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.

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[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)

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