence of men.

{ E essendo le notti piccole e il diletto grande, e già al giorno vicino (il che essi non credevano), e sí ancora riscaldati e sí dal tempo e sí dallo scherzare, senza alcuna cosa addosso s’addormentarono, avendo a Caterina col destro braccio abbracciato sotto il collo Ricciardo, e con la sinistra mano presolo per quella cosa che voi tra gli uomini piú vi vergognate di nominare. }

After dawn, Caterina’s father walked out onto the balcony to see how his daughter was sleeping with the nightingale’s song. He gently lifted the curtains around her bed. Then he saw them naked, with Caterina embracing Ricciardo in the way  just described. Her father called to his wife:

Quick, lady, get up and come and see that your daughter was so desirous of the nightingale that to such purpose she has caught him and holds him in her hand.

{ Sú tosto, donna, lievati e vieni a vedere, che tua figliuola è stata sí vaga dell’usignuolo che ella è stata tanto alla posta che ella l’ha preso e tienlosi in mano. }

The nightingale here means Ricciardo’s genitals. That’s a brilliant re-imagining of the singing nightingale as a male bird. In the words of the seventh-century poet Eugenius, glory and blessings and praise to Christ for such a good gift.

Medieval poets similarly re-imagined heavenly Jerusalem as warmly welcoming to men. The Book of Revelation describes the heavenly Jerusalem, the new Jerusalem, as a bride:

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven and made ready as a bride adorned for her husband.

{ καὶ τὴν πόλιν τὴν ἁγίαν Ἰερουσαλὴμ καινὴν εἶδον καταβαίνουσαν ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ ἀπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ ἡτοιμασμένην ὡς νύμφην κεκοσμημένην τῷ ἀνδρὶ αὐτῆς } [3]

The heavenly Jerusalem as bride has helped to figure the church as woman. Under intensification of gynocentrism, heavenly Jerusalem could become the City of Ladies, an imaginary gynocentric paradise. Yet resisting, manly men pondered: for what was the bride ready? A medieval poet of the sixth or seventh century imagined the heavenly Jerusalem as a bride coming down from heaven to oppressed Christian men, such as men in sexless marriages or in celibate Hell:

Blessed city Jerusalem,
called vision of peace,
constructed in heaven
from living stones
and crowned by angels
like a bride by friends.

Young woman coming from heaven
to the marital bed,
ready to be made spouse,
to be united with her Lord.
Her spaces and boundaries
are made from purest gold.

Her doors shine with pearls,
with her inmost shrines being open,
and by manliness of the deserving
into that place are lead
all who in Christ’s name
are oppressed in this world.

{ Urbs beata Jerusalem
dicta pacis visio
quae construitur in caelis
vivis ex lapidibus
et angelis coronata
ut sponsata comite.

Nova veniens e caelo
nuptiali thalamo.
Praeparata, ut sponsata,
copuletur Domino.
Plateae et muri ejus
ex auro purissimo.

Portae nitent margaritis,
adytis patentibus,
et virtute meritorum
illuc introducitur
omnis qui ob Christi nomen
hic in mundo premitur. } [4]

The joy that the young woman from heaven promises for the marital bed will last forever in a restful paradise:

Here all are deserving
to obtain their desires
and to hold that acquired
with the saints forever,
and to enter paradise,
conveyed in bed.

{ Hic promereantur omnes
petita acquirere
et adepta possidere
cum sanctis perenniter,
paradisum introire
translati in requiem. } [5]

As a victim of castration culture, Peter Abelard understood personally and painfully what it means to be an oppressed man. He praised the heavenly Jerusalem, the young woman who fulfills completely men’s desires:

True Jerusalem is that city,
forever united in peace, the highest delight,
where desire doesn’t overtake the act’s fulfillment,
nor is the reward less than the desire.

{ Vera Ierusalem est illa civitas,
cuius pax iugis est, summa iucunditas,
ubi non praevenit rem desiderium,
nec desiderio minus est praemium. } [6]

Spouses should repeat this beautiful stanza to each other every night before they get into bed. Single persons should repeat it to themselves in hopeful joy, without any delusions of being self-partnered. The heavenly Jerusalem figured as female doesn’t contribute to gynocentric oppression if she’s united in bed with a man.

Not just the penis’s image problem, but many other historically entrenched gender figures also contribute to disparaging and oppressing men. The female gendering of the melodious nightingale effaces men laboring to uphold their gender burden of soliciting amorous relationships. The female gendering of the heavenly Jerusalem structures a heavenly city with earthly, oppressive gynocentrism. Medieval poets were capable of re-imagining these gender figures to promote a more humane and just world for men, and for everyone. Yes we can, too.

Heavenly city, blessed city,
upon a rock situated,
city in a port of plenty safety,
from afar I salute you.
I salute you, I sigh for you,
I desire you, I require you.

{ Urbs caelestis, urbs beata
Super petram collocata,
Urbs in portu satis tuto,
De longinquo te saluto.
Te saluto, te suspiro,
Te affecto, te requiro. } [7]

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Eugenius of Toledo, “Your voice, nightingale, urges one to proclaim songs {Vox, Philomela, tua cantus edicere cogit},” Latin text from Brittain (1962) p. 126 (a text is available online), my English translation benefiting from that of id. and Adcock (1983) p. 19.

The author of “Vox, Philomela, tua cantus edicere cogit” is specifically Eugenius II of Toledo. He died as Bishop of Toledo in 658 GC. Eugenius had perhaps a typical educational background of a learned person in seventh-century Spain:

as he had read widely and intelligently among the classical poets and his immediate predecessors, he was able to command a variety of metres and subjects.

Raby (1934) vol. 1, p. 150. Eugenius achieved considerable distinction. His poems were widely read, including in England and among the Carolingian poets. Id. p. 151.

The female gendering of the melodious nightingale generated at least one poem of men’s sexed protest. The specific context is poetic. Cambridge Songs {Carmina Cantabrigiensia} 10, titled “Concerning a nightingale {De luscinia},” beginning “May the golden lyre sound bright melodies {Aurea personet lira clara modulamina},” lavishly praises the female nightingale for her singing talent. A tenth-century poet responded to that gynocentric nightingale poem with a metrical parody drawing upon themes of men’s sexed protest:

Her incessant, yet not hoarse
whistling voice is never mute,
as she chants her incantations
like a woodland prostitute,
puffing up her puny figure
full of music and conceit.

Will you never stop that racket,
you over-rated little bird?
Do you think your art surpasses
all the singing ever heard?
Don’t you know that other music
is quite frequently preferred?

As you bash your tinkling cymbals
with excessive jollity,
wakeful crowds of gentry
egg you on with flattery:
your eternal serenading
wins the praise of royalty.

Stop it, stop it, you’re a nuisance —
surely now you’ve tired that beak?
When I try a little snoozing
on the sly, you make me sick.
Must you every moment sing
as if worthy of applauding stars?

{ Prolixa non rauca mittit
voce sepe sibila,
plura canit incantando
saltuum prostibula,
gliscit mirabilis membra
ludens menia carmina.

O tu parva, cur non cessas
clangere, avicula?
Estimas nunc superare
omnes arte musica?
Aut quid cum lira contempnis
sonora dulciflua?

Ultra vires iocabunda
luctas thimfanistria,
te auscultant vigilando
regalis insignia,
laudat procerum caterva
tua plura cantica.

Cessa, cessa fatigando
lassata iam bucula,
quia premis dormizantes
clam iugiter nausia,
omni ora pro quid canis
digna ovans sidera? }

“Often a golden tongue / at the heights of religious brotherhood {Aurea frequenter lingua / in sublimi hetera }” st. 8-11, Latin text from Strecker (1926), Appendix 1, via Bibliotheca Augustana, English translation (modified slightly) from Adcock (1983) pp. 31-3. For a slightly revised Latin text, Bradley (1987).

The male nightingale’s melodious song has been wrongly credited to females throughout recorded history. In Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope calls the nightingale “daughter of Pandareus” and invokes the anti-meninist Philomela myth. Odyssey 19.511-28. Hesiod refers to the nightingale as female in a passage brutalizing a male bird. Works and Days, ll. 203-11. In fifth-century Athens, tragedies and comedies referred to the melodious nightingale as female. On the nightingale in medieval literature, Pfeffer (1985). For a collection of ancient and medieval nightingale poems, Williams (1997) Appendices 1 and 2. In id. and other recent scholarship, gender and nightingales have typically been considered only within the viciously patrolled boundaries of dominant ideology. For a nightingale poetry survey showing some concern for male nightingales, Addison (2009).

[2] Boccaccio, Decameron 5.4, Italian text that of Branca’s Einaudi edition (1992) via Decameron Web, my English translation benefiting from those of Rigg (1903) and Rebhorn (2013). Subsequent quotes from this story are similarly sourced.

[3] Revelation 21:2, Greek text from BlueLetterBible. See similarly Revelation 3:12, 21:9-10.

[4] “The blessed city Jerusalem / called vision of peace {Urbs beata Jerusalem / dicta pacis visio},” st. 1-3, Latin text from Brittain (1962) p. 127, my English translation benefiting from that of id. and Neale (1851). This hymn is from the sixth or seventh century. For some traditional analysis of it, Belsole (2017).

[5] “Urbs beata Jerusalem” st. 8, sourced as above. This stanza is also st. 4 in “Christ is put as the corner stone {Angularis fundamentum / lapis Christus missus est}.” The latter is the second part of the former. It apparently was established as a separate hymn in the Moissac Breviary in the tenth century. Here’s the translation of Neale (1851) (alternate source). Both parts of “Urbs beata Jerusalem” were used in the service for the 750th anniversary of the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey.

[6] Peter Abelard, “O of what quantity and quality are the Sabbaths {O quanta qualia sunt illa sabbata},” st. 2, Latin text from Mark Walter in the Classical Anthology, my English translation benefiting from those of id., Brittain (1962) pp. 195-7, and Neale (1854). Here’s the music for the hymn, and a performance of it.

[7] Hildebert of Lavardin, “May that Zion receive me {Sion me receptet illa},” ll. 18-22, Latin text from Brittain (1962) p. 192, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. and the one provided by Michael Gilleland. Hildebert of Lavardin (lived in France, 1056-1133) was a leading poet of his time. Hildebert had keen appreciation for men’s gender disadvantage.

[image] Heavenly Jerusalem, the bride from heaven. This manuscript illumination includes the flower of life, the tree of life, and a representation of men’s seminal contribution to life. From a Beatus, made by Facundus for Ferdinand I and Queen Sancha. Preserved as folio 254 in Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, Ms Vit.14.2. Via Wikimedia Commons. Here are more images from the magnificent Beatus of Facundus. The monk Beatus of Liébana, living in the monastery of Martin de Turieno (near present-day Santander on the north coast of Spain) in the eighth century made what became the prototype of a book known as a Beatus. For discussion, Williams (2011).


Adcock, Fleur. 1983. The Virgin and the Nightingale: medieval Latin poems. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books.

Addison, Catherine. 2009. “‘Darkling I listen’: The nightingale’s Song In and Out of Poetry.” Alternation: Journal of the Centre for the Study of Southern African Literature and Languages. 16 (Special issue ; 2): 190-220.

Belsole, Kurt. 2017. “‘Urbs Ierusalem Beata’: The Hymn for Evening Prayer for the Dedication of a Church.” The Institute for Sacred Architecture. 32. Online.

Bradley, Dennis R. 1987. “‘Aurea frequenter lingua in sublimi hetera’ – A New Edition.” Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch. 22: S. 114-135.

Brittain, Frederick. 1962. The Penguin Book of Latin Verse: with plain prose translations of each poem. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books.

Pfeffer, Wendy. 1985. The Change of Philomel: the nightingale in medieval literature. New York: Peter Lang.

Rebhorn, Wayne A., trans. 2013. Giovanni Boccaccio. The Decameron. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Williams, Jeni. 1997. Interpreting Nightingales: Gender, Class and Histories. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Williams, John. 2011. “Beatus of Liébana.” The Public Domain Review. Online.

wives predominate in seeking divorce: an unusual medieval case

Joachim embracing Anna

On the British Isles in the seventh century, a husband sought to divorce his wife. Whether this husband suffered abuse from his wife, as Matheolus did in twelfth-century France, isn’t know. What’s clear is that this husband didn’t find God in love with his wife. He thus looked elsewhere:

I want to turn to my God;
I do not want my wife.
Lord, I ask this of you;
I long to serve you alone.
Wife, depart from me!

{ Ad deum meum convertere volo:
uxorem meam ego nolo.
Domine, hoc tibi rogo:
tibi soli servire volo.
Recede a me, uxor! } [1]

Available data from the late-nineteenth century through to the present indicates that wives seek divorce about 2.5 times as frequently as husband do.[2] This medieval case of a husband seeking divorce is probably rather unusual.

God has joined us fairly,
but my mind shall have joy.
Lord, what am I asking of you?
I myself long to serve you.
Wife, depart from me!

{ Bene nobis iunxerat deus,
et gaudebit animus meus.
Domine, quid tibi rogo?
Ipse te servire volo.
Recede a me, uxor! } [3]

Family law helps to explain why wives seek divorce about 2.5 times as frequently as husbands do. Children are typically a highly valued good in a marriage. Anti-men sex discrimination in child custody and child support decisions is today enormous. This vitally significant sexism attracts remarkably little public concern. That’s a result of deeply entrenched gynocentrism. Despite recent fabrications of family-law history, wives in practice have probably always predominantly received custody of children upon divorce or separation. Medieval tales tell of fathers made into only wallets. Husbands’ higher probably of losing custody of their children makes them more reluctant than wives to seek marital separation or divorce.

Fathers have typically loved their children dearly. Both Jewish and Christian scripture describes God as a father. That gender figure isn’t meant to be understood literally. It’s meant to communicate God’s loving care for human beings — his children. The gender figure of God the father makes no sense without ancient, popular understanding of a father’s love for his children. A tenth-century poem sings of a father’s joy and the laughter that he brings to his children:

Turning somersaults he clowns on the branches;
vivid from behind he glitters like gold-leaf.
His happy antics make all viewers laugh.

He hangs on the nest above his young nestlings
showing himself off to their admiring faces;
he can outsing all his chick’s little voices.

{ Giro se turnat, in ramo iucundat;
respectu clarus, lucet tamquam aurum;
ut laetus mimus, tales facit risos.

Nido suspensus ad suos pullones;
ut eam cernat sui amatores,
cunctas praecellit parvulorum voces. } [4]

Whether bird or man, most fathers delight in life with their children. That, along with discrimination against husbands in child custody decisions, reduces husbands’ relative incentive to seek divorce.

Medieval marriage was a more attractive institution than is marriage today in high-income westernized countries. Under medieval canon law, a marriage could be legally contracted only with the freely given assent of both persons. Most medieval persons in their poverty didn’t envision marriage merely as a bucket-list checkbox to experience an extravagant special-day wedding ceremony. The medieval ideal of marriage was a conjugal partnership. Drawing upon the different skills of husbands and wives and benefiting from sharing of material resources, economic partnership was an important aspect of the medieval marital partnership. Moreover, under canon law, medieval spouses were indebted to have sex with each other, even if one didn’t feel like it. Hence medieval spouses were much less likely to find themselves experiencing sexless marriage.

What a calamity! Will you leave me?
But you shouldn’t say these words to me!
I want you to stay —
in the middle of the night I’ll need you
as my gentle husband.

Day and night I’ve been in tears
because of my dear husband:
God will defraud me,
so that he won’t lie at my side
as my gentle husband.

{ Calamitas! De me recedis?
Et ista verba non me dices!
Vellim moraris:
media nocte te requiram
ut dulcis iugalix meus!

Die ac nocte fui in fletu
propter viro meo caro:
fraudabit me deus
ut non iacet ad latus meum
ut dulcit iugalix meus! } [5]

This medieval wife was devastated that her husband would seek divorce. She was afraid that God would deprive her of her legally married husband. She wanted God to call her husband to account for seeking to divorce her. She refused to believe that God would allow her husband to engage in the fraud of divorce.

Few spouses today hold such beliefs. When a husband today finds that his wife is divorcing him, to whom can he turn for hope? Perhaps he might plead to God that his wife doesn’t accuse him of domestic violence as a tactic to extract higher alimony and child support payments.

I’ll put myself into a hidden place
and fling myself into the deep sea.
This will wipe out my name and me.
May God call you to account for this,
as my gentle husband!

I’m raising my head in return to God.
He will not break my heart,
that man who slanders me that God
will defraud me of my husband,
my gentle husband!

{ Fatio me in absconso
et iaceo me in mare profundo.
Hic delebit nomen mecum:
tibi hec requirat deus
ut dulcis iugalix meus!

Caput levo contra deum,
et non fringet pectus meum
qui me blasfemat illum deum
qui me fraudabit virum meum,
ut dulcis iugalix meus! }

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] “I want to turn to my God {Ad deum meum convertere volo}” st. 1, Latin text and English translation from Dronke (1995) p. 192. On the late-seventh-century dating of the poem, Lapidge (1985). For textual analysis, Dronke (1986).

[2] For U.S. data on percent of divorce filings in which the woman was the plaintiff, for various samples from 1867 to 1995,  Brinig & Allen (2000) Table 1, p. 128. Brinig & Allen collected 46,547 divorce certificates from 1995 for Connecticut, Virginia, Oregon, and Montana. While failing to report summary statistics, id. reports for “correct estimations” 66.43. That figures appears to be the percentage of women plaintiffs. It implies that wives filed for divorce twice as frequently as husbands did.

Data from the National Survey of Families and Households for 1987-88 and 1992-94 indicate that five times as many wives as husbands wanted their marriage to end against the preference of the other spouse to remain married. Brinig & Allen (2000) p. 159, Appendix table (338 women vs. 67 men). The most recent data available in the National Survey of Families and Households is for 2001-2003.

Dankowski et al. (2017) is by far the highest quality study of divorce. It reports:

We examined all 243 divorce cases filed in Middlesex County, Massachusetts in May 2011. Excluding a single case involving a same-sex couple, 72.3 percent of the cases were filed by women. I.e., a woman was more than 2.5 times more likely to file a divorce lawsuit as a man. This is in a jurisdiction where the woman can expect to win sole custody and, for a given level of defendant income, roughly twice the level of child support profit as in the average U.S. state.

See id., Causes of Divorce.

Rosenfeld observed:

It is a well-established fact that most divorces in the US are wanted primarily by the wife. In Goode’s (1956) sample of recently divorced women from the 1940s in Detroit, about two thirds of the recently divorced women described themselves as the initiators of their divorces. More recent US data show a similar pattern, with roughly two thirds of divorces wanted by the wife {omitted references}. Most divorces are wanted by the wife not only in the US, but in Europe {omitted references} and Australia {omitted references} as well.

Rosenfeld (2017) p. 3. Goode’s (1956) data indicates that 264 divorces were initiated by the wife, while 105 where initiated by the husband. Those figures indicate that wives initiated divorce 2.5 times as frequently as husbands did. Rosenfeld got the figure “about two thirds” by counting mutually initiated divorces as half-initiated by wives before calculating the percentage of wife-initiated divorces. Id. p. 3, n. 1. That’s not a good statistic. Id.’s survey, “How Couples Meet and Stay Together” recorded among married couples getting divorced, 56 wives wanted the breakup more, compared to 18 husbands wanting the breakup more. Id. p. 29, Table 1, Source text. That gives a ratio of 3.1 for the divorce preference of wives relative to husbands.

Rosenfeld’s study exemplifies the ideological blinders of scholars working in accordance with dominant gynocentric ideology. Showing learned blindness to acute anti-men sexism in family law and the enormous financial implications of divorce, Rosenfeld states:

The fact that wives have been more likely to want divorce implies that wives were less satisfied with their marriages than their husbands, at least among couples who divorced.

Id. p. 3. The fact that wives upon divorce typically acquire a key marital good (the couple’s children) and large financial payments from the husband obviously affects relative divorce incentives. The flood of divorces in the Netherlands preceding the reduction in alimony duration from 12 to 5 years underscores the importance of financial incentives for divorce. Rosenfeld seems obtuse to incentives in context:

The simplest version of the power theory of relationships gives the initiative to the partner with more power or status. Therefore: Hypothesis 4: Individuals with more power, more status, or more income are more likely to want to break up.

Id. p. 9. That’s a nonsensical hypothesis. Relative costs and benefits of a break-up, not absolute levels of status and income, drive divorce incentives. Under the inequality-promoting structures of family law, persons have a strong incentive not to marry a partner who earns much less because of the financial risk of large income transfer upon divorce.

Family scholars fit their thinking to gynocentric ideology in a way consistent with the development of Soviet science:

Sassler and Miller (2011) found that among young heterosexual couples, men had the privilege of asking their partner to marry, meaning men controlled the marriage decision.

Id. p. 5. Men face the burden of attempting to gauge whether a partner is interested in marrying, and men endure the burden of rejection if they miscalculate. Men “controlled the marriage decision” only according to the realty-denying diktats of gynocentric ideology.

Rosenfeld found that wives prefer divorce about three times as frequently as husbands, but such a gender imbalance doesn’t hold among unmarried heterosexual cohabitors. That finding is consistent with the acute anti-men sex discrimination in family court decisions.

Rosenfeld concluded that his analysis is “consistent with the view that heterosexual marriage is a gendered institution.” Id. p. 20. What exactly does that mean?

Despite the institution of marriage changing and adapting (Cherlin, 2004) and becoming more diverse in terms of who marries whom (Rosenfeld, 2007), feminist scholars view heterosexual marriage as a gendered institution (Berk, 1985), which is a potential reason why wives might selectively want divorce. By gendered institution, scholars mean that heterosexual marriage reproduces and reifies traditional gender roles for men and women (Berk, 1985; Shelton & John, 1993). In their description of the post-1960 gender revolution as a stalled revolution, Hochschild and Machung (1989) describe how wives’ careers were constrained by their husbands’ expectations that the afternoon and evening shift of housework and childcare was fundamentally women’s work. Even husbands and wives who thought of themselves as holding gender egalitarian ideals were found by Hochschild and Machung to be living (and justifying to themselves) traditional gender expectations of childcare and housework as women’s work.

Id. p. 5. In short, Rosenfeld concludes that his study supports dominant gender ideology. Generating support for gynocentrism is a socially valued function of academics. That seems to be the dominant objective of much academic work today.

Tendentious, misleading studies of household labor distribution wrongly inform understanding of household economics. These studies don’t adequately count work that men do within the household. In addition, wives’ standards for how a household should be maintained are assumed to govern what work men should do. These scholarly assumptions reflect the biases of gynocentrism.

Studies asserting that wives’ living standards fall after divorce also mis-represent reality. A couple’s aggregate welfare necessarily falls following divorce due to dis-economies of separate living. Men still predominantly carry the burden of earning money to support married couples. To maintain of wife’s living standard post-divorce would require higher than 50% effective tax on the husband’s income. Faced with such a gross injustice, husbands through demoralization are likely to experience a large decline in earnings. As much as gynocentric society demands that women be protected from any harm, that’s not feasible in the context of divorce. In short, a wife with much lower earnings than her husband should expect a reduction in her living standard upon divorce.

[3] “Hear an honorable verse {Audite versum dignum}” st. 2, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Dronke (1995) p. 193. This poem closely follows the structure of “Ad deum meum convertere volo.” Like the latter, it’s earliest source is a ninth-century manuscript. Both poems probably have a common source.

[4] “Most brilliant of birds with his jewel-decked head {Caput gemmato, caeteris praeclarus}” st. 4-5, Latin text from Fickermann (1935), English translation (modified slightly) from Adcock (1983). Adcock entitles this poem, “The golden oriole at the monastery.” It’s also available in Latin in Raby (1959) p. 147 (poem no. 106). Raby calls it a “charming poem.” Id. p. 474. Dated to the tenth century, it’s probably of northern Italian origin. Id. pp. 147, 474.

[5] “Hear an honorable verse {Audite versum dignum}” st. 4-5, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Dronke (1995) p. 193. The subsequent quote is similarly from id., st. 6-7 (final stanza).

[image] Joachim and Anna at the Golden Gate of Jerusalem, celebrating that they would have a child. Their child was Mary the mother of Jesus. Illumination in Book of Hours, with the Hours of the Virgin, the Short Hours of the Holy Cross, Prayers and Suffrages. Made about 1420, apparently used in Utrecht. From folio 4v in British Library, MS Additional 50005.


Adcock, Fleur. 1983. The Virgin and the Nightingale: medieval Latin poems. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books.

Brinig, Margaret F. and Douglas W. Allen. 2000. “‘These boots are made for walking’: why most divorce filers are women.” American Law and Economics Review. 2 (1): 126-169.

Dankowski, Alexa, Suzanne Goode, Philip Greenspun, Chaconne Martin-Berkowicz, and Tina Tonnu. 2017. Real World Divorce: Custody, Child Support, and Alimony in the 50 States. Online.

Dronke, Peter. 1986. “‘Ad deum meum convertere volo’ and early Irish evidence for lyrical dialogues.” Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies. 12: 23–32.

Dronke, Peter. 1995. “Two Versions of an Insular Latin Lyrical Dispute.” Filologia Mediolatina. 2: 109-125. Cited from reprint as Ch. 10 (pp. 191-219) in Dronke, Peter. 2007. Forms and Imaginings: from antiquity to the fifteenth century. Roma: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura.

Fickermann, Norman. 1935. “Zwei lat. Gedichte. I. Ein frühmal. Liedchen auf den Pirol. II. Das Admonter Fragment eines Planctus Heinrici VII.” Neues Archiv der Gesellschaft für Ältere Deutsche Geschichtskunde zur Beförderung einer Gesamtausgabeder Quellenschriften deutscher Geschichten des Mittelalters. 50: 582-599.

Lapidge, Michael. 1985. “A Seventh-Century Insular Latin Debate Poem on Divorce.” Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies. 10: 1-23.

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

Rosenfeld, Michael J. 2017. “Who wants the Breakup? Gender and Breakup in Heterosexual Couples.” Forthcoming as chapter in Duane F. Alwin, Diane Felmlee, and Derek Kreager, eds. Social Networks and the Life Course: Integrating the Development of Human Lives and Social Relational Networks. Springer.

Dante’s Folquet de Marseille praised Rahab in paradise

Yet we don’t feel remorse, we laugh in ease —
not for the sin we have no memory of,
but for that power that orders and forsees.
We gaze on the adorning art of love,
the good that makes creation beautiful,
that turns the world below by the world above.
But that you’ll leaved fulfilled in every will
risen in you to know about this sphere,
I must go on a little longer still.

{ Non però qui si pente, ma si ride,
non de la colpa, ch’a mente non torna,
ma del valor ch’ordinò e provide.
Qui si rimira ne l’arte ch’addorna
cotanto affetto, e discernesi ‘l bene
per che ‘l mondo di sù quel di giù torna.
Ma perché tutte le tue voglie piene
ten porti che son nate in questa spera,
procedere ancor oltre mi convene. } [1]

Rahab helping Joshua's spies

In twelfth-century southern France, the man trobairitz (troubadour) Folquet de Marseille wrote love songs to the wife of Raymond Geoffrey, Viscount of Marseille. Loving another’s wife was illicit in Christian Europe. Folquet prudently struggled to conceal his love:

I wish to show you the pain that I feel,
and to others, hide and conceal
that I cannot ever secretly speak my heart to you.
If then I know not how to cover myself, who will cover for me?
Who will be faithful to me, if I am a traitor to myself?
If one cannot hide himself, there is no reason
for others to hide him, for they do not benefit.

{ A vos volgra mostrar lo mal qu’ieu sen
et als autres celar et escondire;
qu’anc no.us puec dir mon cor celadamen;
donc, s’ieu no.m sai cobrir, qui m’er cubrir?
Ni qui m’er fis, s’ieu eis mi sui traire?
Qui si no sap celar non es razos
que.l celon cil a cui non es nuls pros. } [2]

A foolishly courtly lover, Folquet couldn’t resist writing love songs to another’s wife. After marrying and having two children, Folquet had a change of heart and entered a monastery. Medieval European Christianity was tolerant and forgiving, quite unlike the denounce-and-banish canceling culture of today. Folquet subsequent become Bishop of Toulouse and played a leading role in high politics of early-thirteenth-century southern France. Dante in his great Comedy {Comedia} placed Folquet, more justly called called Folc, in the third sphere of paradise, that of Venus and lovers.

Another man trobairitz subsequently ridiculed Folquet of Marseilles’s unworldliness. Taking advantage of the broad latitude of medieval freedom of speech, this troubadour parodied Folquet’s stanza concerned with covering up love:

I wish to show you the dick that hangs from me,
and to sit my balls above your ass;
and I say that only for the sake of banging you often,
because I have focused all my thoughts on fucking,
such that the dick sings, when it sees the cunt laugh.
And for fear that the jealous one will return,
I put my dick in and retain my balls.

{ A vos volgra metre lo veit qe·m pent
e mos coillos de sobre·l cul assire:
eu non o dic mais per ferir sovent
car en fotre ai mes tot mon albire;
qe·l veit chanta qan el ve lo con rire,
e per paor qe no i venga·l gelos
li met mon veit e rete‹nc› los coillos. } [3]

With earthy description of human bodily anatomy, this song emphasizes mutual sexual joy in singing and laughing. It indicates the man’s concern not to ejaculate, and thus to avoid cuckolding the jealous one, probably meaning the woman’s husband. Support for cuckolding men is characteristic of gynocentric culture. Christianity, in contrast, centers on God incarnated as a fully masculine man, Jesus. Medieval Christianity affirmed conjugal partnership, not men’s abasement in the courtly love that shaped the young Folquet’s songs.

The idea that men are naturally able to sing and please with their penises challenges men’s labor to acquire worth under gynocentrism. Men trobairitz, who were often materially poor, commonly sang songs to please elite, highly privileged women.[4] Yet such labor isn’t necessary and isn’t always fully rewarding. A poetic exchange between two men trobairitz brings out this reality of men’s labor:

Sir Peire, by my beautiful singing
I have from my lady gloves and a ring,
and many others have similar things
from ladies by their song.
And so those who speak against singing
seem to be merely full of nonsense.

Hugh, if you have from her jewelry,
another has her meat and skin,
and while you sing, he’s in her nest,
and while you fill her glove,
the other is filling the lark’s skin
that you seek with your bird calls.

{ En Peire, per mon chantar bèl
Ai de mi dons gans et anèl,
E mant autre n’an atressi
Agut de donnas per lur chan;
E cel que contra chantar di
Sembla ben c’ane rebuzan.

Hugo, si vos n’aves joèl,
Autre n’a la carn e la pèl,
E chantas cant el es el ni.
E cant vos enformas son gan,
Autre enforma l’alauzi
Dont vos anas brezanejan. } [5]

Like all human beings, men, who certainly are human beings, have a human right to sexual intimacy. Men should not feel compelled to labor to earn sex like they labor to acquire material goods. Love ultimately cannot be earned.

Love isn’t equivalent to sex. An under-appreciated medieval trobairitz song poignantly highlighted lacking satisfaction in sex without love:

A fucker who was not in love
with any woman, but wanted to fuck,
always had a boner and was eager
to fuck any woman he could fuck.
He was all so eager to fuck that

he was called Sir Fucker,
a fucker, alas! unhappy and sad,
and he said one dies badly and lives worse
who doesn’t fuck the one he loves.

This fucker was so anxious to fuck
that the stronger he fucked, the more he fucked dying of sadness
that he wasn’t fucking more. He would have fucked as two
of the best fuckers in Lombardy,
for in fucking he said, “I would be happy if I were fucking!”

He was called Sir Fucker,
a fucker, alas! unhappy and sad,
and he said one lives badly who doesn’t fuck
night and day the one he loves.

{ Us fotaires que non fo amorós
De neguna, mais que fotre volria,
Està totjorn areis e voluntós
De fotre celas que fotre poria.
Tal volontat a de fotre tot dia

Qu’En Esfotanz se clama,
Fotaire las dolens chaitiu,
E ditz que mal mòr e peiz viu
Qui non fot la qui ama.

Lo fotaire es tant de fotre angoissós,
Com plus fòrt fot, mòr fotant de felnia
Que plus non fot, qu’el fotria per dos
De fotedors melhors de Lombardia,
Qu’en fotant ditz : “Garitz som, se fotria!”

En Esfotanz se clama,
Fotaire las dolens chaitiu,
E ditz qui non fot que mal viu
Nòit e jorn la que ama. } [6]

This song ostentatiously uses an early form of the quite unusual and interesting word “fuck.” Its refrain clearly declares the misery of he who doesn’t have sex with the one he loves. More subtly, the song doesn’t merely advocate for more sex. The man having much sex with women was “unhappy and sad,” even to the point of “dying of sadness.” He wanted to have sex as vigorously as “two of the best fuckers,” not just a single sexual champion. Sex without sadness is a coupled activity. Most astonishing of all, “Sir Fucker” while fucking subjunctively declared, “I would be happy if I were fucking!” He wasn’t experiencing the true act. He wasn’t experiencing love. Far too many men and women are similarly deprived.

Rahab earned her living as a prostitute in the ancient Canaanite city of Jericho. Two Israelite spies came and spent the night with her at her inn. Those spies didn’t come to her as Abraham did for his niece Mary. On her own Rahab turned to know the true God and sought to help those whom God favored. She helped the two spies to escape from the city and thus helped Joshua to lead God’s chosen people to conquer Jericho in the Promised Land. Christians from the early church Fathers have regarded Rahab as a blessed woman.[7] In Christian understanding, the prostitute Rahab is a figure of the Christian church. She foreshadowed the coming of the church, just as Joshua did his namesake Jesus. Her choice to do great good wiped away her sinful acts as a prostitute.

In the third sphere of paradise of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Folquet de Marseille praised Rahab. Both Folquet and Rahab were converts from foolish, adulterous love. Rahab was a woman who risked her life to save men’s lives. She defied gynocentrism with godly love. Rahab thus played a larger, better role than Folquet in salvation history, as Christians understand it. Folquet rightly regarded Rahab as greater than he:

You’d like to know who shines beside me here
as scintillating in her lamping fire
as rays of sunlight when the lake is clear.
Know that within it Rahab finds her peace.
The highest of our saints, she seals her light
on every rank of spirits in our choir.

{ Tu vuo’ saper chi è in questa lumera
che qui appresso me così scintilla
come raggio di sole in acqua mera.
Or sappi che là entro si tranquilla
Raab; e a nostr’ ordine congiunta,
di lei nel sommo grado si sigilla. } [8]

Ovid sought to teach men the art of love. Medieval Europe recognized Ovid as a master teacher of love. As a courtly lover, Folquet was ignorant of vitally important Ovidian teaching. The prostitute Rahab understood better Ovid’s classical learning about love than did Folquet. Yet Ovidian learning alone wasn’t sufficient to make Rahab a star scintillating in the firmament of paradise. She needed to learn a further art of love.

We gaze on the adorning art of love,
the good that makes creation beautiful,
that turns the world below by the world above.

{ Qui si rimira ne l’arte ch’addorna
cotanto affetto, e discernesi ‘l bene
per che ‘l mondo di sù quel di giù torna. }

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Dante, Comedy {Comedia}, Paradise {Paradiso} 9.103-11, medieval Italian text of Petrocchi via the Princeton Dante Project, English translation (adapted slightly) from Esolen (2004). Boccaccio was the first to refer to Dante’s Comedia as the Divine Comedy {Divina Comedia}. Dante’s work might better be called the Earthy and Divine Comedy.

For si ride in the quote above, I’ve replaced “smile at ease” in Esolen’s translation with “laugh in ease.” The latter translation is consistent with the Latin root verb rideo. That’s also the root for the Occitan verb rire used subsequently above. Laughter is an under-appreciated aspect of the true Christian sense of redemption and salvation.

[2] Folquet de Marseilles, “Love, have mercy! Don’t let me die so often! {Amors, merce!: no mueira tan soven!}” st. 5 (ll. 29-35), Old Occitan text from Stroński 1910 (Song 9), via Rialto, English translation (adapted) from Schulman (2001), Appendix, Song 9. Textual variants exist across surviving manuscripts, but they matter little to the meaning of this stanza.

This song survives with a melody. For a transcription, Washer (2002) pp. 301-2. The Troubadours Art Ensemble recorded it on Troubadour songs: music in a courtly world, an album from their concert in Tartu, Estonia, in 2003. Here’s a complete discography of recordings of Folquet’s songs.

Schulman carefully reviewed the different names used for Folquet, and judged Folc, the non-dimunitive Occitan nominative form, to be the most appropriate. Id. pp. xvii-xx. I use Folquet de Marseille because it’s the most popular form of his name today, and more relevant to his career as a troubadour. The corresponding Occitan form is Folquet de Marselha.

Folquet de Marseille lived in Occitania from about 1150 to 1231. He probably became a Cistercian monk about 1195. He was elected Bishop of Toulouse in 1205. On Folquet’s biography, id.

About twenty-seven of Folquet’s songs have survived. His songs were widely known, and he apparently interacted with leading trobairitz and troubadours. “Amors, merce!: no mueira tan soven!” survives in twenty-three manuscripts. Moreover, parts of it are re-used in different ways in ten different works. Washer (2007) p. 566.

In lines 4-5 of st. 5 (above), Folquet echoes the first part of a famous aphorism from Hillel the Elder (florished from about 30 BGC to 10 GC), preserved in Pirkei Avot 1:14: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am only for my own self, what am I? And if not now, when? { הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא }” Here’s some analysis of that aphorism.

[3] Anonymous cobla, Occitan text from the critical edition of Francesco Carapezza (2002), via Rialto, my English translation benefiting from the French translation of Bec (1984) p. 171 and the partial English translation of Lazar (1989) pp. 267-8. Here’s Bec’s similar Occitan text.

The Occitan verb ferir, which I’ve translated as “banging,” uses a metaphor historically associated with disparagement of men’s sexuality. Cf. Bec (1984) p. 171, note to v. 3. Bec perceives in v. 7 the practice of coitus interruptus and suggests “à cause de la menace du gelos (mari) {as a result of fear of the gelos (husband)}.” Id. p. 172. Men have long been concerned to practice birth control to avoid the burdens of pregnancies that they don’t want. Those burdens today are primarily associated with large financial obligations (“child support” payments) that governments impose on men solely because a man had sex of reproductive type. By deliberate state legal construction, men are thus deprived of reproductive choice. The only way a man can escape the risk of that sex penalty is by having sex with another man’s wife. A man seeking to avoid cuckolding a husband thus shows love for the husband, not fear of him.

Washer throughly discusses transformations of Folquet’s “Amors, merce!: no mueira tan soven!” On this particular transformation, she comments: “the author reveals the hidden truth of fin’amour {courtly love}, the real way to cure the pain of love.” The author of this cobla closely read and adapted Folquet’s song. Washer (2007) pp. 579-80.

[4] In the tenson between Uguet and Reculaire, “I would like to challenge you, Reculaire {Scometre·us vuoill, Reculaire},” Uguet describes Reculaire as destitute and wearing old clothes. Uguet has been identified as the troubadour Uc de Saint-Circ and Reculaire as the troubadour Sordel. Guida (2006), as discussed in Mathias (2014) pp. 174-6.

[5] “Sir Peire, by my beautiful singing {En Peire, per mon chantar bel},” Occitan text as emended by Poe (2000) p. 211 (Bec’s Occitan text; Meyer’s Occitan text), my English translation, benefiting from that of id., and the French translation of Bec (1984) p. 45 and that of the Peire Cardenal website.

“En Peire, per mon chantar bel” survives in only one manuscript, MS f (BnF 12472), called the Giraud chansonnier. That manuscript dates to the first half of the fourteenth century. Poe (2000) pp. 207, 216, n. 2. In that manuscript, the song is attributed to Uc de Maensac and Peire Cardenal. Poe argues convincing that the named Peire is Peire de Maensac, and the named Uc is an unidentified troubadour. Id. pp. 213-5. She suggests that, based on its theme, this song dates to the first quarter of the thirteenth century.

Poe recognized that “En Peire, per mon chantar bel” took its metrical pattern from “From the sweetness of the new season {Ab lo dolchor del temps novel},” a famous song of Guilhem IX, Duke of Aquitaine. The fourth stanza (ll. 19-24) of that song describes Guilhem’s desire:

I still remember one morning
when we stopped quarreling,
and she gave to me so great a gift,
her loving and her ring.
God let me live until again
I put my hands beneath her cloak.

{ Enquer me menbra d’un mati
que nos fezem de guera fi,
e que.m donet un don tan gran:
sa drudari’ e son anel.
Enquer me lais Dieus viure tan
qu’aia mas mans soz so mantel! }

Occitan text and English translation from Poe (2000) p. 212, adapted with the help of the translation of Paden & Paden (2007) p. 25. “En Peire, per mon chantar bel” makes more explicit and more intensive the carnal theme in Guilhem’s song.

[6] “A fucker who was not in love {Us fotaires que non fo amorós},” Occitan text from Bec (1984), via Corpus des Troubadours, English translation (modified) from Paden & Paden (2007) p. 238. Trobar has an alternate English translation. Here’s an Italian translation.

For the English translation above, I’ve changed the layout slightly relative to that of Paden & Paden so as to highlight the distinctive refrain. In addition, I’ve associated the extra word “that {Qu’}” in the first refrain with the prior stanza. That catch word is less noticeable and doesn’t add an extra syllable in the Occitan original.

“Us fotaires que non fo amorós” survives only in MS. G (Biblioteca Ambrosiana (Milan), MS. R 71 sup.), where it is grouped with parodies of other troubadour songs. A marginal annotation in that manuscript apparently attributes the song to the troubadour Tribolet. Tribolet is otherwise unknown.

Both Bec and Paden & Paden under-appreciate this song. Bec implies that it isn’t serious, and that “c’est bien une parodie graveleuse de la fin’amor {it is indeed a smutty parody of courtly love}.” Bec (1984) p. 167. According to Paden & Paden, it’s an “exercise in obscenity …. The repetition of the sexual verb expresses the strength of desire in an exaggerated and comical way.” Paden & Paden (2007) p. 238. The last lines of both refrains are open to the possibility of homosexual desire. Whether the unsatisfied desire involves homosexual or heterosexual love seems to me less important than the song’s poignant sense of sexual frustration.

[7] On Rahab, Joshua 2:1-24, Hebrews 11:31, James 2:25. Rahab may be in the genealogy of Jesus. Matthew 1:5.

[8] Dante, Paradiso 9.112-7, medieval Italian text of Petrocchi via the Princeton Dante Project, English translation from Esolen (2004). The subsequent quote is similarly from Paradiso 9.106-8.

[image] Rahab helping Joshua’s spies. 17th century oil on canvas painting by unknown artist. Preserved in Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nimes (France). Via Wikimedia Commons.


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

Esolen, Anthony M., trans. 2004. Dante Alighieri. Paradise. New York: Modern Library.

Guida, Saverio. 2006. “Sulla tenzone tra Uget e Reculaire.” Studi mediolatini e volgari. 52: 98-130.

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.

Matheis, Eric. 2014. Capital, Value, and Exchange in the Old Occitan and Old French Tenson (Including the Partimen and the Jeu-Parti). Ph.D. Thesis, Columbia University.

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

Poe, Elizabeth W. 2000. “A Bird in the Hand: Toward an Informed Reading of En Peire, per mon chantar bel (PC 335,23 = PC 453,1).” Pp. 207-219 in Uitti, Karl D., Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Kevin Brownlee, and Mary B. Speer. Translatio Studii: Essays by His Students in Honor of Karl D. Uitti for His Sixty-Fifth Birthday. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Schulman, Nicole M. 2001. Where Troubadours were Bishops: the Occitania of Folc of Marseille (1150-1231). New York: Routledge (based closely on dissertation).

Stroński, Stanisław. 1910. Le Troubadour Folquet de Marseille. Cracovie: Académie des Sciences.

Washer, Nancy. 2002. “Los motz e.l so”: words, melody, and their interaction in the songs of Folquet de Marseille. Ph.D. Thesis. Louisiana State University.

Washer, Nancy. 2007. “Paraphrased and parodied, extracted and inserted: the changing meaning of Folquet de Marseille’s ‘Amors, Merce!’Neophilologus : An International Journal of Modern and Mediaeval Language and Literature. 91 (4): 565-581.