holy mother Rachel weeping for the massacre of innocents: boys

massacre of innocents - boys, from Codex Egberti

About two millennia ago, the tyrant Herod heard that a boy had been born who would overthrow tyranny’s reign. Herod’s primitive surveillance method wisely didn’t reveal the boy’s location. The learned Roman poet Prudentius four centuries later wrote:

Crazed at the news, the tyrant shouts:
“My successor looms, I’m thrown out —
guards, go, take your swords,
drench the cradles in blood!

Every male infant shall die:
search the nurses’ bosoms,
and at his mother’s breast,
redden your sword with boy’s blood.

I suspect all who have given birth
in Bethlehem. They’re traitors,
underhand, ready to smuggle
their baby boys to safety.”

{ exclamat amens nuntio,
“successor instat, pellimur:
satelles, i, ferrum rape,
perfunde cunas sanguine!

mas omnis infans occidat,
scrutare nutricum sinus
interque materna ubera
ensem cruentet pusio.

suspecta per Bethlem mihi
puerperarum est omnium
fraus, ne qua furtim subtrahat
prolem virilis indolis.” }[1]

Women in the ancient world strove to save the boys. They failed:

Therefore the executioner,
crazed, sword drawn,
stabs the new-born bodies,
gashes the baby lives.

The killer can hardly find
space in the tiny limbs
for the cutting stab to penetrate,
the dagger is bigger than the throat.

O savage sight! A head
dashed on the stones
scatters the milk-white brains,
vomits the eyes from the wound.

Or a quivering infant is thrown
into the depths of the stream,
down there, his tiny throat gasps,
water with breath chokes him.

{ Transfigit ergo carnifex
mucrone destricto furens
effusa nuper corpora,
animasque rimatur novas.

Locum minutis artubus
vix interemptor invenit,
quo plaga descendat patens
iuguloque maior pugio est.

O barbarum spectaculum!
inlisa cervix cautibus
spargit cerebrum lacteum
oculosque per vulnus vomit.

Aut in profundum palpitans
mersatur infans gurgitem,
cui subter artis faucibus
singultat unda et halitus. }

A few decades later, the learned Roman poet Sedulius, writing in epic meter, invoked a simile before going on to describe the slaughter of boys and their mothers’ grief:

Groaning over the criminal deed snatched from him, like a voracious lion
from whose mouth a tender lamb suddenly slips free,
and who then launches an assault on the entire flock and mauls and rends
the soft animals, as the new mothers all trembling call for
their offspring in vain and fill the empty breezes with their bleatings,
even so Herod was provoked because Christ had been taken away from him,
and he kept on dashing to the ground and slaying masses of infants,
fierce in his unwarranted murder. …
Killing them at their first cries and daring to
perpetrate wickedness beyond number, he slaughtered boys
by the thousands and give a single lament to many mothers.
This one tore out her mangled hair from her bare scalp,
that one scored her cheeks. Another beat her bared breast with fists.
One unhappy mother, now a mother no longer,
bereft, pressed her breast to her son’s cold mouth — in vain.

{ Ereptumque gemens facinus sibi, ceu leo frendens,
Cuius ab ore tener subito cum labitur agnus,
In totum movet arma gregem manditque trahitque
Molle pecus — trepidaeque vocant sua pignera fetae
Nequiquam et vacuas implent balatibus auras —
Haut secus Herodes Christo stimulatus adempto
Sternere conlisas paruorum strage catervas
Inmerito non cessat atrox. …
primosque necans vagitus et audens
Innumerum patrare nefas puerilia mactat
Milia plangoremque dedit tot matribus unum.
Haec laceros crines nudato vertice rupit,
Illa genas secuit, nudum ferit altera pugnis
Pectus et infelix mater (nec iam modo mater)
Orba super gelidum frustra premit ubera natum. }[2]

This massacre was a brutal gendercide of boys. Like calling the massacre of the men of Shechem “the rape of Dinah,” calling Herod’s massacre of innocent boys “the Massacre of the Innocents” misrepresents the actual gender structure of violence.

horse's ass and soldier pissing

In 1611, the enormously influential King James translation of the Gospel of Matthew obscured gender in this massacre of innocent boys. The King James Bible told of Herod ordering the massacre of “children”:

Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men.

{ tunc Herodes videns quoniam inlusus esset a magis iratus est valde et mittens occidit omnes pueros qui erant in Bethleem et in omnibus finibus eius a bimatu et infra secundum tempus quod exquisierat a magis

τότε Ἡρῴδης ἰδὼν ὅτι ἐνεπαίχθη ὑπὸ τῶν μάγων ἐθυμώθη λίαν καὶ ἀποστείλας ἀνεῖλεν πάντας τοὺς παῖδας τοὺς ἐν Βηθλέεμ καὶ ἐν πᾶσι τοῖς ὁρίοις αὐτῆς ἀπὸ διετοῦς καὶ κατωτέρω κατὰ τὸν χρόνον ὃν ἠκρίβωσεν παρὰ τῶν μάγων }[3]

The underlying Greek word for those killed is the accusative plural for the substantive παῖς, which is cognate with the Latin puer. Both those words predominately imply “boy.” Moreover, Matthew almost surely was addressed to Jews pondering the significance of Jesus. A genealogy begins Matthew and roots Jesus in Jewish history. That genealogy lists Jacob as the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Joseph led Jesus and Mary into Egypt to save Jesus from Herod’s massacre. For Jews, Herod’s massacre and Joseph going to Egypt would have evoked the Pharaoh’s government and the Pharaoh’s order to the Hebrew midwives and then to all his people to kill all newly born Hebrew boys:

When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, she shall live.

Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live. [4]

{ וַיֹּאמֶר בְּיַלֶּדְכֶן אֶת־הָֽעִבְרִיֹּות וּרְאִיתֶן
עַל־הָאָבְנָיִם אִם־בֵּן הוּא וַהֲמִתֶּן אֹתֹו
וְאִם־בַּת הִיא וָחָֽיָה

וַיְצַ֣ו פַּרְעֹ֔ה לְכָל־עַמֹּ֖ו לֵאמֹ֑ר כָּל־הַבֵּ֣ן הַיִּלֹּ֗וד הַיְאֹ֨רָה֙
תַּשְׁלִיכֻ֔הוּ וְכָל־הַבַּ֖ת תְּחַיּֽוּן׃ ס }

A Jewish Christian writing Matthew would regard Jesus as the fulfillment of Hebrew scripture. Joseph taking Jesus into Egypt to escape Herod’s massacre would have been understood as paralleling Moses escape from the Pharaoh’s massacre of Hebrew boys and the Jewish people’s flight from Egypt. The learned Roman authors Prudentius, Sedulius, and Macrobius understood Herod’s massacre to have targeted boys.[5] Both linguistic and contextual evidence convincingly indicates that Matthew described Herod ordering gendercide. According to the best reading of Matthew, Herod ordered a massacre of innocent boys.[6]

Prior to the more repressive gynocentrism of the modern era, medieval authorities openly acknowledged the gynocentrism of Christian society. Writing about 885, Notker of St. Gall composed a poignant interior monologue for the eminent Jewish woman Rachel. She was the beloved wife of Jacob (Israel) and the mother of Joseph and Benjamin. Notker apparently thought deeply about Matthew’s description of Herod’s massacre of innocent boys:

Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.”

{ τότε ἐπληρώθη τὸ ῥηθὲν διὰ Ἰερεμίου τοῦ προφήτου λέγοντος: φωνὴ ἐν Ῥαμὰ ἠκούσθη κλαυθμὸς καὶ ὀδυρμὸς πολύς Ῥαχὴλ κλαίουσα τὰ τέκνα αὐτῆς καὶ οὐκ ἤθελεν παρακληθῆναι ὅτι οὐκ εἰσίν }[7]

Here Rachel is weeping for “children,” as represented by the accusative plural for the substantive τέκνον. The central meaning of that word is child, irrespective of sex. Rachel herself, however, didn’t give birth to any female children. The prophet Jeremiah, whom Matthew cited, invoked Rachel more abstractly as the mother of the children of Israel. Jeremiah chided Rachel for her weeping. He prophesied that a day would come when a woman would protect a man:

How long will you waver, O faithless daughter? For the Lord has created a new thing on the earth: woman protects man. [8]

{ עַד־מָתַי֙ תִּתְחַמָּקִ֔ין הַבַּ֖ת הַשֹּֽׁובֵבָ֑ה כִּֽי־בָרָ֨א יְהוָ֤ה
חֲדָשָׁה֙ בָּאָ֔רֶץ נְקֵבָ֖ה תְּסֹ֥ובֵֽב גָּֽבֶר׃ ס }

Women must not merely weep in sorrow for themselves. Women must do more to save men’s lives and to prevent wars.

In his sequence entitled “A virgin crying about a martyr {De uno martyre virgo plorans},” Notker depicted Rachel’s extraordinary concern for miserable men. Notker’s sequence begins:

Why do you, virgin

mother, cry,
lovely Rachel
whose face
delights Jacob?

As if your little sister’s
moistened eyes would please him!

Wipe dry, mother,
your flowing eyes.
How could be worthy of you
water-cracked cheeks?

{ Quid tu, virgo

mater, ploras,
Rachel formosa,
Cuius vultus
Jacob delectat?

Ceu sororis aniculae
Lippitudo eum iuvet!

Terge, mater,
fluentes oculos.
Quam te decent
genarum rimulae? }[9]

The reference to Rachel as a virgin mother associates her across time with the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. Rachel competed successfully with her sister Leah for Jacob’s heart-felt love. Yet in this sequence, Rachel displays the insecurity of a woman appreciating the importance of woman’s beauty to men. So incomprehensible in today’s thinking, Rachel sought to please her man’s gaze, and she was concerned to retain his affection.

Another voice within Rachel’s self-consciousness speaks differently. That voice laments to herself:

Alas, alas, alas,
why do you accuse me
of having shed tears in vain?
Now I am without
my son, who in my poverty
alone would have cared for me.

He would not yield to the enemy
the paltry territory
which for me
Jacob had acquired.
His stupid brothers —
the many, sad to say,
that I have brought forth —
he would have helped.

{ Heu, heu, heu,
quid me incusatis fletus
incassum fudisse.
Cum sim orbata
nato, paupertatem meam
qui solus curaret,

Qui non hostibus cederet
angustos terminos,
quos mihi
Jacob adquisivit;
Quique stolidis fratribus,
quos multos, pro dolor,
esset profuturus. }[10]

The son that Rachel has lost could be literally only Joseph. His brothers faked his death and sold him into slavery. Joseph’s father Jacob mourned Joseph’s apparent death for many days. Rachel herself died in giving birth to Benjamin. Just as Rachel being virgin mother collapses time and person, so too does Rachel lamenting the loss of her son.[11] Christians interpreted Rachel’s son Joseph as a figure of Jesus. They understood Rachel as a figure of the Christian church. In Christian understanding, the Christian church possesses the heritage of Jacob and the Jews. Joseph’s stupid brothers are both those who sold him into slavery and mass of men in the Christian church.

In Notker’s Rachel sequence, why are most Christian men represented as stupid? Many Christian men and women throughout history haven’t recognized that the Christian church is female as a figure and gynocentric in its pragmatic orientation. Men must actively affirm the goodness of their masculinity and cherish their masculine fruitfulness. Passive and apathetic in relation to women’s dominance, most men today don’t even question current female supremacist dogma that the future is female. These men are stupid. Men throughout history have been stupid in similar ways.

Another voice within Rachel’s self-consciousness recognizes Jesus’s love and concern for men. Rachel laments the loss of her son in part out of typical womanly self-concern: what man will provide me with money? But she also recognizes men’s need for help. She questions herself:

Are tears to be shed for him
who possesses the heavenly kingdom,
who with frequent prayers
for his miserable brothers
intercedes before God?

{ Numquid flendus est iste,
qui regnum possedit caeleste
quique prece frequenti
miseris fratribus
apud deum auxiliatur? }[12]

Rachel understood the misery of men enduring earthly gynocentrism. Yet miserable men have reason for hope. Rachel as the virgin mother Mary, and Rachel as the church, both have as son Jesus. Jesus loves men as well as women. The fully masculine man Jesus brings miserable men’s plight before God in heaven. Men need only wonder: how long, Lord, how long?

Like the Massacre of the Innocent Boys, deaths of boys and men typically pass without particular notice. The issue isn’t just modern philology’s gender trouble. The lives of boys and men are gynocentrically devalued. Like earlier poetry, Notker of St. Gall’s brilliant ninth-century Rachel sequence, “De uno martyre virgo plorans,” recognized that the Massacre of the Innocents was the massacre of innocent boys. Moreover, Notker’s Rachel shows that Christian gynocentrism can encompass concern for miserable men. Women and men today must develop this medieval Rachel’s breadth of emotional life.

Sedulius, Massacre of the Innocents - Boys

Alas, tender, newly born boys, we see how your limbs have been mangled!
Alas, sweet young boys, murdered in a single frenzied attack!
Alas, one whom neither piety nor your early age restrained.
Alas, wretched mothers, we who are compelled to see this.
Alas, what do we do now, why do we not submit to these deeds?
Alas, because no joys can ease our memories and sorrow,
for our sweet little boys are gone!

{ Heu, teneri partus, laceros quos cernimus artus!
Heu, dulces nati, sola rabie jugulati!
Heu, quem nec pietas nec vestra coercuit aetas.
Heu, matres miserae, quae cogimur ista videre.
Heu, quid nunc agimus cur non haec facta subimus?
Heu, quia memores nostrosque levare dolores
Gaudia non possunt, nam dulcia pinora desunt! }[13]

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Prudentius, Book of the Daily Round {Liber Cathemerinon}, 12 “Hymn for Epiphany {Hymnus epiphaniae},” vv. 97-108 (st. 25-7), Latin text and English translation (adapted slightly) from O’Daly (2012) pp. 357-60. The subsequent quote above is similarly from “Hymnus epiphaniae” vv. 109-24 (st. 28-31). Here are Latin reading notes for these passages. Here’s the translation of these passages from Thomson (1949) vol. 1. Both Pope (1905) and Thomson (1949), vol. 1, provide freely accessible text and translation of Liber Cathemerinon.

Prudentius lived on the Iberian Pennisula and worked as a Roman government official until about 390 GC. He then retired and began writing poetry. He distributed his collected poems in 405. Prudentius wrote in the high tradition of Augustan Latin poetry, yet recast his sources to reflect a “cosmic Christian vision.” McKelvie (2010).

A few decades later, Caelius Sedulius may have responded to the fear of Prudentius’s Herod:

Impious Herod, stranger,
what is to fear with Christ to come?
He takes away no earthly realms,
he who gives the heavenly crown.

{ Hostis Herodes impie,
Christum venire quid times?
Non eripit mortalia,
Qui regna dat celestia. }

Sedulius, “From the pivot of the sun’s rising {A solis ortus cardine},” vv. 29-32, Latin text from the Latin Library, my English translation. These verses now begin a portion of Sedulius’s poem used at Vespers for Epiphany. Michael Martin’s Treasury of Latin Prayers {Thesaurus Precum Latinarum} provides for Hostis Herodes impie a Latin text and an English translation by J.M. Neale, and similarly for an truncated version of A solis ortus cardine.”

[2] Caelius Sedulius, Easter Song {Carmen paschale} 2.110-17, 120-26, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Springer (2013) pp. 52-3. Sedulius (not to be confused with the ninth-century Latin poet Sedulius Scottus) apparently wrote Carmen paschale between 425 and 450 GC. On Latin biblical epics, Green (2006) and McBrine (2017).

[3] Matthew 2:16. The biblical texts are via Blue Letter Bible. Subsequent biblical texts are similarly sourced. The Greek text is from the Morphological Greek New Testament (MGNT). The Latin text is from Jerome’s Vulgate. Herod’s massacre is widely called the “Massacre / Slaughter of the Innocents” or the “Massacre / Slaughter of the Holy Innocents.” Even as learned a philologist as Jan Ziolkowski wrote:

the event in the Gospel that instigates it {the citation of Jeremiah 31:15} is the Slaughter of the Innocents (Matthew 2. 16) — the killing, at Herod’s order, of all children in the environs of Bethlehem who were two years or younger. … Herod decided to execute the infants of Bethlehem directly as a result of the Adoration of the Magi (Matthew 2. 16–18) … Christian responses to the Massacre of the Innocents reflect the Christian ambivalence about the death of children.

Ziolkowski (2010) pp. 94-5.

[4] Exodus 1:16, 22. The Hebrew text is from the Westminster Leningrad Codex.

[5] On Prudentius and Sedulius, see quotes previously above. Writing about 400 GC, Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius (Macrobius) reported:

When he {Emperor Augustus} heard that among the boys in Syria under two years old who Herod, king of the Jews, had ordered to be killed, Herod’s own son was also killed, Augustus said: “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son.”

{ Cum audisset inter pueros quos in Syria Herodes rex Iudaeorum intra bimatum iussit interfici filium quoque eius occisum, ait: Melius est Herodis porcum esse quam filium. }

Macrobius, Saturnalia 2.4.11, Latin text of Ludwig von Jan (1852) via LacusCurtius, my English translation, benefiting from various publicly available ones. Jewish law regards pigs as unclean animals. Jews therefore shouldn’t slaughter a pig. MGV Hoffman notes that the jest encodes a pun in Greek: “hus / ὑς means pig and huios / υἱος means son.”

Jests are commonly attributed falsely to prominent figures. Emperor Augustus probably never uttered this jest. Moreover, he almost surely didn’t know Greek. Given the jest’s significant Greek pun, most likely it was originally formulated in Greek. It evidently circulated broadly enough to cross into Latin. While a matter of contentious argument, in my view no convincing evidence has been put forward to establish whether the jest independently attests to Herod’s massacre of innocent boys.

[6] Most modern biblical translations of Matthew 2:16 into English represent Herod ordering a massacre of “male children.”  See here a variety of translations. The New Revised Standard Version, first published in 1990, retains the gender-obscuring translation “children.” In a preface to the Catholic version of the New Revised Standard Version, Alexander A. Di Lella, Professor of Biblical Studies at The Catholic University of America, stated that this translation “offers the fruits of the best biblical scholarship in the idiom of today while being sensitive to the contemporary concern for inclusive language when referring to human beings.” Biblical scholarship must honestly address contemporary gender trouble.

Medieval drama more clearly indicated that the slaughtered persons were all boys. The Fleury Playbook, written c. 1200, titles the relevant drama For the slaughter of the boys {Ad interfectionem puerorum}. Herod’s “man-at-arms {armiger}” proposed:

Determine, my lord to vindicate your wrath, and with sword’s point unsheathed, order that the boys be slain. Perhaps among the slain Christ himself will be killed.

{ Discerne, Domine, vindicare iram tuam et stricto mucrone jube occidi pueros; forte inter occisos occidetur et Christus. }

Herod responded:

My excellent man-at-arms, cause the boys to perish by the sword.

{ Armiger eximie, pueros fac ense perire. }

Ad interfectionem puerorum, ll. 14-5, Latin text and English translation from Bevington (1975) p. 69.

[7] Matthew 2:18, which quotes Jeremiah 31:15. After the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, Jewish captives were transported to Ramah on their way to exile in Babylon. Jeremiah 40:1. Rachel was the foremother of the Jewish tribe of Benjamin, as well as of Ephraim and Manasseh of the house of Joseph.

[8] Jeremiah 31:22. Philologists are uncertain about the meaning of the concluding clause. Among a variety of English translations is “a woman shall encompass a man.” That translation can also be interpreted as a woman protecting a man. The New American Bible, Revised Edition (released in 2011) comments:

No satisfactory explanation has been given for this text. Jerome, for example, saw the image as a reference to the infant Jesus enclosed in Mary’s womb. Since Jeremiah often uses marital imagery in his description of a restored Israel, the phrase may refer to a wedding custom, perhaps women circling the groom in a dance. It may also be a metaphor describing the security of a new Israel, a security so complete that it defies the imagination and must be expressed as hyperbolic role reversal: any danger will be so insignificant that women can protect their men.

The concluding reference to insignificant danger shows sexist ignorance. Men and women currently face very significant danger. Women could play a vital role in protecting men from society-destroying gynocentric oppression and contempt for men.

[9] Notker of St. Gall, also know as Notker the Stammerer {Notcerus Balbulus}, “A virgin crying about a martyr {De uno martyre virgo plorans},” Latin text from Godman (1985) pp. 320-3 (with some minor changes to the editorial punctuation), my English translation, benefiting from those of id. and Dronke (1994) p. xxix. Subsequent quotes from “De uno martyre virgo ploransare similarly sourced and cover all of this sequence. Godman described this sequence as a “dramatic interior monologue.” Godman (1985) p. 68. I follow that interpretation above.

Notker wrote this sequence about 885 and included it in his Liber ymnorum {Book of Hymns}. It has survived in 35 manuscripts. For a manuscript list, Yearley (1983) vol. 2, pp. 44-5 (lyric L134). Notker composed “De uno martyre virgo plorans” to the melody (he wrote it as a contrafactum) for his earlier Easter sequence “This is the holy solemnity of solemnities {Haec est sancta solemnitas solemnitatum}.” That melody was re-used in many subsequent songs and became known as the “virgin weeps {virgo plorans}” melody. On the musical characteristics of Notker’s lament and subsequent laments of Rachel, Yearley (1983) vol. 1, pp. 94-5, 269-75, and Stevens (1986) pp. 351ff.

A performance of “De uno martyre virgo plorans” by Gérard Le Vot et al. from the album Ultima Lacrima, Sacred Chants of the Middle Ages 9th-13th centuries (Studio S.M., 1997) is freely available on YouTube. This sequence seems to me quite difficult to perform well. Here’s a rather different performance of Haec est sancta solemnitas directed by Jón Stefánsson in 2015.

Notker’s Rachel sequence contributed to early liturgical drama. Ordo Rachelis, a late-eleventh-century play in a lectionary from the cathedral of Freising (Munich, Staatsbibl. MS S Lat. 6264) incorporated Notker’s “Quid tu virgo” as concluding dialogue between Rachel and a consoler. The late-twelfth-century Fleury Playbook (Orléans, Bibliothèque Municipale MS. 201) similarly incorporates “Quid tu virgo” in its play Interfectio Puerorum {The Massacre of the Boys}. With respect to the Freising and Fleury Rachel laments, Boynton observed:

“Quid tu virgo” is the structural basis of the lament, providing typological, allegorical, and tropological readings of Rachel that are complemented by the literal interpretation in leonine hexameters added before the sequence.

Boynton (2004) p. 326. Other dramatic Rachel laments are the eleventh-century Lamentatio Rachelis from Saint-Martial at Limoges (Paris, BnF lat. 1139), a lengthy part of a twelfth-century Epiphany play from the cathedral at Laon (in troper Laon 263), and Rachel’s dramatic lament incorporated into a twelfth-century Magi play (Paris, Bibliothèque Mazarine, 1712). For relevant discussion, id. pp. 320-7. On laments for lost children in Latin generally, Ziolkowski (2010).

[10] Notker wrote “De uno martyre virgo plorans” for the feast day of a martyr. For the Feast of the Holy Innocent Boys, Notker wrote the sequence “Praise to you Christ, who tastes goodness {Laus tibi Christe cui sapit}.” The speaking voice of that sequence triumphantly declares:

The fresh and tender
by Herod’s sword, preached
you today.

{ Recentes atque teneri
Herodiano ense
trucidati, te hodie
praedicaverunt }

St. 3a, Latin text and English translation from Kovács (2017) p. 203*.

[11] Notker’s sense of time’s unity is similar to that which Prudentius presents in Christ:

Born of the Father’s life before the world began,
called Alpha and Ω, the source and the ending
of everything that is, and was, and shall be in the future.

{ corde natus ex parentis ante mundi exordium,
alfa et Ω cognominatus, ipse fons et clausula
omnium quae sunt, fuerunt, quaeque post futura sunt. }

Prudentius, Book of the Daily Round {Liber Cathemerinon}, 9 “Hymn for Every Hour {Hymnus omnis horae},” vv. 12-14 (st.4), Latin text and English translation from O’Daly (2012) pp. 252-3. Cf. Revelation 1:8, 21:6; Virgil, Georgics 4.392-3; Homer, Iliad 1.70. This poem ends:

Let the flowing river waters, the seashores,
rain, heat, snow, frost, wood and wind, night and day,
praise you, all together, for ever and ever!

{ fluminum lapsus et undae, littorum crepidines,
imber, aestus, nix, pruina, silva et aura, nox, dies,
omnibus te concelebrent saeculorum saeculis. }

Id. vv. 111-3 (st. 38), sourced as previously. The modern hymn “Of the Father’s Heart Begotten {Corde natus ex parentis}” is based on Prudentius’s “Hymnus omnis horae.” O’Daly explains that, in context, “life” is a better translation of corde than is “heart.” Id. p. 264.

[12] The martyr who possesses the heavenly kingdom seems to be Joseph / Christ. In “Laus tibi Christe cui sapit,” that Notker wrote for the Feast of the Holy Innocent Boys, the boys together pray to Christ:

Dear little sons,
sweet little boys,
help us with your prayers,
which may Christ gently listen to,
feeling pity for your
innocent death hastened
for his own sake;
may he deem us worthy of his kingdom.

{ Clari filioli,
dulces pusioli,
Nos iuvate precibus,
Quas Christus, innocentem
mortem vestram miserans
Pro sese maturatam,
placidus exaudiens
Nos regno suo dignetur. }

St. 7b-10, Latin text and English translation from Kovács (2017) p. 204. This sequence doesn’t represent the men of the church as being stupid. Scholars regard Notker’s Rachel sequence as poetically superior to this sequence.

[13] Fleury Playbook, For the slaughter of the boys {Ad interfectionem puerorum}, ll. 21-6, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Bevington (1975) pp. 69-70.

[images] (1) The Massacre of the Innocent Boys. Illumination from Codex Egberti, Fol 15v. The Codex Egberti was produced in the Reichenau Monastery for Egbert, who was Bishop of Trier from 980 to 993. Preserved at Stadtbibliothek Trier, Germany. Source image via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Horse’s ass and soldier pissing. Detail from painting of the Massacre of the Innocent Boys by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Painted between 1565 and 1567. Preserved as accession # RCIN 405787 in Royal Collection, Windsor Castle, London. Via Wikimedia Commons. Sometime between 1604 and 1621, parts of the painting were painted over to make the painting depict a general scene of plunder, rather than a massacre of innocent boys. At the far left in the doorway of the brick house, the child being dragged away is clearly a boy. (3) Illumination (color enhanced) of the Massacre of the Holy Innocent Boys in Sedulius’s Carmen paschale. From folio 16r of a manuscript made in 860 in a Liège scriptorium. Preserved in Antwerp, Belgium, as Museum Plantin-Moretus  M 17.4. This manuscript apparently is a copy of a manuscript made for Cuthwine, Bishop of Dunwich (in Suffolk, England), sometime between 716 and 731.


Bevington, David M. 1975. Medieval Drama. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Boynton, Susan. 2004. “From the Lament of Rachel to the Lament of Mary: A Transformation in the History of Drama and Spirituality.” Pp. 319-40 in Petersen, Nils Holger. Signs of Change: transformations of Christian traditions and their representation in the arts, 1000-2000. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Dronke, Peter. 1994. Nine Medieval Latin Plays. Cambridge Medieval Classics, 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (review by James Whitta)

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

Green, Roger P. H. 2006. Latin Epics of the New Testament: Juvencus, Sedulius, Arator. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kovács, Andrea. 2017. Monuments of Medieval Liturgical Poetry in Hungary: sequences; critical edition of melodies. Musica sacra Hungarica (English ed.), 1. Budapest: Argumentum Publishing House.

McBrine, Patrick. 2017. Biblical Epics in Late Antiquity and Anglo-Saxon England: divina in laude voluntas. Toronto Anglo-Saxon series, 27. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

McKelvie, Christopher Gordon. 2010. The Cosmic Christian Vision of Prudentius’ Liber Cathemerinon, and the Inculturation of Augustan Vatic Poetry. M.A. Thesis. Halifax: Dalhousie University.

O’Daly, Gerard J. P. 2012. Days Linked by Song: Prudentius’ Cathemerinon. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pope, R. Matin, trans. 1895. The Hymns of Prudentius. London: J.M. Dent.

Springer, Carl P. E., ed. and trans. 2013. Sedulius. The Paschal Song and Hymns. Writings from the Greco-Roman world, v. 35. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.

Stevens, John E. 1986. Words and Music in the Middle Ages: song, narrative, dance and drama, 1050-1350. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (review by Hans Tischler)

Thomson, Henry John, ed. and trans. 1949. Prudentius. Loeb Classical Library 387, 398. Vol. 1, Vol. 2. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Yearley, Janthia. 1983. The Medieval Latin Planctus as a Genre. Ph.D. Thesis. University of York.

Ziolkoswki, Jan M. 2010. “Laments for Lost Children: Latin Traditions.” Pp. 81-107 in Tolmie, Jane and M. J. Toswell, M. J., eds. Laments for the Lost in Medieval Literature. Turnhout: Brepols.

2 thoughts on “holy mother Rachel weeping for the massacre of innocents: boys”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current month ye@r day *