Cicero & Ecclesiastes against concubines dominating men

medieval man praying

Concubines rank lower than wives in most societies’ social structure. But what about men’s status?[1] The learned and eloquent ancient Roman orator Cicero described the desperation of husbands suffering from their wives’ abuse. In early-eleventh-century Baghdad, the rich merchant ibn Jumhūr had to endure torrents of abuse from his concubine Zād Mihr. In actuality, husbands are not only subordinate to their wives, but also subordinate to their concubines.

A coherent medieval collection of prayers spanning all stations of society documents the struggle against men’s subordination to their concubines. The collection begins by acknowledging the failures of all:

Let us pray for every status in the Church!
All have gone astray. Together they are made hurtful. There is none who would do good, no, not one.

{ Oremus pro omni statu ecclesie!
Omnes declinaverunt, simul inutiles facti sunt. Non est qui faciat bonum, non est usque ad unum. } [2]

The next three prayers harshly denounce the behavior of the nominally leading men of medieval society:

For the pope and the cardinals.
From elders is coming forth the wickedness of my people, who the bad example they see, they follow.

For our king.
Destruction and misery are in his way, and the way of peace he has not yet discovered.

For the leaders of the land.
O Israel, your princes are rebellious, companions of thieves, and act very similar to tyrants.

{ Pro papa et cardinalibus.
A senioribus egressa est iniquitas populi mei, qui malum quod videt in exemplum trahit.

Pro rege nostro.
Contricio et infelicitas et inquietudo in viis eius, ut viam pacis nondum invenit.

Pro principibus terre.
O Israhel, infideles principes tui socii furum sunt et tyrannis similimi. } [3]

About thirty prayers later, the collection reaches the nominally lowliest ranks of medieval society:

For our household servants.
The elderly servants are always slow. While they eat, they get warm; when working, they get cold.

Let us pray also for our concubines.
They themselves will truly be our judges and rule us with an iron rod, by which for our faithlessness our property is squandered.

For our extra-marital children.
They themselves are witnesses of their parents’ wickedness, which will itself walk by its own paths.

{ Pro familia nostra.
Prespiterum servi sunt omni tempore tardi. Dum comedunt sudant, frigescunt quando laborant.

Oremus etiam pro concubinis nostris.
Ipse enim erunt judices nostri et regent nos in virga ferrea, quarum perfidia nostra consumitur substantia.

Pro spuriis nostris.
Ipsi enim testes sunt iniquitatis parentum suorum, in quorum semitis et ipsi ambulabunt. } [4]

The prayer for concubines, placed between prayers for servants and extra-marital children, implicitly recognizes concubines’ low social status. That prayer also implicitly acknowledges men’s weakness in relation to beautiful women. Men’s weakness in relation to beautiful women is both economically disastrous for men and leads to women ruling over them.

In the difficult circumstances of their lives, men often accept passively injustices done to them. The biblical story of the massacre of the men of Shechem tells of treacherous, vicious violence against men because of Shechem’s illicit love for Dinah. Violence against men still remains the undistinguished, untroubling understanding of violence. When the Hebrews wandering in the desert lacked water, Moses and Aaron had to do something. Men are valued as men in their doings, not merely in their being. Whatever the man Jonah did was wrong. A whale ate him at sea and on land the sun beat down on his head. Who has compassion for Jonah’s suffering and for the suffering of men generally? About 855, a highly learned German theologian poignantly portrayed men’s despair:

But already Shechem was asking for the dishonored Dinah,
Aaron was spilling water, competing then with Dinah,
bald Jonah was destitute, shipwrecked in the sea;
together they mourned, stroking their trimmed foreskins.

{ Sed quia iam prostitutam quaerebat Sichem Dinam,
Aquas Aaron effundebat, contendebat tunc Dina,
Ionas calvus nudus erat naufragus in maria;
Plangebant cuncti recisa palpantes preputia. } [5]

Mutilation of baby boys’ genitals continues today across atheists, Christians, and Jews without any truly believed religious justification. Circumcision of baby boys’ genitals attracts less social concern than restrictions on women’s fancy clothes. Men’s subordination to their concubines reflects the impotence of men resigned merely to stroking their trimmed foreskins.

Learned and wise authorities have long sought to dissuade men from gyno-idolatrous subservience to their concubines and to women in general. At some time between the middle of the ninth century and early in the sixteenth century, a scribe copying the prayer for concubines added wisdom from Cicero:

And can I regard as being free a man over whom a woman rules? On whom she imposes laws, and to whom she orders, commands, and prohibits? Moreover, is not he himself a miserable little man who none of her rulings is able to negate, who dares to refuse her nothing? If she calls him, he is coming. If she asks, he is giving. If she throws him out, he is leaving. If she threatens, he is trembling.

{ An ille michi liber videtur, cui mulier imperat? Cui leges imponit, prescribit iubet, vetat? Ipse autem miser homuntio nichil imperanti negare potest, nichil recusare audet? Si vocat eum, veniendum est. Si poscit, dandum est. Si eicit, abeundum est. Si minatur, extimescendum est. } [6]

These are the men that men-abasing courtly love ideology celebrates. These little men are prevalent in gynocentric society. They are not free men. Teach your sons not to be those men!

Women who love men must do more to help men. Not satisfied with merely the authority of Cicero, perhaps another scribe added wisdom from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes:

I find, says the prophet, more bitter than death the woman whose heart is a hunter’s snares and nets, whose hands are fetters. One who pleases God will flee from her. The other, a sinner, is taken by her, more bitter than death.

{ Inveni, inquit propheta, amariorem morte mulierem, que laqueus est venatorum, sagena cor eius, vincula sunt manus eius. Qui placet Deo fugiet illam; qui autem peccator est capietur ab ea, amarior est morte. } [7]

Today such wisdom tends to be trivialized through name-calling. Medieval authorities were more enlightened. Matheolus warned men against oppressive practices of women and the church. The satirical medieval Fifteen Joys of Marriage described men becoming prisoners in their marriages. Some medieval women viciously cuckolded their husbands. Teach your daughters not to be those women!

The combined authority of Cicero and Ecclesiastes sadly has been insufficient to save men from subservience to women. As the medieval manuscript indicates, inadequate philological education in schools hinders vigorous social criticism. Thus to the quotes from Cicero and Ecclesiastes under the prayer for concubines, a medieval reader added explanatory glosses: “she imposes laws {leges imponit}” glossed as “command {mandatum}”; “she orders {prescribit}” glossed as “what must be made to be {quid faciendum sit}”; and “she vetoes {vetat}” glossed as “she prohibits {prohibet}.” One must first understand in order to resist.

Most men today lack the opportunity to study medieval Latin language and literature. Yet even deprived of that important opportunity, men can understand gynocentric oppression simply by asking questions. Why does the gender composition of highly privileged persons such as corporate executives, political leaders, and math professors generate more public concern than the massively disproportionate incarceration of men? Why are men deprived of any reproductive rights whatsoever and have only the choice to engage in abortion coercion? Why does grotesque anti-men gender discrimination continue to pervade family courts while governments move to enact paid parental leave? The fundamental answer to those questions is simple: the actual status of ordinary men is lower than that of their concubines.

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[1] On the formal and actual status of medieval concubines, see Brundage (1993) and Karras (2014). Medieval historians typically share common delusions about men’s status in the present. Their historical work on gender is thus scarcely credible.

[2] Prayers for every status in the church {Orationes pro omni statu ecclesiae} 1, Latin text from Bayless (2018) p. 53 (text 7), my English translation. For ease of reading, I’ve made some insubstantial changes to Bayless’s Latin text, e.g. differentiated v from u, and j from i. Subsquent quotes from this text are sourced similarly.

Bayless has edited this text from MS. Rome, Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana Pal. lat. 1050, fols 293r-294. This manuscript was written in parts in 1475 and 1530. Id. The line of commentary following the call for prayer adapts Psalm 14:3 (in modern numbering).

Two other manuscripts of similar collections of prayers have survived in manuscripts written in the fifteenth century. Those texts are printed in Walther (1931). For discussion of these similar collections, called Prayers of the priest’s housekeeper {Preces famulae sacerdotis}, Bayless (1996) pp. 172-5. These or similar collections might well have been composed in the twelfth century or earlier.

[3] Orationes pro omni statu ecclesia 2-4. As Bayless notes, the lines of commentary for these three prayers adapt Daniel 13:5, Romans 3:16-7, and Isaiah 1:23, respectively.

[4] Orationes pro omni statu ecclesia 27-29 (out of 33 prayers in total). Prespiterum apparently is a medieval Latin spelling of presbyterum. Bayless notes the commentary to the prayer for household servants is “common in medieval satire.” Prayers 28 and 29 adapt Matthew 12:27 and Psalm 2:9; and Wisdom 4:6, respectively. Bayless (2018) p. 59, notes.

[5] Hrabanus Maurus, The Wedding Banquet {Cena nuptialis} ll. 233-8, Latin text from Modesto (1992) p. 192, my English translation. Hrabanus’s Cena nuptialis adapted into verse Cyprian’s Banquet {Cena Cypriani}. The relevant text from Cena Cypriani:

But since someone was contending with Dinah, Aaron was spilling water, and Jonas was destitute.

{ Sed quoniam contendebat Dina, aquam effundebat Aaron,
et nudus erat Ionas. }

Latin text from Modesto (1992) p. 30, my English translation. Dinah seems to be related to Aaron spilling water through the implicit sense that she was crying over her brothers killing her beloved Shechem. Hrabanus Maurus wrote his Cena nuptialis about 855 and dedicated it to Lothar II, King of Lotharingia. On Cena nuptialis, Bayless (1996) pp. 38-40.

[6] Orationes pro omni statu ecclesia 28.4-8 (additional commentary). The text notes: “These are Cicero in Paradoxes {Hec Cicero in Paradoxa}.” The reference is to Cicero, Stoic Paradoxes {Paradoxa stoicorum} 5.36, which is quoted closely, but not exactly. For Paradoxa stoicorum in Latin and English translation, Rackham (1942). The glosses to this text, discussed subsequently above, are given in Bayless (2018) p. 59, notes.

Cicero in Paradoxa stoicorum presented women’s dominance as a problem in men’s intimate relations with women. In fifteenth-century Europe, women’s dominance was regarded as a matter of high politics:

Let us inquire, and we find that nearly all the world’s kingdom have been overthrown because of women. The first of them, the happy kingdom Troy, was destroyed because of the abduction of a single woman, Helen. Many thousands of Greeks were slain. The kingdom of the Jews had many evils and deaths because of the very bad queen Jezebel and her daughter Athaliah, queen in the kingdom of Judah. Athaliah had the sons of her son slain so that with his death she herself could reign, but both Jezebel and Athaliah were slain. The kingdom of the Romans endured many evils because of Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt, a very bad woman. And so on for others. Hence no wonder if the world now suffers from women’s evil.

{ Invenimus fere omnia mundi regna propter mulieres fuisse versa. Primum enim quod fuit regnum felix, scilicet Troye, proper raptum unius femine, scilicet Helene, destructum est, multi milibus Graecorum occisis. Regnum Judeorum multa mala et exterminia habuit propter pessimam reginam Jezebel et filiam eius Athaliam reginam in regno Jude, que occidi fecerat filios filij ut eo mortuo ipsa regnaret, sed utraque occisa. Regnum Romanorum multa mala sostinuit propter Cleopatram reginam Egipti, pessimam mulierem. Et sic de alijs. Unde non mirum si mundus iam patitur ob malitiam mulierum. }

The Hammer of Witches {Malleus maleficarum} Part 1, Question 6, part 2, Latin text from MacKay (2006) v. 1, pp. 289-90, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. On the relative propensity of queens and kings to engage in war from the fifteenth century to the twentieth century, Dube & Harish (2019). Modern readings of the Malleus maleficarum have obscured that men vastly predominated among witches who were killed, just as today men vastly  predominate among victims of lethal violence.

[7] Orationes pro omni statu ecclesia 28.10-13 (additional commentary). The text begins “Ecclesiastes 7 {Eccl 7}.” It quotes closely but not exactly the Vulgate text of Ecclesiastes 7:26 (in modern numbering). In medieval versions of the Vulgate, this verse ended with “more bitter than death, that is, than the devil {amarior est morte, id est, diablo}.” Bayless (2018) p. 59, notes.

[image] Young Man at Prayer (excerpt). Painting by Hans Memling, made about 1475. Preserved as accession number NG2594 in the National Gallery (London, UK). Via Wikimedia Commons.


Bayless, Martha. 1996. Parody in the Middle Ages: the Latin tradition. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Bayless, Martha, ed. 2018. Fifteen Medieval Latin Parodies. Toronto Medieval Latin Texts, 35. Toronto, Canada: Published for the Centre for Medieval Studies by the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies.

Brundage, James A. 1993. Sex, Law and Marriage in the Middle Ages. Aldershot: Variorum.

Dube, Oeindrila and S.P. Harish. 2019. “Queens.” University of Chicago, Becker Friedman Institute for Economics Working Paper No. 2019-120. Available at SSRN.

Karras, Ruth Mazo. 2014. Unmarriages: women, men, and sexual unions in the Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. (review by Walter Prevenier)

Mackay, Christopher S., ed. and trans. 2006. Malleus maleficarum: the hammer of witches. 2 vols. Cambridge University Press.

Modesto, Christine. 1992. Studien zur Cena Cypriani und zu deren Rezeption. Classica Monacensia, 3. Tubingen: G. Narr.

Rackham, Harris, ed and trans. 1942. Cicero. On the Orator {De oratore}, Book III; On Fate {De fato}; Stoic Paradoxes {Paradoxa stoicorum}; Divisions of Oratory {De partitione oratoria}. Loeb Classical Library 349. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Walther, Hans. 1931. “Parodistische Gebete der Pfarrköchin in einer Züricher Handschrift.” Studi Medievali. n.s. 4: 344-57.

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