medieval counterparts to women’s strong, independent sexuality

Slut walks, vagina monologues, and similar public celebrations of women’s strong, independent sexuality aren’t new cultural phenomena. The story of the sexually eager widow of Ephesus has been known for at least two millennia. The sixth-century Byzantine Empress Theodora was famous for her vibrant, dynamic sexuality. College students in English-speaking countries today, deprived of adequate education in medieval literature, probably know only of Chaucer’s now revered Wife of Bath. But many women in medieval fabliaux also exemplify women’s sexual strength. Moreover, as scholars in recent decades have affirmed, in northern France in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, women trouvères themselves sang of their own strong, independent sexuality.

Medieval husbands who failed to satisfy their wives felt the force of their wives’ sexual vigor and independence. Ten medieval wives got together in a tavern and ridiculed their husbands’ inadequate penises. About 1500, two married women and a widow in Scotland viciously abused their husbands for sexual failures. One woman trouvère sang to her lover with spiteful glee:

You will have the pleasure,
my lover, from me,
as my husband never has.
You have deserved it well,
with good faith.
You will have the pleasure,
my lover, from me,
Slanderers are on watch,
day and night,
to do us evil.
You will have the pleasure,
my lover, from me,
as my husband never has.

{ Vous arez la druerie,
Amis, de moi,
Ce que mes mariz n’a mie.
Vos l’avez bien deservie
En bone foi.
Vos arez la druerie,
Amis, de moi.
Mesdissant sont en agait
Et main et soir
Por nos faire vilonie.
Vous arez la druerie,
Amis, de moi,
Ce que mes mariz n’a mie. } [1]

Women trouvères didn’t disparage their husbands sexually only to their lovers and women friends. One wife-trouvère treated her husband with open, flagrant contempt:

Endure, husband, and don’t be annoyed,
tomorrow you’ll have me, but my lover’s tonight.
I forbid you to speak of it a single word
— endure, husband, and do not move —
the night is short, soon you’ll have me again,
when my lover has had his sensual pleasure.
Endure, husband, and don’t be annoyed,
tomorrow you’ll have me, but my lover’s tonight.

{ Soufrés, maris, et si ne vous anuit,
Demain m’arés et mes amis anuit.
Je vous deffenc k’un seul mot n’en parlés.
— Soufrés, maris, et si ne vous mouvés —
La nuis est courte, aparmains me rarés,
Quant mes amis ara fait sen deduit.
Soufrés, maris, et si ne vous anuit,
Demain m’arés et mes amis anuit. } [2]

Suppose the husband resigned himself to trying to endure quietly his wife’s affair. That wasn’t possible with some medieval wives. Another wife-trouvère made clear to her husband that she would talk about her affairs:

I won’t on behalf of my husband not be saying
that my lover last night slept with me.
I said it well before he was betrothed to me:
— I won’t on behalf of my husband not be saying —
if he would beat me or treat me badly,
he’d be a cuckold and so he would pay.
I won’t on behalf of my husband not be saying
that my lover last night slept with me.

{ Jai ne lairai por mon mari ne die
Li miens amins jeut aneut aveucke moi.
Je li dis bien ainz qu’il m’eut plevie:
— Jai ne lairai por mon marit ne die —
S’il me batoit ne faixoit vilonie,
Il seroit cous, et si lou comparroit.
Jai ne lairai por mon mari ne die
Li miens amins jeut aneut avecque moi. } [3]

Under modern “child support” laws, husbands are financially liable for children that their wives have extra-maritally. Evidently being cuckolded was similarly costly in medieval Europe. At the same time, men face a burden of performance in love. A medieval wife-trouvère taunted her husband for his loving:

Blech, husband, on your love
because I have a lover!
Handsome is he, and of noble bearing:
blech, husband, on your love!
He serves me night and day:
for that I love him so.
Blech, husband, on your love
because I have a lover!

{ Fi maris de vostre amour,
car j’ai ami!
Biaus est et de noble’ atour:
fi, maris de vostre amour!
il me sert et nuit et jour:
pour che l’aim si.
Fi maris de vostre amour,
car j’ai ami! } [4]

This song is appealing enough to gynocentric sensibility today for Leonard Bernstein to have composed a score for it, and for it to be performed in churches. For anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear, women’s strong, independent sexuality cannot be doubted.

Men leaders tend to respond to women’s strong, independent sexuality with compassion and indulgence. Consider the behavior of Daniél úa Líathaiti, Abbot of Lismore and Cork in ninth-century Ireland. A woman attempted to seduce Daniél while he has hearing her confession. He counseled her:

O woman, a blessing on you — say it not!
Let us meditate on the assembly of eternal judgment.
Decay is the fate of every creature.
I fear going into the cold earth.

Your mind is set on folly that lacks lasting value.
Clearly, you are not pursuing wisdom.
What you are saying will be empty talk.
Our death will be nearer before it comes to be.

I will not sell Heaven for sin.
The payment will be paid back to me if I do.
Put not forward for wrongdoing that
which you shall never recover here, O woman.

Abandon that which will injure you;
sell not your share in Heaven.
Under God’s protection, go to your home,
and take from me a blessing, O woman.

{ A ben, bennacht fort — ná ráid!
Imráidem dáil mbrátha búain.
A-tá irchra for cach n-dúil:
ad-águr dul i n-úir n-úair.

Im-ráidi baís cen bríg mbaí:
is súaichnid ní gaís fris-ngní.
A n-as-bir-siu bid rád fás:
bid nessa ar m-bás ‘síu ‘ma-rrí.

Ríched ní renaim ar chol;
dam ad-fíther cía do-gnem.
Ní nád faigbe síu íar sin
ní thaibre ar bin, a ben.

Léic úait a n-í condat-sil;
do chuit i n-nim náchas-ren;
for fóesam n-Dé eirg dot treib
bendacht úaim-se beir, a ben. } [5]

Daniél úa Líathaiti witnessed to the spirit of forgiveness and loving correction that Jesus taught to his disciples. Yet many women chafe at even the thought of a man telling her what to do. Moreover, authorities today preach unquestioning belief in whatever charges a woman brings against a man. What if, in response to being sexually rebuffed, the woman had falsely accused Daniél of sexually harassing her or raping her? Perhaps Daniél would have called on Saint Marina or Saint Eugenia for help. Without divine aid, a man today could easily have his life ruined by a woman’s false accusation.

Struggling to make a living, ordinary men understandably get angry with women’s disloyalty to their men. Speaking the voice of such men, one man trobairitz sang:

I thought that among a thousand
would be found one loyal woman —
so much have I searched,
but all behave as a betrayer
and act like a thief
who when blindfolded,
demands that her partner
endure her shame with her,
so as not to be alone
to bear all the worries she has.

Such a fine and subtle heart
women have for deceiving
that not a single one can be found
who doesn’t dupe her partner.
Then she doesn’t care and laughs
when she sees him made a fool.
And she who knows how to take care of
the affairs of others,
so well it would seem,
knows how to advance her own interests.

And those women who can’t spin a yarn
to their own benefit
make the loss go to another.
You’ll know worse in the morning
when you have bad women neighbors,
for what you hold most dear
they will make hate you,
and make you love that which
in a thousand years
can bring you no joy.

If you regard vile women
and want to condemn them,
always they will swear to you,
by the teeth of a noble lady,
that what a man has said to have seen
shouldn’t be taken into consideration.
And they know how to pay you back
for such nobleness with their deceit.
From their treacheries
no man can safeguard himself.

One who believes that in women
he can find loyalty
is well made to be chastised.
I tell myself he’ll in the dog kennel
search in vain for lard.
And he who wants to send
to a hawk, with no fooling,
his chickens to feed —
one of the big ones of these
I don’t want promised to me for roasting.

{ Qu’ieu cugiei entre mil
Una lïal trobar,
Tan cujava cercar;
Totas an un trahí
E fan o atressí
Co’l laire al bendar,
Que demanda son par
Per sas antas sofrir,
Per que’l mazans
Totz sobre lui no’s vir.

Tant an prim e subtil
Lur còr per enganar,
Qu’una non pòt estar
Que sa par non galí;
Pueis s’en gab’e s’en ri,
Quan la ve folejar;
Et qui d’autrui afar
Si sap tan gent formir,
Ben es semblans
Que’l sieu sapch’ enantir.

E celha que del fil
A sos òps no pòt far,
Ad autra en fai filar;
E ja pejor matí
No’ us cal de mal vezí;
Que çò qu’avètz plus car
Vos faràn azirar,
E tal ren abelhir
Que de mil ans
No vos poiretz jauzir.

Si las tenètz tan vil
Que las vulhatz blasmar,
Sempre’ us iràn jurar,
Sobre las dens N’ Arpí,
Que çò qu’òm ditz que vi
No’s fai a consirar;
E saubràn vos pagar
Tan gent ab lur mentir,
De lurs enjans
Nulhs òm no’s pòt gandir.

Qui en lòc feminil
Cuja feutat trobar
Ben fai a castiar ;
Qu’ieu dic qu’en loc caní
Vai ben cercar saï ;
E qui vòl comandar
Al milan ni bailar
Sos poletz per noirir,
La us dels grans
No’m don pòis per raustir. } [6]

This is a song of field and market and real folk concerns: thieves, punishment for avarice, spinning yarn, neighborhood affairs, dogs, hawks, chickens, and trades. Among persons living close to economic subsistence, men and women depend on each other as partners. A woman’s sexual disloyalty indicates that she’s an undependable partner to a man.

Among the gynocentric elite, criticizing women has scarcely been tolerated. The man trobairitz not surprisingly began his song about women’s disloyalty with a poetic feint and an acknowledgement of fear:

When the mild weather of April
covers the dry trees with leaves,
and mute birds now begin to sing,
each in his own language,
I would well like to have in me
the ability to compose a poem
with power to chastise
women for their failings,
without harm or damage
being able to come to me.

{ Quan lo dous temps d’abril
Fa’ls arbres secs fulhar,
E’ls auzelhs mutz cantar
Quascun en son latí,
Ben vòlgr’ aver en mi
Poder de tal trobar,
Cum pogués castiar
Las dòmnas de falhir,
Que mals ni dans
No m’en pogués venir. }

One would have to be as clever as Renart the fox to chastise women for their failings without incurring the wrath of the gynocentric elite.[7] The man trobairitz chose the tactic of speaking blunt truth through figures of folk experience. Men’s poetry of sexed protest can be suppressed, but ordinary reality inexorably resists.

Women’s strong, independent sexuality doesn’t necessarily imply that all women will be disloyal to their men. A woman recently abandoned her husband and two children to become a sex worker in Nevada. That’s probably not common. However, particularly with men today being held financially responsible under child-support laws for women’s extra-marital (or extra-relational) children, men should evaluate women’s loyalty carefully.[8] Men, here’s a simple test: if your wife or girlfriend enjoys a performance in church of “Blech, husband, on your love {Fi, maris, de vostre amour},” you probably face serious risk of being cuckolded.

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Read more:


[1] Rondeau, “You will have your pleasure {Vous arez la druerie},” text (Picard dialect of Langue d’oïl) and translation (with some insubstantial changes) from Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) p. 187. This rondeau, which was composed in the thirteenth century, survives only in the manuscript Paris, BnF, Ms. fr. 12786. Here’s a performance of this song from Anne Azéma & Aziman Ensemble’s album Le Tournoi de Chauvency (2017). Here’s another performance by Ensemble Sanacore and Ensemble Perceval from Tournoi des dames (1997).

[2] Rondeau, “Endure, husband, and don’t be annoyed {Soufrés maris, et si ne vous anuit},” text (Picard dialect of Langue d’oïl) from Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) pp. 184, 186, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. This rondeau, composed about 1250, survives only in the manuscript Rome, Bibliothèque Vaticane, Ms. Regina 1490. Medieval music for it has also survived. Id. p. 185. Here’s a performance of this song by Ensemble Perceval from the album La chanson d’ami (1994).

[3] Rondeau, “I won’t on behalf of my husband not be saying {Jai ne lairai por mon mari ne die},” text (Lorraine dialect of Langue d’oïl) from Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) p. 183, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. The text survives in the manuscript Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ms. Douce 308. Here’s a performance of this song by Ensemble Sanacore and Ensemble Perceval from Tournoi des dames (1997). With respect to the woman trouvère betraying her husband, Dell signals this woman’s strength: “Under no set of circumstances will this juggernaut of a woman be deflected.” Dell (2008) p. 127.

Men have long protested women talking about previously hidden matters to the harm of their men. One man trobairitz sang:

One has difficulty finding healthy reason
in a woman, in truth,
for she would change her disposition
from what you find now
if you make her slightly angry.
And once annoyed, she has changed,
and all, which she knew in secret,
when she’s angry, she reveals.
I regard as a senseless person
one who wants to reveal to a woman
a secret to be kept hidden.
I have seen great things come
to nothing in decay and death
because the well-hidden was revealed.

{ Grèu tròb’ òm natural sen
En una femn’ en vertat;
Que son voler cambïat
Li trobaretz mantenen,
Si la faitz un pauc irada,
E pòis tantòst s’es cambiada
E tot, aitan quan sabria,
Quant es irada, diria,
Ieu tenc cel dessenat
Que secret en celat
Vòlh’a femna descobrir.
Qu’ieu n’ai vist grans res venir
En decazement e a mòrt
Qu’ab ben celar foran estòrt. }

Anonymous cobla, Old Occitan text from Bec (1984) p. 66, my English translation, benefiting from the French translation of id. The great medieval woman writer Marie de France in her romance Bisclavret showed compassionate concern for keeping men’s secrets.

[4] Adam de la Halle, Rondeau, “Blech, husband, on your love {Fi, maris, de vostre amour},” text (Picard dialect of Langue d’oïl) from Ibos-Augé (2019) p. 262, my English translation. A motet version of this rondeau has also survived. Id. Here’s a score for the rondeau.

Adam de la Halle was active in Arras, France, in the second half of the thirteenth century. While Adam de la Halle is nominally the author, a woman, such as Adam’s wife, may have actually composed “Fi, maris, de vostre amour.” As we are now repeatedly instructed, women throughout history often been deprived of credit for their inventions and their work.

Leonard Bernstein wrote music for “Fi, maris, de vostre amour” as a chorus for the 1955 Broadway adaption of Jean Anouilh’s play The Lark (1952). On Bernstein’s version of this song, Dittamo (2019) pp. 38-42. Here’s a performance of Bernstein’s version.

In recent decades, many arrangements and performances of “Fi, maris, de vostre amour” have occurred. The two videos embedded above and cited below document two performances in churches. Here are additional performances available on YouTube: recording by Ensemble Sanacore & Ensemble Perceval in 1997; performance by Insieme Vocale Tourdion in Italy in 2011; performance by Kate Smith and others in Beijing, China on Aug. 10, 2013 (in Songs From the Labyrinth in Yuanfen~Flow 798 Art Zone); a performance by The King’s Counterpoint at Old St. Andrew’s Parish Church, Charleston, SC, in September, 2015; and a recording by a Capella de Ministrers in 2016. Two other available performances (here and here) lack attributions. See also a young man doing an amateur trumpet peformance of this song.

Moving beyond disparing her husband’s love and taunting her husband with her lover, another wife-trouvère sought a divorce:

Take it off —
this ring on my finger!
A boor should not have me,
for I know well he would end up a cuckold
if he were with me
for long;
I want to leave him right now.
This marriage is not right.

{ Osteis lou moi,
L’anelet dou doi!
Avoir pas vilains ne me doit,
Car, bien sai, cous en seroit
S’avocke moi
Longement estoit;
Departir m’an vuel orandroit,
Je ne suix pas marïee a droit. }

Motet, text (Lorraine dialect of Langue d’oïl) and translation (with insubstantial changes) from Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) p. 249. For a resolutely gynocentric perspective on betrayal in medieval French songs, Harkey (2016).

[5] Daniél úa Líathaiti, “Oh woman, a blessing on you – say it not! {A ben bennacht fort – ná ráid},” also known as “Sell Not Heaven for Sin {Ríched ní renaim ar chol},” st. 1-2, 4-5 (of 7), Gaelic text from Murphy (1956) pp. 6-9, translation adapted from those of id., Meyer (1904), and Swift (2014). The Corpus of Electronic Texts has made freely available a Gaelic text quite close to Murphy’s.

This poem survives in the Book of Leinster. See Best & O’Brien (1967) vol. 5, p. 1221. The Book of Leinster was compiled about 1160. Daniél úa Líathaiti is a historical Irish abbot who died in 863. On Jesus’s loving forgiveness and correction for a woman caught in adultery, John 8:1-11.

[6] Pèire de Bossinhac, “When the mild weather of April {Quan lo dous temps d’abril},” st. 2-6, Old Occitan text from Bec (1984) pp. 62-4, my Englist translation benefiting from the French translation of id. Pèire de Bossinhac florished about 1160 and was a contemporary of the man trobairitz Bertran de Born. The subsequent quote is similarly from st. 1 of this song. Medieval authorities regarded this song well enough for it to have been included in Matfre Ermengaud’s Le Breviari d’amor. Matfre Ermengaud begin that work in 1288 and finished it sometime before 1322.

[7] In the penultimate stanza of “Quan lo dous temps d’abril,” Pèire de Bossinhac daringly sings:

Never did Renart on Ysengrimus
know such pleasant revenge
as when he had him flayed
and for mockery gave to him
a fur hat and fur gloves.
Likewise I do when I’m angry.

{ Anc Rainartz d’Isengri
No’s saup tan gent venjar,
Quan lo fetz escorjar,
E’ il det per escarnir
Capèl e gans,
Com ieu fas quan m’azir. }

Sourced as for previous quotes from this song. Modern scholars have viciously condemned Pèire de Bossinhac’s song of men’s sexed protest. Bec categorizes it as “fundamental, gratuitous and ferocious misogyny {misogynie fondamentale, gratuite et féroce}.” Bec (1984) p. 62. If Pèire de Bossinhac lived today, he probably would be forced to write a poem of repentence for criticizing women.

[8] Amid today’s failing relationships between women and men, Dell ponders cultish abstractions:

If there is no sexual relation and no ‘Woman’, what position could  feminity take up? … what if any relation fails? This seems to be what my research has shown, an ultimate inability to ‘place’ femininity securely in any relation.

Dell (2008) p. 205, tendentiously following Lacan’s manipulation of Arnaut’s “Pòis Raimons e’N Truc Malècs.” On the latter, see note [6] in my post on Arnaut Daniel’s medieval protest. Neither men nor women deserve to be symbolically defined or constrained. Fruitful relations are built on truth. Dell presumes that medieval discourse was “a system which relies for its effects of meaning on binary oppositions favouring masculinity.” Id. p. 204. That’s false. Many medieval scholars are woefully ignorant of the gender reality of their own times, to say nothing of that of the Middle Ages.

[videos] (1) Performance of “Fi, maris, de vostre amour” at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist (Cleveland, Ohio) in March, 2015. Performance by Contrapunctus Early Music (David E. A. Acres, Director). (2) Performance of “Fi, maris, de vostre amour” at the Church of the Epiphany (Crafters, South Australia) in 2004. Performance by Lumina Vocal Ensemble (Anne Pope, Director).


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

Best, R. I., and M. A. O’Brien, eds. 1967. The Book of Leinster. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

Dell, Helen. 2008. Desire by Gender and Genre in Trouvère Song. Gallica, vol. 10. Woodbridge: Brewer. (review by Lisa Padden)

Dittamo, Patrick Connor. 2019. The prehistory and reception of Leonard Bernstein’s Missa Brevis (1988). Thesis, Master of Music. College of Arts and Sciences, Kansas State University (Manhattan, Kansas, USA).

Doss-Quinby, Eglal, Joan Tasker Grimbert, Wendy Pfeffer, and Elizabeth Aubery. 2001. Songs of the Women Trouvères. New Haven: Yale University Press. (review by Carol Symes)

Harkey, Hannah. 2016. Quant se depart li jolis tan: betrayal in the songs of medieval French women. Master Thesis, University of Mississippi. Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 696.

Ibos-Augé, Anne. 2019. “Refrain Quotations in Adam’s Rondeaux, Motets, and Plays.” Ch. 9 (pp. 249-281) in Saltzstein, Jennifer, ed. Musical culture in the World of Adam de la Halle. Brill: Leiden.

Meyer, Kuno. 1904. “Daniel Húa Liathaide’s Advice to a Woman.” Ériu. 1: 67-71.

Murphy, Gerard. 1956. Early Irish Lyrics, eighth to twelfth century. Edited with translation, notes, and glossary. Clarendon Press: Oxford.

Swift, Catherine. 2014. “Penitence, confession and the Irish anmchara.” Paper given to CAMP group, NUI Galway, November 2014.

men’s blessing of seminal creativity as numerous as stars of Heaven

Both in classical Socratic learning and in Christian tradition, men are figuratively constructed as women participating in the awesome privilege of incarnating both thoughts and human beings. Yet men have their own natural gender blessing. Consistent with the promise from God recorded in Hebrew scripture, men with their testicles bear seminal creativity to make descendants as numerous as stars of heaven.

Women throughout history have been naturally privileged to give birth. In the classical Socratic method of learning, to nurture their own thinking men must develop the procreative capabilities of women. Socrates himself explained how as a teacher he was like women midwives:

All that is true of their art of midwifery is true also of mine, but mine differs from theirs in being practiced upon men, not women, and in tending their souls in labor, not their bodies. … Now those who associate with me are in this matter also like women in childbirth. They are in pain and are full of trouble night and day, much more than are women. My art can arouse this pain and cause it to cease.

{ Τῇ δέ γ᾿ ἐμῇ τέχνῃ τῆς μαιεύσεως τὰ μὲν ἄλλα ὑπάρχει ὅσα ἐκείναις, διαφέρει δὲ τῷ τε ἄνδρας ἀλλὰ μὴ γυναῖκας μαιεύεσθαι καὶ τῷ τὰς ψυχὰς αὐτῶν τικτούσας ἐπισκοπεῖν ἀλλὰ μὴ τὰ σώματα. … πάσχουσι δὲ δὴ οἱ ἐμοὶ συγγιγνόμενοι καὶ τοῦτο ταὐτὸν ταῖς τικτούσαις· ὠδίνουσι γὰρ καὶ ἀπορίας ἐμπίμπλανται νύκτας τε καὶ ἡμέρας πολὺ μᾶλλον ἢ ἐκεῖναι ταύτην δὲ τὴν ὠδῖνα ἐγείρειν τε καὶ ἀποπαύειν ἡ ἐμὴ τέχνη δύναται. } [1]

Christians have traditionally understood Mary, the mother of Jesus, as the first tabernacle of Christ’s body. Christians seek to follow Mary in incarnating God. The great Christian scholar Origen of Alexandria, writing early in the third century, explained:

The soul conceives from this seed of the Word and the Word forms a fetus in itself until it gives birth to a spirit respecting the majesty of God.

{ Concipit ergo anima ex hoc verbi semine et conceptum format in se verbum, donec pariat spiritum timoris Dei. } [2]

For Christians, Mary the mother of Jesus has long been a figure of hyper-veneration {hyperdulia}. From the earliest Christian understanding, the Christian church has been a figure of the heavenly Jerusalem, the bride of Christ, and the eternal mother of all Christians. To be Christian, men must learn from Mary and embrace feminine receptivity in relation to God.

carmen figuratum of Christ from Hrabanus's In honorem sanctae crucis

The eminent ninth-century poet and theologian Hrabanus Maurus recognized men’s natural gender blessing. Hrabanus about 810 created a magnificent book, In Honor of the Holy Cross {In honorem sanctae crucis}. That book contains 28 intricately shaped poems (carmina figurata).[3] One of its carmina figurata shows Jesus with his arms extended widely, reaching beyond the frame of the image to embrace all of the world. While Jesus is not depicted on the cross, his bodily gesture prefigures his crucifixion. The figure of Jesus is composed within a square field of letters. Read as horizontal lines of text, those letters make a poem in praise of the word of God incarnated as Jesus Christ. Hrabanus literally constructed Jesus with letters. As the image makes clear, Jesus isn’t a neuter word. Christ is a fully masculine man.

Hrabanus’s prose explanation for this poem instructs the reader to trace with a finger the outline of Jesus’s body. From the middle finger of Jesus’s right hand, stroking Jesus’s arm, and then caressing to the top of Jesus’s head traces the text “Dextra Dei summi cuncta creavit Jesus {Jesus has created all things by the right hand of the most high}.” Similarly stroking from the top of Christ’s head to the middle finger of Christ’s left hand generates the text “Christus laxabit e sanguine debita mundo {Christ will pay with his blood for the sins of the world}.” Tracing from the ring finger of Jesus’s right hand, along the bottom of his arm, and then down the right side of Jesus’s body to his right ankle gives “In cruce sic positus desolvens vincla tyranni {On the cross thus placed, he delivers us from the chains of the tyrant}.” Turning to understand, a reader traces the outline of Christ’s right foot and then caresses up between Christ’s legs to his loincloth. One’s finger then drops to earthy understanding in tracing the outline of Jesus’s left foot. The whole movement generates the text “Aeternus dominus deduxit ad astra beatos {The eternal Lord has guided the blessed to the stars}.”[4] The overall shape of this tracing is masculine genitals, with the penis pointing up through Jesus’s loincloth to heaven. For those who appreciate it, masculine sexuality points from earthly gynocentric tyranny to blessed, external life with Christ in heaven.

tracing Christ's genitals pointing to heaven

The words woven through Christ’s loincloth emphasize the blessing of men’s sexuality. Classical literature and sculpture representing men’s penises were predominately concerned with the size of men’s penises. Jesus, who joined heaven and earth, made all one from the small to the large:

A small cloth covers that which contains the stars
and with only the palm of his hand he encloses the entire world.

{ Veste quidem parva hic tegitur qui continet astra,
atque solum palmo claudit ubique suo. } [5]

As its folds make clear, the small cloth (the loincloth) covers Jesus’s masculine genitals. Jesus’s testicles contain the stars in the sense that they encompass the central blessing of Hebrew scripture: the divine promise of descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven.[6] The background poem for the loincloth underscores God’s creative power:

Here is truth clothed in a garment which Christ with his teaching
reveals in explication: this small garment the law
signifies, for with a few letters it covers
the all-powerful Creator, the Ruler who contains all things.
To him the world relates, the stars and the sea and the air.
Our nature closely is linked with our Creator,
for it covers that Creator. He holds the dry land in his palm,
protects it, and makes it visible to humanity by his power.
He is revealed everywhere in this world through his work.

{ induta en veritas veste quid dogmate christus
indicat exponam legem parva hic quoque vestis
significat namque hic tegitur in grammate raro
summipotens auctor qui continet omnia rector
ad quem mundus pertinet astra ac pontus et aether
nostraque natura arta atque sociate creanti ets
nam auctorem haec illum palmo qui claudit et arua
obtegit humano aut claudit uisu ecce potentem
ipse tamen ostensus ubique suo est oere orbi huic }

Human nature is closely linked with the creation of the world and the incarnation of human beings. All men have a natural, distinctive gender blessing. Men bear the blessing of seminal creativity to make descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven.[7]

Jesus's loincloth with covering poem

A leading sex theorist has recently emphasized that men don’t have intrinsically less biological value than women do. Folk wisdom tends to regard men as relatively expendable because (male) sperm is plentiful while (female) eggs have a small, fixed supply. Gynocentric society treats fathers as persons readily reduced to visitors in their children’s lives, and treats men as readily expendable on sinking ships or in wars. Yet from an evolutionary perspective, reproduction has no value without survival to reproduce again. Men have been and continue to be crucial for children and civilizations to grow and flourish.[8]

Men don’t have value merely in all their doings for others. From a Christian perspective, men are as much beloved children of God as women are. Men in their human being are capable of incarnating divine being in the same way as any woman today could. Moreover, as Hrabanus recognized in his magnificent carmen figuratum of Jesus, men with their testicles, penises, and plentiful sperm represent the divine blessing of potentially making descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Plato, Theaetetus 150, 151, Greek text and English translation (modified slightly for ease of reading) from Fowler (1921).

[2] Origen of Alexandria, Homily 12.7 (from his homilies on Leviticus), quoted in Coon (2004) p. 295 (with my changes to the translation for clarity). Cf. John 1:1-4, 14. This understanding of masculine pregnancy is similar to that in Philo of Alexandria and rabbinic midrashim. Id. Here’s Origen’s full homily in Latin, with an English translation. For all of Origen’s homilies on Leviticus in English translation, Barkley (1990).

Throughout history, masculinity or being “virtuous” has often been oppressively constructed as an attribute that men must work to achieve. That was the ideological structure in the Carolingian Empire. Stone (2012). Not surprisingly, men have often preferred to be characterized as pigs.

[3] Hrabanus Maurus (lived about 783 to 856 in present-day Germany) was a scholar, poet, monk, and theologian. As a young man Hrabanus studied under the eminent scholar Alcuin of York, Abbot of Tours. Hrabanus himself became Abbot of the Benedictine Abbey of Fulda in 822.

Particularly learned in the Torah of Hebrew scripture, Hrabanus became the foremost biblical scholar in the Carolingian Empire. He associated with the leading religious and political authorities of his time. The Holy Roman Emperor Lothar I, in a letter he wrote in 854, ranked Hrabanus with the eminent church fathers Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and Pope Gregory the Great. Coon (2011) p. 13. Hrabanus appears in Dante’s Paradiso, Canto 12, in the fourth sphere of heaven. Hrabanus appears there with Peter Lombard, Albertus Magnus, Hugh of St. Victor, Orosius, Boethius, Gratian, and other eminent, learned Christian men.

Hrabanus wrote In honorem sanctae crucis, his first book, for his teacher Alcuin. Alcuin composed some carmina figurata in the tradition of the early-fourth-century poet Publius Optatianus Porfyrius. One of Alcuin’s carmina figurata is an acrostic in praise of the cross, “On the holy cross {De sancta cruce}.” For that poem, with Latin text, figurative presentation, and English translation, Godman (1985) pp. 139-43.

Hrabanus took carmina figurata to a much higher level of sophistication than Alcuin’s acrostic. Hrabanus’s In honorem sanctae crucis, completed about 810, was recognized as a masterpiece. Hrabanus sent copies to eminent patrons, friends, and monasteries: Emperor Louis the Pious, Pope Gregory IV, bishops Haistulf of Mainz and Otgarius of Mainz, and the monasteries of Saint-Martin and of Saint-Denis.

While not well-know today, In honorem sanctae crucis was long regarded as an important work. About 81 medieval manuscripts of In honorem sanctae crucis are known, with ten surviving from the ninth century. The last manuscript copy was made in 1600 for the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf. A printed version was published in 1503. In honorem sanctae crucis is also called On praise of the holy cross {De laudibus sanctae crucis}.

The best current critical edition of In honorem sanctae crucis is Perrin (1997), building upon Perrin (1990). For a detailed technical analysis of a tenth-century manuscript (Cambridge University, Trinity College, MS B.16.3), Panayotova & Ricciardi (2017). On the manuscript and print production history of In honorem sanctae crucis from the ninth century to the seventeenth century, Michael (2019).

Ancient and early medieval texts presented letters without spacing for words (scriptio continua). Ancient and early medieval text also had little or no punctuation and little or no distinctive capitalization. These practices of textual presentation made carmina figurata more accessible to ancient and medieval readers than to readers today.

Hrabanus made some adjustments to letters in creating the 28 carmina figurata of In honorem sanctae crucis:

To make his letters fit the established grid, Hrabanus freely bent the rules of orthography and grammar. In 26 instances he elided words as when caeleste animal was rendered caelestanimal. He dropped letter ‘u’ following ‘q’ 295 times. Readers would know that qater = quater and atqe = atque. In 104 cases Hrabanus dropped letters that are not pronounced. These and other strategies enabled him to free up space for 811 letters according to Perrin’s analysis. By the same token, Hrabanus added letters to fill out blank spaces (‘caedris’ for ‘cedris’) 36 times. Clearly his major problem was fitting his words into the available spaces on the grid. Hrabanus’s linguistic ingenuity offers an interesting contrast to the linguistic hypercorrectivity of many of his contemporaries.

Contreni (1998).

[4] The Latin texts and English translations for these tracing are from Schipper (2014) p. 194, with my minor modifications. The subsequent two quotes are similarly from id. pp. 194, 196. The interpretation of the fourth tracing is mine.

Hrabanus regarded the written word as having eternal value. In a poetic preface to tituli that he wrote about 820 for churches that Abbot Eigil of Fulda founded, Hrabanus wrote:

No work arises that age, full of years,
does not destroy, or wicked time overturn:
only written things escape this fate, repel death,
only written things in books renew what has been.
God’s finger carved written things aptly
on rock, when he gave his Law to his people.
The world that is, has been, or may come in future’s chance —
these written things teach all their connected speakings.

{ Nullum opus exsurgit quod non annosa vetustas
Expugnet, quod non vertat iniqua dies:
Grammata sola carent fato, mortemque repellunt,
Praeterita renovant grammata sola biblis.
Grammata nempe dei digitus sulcabat in apta
Rupe, suo legem cum dederat populo,
Sunt, fuerant, mundo venient quae forte futura,
Grammata haec monstrant famine cuncta suo. }

Hrabanus, “Since the benign Law of God in mastery rules the wide world {Lex pia cumque dei latum dominans regit orbem}” vv. 7-14 (of 14), Latin text from Goodman (1985) pp. 248-9, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. The rare Latin word famen, plural famina, evokes the Hisperica Famina. A similar poem, which the first line Nullum opus exsurgit quod non annosa vetustas, appears in the Anthologia Latina (Riese 418). It’s labeled an epigram of Seneca.

[5] Cf. Isaiah 40:12, 48:13; Psalm 102:25. Christians seek to model themselves on Christ. Hrabanus quoted Origen:

Understand that you are another world in small, and inside of you is the sun, the moon, and stars.

{ intellige te alium mundum esse in parvo, et esse intra te solem, esse lunam esse etiam stellas }

Origen, Homilies on Leviticus 5.2, quoted in Hrabanus, Commentary on Leviticus {Expositiones in Leviticum} 2.3. For Origen’s Homilies on Leviticus, Barkley (1990). Coon associates this text with “remaking of the ascetic male into a dazzling vessel of the divine.” Coon (2004) p. 297. That text, however, doesn’t just concern “the ascetic male.” It relates to all men. Hrabanus’s representation of Christ presents a profound interpretation of being Christian.

[6] Genesis 15:5, 22:17, 26:4; Exodus 32:13; 1 Chronicles 27:23. Hrabanus wrote:

What is the Word if not semen? When the Word is emitted in an orderly fashion, the hearing mind — like a conceiving uterus — is impregnated for the offspring of good works.

{ Quid est sermo, nisi semen, qui dum ordinate mittitur, audientis mens, quasi concipientis uterus, ad boni operis prolem fecundatur. }

From Hrabanus’s commentary on Leviticus, written about 820. Via Coon (2004) pp. 278-9. For this understanding, Hrabanus apparently drew upon the exegetical thinking of Gregory the Great. Id.

Rabbinic authorities had similar understanding of the seminal blessing. In the Avot and the Mishnah, written about 200 GC, the model rabbinic sage never loses a drop of Torah. Id. p. 296, with related discussion p. 294. Present-day U.S. child support laws provide strong incentives for men to account for every drop of their semen. See Phillips v. Irons, 354 Ill. App. 3d 1164, 2005 Ill. App. LEXIS 1807 (Ill. App. Ct. 1st Dist. 2005), 883 N.E.2d 1151, summarized here.

[7] My interpretation of Hrabanus’s carmen figuratum of Jesus builds upon those of Coon and Schipper. Coon declares:

In his image of Christ, the Carolingian artist both screens the divine phallus from human gaze and simultaneously reveals its glorious nature and function through the agency of the letters scattered across the loincloth. It is a fitting combination for the Son of God, who fuses divine and human attributes and who is himself the Word. … For Hrabanus those stars {of Genesis 15:5} were future Christian souls born through the potency of Christ’s preaching.

Coon (2011) pp. 219-20. Schipper states:

But what exactly does Hrabanus mean to say with these clearly sensual if not erotic references to caressing movements, broken movements, and references to stars at the centre of the loin cloth of Christ? The temptation, of course, is to conclude immediately that something intentionally erotic is meant; indeed, that astra is intended as an indication of what lies beneath the loin cloth, namely Christ’s manhood. The very position of the inscription invites such an interpretation, and it is one I’m sure Hrabanus must have been aware of, even if he never says so in so many words. But there is a broad explanation as well. … The general direction of meaning of these lines {the background poem for the loincloth} suggests God or the Law covering Truth, God as the all-powerful Creator who has fashioned and revealed all the created world. But Hrabanus never lets go of the literal meaning of a small cloth (paruauestis) covering that which creates or procreates, Christ’s penis, which is not just a penis, but also the creator (or the creative power) who makes the created world visible for mankind.

Id. pp. 195-7. In my understanding, Hrabanus used astra in specific reference to the central blessing of Hebrew scripture, and the shape of the fourth tracing he meant to represent masculine genitals.

[8] Ryan (2020). Most medievalists haven’t read Ryan and similar thinkers. Like many medievalists discussing gender and “the body,” Coon refers to men’s bodies abstractly and makes broad claims supporting current academic dogma such as gender theory:

the body of a monk served as a bridge between classical Rome and an encroaching Dark Age. … the monastic body expressed the imperial ambitions of the religious leadership of the Carolingian Empire. …. clerical elites forged a model of gender that sought to feminize lay male bodies through textual, ritual, and spatial means, reflecting the rivalry between lay and priestly groups. … For gender theorists, monastic masculinity also discloses the queerness of the Carolingian cloister. … The monastic refectory is a sparring ground, where corporal pleasures, such as eating or moving the eyes over the bodies of other diners, are crushed by power of the Word performed by a lector trained in the art of classical oratory. The dining hall of a monastery is a perilous space, where monks are “invited into the body only to resist.”{reference note omitted} … Hrabanus’s In Honor of the Holy Cross visualizes the fundamental spiritual dilemma of the Dark Age body: the body is central to the meaning of the faith but its centrality occasions anxiety among the faithful.

Coon (2011) pp. 2, 10, 249, 252. In contrast to Coon’s dark and stormy account, Stone states, “the Carolingian religious elite do not seem to have found celibacy difficult.” Stone (2012) p. 326. Medieval scholarship would be more interesting and serve social justice better if it addressed the specific biological reality of men’s bodies in relation to structures of oppression, e.g. violence against men’s genitals, normative mutilation of men’s genitals, cultural support for castrating men, and laws that suppress men’s plentiful seminal capabilities.

[image] Carmen figuratum of Jesus Christ in Hrabanus Maurus’s In honorem sanctae crucis. Folio 8v (excerpt) from instance made in mid-eleventh-century Paris. That instance follows the content of the ninth-century instance made in Fulda for the Holy Roman Emperor Louis the Pious. Manuscript preserved as Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits (BnF) Latin 11685. The subsequent two images are excerpts from that image, with my blue-guideline overlay added to the first of those two.

Other instances of this carmen figuratum from Hrabanus’s In honorem sanctae crucis are freely available online. See:

  1. Folio 3v in a ninth-century instance made in Fulda and probably offered to the Abbey of Saint-Denis between 845 and 847. Preserved as BnF Latin 2422.
  2. Folio 8v in an instance made between 825-850 in Fulda. Preserved as Biblioteca Apostolia Vaticana. Reginensis lat. 124.
  3. Folio 4v in a tenth-century instance. Preserved as BnF Latin 2421. Kelin Michael suggests that this manuscript “may be an Anglo-Saxon copy made in the 10th century during a period of Benedictine monastic reform.” Jesse Hurlbut shows details of this manuscript.
  4. Folio 3v in a tenth-century instance. Preserved as Cambridge University, Trinity College, MS B.16.3. On this instance, Panayotova & Ricciardi (2017).
  5. Folio 6v in an instance produced in 1490 in Lorch, Germany. Preserved as Württembergische Landesbibliothek (Stuttgart, Germany), phil.fol.122.
  6. Folio 9v in an instance made for Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in 1600. Preserved as BnF Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Ms-472 réserve.


Barkley, Gary Wayne, tr. 1990. Origen. Homilies on Leviticus: 1-16. Fathers of the Church, Vol. 83. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press.

Contreni, John J. 1998. “Review of Perrin (1997), Rabani Mauri In honorem sanctae crucis.” The Medieval Review. Online.

Coon, Lynda L. 2004. “‘What is the Word if not semen?’ Priestly bodies in Carolingian exegesis.” Ch. 15 (pp. 278-300) in Brubaker, Leslie, and Julia M. H. Smith. Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and West, 300-900. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Coon, Lynda L. 2011. Dark Age Bodies: gender and monastic practice in the early medieval West. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press. (review by Rebecca Hardie)

Fowler, Harold N., ed. and trans. 1921. Plato. Vol. 7. Theaetetus. Loeb Classical Library, Vol. 128. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

Godman, Peter. 1985. Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance. London: Duckworth.

Michael, Kelin. 2019. “The Transition of Material: Hrabanus Maurus’s In honorem sanctae crucis as Manuscript and Printed Book.” Paper presented at The Materiality of Devotion Exhibition Symposium, Emory University, Mar. 1, 2019. (video of presentation)

Panayotova, Stella and Paola Ricciardi. 2017. “Painting the Trinity Hrabanus: Materials, Techniques and Methods of Production.” Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society. 16: 227-249. (web-viewable version)

Perrin, Michel. 1990. “Le De laudibus Sanctae Crucis de Raban Maur et sa Tradition Manuscrite au IXe siècle.” Revue d’Histoire des Textes. 19 (1989): 191-251.

Perrin, Michel, ed. 1997. Rabani Mauri In honorem Sanctae Crucis. Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Mediaevalis, Vols. 100, 100 A. Turnholti: Brepols.

Ryan, Peter. 2020. “Gynocentrism, Sex Differences and the Manipulation of Men.” Available online at both Gynocentrism and Its Cultural Origins and A Voice for Men.

Schipper, William. 2014. “Secretive Bodies and Passionate Souls: Transgressive Sexuality Among the Carolingians.” Pp. 173-199 in Kambaskovic, Danijela, ed. Conjunctions of Mind, Soul and Body from Plato to the Enlightenment. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.

Stone, Rachel. 2012. Morality and Masculinity in the Carolingian Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (review by Valerie L. Garver, review by Clara Harder)

Ignaure & castration: against women imprisoning men in love

six legendary lovers worship Venus

The Old French lay Ignaure, composed about the year 1200, tells a common story of penal bias in punishment for adultery. Men’s sexuality has long been socially constructed to have lower social value than women’s sexuality. However, with astonishing daring, Ignaure didn’t merely represent gynocentric reality. This marginalized lay also sought to change it. Ignaure presented a lesson from its man author to the woman patron who loved him. The lesson of Ignaure remains to be learned: women who reject the masculine model of Jesus’s love and seek to control and constrain men’s sexuality produce castration and death.

Violence against men in medieval literature and society, as in most societies today, is prevalent and unmarked. Gender bias in medieval violence gave elite medieval men a life expectancy about nine years less than that of elite medieval women. Violence against men has often targeted men’s genitals. When Heloise of the Paraclete’s relatives discovered her sexual affair with Peter Abelard, he was castrated. She wasn’t subject to any violence. Like some men academics today, the medieval courtier Sincopus castrated himself for career advancement. To enhance further his social standing, Sincopus subsequently hosted dinner parties for eminent guests. One night, guests inadvertently ate the ashes of Sincopus’s genitals. A culturally elaborate form of cannibalism, castration culture cuts deeply into European culture.

Ignaure introduces itself as an instructive tale of love. It subtly associates sense and wisdom with men’s seminal work:

Anybody who loves should not conceal,
rather should with none but fine words expose
that from which others can learn
and none but a fine lesson take.

Seeds are wasted if they’re kept covered.
That which is shown and revealed
can sow a seed in any place.
For this reason I wish to start a romance

{ Cors ki aimme ne doit reponre,
Ains doit auchun biel mot despondre,
U li autre puissent aprendre
Et auchun biel example prendre.

Sens est perdus ki est couvers;
Cis k’est moustrés et descouvers
Puet en auchun liu semenchier.
Pour chou voel roumans coumenchier } [1]

The central character of this romance is a very sexually potent knight named Ignaure. He enjoyed the music of flutes and pipes and the pleasure of gathering blossoms to celebrate the coming of May. Courtly love for women aroused and inflamed him. Yet he wasn’t a self-abasing knight groveling in service before one lady-idol. He was sexually loving the twelve high-born, beautiful wives of the twelve leading knights of the castle in which he was born. Women called him Nightingale. Women gave him money and goods in appreciation for his love. Who has ever welcomed the seeds of such romance?

The adulterous wives who loved Ignaure refused to accept that one man could fully love all twelve of them. At first they didn’t know that their extra-marital affairs were all with the same man. Some medieval men for amusement recited liturgical poems recast as drinking songs; other men confessed their weakness for beautiful, warmly receptive women like those in Pavia. In that spirit, these twelve wives got together in a garden and arranged a mock confession of their love affairs to one of them pretending to be a priest. That ordinary childish fun turned terrible when the fake woman priest found that all the women confessed to be having affairs with Ignaure. He was the same man with which the pretend woman priest herself was having a love affair!

No less prone to stumbling than Jesus’s own original twelve bumbling apostles, these twelve adulterous wives responded furiously and violently to not having sole possession of their lover. Jesus knew that the Samaritan woman at the well had five husbands and was currently sleeping with a man who wasn’t her husband. Yet Jesus treated the Samaritan woman with such dignity and respect that she called her fellow Samaritans to meet Jesus. When Jesus encountered a woman caught in the act of adultery, he saved her from punishment.[2] While the Gospel authors didn’t record such love toward relationally wayward men, Jesus almost surely would have treated men with equal compassion. Most importantly, Jesus, a fully masculine man, offered his love and his body wholly and completely to all who followed him. The twelve adulterous wives, however, plotted to kill Ignaure for loving all twelve of them.

One of the twelve adulterous wives lured Ignaure into an enclosed garden. There the other adulterous wives were hiding, waiting for him. They had sharp knives concealed under their cloaks. When the gate to the garden was locked and Ignaure had sat down, these woman rushed out. They were inflamed with anger and rage. They encircled Ignaure. Bereft of self-consciousness, they called Ignaure faithless, treacherous, and disloyal.

Despite being violently ambushed, Ignaure remained calm and retained his love for these adulterous wives. He declared that every one of them he loved truly with a pure and sincere heart. One adulterous wife cross-examined him, expecting with a leading question to lead him into an abject confession of wrong-doing:

“What?” said another, “what did you say?
You do not love me faithfully?”

{ “Coi?” dist une autre, “c’avés dit?
Enne m’amés vous par fianche?” }

Ignaure in response confidently asserted his capacity to love women:

Yes, with all my power,
you indeed and all the others,
I love truly, all of them, without doubt,
in both their solace and their delight.

{ Oïl, de toute ma poissanche,
Et vous et les autres testoutes
Ain ge bien, testoutes sans doutes,
Et lor solas et lor delis. }

Yelling and threatening, the women drew out their knives and said that they would kill him. Ignaure calmly responded:

Ladies, you would never be so cruel
that you would commit so great a sin.
If now I had my helmet laced on my head
and was riding my warhorse Equilanche
with shield around my neck and lance in hand,
so I would descend here,
and place myself at your mercy.
If I were to die at such beautiful hands,
I would be a martyr with the saints.
Well I know I was born at an auspicious hour.

{ Dames, ja ne serés si crueux
Que vous fachiés si grant pechiet.
S’or avoie l’iaume lachiet
Et fuisse el destrier d’Equilanche,
L’escu au col, el puing la lanche,
Si descendroie jou ichi
Et me metroie en vo merchi.
Se je muir a si bieles mains,
G’iere martyrs avoec les sains;
Bien sai qui fui nés en bonne eure. }

Most men don’t want to compete with women, even women who are trying to kill them. Ignaure’s bold and fearless speech brought love to the women’s hearts.

One of the adulterous wives proposed that Ignaure be allowed to love only one woman, and that he choose which one to love. The other adulterous wives agreed to impose this sexual constraint on Ignaure rather than to kill him. Ignaure chose the woman who had intervened to save his life. Yet he also truthfully and courageously said that he was “much grieved {molt dolans}” over losing the other women as concurrent lovers.

Having sex with only one woman creates risks for men. One risk is being stranded in a relationship that turns sexless. Another is that the man slips into gyno-idolatry and becomes oblivious to the reality that his beloved woman is a human like any other woman. Yet another risk is that the woman becomes excessively domineering over her lover and essentially makes him her prisoner. Moreover, when a man loves just one woman who is another man’s wife, he faces an increased risk of being caught in his frequent visits to her. Ignaure summarizes the risk to a man of having only one woman lover with a homely Old French proverb:

A mouse with just one hole can’t last long.

{ Soris ki n’a c’un trau poi dure. } [3]

Men deserve freedom to choose the sexual risks they will take. The angry, adulterous wives deprived Ignaure of choice.

The sexual constraint the women imposed on Ignaure proved disastrous for him and them. The knight caught his wife and Ignaure in bed together. Ignaure was imprisoned under the threat of being killed. The wife wasn’t punished. But she and the other adulterous wives were upset about the imprisonment of Ignaure. They swore to fast until they found out whether he would be killed or released. They thus engaged in ridiculous news-seeking and showed callus indifference to Ignaure’s actual fate. Fasting in Christian understanding is a practice of purification. Women must purify themselves to love men more substantively.

In the Christian Last Supper, Christ recast the Incarnation as Christians continually feeding upon his body. Christian cannibalism is loving incorporation. One of the betrayed husbands proposed a parody of the Eucharistic meal:

After four days, let’s remove from the serving man
all of his member dangling down below,
the delights of which have pleased our wives.
Then let’s make it appear to be something to eat;
the heart we’ll put in as well.
Twelve bowls from this we’ll make
and trick them into eating it,
because we couldn’t take any better revenge.

{ Au quart jor prendons le vassal
Tout le daerrain membre aval,
Dont li delis lor soloit plaire,
Si en fache on .I. mangier faire;
Le cuer avoec nous meterons.
.XII. escuieles en ferons;
Par engien lor faisons mangier,
Car nous n’en poons mieus vengier. }

The betrayed husbands prepared such a meal and gave it a sweet aroma. They praised this “good and fine {bonne et biele}” meal to their fasting wives. The adulterous wives broke their fast to eat the meal. They thus ate Ignaure’s penis and his heart. [4]

Most women don’t desire literally to eat their merely human lover’s penis and heart. To the principal adulterous wife, who was the pretend woman priest who became Ignaure’s exclusive lover, her husband declared:

Lady priestess,
you have already been his mistress.
You have eaten that of your great desire,
which provided you with much pleasure,
for you had no wish for any other.
In the end it has been served to you.
I have killed and destroyed your lover.
All can share a piece of the pleasure
from that which women crave most.
In having it, was there enough for you twelve?
We are now well-avenged for the shame.

{ Dame prestresse,
Ja fustes vous sa mistresse.
Mangié avés le grant desir
Ki si vous estoit em plaisir,
Car d’autre n’aviés vous envie;
En la fin en estes servie.
Vostre drut ai mort et destruit;
Toutes partirés au deduit
De chou que femme qui plus goulouse.
End avés assés en vous douse?
Bien nous sommes vengié del blasme. }

Ignaure had been killed. His heart and penis had been torn off from his body and made into a meal. The adulterous wives recognized their culpability in that horror. They vowed to God that they would never eat again. This vow they kept, and they too died.

The adulterous wives contributed to castration culture by hypocritically seeking to control and constrain Ignaure’s sexuality. Eunuchs were widely despised in ancient and medieval times. One man trobairitz, presenting himself as a eunuch, sang of his misery:

Of this I fully assure you:
that which gives a man the most happiness
I have lost and have instead been given shame,
and I dare not say who took it from me.
I have truly a good heart,
since I speak of such great embarrassment.

But for that reason I so hasten
to speak of this that I now lament:
because I wish easily, without delay, to relieve
all husbands from the nightmare,
and the anger and the worry,
for which they look at me with darkened face.

Although I act gracious and generous,
I am in fact flaccid and despicable,
a coward both armed and without breastplate.
I am leprous and foul-smelling,
a miser, a low-grade host,
of all by far the most inept warrior.

{ D’aisso vos fatz ben totz certz:
qu’aicels don hom es plus gais
ai perdutz, don ai vergoigna;
e non aus dir qui·ls me trais;
et ai ben cor vertadier
quar dic tant grand encombrier.

Mas per so sui tant espertz
de dir aisso que er plais:
quar voill leu gitar ses poigna
totz los maritz de pantais
e d’ira e de conssirier,
don mout m’en fan semblant nier.

Si·m fatz coindes e degertz
si·m sui eu flacs e savais
volpilz garnitz e ses broigna,
e sui mizels e putnais:
escars, vilan conduchier,
de tot lo plus croi guerrier. } [5]

Peter Abelard was viciously abused as a castrated man. Modern authorities, however, have obliterated castration as personal experience of men and cultural constraint on men. Instead, the psychoanalytic abstraction “castration complex” is used to disparage men’s wounds, fears, and anxieties. The adulterous wives duped into eating their lover’s penis finally digested the reality of castration culture. Castration culture must be understood before it leads to more deaths of men and women.

Ignaure includes a telling epilogue. In that epilogue, the author (self-identified as Renaut) blesses and praises his patron:

And a blessing be on her who had it made,
this lay which must be pleasing to lovers.
She has bound me so strongly
that I am unable to be untied.

{ Et benie soit ki le fist faire,
Cest lai ki as amans doit plaire.
Cele m’a si fort atachié
Que n’en puis estre deslachié. }

Renaut then describes the woman to whom he is bound. She is beautiful, charming, and very polite. Moreover, her breasts, which are “very firm {bien duretes},” push out her tunic, and she has a “lovely waist {gente par la chainture}.” In summary, she seems to be a woman of many men’s dreams. But Renaut hints at a difficulty he has:

She is the chain, all entirely.
Be aware that through this chain
the lady leads me wherever she wishes.
Much am I in a very sweet prison;
I have no desire to be ransomed.
That is the subject of this lay.
Here for you I will end it.
The French, the Poitevins, and the Bretons
call it the lay of the Prisoner.
Here ends the lay of the Prisoner.
I know about it absolutely nothing more.

{ C’est la caïne toute entiere.
Sachié que par cester caïne
La u la dame velt me mainne.
Molt sui en tres douche prison;
Issir n’en quier par raenchon.
C’est la matere de cel lay;
Ichi le vous definerai.
Franchois, Poitevin et Breton
L’apielent le lay del Prison.
Ichi faut li lays del Prison;
Je n’en sai plus ne o ne non. }

The last line above is best read ironically. The lay of the prisoner seems to describe the personal situation of the author Renaut. His woman patron apparently demanded to love him wholly and exclusively. That should be his choice. But he wasn’t given the freedom to choose. She, a person under whom he worked, enchained him.[6] The lesson of the lay is that women controlling and constraining men’s sexuality isn’t fruitful. Such possessive dominance in love leads to castration and death.

The lesson of the lay of the prisoner has largely been lost. The text itself survives in only one manuscript. One modern man medievalist with no appreciation for men’s interests interpreted Ignaure genderlessly as a “social drama of class conflict.”[7] Modern women medievalists have a keener sense of their gender identity and gender interests. Gynocentric medieval scholarship has established Christine de Pizan, Marguerite Porete, and the beguines as leading figures of the European Middle Ages. Not surprisingly, an eminent woman medievalist reads Ignaure as a satire against beguines and their Eucharistic piety.[8] Another woman medievalist reads the penal killing of Ignaure and the adulterous wives eating his penis and heart as an appealing metaphor for heterosexual love:

As a metaphor for love, the act of cannibalism gives voice to the wordless acts of physical love and intimate exchange that are difficult if not impossible to describe, and thus articulates the possibility of unity between two desiring subjects. … Placing satisfied female desire at the center of the tale also reclaims female literary influence, putting women in charge of heart and penis, in charge of desire and its related lyric outpouring. [9]

What about satisfying male desire? Is Ignaure’s sexual desire humanely satisfied in this romance? Why is castration culture unremarkable within dominant discourse?

Good-faith “and/both” interpretation can contribute to appreciating the cultural richness of medieval literature and activating its critical potential. Considering the Wife of Bath’s Prologue from the perspectives of “misogynists and feminists” merely exercises narrow minds across the linear moral hierarchy of today’s dominant, totalizing gender paradigm.[10] A good-faith effort at “and/both” thinking would also read the Wife of Bath’s Prologue from the perspectives of misandrists and meninists. Such readings can provide critical insight into the highly disproportionate imprisonment of men, pervasive anti-men bias in the administration of domestic violence laws, and the incarceration of men too poor to make onerous monthly payments obligations resulting from a man choosing nothing more than to have consensual sex. Even without a general commitment to “and/both” interpretation, medieval literary studies should strive to be welcoming and inclusive of meninist literary criticism.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Ignaure vv. 1-4, 11-14, Old French text (Picard dialect) from Burgess & Brook (2010) p. 70, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. The introductory verses of this lay aren’t transparent. They apparently relate to the amorous context of the epilogue. Id. pp. 60-1. My translation, while following the Old French closely, attempts to bring out the relation of sens {good sense; significance; seed; semen} and semencher {to plant seed; to have sex of reproductive type} to sexuality. Other scholars have recognized this relation. Id. and Bloch (1992) p. 127. An alternate translation of Ignaure, vv. 11-14:

Talent is wasted if it is kept hidden;
That which is displayed and revealed
Can begin to grow in some place.
For this reason I wish to begin a tale.

Burgess & Brook (2010) p. 71.

Ignaure is known through only one manuscript, Paris BnF fr. 1553, f. 485r – 488v. That manuscript appears to have been written between 1285 and 1290. Burgess & Brook (2010) p. 7. Ignaure, v. 621, identifies its author as Renaut. This Renaut has long been regarded as Renaut de Beaujeu, but recent scholarship suggests Renaud of Saint-Trivier. Scholars have dated the composition of Ignaure to the late twelfth century or early thirteenth century. Id. pp. 8-10. Here’s an incomplete bibliography of studies concerning Ignaure. On the structure of Ignaure in relation to other Old French lays, Sasková (2009).

Subsequent quotes from Ignaure are similarly sourced. They are vv. 310-11 (What?…), 312-5 (Yes, with all my power…), 324-33 (Ladies, you would never be so cruel…), 373 (A mouse…), 541-8 (After four days…), 565-76 (Lady priestess…), 627-30 (And a blessing be on her…), 652-62 (She is the chain…).

[2] John 4:1-42 (Samaritan woman at the well), John 8:1-11 (woman caught in adultery).

[3] Emphasizing the importance of this medieval folk wisdom, Ignaure repeats it subsequently with slightly different wording:

The mouse who has but one hole
is very soon caught in a trap.

{ La soris ki n’a c’un pertruis
Est molt tost prise en enganee. }

Vv. 4801-1. This proverbial wisdom exists in a variety of closely related medieval sayings, e.g. “God help the mouse who knows but one hole {Dahez ait la soriz qui ne set c’un pertuis},” and “The mouse is unhappy if it knows but one hole {La soriz est mauvese qui ne set c’um pertuis}.” Burgess & Brook (2010) p. 107, note to v. 373, and more generally, Singer (1999) pp. 154-5. The metaphorical implications for men’s loving sexual work with their penises is straight-forward.

Perhaps as affirmative action to help men in their subordinate position, some medieval women allowed men to have multiple beloved women. One such big-hearted woman exclamed one morning to her beloved:

Well, good morning! And tell me,
where have you been?
I will let you love another,
if you also love me.

Kharja concluding late-thirteenth-century poem by Todros ben Judah Halevi Abulafia / Todrōs ben Yehūdā Abū-l Āfia; English translation by DenBoer (2010) p. 64 (no. 49).

[4] Ignaure has been classified with a group of tales known as the “eaten heart story.” In Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk Literature, the eaten heart story is Q478.1: “adultress is caused unwittingly to eat her lover’s heart (sometimes other parts of the body).” Cited in Burgess & Brook (2010) p. 25. Ten medieval European eaten-heart tales have been identified. For a review, id., pp. 25-35. A mid-thirteenth-century eaten-heart tale is Konrad von Würzburg’s “The Heart’s Tidings {Das Herzmäre}.” For an English translation, Gentry (1983) pp. 118-24. Another early example, thought to have been written about 1300, is The Romance of the Castle-Holder of Coucy and the Lady of Fayel {Le Roman du Châtelain de Coucilet et la Dame de Fayel} by the little known French writer Jakemon Sakesep.

The adulterous wives eating Ignaure’s penis in addition to his heart is central to the distinctiveness and meaning of Ignaure. Scholars haven’t considered seriously the eating of the penis or castration culture more generally. See, e.g. Burgess & Brook (2010) pp. 35-6.

[5] Raimbaut d’Aurenga (Raimbaut of Orange), “For a long time I have been hiding {Lonc temps ai estat cubertz}” st. 2-4, Old Occitan text (based on that of Milone (1998)) from Lirica Medievale Romanza, my English translation benefiting from the Italian translation of id. (Samantha Molinaro), the English translation from trobar, and that of Gaunt (1989) pp. 140-1. Lirica Medievale Romanza provides many other songs by Raimbaut d’Aurenga, as does trobar

At some point in his life, Raimbaut d’Aurenga apparently was highly capable of loving women well. He sang:

Thus about loving I say:
I love so guilelessly
her whom I should love,
that the best lovers
(if they were sure how truly I love her)
would come to me here
to beg from this day forth
that I teach them as apprentices
about good loving;
and even thus to beg
me about it would come five hundred ladies.

{ Don d’amar dic:
Qu’am si ses tric
Lieys qu’amar deg,
Que·l miels adreg
(s’eron sert cum l’am finamens)
M’irion sai
Preguar hueymai
Que·ls essenhes cum aprendens
De ben amar;
E neus preguar
M’en venrion dompnas cinc cens. }

Raimbaut d’Aurenga, “I am very pleased {Assaz m’es belh},” st. 4, Old Occitan text (Pattison edition) via Lirica Medievale Romanza, my English translation, benefiting from that of trobar and Gaunt (1989) p. 124. Raimbaut expresses in some of his songs vigorous sexuality:

Indeed it shall be, lady, a great honor
if I from you am granted
the privilege under the covers
of holding you in naked embrace;
you are worth as much as the best hundred ladies!
And I’m not overly boastful —
the sole thought of this has rejoiced my heart
more than if I were the emperor.

{ Ben aurai, dompna, grand honor
si ja de vos m’es jutgada
honranssa que sotz cobertor
vos tenga nud’ embrassada;
car vos valetz las meillors cen!
Q’ieu non sui sobregabaire —
sol del pes ai mon cor gauzen
plus que s’era emperaire! }

Raimbaut d’Aurenga, “I do not sing for bird nor flower {Non chant per auzel ni per flor},” st. 3, Old Occitan text (Pattison edition) via Lirica Medievale Romanza, my English translation benefiting from that of trobar. See similarly Raimbaut d’Aurenga, “Amid the frost and wind and mud {Entre gel e vent e fanc},” st. 8, available with Old Occitan text and English translation at trobar and Gaunt (1989) p. 142.

As a model for his lady and him, Raimbaut references Iseult and Tristan cuckolding her husband King Mark:

See, lady, how God helps
the lady agreeable to loving.
Iseult was in great fear,
then soon she was counseled.
She made her husband believe
that no man born of woman
had touched her – now
the very same thing you can do!

{ Vejatz, dompna, cum Dieus acor
Dompna que d’amar s’agrada.
Q’Iseutz estet en gran paor,
Puois fon breumens conseillada;
Qu’il fetz a son marit crezen
C’anc hom que nasques de maire
Non toques en lieis. – Mantenen
Atrestal podetz vos faire! }

“Non chant per auzel ni per flor,” st. 6, sourced as previously. In the Iseult & Tristan tales of Thomas of Britain and Béroul, Iseult passes a chastity test throught a guileful, covering interaction with Tristan (an ambiguous oath). Whether Raimbaut was castrated at some point in his life, or he only claimed to be castrated to dupe husbands, isn’t known. Cf. Gaunt (1989) pp. 139-43. But castration unquestionably was a real risk that medieval men endured.

Another, possibly related poem, attests to medieval awareness of the horror of castration. This Old Occitan poem tells of Linaura (an Old Occitan form for Ignaure) being castrated and killed for having sex with another man’s wife:

From Linaura, know
how he was greatly loved
and how all the ladies
loved him and sought him,
until the wicked husband,
by great treachery,
caught him and had him killed.
But this was most deplorable,
that his penis was butchered.
He was, I believe, cut up
and divided into four parts
by those four husbands.
He was the master
of his office
until he was betrayed
and killed by the jealous.

{ De Linaura sapchatz
com el fon cobeitatz
e com l’ameron totas
donas e·n foron glotas,
entro·l maritz felon,
per granda trassion,
lo fey ausir al plag.
Mas aco fon mot lag
que Massot so auzis;
e·n fo, so cre, devis
e faitz catre mitatz
pels catre molheratz.
Sest ac la maÿstria
dedintre sa bailia,
entro que fon fenitz
e pels gilos traïtz. }

Arnaut Guilhem de Marsan, ensenhamen “Who is able to understand well {Qui comte vol apendre},” vv. 217-32, Old Occitan text of Gouiran (2014) via Rialto, my English translation, benefiting from the French translation of id. and the English translation of Burgess & Brook (2010) pp. 14-5. This poem dates to 1170-80. Philologists have debated the meaning of moheratz and massot. Following Mouzat and Pirot, I’ve interpreted these words as “husbands” and “club / penis(mace / massue). For the philological issues, with relevant scholarly references, id.

Ignaure’s castration seems to have been widely known in late twelfth-century France. Chrétien de Troyes refered to Ignaure:

That is the greatly loved Ignaure,
a pleasing man who loves women.

{ C’est Iagnaures li covoitiez,
Li amoreus et li pleisanz. }

The Knight of the Cart {Chevalier de la charette}, vv. 5788-9, Old French text and English translation from Burgess & Brook (2010) p. 13. Moreover, Linaura (Old Occitan form of Ignaure) was a code name (senhal) used for Raimbaut d’Aurenga in the songs of the men trobairitiz Giraut de Bornelh and Gaucelm Faidit. Id. p. 15. See also Samantha Molinaro’s commentary on Raimbaut d’Aurenga.

[6] Women using their positions of authority to coerce men sexually is morally wrong. That’s also formally illegal in most places. In thirteenth-century Navarre, Thibault de Champagne sang of a similar imprisonment:

Lady, when I stood before you
and I saw you for the first time,
my heart leaped forth so far
that it remained with you when I left.
Then I was led without offer of ransom
to be captive in the sweet prison

{ Dame, quant je devant vos fui
Et je vos vi premierement,
Mes cuers aloit si tresaillant
Qu’il vos remest quant je m’en mui.
Lors fu menés sanz raençon
En la douce chartre en prison }

“Just like the unicorn am I {Ausi conme unicorne sui}” vv. 10-15, Old French text from Samuel N. Rosenberg, my English translation benefiting from that of id. and O’Sullivan (2005) pp. 190-1. Here’s the song with a modern French translation. Culpability for this man’s imprisonment at least in part goes to men’s human nature. This song concludes with recognizing that this man, like the many men vastly disproportionately imprisoned, “bears so heavy a burden {soustenir si grevain fes}.” At least this man only metaphorically lost his heart, rather than being killed and having his penis and heart eaten, as happened to Ignaure. Anne Azéma performed this song with appropriate poignancy.

[7] Bloch (1991) p. 124. In Bloch’s line of thinking, the men-abasing sexual feudalism of courtly love expresses misogyny.

[8] Newman (2013) pp. 178-81. In this interpretation, acts of the wives that have pious analogues, e.g. confession and fasting, represent piety. Acts of the wives that don’t have pious analogues, e.g. adultery and planning to kill Ignaure, are parodies of piety. That’s a tendentious pattern of interpretation.

[9] Heneveld (2018) p. 412.

[10] Newman (2013) pp. 172-3. On “a hermeneutics of  both/and” more generally, id. pp. 7-13. Looking at the Wife of Bath’s Prologue from the perspectives of feminism and misogyny surely isn’t what “sic et non {yes and no}” meant to Peter Abelard.

[image] Venus worshipped by six men, all legendary lovers: Achilles, Tristan, Lancelot, Samson, Paris and Troilus. Decorated birth tray (desco da parto), made c. 1400. Ascribed to variously to Master of Charles of Durazzo, Master Taking of Tarento, and Francesco de Michele. Preserved as item R.F.2089 in the Musée du Louvre (Paris). Via Wikimedia Commons.

On “and/both” interpretation of this depiction, Newman (2013) pp. 8-10. This birth tray suggests to me gyno-idolatry. A particular woman enjoying six men lovers, or a particular man relishing twelve women lovers, seems to me understandable in both sacred and secular ways. Such understanding seems to me less socially significant than understanding the structural oppressions of gynocentrism.


Bloch, R. Howard. 1991. Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Burgess, Glyn S., and Leslie C. Brook, ed. and trans. 2010. The Old French Lays of Ignaure, Oiselet and Armours. Gallica 18. Cambridge: Brewer.

DenBoer, James. 2010. String of Pearls: Sixty-Four “Romance” Kharjas from Arabic and Hebrew Muwashshaḥāt of the Eleventh-Thirteenth Centuries. eHumanista Monograph Series 6. Online.

Gaunt, Simon. 1989. Troubadours and Irony. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gentry, Francis G., ed. 1983. German Medieval Tales. New York: Continuum.

Heneveld, Amy. 2018. “Eating your lover’s otherness: The narrative theme of the Eaten Heart in the Lai d’Ignaure.” Cahiers de recherches médiévales et humanistes / Journal of Medieval and Humanistic Studies. 36 (2): 393-412.

Newman, Barbara. 2013. Medieval Crossover: reading the secular against the sacred. The Conway Lectures in Medieval Studies. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press. (Blake Gutt’s review, Ryan McDermott’s review, Karl F. Morrison’s review, Galina Zelenina’s review)

O’Sullivan, Daniel E. 2005. Marian Devotion in Thirteenth-Century French Lyric. University of Toronto Press.

Sasková, Silvie. 2009. The Structural Arrangement of the Old French Narrative Lays. Ph.D. Thesis. University of Canterbury (Christchurch, New Zealand). School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics.

Singer, Samuel. 1999. Thesaurus Proverbiorum Medii Aevi, Bd. 8, Linke – Niere Lexikon der Sprichwörter des Romanisch-Germanischen Mittelalters. Berlin: De Gruyter.