aspects of women’s privilege in the Old French jeu-parti

battle at medieval castle of love

In northern France in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, men and women poet-singers known as trouvères composed lyric debates. This type of song, called the jeu-parti, involved two voices defending in alternate stanzas alternate responses to a question set out for debate in the first stanza.[1] Jeux-partis involving women trouvères depict significant aspects of women’s privilege in medieval France.

Like most women today, women trouvères in medieval France rarely assumed the emotional risk of soliciting an amorous relationship. A jeu-parti between Dame Margot and Dame Marote debates a case involving a woman and man who love each other dearly. The man dares not declare his desire to the women. The debate question is whether the woman should assume a man’s typical burden and declare her love to him. Dame Margot argues against the woman taking the initiative to establish an amorous relationship. Dame Marote argues for the woman taking the initiative.

In their arguments, both Dame Margot and Dame Marote recognize women’s privilege in relation to men. Dame Marote declares that “she should not be proud {pas ne doit cele estre fiere},” as if a woman telling a man that she loves him in some way injures her pride and lowers her worth. Dame Margot counters Dame Marote’s position, but confirms women’s privilege:

You are not heading the right way,
Dame Marote, I believe.
A lady makes a grave mistake in courting
her beloved first. Why
should she thus demean herself?
If he lacks courage,
I do not think it proper
that she should then solicit his love.
She should rather conceal her feelings
and suffer love’s pains
without ever disclosing them,
because a woman should have such high merit
that no word would come from her
that could diminish her worth.

{ Vous n’ales pa droite voie,
Dame Marote, je croi.
Trop mesprent dame ki proie
Son ami avant. Pour koi
S’aveilleroit elle si?
Se cil a le cuer falli,
Ne di jou pas k’il afiere
Por ce k’ele le reqiere,
Ains s’en doit chovrir
Et les fais d’Amours soufrir
Sans ja fiare percevoir;
Kar feme doit tant valoir
Que n’en doit parole issir
Ki son pris puist amenrir. } [2]

Underscoring that women equally sharing men’s burdens is inconceivable to gynocentric reason, Dame Marote argues that true love should make a woman act insane. While a sane woman would retain women’s privilege, a woman insane with love would take the initiative to solicit an amorous relationship. Dame Marote concludes:

Better it is to live in joy
for having pleaded than now to languish
for having been silent and then die.

{ Miex vient en joie manoir
Par proier q’adés langir
Par trop taire et puis morir. }

Dame Marote’s point seems indisputable. Yet many women today would rather be coerced into a having an abortion or even die rather than relinquish their gynocentric privilege.

Another jeu-parti between two women trouvères debates women’s preference regarding how men bear the burden of soliciting an amorous relationship. In this case, two knights both love one woman. One knight seeks to communicate his love through the woman’s friends. The other declares his love to her directly. According to women’s preference, which knight behaves better? One woman trouvère argues that a man who directly declares his love to her would make her seem shameful and weak. The other woman trouvère disputes that claim:

Sister, you are in error,
of that I do not doubt in the least.
When this one tenderly
humbles himself before you
and requests your loyalty,
you feel contempt for him.

{ Suer, vous estes en errout,
Je ne m’an dout mie.
Cant celui par sa dousor
Ver vous s’umelie
Et vos requiert loialteit,
Vos lou teneis an vitei. } [3]

As if that would justify him soliciting her love, the man humbles himself before the woman. In actuality, if he approached her as an arrogant jerk, she would more likely feel her loins tingle. Men must be learned enough to reject women’s privilege in prescribing how men should behave.

Women’s privilege prompts women to look down on men as if men were inferior human beings afflicted with “toxic masculinity.” A jeu-parti between two women trouvères debates whether a woman should allow a man to declare his love to her. One woman trouvère proposes listening to the man. College administrators evaluating sexual assault charges today generally reject the practice of listening to an accused man. But this medieval woman argues:

By listening to him you will be able to decide
if it pleases you to accept him or refuse him,
and you will know if he speaks wisely or foolishly.

{ Qu’en lui oiant porrez vous bien eslire
Se il vous plaist l’otroi ou le desdire,
Et si savrez s’il dist sens our folour. } [4]

What could be wrong with listening to a man? At least with respect to men, everyone isn’t required to listen and believe. Yet the other woman trouvère vehemently argues against even just listening to a man:

a woman should really not
listen to a man; she should rather fear
being seduced by the words she hears.
For men are consummate flatterers
and their arguments they so beautifully describe
that simply by listening to them she could well agree
to something that would quickly dishonor her.

{ fame ne doit mie
Home escouter, ains doit avoit paour
Qu’ele ne soit a l’oir engignie,
Quar home sont trop grant losengeour
Et leur raisons sevent tant bel descrire
Qu’en eulz oiant puet a cele souffire
Chose dont tost cherroit en deshonour. }

For women’s safety men must not be allowed to speak. That such ridiculous claims about women’s safety are taken seriously exemplifies women’s privilege.

Medieval scholars have recognized that these women-exclusive jeux-partis closely engage relational reality. One eminent medieval scholar observed:

it is the practical, level-headed outlook of both {women} speakers, calculating the respective roles of the emotions and social niceties, which is notable. Even if these debates are about questions of love, they are not romantic, or erotic, lyrics. … The jeux-partis were among the games devised for that {mixed-sex castle} hall, diverstissements of a society that thought such topics up in order to amuse as well as wittily to provoke. Yet the range and subtlety of emotion and argument that we glimpse in some of the debates involving women suggest something more. Here were poets who, even if they lived lightly — at least in the imagination — could also reflect searchingly. [5]

One doesn’t need to reflect searchingly to recognize women’s privilege in the jeux-partis involving women. Two knights seek one woman’s love. One is rich and worthy, the other is wise and worthy. Which man should the woman choose? A woman again has the choice of two knights. One extensively offers his warrior skills in knightly combat. The other generously shares his money and goods. Which man should the woman choose? Between an arrogant knight and a quarrelsome knight, which man should a woman choose?[6] Men’s choices are much more narrow than women’s choices. Men are burdened with responsibilities while women are privileged with choices.

At least medieval women recognized women’s privilege and men’s hardships. Regarding men’s sexual labor for women, one woman trouvère frankly observes:

You know full well that back pain sets in
that keeps old men from laboring as long.
Beyond the age of forty, he does nothing but decline;
he is then hardly suited to partake in pleasure.

{ You saveis bien ke li maus tient en rains,
Dont li vielars an sont ovriers dou moins;
Puis .xl. ans ne fait hons fors c’aleir,
Pou vaut on puis por deduit demeneir. } [7]

Men’s sexual service to women is a matter of life and death, yet it’s often undervalued, disparaged, and criminalized. Men deserve more choices in how they sexually serve women. Men deserve reproductive freedom. Women’s special privilege must end. Women and men must share equally privileges and hardships.[8]

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[1] Jeux-parti typically have six stanzas. The final stanza often appeals to an external judge for a decision regarding the winning position. For extensive discussion of the historical definition of jeu-parti, Mason (2018) Ch. 1. Debate poems in Old Occitan are known as tensos or partimens.

Trouvères composed and performed jeux-partis primarily in Arras in northern France in the thirteenth century. Arras was a center of commercial trade and artistic activity. The trouvères of Arras were associated with the literary academia Puy d’Arras. On Arras in relation to jeux-partis, Barker (2013) pp. 6-9, 52. About 175 jeux-partis have survived, 60% of which come from Arras. Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) p. 73  (total number 182), Barker (2013) p. 4 (total number 170), p. 52, n. 92 (Arras share 60%, citing Symes estimate).

Most surviving jeux-partis involve only men trouvères. Mason (2018) p. 298. Jeux-partis in which women trouvères participate as debaters have survived mainly in the Oxford Chansonnier (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 308), known by the siglum I.

Jeux-partis could be aggressive contests, but such symbolic violence has far different effects on human lives than does actual violence. In medieval Europe, elite men had a life expectancy nine years less than that of women. Medieval literature depicts horrific violence against men. The enormous masculine gender protrusion in suffering violent injury and death reflects in part women’s privilege.

Literary scholars have tended to ignore and trivialize the reality of violence against men. Mason’s thesis, for example, shows no awareness of the actual gendered facts about violent victimization. In accordance with prevailing academic fashion, Mason suggests violence against men is about misogyny and the exclusion of women:

In applying the metaphor of single combat to the jeu-parti, Jeanroy, Fiset and Nicod invoked the homosociality of combat prevalent in Europe before the First World War. The paradigm of the duel is demonstrably at work in the ‘footnote quarrels’ of German and French musicologists at the start of the twentieth century, whose blows and counterblows in their retaliatory publications and footnotes are reminiscent of verbal sparring. Jeanroy, Fiset and Nicod defined the jeu-parti as a combative, robustly masculine genre, in which poetic skill could be equated with bravura and violence. The misogyny of late romantic duellers could map neatly onto the subject of many dilemma questions in jeux-partis: how best to please one’s Lady. In defining the genre in this way, women were excluded as possible interlocutors and, as a result, the genre has since been treated as principally masculine.

Mason (2018) p. 54. Women, including during the First World War, have played a important role in promoting violence against men. Men and women scholars should show more love for men and less eagerness to please “the Lady.”

[2] Dame Margot & Dame Maroie, Jeu-parti, “I entreat you, Lady Maroie {Je vous pri, dame Maroie}” st. 3 (vv. 29-42), Old French text (Picard dialect) and English translation (with my modifications to follow the Old French more closely) from Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) p. 76. Within this jeu-parti, Dame Maroie is subsequently called Dame Marote. I use the latter name consistently above. The previous short quote above is similarly from v. 22; the subsequent quote above is vv. 82-4 (ending stanza 6 of 6). Here’s a performance of “Je vous pri, dame Maroie” by Musiktheater Dingo (2012).

Many women today have never contacted an man, expressed amorous interest in him, and invited him to dinner and evening entertainment, with the clear understanding that she would pay for the cost of the whole evening. Of course the man for a variety of reason might reject the woman’s proposal. Most men have many times had the experience of paying for dates and being romantically rejected. Today is long past the time for women to share that experience equally.

[3] Lorete & Suer, Jeu-parti, “Lorete, sister, in the name of love {Lorete, suer, par amor}” vv. 57-62 (from st. 5 of 5), Old French text (Lorraine dialect) and English translation (with my modifications) from Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) p. 80. This jeu-parti survives only in the Oxford Chansonnier. The 26 jeux-partis in that chansonnier have been dated to 1310. Barker (2013) p. 43.

[4] Sainte des Prez & Dame de la Chaucie, Jeu-parti, “What shall I do, Lady of Chaucie {Que ferai je, dame de la Chaucie},” vv. 12-4 (from st. 2 of 5), Old French text (Lorraine dialect) and English translation (with my modifications) from Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) p. 81. The subsequent quote above is similarly from id. vv. 15-21 (in st. 3).

The woman trouvère who opposes the man making known his love through the woman’s friends figures a man acting that way as being like Renart the Fox:

he is Renart the Fox,
who pursues his intrigue until he has seized his prey.

{ s’est Renars li Werpis,
Ke quiert ses tors tant ke il soit saixis. }

Id. vv. 64-5. The man trobairitz Pèire de Bossinhac in his song “Quan lo dous temps d’abril” uses Renart as a figure of being shrewdly vengeful. See note [7] in my post on medieval women’s strong, independent sexuality.

[5] Dronke (2007) pp. 330, 335. Dronke concludes with flattery for gynocentric authority:

And it certainly looks as if some of these poets — perhaps indeed, the most perceptive of them — were themselves women.

Id. p. 335. Similarly conforming to academic orthodoxy, Barker concludes her chapter on women’s desire with gynocentric panegyric: “these feminine voices are able to carve out space in which they resist the pressure to conform.” Barker (2013) p. 313.

[6] The four jeux-parti described in the above paragraph (in order of description above, with page citations in Quinby et al. (2001) are: Dame & Rolant de Reims, “Advise me, Rolant, I entreat you {Concilliés moi, Rolan, je vous an pri},” pp. 87-8; Dame & Rolant de Reims, “Dear lady, do respond {Douce dame, respondex},” pp. 89-1; Dame & Rolant de Reims, “Dear lady, I would gladly {Douce dame, volantiers},” pp. 92-4; and Dame & Perrot de Beaumarchais, “Dear lady, let this one be your call {Douce dame, ce soit en vos nomer},” pp. 97-8.

[7] Dame & Sire, Jeu-parti, “Tell me, lady, who has better discharged his debt {Dites, dame, li keilz s’aquitait muelz},” vv. 29-32 (from st. 4 of 5), Old French text (Lorraine dialect) and English translation (with my modifications) from Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) p. 104.

[8] The term “women’s privilege is preferable to “female privilege.” Infants in laughing, crying, pooping, sleeping, etc., typically do not act with gender privilege. Gender privilege emerges through human development. Brothers and sisters as children, however, can experience analogues of women’s privilege. Consider, for example, the childhood experience of U.S. politician Joe Biden:

According to Biden’s own words his sister regularly beat him in his childhood and adolescence. “And I have the bruises to prove it,” he said, at a senate hearing on violence against women, December 11, 1990. To make sure the audience knew this wasn’t a joke, he added, “I mean that sincerely. I am not exaggerating when I say that.”

In Biden’s brief tell-all, he acknowledged that the beatings he received were condoned and sanctioned by his parents, and that he was prevented from defending himself; That he was literally, in fact, powerless to make the abuse stop.

“In my house,” he stated, “being raised with a sister and three brothers, there was an absolute. It was a nuclear sanction, if under any circumstances, for any reason –even self defense– you ever touched your sister, not figuratively, literally.”

“My sister, who is my best friend, my campaign manager, my confidante,” he continued, “grew up with absolute impunity in our household.”

From Elam (2010). While such behavior should be a matter of serious social concern, “women’s privilege” seems to me nonetheless a more reasonable term than “female privilege.”

[image] Women occupying the castle of love from above assail men confined outside the castle and besieging it. Excerpt from design on a side panel of an elephant ivory coffret made in Paris between 1310 and 1330. Preserved as accession # 17.190.173a, b; 1988.16 in The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City, USA). Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917; The Cloisters Collection, 1988. Image derived from an image that the Metropolitan Museum has made available under a public spirited public domain dedication (CCO license).


Barker, Camilla. 2013. Dialogue and Dialectic in Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century Occitan and Old French Courtly Lyric and Narrative. Ph.D. Thesis, King’s College, London.

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)

Dronke, Peter. 2007. “Women’s Debates in Medieval French Lyric.” Ch. 18 (pp. 323-336) in Dronke, Peter. Forms and Imaginings: from antiquity to the fifteenth century. Roma: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura.

Elam, Paul. 2010. “VAWA — Corrupt Law and Joe Biden’s Abusive Sister.” A Voice For Men. Online.

Mason, Joseph W. 2018. Melodic Exchange and Musical Violence in the Thirteenth-Century jeu-parti. D. Phil. Thesis, Faculty of Music Lincoln College, Oxford.

medieval poetry on the horror of men absent and dying in war

After a battle in Ireland in 649, Créide, the daughter of the king of Aidne, lamented the killing of a man who had helped her father in the fight. She had fallen in love with this fallen warrior:

And they the arrows that murder sleep,
at every hour of the cold night,
are love-lamenting, for time spent with
him from beside the land of Roigne.

Tormented is my kindly heart,
holy Christ, by his grievous death —
and they the arrows that murder sleep,
at every hour of the cold night.

{ It é saigte gona súain,
cech trátha i n-aidchi adúair
serccoí, lia gnása, iar ndé
fir a tóeb thíre Roigne.

Cráidid mo chride cainech,
a Chríst cáid, a foraided;
It é saigte gona súain,
cech trátha i n-aidchi adúair. } [1]

This poem implicitly contrasts the warm joy of a woman sleeping with her beloved man to the horror of her sleeping with the cold nightmare of his grievous death. That nightmare envelops her imagination of loving him. Yet that nightmare had an underlying reality. His death was no violence-induced fantasy.

War historically has been almost exclusively structured as men killing other men. For most of history, most women have sincerely loved men and cared greatly about men’s deaths. Yet today, many men feel as if their lives don’t matter. Governments treat fathers as wallets and draft men as cannon fodder for senseless wars. Changing that oppressive, unequal gender structure begins with truthfully acknowledging a fundamental problem: the devaluation of men’s lives.

Men’s courage in battle shouldn’t be understood to devalue men’s lives. When the Christian Roman Emperor Louis the Pious died in 840, his sons contended with each other for succession to their father’s throne.[2] Efforts to settle their dispute peacefully failed. The brothers and their supporters then fought a brutal battle at Fontenoy on June 25, 841. That was a Saturday, “Saturn’s Day {Saturni dies}” in the Roman calendar. The poet Angelbert wrote:

I grieve, for it was not the Sabbath day, but Saturn’s day;
the wicked demon rejoices in the breaking of peace among brothers.

{ Sabbati non illud fuit, sed Saturni doleo,
de fraterna rupta pace gaudet demon impius. } [3]

Saturn was a traditional Greco-Roman god associated with castration culture and child sacrifices. Neither castration culture nor child sacrifices are consistent with the new creation of Christ.

Angelbert condemned the horrific violence against men in the battle at Fontenoy. He wasn’t a poet-moralist condemning from afar the ways of the world. He was a supporter of William the Pious’s eldest son Lothar. Angelbert fought on the front line at Fontenoy:

Fontenoy is what peasants call the water-spring and village
where Frankish blood was shed in slaughter and ruin.
Horror-stricken themselves are fields and woods and marshes.

May neither dew nor showers nor rain fall on that meadow
in which strong men, learned in battles, fell.
Father, brother, mother, sister, and friends wept for them.

And this finished crime, which I have described in verse,
I Angelbert myself witnessed, fighting with the others.
I alone remain of the many on the battle’s front line.

{ Fontaneto fontem dicunt, villam quoque rustice,
ubi strages et ruina Francorum de sanguine.
orrent campi, orrent silve, orrent ipsi paludes.

Gramen illud ros et ymber nec humectet pluvia,
in quo fortes ceciderunt, proelia doctissima,
pater, frater, mater, soror, quos amici fleverant.

Hoc autem scelus peractum, quod descripsi ritmice,
Angelbertus ego vidi pugnansque cum aliis
solus de multis remansi prima frontis acie. } [4]

In contrast to the civilized vitality of water-spring and village, even the basic elements of nature are horrified. Life-giving water should now refuse to infuse the earth.[5] Angelbert saw the field become white with the inner linen garments of men lying dead, their bodies sliced into pieces. Against the ancient epic tradition of battle poetry, Angelbert lamented the suffering and deaths of so many men:

The battle is not worthy of praise, nor of melodious song.
The rising, midday, setting, and darkening sun
should lament for those who died in that disaster.

Cursed be that day, may it not in the year’s circle
be counted, but eradicated from all memory,
not lit by the sun’s splendor, nor by dawn or dusk.

That night and subsequent day, a most terrible night,
that night mixed equally with lament and pain —
here they died, there they groaned in grave distress.

O grief and lamentation! Naked are the dead.
Vultures, crows, and wolves voraciously devour their flesh.
Horror-stricken, lacking burial, helplessly lies the corpse.

The weeping and the wailing I will not describe further.
Let each, as much as one can, restrain tears.
For their souls, let us pray to the Lord.

{ Laude pugna non est digna, nec cantu melodię,
oriens, meridianus, occidens et aquilo
plangant illos qui fuerunt illocasu mortui.

Maledicta dies illa, nec in annis circulo
numeretur, sed radatur ab omni memoria,
iubar solis nec illustret aurore crepusculum.

Nox et sequens diem illam, noxque dira nimium,
nox illa que planctu mixta et dolore pariter,
hic obit et ille gemit cum gravi penuria.

O luctum atque lamentum! Nudati sunt mortui.
Illorum carnes vultur, corvus, lupus vorant acriter;
orrent, carent sepulturis, vane iacet cadaver.

Ploratum et ululatum nec describo amplius,
unusquisque quantum potest restringatque lacrimas;
pro illorum animabus deprecemur Dominum. } [6]

For his lament, Angelbert adapted to rhythmic verse the marching meter that Venantius Fortunatus used in 570 for his triumphant hymn “Sing, tongue, the battle of glorious combat {Pange lingua gloriosi proelium certaminis}.” Moreover, in emphasizing that “most terrible night {noxque dira nimium},” Angelbert calls to mind in contrast the Exsultet of the Christian Easter Vigil:

This is the night
when our forefathers,
sons of Israel, you led out of Egypt,
with dry steeps you made them cross the Red Sea.

This is the night
when, having broken the chains of death,
Christ rose victorious from Hell.

O truly blessed night,
when earth and heaven,
human and divine, are joined.

{ Haec nox est,
in qua primum patres nostros,
filios Israel eductos de Aegypto,
Mare Rubrum sicco vestigio transire fecisti.

Haec nox est,
in qua, destructis vínculis mortis,
Christus ab ínferis victor ascendit.

O vere beata nox,
in qua terrenis caelestia,
humanis divina iunguntur. } [7]

From Angelbert’s perspective, the battle of Fontenoy was a disastrous failure of Christian society. He recognized the intrinsic value of men’s lives. Yet Angelbert didn’t directly challenge structures of gender oppression that devalue men’s lives. He concluded with a call for prayer to the Lord.

While some medieval women encouraged men to prove their prowess in deadly violence against men, other medieval women grieved that their beloved men went into battle, especially in far-away wars such as the crusades. Early in the thirteenth century, a woman trouvère probably sang:

I will sing for my heart
that I wish to comfort.
For despite my great distress
I do not wish to die or go mad
when from the savage land
I see no one return,
from where he is who calms
my heart, whenever I hear talk of him.

God, when they shout “Charge!”,
Lord, help the pilgrim
for whom I tremble,
because ruthless are the Saracens.

I will suffer in this state
until I see him come back.
He is on pilgrimage —
God grant that he may return!
And in spite of all my family
I do not seek reason to find
another to make a marriage.
Fools they are whom I hear talk of him.

God, when they shout “Charge!”,
Lord, help the pilgrim
for whom I tremble,
because ruthless are the Saracens.

For in my heart I grieve
that he is not in this land,
the one for whom I am so often tormented:
I have neither pleasure nor laughter.
He is handsome and I am nobly born.
Lord God, why have you done this?
When we desire one another,
why have you parted us?

God, when they shout “Charge!”,
Lord, help the pilgrim
for whom I tremble,
because ruthless are the Saracens.

{ Chanterai por mon corage
Que je vueill reconforter,
Car avec mon grant damage
Ne vueill morir n’afoler,
Quant de la terre sauvage
Ne voi nului retorner,
Ou cil est qui m’assoage
Le cuer, quant j’en oi parler.

Deus, quant crïeront “Outree,”
Sire, aidiez au pelerin
Por qui sui espöentee,
Car felon sunt Sarrazin.

Soufferai mon lonc estaige
Tant que.l voie rapasser.
Il est en pelerinage,
Dont Deus le lait retorner!
Et maugré tot mon lignage
Ne quier ochoison trover
D’autre face mariage;
Folz est qui j’en oi parler!

Deus, quant crïeront “Outree,”
Sire, aidiez au pelerin
Por qui sui espöentee,
Car felon sunt Sarrazin.

De ce sui au cuer dolente
Que cil n’est en cest païs
Qui si sovent me tormente:
Je n’en ai ne gieu ne ris.
Il est biaus et je sui gente.
Sire Deus, por que.l feïs?
Quant l’une a l’autre atalente,
Por coi nos as departis?

Deus, quant crïeront “Outree,”
Sire, aidiez au pelerin
Por qui sui espöentee,
Car felon sunt Sarrazin. } [8]

The woman trouvère’s song focuses on her own grief. It thus reflects the gynocentrism of medieval culture as a whole. Medieval mothers typically influenced strongly their children’s marriage decisions.[9] Despite such pressure to marry another, this woman remained loyal to her beloved man. She felt sensually connected to his body even while he was in battle far from her:

For this I faithfully wait,
that I have accepted his homage;
and when the sweet breeze blows
that comes from that sweet land
where he is whom I desire,
eagerly I turn my face to it.
Then it seems to me that I feel him
underneath my gray mantle.

God, when they shout “Charge!”,
Lord, help the pilgrim
for whom I tremble,
because ruthless are the Saracens.

For this I greatly regret,
that I was not in his departure parade.
The tunic he had worn
he sent to me to embrace.
At night, when his love spurs me,
I lay it down beside me,
all night against my naked skin,
to soothe my pain.

God, when they shout “Charge!”,
Lord, help the pilgrim
for whom I tremble,
because ruthless are the Saracens.

{ De ce sui en bone atente
Que je son homage pris;
Et quant la douce ore vente
Qui vient de cel douz païs
Ou cil est qui m’atalente,
Volentiers i tor mon vis;
Adont m’est vis que je.l sente
Par desoz mon mantel gris.

Deus, quant crïeront “Outree,”
Sire, aidiez au pelerin
por qui sui espöentee,
car felon sunt Sarrazin.

De ce sui mout decüe
Que ne fui au convoier;
Sa chemise qu’ot vestue
M’envoia por embracier:
La nuit, quant s’amor m’argue,
La met delez moi couchier
Mout estroit a ma char nue
Por mes malz assoagier.

Deus, quant crïeront “Outree,”
Sire, aidiez au pelerin
por qui sui espöentee,
car felon sunt Sarrazin. }

Men in their masculine bodily presence are wonderful gifts to women. What this woman felt from afar is a mere shadow of the pleasure she and her man would have felt together in person. Women must not merely lament the absence of beloved men. Women must act to make their men less exposed to violence.

Women haven’t done enough to protect men. With her beloved man suffering in the brutal crusade for Jerusalem, one woman trouvère early in the thirteenth century warned that she was close to getting angry with God:

Jerusalem, you do me great harm,
robbing me of the one I loved most of all!
Know in truth that I will no longer love you,
because he is what brings me the saddest joy.
And very often I sigh in anguish
so that I am very close to getting angry at God,
who has taken from me the great joy in which I lived.

{ Jherusalem, grant damage me fais
qui m’as tolu ce que je pluz amoie!
Sachiez de voir: ne vos amerai maiz
quar c’est la rienz dont j’ai pluz male joie!
Et bien sovent en souspir et pantais,
si qu’a bien pou que vers Deu ne m’irais,
qui m’a osté de grant joie ou j’estoie. } [10]

Threatened by men pursuing them, a woman in an early twelfth-century Irish poem urged her man to sleep. She promised to watch over him:

Sleep a little, just a little,
for there is little for you to fear,
O lad to whom I have given love,
son of Úa Duibne, Díarmait.

Sleep here soundly, soundly,
descendent of Duibne, noble Díarmait;
I shall watch over you the while
lovely son of Úa Duibne.

{ Cotail becán becán bec,
úair ní hecail duit a bec,
a gille día tardus seirc,
a meic uí Duibne, a Díarmait.

Cotailsi sunn go sáim sáim,
a uí Duibne, a Díarmait áin;
do-génsa t’foraire de,
a meic uí delbda Duibne. } [11]

As Walter made clear to Hildegund in the Waltherius, quality sleep is important to men. Yet women can’t be expected to be always with men, ready to keep watch so that their men can sleep peacefully. Moreover, if some mortal danger arises, the woman always keeping watch at night is likely to be too tired to fight effectively alongside of her man. Woman must take more radical action to save men’s lives.

Women today should unite in a mass uprising against sexist military draft registration. Despite having women generals, women fighter pilots, women Marines, and women fully integrated into the armed services, the U.S. still requires only men to register for being drafted under U.S. Selective Service. A U.S. District Court has declared that policy unconstitutional. The U.S. Selective Service System has ignored this court ruling. The U.S. Congress is too keen to pander to anti-men gender bigots and too busy with political theater simply to pass a law abolishing sexist Selective Service registration. Mass media directs its propaganda cannon at changing the gender composition of small, elite groups and ignores the gender composition of those at the bottom of society. Too many men have internalized the ideological gynocentric construction of their lives as being less valuable than women’s lives. Women must act to protect men’s interests and women’s own interests in men.

A country is more likely to engage in foolish wars if undervalued men vastly predominate among the soldiers dying in those wars. If women and men truly served equally in the military and died in roughly equal numbers in military service, a country would be much more reluctant to engage in wars. Women can best promote peace by insisting on gender equality in military service. Women must do more than merely lament their beloved men’s absences and deaths in war.

Selective Service sexist propaganda

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[1] “And they the arrows that murder sleep {It é saigte gona súain}” st. 1, 8 (of 8), Old Irish text and English translation (modified slightly) from Murphy (1956) p. 87. I’ve aligned the English translation lines with the Irish text. To follow the Irish, I’ve also made identical the first and last two lines in the English translation (using the translation of it é from Murphy’s glossary). Murphy dates this poem as c. 800. This lament is preserved in a single sixteenth-century manuscript, British Museum Harleian MS. 5280, f. 15b. Id. p. 212.

The preface to the poem explains that Créide, daughter of Gúaire of Aidne, fell in love with Dínertach, son of Gúaire of the Ui Fidgente only when she saw him mortally wounded in battle:

She had seen him in the battle of Aidne, in which he had been wounded with seventeen woundings on the breast of his tunic. She loved him after that.

{ Di-connuircsi isin treus Aidne ro geghin secht ngoine deac for seglach a léniod. Ro-carostoirsie ierum. }

Old Irish text and Engish translation (modified insubstantially) from id. p. 87.

[2] Louis the Pious was the son of Charlemagne. At Louis’s death, his three surviving sons were Lothar I of Italy (the eldest son), Charles the Bald, and Louis the German. At the battle of Fontenoy, Lothar was allied with Pepin II of Aquitaine. According to Angelbert, Lothar fought strongly, but some of his princes betrayed him in battle. Lothar’s side lost, and he fled. The warring brothers established peace among themselves through an agreement on the division the Charlemagne’s empire only in 843 through the Treaty of Verdun.

[3] Angelbert, “Aurora cum primo mane tetra noctis dividet {At the first light, dawn will separate the horrors of night},” 1.2-3, Latin text from Jasiński (2016) p. 78 (unified Latin text), my Latin translation benefiting mainly from the English translations of Godman (1985) pp. 262-5, Waddell (1948) pp. 102-5, translation via Eric Boulanger, and translation via Gérard Le Vot. Subsequent quotes from “Aurora cum primo mane tetra noctis dividet” are similarly sourced. The Paris manuscript alone has the reading “Saturni dolium {Saturn’s cauldron}.”

The first letter in each stanza of Angelbert’s poem form the alphabetical sequence A through P. Other examples of that poetic form (abecedarius) are chapters 1, 2, and 4 of the Book of Lamentations; Psalm 119; Augustine’s “Psalm against the Donatists {Psalmus contra partem Donati}” written in 393 (for scholarly discussion Hudnick (2011)); Sedulius’s “From the pivot of the sun’s rising {A solis ortus cardine},” probably written in the second quarter of the fifth century; and Chaucer’s “Prayer of Our Lady,” beginning “Almighty and All-Merciful Queen {Almighty and al merciable queene}.”

Authors have commonly claimed that the abecedarius was “employed as a mnemonic technique for public recitation.” See, e.g. Godman (1985) p. 49, which provides the quote. Medieval literary persons developed extraordinary memories. They could readily appreciate complex Homeric and Virgilian centos. The first letter of each stanza of a poem has trivial significance relative to medieval demands and capabilities for literary memory. The abecedarius is better interpreted as a constructed poetic sign for “natural” literary order.

Three medieval manuscripts of Angelbert’s poem have survived. The most important is in the Kórnik Library of the Polish Academy of Sciences. That manuscript dates to the second half of the ninth century. Jasiński (2016) pp. 29, 35. A codex of the tenth century, now held in Paris (BnF lat. 1154), includes musical notation (neumes). Id. p. 33. Another manuscript originates from a Benedictine monastery in St. Gallen. Angelbert’s poem apparently was copied into that manuscript in the tenth century. Id. Following Jasiński, these manuscripts are called the Kórnik, Paris, and St. Gallen manuscripts, respectively.

Latin texts printed for this poem have varied significantly. Both Godman’s and Waddell’s Latin texts differ from Jasiński’s. Motivating his thorough study of the surviving manuscripts, Jasiński stated:

Unfortunately, the Carolingian poetical masterpiece has survived to our own times in a form which is questionable in many respects. Since the 18th century until today, the most eminent Latinists have made the poem a subject of their studies. The text has been published many times, and scholars undertook numerous attempts at a reconstruction of the original text in their separate studies. Although these works deserve the highest respect, the same cannot be said about the subsequent editions of the poem. The later the edition, the more errors it contains. In our opinion, the sheer number of errors in these editions prevents any critical analysis of the text of this unique poem.

Jasiński (2016) p. 84 (abstract). Jasiński’s study allows one to analyze whether a given Latin text contains a medieval variant or simply a modern printing error. Jasiński unified Latin text is the best reconstruction of the original Latin text. I’ve thus favored that text, while noting interesting medieval variants.

Here’s a Latin text and loose English translation printed in 1857 in Dublin University Magazine (vol. 49).

[4] For the first hemistich of verse 7.1, the St. Gallen manuscript has “pater, frater, mater, soror”; the Paris manuscript, “pater, mater, soror, frater”; and the Kórnik manuscript, “pater matri, soror fratri.” Jasiński (2016) pp. 36-40. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, Jasiński judged the St. Gallen manuscript to best represent the original text. Id. pp. 62-3. In the poetic context of brutal violence against men, placing first the compassion of male relatives emphasizes the gender structure of the violence.

[5] Cf. Isaiah 55:10-11.

[6] The Latin text of Waddell (1948) follows the Paris manuscript. In that manuscript, stanza 13 {Nox…} repeats the third line of stanza 7 {Gramen…}. That brings in the dead men’s community and lessens the stark desolation conveyed by what was probably the original stanza 13.

About the year 820, Theodulf of Orléans wrote allegorically of an epic battle of birds:

They tore at one another everywhere with blows and bites,
and both sides waged war with spiritful determination.
Here you might think you were seeing Rutilians, there Trojans
roused to action, and a fierce battle raging on both sides.
As acorns tumble in autumn from the oak trees
and full-grown leaves fall when the frost comes,
so the army of birds was cut down and died on that spot,
the enormous mass of their corpses covering the earth.
Just as the smooth threshing-floor is filled with grain in summer,
so that field was filled with birds who had been slaughtered.
A small number coming from the north were turned back northwards;
an entire cohort lay destroyed on either side.

{ Inque vicem laniant se hinc morsibus, ictibus illinc,
Ingenti bellum surgit utrimque animo.
Hinc Rutilos, illinc videas consurgere Teucros,
Saevire et Martem parte ab utraque ferum.
Glans cadit autumno veluti de stipite querna,
Maturum et folium iam veniente gelu,
Non aliter avium moriens exercitus illic
Decidit et magna strage replevit humum.
Nam teres aestivis impletur ut area granis,
Campus ita extincta sic ave plenus erat.
A borea in boream veniens pars parva reversa est,
Tota in utraque cohors parte perempta iacet. }

Theodulf of Orléans, “We can understand certain things from exemplary events {Rebus et exemplis quaedam bene nosse valemus}” vv. 173-84, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Godman (1985) pp. 174-5. This poem is “an understated allegory of the political dissension threatening the {Carolingian} empire and threatening his own fate.” Id. p. 15. The description of the field filled with the dead bodies of birds may have influenced Angelbert’s description of the dead after the battle of Fontenoy.

Theodulf ‘s poem, which is also known by the title “The Battle of the Birds {De pugna avium},” is part 3 of Theodulf’s “Letter to Moduin {Epistola ad Modoinum}.” Moduin is Moduin of Autun. He was a court poet, the Bishop of Autun, and Theodulf’s close friend. Moduin used the pen name Naso. Apprently he apparently admired the poetry of Ovid.

[7] Excerpt from the Exsultet {Rejoice} of the Christian Easter Vigil. The Exsultet is attested in the seventh-century Bobbio Missal, a Gallican sacramentary.

Angelbert’s “cursed be that day” moves the self-curses of Jeremiah 20:14-18 and Job 3:3-7 to the social level of a day of horrible violence against men. The Vulgate translation of Leviticus 25:30 refers to one year’s time as “the year’s circle {anni circulus}.” On persons nakedly departing from the world, Job 1:21, Ecclesiastes 5:15, 1 Timothy 6:7.

[8] Guiot de Dijon, Chanson de croisade, Retrouenge, “I will sing for my heart {Chanterai por mon corage}” st 1-3 (with the refrain broken out separately), Old French text and English translation (with my modifications) from Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) pp. 141-2. A significant scholarly view doubts the attribution to Guiot de Dijon and asserts that a woman trouvère probably wrote this song. The subsequent quote is stanzas 4-5 (of 5) from this song.

Significant textual variations exist for “Chanterai por mon corage.” For a slightly different Old French text, with English translation and thorough scholarly notes, see song RS 21 in Warwick’s Troubadours, Trouvères and the Crusades site. The “about the text” tab suggests that this song “may date from the first third or half of the 13th c.” For an interpretation of the textual differences in versions of this song, Atkinson (1979).

Several modern performances of this song are available on YouTube. In addition to the recording embedded above, The Early Music Consort of London (directed by David Munrow) recorded a version on its album Music of the Crusades (1991). Studio Der Frühen Musik recorded a version on its album Chanterai Por Mon Coraige (1994).

Despite some women’s laments for men, women play a central role in inciting men to violence against men. In an article published in an elite scholarly journal, Perfetti reported:

Reading medieval poems with a focus on the crusader figure and not just on references to specific efforts to recover the Holy Land, we can see at work an eroticized poetics of crusading in which love for a lady is not in conflict with crusading but rather an enhancement of it. … the eroticized portrait of the crusader they created undoubtedly helped to promote crusading.

Perfetti (2013) pp.  956-7. Perfetti discerns “a process of gendering the crusades as a masculine enterprise.” Id. p. 944. The gynocentric process of devaluing men’s lives and gendering men to be subject to brutal violence has been prevalent throughout history. That oppressive gender structure continues to our day. Perfetti offers no insight into how to change it.

[9] In the motet “I rightly should grieve {Je me doi bien doloseir},” Motetus, a woman trouvère sings:

Why have you given me,
mother, a husband?
For never willingly
would I have wished to be given
to anyone other than
the one I have taken as my own.

{ Por coi m’aveis vos doneit,
Mere, mari?
Cant ja par mun greit
Ne fuist ensi
K’a autrui fuisse doneie
K’a celi cui j’ai de moi saisit }

Old French text (Walloon / Lorraine) and English translation (modified slightly) from Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) p. 217. Id., pp. 218-9, provides music for this song. In Byzantium, mothers arranged bride shows for their sons.

[10] Chanson de croisade, “Jerusalem, you do me great harm {Jherusalem, grant damage me fais}” st. 1, Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) p. 146. For a good online text and translation of the whole song, see song RS 191 in Warwick’s Troubadours, Trouvères and the Crusades site. That site suggests that this song dates from the second quarter of the thirteenth century. A performance of this song by The Ensemble Perceval is readily available.

[11] “Sleep a little, just a little {Cotail becán becán bec},” also known as “Díarmait’s sleep” st. 1-2, Old Irish text and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Murphy (1956) pp. 161-2. Murphy dates this anonymous poem to c. 1150. Finn (Fionn) and his fianna (warrior band) were pursuing the two lovers Gráinne and Díarmait úa Duibne.

[images] (1) Video with recorded performance of Angelbert’s “Aurora cum primo mane tetra noctis dividet” by Gérard Le Vot on Ultima Lacrima, Sacred Chants of the Middle Ages 9th-13th centuries (Studio S.M., 1997). (2) Video with recorded performance of “Chanterai por mon corage” by Estampie / Schola Cantorum Gedanensis on the album Crusaders – In Nomine Domini (1996). (3) Selective Service video poster on display at Reagan National Airport, Washington, DC, on December 23, 2019. Photo by Douglas Galbi.


Atkinson, J. Keith. 1979. “Deux interprétations de la chanson ‘Chanterai por mon corage.’” Pp. 33-45 in Mélanges de Langue et Littérature Françaises du Moyen-Âge Offerts à Pierre Jonin. Sénéfiance, 7. Aix-en-Provenc: Publications du Cuerma, Université de Provence.

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)

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

Hunink, Vincent. 2011. “Singing Together in Church: Augustine’s Psalm against the Donatists.” Pp. 389-403 in A.P.M.H. Lardinois, J.H. Blok, M.G.M. van der Poel, eds.. Sacred Words: Orality, Literacy and Religion. Orality and Literacy in the Ancient World, vol. 8. Leiden: Brill.

Jasiński, Tomasz. 2016. “Próba rekonstrukcji pierwotnego tekstu wiersza Angilberta o bitwie pod Fontenoy (841 rok).” Pamiętnik Biblioteki Kórnickiej. 33: 29-84. Online.

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

Perfetti, Lisa. 2013. “Crusader as Lover: The Eroticized Poetics of Crusading in Medieval France.” Speculum. 88 (4): 932-957.

Waddell, Helen. 1948. Mediaeval Latin Lyrics. New York: Henry Holt.

women dominant gender in Christian literary history

Revelation 12: woman versus dragon
In 203, Saint Perpetua resolutely rejected her father’s abject pleas and triumphantly proceeded to Christian martyrdom. In the sixth-century kontakia of Romanos the Melodist, the blessed Mary overshadows Jesus. Moreover, men’s voices on the way to Jesus’s crucifixion are scarcely heard. Mary the Mother of God and Saint Perpetua aren’t exceptional Christian women in dominating men. Notker of Saint Gall’s ninth-century sequence, “For the festival of holy women,” shows the pattern of Christian gynocentrism. The central position of women in Christianity was ultimately expressed parodically about 1450 in “The Dispute Between God and His Mother.”

Christianity requires its followers to strive for holiness. The seventh-century desert monk John Climacus explored in his Ladder of Divine Ascent the difficulties of obtaining union with the heavenly divine. Notker of Saint Gall’s ninth-century sequence “For the festival of holy women {In natale sanctorum feminarum}” proclaimed that Christ’s love had made heavenly ascent possible for women:

A ladder stretching to heaven,
surrounded by torments —

at its base an attentive dragon
keeps watch, constantly awake,
so that no one even to the first step
can climb unhurt.

Its ascent is barred
by an Ethiop with drawn sword
threatening death.
Its highest step supports
a radiant young man
holding a golden bough.

This is the ladder that Christ’s love
made possible for women to climb.
So trampling down the dragon,
passing by the Ethiop’s sword,
and going through all kinds of torments,
they may reach heaven’s summit,
and from the hand of the consoling
king take the golden laurel.

{ Scalam ad caelos subrectam
tormentis cinctam —

Cuius ima draco servare
cautus invigilat iugiter,
Ne quis eius vel primum gradum
possit insaucius scandere,

Cuius ascensus extracto
Aethiops gladio
vetat exitium minitans,
Cuius supremis innixus
iuvenis splendidus
ramum aureolum retinet

Hanc ergo scalam ita Christi
amor feminis fecit perviam
ut dracone conculcato
et Aethopis gladio transito
Per omne genus tormentōrum
caeli apicem queant capere
et de manu confortantis
regis auream lauream sumere. } [1]

The ladder surrounded by torments, the dragon at its base, the hostile gladiator, and the magnificent man holding a prize come from visions of Saint Perpetua. Perpetua envisioned herself stepping on the head of the serpent in climbing the ladder to heaven.

Notker generalized the heroic Saint Perpetua to the gynocentric Christian path to holiness. In Christian understanding, Mary, the new Eve, gave birth to Jesus, who stepped on the head of the serpent.[2] Mary thus nullified the serpent’s deception of Eve and gave every woman the capacity to be like Saint Perpetua:

What help was it for you,
unholy serpent,
once to have
deceived one woman,
when the virgin birthed
in the flesh
of God the Father
the one Lord Jesus?

He took spoils from you and
pierced your jaw with a hook
to make a way out for Eve’s offspring,
whom you desire to possess.

Thus you now discern yourself
defeated by virgins, hated one,
and by married women bearing
children who please God,

and by widows now
wholly faithful to their husbands.
They cause you to groan,
you who persuaded a virgin
to be unfaithful
to her Creator.

Women you now see in war
against you becoming leaders,
urging their children
bravely to defeat your torments.

Even vessels of your grace,
prostitutes, are by the Lord cleansed,
and these for himself as a temple
he deems worthy to purify.

{ Quid tibi profecit,
profane serpens,
quondam unam
decepisse mulierem,
Cum virgo pepererit
dei patris
unicum dominum Jesum?

Qui praedam tibi tulit et
armilla maxillam forat,
Ut egressus Evae natis
fiat, quos tenere cupis.

Nunc ergo temet virgines
vincere cernis invide,
Et maritatas parere
filios deo placitos,

Et viduarum
maritis fidem
nunc ingemis integram,
Qui creatori
fidem negare
persuaseras virgini.

Feminas nunc vides in bello
contra te acto duces existere,
Quae filios suos instigant
fortiter tua tormenta vincere.

Quin et tua vasa
meretrices dominus emundat
Et haec sibi templum
dignatur efficere purgatum. } [3]

Notker insistently privileges women in the Christian way of holiness. The one woman Mary precedes the one Lord Jesus. Mary, made in the flesh according to God the Father, gave birth in the flesh to Jesus. Like a father deprived of custody of his children in gender-biased family courts, Adam is absent; all humans are Eve’s children. The Christian way is that of a blessed woman — from virgin woman, to married woman, to widow (woman outliving her husband). Even women prostitutes are recognized to be, like Mary Magdalene, vessels of the Lord. In Notker’s depiction of the Christian church as the people of God, men exists only at the periphery in their relations to women.[4]

Notker’s closing two stanzas of praise and thanksgiving resonate with the figure of the fallen and redeemed woman. Genesis describes a radical unity of female and male. A central figure of Christianity is conjugal partnership. Yet human societies preferentially provide compassion to women. Notker’s gender-inclusive terms such as “us” are merely surface forms for women’s underlying gender dominance:

For these favors now
let us together,
both the sinners and the righteous,
glorify the Lord,
who strengthens the upright
and to the fallen extends
his right hand, so that at least
after our evil deeds we may rise.

{ Pro his nunc beneficiis
in commune dominum
nos glorificemus
et peccatores et iusti,
Qui et stantes corroborat
et prolapsis dexteram
porrigit, ut saltem
post facinora surgamus. } [5]

No less human and no less beloved of God, men like women are also fallen and redeemed in Christ. Men, however, tend to be submerged within gender-generic references such as “man.” In the Christian gendering of man’s path to holiness, women are the dominant gender.[6]

About 1450, “The Dispute between God and his Mother {La Desputoison de Dieu et de sa Mère}” comically represented the extreme of Christian gynocentrism. Jesus, living among the poor, brought his rich mother Mary to court with a claim for child support. After describing many lavish cathedrals dedicated to Mary across France, Jesus noted:

In her mansions, enclosed in walls,
with high, crenellated towers,
she keeps relics, chalices, gems,
brocades of fine gold and of silk;
no one could count all the riches
with which her mansions are decked out

I dare to say in front of you all
that even the beeswax candles
my mother burns in her houses
cost more than all the goods we have

{ En sez maisonz closez de murz,
A haultez tourz et à créneaux,
Fiertrez, calicez et joyaulz
Et drapz de fin or et de soie,
Si qu’à nombrer ne les saroie,
Dont sez maisonz sont reparéez

J’ose bien par devant tous dire,
Que mielz vault seullement le chire
Que ma mère art en sez maisons,
Que tous lez bienz que nous avons } [7]

Mary in response declared that she had earned all her wealth. She disparaged Jesus for his poverty:

I’ve many times caught sight of him
in churches, his arms outstretched,
poor and barefoot and badly dressed.
I well know he will live like this
for as long as this world endures.

{ Je l’ay maintez foiz regardé
En chez moustierz, lez braz tenduz,
Povrez, nuz piéz, et mal vestus.
Bien scay qui ainsy se maintenra
Tant qui che siècle chy durra. }

The pope, judging the dispute between Jesus and Mary, ruled in favor of Mary. He ordered Jesus to pay all of Mary’s court costs and support all her servants throughout all their lives. Mary was awarded the souls of all who died after having served her well. Gynocentric society privileges women above men, even to the extent of favoring a wealthy Mary over God, her poor son Jesus.

Gynocentric society is more nefarious than gender. Many women and men don’t perceive that the gender binary oppresses them. Gynocentric society, in contrast, deprives men of reproductive rights, encourages abortion coercion, produces grotesque anti-men sex discrimination in child custody and child support rulings, promotes hateful rape-culture culture, and generates highly disproportionate incarceration of men, among many other social injustices. Abolishing gynocentric society should be a much higher social-justice priority than abolishing gender.

Gynocentric society rests in part on inadequate literary history. Those who don’t learn that women were the dominant gender in Christian literary history cannot create a better future. Marginalized medieval men with lively literary imaginations recast gendered literary figures supporting the subordination of men. Men and women today must study medieval literature and do better.

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[1] Notker of Saint Gall, also know as Notker the Stammerer {Notcerus Balbulus}, “For the festival of holy women {In natale sanctorum feminarum}” preface to st. 6, Latin text from Godman (1985) pp. 318-21, my English translation, benefiting from those of id., Dronke (1968) pp. 41-2, and A.Z. Foreman. Subsequent quotes from this sequence are similarly sourced.

Notker wrote this sequence about 885 GC. It’s one of the 49 sequences in Notker’s Liber ymnorum {Book of hymns}. Bower (2016), a magnificent edition of that work, is sadly expensive and not readily available.

[2] Genesis 3:15, Revelation 12.

[3] Notker’s figures associate Perpetua with Christ and universalize her triumph. The ladder parallels Jacob’s ladder to heaven. Genesis 28:10-2. The gladiator (in Perpetua’s account, an Egyptian with whom she fights) is linked to Christian imagery of spiritual struggle. 1 Timothy 1:18, 6:12; 2 Timothy 4:7; 1 Corinthians 9:25-6. The radiant young man holding a golden bough suggests Aeneas visiting the underworld, and the consoling king with the golden laurel, the laurel of Apollo and immortality. Dronke (1968) p. 43. The Christian God, the father and the son Christ in heaven, encompass both. After his defeat of death through his resurrection, Christ harrowed Hell. That’s analogous to Christ overcame God’s impossibility challenge to Job: to snare the face of the behemoth. Job 40.24. For the explication, id. Christ then climbed the ladder to heaven, showing the way for all of “Eve’s children.”

[4] Notker holds a “binary hierarchical version of gender difference.” Cotter-Lynch (2016) p. 101. Notker represents Perpetua in terms of a “strict gender hierarchy.” Gold (2018) p. 160. Neither Cotter-Lynch nor Gold, however, recognizes men’s marginality in Notker’s poem, and neither contextualizes that poem within medieval gynocentrism. The Ruodlieb and Waltharius are much better evidence of medieval gender than are the sermons of Augustine. Women’s Christian gender dominance was obvious in the pilgrimage sites, church dedications, and popular devotion of medieval Europe.

[5] In Latin, the masculine plural substantives peccatores {sinners} and iusti {the righteous} aren’t reserved only for men. Women may be included in those terms. In contrast to Godman (1985), p. 321, but like Dronke (1968), p. 42, I’ve translated those terms gender-inclusively. I have done similarly for filii {children} previously in this sequence.

[6] Men are an addendum in Notker’s poetic scheme:

Notker seems to say, not only the martyr heroines but women in all their womanly capacities can triumph in that encounter and ordeal by which the divine is attained: through the harrowing of hell, in which they were achieved archetypally, they lost their impossible fearfulness. Every woman’s life can become a vindication of Eve, a bruising of the serpent’s head; even the lives of courtesans {meretrices} — for Christ did not reject them.

Dronke (1968) p. 43. In Dronke’s view, the last two stanzas of Notker’s sequence go on to associate Perpetua with “Everyman” {sic, id.}, meaning every person.

Godman provides an opposing reading, but similarly backgrounds men as a gender:

Notker’s poem celebrates the very familial virtues which Perpetua repudiated. … His poem is not written in indiscriminate praise of ‘the Perpetuas of this world or Everyman’ {citing Dronke (1968) p. 43}, for the theme of Notker’s sequence is much more daring. Instead of Perpetua he praises Everyman {sic}, and celebrates the extraordinary qualities in the ostensibly commonplace virtues of holy women.

Godman (1985) p. 67. Both Dronke’s and Godman’s interpretations agree that women are the dominant gender in Notker’s poetic representation of the ladder to heaven. So too are women in Christian literary history generally.

[7] “The Dispute between God and his Mother {La Desputoison de Dieu et de sa Mère}” vv. 62-7, 85-8, Old French (Picard dialect) text and English translation (modified slightly) from Newman (2013) App. 2. Subsequent quotes from “La Desputoison de Dieu et de sa Mère” are similarly sourced. The subsequent quote above is vv. 168-72.

This comedic poem survives only in Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Ottoboniani latini, 2523, f. 46vb-47vb. Jehan le Leu, a Walloon glovemaker, wrote this manuscript in 1453. Newman dates the composition of “La Desputoison de Dieu et de sa Mère” to probably 1450, or possibly 1417. Newman (2013) p. 203. Langlois (1885), pp. 54-61, provides a freely accessible Old French text. Gros (1989) suggests its relation to fifteenth-century protest against gynocentrism.

“La Desputoison de Dieu et de sa Mère” shows concern for parental uncertainty. That’s a fundamental gender disadvantage of men. Jesus asserted regarding his mother:

All the while she withholds my share from me,
and I’m certainly no bastard!

{ Quant elle me détient ma part,
Et sy ne suiz mie bastart! }

Vv. 27-8. The judge ironically questions Mary’s parental knowledge:

And it seems to me he is right
to claim his father’s legacy,
if you were indeed his mother!

{ Et il me sanble qu’il a droit
S’il demande la part son père,
Ou caz que vous fustez sa mère. }

Vv. 100-3. Paternity laws today use biological paternity to assign sex-payment (“child support”) obligations when no other man is assigned them.

[image] Women (Mary) / Church with moon under her feet confronts dragon. The small naked man (Jesus) has clearly drawn masculine genitals. That reflects medieval appreciation for Christ as a fully masculine man. Illumination on folio 29v of Bamberger Apokalypse. Made at Reichenau Abbey (Germany), c. 1010. Preserved as Staatsbibliothek Bamberg Msc.Bibl.140.


Bower, Calvin M., ed. and trans. 2016. The Liber ymnorum of Notker Balbulus. London: Published for Henry Bradshaw Society by the Boydell Press. (review by Susan Forscher Weiss)

Cotter-Lynch, Margaret. 2016. Saint Perpetua across the Middle Ages: Mother, Gladiator, Saint. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Dronke, Peter. 1968. The Medieval Lyric. London: Hutchinson University Library.

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

Gold, Barbara K. 2018. Perpetua: Athlete of God. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. (review by Stavroula Constantinou)

Gros, Gérard. 1989. “Questions d’héritage, ou La Desputoison de Dieu et de Sa Mère.” Pp. 487-507 in Les relations de parenté dans le monde médiéval. Senefiance 16. Aix-en-Provence: Presses universitaires de Provence.

Langlois, Ernest. 1885. “Notice du manuscrit Ottobonien 2528.” Mélanges d’Archéologie et d’Histoire. 5 (1): 25-80.

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.

enlightened questioning of medieval pregnant nun claiming rape

young woman holding ermine

Today men are taught to “listen and believe” women making accusations of serious crimes. Such dogma would never have been accepted in relatively enlightened medieval Europe. Clerics, church officials, and monks such as Erasmus of Rotterdam, Poggio Bracciolini, and François Rabelais taught men and women to think and to question. That’s the path to a more just, more enlightened world.

No later than early in the sixteenth century, a Dominican friar in his homily on Good Friday presented to a crowded congregation the story of a pregnant nun who claimed to have been raped. Erasmus reported in his Colloquies that a butcher relayed the story to a fishmonger. The butcher explained:

A young man had laid with a nun. Her swollen belly provided subsequent proof of the act. The nuns were called together, with the abbess presiding. The nun was accused. There was no grounds for status inficialis {controverting the facts}. She needed to argue a justification. She took refuge in status qualitatis {the meaning of the facts}, or, if you prefer, status translationis {the justification for the action}. “I was laid by force of someone stronger,” the nun said. “At least you could have screamed,” responded the abbess. “I would have done so,” the nun said, “but in the dormitory, to break the silence is forbidden.”

{ Virginem sacram oppresserat adolescens. Vteri tumor arguit factum. Conuocatus est virginum chorus, praesedit abbatissa. Accusata est. Infidali statui non erat locus, argumentum erat necessarium. Confugit ad statum qualitatis, nisi mauis translationis. – Oppressa sum a valentiore. — At saltem exclamasses. — Fecissem, inquit, sed in dormitorio nefas est soluere silentium. } [1]

Given the penal orientation of criminal law, men have a strong incentive to develop a sophisticated understanding of criminal procedure. The butcher analyzed the case through technical terms of forensic rhetoric.[2] Since he was directly addressing a fishmonger, he apparently expected the fishmonger to have a similar level of legal sophistication. The Dominan friar’s story of the pregnant nun claiming rape was probably one that his congregation, like the butcher and the fishmonger, could handle in a sophisticated way.

The nun’s claim would not have been understood as presenting a serious risk of criminal injustice. Today, men are regarded as culpable of rape for having wives who truly love them. Men today must adhere to detailed scripts for amorous encounters in order not to be subject to sex charges. In the more enlightened medieval period, criminal justice was more reasonable. The Dominican friar told the story of the pregnant nun claiming rape during his Good Friday sermon. The crucifixion of Jesus was a mob-driven travesty of justice.  Consistent with that context, the Dominican friar told the pregnant nun story “to dissipate the bitterness of his sermon with a more pleasant story {sermonis amaritudinem … iucundiore narratione dilueret}.” The butcher commented:

So that’s the story. Only we must confess, many sillier claims have been carried forward.

{ Sit haec fabula; modo fateamur, hoc stultiora geri permulta. }

The butcher statement shouldn’t be misinterpreted literally. Medieval criminal courts weren’t filled with silly sex claims. Such claims, if carried forward during the medieval period, surely would have been quickly dismissed. The congregation that heard the Dominican preacher’s story of the pregnant nun claiming rape probably laughed at that story.[3]

Rabelais emphasized the ridiculousness of the nun’s claim of rape. Rabelais told nearly the same story as Erasmus had:

You know how that nun, Sister Bottom in Croquignoles, got pregnant by a begging brother called Stiffly-Redeem-It. When the bulge became evident, she was summoned by the abbess to the chapter-house and charged with incest. She made excuses, maintaining that it had not happened with her consent but by violence, through being raped by Frère Stiffly-Redeem-It. The abbess said, “You wicked little thing! It took place in the dormitory. Why did you not cry ‘Rape’? We would all have rushed in to help you.” The nun replied that she dared not cry out in the dormitory, because in the dormitory, one kept perpetual silence.

{ Vous sçavez comment à Croquignoles quand la nonnain seur Fessue, feut par le ieune Briffault dam Royddimet engroissée, & la groisse congnue, appellée par l’abbesse en chapitre & arguée de inceste, elle s’excusoit, alleguante que ce n’avoit esté de son consentement, ce avoit esté par violence & par la force du frère Royddimet. L’abbesse replicante & disante, meschante, c’estoit on dortouoir, pourquoy ne crioys tu à la force? Nous toutes eussions couru à ton ayde? Respondit qu’elle ne ausoit crier on dortouoi : pource qu’on dortouoir, y a silence sempiternelle. } [4]

Rabelais named the nun Sister Bottom {seur Fessue} and her lover Stiffly-Redeem-It {Royddimet}. Both those names bear sexual innuendo. He also had the abbess refer to the nun as a “wicked little thing.” Women characteristically speak more frankly about women than men do.

Rabelais expanded upon the nun’s false claim of rape to engage with the context of interpreting signs. Rabelais’s story continued:

“But, you wicked little thing,” said the abbess, “why didn’t you make signs to the other nuns in the room?” “I,” said La Bottom, “did make signs as much as I could with my bottom; but nobody came to help me.” “But, you wicked little thing,” demanded the abbess, “why didn’t you come straight to me, to tell me and formally accuse him? If it had happened to me, that’s what I would have done to prove my innocence.” “Because,” said La Bottom, “fearing to remain in sin — in a state of damnation — if overcome by sudden death, I made my confession to him before he left the room. The penance he gave me was not to reveal the encounter and to tell it to nobody. To reveal his absolution would have been a most enormous sin, most odious before God and the angels. It might perhaps have been the cause of fire from Heaven burning down the whole of our abbey, and we might all have been cast down into the pit with Datham and Abiram.

{ Mais (dist l’abbesse) meschante que tu es, pourquoy ne faisois tu signes à tes voisines de chambre? Ie (respondit la Fessue) leurs faisois signes du cul tant que povois, mais persone ne me secourut. Mais (demanda l’abbesse) meschante, pourquoy incontinent ne me le veins tu dire, & l’accuser reguliairement? Ainsi eusse ie faict, si le cas me feust advenu, pour demonstrer mon innocence, (respondit la fessue) que craignante demourer en peché & estat de damnation, de paour que ne feusse de mort soubdaine prævenue, ie me confessay à luy avant qu’il departist de la chambre: & il me bailla en penitence non le dire ne deceler à persone. Trop enorme eust esté le peché, reveler sa confession, & trop detestable davant Dieu & les anges. Par adventure eust ce esté cause: que le feu du Ciel eust ars toute l’abbaye: & toutes feussions tombées en abisme avecques Dathan & Abiron. }

The reference to Sister Bottom making signs with her bottom is a visually pun on characteristic activity of sexual intercourse. The fake confession is another addition in the same pattern as the nun not wanting to violate the rule of silence. The Old French lay Ignaure features a fake confession. In this story the confession isn’t fake, but it’s done with bad faith. The sister’s claim about fear of revealing her absolution similarly appears to be in bad faith. Rabelais’s expansion of the story of the pregnant nun claiming rape highlights human wiles in obscuring and excusing disapproved actions.

In the relatively enlightened medieval period, human impurity, reason’s capacity to invent justifications, and women and men’s equal sinfulness were widely understood. Today, men are socially constructed as an intrinsically toxic gender, mass incarceration of men is rationalized through a social code of silence, and gender inequality is promoted under the guise of gender equality. The preaching delivered through the churches of our time — universities, businesses, and the media-entertainment industrial complex — is a ridiculous mass of absurdities. If elephants can be trained to dance, lions tamed for sport, and leopards taught to hunt, surely our secular elite can learn to be reasonable.[5]

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Read more:


[1] Erasmus of Rotterdam, Patterns of Fitting Conversations {Familiarium colloquiorum formulae}, Fish-Eating {Ίχθνοφαγία}, ll. 1063-8, Latin from ASD I-3, p. 524, English translation (modified slightly) from Thompson (1997) p. 706 (v. 40). The subsequent quote is similarly sourced from ll. 1068-9.

Thompson translated Virginem sacram oppresserat adolescens as “A young man had taken advantage of a nun.” That English translation conveys at least moral disparagement of the young man. The Latin verb opprimo seems to me better translated in relation to its primary meaning “to press down upon.” Erasmus’s subsequent retelling of the story doesn’t support assuming that the young man committed a non-consensual sex crime. See note [3] below.

Erasmus’s Colloquies “grew from a small collection of phrases, sentences, and snatches of dialogue written in Paris about 1497 to help his private pupils improve their command of Latin.” The first edition was published in Basel in 1518. From Thompson (1997), online overview. The colloquy Fish-Eating first appeared in edition of Erasmus’s Colloquies published in February, 1526.

The story of the pregnant nun claiming rape probably was a well-known medieval tale. Erasmus stated that he heard it as a boy. See quotes from Ecclesiastes in note [3]. That implies Erasmus heard the story before about 1480. A similar tale exists in Heinrich Bebel’s Facetiae, first published in 1506. Thompson (1997) p. 744, n. 219. An Old French farce The Abbess and Sister Bottom {L’Abbesse et Soeur Fessue} dates from about 1510. Hayes (2010) pp. 51-3. Hayes interprets that farce from the perspective of conventional poor-dearism: “Sister Fessue is the gullible pawn who is controlled by those in authority, first by the monk and now by her abbess.” Id. p. 53. Medieval nuns were guileful enough to fake death with a body double to escape the convent.

[2] Regarding technical terms of forensic rhetoric, Quintilian’s analysis is “long and complex.” In addition to status inficialis, status qualitatis, and status translationis, forensic rhetoric also includes status conjecturalis and status definitivus. Thompson (1997) p. 745, n. 220. Above I’ve provided simple glosses.

[3] Erasmus included a version of the story of the pregnant nun claiming rape in his Ecclesiastes, or the Evangelical Preacher {Ecclesiastes, sive Concionator Evangelicus}, also titled Ecclesiastes, or the Art of Preaching {Ecclesiastes, sive de ratione concionandi}:

As a boy I heard a certain Dominican who was endowed with an outstanding native grace of tongue. In order to rouse sleepers, he told this story, which is not without a hint of depravity. “A certain nun,” he said, “was shown by the swelling of her belly to have had relations with a man. In an assembly of nuns she was severely rebuked by the superior, whom they call an abbess, for having disgraced the holy community in this way. She pleads the excuse of force, saying “A young man entered my room. He was stronger than I. It would have been useless for me to resist him. Besides, force is not reckoned a crime.” Then the superior said, “You could be excused if you had shouted, as Scripture advises.” Here the maiden said, “I would have done that, but it happened in the dormitory, where breaking silence was forbidden.”

{ Puer audiui quendam Dominieanum, eximia ae natiua linguae gratia praeditum. Is vt excitaret dormitantes hane retulit fabulam, non absque specie nequitiae. “Nonna, inquit, quaedam vteri tumore prodita est habuisse rem cum viro. Conuocato virginum coetu seueriter obiurgata est a praeposita quam Abbatissam vocant, quod ad eum modum dehonestasset sanctum collegium. IlIa exeusat vim: “Iuuenis, inquiens, venit in eubiculum meum, me robustior, cui frustra fuissem reluctata. Porro vis non imputatur pro crimine.” Tum praeposita: “Excusari poteras si clamasses, quemadmodum admonet Scriptura.” Hie virgo: “Id quidem fecissem, sed res acta est in dormitorio, vbi soluere silentium erat religio.” }

Ecclesiastes 2.672-81, Latin text from ASD V-4, p. 278, English translation (modified slightly) from McGinness et al. (2015) p. 508. Erasmus then comments:

But I desist, lest in rebuking foolishness, I become foolish myself.

{ Sed desino, ne reprehendendo ineptias, ipse fiam ineptus. }

Ecclesiastes 2.681-2, sourced as above. The first edition of Ecclesiastes was published in 1535. It’s a massive work drawing upon many of Erasmus’s prior works.

Standards of seriousness for scribes copying sacred works were higher. In a titulus intended for a scriptorum, probably the scriptorum at St. Martin at Tours, Alcuin in the eighth century wrote:

May those who copy the pronouncements of the holy law
and the hallowed sayings of the saintly fathers sit here.
Here let them take care not to insert silly remarks;
may their hands not make mistakes through silliness.

{ Hic sedeant sacrae scribentes famina legis,
Nec non sanctorum dicta sacrata patrum,
Hic interserere caveant sua frivola verbis,
Frivola nec propter erret et ipsa manus }

vv. 1-4, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Godman (1985) p. 138.

[4] Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Book 3, Ch. 19, French text from Rabelais, Oeuvres complètes (1552), edited by Alphonse Lemerre (1870), via Wikisource, English translation (modified slightly) from Screech (2006) pp. 483-4.

The third book of Gargantua and Patagruel was first published in 1546. While Rabelais followed Eramus’s work closely, whether Rabelais picked up the story of the pregnant nun claiming rape from Erasmus isn’t clear.

About 1730, Thomas, the sixth Earl of Harrington, apparently wrote an English version of this tale.

[5] Regarding priests, Erasmus wrote:

Do we know how to tame wild and frightful beasts, either for entertainment or for ordinary use, and not know how to pacify men so that they serve Christ? Do monarchs pay people to teach elephants to dance, to tame lions for sport, to tame lynxes and leopards for hunting: and the monarch of the church cannot find how to entice men to the lovable service of Christ?

{ Nouimus cicurare bestias feras et horribiles, vel ad voluptatem vel ad vsum vulgarem, et non nouimus mansuefacere homines vt seruiant Christo? Monarchae alunt, qui doceant elephantos ad saltandum, qui doment leones ad lusum, qui doment lynces ac leopardos ad venatum, et monarcha Ecclesiae non inuenit quo homines alliciat ad amabile Christi seruitium? }

Ecclesiastes 1.336-41, ASD V-4, p. 148, sourced as above.

[image] Young woman holding ermine. Painting (slightly excerpted) by Leonardo da Vinci, about 1490. Held as accession # XII-209 in the Czartoryski Museum (Krakow, Poland). Via Wikimedia Commons.


ASD. Desiderii Erasmi Roterodami Opera omnia (Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1969-2018).

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

Hayes, E. Bruce. 2010. Rabelais’s Radical Farce: Late Medieval Comic Theater and Its Function in Rabelais. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate.

McGinness, Frederick J., Michael Heath, James L. P. Butrica, and Alexander Dalzell, eds. 2015. Spiritualia and Pastoralia: Exomologesis and Ecclesiastes. Collected Works of Erasmus, vols. 67-68. Toronto: University of Toronto.

Screech, M.A., trans. 2006. François Rabelais. Gargantua and Pantagruel. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin Books. (review by Barbara Bowen)

Thompson, Craig R., trans. 1997. Erasmus of Rotterdam. Colloquies {Colloquia}. Collected Works of Erasmus, vols. 39-40. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.