women competing with men prompts men’s self-abasement & weakness

beautiful, young medieval woman

Competition between humans historically has been mainly within each sex. As the truly learned know, women compete viciously with other women. Men typically don’t seek to compete with women. However, some women, such as Jephthah’s daughter seeking to best Isaac, measure themselves against men. Poems from women students in love with their men teachers in twelfth-century Europe exhibit women’s competitive tendencies and men’s reactions.

Women students sometimes fall in love with their men teachers. That’s what happened at the convent at Regensburg early in the twelfth century. Making matters complicated, several women students fell in love with the same man teacher. One woman student complained to her beloved teacher that he hadn’t slept with her. She then turned to curse her rivals:

Me with words, other girlfriends you embrace with love-works.
Why should I complain? May what I pray be done for me upon those rivals:
let all the snakes that horrid Medusa has for hair
leap upon nymphs who now tempt your constancy!

{ Me verbis, alias opera complexus amicas.
Quid queror? adversis mihi fiat quod precor illis:
Fert quoscumque coma serpentes dira Medusa
Nimphis insiliant que nunc tua federa temptant! } [1]

The woman student turned upside-down the Virgin Mary’s “let it be done to me according to your word {fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum}.” Whether this woman student’s teacher did her according to her desire isn’t known. From a Christian perspective, her prayer invoking mythic figures from traditional Greco-Roman religion surely had no real effect.

In moments of self-consciousness, women who drive themselves to compete with men sometimes feel insecure. In the abbey at Tegernsee early in the twelfth century, a woman student in love with her teacher wrote to him:

If Vergil’s genius abounded in me, or Cicero’s eloquence overflowed towards me, or that of any distinguished orator, or even, so to speak, any illustrious versifier, I would still confess myself to be unequal to replying to the page of your most polished words. So if I express something less elegantly than I’d wish, I don’t want you to laugh at me.

{ si exuberaret mihi ingenium Maronis, si afflueret eloquentia Ciceronis aut cuiuslibet eximii oratoris aut etiam, ut ita dixerim, egregii versificatoris, imparem tamen me faterer esse ad respondendum pagine elimatissimi tui sermonis. Quapropter si minus lepide quam volo aliquid profero, nolo irrideas } [2]

This woman took as her role models two of the greatest men authors of classical Latin literature. That’s impressive and admirable. But she shouldn’t expect to be able to write as polished words as her teacher, who surely was older, more experienced, and more learned than she. She even feared that he would laugh at her. What man teacher would laugh at the intellectual work of a lovely, feminine, warmly receptively woman student in love with him?

Men are generally reluctant to compete aggressively with women. That reluctance has considerable social support. Women who compete in men’s sports and other formerly all-male activities are lauded as gender pioneers. However, men and even transsexual women who enter women’s sports and other formerly all-female spaces are castigated as villains rather than celebrated as heroes of progress toward gender neutrality and gender equality. Men feel at least unconsciously women’s largely unacknowledged gynocentric privilege. Facing socially lauded competition from women, men tend toward self-abasement, cultivation of weakness, and withdrawal. Most men don’t want to beat women. Most men simply try to love women.

Men deserve blame for their weakness in competition with women. Consider a man teacher and a woman student enamored of each other in twelfth-century central France. They were more probably Peter Abelard and Heloise of the Paraclete than not. The woman student was intensely concerned about her intellectual performance in writing love letters to her man teacher:

Great in temerity is my sending to you my literary words. Even one most learned all the way to the fingertips, one for whom all artful arrangements of words had become habitual through long stages of emotional cultivation, wouldn’t be able to paint the face of elegant language so as to merit rightly the scrutiny of such a teacher as you are. By no means I — I who seem scarcely skilled enough to produce trifles or writing that neither tastes of bitten fingernails nor bangs the desk. Before such a teacher, a teacher by his virtues, a teacher by his character, a teacher to whom French stiff-neckedness rightly yields, to whom the whole arrogant world rises to honor, anyone who thinks oneself to look learned would be made straight-away speechless and mute.

{ Magne temeritatis est litteratorie tibi verba dirigere, quia cuique litteratissimo et ad unguem usque perducto, cui omnis disposicio artium per inveterata incrementa affectionum transivit in habitum, non sufficit tam floridum eloquencie vultum depingere, ut iure tanti magistri mereatur conspectui apparere, nedum michi que vix videor disposita ad queque levia, que demorsos ungues non sapiunt, nec pluteum cadunt: magistro inquam tanto, magistro virtutibus, magistro moribus, cui jure cedit francigena cervicositas, et simul assurgit tocius mundi superciliositas, quilibet compositus qui sibi videtur sciolus, suo prorsus judicio fiet elinguis et mutus. } [3]

In writing love letters to her man teacher, the woman student strove to look learned:

the Woman {student} uses rhymed prose self-consciously and consistently, while the Man {teacher} avoids it. Her style is ambitious, mannered, and often recherché, with a particular taste for rare words and neologisms. She even uses words found seldom or nowhere else in the corpus of medieval Latin …. Her letters also “present a rarer and richer vocabulary of terms for feelings and a tendency toward the sublime,” as Stella observes, while the Man appears “more inclined to the abstract, but more banal and less affective.” … It must be said that, while she often rises to sublime heights, her prose sometimes ties itself into grammatical knots.  … she contrives the tortuous conceit that “if one little drop of knowability were to trickle down to me from the honeycomb of wisdom, I would strive with a supreme effort of my mind to depict a few things in fragrant nectar for you … in the markings of a letter.” While both lovers take refuge in the ineffability topos, the Man does so faute de mieux, scarcely bothering to strive with the exigencies of language, “I love you so much I cannot say how much,” he writes, using a familiar proverb, or again, “I love you so much that I cannot rightly express it.” [4]

Men typically don’t seek to impress beloved women intellectually. This man teacher abased himself to support his woman student’s fragile self-esteem:

I marvel at your genius, for you argue so subtly about the laws of friendship that you seem not to have read Cicero, but to have given Cicero himself those precepts. So to my response I will thus come — if it rightly can be called a response, where nothing equal is offered — so let me in my own way respond. … To you I am in many ways unequal, or to speak more truly, in all ways I am unequal, for you surpass me even in that where I seemed to excel. Your genius, your eloquence, far beyond your age and sex, now begin to extend into manly strength. What humility, what kindness you extend to all alike! With such great worth, how astonishing is your self-control! Do not your qualities glorify you above all persons? Do they not put you in a high place? And from there like a chandelier you could shine, and you would be made visible to all.

{ Tuum admiror ingenium, que tam subtiliter de amicicie legibus argumentaris ut non Tullium legisse, sed ipsi Tullio precepta dedissse videaris. Ut ergo ad respondendum veniam si responsio jure vocari potest, ubi nichil par redditur, ut meo modo respondeam … Tibi multis modis impar sum, et ut verius dicam omnibus modis impar sum, quia in hoc eciam me excedis, ubi ego videbar excedere. Ingenium tuum, facundia tua, ultra etatem et sexum tuum iam virile in robur se incipit extendere. Quid humilitas, quid omnibus conformis affabilitas tua! Quid in tanta dignitate admirabilis temperancia tua! Nonne te super omnes magnificant, nonne te in excelso collocant? ut inde quasi de candelabro luceas et omnibus spectabilis fias. } [5]

A man’s self-abasement typically doesn’t inspire a woman’s passion for him. This man teacher, however, wisely insinuated enough shadow of folly to intrigue a perceptive woman. Declaring that the woman student gave Cicero his precepts borders on mocking her intellectual pretensions. Describing a woman as having achieved “manly strength” draws upon the social construction of manliness as an achievement. Under gynocentrism, women are ideologically understood to have intrinsic value, while men lack such value. A woman struggling to achieve the virtue of manliness fails to appreciate the reality of womanliness. At least this woman student remained humble in her greatness as she shined from a place high above everyone else. Or so her teacher wrote, perhaps with a hint of a smile. The man teacher wasn’t interested in engaging in literary competition with the woman student he loved. With respect to his love for her, he wrote to her, “I would rather exhibit in doing, than show in words {potius opere volo exhibere, quam verbis demonstrare}.”[6]

With similar motives, other medieval men teachers similarly abased themselves to beloved women students. The man teacher at Regensburg wrote to one of his amorous women students:

Indeed I know that learned Minerva herself taught you.
She gave you a fiery face and a skillful heart,
she nurtured you and even commanded you to know yourself,
not letting you hide the flames you carry in your chest —
disgraceful flames, with which even me, burned, you further burn!

{ Quin ipsam doctam scio te docuisse Minervam,
Que dedit ignitum vultum tibi, corque peritum,
Teque saginavit vel se cognoscere iussit,
Ne lateant quantas gestent tua pectora flammas —
Flammas et turpes, quibus et me, torrida, torres! } [7]

In thus praising this woman student, the man teacher forced her to recognize her passion for him. Recognizing his disproportionate gender exposure to love blame, he shrewdly blamed her preemptively for his passion for her. The man teacher then went on to abase himself and all men in order to boost his woman student’s self esteem:

By far you surpass me, by far you vanquish me in song.
I confess myself vanquished, at last forced to give my hand.
The poet Orpheus himself encountered his just destruction,
having presumed to challenge your sex in writing.
Marsyas laughed at the puffing cheeks of the Tritonian goddess;
hence with skin flayed he flowed away like a stream through fields.
All men have always withdrawn in competition with women.
Such is enough examples recounted to have reminded me
that I should avoid this competition, for I’m not equal to you.

{ Longe precellis, longe me carmine vincis.
Victum me fateor tandemque manus dare cogor.
Treicius vates iustas reperit sibi clades,
Presumens vestrum scribendo lacessere sexum;
Risit ventosas Tritone Marsia buccas,
Hinc cute detracta defluxit ut amnis in arva.
Femineisque mares cesserunt litibus omnes.
Sic satis exemplis me commonitum memoratis
Hanc ut devitem, quia non sum par tibi, litem. }

If the woman student wasn’t intellectually sophisticated (and many aren’t), she probably would have lost love interest in her man teacher because she now would have believed that he was below her. If she had keen appreciation for men (and many women don’t), she would have recognized that he was merely pandering to her intellectual insecurity. The man teacher almost surely didn’t really believe that his woman student was a better poet than he.

Students today are taught that “the future is female.” Many women students, and many men students too, believe this hateful female-supremacist doctrine. Facing their socially celebrated, impending loss in competition against women, many men withdraw from women and cultivate the weakness that they have been taught that they have. Not all men are like that. Some men retain firmly protruding belief in their distinctive masculine gifts. Yet, in strife with women, most men today, without the intellectual sophistication of learned medieval men, withdraw, surrender, and declare their inferiority to women. That’s a love catastrophe.

In relationships between women and men, the stakes for men are socially constructed to be higher than for women. Throughout history, punishment for adultery has been gender-biased against men. Within deeply entrenched castration culture, Peter Abelard in twelfth-century France was castrated for Heloise of the Paraclete becoming pregnant through sex with him. Heloise herself wasn’t subject to any violent punishment. Even in twelfth-century Europe, men faced crushing financial burdens for an unintended pregnancy. Today, men have absolutely no reproductive rights. If a man contributes to a pregnancy that he didn’t intend and he doesn’t manage to coerce his girlfriend into having an abortion, he could be jailed for debt if he’s unable to make state-mandated monthly payment obligation across eighteen or more years. To make matters worse, leading news sources have been publishing mendacious claims about men raping women. Men throughout history have been rightly concerned about false accusations of rape. The highly disproportionate incarceration of men relative to women today highlights that men’s penal risks are now much higher than those risks were in the Middle Ages. Today, a prudent man teacher would file an evidentiary report and request a cease-and-desist order if any woman student indicated amorous interest in him.

Women competing with men creates acute difficulties for men. In the relatively liberal and tolerant circumstances of twelfth-century Europe, men teachers were willing to engage in amorous relationships with their women students. When conducted through the exchange of written texts, those love relationships tended to become intellectually competitive. Intellectually ambitious women tend to understand themselves to be in competition with men. Men in turn are prone to gyno-idolotry and self-abasement relative to women. Medieval men teachers were learned enough to have some critical perspective on these dangers. Their sophisticated love letters to women students probably fostered love and probably didn’t further disadvantage men’s social position. Today, women’s competition with men is much more intense. In addition, men are much more ignorant about how to deal with competitive women. Men today desperately need a good medieval Latin education.

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Notes:

[1] Love-Verses from Regensburg 37, Latin text from Dronke (1965) v. 2, p. 438, my English translation benefiting from that of id. and Newman (2016) pp. 274-5 (where it’s numbered 49). The woman student’s letter alludes to Luke 1:38.

Subsequent quotes from this collection are similarly sourced. Love-Verses from Regensburg are also known as the Regensburg Songs and Carmina ratisponensia.

The women students at Regensburg competed for their man teacher’s affection. One woman student, who regarded her teacher’s words like the Biblical Word of God, wrote:

Correct the little verses I present to you, teacher,
for your words to me I ponder like the light of the Word.
But I am very sad that you prefer Bertha to me.

{ Corrige versiculos tibi quos presento, magister,
Nam tua verba mihi reputo pro lumine Verbi.
Sed nimium doleo, quia preponas mihi Bertham. }

Love-Verses from Regensburg 6. Another woman student expressed her delight in having sex with her man teacher:

My mind is full of joy, my body is raised up from grief,
on account that you, teacher, honor me with your love.

{ Mens mea letatur, corpusque dolore levatur,
Idcirco quia me, doctor, dignaris amare. }

Love-Verses from Regensburg 8. A woman student implicitly acknowledged her man teacher’s difficult teaching circumstances:

I am sick to endure so often departing from you
when all our young women are running to you.

{ Non valeo crebrum de te sufferre regressum
Ad te cum nostre concurrant queque puelle. }

Love-Verses from Regensburg 21. A woman student apparently taunted another woman student who was having sex with their man teacher:

You aren’t the first for him who previously led to bed six:
you have come as the seventh, and scarcely pleased him most.

{ Prima tamen non es, quia duxerat antea bis tres:
Septima venisti, supremaque vix placuisti. }

Love-Verses from Regensburg 15 vv. 3-4 (of 4). Medieval scholars have rightly never questioned the authenticity of these letters from women students to their man teacher.

[2] Tegernsee Love-Letters 8, ll. 8-18, Latin text from Dronke (2015) p. 230, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. p. 231 and Newman (2016) p. 242. Dronke lineated the prose. I’ve ignored that lineation. For a freely available Latin text close to Dronke’s, see Lachmann & Haupt (1888) p. 221.

[3] Letters of Two Lovers {Epistolae duorum amantium} 49 (woman to man) excerpt, Latin text from Mews (1999) p. 252, my English translation benefiting from that of id. and Newman (2016) p. 82. Subsequent quotes from Epistolae duorum amantium are similarly sourced.

In one letter, the woman student constructs a debate between “affect {affectus}” (her love for her man teacher) and “defect {defectus}” (her limited literary talent). Epistolae duorum amantium 23. She refers to “defects of my arid talent {aridi defectus ingenii}” and the “aridness of my talent {ingenii ariditas}.” With references to desire, thirst, flow, drinking, and love, she wrote:

Between persuasion and dissuasion thus suspended in oscillation, I have put off action on my debt of gratitude, obedient to the advice of my talent that blushes at its feebleness. I beg that the excellence of divine gentleness abounding in you charge no fault, and while being the son of true sweetness, you allow the manliness of your known mildness to abound more above me. I know and confess that from the riches of your philosophy copious joy has flowed and continues to flow to me. But, if without offense I may speak, what has flowed from you to me is still less than what in this affair would make me perfectly blessed. I come often with parched throat, desiring to be refreshed with your mouth’s sweet nectar and to drink thirstily the riches spreading from your heart. What need for more work with words? With God as my witness I declare that no one who lives and breathes air in this world would I desire to love more than I love you.

{ Hac hortaminis et dehortaminis alternacione suspensam, hucusque debitam graciarum actionem distuli, parens consiliis, imbecillitatem suam erubescens ingenii. Quod queso abundans in te divine suavitatis excellencia michi non imputet, sed cum sis vere dulcedinis filius, cognita tibi mansuetudinis virtus super me magis abundet. Scio quidem et fateor ex philosophie tue diviciis maximam michi fluxisse et fluere copiam gaudiorum, sed ut inoffense loquar, minorem tamen quam que me faciat in ea re perfecte beatam. Venio enim sepe aridis faucibus desiderans suavi oris tui refici nectare, diffusasque in corde tuo divitias sicienter haurire. Quid pluribus opus est verbis? Deo teste profiteor, quia nemo in seculo vitali spirat aura quem te magis amare desiderem. }

Epistolae duorum amantium 23. In this context, the woman student’s reference to her dryness suggests her yearning for her man teacher to stimulate her sexual moistening. The association with literary talent is misleading. Men’s sexual generosity in reality depends little on women’s skills in writing letters.

Medieval scholars have vigorously debated whether Epistolae duorum amantium are letters that the great medieval scholar Heloise of the Paraclete and her husband Peter Abelard wrote to each other. Mews (1999) asserts that the two lovers are Heloise and Abelard. Reviewing Mews (1999), Newman in 2000 credited Mews’s book with “demonstrating beyond a reasonable doubt that the authors of these letters were indeed Heloise and Abelard.” Newman subsequently revised that claim:

the case for Abelard and Heloise remains unprovable {sic}. But in light of all that we know thus far, it is highly probable.

Newman (2016) p. 78. Appropriate evidence can effectively prove attributions of medieval texts. The case for Abelard and Heloise is provable, but it hasn’t been proven. Jaeger, in a learned study, found “a strong argument in favor of the ascription.” Jaeger (2005) p. 149. In my judgment, that Heloise and Abelard wrote the Epistolae duorum amantium is more likely than not. Hence, in my judgment, informed persons can reasonably doubt that Heloise and Abelard wrote those letters. See, e.g. Ziolkowski (2004).

[4] Newman (2016) pp. 61-2. Both internal quotes of scholarly analysis are from Stella (2008). The two quotations from the man lover are from Epistolae duorum amantium 38c and 56. I’ve omitted the internal citations to those letters as well as footnotes in the quoted passage.  Examples of the woman’s rare Latin diction (with citation to the relevant letter):

the nouns superciliositas (arrogance, no. 49), dehortamen (dissuasion, no. 23), and vinculamen (chain, no. 49), the adjective dulcifer (dulcet, no. 98); and three terms of negation: innexibilis (inextricable, no. 94), immarcidus (unwithered, no. 18), and inepotabilis (inexhaustible, no. 86).

Newman (2016) p. 61.

[5] Epistolae duorum amantium 50 (man to woman), excerpt. The quoted Latin above ends with a question mark. That punction almost surely wasn’t original to the twelfth-century text. I’ve changed it to a period because I think that a period makes better sense. Newman observed:

For all her professed obedience, the Woman readily assumes a dominant role in the art of love, retaining the domina’s rights to correct abberant behavior, withdraw her favor, or lapse into sulky silence when her lover had displeased her. In fact, he often calls her domina {lady lord}, much like a courtly beloved (nos. 6, 8, 36, 61, 87, 108). She never calls him dominus {lord}. … The Woman reserves the rights to pass judgment, to reproach, to maintain silence, and to withdraw her favor if her covenant partner falls short of her demands, as he often does. He in turn repents, apologizes, and promises to amend. Rarely is this pattern reversed.

Newman (2016) pp. 30, 178. Is it any wonder that Valerius earnestly warned Rufinus against marriage?

In displaying literary prowess in their exchange of love letters, the woman competed more intensely with the man than the man did with the woman. That’s particularly clear if the woman was Heloise and the man was Abelard. Newman stated:

Given the nature of literary love, a competition in loving inevitably becomes a competition in writing. That is one reason the Woman worries so much about the inadequacies of her style and polishes it to such a pitch of intensity.

Id. p. 24. The Woman’s writing isn’t “a triumph of self-conscious, competitive love.” Id. Her writing is a testament to delusions about love and delusions about men’s feelings and desires.

[6] Epistolae duorum amantium 46 (man to woman), excerpt. Late in their letter exchange (no. 72), the man proposes that they try to surpass each other in “competition worthy of love {amabilis concertatio}.” That’s best interpreted as the man’s attempt to redirect the woman competing with him in writing love-letters. Later, he again tries to mute the woman’s tendency to compete with him in literary merit:

Let among us which loves the other more always be in doubt, so that the competition between us will always be most beautiful, for thus both of us will win.

{ semper in dubio servetur, uter nostrum magis alterum diligat, quia ita semper pulcerrima inter nos erit concertacio ut uterque vincat. }

Epistolae duorum amantium 85 (man to woman), excerpt. Cf. Newman (2016) pp. 24, 179.

The woman student and the man teacher both apparently desired sexual intercourse with each other. Newman asserted, “The Man, not surprisingly, expresses greater sexual urgency.” Newman (2016) p. 40. Ancient and medieval authorities generally believed that women are more sexual ardent than men (see, e.g. Empress Theodora).

Newman’s intepretation of Epistolae duorum amantium reflects anti-meninism pervasive in academia today. Newman described the “‘normal’ scenario for seduction” to be a modern anti-meninist caricature:

Men are opportunistic cads, so a seducer can be expected to walk away unscathed, leaving his victim alone and suicidal. Abandoned by her lover, beaten by her parents, ostracized by all, she suffers torments in pregnancy and expects nothing better than to die in childbirth. No longer virgin, she cannot hope for marriage; she will be lucky if some nunnery takes her in as a penitent.

Id. p. 39. Newman draws a more scholarly distinction between Ovidian love (the man’s love; bad) and “ennobling love” (the woman’s love; good). Id. pp. 39-40. Her interpretation of such love distinctions is similarly colored with anti-meninist misunderstanding of gender.

[7] Love-Verses from Regensburg 38. The subsequent quote is from the conclusion of Regensburg 38 and all of Regensburg 39 in Dronke’s text. These two poems seem to me to be actually one. That’s how they are presented in Newman (2016) p. 270.

[image] Portrait of a Lady (excerpt). Oil painting by Rogier van der Weyden, made about 1460. Preserved as accession # 1937.1.44 in the National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC). Via Wikimedia Commons.

References:

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

Dronke, Peter. 2015. “Women’s Love Letters from Tegernsee.” Pp. 215-245 in Høgel, Christian, and Elisabetta Bartoli, eds. Medieval Letters: Between Fiction and Document. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers.

Jaeger, C. Stephen. 2005. “Epistolae duorum amantium and the Ascription to Abelard and Heloise.” Pp. 125-66 in Olson, Linda, and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, eds. Voices in Dialogue: reading women in the Middle Ages. Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press.

Lachmann, Karl, and Moriz Haupt. 1888. Des Minnesangs Frühling. Leipzig: Hirzel.

Mews, Constant J. 1999. The Lost Love letters of Heloise and Abelard: perceptions of dialogue in twelfth-century France. Houndmills: Macmillan.

Newman, Barbara. 2000. “Review of The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard: Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth-Century France by Constant Mews.” The Medieval Review. Online.

Newman, Barbara. 2016. Making Love in the Twelfth Century: Letters of two lovers in context. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. (Carol M. Cusack’s review, Alex J. Novikoff’s review, Constant Mews’s review)

Stella, Francesco. 2008. “Analisi informatiche dei lessico e individuazione degli autori nelle Epistolae duorum amantium (XII secolo).” Pp. 560-569 in Wright, Roger, ed. Latin vulgaire – latin tardif. actes du VIIIe Colloque International sur le Latin Vulgaire et Tardif, Oxford, 6-9 septembre 2006 VIII VIII. Hildesheim: Olms-Weidmann.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2004. “Lost and Not Yet Found: Heloise, Abelard, and the Epistolae duorum amantium.” The Journal of Medieval Latin. 14 (1): 171-202.

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