ennobling love for men made medieval women worthy of men’s love

In this time of a new plague, the longstanding plague of lovelessness continues to grind souls to death. Ignorance and bigotry in our benighted age of gynocentrism contributes to lovelessness. Life wasn’t always like this. Medieval literature guided women to become worthy of men’s love through ennobling love for men.[1] In the relatively enlightened medieval era, women were regarded as having the capacity to change and take up the practice of ennobling love for men.

Women have alternatives to ennobling love for men. In the biblical Song of Songs, a woman expresses ardent desire for a man:

As an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among young men.
With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
He brought me to the banquet house, and his banner over me was love.
Sustain me with raisins, refresh me with apples, for I am sick with love.
O, that his left hand were under my head, and his right hand embraced me! [2]

{ כשושנה בין החוחים כן רעיתי בין הבנות׃
כתפוח בעצי היער כן דודי בין הבנים בצלו חמדתי וישבתי ופריו מתוק לחכי׃
הביאני אל־בית היין ודגלו עלי אהבה׃
סמכוני באשישות רפדוני בתפוחים כי־חולת אהבה אני׃ }

The Song of Songs was written in Hebrew more than two millennia ago. Just as is the case today, some women don’t passively wait for men to solicit amorous relationships with them. These women actively challenge systemic anti-men gender injustice in soliciting amorous relationships:

Upon my bed at night, I sought him whom my soul loves. I sought him, but I didn’t find him. I called him, but he gave no answer.

“I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares. I will seek him whom my soul loves.” I sought him, but I didn’t find him.

The watchmen, as they went about the city, found me. I asked them, “Have you seen him whom my soul loves?”

Scarcely had I passed them, when I found him whom my soul loves. I held him. I would not let him go until I had brought him into my mother’s house, into the chamber of her that conceived me.

{ על־משכבי בלילות בקשתי את שאהבה נפשי בקשתיו ולא מצאתיו׃
אקומה נא ואסובבה בעיר בשוקים וברחבות אבקשה את שאהבה נפשי בקשתיו ולא מצאתיו׃
מצאוני השמרים הסבבים בעיר את שאהבה נפשי ראיתם׃
כמעט שעברתי מהם עד שמצאתי את שאהבה נפשי אחזתיו ולא ארפנו עד־שהביאתיו אל־בית אמי ואל־חדר הורתי׃ }

The woman bringing her beloved man into the home of her mother, the one who conceives persons, indicates ancient gynocentrism. Genesis 2:4 instructs the man to leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, presumably in her parents’ home. Jacob had to work for fourteen years for Rachel and Leah’s family in order to be allowed to have those women as wives. The woman in the Song of Songs, in contrast, seized her beloved man. She held him, wouldn’t let him go, and dragged him back to her mother’s house. If she were he, she would be called a caveman or a Neanderthal. Modern penal systems tend to punish men behaving in this way with the penis-disparaging criminal charge “abduction with intent to defile.” Women, in contrast, are relatively free to do what they desire to do. Yet many are lonely.

Western wind, when will you blow —
the small rain down can rain.
Christ, if my love were in my arms
and I in my bed again!

{ Westron wynde when wyll thow blow
the smalle rayne downe can Rayne
Cryst yf my love were in my Armys
And I yn my bed Agayne. }[3]

Just as most men wouldn’t rape a woman, most women wouldn’t abduct a man with intent to defile him. Women unwilling to kidnap, rape, and imprison men encounter difficulties in seeking to establish and maintain loving relationships with men.

Consider, for example, a medieval woman similar to the woman in the Song of Songs. This medieval woman was lying alone in her bed at night. A noise interrupted her dreaming of her beloved man:

Who is this who knocks at the door,
interrupting the night’s dream?
He calls to me: “O loveliest among young women,
sister, wife, most splendid gem!
Quickly arise and open the door, sweetest one.

I am a son of the highest king,
the first and the last,
who has come from Heaven into these shadows
to free the souls of captives.
I have endured many injuries and death.”

Immediately I left my bed
and ran to the door-bolt
so that all my house would be open to my beloved,
and my mind would see in all fullness
him whom it greatly desired to see.

{ Quis est hic qui pulsat ad ostium,
Noctis rumpens somnium?
Me vocat: “O virginum pulcherrima,
Soror, conjux, gemma splendidissima.
Cito surgens aperi, dulcissima.

Ego sum summi regis filius,
Primus et novissimus;
Qui de caelis in has veni tenebras,
Liberare captivorum animas;
Passus mortem et multas injurias.”

Mox ego dereliqui lectulum,
Cucurri ad pessulum:
Ut dilecto tota domus pateat,
Et mens mea plenissime videat
Quem videre maxime desiderat. }[4]

The medieval woman’s husband is both Jesus and a good man who followed Jesus. In Christian understanding, Jesus and all humans are children of God and thus brothers and sisters to each other. With keen understanding of Christian love, her husband worked for social justice for men and suffered injuries and death. His commitment to overcoming mass incarceration, which highly disproportionately imprisons men, continued even after his death. Resurrected, he returned to earth to work further to liberate prisoners and spend time with his sister-wife. She thought of him only as her husband. She ignored his Christian mission to liberate from literal captivity mainly men.

Women suffer disproportionately a type of imprisonment much different from the imprisonment that penal systems imposes mainly on persons with penises. Woman imprison themselves in their own sense of woman-self. They then experience men ceasing to communicate with them. That’s now popularly called “ghosting.” Women turn men into ghosts by ignoring men’s separate and different being. These women in effect no longer affirm men’s existence: “the future is female.” So it was that this medieval woman’s husband ghosted on her:

But he had already passed from there,
departed from the door.
Thus what, most miserable me, what should I do?
Weeping I followed the young man
whose hands shaped humans.

The city’s watchmen found me.
They plundered me of my clothing.
They stripped me and gave me another robe.
They sang to me a new song
so that I might be brought into the palace of a king.

{ At ille jam inde transierat,
Ostium reliquerat.
Quid ergo, miserrima, quid facerem?
Lacrymando sum secuta juvenem,
Manus cujus plasmaverunt hominem.

Vigiles urbis invenerunt me,
Exspoliaverunt me,
Abstulerunt et dederunt pallium,
Cantaverunt mihi novum canticum
Quo in regis inducar palatium. }

After her husband ghosted on her, the wife appreciated her husband’s work in liberating prisoners. She appreciated how his hands had shaped human lives. Christian exegetes have long interpreted the city’s watchmen as spiritual officials. They stripped the wife of her self-indulgent, sumptuous dress and remade her into a loving person worthy of living in the palace of God and at home with her husband.[5] While anathema to current gynocentric dogma, medieval poets believed that women could change and put on a new dress of ennobling love for men. Women could become worthy of men’s love through behavior much different from men-abasing practices of courtly love.

How can women today learn to sing a new song? An early tenth-century theological manuscript found in a medieval European monastery of Saint Peter and Saint Paul preserves a scarcely known song. In this song, a man imagines presenting a young woman to his mother or to God:

God would love the girl,
radiant and gracious.
God would love the girl

who would be in mind noble
and faithful to her lover.
God would love the girl,

as constant as gemstones
and radiant precious metals.
God would love the girl,

shining whiter than snow;
sweeter she is than even honeycombs.
God would love the girl –

roses yield to her
and similarly lilies.
God would love the girl –

flowers yield, all
saints love her.
God would love the girl

on earth surely worth
as much as the moon in the sky.
God would love the girl

who indeed vanquishes
the sun’s fiery rays.
God would love the girl!

{ Deus amet puellam
Claram et benivolam
Deus amet puellam

Quae sit mente nobilis
Ac amico fidelis
Deus amet puellam

Constans gemmis similis
Atque claris metallis
Deus amet puellam

Candidior nivis
Dulcior est et favis
Deus amet puellam

Cedunt illi rosae
Simul atque liliae
Deus amet puellam

Cedunt flores, cuncti
Amant illam sancti
Deus amet puellam

Pollet nempe terris
Luna velut in caelis
Deus amet puellam

Solis quippae radios
Vincit illa fervidos
Deus amet puellam }[6]

This young woman is beautiful in appearance and in behavior. In medieval Christianity, lilies represent the purity of faith; roses, the self-giving blood of martyrs. This young woman surpasses lilies and roses with her faith and her self-giving love. In desire for her man, she burns with fire hotter than the sun. Women can aspire to be that woman.

The man who imagined presenting the young woman to his mother or God apparently came from Heaven. The young woman is a mother’s dream for her son. She is a Heavenly ideal. After speaking to himself about this Heaven-on-earth woman, the man turned to speak directly to an ordinary young woman who loved him and whom he loved:

Whence I ask you, girl,
would you wish to know such qualities?
May God love this girl.

What dignity comes to her
for whom love endures.
May God love this girl.

What glory comes to her
for whom treachery doesn’t exist.
May God love this girl.

Bare your soul,
join your lover.
May God love this girl

who at night begs
to give you sweet kisses
— may God love this girl —

and soft embraces
and truths and affections.
May God love this girl!

Farewell, farewell, girl,
sweetest of all.
May God love this girl.

Farewell now for ever;
Christ be also with you.
May God love this girl.

May all say Amen
who in Heaven beg for rest.
May God love this girl.

{ Unde rogo, puella
velis scire talia
Deus amet puellam

Quae fit illi dignitas
cui manet caritas
Deus amet puellam

Quae fit illi gloria
quae non extat perfida
Deus amet puellam

Stringe tuum animum
iunge tuum amicum
Deus amet puellam

Qui tibi noctu dulcia
dare poscit oscula
Deus amet puellam

Molles et amplexus
veros et affetus
Deus amet puellam

Vale, vale, puella
omnium dulcissima
Deus amet puellam

Vale iam per evum
Christus sit et tecum
Deus amet puellam

Omnes dicant Amen
Qui in caelo poscunt requiem
Deus amet puellam }

The young woman apparently answered “yes” to his question, “Would you wish to know such qualities?” This saintly man then prayed to God for her, urged her to unite herself to him (“join your lover”), appreciated her specific acts of love for him, and returned to Heaven. In medieval Christian understanding, saints in Heaven intercede to aid pious persons on earth. That’s onerous, tiring work, because earthly persons need much help. Women can help themselves by listening to this new song for them and converting themselves.[7]

Women’s capabilities shouldn’t be under-estimated. Virgil, one of the greatest authorities of pre-Christian poetry, asserted women’s capacity to change and respond to circumstances.[8] We are now living in circumstances of pervasive lovelessness, especially in Spain and Denmark. Women, however, can change. Women can undergo personal conversion. They can practice ennobling love for men and become worthy of men’s love.

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[1] A leading medieval scholar associated “ennobling love” with courtly interpersonal interaction that is morally improving. Behind that abstraction, he asserted women’s essential moral superiority to men:

Moral value, not sex, is the measure of worth, and woman is declared better able to learn virtue than man. … The point is that the positive pole here introduces into the public forum of poetry a differentiated view of woman, an awareness of the virtuousness and honor potentially present, maybe even inherent, in women, a sensitivity to the “glory of the female sex.”

Jaeger (1999) p. 94. This idea of “ennobling love” reflects the delusional gyno-idolatry that Lucretius attempted to dispel. Across the past century and a half, academics have constructed men-abasing courtly love as “ennobling love.” Prefiguring and trumping such scholarly nonsense, Bloch (1991) argued that men-abasing courtly love abases women and is closely associated with misogyny.

Ennobling love for men, as described above, isn’t an essential, eternal, and universal dynamic of gendered human behavior. It’s relevant only under the ideological dominance of men-oppressing, aggressively irrational gynocentrism. Bloch (1991), Jaeger (1999), and much other contemporary discourse exemplify men-oppressing, aggressively irrational gynocentrism.

[2] Song of Songs 2:2-6, Hebrew text from BlueLetterBible (Westminster Leningrad Codex), English translation based on widely used biblical translations. The subsequent quote is similarly from Song of Songs 3:1-4. Song of Songs is also known as the Song of Solomon and Canticle of Canticles {Canticum canticorum}.

[3] This one-stanza poem survives, set to music, in one manuscript: British Museum, Royal Appendix MS. 58, fol. 5. For an image of the relevant manuscript part and transcription, Frey (1976) p. 260. Id. provides the manuscript transcription used above. The punctuation of the transcript is editorial, mine, and significant. The poem has at least two possible readings, re-enforced with different punctuation:

Editors who favor the first version say that “can” means “does” or “did” and “small” means “thin, biting.” Editors who favor the second version think that “can” means “may” and “small” means “fine” or “gentle.” The first version then means: “Western wind, when will thou blow? The small rain down does (or did, or has begun to) rain. (Please blow it away!)” The second version means: “Western wind, when will thou blow so that the small rain down can rain?” The majority of critics favor the latter reading, and there are several reasons to do so.

Id. p. 261. Particularly with appreciation for the woman’s dreams in the Song of Songs, the gender of the poetic voice in this poem seems to me impossible to discern.

While the poem is written in early modern English, its date of origin is subject to estimates varying from about 1300 to the early sixteenth century. Id. p. 264; for bibliographic details, id. p. 275, n. 16. For details on its melody and performance history, see Ian Pittaway’s post “Westron wynde: a beautiful fragment of longing.” Pittaway performs the poem on a medieval bray harp. Francesco Barbieri recorded a haunting solo voice performance.

I know a lady in a bright bower {Ichot a burde in boure bryht},” with refrain beginning “Blow, northern wind {Blow, northerne wynd},” is a thematically similar poem from no later than the first half of the fourteenth century. It’s preserved in London, British Library MS Harley 2253.

In his post “Two Erotic Poems,” Dr. Metablog (Vivian de St. Vrain) interprets the invocation of Christ in the third verse as “shockingly blasphemous.” A more detailed analysis perceives starkly opposed possibilities:

The speaker’s wife is dead; he appropriately invokes “Cryst.” The speaker’s sweetheart is alive, a sailor or farmer far from their illicit bed: “Cryst” is thus a most impious profanity.

Frey (1976) p. 263. In contrast to medieval stereotypes, medieval readers were more tolerant than modern readers. They had earthy appreciation for incarnate humanity. Medieval readers wouldn’t have focused on judging the poetic voice as pious or impious.

[4] Stanzas 1-3, Latin text from Raby (1953) pp. 254-5, English translation (with my minor changes) from Rendall (1970) p. 145. The subsequent quote, similarly sourced, is stanzas 4-5, which end the poem. Raby (1953) doesn’t cite a source. Dronke describes it as:

the famous ‘Quis est hic qui pulsat ad ostium’, found in an eleventh-century miscellany in the Beneventan script (Casinensis, III, p. 409), where it is entitled ‘Rhythmus de b[eata] Maria virg[ine]’.

Id. p. 269. This poem was notable enough to be included in Brittain (1962). It has been attributed to Peter Damian, but that attribution is doubtful. Id. p. xxvii, Raby (1953) p. 255. The title of the poem is probably a scribal addition. Rendall (1970) pp. 150-1. For slightly different translations, Dronke (1965) vol. 1, pp. 269-70, and Brittain (1962), pp. 180-1.

[5] Rendall declared that the references to injuries and death (v. 10) and hands that shaped humans (v. 20) definitively establish the visitor as Jesus Christ. Rendall (1970) p. 146. That declaration doesn’t appreciate sufficiently the medieval sense of communion with saints and saintly intervention. The reference to “the first and the last” could refer either to God the “highest king” (cf. Revelation 1:8) or to Jesus, the son of God / a facet of the one triune God. In my interpretation, the reference is to the former. On the watchmen as spiritual officials, id. pp. 147-50.

Dronke interpreted this poem to focus on the “magnificent sexual fantasy” of Song of Songs 5:2-7. He described the poem as containing “no trace of theological allegorêsis” and little theological assertion. Dronke (1965) p. 270. As Rendall (1970) p. 146 observed, Dronke’s reading of this poem is shallow.

Medieval exegetes produced at least eighty Latin commentaries on the Song of Songs. Without meaningful interpretation of gender, medieval exegetes interpreted the woman of the Song of Songs as the Church / the bride of Christ and the human soul. They also interpreted her as the Virgin Mary. Matter (1990), esp. Ch. 6.

Comparison of Song of Songs 3:1-4 to Song of Songs 5:2-7 suggests that the ancient compiler of the Song of Songs understood it in part as a self-improvement guide for women. “Quis est hic qui pulsat ad ostium” suggests medieval understanding of the Song of Songs as contributing to that type of spiritual literature. However, commentary and exegesis on the Song of Songs as a self-improvement guide for women likely encountered marginalization and suppression under historical gynocentrism. Such commentary and exegesis is even less welcomed among more intensely dogmatic gynocentric authorities today.

[6] Latin text from Weimar Staatsbibliothek, Qu. 39, folio 126r, printed in Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Poetae Latini Medii Aevi, vol. 5, part 2, pp. 553-4, English translation (with my small changes) by a leading expert in Latin philology and love. The subsequent quote is from the same poem and similarly sourced. I’ve eliminated all punctuation, which is editorial, in the Latin text. For related bibliographic references, Dronke (1965) vol. 2, p. 581. Dronke observed that this poem occurs in the early tenth-century manuscript “on a page between Augustine’s sermon on the Proverbs of Solomon and Jerome’s Ad Susannam.” Dronke (1965) p. 264.

Dronke described “Deus amet puellam” as “The first lyric in medieval Europe which is wholly courtois, as I understand the term.” Dronke (1965) vol. 1, p. 264. Dronke’s understanding of courtois, as I understand it, is men-abasing and women-pedastalizing. Those practices are wholly absent in this poem. Dronke interpreted this poem as showing admirable gyno-idolatry for an earthly woman. Id. pp. 266-8. That seems to me a simplistic, delusional understanding of an intricate and complex poem.

According to Jaeger, this poem is “not in the tradition of court poetry and other testimony on court love from Carolingian times on.” Jaeger (1999) p. 252, n. 58. However, consistent with his understanding of men’s moral inferiority to women and “ennobling love,” Jaeger perceives this poem to be “one bit of testimony to a sense of the {man} lover raised in stature by loving a woman.” Id. p. 258, n. 2. This poem seems to me much better interpreted in terms of women’s ennobling love for men.

[7] In support of increasingly totalitarian gynocentrism, scholars in recent decades have emphasized feminine characteristics of God. Interpretations of the Song of Songs have followed dominant ideology. The book blurb for Astell (1990) declares:

Astell describes interpretations of the Song of Songs in terms of the various feminine archetypes that the expositors emphasize — the Virgin, Mother, Hetaira, or Medium. She maintains that the commentators encourage the auditor’s identification with the figure of the Bride so as to evoke and direct the feminine, affective powers of the soul.

Medieval interpreters identified the woman of the Song of Songs with the human soul (in Latin anima, a feminine noun) and the Christian church (a gynocentric human institution). Astell’s claims, however, are broader:

salvation for both men and women must come through the feminine powers of the soul … Indeed, the central consciousness of the Song, in its literal sense, is feminine, not masculine, gynocentric, if you will.

Astell (1990) pp. 7-8. Both “Quis est hic qui pulsat ad ostium” and “Deus amet puellam” draw significantly on the Song of Songs. In a literal sense, the Song of Songs and both these poems emphasize the salvific importance of men for women.

Astell associates “the power to embody the Word” with the feminine. Id. p. 13. That’s a sophistic claim. In Christian understanding, Mary, the mother of God, gave birth to Jesus, the son of God. In Christian understanding, Jesus, a fully masculine man, is himself the embodied Word of God. John 1:1-18. In supporting dominant ideology, Astell has significantly misrepresented biblical texts.

A highly influential medieval scholar perceived Christian goddess worship to have become prominent in twelfth-century Europe:

Here, in the setting of {twelfth-century European} Christianity, something analogous to Silvestris’ gnosticism occurs: a feminine power invades the concept of the Godhead. … in the works of the latter {Bernard Silvestris}, the feminine component of Godhead is at the same time mater generationis {mother of giving birth}, uterus indefessus {indefatigable womb}, Natura praegnabilis {fertile Nature}. Here, then, as through an opened sluice, the fertility cult of the earliest ages flows once again into the speculation of the Christian West.

Curtius (1953) pp. 122-3. In fact, the “skillful penis {sollers mentula}” is a vitally important transformative force in Bernard’s Cosmographia. Gynocentric fertility cults are of course ancient phenomena, as is gynocentrism itself.

On singing a new song, Psalms 96:1, 98:1, 144:9; Revelation 5:9, 14:3.

[8] Virgil, Aeneid 4.569, “a woman is always varying and circumstantially responsive {varium et mutabile semper femina}.”

[images] (1) Video performance of “Deus amet puellam” (with verse order modified and some verses omitted) by Moon Far Away (composer, Alexey M. Sheptunov) from its album Minnesang (Auerbach Tonträger, 2010). Here’s a transcription of this song’s lyrics. (2) Tomi Lahren, “PSA for Boyish Men,” published by Tomi Lahren on Facebook on August 4, 2020. Here’s the YouTube version.


Astell, Ann W. 1990. The Song of Songs in the Middle Ages. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. (review by Lawrence Besserman)

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

Brittain, Frederick. 1962. The Penguin Book of Latin Verse: with plain prose translations of each poem. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books.

Curtius, Ernst Robert. 1953. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Translated from the Germany by Willard R. Trask. New York: Pantheon Books.

Dronke, Peter. 1965. Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Frey, Charles. 1976. ‘Interpreting “Western Wind.” ELH (English Literary History). 43 (3): 259-278.

Jaeger, C. Stephen. 1999. Ennobling Love: in search of a lost sensibility. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. (review by Constant Mews; Jaeger’s response)

Matter, Edith Ann. 1990. The Voice of My Beloved: the Song of Songs in Western Medieval Christianity. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press. (review by Lawrence Besserman)

Raby, F. J. E. 1953. A History of Christian-Latin Poetry from the Beginnings to the Close of the Middle Ages. 2nd Edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Rendall, Thomas. 1970. ‘“Quis est hic qui pulsat ad ostium?”: An Explication.’ Philological Quarterly 49 (2): 145-151.

Charlemagne’s peer Oliver outdid Emperor Claudius’s wife Messalina

Valeria Messalina, who acquired as a husband the first-century Roman Emperor Tiberius Claudius, is renowned for her strong, independent sexuality. Women are sexually privileged in having socially constructed near-invulnerability to charges of rape and constitutionally protected reproductive choice. Yet if men enjoyed such privileges, they too might exercise strong, independent sexuality. Lost through biases of gynocentrism is an astonishing fact: Charlemagne’s peer Count Oliver, now largely unknown, actually exceeded Messalina in one-day sexual vigor.

Roman Empress Messalina reclining

Messalina was an elite Roman woman. She was a great-grandniece of the first Roman Emperor Augustus, a cousin of Emperor Nero, and a second cousin of Emperor Caligula. She married Claudius about 40 GC in a politically astute choice. Claudius, who had recently been consul, became the Roman Emperor in 41 GC. Contrary to mistaken assertions, Messalina was in her early twenties when she married Claudius. He was then about forty-nine and still sexually vigorous. He appreciated having sex with young, beautiful women.[1]

Messalina, however, wasn’t sexually satisfied with her husband Claudius. She took numerous extra-marital lovers. For example, she quickly used and disposed of the Roman knight Traulus Montanus:

A modest youth but with an outstanding body, he within a single night had sex with Messalina and was driven away, for she was equally promiscuous in her desires and disdains.

{ Is modesta iuventa, sed corpore insigni, accitus ultro noctemque intra unam a Messalina proturbatus erat, paribus lasciviis ad cupidinem et fastidia. }[2]

Via manipulation of imperial decrees, Messalina even raped men, including the famous pantomime dancer Mnester:

She was desperately enamored of Mnester. When she found herself unable by making him promises or by frightening him to persuade him to have sexual intercourse with her, she had a talk with her husband. She asked him that the man be compelled to obey her. She pretended that she wanted his help for some different purpose. Claudius accordingly told Mnester to do whatever Messalina ordered him to do. Thus it came about that he had sex with her. He believed that this was a thing he had been commanded to do by her husband. Messalina also adopted this same method with various other men to commit adultery with them. She pretended that Claudius knew what was going on and countenanced her extra-marital affairs.

{ σφόδρα γὰρ ἤρα, καὶ ἐπεί γε μηδένα τρόπον μήθ᾿ ὑπισχνουμένη τι μήτε ἐκφοβοῦσα αὐτὸν συγγενέσθαι αὐτῇ ἀναπεῖσαι ἐδύνατο, διελέχθη τῷ ἀνδρί, ἀξιοῦσα αὐτὸν πειθαρχεῖν οἱ ἀναγκασθῆναι ὡς καὶ ἐπ᾿ ἄλλο τι αὐτοῦ δεομένη· καὶ οὕτως εἰπόντος αὐτῷ τοῦ Κλαυδίου πάνθ᾿ ὅσα ἂν προστάττηται ὑπὸ τῆς Μεσσαλίνης ποιεῖν, συνῆν αὐτῇ ὡς καὶ τοῦθ᾿ ὑπ᾿ ἐκείνου κεκελευσμένος. τὸ δ᾿ αὐτὸ τοῦτο καὶ πρὸς ἄλλους συχνοὺς ἔπραττεν· ὡς γὰρ εἰδότος τε τοῦ Κλαυδίου τὰ γιγνόμενα καὶ συγχωροῦντός οἱ ἀκολασταίνειν ἐμοιχεύετο. }[3]

Refusing to have sex with Messalina could be deadly even for a close relative or politically prominent man. Appius Junius Silanus, the governor of eastern Spain, became the third husband of Messalina’s mother. When he refused to have sex with Messalina, she fabricated a charge of treason that caused him to be executed. Marcus Vinicius, consul in 30 GC, refused to have sex with her. For that offense, she poisoned him.[4]

Not content merely to cuckold flagrantly and repeatedly her husband Emperor Claudius, Messalina “flowed onward toward untried lusts {ad incognitas libidines profluebat}.” She felt “a new love near to madness {novus et furori proximus amor}” for C. Gaius Silius. He was generally regarded as “the most beautiful of Roman young men {iuventutis Romanae pulcherrimus}.” He was also the consul designate for 49 GC and a married man. Messalina acted forcefully and decisively:

She ejected his distinguished wife, Junia Silana, from their marriage and seized that vacancy to commit adultery. Silius understood the scandal and the danger, but refusing Messalina would be certain death, and there was some hope of not being exposed. Since the rewards were great, he accepted for solace to await the future and to enjoy the present. She openly, going out accompanied by many, kept coming to his home. She clung to him and bestowed upon him wealth and honors. Finally, as if destiny had been transferred, imperial slaves, free-persons, and furnishings were seen in the adulterer’s house.

{ Iuniam Silanam, nobilem feminam, matrimonio eius exturbaret vacuoque adultero poteretur. Neque Silius flagitii aut periculi nescius erat: sed certo, si abnueret, exitio et nonnulla fallendi spe, simul magnis praemiis, opperiri futura et praesentibus frui pro solacio habebat. Illa non furtim, sed multo comitatu ventitare domum, egressibus adhaerescere, largiri opes, honores, postremo, velut translata iam fortuna, servi liberti paratus principis apud adulterum visebantur. }[5]

A foolish man, Silius suggested that Messalina and he marry. Messalina reluctantly agreed:

She took time accepting his words, not because of love for her husband, but wondering whether Silius would spurn his adulterous lover after obtaining the heights of power and then appraising the crime, approved amid peril, at its true price. Nonetheless, she desired the name of being married for its great infamy, which is the ultimate delight among the profligate. Not waiting any longer than for Claudius to depart to Ostia for a sacrifice, she celebrated with Silius the solemn rites of marriage.

{ Segniter eae voces acceptae, non amore in maritum, sed ne Silius summa adeptus sperneret adulteram scelusque inter ancipitia probatum veris mox pretiis aestimaret. Nomen tamen matrimonii concupivit ob magnitudinem infamiae, cuius apud prodigos novissima voluptas est. Nec ultra exspectato, quam dum sacrificii gratia Claudius Ostiam proficisceretur, cuncta nuptiarum sollemnia celebrat. }

For the Roman Emperor’s wife to celebrate for herself a second, concurrent marriage openly in Rome seems unbelievable. The Roman historian Tacitus recognized this credibility problem and explicitly affirmed these facts:

I am hardly ignorant that it appears to be fabulous that any humans could feel so secure in a city knowing all and keeping nothing quiet. Even more so that a consul-designate with the wife of the emperor, on a day proclaimed in advance, with witness summoned for the sealing, would come together for the purpose of freely undertaking a legitimate marriage, including her listening to fortune-tellers’ words, wearing a bridal veil, and sacrificing before the gods. Both dined among guests, kissed and hugged, and passed the night having done the sexual act of licit spouses. But I have fabricated nothing for the sake of marvellousness. I transmit truly what my elders have heard or written.

{ Haud sum ignarus fabulosum visum iri tantum ullis mortalium securitatis fuisse in civitate omnium gnara et nihil reticente, nedum consulem designatum cum uxore principis, praedicta die, adhibitis qui obsignarent, velut suscipiendorum liberorum causa convenisse, atque illam audisse auspicum verba, subisse flammeum, sacrificasse apud deos; discubitum inter convivas, oscula complexus, noctem denique actam licentia coniugali. Sed nihil compositum miraculi causa, verum audita scriptaque senioribus tradam. }

Not surprisingly, Emperor Claudius was informed that his wife Messalina had married Gaius Silius in that way on that day in Rome. The ensuing investigation led to at least ten men being condemned to death.[6] Additional men may have been condemned, but men dying attracts relatively little public notice.

Roman Empress Messalina reclining nearly nude

Messalina was recognized as a sexual champion. The first-century Roman naturalist-scholar Pliny the Elder observed:

Other animals have fixed times of year for mating, but humans, as is said, mate at all hours of the day and night. Other animals become satiated with sexual intercourse. In humans, satiety is nearly absent. Messalina, spouse of Claudius Caesar, valued the following as a royal victory. She selected for battle a certain extremely famous slave-girl living by the wages of commercial prostitution. In a night-and-day twenty-four-hour challenge, Messalina surpassed her with twenty-five sexual couplings. In humans, all the unusual sexual acts, crimes against nature, have been devised by the male sex. Females in particular have devised abortion. How much more pernicious in this area are we than wild animals!

{ ceteris animalibus stati per tempora anni concubitus, homini, ut dictum est, omnibus horis dierum noctiumque. ceteris satias in coitu, homini prope nulla; Messalina Claudii Caesaris coniunx regalem hanc existimans palmam elegit in id certamen nobilissimam e prostitutis ancillam mercenariae stipis, eamque nocte ac die superavit quinto atque vicensimo concubitu. in hominum genere maribus deverticula veneris excogitata omnia, scelera naturae, feminis vero abortus. quantum in hac parte multo nocentiores quam ferae sumus! }[7]

Pliny’s moralistic perspective is no longer widely accepted. His comparative ethology, however, is more scientific than the claims of most authorities writing about gender and sexuality today. Within the naturalistic context of Pliny’s writing, the facts that he asserts about Messalina’s sexual triumph are credible. The transgressive Roman poet Juvenal, writing about 100 GC, provides testimony consistent with Pliny’s account of Messalina’s strong, independent sexuality.[8]

While these classics about Messalina have been privileged in forming the western literary canon, even more sexually vigorous men have been historically marginalized within the gynocentric process of constraining and suppressing men’s sexuality. In eighth-century Europe, the famous Christian king Charlemagne had at least ten wives or concubines and at least eighteen children. Charlemagne also had twelve peers. Among the most eminent of those peers were Roland and his close friend Count Oliver. Oliver was the brother of Roland’s beloved, betrothed woman Aude. The Pilgrimage of Charlemagne {Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne}, an Old French poem probably written in the second half of the twelfth century, tells of Oliver’s astonishing sexual feat.

Charlemagne and his men undertook a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Constantinople. Charlemagne’s motivation for leading his men on this long pilgrimage came from an insult that he endured. It was a typical situation for a husband:

One day, in the Church of Saint-Denis, Charles put on his crown and crossed himself. His sword with its pommel of pure gold was girt about him and in his company were dukes, lords, barons, and knights. He looked at his wife, the queen, who wore her crown with great splendor, and taking her by the hand beneath an olive tree, he began to speak forcefully to her. “My lady, have you ever seen any man on earth with a sword or crown more becoming than mine? With my lance I shall conquer yet more cities.” The queen lacked sense and made a foolish reply. “Emperor,” she said, “you think too highly of yourself. I know someone even more dashing than you when he wears his crown in the company of his knights. When he puts it on his head, it suits him better than yours.” When he heard these words, Charles was very angry.

{ Un jur fu Karleun al Seint Denis muster;
Reout prise sa corune, en croiz seignat sun chef,
E ad ceinte sa espee; li ponz fud d’or mer.
Dux i out e demeines e baruns e chevalers.
Li empereres reguardet la reine sa muillers:
Ele fut ben corunee al plus bel e al meuz.
Il la prist par le poin desuz un oliver,
De la pleine parole la prist a reisuner:
“Dame, veistes unkes hume nul dedesuz ceil
Tant ben seist espee ne la corone el chef?
Uncore cunquerrei jo citez ot mun espeez.”
Cele ne fud pas sage, folement respondeit:
“Emperere,” dist ele, “trop vus poez preiser.
Uncore en sa jo un ki plus se fait leger,
Quant il porte corune entre ses chevalers.
Kaunt il la met sur sa teste, plus belement lui set.”
Quant l’entend Charle, mult est curecez; }[9]

What husband wouldn’t be angry at his wife for such an insult and such disrespect for his lance? Charlemagne insisted that his wife tell him the name of this other, more dashing king. With considerable reluctance, she said that the other king was King Hugo the Strong, Emperor of Greece and Constantinople, ruler of all of Persia as far as Cappadocia. She said that King Hugo was the finest knight between Paris and Antioch. Charlemagne declared that he would voyage without rest until he had seen this rival in handsomeness. Societies typically value men instrumentally. Men deserve to be appreciated for their intrinsic bodily beauty, just as Charlemagne did for himself.

After spending about four months in Jerusalem and acquiring some powerful holy relics, Charlemagne and his men traveled on their mules to Constantinople. There they found a lush orchard within which twenty thousand Byzantine knights played chess and backgammon and tended their hawks and falcons. Three thousand comely maidens, dressed in simmering silk, clung to their lovers, who apparently had forgone playing chess and backgammon. Charlemagne found the Byzantine King Hugo plowing a field with a golden plow. He plowed riding in a luxurious carriage and sitting on a down cushion covered with Persian silk. King Hugo halted his plowing to greet Charlemagne.

King Hugo escorted Charlemagne into the palace at Constantinople. Everything inside the palace was made of gold. The windows were made of fine crystal, beautiful paintings hung on the walls, kinetic sculptures were alive and sounded angelic music, and the whole palace revolved on a pedestal in the wind. King Hugo’s wife and his beautiful blonde-haired daughter greeted them inside the palace. Count Oliver gazed upon the daughter and desired her. After having a lavish meal and drinking much wine, Charlemagne and his twelve peers retired to their huge, jewel-encrusted bed-chamber.

Within the privacy of their bed-chamber in that marvelous palace, Charlemagne and his peers buoyed their spirits with boasting. Charlemagne boasted that he would cleave into two a Byzantine knight wearing two helmets and two hauberks and would strike through his horse as well and leave his sword buried deep in the ground. Roland declared that with King Hugo’s oliphant he would blow down all the doors of the palace and leave King Hugo without whiskers and his robe blown inside out. The boasts of Charlemagne and Roland reflect pervasive violence against men. Count Oliver, in contrast, boasted of his capabilities for sexual service:

Let the king take his own daughter, whose hair is so fair, and place us together on our own in her bedroom. If on her testimony I do not have sex with her one hundred times during the night, tomorrow may I lose my head. On this I give my word!

{ Prenget li reis sa fille, qui tant ad bloi le peil,
En sa cambre nus metet en un lit en requeit:
Si jo ne l’ai anut, testimonie de lui, cent feiz,
Demain perde la teste, par covent le otrai! }[10]

The famous Messalina, renowned for her strong sexuality, had sex only twenty-five times across a full twenty-four hour period. Moreover, Messalina had sex as a commercial prostitute. Oliver proposed to do much more sexual labor without any financial compensation whatsoever. That difference underscores systemic gender discrimination against men’s sexuality. Gynocentric societies are obsessed with gender gaps. They should show equal concern for gender protrusions.

King Hugo had a spy hidden hidden beneath the floor of the bed-chamber in which Charlemagne and his men boasted and rested. The spy reported all their boasts to King Hugo. Hugo declared that if they were lying and couldn’t fulfill their boasts, he would cut off their heads. He turned first to Count Oliver for a truth test. He demanded that Oliver fulfill his boast. If Oliver became weak or frail even just once, he would lose his head. That’s another example of castration culture’s pernicious influence.

After allowing Oliver a restful day receiving whatever he desired, at nightfall King Hugo put Oliver to the test. The circumstances were appealing, but the daughter had absorbed gender-bigoted representations of men’s sexuality:

The king had his daughter taken to her bedroom. Its walls were completely covered with silks and curtains. Her skin was as white as a flower in summer. Oliver entered and began to smile. When the maiden saw him she was very much afraid, yet she was courtly and spoke to him in noble terms: “Lord, did you leave France in order to kill us women?” Oliver replied: “Have no fear, fair one. If you trust me, you will come to no harm.”

{ Li reis fait en sa cambre cunduire sa fille:
Purtendue est trestute de pailles e de curtines.
Ele out la carn tant blanche cum flur en esté.
Oliver i entrat, si començat a rire.
Quant le vit la pucele mult est aspourie;
Purquant si fud curteise, gente parole ad dite:
“Sire, eissistes de France pur nus femmes ocire?”
E respund Oliver: “Ne dutez, bele amie:
Si crere me volez, tute en serrez garie.” }

They talked in bed and resolved the situation satisfactorily:

Oliver lay in bed beside the king’s daughter. He turned her towards him and kissed her three times. She was very wise, and he spoke in courtly fashion: “My lady, you are very beautiful, for you are a king’s daughter. Even if I did make my jest, you would be wrong to fear it. I have, to be sure, no intention of accomplishing my desires with you.” “Lord,” said the maiden, “have mercy on me. I shall never again know joy if you dishonor me.”

{ Oliver gist el lit lez la fille le rei:
Devers sei l’a turnét, si la beisat .iii. feiz.
Ele fud ben cointe e il dist que curteis:
“Dame, mult estes bele, car estes fille de rei.
Pureoc si dis mun gab, ja mar vus en crendrez:
De vus mes volentez aamplir, ço ne quier a veir.”
“Sire,” dist la pucele, “aiez merci de mei:
Jamés ne serrai lee, se vus me hunisét.” }

The king’s daughter was wise and had previously known joy. She sought mercy from Oliver, just as many medieval men sought mercy from women. In this context, dishonoring her seems to mean not having sex with her. Most men seek to honor women. Most men are merciful toward women. So it was with Charlemagne’s peer Count Oliver:

“Fair one,” said Oliver, “let it be at your command, but it is necessary that you acquit me with the king. I shall make you my sweetheart and seek no one else.” She was most courtly and pledged her faith. That night the count did it with her no more than thirty times. In the morning, at daybreak, the king arrived and called his daughter to one side, saying: “Tell me, fair daughter, did he do it with you a hundred times?” “Yes, my lord the king,” she replied.

{ “Bele,” dist Oliver, “al vostre cumant seit,
Mais m’en cuvent que m’aquitet vers lu rei.
De vus frai ma drue, ja ne quier altre aveir.”
Cele fud ben curteise, si l’en plevit sa fei.
Li quens ne li fist la nuit mes que .xxx. feiz.
Al matin, par sun l’albe, i est venuz li reis,
E apelat sa fille, si li dist en requeit:
“Dites mei, bele fille, ad le vus fait .c. feiz?”
Cele li respunt: “Oil, sire reis”. }

Oliver put himself at the king’s daughter’s command. Perhaps she tired after thirty sexual couplings. Yet as an honorable young woman, she kept her word, acquitted him to the king with a lie, and saved his life. The king was astonished that Oliver had passed the truth test. He declared that Oliver must be a magician.

The king’s daughter loved Oliver for his service to her. When Charlemagne and King Hugo walked in a procession along with King Hugo’s wife and daughter, as soon as the daughter saw Oliver, she wanted to run to him and talk with him and kiss him. She didn’t dare for fear of her father. Her mother probably would have been more understanding. When Charlemagne and his men prepared to leave Constantinople to return to France, the king’s daughter acted more boldly:

King Hugo’s daughter ran forward without restraint and, as soon as she saw Oliver, she seized him by the lappet of his robe: “I have given you my love and affection. If you are willing to take me to France, I shall come with you. “Fair one,” said Oliver, “my love is yours completely. I shall go to France with my lord Charlemagne.”

{ La u veit Oliver, sil prent par sun gerun:
“A vus ai jo turnét ma amistét ma amur.
Que m’en porterez en France, si m’en irrai od vus.”
“Bele,” dist Oliver, “m’amur vus abandun:
Jo m’en irrai en France od mun seignur Carleun.” }

Full of prudence and common sense, Oliver replied shrewdly. He undoubtedly further impassioned her heart. Galiens li Restorés {Galien the Restored} records that Oliver and the Byzantine princess Jacqueline had a son named Galien. Jacqueline and Oliver remained ardently in love with each other right up to the time that Oliver was killed in the terrible violence against men at Roncevaux Pass.[11]

The marvelous sexual performance of Charlemagne’s peer Oliver has literally been subject to effacement. Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne survived to modern times in only one manuscript. That manuscript was “lost” in 1879. At some time prior to that date, a thin line was drawn through verse 726: “That night the count did it with her no more than thirty times {Li quens ne li fist la nuit mes que .xxx. feiz}.”[12] Some medieval scribe may have objected to Count Oliver not being credited with a full hundred sexual couplings.

Beginning in 1956, an eminent Swiss philologist identified Oliver’s sexual performance as a textual problem to be corrected. He wrote:

The problem is worth the effort to raise, if only to try to clean medieval French literature of this stain, not only on morals, but above all on good taste.

{ Le problème vaut la peine d’être soulevé, ne serait-ce que pour tenter de nettoyer la littérature française médiévale de cette tache, non point seulement à la morale, mais surtout au bon goût: }[13]

Working within gender biases of modern philology, the philologist removed verse 726 from the text and modified another verse to suggest that Oliver desired only the verbal testimony of the king’s daughter. He then argued that Oliver, in bed with the king’s daughter, merely kissed her three times. His subsequent critical edition of Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne, published in 1965, became the most widely used scholarly edition of that text.[14]

While Messalina has received starring representations in numerous plays, novels, and films, Charlemagne’s peer Count Oliver is largely unknown.[15] That’s a characteristic social bias. Oliver outdid Messalina’s sexual performance by thirty to twenty-five. Yet men with strong, independent sexuality aren’t culturally celebrated. Harsh penal regimes and men being legally subject to forced financial fatherhood strictly suppress men’s sexuality. That must change if progress toward gender equality is to be more than an elaborate, oppressive farce enacted through dominant media and institutions of authority. With supportive laws and institutions, men’s sexuality could be at least as vigorous as women’s sexuality. Men could sexually aspire to the worthy achievement of Charlemagne’s peer Oliver.[16]

dea6ths of Charlemagne's peers Roland, Oliver, and other men

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Messalina was “no child, but in her early twenties when she married Claudius”:

Messallina’s mother was Domitia Lepida, a daughter of the consul of 16 B.C; the son of Domitia Lepida by her second marriage was Faustus Sulla Felix, consul in 52, presumably born about 20. Messallina, older than this Sulla, married Claudius shortly before 41.

Fagan (2002) p. 572 (cf. id. p. 571), Syme (1958) vol. 1, p. 437, n. 5 (biographic reference numbers omitted). Martínez Martos misleadingly declared that Messalina, “could not have been older than eighteen when she married Claudius.” Martínez (2019) p. 31, citing Fagan (2002) p. 571.

While Claudius was married to Messalina, she “took care of him by giving him sundry housemaids to lie with {ἐκείνῳ τε γὰρ θεραπαινίδιά τινα συμπαρακατέκλινε}.” Cassius Dio, Roman History 60.18.3, Greek text and English translation from Cary & Foster (1914). Seeking to inform Claudius about Messalina’s marriage to C. Gaius Silius, the freedman Narcissus used Calpurnia and another concubine, “to whose embraces Claudius was most habituated {quarum is corpori maxime insueverat}.” Tacitus, Annals, 11.29, Latin text and English translation from Jackson (1931). Claudius married his fourth wife, Julia Agrippina, in 49 GC. Such evidence indicates that Claudius was quite potent sexually.

[2] Tacitus, Annals 11.36, Latin text from Jackson (1931), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. Subsequent quotes from Tacitus are similarly sourced, unless otherwise noted.

[3] Cassius Dio, Roman History 60.22.4-5, Greek text and English translation (with my small changes for clarity and readability) from Cary & Foster (1914). Subsequent quotes from Cassius Dio are similarly sourced, unless otherwise noted.

Messalina faced stiff competition for Mnester’s affection. The Roman Emperor Caligula (Gaius Caesar) had been a lover of Mnester. Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars 4.36 (Caligula). Caligula would kiss Mnester in the theater and privilege his performances. Id. 4.55. After Caligula was assassinated, the Roman Senate had all bronze coins bearing Caligula’s likeness melted. Messalina had the resulting bronze used to make a statue of Mnester. Cassius Dio, Roman History 60.22.3.

Poppaea Sabina the Elder, a beautiful and eminent Roman woman, had a sexual affair with Mnester. Messalina regarded her as a rival and drove her to suicide with a charge of adultery. Tacitus, Annals 11.1-4.

Once she had Mnester as a lover, Messalina kept him with her in the palace. The Roman people demanded that Mnester, a highly popular pantomime dancer, return to the theater:

Mnester pleased the people as much by his skill as he did the empress by his good looks. Indeed, he was such a clever actor that once, when the crowd with great enthusiasm begged him to perform a famous pantomime, he put his head out from behind the stage and said: “I cannot comply, for I am in bed with Orestes.”

{ ὅσον γὰρ ἐκείνῃ διὰ τὸ κάλλος, τοσοῦτον τῷ δήμῳ διὰ τὴν τέχνην ἤρεσκεν. οὕτω γάρ που δεινὸς σοφιστὴς ἐν τῇ ὀρχήσει ἦν ὥστε τοῦ ὁμίλου μεγάλῃ ποτὲ σπουδῇ δρᾶμά τι αὐτὸν ἐπιβόητον ὀρχήσασθαι δεομένου, παρακῦψαί τε ἐκ τῆς σκηνῆς καὶ εἰπεῖν ὅτι “οὐ δύναμαι τοῦτο ποιῆσαι· τῷ γὰρ Ὀρέστῃ συγκεκοίμημαι.” }

Cassius Dio, Roman History 60.28.5. Orestes’s mother was Clytemnestra. When her husband / Orestes’s father Agamemnon was absent, Clytemnestra had an affair with Aegisthus. She had Agamemnon killed when he returned home. Orestes in revenge killed both Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. As a close friend or lover of Orestes (“in bed” with Orestes), Mnester was unwilling to act the pantomime role of Clytemnestra, a plausible pun with Mnester. Mnester’s remark gains added piquancy given that he was actually committing adultery with Messalina. Mnester’s remark “might be Tacitus’ funniest joke.” Baldwin (1977) p. 138. That joke may have originated with the clever, popular pantomime performer Mnester himself.

Through fear of Messalina and to spare Mnester, Claudius wasn’t informed of Mnester’s affair with Messalina. Claudius wrongly told the Roman people that Mnester wasn’t in the palace. Cassius Dio, Roman History 60.28.5.

[4] On Messalina and Narcissus’s conspiracy against Appius Junius Silanus (also called Gaius Appius Silanus) and Silanus’s execution, Cassius Dio, Roman History 60.14; Suetonius, Caesars 5.29, 37 (Claudius). On Messalina poisoning Marcus Vinicius, Cassius Dio, Roman History 60.27.4. For Vinicius being a famous physician, Pliny, Natural History 29.1.8.

Messalina had a sexual affair with Polybius (Gaius Julius Polybius), who was Claudius’s literary advisor. Suetonius, Caesars 5.28 (Claudius). However, at some point during Messalina’s affair with Polybius, she falsely accused him. He thus was executed in 48 GC. Cassius Dio, Roman History 61.31.2.

Messalina’s favor saved Cornelius Sabinus from being executed for killing another man:

Sabinus, the former prefect of the German bodyguard in the time of Gaius, killed in a gladiatorial combat. Messalina saved him, for he had been one of her paramours.

{ τὸν Σαβῖνον τὸν τῶν Κελτῶν ἐπὶ τοῦ Γαΐου ἄρξαντα ἐν μονομαχίᾳ τινὶ ἀποκτεῖναι, ἡ Μεσσαλῖνα ἔσωσε· καὶ γὰρ ἐκείνῳ ἐπλησίαζε. }

Cassius Dio, Roman History 60.28.2; on Cornelius Sabinus, who participated in the assassination of Emperor Caligula, id. 59.29.1, 59.30.3. The German Bodyguard {Numerus Batavorum}, which differs from the Praetorians, were personal guards for Roman emperors during the Julio-Claudian imperial era.

[5] Tacitus, Annals 11.12. For a similar perspective on Silius’s dilemma with respect to Messalina, Juvenal, Satires 10.329-45. For an interpretative guide to Juvenal’s tenth satire, Murgatroyd (2017).

The three previous short quotes above are from Tacitus, Annals 11.26, 11.12, and again 11.12. The subsequent two quotes above are from id. 11.26 and 11.27.

[6] All the men were condemned to execution, but some chose instead to commit suicide. The men condemned as a result of Messalina’s bigamous marriage were: C. Gaius Silius (senator), Iuncus Vergilianus (ex-praetor), Titius Proculus (equestrian), Vettius Valens (equestrian, renowned physician), Pompeius Urbicus (equestrian, Messalina’s bodyguard), Saufeius Trogus (equestrian), Decrius Calpurnianus (equestrian, prefect of the night watches), Sulpicius Rufus (equestrian, procurator for the training school for gladiators), Traulus Montanus (equestrian), and Mnester (famous pantomime dancer). Seneca, Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii 13 provides a slightly different list. Fagan (2002) pp. 566-7, n. 4.

Mnester had sex with Messalina only under mortal coercion. He thus was executed for Messalina having raped him. Claudius had some misgivings about that punishment. Others, however, successfully urged him to go forward with it. Tacitus, Annals 11.36. Today, men being raped commonly is ignored. That’s social justice progress from having men executed for being raped. However, currently men are forced to make sex payments (“child support” payments) to their women rapists.

Suillius Caesoniunus was spared despite participating in debauchery with Messalina. Tacitus explained: “Suillius was protected by his vices, since he had accepted a woman’s sexual role in that most filthy intercourse {Caesoninus vitiis protectus est, tamquam in illo foedissimo coetu passus muliebria}.” Tacitus, Annals 11.36. Suillius apparently either applied his mouth to Messalina’s genitals or welcomed her to penetrate his anus. Women’s sexual crimes are typically treated much more leniently than men’s sexual crimes.

[7] Pliny, Natural History 10.83, Latin text from Rackham (1940), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. Pliny elsewhere notes that unlike other animals, humans reproduce all years long and their period of gestation varies. Natural History 7.38.

[8] In the ancient world, sex work typically was permitted and served social justice by promoting sexual equality. Without her husband Emperor Claudius’s knowledge, the highly privileged Empress Messalina eagerly took up lowly sex work:

When Claudius’s wife Messalina realized that her husband was asleep, she would leave, with no more than a single maid as her escort. Preferring a mat to her bedroom in the Palace, she dared to put on a night-time hood, the whore-empress. Like that, with a blonde wig hiding her black hair, she went inside a brothel reeking of ancient blankets to an empty cubicle — her very own cubicle. Then she stood there, naked and for sale, with her nipples gilded, under the trade name “She-Wolf. She put on display the belly you came from, noble-born Britannicus! She welcomed her customers seductively as they came in and asked for their money. Continually lying down, she took in the thrusts of all. Later, when the pimp was dismissing his girls, she left reluctantly, waiting until the last possible moment to shut her cubicle, still burning with desire and with her clitoris inflamed and stiff. She went away, exhausted by the men but not yet satisfied. A disgusting creature, with her cheeks filthy, her body dirty from the smoke of the lamp, she took back to the emperor’s couch the stench of the brothel.

{ dormire virum cum senserat uxor,
linquebat comite ancilla non amplius una.
sumere nocturnos meretrix Augusta cucullos
ausa Palatino et tegetem praeferre cubili.
sic nigrum flavo crinem abscondente galero
intravit calidum veteri centone lupanar
et cellam vacuam atque suam; tunc nuda papillis
prostitit auratis titulum mentita Lyciscae
ostenditque tuum, generose Britannice, ventrem.
excepit blanda intrantis atque aera poposcit.
continueque iacens cunctorum absorbuit ictus.
mox lenone suas iam dimittente puellas
tristis abit, et quod potuit tamen ultima cellam
clausit, adhuc ardens rigidae tentigine volvae,
et lassata viris necdum satiata recessit,
obscurisque genis turpis fumoque lucernae
foeda lupanaris tulit ad pulvinar odorem. }

Juvenal, Satires 6.116-132, Latin text and English translation (with my small changes) from Braund (2004). Braund brackets 6.126 and leaves it untranslated. That verse is less securely attested in surviving manuscripts. I’ve included it, with an inserted English translation, to provide all possible credit to Messalina for her sexual vigor.

In calling Messalina the “whore-empress {meretrix augusta},” Juvenal may have adapted Propertius’s description of Cleopatra as “whore-queen {meretrix regina}.” Propertius, Elegies 3.11.39.

Britannicus was Messalina and Claudius’s son. He was positioned to become the next Roman Emperor. However, Messalina’s bigamous marriage and subsequent condemnation allowed Nero to become the next emperor. Britannicus died from poisoning at age fourteen. That poisoning apparently occurred under Emperor Nero’s order to eliminate Britannicus, a potential rival.

An elite Roman woman becoming a common commercial prostitute wasn’t unprecedented. In 19 GC, Vistilia, a woman from an eminent Roman family of equestrian status, was sentenced to exile for prostitution:

In the same year, constraints on female lasciviousness were set by weighty Senate resolutions. It was established that no woman should commercially trade her body if her father, grandfather, or husband had been a Roman equestrian. Vistilia, the daughter of a praetorian family, had advertised her liberty of lewdness on the aediles’ list. This was the received practice among our ancestors. They believed that the immodest were sufficiently punished by the avowal of their disgraceful profession. Her husband, Titidius Labeo Vistilius, was also required to explain why, in view of his wife’s manifest guilt, he had not invoked the law’s penalty. He pleaded that sixty days, not yet elapsed, were allowed for deliberation. But enough time had passed for seeing Vistilia sentenced. She was exiled to the island of Seriphos.

{ Eodem anno, gravibus senatus decretis libido feminarum coercita cautumque ne quaestum corpore faceret cui avus aut pater aut maritus eques Romanus fuisset. Nam Vistilia, praetoria familia genita, licentiam stupri apud aedilis vulgaverat, more inter veteres recepto, qui satis poenarum adversum impudicas in ipsa professione flagitii credebant. Exactum et a Titidio Labeone Vistiliae marito cur in uxore delicti manifesta ultionem legis omisisset. Atque illo praetendente sexaginta dies ad consultandum datos necdum praeterisse, satis visum de Vistilia statuere; eaque in insulam Seriphon abdita est. }

Tacitus, Annals 2.85. Outrage at Vistilia’s sex work apparently motivated the Senate’s resolutions. This Vistilia probably was the daughter of Sextus Vistilius. She differs from the Vistilia who had seven children from six different husbands. Vervaet (2000) pp. 96-7. All of the second Vistilia’s children became eminent in first-century Roman society. Id. p. 96. Raia, Luschnig & Sebesta (2005), entry for Vistilia, conflates the two Vistilias.

Throughout history, many have tended to deny women’s sexual agency and women’s strong, independent sexuality. Thus the Wikipedia’s entry for Messalina declares: “The accusations of sexual excess that were made in the years that followed were arguably a smear tactic and the result of ‘politically motivated hostility’.” Cf. Stadelmann (1924) and Martínez (2019). The multiple, detailed ancient accounts of Messalina’s sexual behavior are as good as it gets for ancient historical documentation of a specific person’s sexual behavior. Whether they document “sexual excess” is a moral judgment that can be separated from the facts in a sincere quest for truth. Instead, modern scholars have subjected those ancient sources to smear tactics and politically motivated hostility. That’s a tedious and mindless approach to ancient literature.

[9] The Pilgrimage of Charlemagne {Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne}, section 1, Old French text and English translation (with my small changes) from Burgess & Cobby (1988). My small changes to the translation are either for ease of readability or to provide a slightly broader translation contextually. Subsequent quotes from Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne are similarly sourced.

After Charles sat in Jesus’s chair at the table where Jesus sat with his twelve apostles in Jerusalem, the patriarch of Jerusalem gave Charles the name Charlemagne in Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne, v. 158. That text uses the name “Charles” and “Emperor of France” before v. 158. It subsequently continues to use “Charles,” but also uses “Charlemagne.”

Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne depicts Charlemagne much differently from an epic king. Yet the tale’s purpose probably isn’t merely comic. For one abstract theory, Burns (1984). More obviously, the tale represents Charlemagne and his peers as having emotions and desires that ordinary men could understand. It thus humanizes these heroes and increases the potential for popular identification with them.

Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne survives in only one manuscript, British Library MS Royal 16 E VIII. That manuscript, which sadly went missing on June 7, 1879. probably dates to the thirteenth century. Various scholars have dated the text from the late-eleventh century to the late-thirteenth century. Burgess & Cobby date it to the second half of the twelfth century. Burgess & Cobby (1988) pp. 1-2.

Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne doesn’t have a standard title. It’s also commonly called The Journey of Charlemagne to Jerusalem and Constantinople {Le voyage de Charlemagne à Jérusalem et à Constantinople}.

Burgess (1998) is a better produced edition than Burgess & Cobby (1988). The former, however, isn’t readily available. Gaunt & Pratt (2016) includes an English translation of Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne, which it calls Charlemagne’s Journey to Jerusalem and Constantinople. It doesn’t include the Old French text. The foundational critical study of the manuscript is Koschwitz (1879). Michel (1836) is an earlier edition.

In an abbreviated translation into epic prose, Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne became part of thirteenth-century Old Norse Karlamagnus Saga. Burgess & Cobby (1988) p. 13. In the Old Norse text, Oliver merely kisses the Byzantine princess a hundred times. Brians (1973) p. 167. Versions also exist in other Scandinavian languages and Middle Welsh (Pererindod Siarlymaen). Burgess & Cobby (1988) p. 13.

[10] Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne, section 27. Charlemagne’s peer (paladin) Oliver, also called Olivier de Vienne, is described in the Song of Roland as holding the frontier regions of Rivier and Genoa. He is variously called a baron or a count. On the textual history of Charlemagne’s peers, Brault (2012). Oliver, along with Roland, is a fixture on all lists of Charlemagne’s leading associates.

Oliver may have been seeking to outperform literary predecessors. Catullis promised his girlfriend Ipsitilla that in one night they would have “nine continuous fucks {novem continuae fututiones}.” Catullus 32.8, Latin text of Merrill (1893), my English translation, Harris’s comments. Proculus, who usurped the throne of the Roman Empire in 280, reportedly wrote to his kinsman Maecianus:

I have captured one hundred young women from Sarmatia. Of these I had sexual intercourse with ten in a single night. However, all of them, with what I was able to do, were transformed into women within fifteen days.

{ centum ex Sarmatia virgines cepi, ex his una nocte decem inivi; omnes tamen, quod in me erat, mulieres intra dies quindecim reddidi. }

Historia Augustus, “The Lives of Firmus, Saturninus, Proculus and Bonosus” 12.7, Latin text from Magie (1932), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. Oliver’s proposed one-night sexual feat exceeded those of Catullus and Proculus.

Subsequent quotes above from Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne are (cited by section number in Burgess & Cobby (1988)): 43 (The king had his daughter…), 44 (Oliver lay in bed…; “Fair one,” said Oliver…), 54 (King Hugo’s daughter ran forward…).

[11] “Galien” is more accurately written as “Galïen.” Dembowski (1983). I’ve used the more common form “Galien.” On the Byzantine princess Jacqueline and Galien, id., p. 89,  Burland (2006) pp. 154-8. Oliver didn’t love women only because he enjoyed having sex with them. He loved his sister Aude even more than he loved his lover Jacqueline. Id. Jacqueline seems to have regretted that Oliver didn’t marry her. Id. But even in ancient Rome, men understood marriage to be disadvantageous to men under gynocentrism. Here’s textual and bibliographic information on Galiens li Restorés.

[12] Brians (1973 ) pp. 167-8, Burgess & Cobby (1988) p. 152, note to v. 726. Men’s vigorous sexual performance was central to the original understanding of chivalry. The term “curteis {courtly}” is used three times within the sexual affair between Oliver and the king’s daughter. Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne vv. 710, 716, and 725.

[13] Aebischer (1956) p. 161, my English translation. Aebischer characterizes the depiction of Oliver’s sexual affair with the Byzantine princess as “frankly crude in its obscenity {franchement grossière dans son obscénité}.” Id.

[14] For a review of this philological history, Brians (1973) pp. 167-71. The anti-meninism of that philological history isn’t an isolated occurrence. With respect to Oliver in Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne, two leading medieval academics recently declared:

It is particularly disturbing, perhaps, to see Oliver associated with courtly language on the one hand, but raw sexual aggression on the other, and none of the French emerges from this episode with his heroic reputation intact.

Gaunt & Pratt (2016) p. xxiv. “particularly disturbing, perhaps {sic}”? “raw sexual aggression”? — that’s nonsense in jackboots. Similar nonsense has been extraordinarily socially damaging.

The historical philological problem of men’s genitals is associated with deeply entrenched castration culture. Early in the ninth century, Charlemagne himself was made subject to symbolic sexual assault:

Ausonia’s sometime ruler and master of the mighty
Roman people was upright on planted feet;
opposite him an animal was tearing at his genitals as he stood.
Fortunately the rest of his body was spared this punishment.

“Awful is the plight in which he is held here.
Terrible too is the heavy punishment and grim affliction he endures.”

{ Ausoniae quondam qui regna tenebat et altae
Romanae gentis, fixo consistere gressu,
Oppositumque animal lacerare virilia stantis
Laetaque per reliquum corpus lue membra carebant.

“Ast hic quam saeva sub conditione tenetur,
Tam tristique notam sustenat peste severam!” }

Walahfrid Strabo, Visio Wettini vv. 6.111-4, 122-3, Latin text from Dümmler (1881), English translation from Godman (1985) pp. 314-5, with phrases from Pollard (2018), p. 2, and me. The quoted two verses are an observation of the monk Wetti. Visio Wettini describes Charlemagne’s sexual offense as only “filthy lust {libidinis turpis}” (Visio Wettini 6.125).

Like sexual violence against men in general, the continual castrating of Charlemagne has attracted relatively little attention historically. In his chronicle written about 962, Folcuin of Lobbes referred explicitly to this passage in Visio Wettini and the sexual violence Charlemagne endured: “tearing at his genitals as he stood {lacerare virilia stantis}.” Pollard (2018) p. 7, which provides the relevant passage in Latin and English translation. Writing about 1125, Guibert of Nogent described a vision of “the genitals of a certain prince were being gnawed away daily by the bites of an animal that I don’t know {principis cujusdam virilia quotidiano animalis nescio cujus morsu corrosa}.” Guibert of Nogent, On the relics of the saints {De pignoribus sanctorum} 4.4, Latin text from Patrologia Latina 156, 629B, my English translation, benefiting from that of McAlhany & Rubenstein (2011) p. 274.

No other allusions to the sexual violence against Charlemagne in the Visio Wettini have survived from 962 to 1513. Pollard (2018) p. 7. The Visio Wettini didn’t function historically to disparage Charlemagne’s reputation. Id. pp. 13-4. Disparagement of Charlemagne’s sexual behavior emerged through other channels. Hafner (2002).

[15] Charlemagne’s peer Oliver has a relatively low cultural profile. His most influential rerpresentation was in the Song of Roland, an eleventh-century French epic depicting the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778. Charlemagne’s peer Oliver has never been the title character in a work of literature, play, or film. Wikipedia’s entry for Oliver includes no work depicting Oliver after Ludovico Ariosto’s early sixteenth-century epic in Italian, Orlando furioso {Raging Roland}.

Messalina, in contrast, is one of the most famous women in post-medieval Wikipedia herstory. The influential early sixteenth-century illustrated erotic manual I Modi {The Ways} included Messalina. The play The Tragedy of Messalina, Empress of Rome was staged in London about 1635. Messalina starred in at least five nineteenth-century plays or stage productions (listed with place and date of debut / issue): Adolf Wilbrandt’s Arria und Messalina (Austria, 1874); Pietro Cossa’s La Messalina: Commedia in 5 Atti in Versi Con Prologo (Italy, 1876); Luigi Danesi’s ballet Messalina (Italy, 1885); Algernon Sydney Logan’s Messalina: a tragedy in five acts (Philadelphia, 1890); and Isidore de Lara’s opera Messaline {Messalina} (Monte-Carlo, 1899). Since 1900, Messalina has starred in at least eighteen films (see, for example, Enrico Guazzoni’s Messalina, or The Fall of an Empress (1924)) and many novels. For more on the historical reception of Messalina, Wyke (2002), chapters 9-10, and Wikipedia.

Heinrich Stadelmann’s 1924 work on Messalina shows the extent of engagement with Messalina’s life. A blurb for that book explains:

This work by Stadelmann, a German psychiatrist, challenges Messalina’s notorious reputation and casts her instead as a proto-feminist who fought against Roman oppression.

Stadelmann’s two-volume work concludes:

“Rome! — thy might shall sway the nations of the earth!”
In the beyond Messalina celebrates her hymen.

{ “Rome — dein Machtsoll den Völkern der Welt gebieten!”
Jenseits hielt Hochzeit Messalina. }

German text from Stadelmann (1924) vol. 2, p. 328, English translation from Angold’s 1931 English translation of Stadelmann’s book, p. 319. A reader of Angold’s translation in an instance held in the San Francisco Public Library apparently resisted Stadelmann’s romanticism. That reader wrote at the bottom of p. 319:

This dude (writer) was a psycho himself. Without Rome — Western civilization would not exist. Every society, civilization, culture, corporation, individual, ever, has used might to exist. Indeed every animals. Such is the world of predator & prey.

Now such debates are not tolerated and largely cannot occur.

[16] According to the twelfth-century Old French Roman d’Eneas, the princess-warrior Camilla was an even greater sexual super-hero. On the battlefield, the Trojan warrior Tarcon taunted her for her prowess in bed and offered to buy sex from her. Proposing to share a purchase of sex from her with his squires, he declared:

You will have from it double profit:
one that you have my money,
the other that you will do your good.
But that won’t be sufficient for you,
I believe, unless you have a hundred of us.
You may become tired,
but you will not be satisfied.

{ vos en avreiz doble guaaing:
l’uns iert que de m’enor avreiz,
l’altre que vostre buen fereiz;
mais ne vos sofira neient,
ge cuit, s’il en i aveit cent;
vos porriëz estre lassée,
pas n’en seriez saolee.” }

Roman d’Eneas vv. 7100-6, Old French text from Salverda de Grave (1891), my English translation, benefiting from that of Yunck (1974). Camilla in response attacked and killed Tarcon. The great, marginalized Trojan hero Arrun later managed to kill Camilla. In addition to killing Tarcon, Camilla had also killed many other Trojan men. Gender inequality in violent deaths is deeply entrenched historically.

[images] (1) Charlotte Wolter as Messalina in Adolf Wilbrandt’s tragedy, Arria und Messalina. Painting by Hans Makart; painted about 1875. Preserved in the Vienna Museum {Wien Museum} (Austria). Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Messalina reclining nearly nude. Marble statue by Eugène Cyrille Brunet; made in 1884. Preserved in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Saint-Brieuc (Saint-Brieuc, France). Image thanks to Ash_Crow and Wikimedia Commons. (3) Video musical performance of Rolandskvadet, a medieval Norwegian ballad recounting the Song of Roland. Thanks to Harald Foss and Skallagrim3 on YouTube. Here are performances of Rolandskvadet by Trio Mediaeval, by Duo Arcanum, and by Ariadne’s Thread. (4) Death of Roland in the terrible violence against men at the Battle of Roncesvalles in 778. Illumination (cropped slightly) from the Large Chronicle of France {Grandes Chroniques de France}, illuminated by Jean Fouquet, Tours, about 1455-1460. Preserved as BnF MS French 6465, fol. 113 (in Fifth Book about Charlemagne). Via Bibliothèque Nationale de France and Wikimedia Commons.


Aebischer, Paul. 1956. “Le gab d’Olivier.” Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire. 34 (3): 659-679.

Baldwin, Barry. 1977. “Tacitean Humour.” Wiener Studien. 90: 128-44. Also in Baldwin (1985) pp. 232-48.

Baldwin, Barry. 1985. Studies on Greek and Roman History and Literature. Amsterdam: J.C. Gieben.

Braund, Susanna Morton, ed. and trans. 2004. Juvenal, Persius. Juvenal and Persius. Loeb Classical Library 91. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (review by Vincent Hunink)

Brault, Gerard J. 2012. “The Twelve Peers: Charlemagne’s Elite Combatants in the Song of Roland.” Pp. 39-52 in Wright, Monica L., Norris J. Lacy, Rupert T. Pickens, and William W. Kibler. “Moult a Sans et Vallour”: studies in Medieval French literature in honor of William W. Kibler. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Brians, Paul. 1973. ‘Paul Aebischer and the “Gab d’Olivier.”’ Romance Notes. 15 (1): 164-171.

Burgess, Glyn S., and Anne Elizabeth Cobby, ed. and trans. 1988. The Pilgrimage of Charlemagne and Aucassin and Nicolette. Garland Library of Medieval Literature, v. 47, ser. A. New York: Garland Pub.

Burgess, Glyn S., ed. and trans. 1998. Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne. British Rencesvals Publications, 2. Edinburgh: Société Rencesvals British Branch.

Burland, Margaret. 2006. “The Curse of Courtly Love in Galien restoré.” Olifant (a publication of the Société Rencesvals, American-Canadian Branch). 25 (1-2): online.

Burns, E. Jane. 1984. “Portraits of Kingship in the Pèlerinage de Charlemagne.” Olifant (a publication of the Société Rencesvals, American-Canadian Branch). 10 (4): online.

Cary, Earnest and Herbert B. Foster. 1914-27. Cassius Dio. Roman History. Loeb Classical Library 32, 37, 53, 66, 82, 83, 175, 176, 177. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (LacusCurtius online version, Perseus online version)

Dembowski, Peter F. 1983. “Whom and What Did Galïen Restore?Olifant (a publication of the Société Rencesvals, American-Canadian Branch). 10 (3): online.

Dümmler, Ernst. 1881. Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Poetae Latini Aevi Carolini. Berlin: Weidmannos. (vol. 1, Internet Archive; vol. 2, Internet Archive, BnF)

Fagan, Garrett G. 2002. “Messalina’s folly.” Classical Quarterly. 52 (2): 566-579.

Gaunt, Simon, and Karen Pratt, trans. 2016. The Song of Roland and other Poems of Charlemagne. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

Hafner, Susanne. 2002. “Charlemagne’s Unspeakable Sin.” Modern Language Studies. 32 (2): 1-14.

Jackson, John, ed. and trans. 1931-37. Tacitus. Annals. Loeb Classical Library 249, 312, 322. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (LacusCurtius online version, alternate translation on Perseus).

Koschwitz, Eduard, ed. 1879. Sechs bearbeitungen des altfranzösischen gedichts von Karls des Grossen reise nach Jerusalem und Constantinopel. Heilbronn: Gebr. Henninger.

Magie, David, ed. and trans. 1921, 192, 1932. Historia Augusta. 3 vols. Loeb Classical Library 139, 140, 263. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Martínez Martos, Belén. 2019. “Lustful Women: Sex in Ancient Rome.” Final Project. English and Classical Studies. Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB). This study won an award from UAB’s Observatorio de la Igualdad (Equality Unit).

McAlhany, Joseph, and Jay Rubenstein, trans. 2011. Guibert of Nogent. Monodies and the Relics of Saints: the autobiography and a manifesto of a French monk from the time of the crusades. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Murgatroyd, Paul. 2017. Juvenal’s Tenth Satire. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. (review by Tom Geue and by John Godwin)

Michel, Francisque, ed. 1836. Charlemagne: an Anglo-Norman poem of the 12th century. London: Pickering.

Pollard, Richard Matthew. 2018. “Charlemagne’s Posthumous Reputation and the Visio Wettini, 825-1851.” Pp. 529-549 in Grosse {Große}, Rolf and Michel Sot, eds. Charlemagne: les temps, les espaces, les hommes: construction et déconstruction d’un règne. Colloquium. Collection Haut Moyen Âge, 34. Turnhout: Brepols. (cited by page numbers in the academia.edu version)

Rolfe, J. C., ed. and trans. 1914. Suetonius. Lives of the Caesars. Loeb Classical Library 31, 38. Revised in 1997-98. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (LacusCurtius online version)

Rackham, H., ed. and trans. 1940. Pliny the Elder. Natural History. Volume III: Books 8-11. Loeb Classical Library 353. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Raia, Ann, Cecelia Luschnig, and Judith Lynn Sebesta. 2005. The Worlds of Roman Women: a Latin Reader. Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing.

Salverda de Grave, Jean-Jacques, ed. 1891. Énéas: texte critique. Bibliotheca Normannica, 4. Halle: Niemeyer.

Stadelmann, Heinrich. 1924. Messalina: ein Bild des Lebens aus Roms Imperatorenzeit. 2 vols. Dresden: P. Aretz. (English translation by H. F. Angold, 1931)

Syme, Ronald. 1958. Tacitus. 2 vols. London: Oxford University Press.

Vervaet, Frederik. 2000. “A Note on Syme’s Chronology of Vistilia’s Children.” Ancient Society. 30: 95-113.

Wyke, Maria. 2002. The Roman Mistress: ancient and modern representations. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (review by Marice Rose)

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medieval tale: Flamenca loves Archimbaut’s imprisoned husband Guillem

In her jealous wickedness, Queen Archimbaut locked her husband Guillem in a tower in Bourbon. She allowed him out of that prison only a half hour every evening to watch the plague news and worship service. Alone with only his two close men servant-friends, Guillem could merely eat and drink and talk and lament all day long. He thus endured a miserable marriage. God, however, had not completely forsaken Guillem:

This grace he has from God above:
he has no children, nor does he love.
For, had he loved and lacked the one
whom he had set his love upon,
even worse would have been his plight.
He would have never known Love’s delight,
had Love’s own generosity
not shown that to him secretly.
So Love taught him to play its game
when the right time and season came,
yet long he thought he was all but dead.

{ Mais d’aisol fes Dieus honor gran,
Car non amet ni hac enfan,
Car s’il ames e non agues
Ab que s’amor paisser pogues ,
Ieu cug ben que pieitz l’en estera.
Ja negun tems il non amera
Si Amors, per son jausimen,
Noil o mostres privadamen,
Mais il l’ensenet de son joc
Quan conoc la sazon nil luec;
Mais lonc tems plais es tenc per morta. }

As a good Christian, Guillem ardently yearned for God’s promise to resurrect the flesh.

medieval lady like Flamenca

In far-away Burgundy, nature fashioned and nurtured a strong, independent woman named Flamenca. She was a princess and a warrior:

A nobler woman you’d never find
nor one to good deeds more inclined,
in sense and looks a paragon.
If Absalom and Solomon
were joined to form one single hero,
compared to her they made but zero.
If you could make one man of these
worthies: Hector, Paris, Ulysses,
their wit, valor, and beauty would stand
as nothing versus this noble woman.

{ Car non fo mais si bella res
Ni a cui tan plagues totz bens.
Tan fon savis e belz e pros
Ques Absalon e Salamos
Sil dui fossan us solamenz,
Encontra lui foran nïenz.
Paris, Hector et Ulixes,
Qui totz tres en un ajostes,
Quant a lui non foran presat
Per sen, per valor, per beutat,
Car tan fon bella sa faissos }

Because of gender bias in the literary canon, few students learn about Flamenca. Men students especially need their male gaze re-educated. Flamenca was not only strong and independent, but also extremely good-looking:

One is pressed hard to express
how great was this woman’s comeliness,
yet I will try as best I can
to say a little about this woman.
Blond, fresh, and wavy was her hair.
Her brow was smooth, white, broad, fair.
Her eyebrows, dark and firmly traced,
were arched and very widely spaced.
Her eyes were merry, large, and gleaming,
her nose well-formed and of good seeming
and of good length and firm and fine,
straight as a cross-bow’s shaft line.
Her face was full and fresh and gay:
indeed no fresh-blown rose in May
ever so radiantly shone
as did her bright complexion.
So well did crimson blend with white
no man e’er saw a fairer sight.
Likewise the ears upon her head
were large, firm, well-shaped, and red.
Her mouth was handsome and delicate,
apt for love’s words to formulate,
her teeth, of perfect symmetry,
were whiter than white ivory.
Her chin was firm, and becoming her, fit
better for being cleft a bit.
Her neck so straight and strong and broad
that not a bone or sinew showed.
Her shoulders too were broad; those
of the man Atlas did no more strength disclose.
Her muscles round, sturdy her brawn,
her arms of good dimension.
Her hands were hard and big and strong,
her fingers smooth-jointed and long.
She had slim hips, a chest of good stout size
and lovely, too, were her thighs
and haunches, firm and well-filled out
with solid flesh, and straight and stout.
Her knees were smooth, her legs were straight,
well-formed and slim and delicate;
her feet graceful, high-arched and thin —
indeed, no woman could outdo her.

{ C’om es al dire sofraitos.
Pero un petit ne dirai
De sa faiso si con sabrai.
Lo pel ac blon, cresp et undat;
Lo fron ac blanc, aut, plan e lat,
Los cilz ac niers et arzonatz,
Loncs et espes, larc devisatz.
Oils ac grosses, vars e risenz,
Le nas fon belz et avinenz,
Loncs e dreitz e ben alinatz,
A lei d’un bel arbreir formatz;
La cara plena e colrada:
Rosa de mai jorn qu’es nada
Non es tam bella ni tan clara
Quo fon li colors de sa cara,
Lai on si tain, mesclada ab blanc:
Plus bella colors non fon anc.
Ben foron faitas sas aureillas,
Grandas e duras e vermeillas.
Li bocca bella e ginnosa
Et en tot quan dis amorosa;
Las dens esteron per garan
Plus blancas que d’un orifan.
Le mentos fon ben faissonatz,
Per mieils estar un pauc forcatz.
Lo col ac dreg e gran e gros,
Que non i par nervis ni os.
Amples fo mout per las espallas
E ac las aisi fortz con Atlas,
Muscles redons e fortz brasons,
E brazes tals con volc razons.
Las mans ac grans e fortz e duras,
Los detz loncs e planas junturas,
Pieitz hac espes e sotils flancs.
De las ancas non fon ges rancs
Ans las ac grossas e cairadas,
Coissas redundas e dins ladas,
Los genoils plans, las cambas sanas,
Longas e dreitas e ben planas.
Pes ac voutis, caus e nerveinz,
Anc per home non fon ateinz.}

Just because a woman is a warrior and beautiful, one shouldn’t assume that she’s unlearned, that she’s coasting to worldly success through her strength and looks. Flamenca was as highly educated as any medieval man, and she had a wide range of learned skills:

This woman, of such rare elegance,
was reared in Paris, in Ile-de-France.
The seven arts she learned so fair
that she could find a job anywhere
to teach uni students, had she chosen to.
Better than any cleric man, she know
how to sing fine in church and read.
Dominick her teacher found no need
for slowing with her fencing: so adept
was she that none could intercept
her blade, or guard against her thrust.
So fair a woman, so brave, so just
was never seen, nor one so true
and noble-hearted through and through.
This woman was a good seven feet tall.
If you placed a candle on the wall,
two feet above her head, why she
with quick foot touched it easily.

{ D’aital faison, d’aital semblanza
Fo noiris a Paris e Franza.
Lai apres tan de las .VII. artz
Que pogra ben en totas partz
Tener escolas, sis volgues.
Legir e cantar, sil plagues,
En gliesa saup mieilz d’autre clergue.
Sos maistre ac nom Domergue;
Cel l’ensenet tan d’escrimir
Que nulz hom nos poc si cobrir
Ques el nol fier en descubert.
Tam bell, tam pros ni tan apert,
Non vi hom anc, al mieu semblan,
Ni que fos aisi de bon gran.
.VII. pes ac d’ aut, et atteis ben
Dos pes ab lo pe sobre se
Quan hom li mes en la paret
Una candela o un muquet. }

Flamenca was from a noble family and had rich friends. Her brothers were the Count of Blois and Count Raoul of Nevers. The King of France gave her 1000 pounds, and her uncle, a duke, another 1700. Her cousin, the King of England, gave her a 1000 marks sterling. The Holy Roman Emperor gave her another 1000. Despite her great privilege as a beautiful, rich young woman, Flamenca wasn’t complacent with women’s privilege. At seventeen, Flamenca was selected as the first woman lieutenant in the French Foreign Legion.

Men didn’t feel intimidated by Flamenca, nor were women jealous of her. All spoke highly of her, even in her absence, and all loved her. They understood that as a woman Flamenca was worthiest of all the worthies:

Her worth could not be overstated,
for the truth would far surpass the tale.
Writing a whole year I would fail
to tell what she did in one day.
Most pleased and fortunate were they,
men meeting her, who with this woman
in their eyes, could speak of love’s plan.

{ Ges hom de lui nom poc gabar,
Car li vertatz sobraval dih.
En un an non agran escrig
So que fasia en un jorn.
En gran deleit, en gran sojorn
Eron las domnas que parlavon
Ab lui d’amor, quan lo miravon. }

Like the best of Hollywood female heroes today, Flamenca loved fencing tournaments, scholarly study, literary contests, fights of mixed martial arts, and beauty pageants. She also excelled in singing competitions:

Chansons and lays, and descorts too,
and every kind of poetry
she knew better than any minstrel. She
knew them so perfectly and well,
that she outdid the learned Daniel.

{ Chansons e lais, descortz e vers,
Serventes et autres cantars
Sabia plus que nuls joglars,
Neis Daniel que saup ganren
Nos pogr’ ab lui penre per ren. }

While highly competitive with men, Flamenca was also very generous to them:

Innkeepers praised her to the sky,
for, though they charged her far too high,
she always added to the sum,
and so, whenever they see her come,
they make their lodgings fair and trim:
there’s many a man who lives off her.

Laymen and clerks she loved. She fed
them not on mere water and bread
as in the hospital it’s done,
but offered each companion
clothing, fair armor, goodly steeds
all well-equipped to suit their needs.

{ Sei hoste tut de lui si lauson:
Tant nol sobrecomtan ni bauson
Mais non lur don al departir;
E per zo, quan l’ auson venir,
Lur hostal paron e garnisson;
Mout home ab lui si formisson.

Et amet clergue e gen laiga.
Ges nom promes sol pan et aiga,
Aisi con fan a l’ospital,
Als compainos de son ostal.
Ans esteron em bels arnes,
En rix cavals ab bos conres,
E pogron far gran mession }

Heloise of the Paraclete wasn’t as learned as Flamenca, nor was Empress Theodora as eminent. Among wonderful women, Flamenca was the most wonderful of all.

Despite all her gifts, Flamenca hadn’t experienced a man’s ardent, vigorous, overwhelming love. She imagined what that would be like, but she didn’t know:

Love was indeed to her unknown
by any testing of her own,
though what it was, of course, she knew,
having read all the authors who
had written of it with skill and tact
to tell how it is that lovers act.
She knew she could not follow, in truth,
the path of life common to joyful youth
if love’s ways she did not soon learn,
so she made up her mind to turn
her heart to some love that would bring
her honor and no sorrowing.

{ Ancar d’amor no s’entremes
Per so que lo ver en saupes.
Per dir saup ben que fon amors,
Cant legit ac totz los auctors
Que d’amor parlon e si feinon,
Consi amador si capteinon.
Car ben conoc que longamen
Nom poc estar segon Joven
Ques el d’amor non s’entrameta.
Per so pessa que son cor meta
En tal amor don bens li venga
E que a mal hom non l’o tenga. }

Flamenca drew up a checklist of characteristics that she wanted in a man so that he would enhance her honor in love. But even in medieval Europe, elite women faced a shortage of men who satisfied their list of requirements for love. Could Flamenca love a bartender? Is she to love some nobody secretary serving in some lowly post in the local church? That doesn’t happen even in ridiculous fictional romances.

Flamenca meditated on how to find a man suitable for her to love. She had heard that Queen Archimbaut was imprisoning her husband Guillem in a tower. Flamenca considered Guillem:

Truly, women said, he was the best,
the most courtly and the loveliest.
In grace no man was above him,
so she made up her heart to love him,
if only some way she could find
to speak to him. While thus her mind
was occupied, Love drew close by
in sprightliness and gaiety.
Love promised her beyond all doubt
that such attempt would bring about
much joy and satisfaction.

{ Cel que la cuj’ aver devesa,
Et au dir per vera novella
Quel miellers es e li plus bella
El plus cortesa qu’el mon sia.
En cor li venc que l’amaria
S’om pogues ab ella parlar.
Mentre qu’estai en cest pensar,
Amors ben pres de lui s’acointa
E fes si mout gaia e cointa.
Fort li promet et assegura
Qu’il li dara tal aventura
Que mout sera valent e bona. }

In the trobairtiz / troubadour tradition of “love from afar {amor de lonh},” Flamenca fell in love in Guillem. She immediately resolved to travel to Bourbon. She would set him free with her love for him.

Arriving in Bourbon, Flamenca took lodging in an inn close to the tower in which Guillem was imprisoned. Eating dinner at that inn, she hungered to love Guillem:

Flamenca is near that tower she sought
wherein he dwells on whom is set
her heart, but a long time is yet
to pass before the prisoner
knows this. He had caught, unknown to him,
her heart that is happy to be able
to see from where she sits at table
the tower of him for whom she burns.
The more she eats, the more she yearns
to be where he is: this desire
can never be satisfied entire.
All women desiring to know love like this
are deeper than a bottomless abyss.

{ Que pres es de Guillem li tors
On es le cors qu’en son cor ha.
Mais de lonc tems non o sabra
Cil qu’es enclausa, et enclau
Lo cor de cel que mout s’esgau
Quan pot vezer ni remirar,
De lai on s’assis al manjar,
La tor on es so que tant ama,
On plus manja e plus afama
De venir lai on sos cors es.
Ja cel non er sadols ni ples,
Car plus ques abis non a fons,
Aiso sap totz homs desirons }

Flamenca chose a bedroom with windows offering a view of Guillem’s tower. An oriole was singing in a nearby grove. Flamenca didn’t close her eyes all night. She spoke to Love:

I have done everything you told
me to, abandoned my household,
and I have made the journey here,
a pilgrim and a foreigner,
unknown to any man. Here I
the whole day long suffer and sigh,
racked by desire, with all its pain.
It’s true that illness now I feign
but this feigned illness will be real
before long, if the distress I feel
keeps torturing me. Yet it’s no woe,
but charms me more than aught I know.

{ Qu’ieu ai fah vostre mandament.
Partitz soi de tota ma gent
E vengutz sai en est païs
Aisi con estrainz pellegris,
Que negus hom no m’i conois.
Tot jorn sospire es angois
Per un desir que mi destrein.
Vers es que malautes mi fein,
Mais a longas nom calra feiner
Si ‘n aissim deu gaire destreiner
Le mals quem sent, que mals non es,
Ans mi plas mais que nulla res. }

It was already fully day. Flamenca got up from bed, crossed herself, and prayed to nine or ten saints who had been courtly knights. Before she got dressed, she opened both windows, looked upon the tower that held Guillem, and lamented. She spoke aloud to the tower. She begged it to encompass her, unseen by Guillem’s wife Archimbaut. Then she fainted, with heart weak. But one of her maids caught her before she fell. She laid her back on the bed:

Never was a woman so vanquished
in such a short time by Love’s might.
The maid is overcome with fright
to find no pulse-beat. As was apt,
her spirit by love had been rapt
away into the tower where
Guillem lay, quite unaware
that someone dearly loved his charms.
Flamenca now holds him in her arms.
Softly she pleads with him and presses,
and oh so tenderly caresses
him such that he could never know.
Had he known who had held him so
in dreams without let or restraint,
and had his wife fell into a faint
so deep that she’d never get well,
there is no one who could say or tell
what ecstasy and what elation
would have come from such anticipation.

{ Anc non vist home tan cochat
En tan pauc d’ora per amor.
Le donzelletz hac gran paor
Quant noil troba ni pols ni vena.
Fin’ Amors l’esperit l’en mena
Lai en la tor on si jasia
Flamenca, que pas non sabia
Qu’om fos per leis enamoratz.
Guillems la ten entre sos bratz,
Gen la blandis e la merceja
E tan suavet la maneja
Que ges sentir non o podia.
S’ela saupes qui la tenia
Tan douzamen en visio,
El gelos fos en pasmaso
Tal don jamais non revengues,
Non es homs que dire pogues
Lo deleig ni la benanansa
Ques dera per bon’ esperansa. }

Nearly a day later, Flamenca awoke:

Now that Love had done its will
with Flamenca’s mind, it made its way
back to her, dawning like the day.
Before her eyes were open quite,
her face and brow were smiling bright.
This was the dawn. When opened wide
her eyes, then it was full noontide,
and bright and radiant was the sun.
So too, Flamenca’s features shone
with radiance which she had got
from being in some charming spot,
for she returned more fair and gay
than she was before she swooned away.

{ Quant Amors ac fag som plazer
De l’esperit, ab lui s’en torna
Dreg a Guillem, el cors n’ajorna,
Quar tot avans quels oils ubris
Tota la cara el fronz li ris.
So fon alba, e quant ubri
Sos oilz, adoncas s’esclarsi
Le soleilz que fon ja levatz.
Guillems es bels e ben colratz,
Ben fai parer aia estat
En luec don si ten a pagat,
Car plus alegres ne tornet
E plus bels que non lai anet. }

Flamenca had come to Bourbon to love Guillem. She had never conversed with him, she had never seen him, but she loved him. She ardently wanted him.

Flamenca dressed elegantly for that evening’s plague news and worship service. She wore a fancy blouse and women’s power pants. She considered a squirrel-fur cloak with grey trim, but decided instead on a black woolen coat. Shoes were particularly important to Flamenca. She had many different pairs in different styles and colors. For this evening service, she chose not clogs or boots, but beautifully shaped felt slippers:

She wore no cheap shoes on her feet,
but slippers fancy and costly; they
were made to fit her at Douai.

{ E non ae sabbata ni caussa,
Mais us bels estivals biais
Que foron fag ins a Doais. }

As she dressed she sighed:

What sin to hold him prisoned thus!
Fair creature, sweet and courteous,
union of all things good and fine,
let me not lose this life of mine
until my eyes have gazed at you!

{ A gran peccat la tenon presa;
Ai! bella res, dous’ e cortesa,
Franca, de totz bos aips complida,
Non voillas qu’ieu perda ma vida
Tro de mos oils vos aia vista! }

With a silver needle, Flamenca sewed fancy sleeves unto her cloak . Then she, with the inn-keeper and the rest of the townspeople, went to the evening service. She was thinking only of Guillem.

To lessen the risk that the evening plague news and worship service contributed to the spread of the plague, town officials set up in the church’s vestibule a screening station. Persons entering the church were required to place their index figure briefly on the parchment page of a bible opened to Psalm 51:7. If the index figure left a mark of dampness, the person was judged to have fever and not admitted to the service. Between each person’s test, the page was wiped with a rag for cleanliness. Nicholas, a fourteen-year-old boy deputized as the town’s plague tester, administered the tests with all the diligence of youth.

Despite her love fever, Flamenca passed through the plague test and stepped up to a seat in the choir. Through a hole in the wall behind her she could see outside. Though another hole to her right she could spy into a private compartment. Eagerly peeping to her rear, she watched everyone go into the church. At the third bell she finally saw Queen Archimbaut bringing Guillem:

At last she came, the Adversary,
so ill-disposed and arbitrary.
So foul and crude did she appear,
she lacked only a hunting-spear
to seem a scarecrow, such as those
that peasants make of tattered clothes
when in the mountains they pursue
a boar. Beside her one could view
lovely Guillem where he stood.
He kept as distant as he could
from his wife, who was his grief.

{ Adoncs venc le fers aversiers
Per digastendonz totz derriers.
Egaiatz fon e mal aceutz;
Anc non fon mens mas sol l’espeutz
Que non sembles tal espaventa
Con vila fan ab vestimenta
Contra senglar en la montaina.
Josta lui fo, e sa compaina,
Tal con fo, li bella Flamenca.
Et al meinz que poc s’aprobenca
De so marit, que dol li fa. }

Archimbaut had forced Guillem to wear a cloth mask to prevent spread of plague, so she said. Guillem found this veil to be hot and uncomfortable. Love spoke to Flamenca:

Don’t gaze too obviously. You
should not let anyone perceive
your looking. I’ll teach you to deceive
that jealous, ill-bred, stupid boor;
too bad her mother ever bore
her. And for that veil I’ll make her pay!

{ Pero ges tan no l’arodilles
Que nuls homs s’en posca percebre.
Ben t’enseinarai a decebre
Lo malastruc, fol, envejos
A cui fora mieilz si non fos,
E de la bendat venjarai. }

To Flamenca’s delight, Archimbaut brought Guillem into church and seated him in the private compartment just to her right.

The plague news and worship service began. The priestess-presenter in front told of sickness and gruesome deaths. She displayed drawings and paintings, one after another, horrible to see, of dead children, women wailing, and men laboring to dig new graves. Healthy adults and frail elderly were dying too, she said, and women were suffering the most. The cantor lead everyone in singing:

O Governor, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.

Then a nurse went around sprinkling everyone with sanitizer. Flamenca’s eyes never left the peephole to her right. Through it she gazed upon Guillem as much as she could:

The nurse his sanitizer sent
about and upon Guillem’s head
as best as he could. Guillem had spread
his tresses radiant and fine
exactly at the parting line
to receive the sanitizer aright.
His skin was delicate and white
and soft. His hair glowed brilliantly
because the sun most graciously
just at that moment cast upon
it a quick ray so that it shone.
When Flamenca this first sign observed
of that rich wealth which Love reserved
for her, her heart laughed and rejoiced.
“Signum salutis,” loud she voiced.
Her voice was clear and fresh: her song
flowed smooth and sweet, and all the throng
was filled with pleasure and delight.

{ Le cappellas ab l’isop plou
Lo sal espars per miei lo cap
A Flameoca lo miels que sap,
Et ill a fag un obertura
Dreit per mei la pelpartidura
Per zo que meilz lo pogues penre.
Lo cuer ac blanc e prim e tenre
El cris fon bell’ e respleodens.
Le soleils fes mout qu’avinens,
Car tot dreit sus, per mei aqui,
Ab un de sos rais la feri.
Quan Guillems vi la bell’ ensena
Del ric tesaur qu’Amors l’ensenna,
Le cors li ri totz e l’agensa,
E signum salutis comensa.
Le sieus cantars plac mout a totz,
Car mout avia clara voz
E cantet ben e volontiers. }

Flamenca summoned the plague tester Nicholas, who also served as service usher. She demanded to inspect his plague test bible, to ensure its cleanliness. Nicholas dutifully brought it to her. You ought to test with a Psalm, she told him. He said he did and showed her the page for Psalm 51:7. This page that Guillem had touched Flamenca kissed a thousand times:

The whole world, thus she thinks, is hers.
Success in every enterprise
she’d have. Could she divide her eyes
so that with one eye she could look
through the hole, with the other view the book,
pure happiness she would have felt.
Upon this thought so long she dwelt,
feeding her joy, that not one word
reached her until at last she heard
the presenter say, “That’s the way it is.”

{ Vejaire l’es tot lo mon aia
E mai res noil posca fallir;
E si pogues los ueils partir
Si quel pertus gares l’us oilz
E l’autre gares sai los foils
Ben l’estera, e ben l’estet.
En cel pensat tan demoret,
E tan si pac de cel consir
Que non saup mot tro ausi dir
“Ite missa est” al preveire. }

Archimbaut quickly led Guillem from the church so that he couldn’t talk with others. She again locked him alone with his two men servant-friends in the tower until the next evening plague news and worship service.

The sight of Guillem pushed Flamenca’s fever for him to new heights. One night she prayed to Love:

“Love, Love,” she cried repeatedly,
“Unless you promptly rescue me,
the time for rescue will be gone.
My heart is in that tower yon:
Now place my body therein too,
otherwise I am lost to you.”

{ E dis soen : “Amors, Amors!
S’em breu nom faitz vostre socors
“Nom poires a longas socorre.
Mon cor ai lai en cella torre,
E sil cors vos non lai metes
Sapias que perdut m’aves. }

Just as men love to do for women, Love came to help Flamenca. Love gave her a good sleep and brought to her Guillem in a dream. She knelt before him and declared:

Your true and all-surpassing worth
shines and glows throughout the earth,
your virtue and your graciousness,
your fineness and your loveliness,
your fair wit and your courtesy,
your comfort, your good company,
all the good things rare and true
that I’ve heard have drawn me here to you,
just to be yours, if you consent.
Give me but this encouragement:
deign to accept me as your own,
I’ll ask but this, and this alone.
This would be wealth beyond compare.
And if so soon my heart I bare,
I pray you, do not take it ill.
Love so intense my heart does fill
that I for mercy must beseech
you. And yet could I but have speech
with you, or see you often, it’s true,
I would not say these things to you.
Your precious presence and the sight
of you would satisfy me quite.
Therefore I strive hard to advance
my cause, now while I have the chance.
Who knows when I’ll see you again,
save in my heart? So I speak plain,
drawing from my timidity
courage to speak thus openly.
Knowing your fine discretion,
I conquer hesitation
and all my longings I declare.

{ Aias, donna, sius plas, de me.
Vostra lausor fin’e veraja
Que luz per tot mon e raja,
Vostre pres e vostra valors,
Vostri beutatz, vostri ricors,
Vostre sens, vostra cortesia,
Vostre solaz, vostri paria
E totz bens c’om de vos au dir
M’an fag a vos aici venir
Per esser vostre, s’a vos plaz.
E si vos aitan mi donaz
Que per vostre penrem deines
Ja non voil que plus mi donaz
Car pro aurai si eu sui vostre.
E car si tost mon cor vos monstre,
Nous o tengas, sius plas, a mal,
Car destreitz sui d’amor coral
Quem fai ades merce clamar.
Mas s’ieu pogues ab vos parlar,
O sius pogues veser soen,
D’aisso non dissera nïent,
Car del veser o del solatz
Mi tengra per pagatz assatz.
E per so dei mais enansar
En una ves de vos pregar
Car non sai coraus mi veirai
Se de cor no. Et aisom fai
Parlar aisi ardidamen,
Quar de paor prenc ardimen.
E quar sai en vos conoissensa
S’enardis aisi ma temensa
Qu’ieus diga ben ma volontat. }

How many men have ever heard a woman speak to them like that? Did Flamenca really say that in her dream? Wouldn’t Guillem be stunned by these words from a woman unknown to him?

When Flamenca thus had made her prayer,
Guillem answered: “Who are you, my Lady,
who speak to me with such words?
And think me not discourteous
to ask. No woman ever spoke to me thus.
I have never heard anyone
who told of love as you have done.”

{ Quan Guillems hac assas pregat
Ella respon: “Sener, qui es
Vos que aitan gen m’enqueres?
E nous enug sius o deman,
Car hanc mais hom non mi dis tan,
Ni tan ni re mais non ausi
Qu’om mi parles d’amor aisi.” }

Flamenca knelt before Guillem and promised to serve him. She told him that without him she would die. She begged him for advice.

With much hesitation, Guillem reluctantly advised Flamenca. He said that, at the entrance to the evening plague news and worship service, the plague tester and the subject could alternately exchange words without being overheard. Guillem declared that he used the baths next to the inn. He said that if a woman had a tunnel dug into the baths, she could visit him there unseen. Then Guillem said exactly what Flamenca wanted to hear, and he did all that Flamenca desired:

“I give my heart to you. I make
petition to Love for your sole sake,
and so that you may well believe
me, in my arms I now receive
you. I shall kiss you, my sweet dear.
Your worth is so bright and clear,
you are so courtly and good,
that surely any man should
be glad to honor and fulfill
your wish, and follow where you will.”
Then he kissed her and embraced her,
and every joy he made her taste
by word and deed and appearance.

{ Car de bon cor a vos m’autrei
E per vos ad Amor soplei.
E per so que mielz m’en cresaz
Faitz vos aici antre mos bras
E baisar vos ai, bels amics,
Car vos est tam pros e tan rics
E tan cortes e tan valens
Que tota donna en totz sens
Vos deu onrar et acullir
E segre per vostre desir.”
Adonc lo baiza e l’abrassa,
E non es jois qu’ela noil fassa
Per diz, per faitz e per semblans. }

Flamenca wanted to remain sleeping forever. Late in the morning, savoring her dream of Guillem, she finally arose.


*  *  *  *  *

The above is Flamenca Queered, part 2. See also part 1, part 3, part 4, and part 5.

Read more:


The above story is based on the thirteenth-century Old Occitan Romance of Flamenca. For a freely available English prose translation, Prescott (1933). The quotes in Old Occitan above are from the Flamenca text in Hubert & Porter (1962). The English translations are based on id., but include my significant, small changes. The translations aren’t a faithful representation of the Old Occitan Flamenca, but are strongly and consistently related to it.

The Latin phrase signum salutis means “sign of salvation.” That phrase begins a medieval hymn celebrating the cross. In medieval France, this hymn was sung on the first Saturday after Easter. Blodgett (1995) p. 432, n. 127.

The Latin phrase ite missa est concludes the medieval Mass. Literally translated with respect to its historical etymology, that phrase means, “Go forth, the dismissal is made.” In medieval Europe, missa was understood to the refer to the Mass itself. The phrase ite missa est thus meant an ontological declaration: “Go forth, the Mass is.” Ite missa est was understood in this way in late-twentieth-century U.S. Catholic seminaries and among Catholic priests. A more colloquial translation of the contemporary meaning of missa est is “That’s the way it is.” Those are well-known concluding words of the famous television news achorperson Walter Cronkite.

The Flamenca verses quoted above are (cited by the verse numbers of the Old Occitan text of Hubert & Porter (1962)): vv. 1406-16 (This grace he has from God above…), 1570-79 (A nobler woman you’d never find…), 1581-1621 (One is pressed hard to express…), 1622-39 (This woman, of such rare elegance…), 1679-86 (Her worth could not be overstated…), 1707-11 ( Chansons and lays, and descorts too…), 1712-17, 1740-6 (Innkeepers praised her to the sky…), 1762-70 (Love was indeed to her unknown…), 1777-88 (Truly, women said, he was the best…), 1944-56 (Flamenca is near that tower she sought…), 2041-52 (I have done everything you told…), 2144-62 (Never was a woman so vanquished…), 2170-82 (So now that Love had done its will…), 2200-2 (She wore no cheap shoes on her feet…), 2207-11 (What sin to hold him prisoned thus…), 2441-51 (At last she came, the Adversary…), 2462-67 (Don’t gaze too obviously…), 2484-2501 (The nurse his sanitizer sent…), 2600-9 (The whole world, thus she thinks, is hers…), 2689-94 (“Love, Love,” she cried repeatedly…), 2809-39 (Your true and all-surpassing worth…), 2840-46 (When Flamenca thus had made her prayer…), 2949-61 (I give my heart to you…).

[images] Portrait of a medieval lady, imagined to be Flamenca. Oil painting by Jacopo Zucchi. Made in 1570s. Preserved in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica (Rome, Italy). Via Web Gallery of Art and Wikimedia Commons.


Blodgett, Edward D., trans. 1995. The Romance of Flamenca. New York: Garland.

Hubert, Merton Jerome, trans. and Marion E. Porter, ed. 1962. The Romance of Flamenca. A Provençal poem of the thirteenth century. Princeton University Press: Princeton.

McGuire, Michael and Olga Scrivner. ND: Not Dated. “The Flamenca Project: Le Roman de Flamenca (The Romance of Flamenca).” Online presentation of the Old Occitan text of Meyer (1901) and the English translation of Blodgett (1995).

Prescott, H. F. M. 1933. Flamenca. Translated from the thirteenth-century Provençal. Here attributed to Bernardet the Troubadour. London: Constable & Co.

discrimination against transwomen: Iphis & Ianthe, Leucippus & Daphne

Modern societies ideologically deny manifestly oppressive gynocentrism and castration culture. In these circumstances, about 75% more men than women transition across the gender binary.[1] Men becoming transwomen isn’t sufficient to eliminate the horrid gender protrusion of four times more men than women committing suicide. Moreover, even after men become transwomen, they continue to endure historically entrenched, systemic gender discrimination. That gender discrimination is exemplified in the starkly contrasting ancient myths of Iphis & Ianthe and Leucippus & Daphne.

Authorities throughout history have tended to highlight examples of women transitioning to men while marginalizing examples of men transitioning to women. So it was about two thousand years ago for the Roman naturalist-scholar Pliny the Elder. Ignoring transwomen, Pliny described only transmen:

The transformation of women into men is no fictitious story. We find in the Annals that in the consulship of Publius Licinius Crassus and Gaius Cassius Longinus a girl in her parents’ custody at Casinum became a boy. At the order of the forecasters he was deported to a deserted island. Licinius Mucianus recorded that he personally saw at Argos a man named Arescon who had received as a baby girl the name of Arescusa. She married a man, then grew a beard, developed masculine attributes, and subsequently had a wife. Licinius Mucinius also saw at Smyrna a boy who had experienced this same change. I myself saw in Africa a person who had turned into a man on her marriage day. This person was Lucius Constitius, a citizen of Thysdritum.

{ Ex feminis mutari in mares non est fabulosum. invenimus in annalibus P. Licinio Crasso C. Cassio Longino coss. Casini puerum factum ex virgine sub parentibus, iussuque harispicum deportatum in insulam desertam. Licinius Mucianus prodidit visum a se Argis Arescontem, cui nomen Arescusae fuisset, nupsisse etiam, mox barbam et virilitatem provenisse uxoremque duxisse; eiusdem sortis et Zmyrnae puerum a se visum. ipse in Africa vidi mutatum in marem nuptiarum die L. Constitium civem Thysdritanum. }[2]

Women are the socially privileged sex. Human society in general, not just the special bigotry of trans-exclusive radical feminists, discriminates against transwomen and works to marginalize them. The privileged need exclusivity to protect their privilege.

Metamorphoses: two women embracing

Metamorphoses, an influential work that Ovid wrote about two thousand years ago, tells of Iphis and Ianthe. They lived near the important Cretan city Phaestus, not far from the royal Cretan city Cnossus. Iphis’s parents were Telethusa and her husband Ligdus. A humbly born, poor man who probably worked long hours as a maker of clay pots, Ligdus was a morally good man: “his life was one of honesty and blamelessness {vita fidesque inculpata fuit}.” Just as for many men through the ages, a woman’s pregnancy created pressing issues for him:

When the time was near for his wife to give birth,
he whispered in her ear these words of counsel:
“I pray for two things: that your delivery
have the least possible pain, and that you give birth
to a baby boy. Girls are a much greater burden,
and fortune denies us the resources to support one.
I hate to say it, but if you have a girl —
Heaven forgive me! — she will have to be killed.”
He said this, and their checks flowed with tears

{ gravidae qui coniugis aures
vocibus his monuit, cum iam prope partus adesset:
“quae voveam, duo sunt: minimo ut relevere dolore,
utque marem parias. onerosior altera sors est,
et vires fortuna negat. quod abominor, ergo
edita forte tuo fuerit si femina partu —
invitus mando; pietas, ignosce! — necetur.”
dixerat, et lacrimis vultum lavere profusis }[3]

Fathers love their children, girls and boys alike. Yet under gynocentrism, fathers are required to provision girls much more extensively than boys. Hence if poverty necessitates a terrible life choice, girls are more likely to be sacrificed than boys. In wealthy societies, the situation tends to be reversed: men and boys are left to die on sinking ships, in violence, and in wars.

At midnight, Telethusa saw, or thought she saw, Inachus, the first King of Argos, looking and acting like Isis, an Egyptian goddess. The goddess instructed Telethusa not to worry, ignore what her husband said, and keep any child she birthed. Telethusa soon birthed a baby girl. She and her nurse pretended that the girl was a boy. Perhaps at Telethusa’s request, Ligdus named the child Iphis. She thought that name ideal because it wasn’t gender-specific.[4] With Ligdus forced to spend long hours at work, he had little time to enjoy caring for his child Iphis. He never learned that Iphis was actually a girl.

Ligdus believed in gender equality. Defying the instrumental valuation of males, he appreciated that Iphis had an extraordinarily beautiful face. Despite fathers’ subordinate role in arranging marriages, Ligdus took the initiative to arrange an equal marriage for Iphis with Ianthe:

For all the women of Phaestus thought
Ianthe was the city’s most beautiful girl. The two
were matched in age and equally lovely.
They had gone to school together, and love
touched their innocent hearts with equal longing,
but not equal hope. Ianthe looked forward
to her wedding day, believing that Iphis,
whom she thought was a man, would be her man.
But Iphis loved someone she never hoped to have.

{ Inter Phaestiadas quae laudatissima formae
dote fuit virgo, Dictaeo nata Teleste.
par aetas, par forma fuit, primasque magistris
accepere artes, elementa aetatis, ab isdem.
hinc amor ambarum tetigit rude pectus, et aequum
vulnus utrique dedit, sed erat fiducia dispar:
coniugium pactaeque exspectat tempora taedae,
quamque virum putat esse, virum fore credit Ianthe;
Iphis amat, qua posse frui desperat, et auget
hoc ipsum flammas, ardetque in virgine virgo }[5]

Iphis didn’t understand gender. She actually had a good basis for hope. If gynocentric society can in any way act to get women or girls what they want, it will.[6]

Telethusa worried about Ianthe’s love for Iphis. Seizing control of the wedding arrangements, she repeatedly had the wedding postponed. Then she brought Iphis to pray and make vows to Inachus, transformed into the Egyptian goddess Isis. Telethusa and Iphis prayed to the goddess for pity. They shed tears. Their actions were effective:

The goddess seemed to move, did move, her altar.
The temple doors shook, and the horns of the goddess
shone like the moon as the bronze sistrum rattled.
Not yet carefree, but gladdened by this omen,
Telethusa left the temple, followed by Iphis,
whose stride was longer than before. Her complexion
was now more tan than white, her features more chiseled,
her hair now shorter and unadorned. There was more strength
in that frame than a girl would have, and in fact you were
no longer a girl, but a boy. Go make offerings
at the temple, rejoice and be glad! The two of them
made offerings together, and in the temple
set up a votive plaque with this inscription:

{ visa dea est movisse suas et moverat aras,
et templi tremuere fores, imitataque lunam
cornua fulserunt, crepuitque sonabile sistrum.
non secura quidem, fausto tamen omine laeta
mater abit templo. sequitur comes Iphis euntem,
quam solita est, maiore gradu, nec candor in ore
permanet, et vires augentur, et acrior ipse est
vultus, et incomptis brevior mensura capillis,
plusque vigoris adest, habuit quam femina. nam quae
femina nuper eras, puer es! date munera templis,
nec timida gaudete fide! dant munera templis,
addunt et titulum: titulus breve carmen habebat:
dona puer solvit quae femina voverat iphis. }[7]

The transman Iphis then married Ianthe. Iphis’s transformation from girl to boy was a path to equal love. The story of Iphis and Ianthe contains no shadow of discrimination, exclusion, or othering of transmen.

The ending for the transwoman Leucippus is much different in the myth of Leucippus and Daphne. Daphne was a gender-nonconforming girl:

She would not go down to the city at all, nor would she mix with the other girls. Gathering together a pack of dogs, she would go hunting in the Laconian countryside and sometimes strayed further into other Peloponnese mountains. For this reason she was very dear to Artemis, who taught her to shoot accurately.

{ αὕτη τὸ μὲν ἅπαν εἰς πόλιν οὐ κατῄει, οὐδ᾿ ἀνεμίσγετο ταῖς λοιπαῖς παρθένοις· παρασκευασαμένη δὲ πολλοὺς κύνας ἐθήρευεν καὶ ἐν τῇ Λακωνικῇ καὶ ἔστιν ὅτε ἐπιφοιτῶσα εἰς τὰ λοιπὰ τῆς Πελοποννήσου ὄρη· δι᾿ ἣν αἰτίαν μάλα καταθύμιος ἦν Ἀρτέμιδι καὶ αὐτὴν εὔστοχα βάλλειν ἐποίει. }[8]

Perhaps himself uncomfortable within the constraining gender binary, Leucippus fell in love with Daphne. Men have long carried the unjust gender burden of having to be active in soliciting love relations. So it was for Leucippus:

Despairing of making any other sort of attempt to win Daphne’s love, Leucippus put on female garments and in the guise of a girl went hunting with Daphne. Somehow or other he came to please her. She would never let go of him, embracing and clinging to him at all times.

{ εἰς ἐπιθυμίαν ἦλθε καὶ τὸ μὲν ἄλλως πως αὐτῆς πειρᾶσθαι ἀπέγνω· ἀμφιεσάμενος δὲ γυναικείαις ἀμπεχόναις καὶ ὁμοιωθεὶς κόρῃ συνεθήρα αὐτῇ. ἔτυχε δέ πως αὐτῇ κατὰ νοῦν γενόμενος, οὐ μεθίει τε αὐτὸν ἀμφιπεσοῦσά τε καὶ ἐξηρτημένη πᾶσαν ὥραν. }

This transgender love story with a charming beginning ends horribly:

But Apollo himself was in love with the girl, and he was possessed with rage and jealousy when he saw Leucippus associating with her. So Apollo put it into Daphne’s mind to go bathing in a stream along with the other women. When they got there they all stripped their clothes. Seeing Leucippus’s reluctance to do likewise, they tore the clothes from his back. Then, his treachery and duplicity laid bare, they all cast their javelins at him.

{ Ἀπόλλων δὲ καὶ αὐτὸς τῆς παιδὸς πόθῳ καιόμενος ὀργῇ τε καὶ φθόνῳ εἴχετο τοῦ Λευκίππου συνόντος καὶ ἐπὶ νοῦν αὐτῇ βάλλει σὺν ταῖς λοιπαῖς παρθένοις ἐπὶ κρήνην ἐλθούσαις λούεσθαι. ἔνθα δή, ὡς ἀφικόμεναι ἀπεδιδύσκοντο καὶ ἑώρων τὸν Λεύκιππον μὴ βουλόμενον, περιέρρηξαν αὐτόν· μαθοῦσαι δὲ τὴν ἀπάτην καὶ ὡς ἐπεβούλευεν αὐταῖς, πᾶσαι μεθίεσαν εἰς αὐτὸν τὰς αἰχμάς. }[9]

Describing Leucippus’s gender transition as “treachery and duplicity” is ungenerous or worse. Tearing off Leucippus’s clothes is a form of sexual assault. Why did these women sexually assault the transwoman Leucippus? Why did Daphne apparently do nothing while the person she loved was assaulted? Those unanswered questions point to these women’s intense hostility towards transwomen and suggest the social acceptability of such hatred. More importantly, the relative literary invisibility of man-to-woman gender transitions underscores deeply rooted systemic gender discrimination against transwomen.

In the ancient Mediterranean world, male-to-female gender transition was closely associated with the brutal inhumanity of castration culture. For example, the first-century Roman Emperor Nero was a gender-fluid person who ostentatiously rejected the gender binary:

He prostituted his own modesty such that, after defiling every part of his body, he at last devised a newer game. Covered with the skin of a wild animal, he was let loose from a cage. He then attacked the genitals of men and women bound to stakes. When he had thus sated his savage lust, he was finished off by his freedman Doryphorus. Nero was married to Doryphorus just as he himself had married Sporus. Nero even imitated the cries and lamentations of a young woman forcefully being sexually penetrated.

{ Suam quidem pudicitiam usque adeo prostituit, ut contaminatis paene omnibus membris novissime quasi genus lusus excogitaret, quo ferae pelle contectus emitteretur e cavea virorumque ac feminarum ad stipitem deligatorum inguina invaderet et, cum affatim desaevisset, conficeretur a Doryphoro liberto; cui etiam, sicut ipsi Sporus, ita ipse denupsit, voces quoque et heiulatus vim patientium virginum imitatus. }[10]

Few today would object to such sexual behavior among consenting adults or to non-hetero-normative marriages. But Sporus was a boy that Nero had castrated:

Nero castrated the boy Sporus and attempted to transform him to a woman’s nature. He married Sporus in solemn nuptials with a dowry and a bridal veil. Nero took him to his house attended by famous officials and had Sporus as his wife. The witty jest that someone made is still current: it would have been better for the human world if Nero’s father Domitius had married such a wife.

{ Puerum Sporum exsectis testibus etiam in muliebrem naturam transfigurare conatus cum dote et flammeo per sollemnia nuptiarum celeberrimo officio deductum ad se pro uxore habuit; exstatque cuiusdam non inscitus iocus bene agi potuisse cum rebus humanis, si Domitius pater talem habuisset uxorem. }

Castrating a boy without his fully informed, completely understanding consent is evil. Sporus apparently suffered a terrible injustice like that of Earinus, the beloved boy of the Roman Emperor Domitian. Yet Roman officials accompanied and validated this evil behavior. Some Romans even responded by jesting about transwomen’s inability to procreate. Given the circumstances of Sporus’s gender transition, how could humans be so morally obtuse and heartlessly cruel?

Pretentious ideological inanity enables the outrageous injustices of gynocentrism and castration culture. Men and women warmly accept transmen. No one today attempts to exclude transmen from any groups, spaces, or activities. Transwomen, in contrast, have faced marginalization, hatred, and discrimination through all of human history right up to the present day. Transwomen represent a gender gap in gynocentrism’s fragile ideological superstructure. Through that gender gap fundamental contradictions of gynocentrism and its female supremacist interests are transformed into understanding in newly developing minds.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] The most statistically sophisticated national estimate to date indicates that for the U.S. in 2014:

Transgender individuals made up 0.53% (95% confidence interval [CI] = 0.46, 0.61) of the population, with a larger proportion of individuals identifying as male-to-female (0.28% of the population; 95% CI = 0.23, 0.33) than female-to-male (0.16%; 95% CI = 0.12, 0.21) or gender nonconforming (0.08%; 95% CI = 0.06, 0.13).

From Crissman et al. (2017). The ratio 0.28 / 0.16 is 1.75. Various studies of various populations, many with unknown statistical bases, have male-to-female / female-to-male transgender ratios above 2. Meier & Labuski (2013) pp. 298-9 (Table 16.1).

[2] Pliny the Elder, Natural History 7.36-7, Latin text from Rackham (1942) p. 531, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. The consulship over the Roman Republic of Publius Licinius Crassus and Gaius Cassius Longinus was in 171 BGC.

Pliny rarely engages in autopsy. Thysdritum (Thysdrus) was a Roman colony near present-day El Djem, Tunisia. On female-to-male transgender examples as understood by medical authorities in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Beecher (2005).

Medieval literature celebrates women who disguised themselves as men. See, e.g. Saint Eugenia, Saint Pelagia, Saint Marina, and a baker’s wife. The thirteenth-century chanson de geste Yde and Olive {Yde et Olive} celebrates Yde’s transformation from women to man. For the text with English translation, Abbouchi (2018); for some analysis, Durling (1989).

[3] Ovid, Metamorphoses 9.673-80, Latin text from Alpheios (with minor changes to editorial presentation), English translation (modified slightly) from Lombardo (2010). Subsequent quotes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses are similarly sourced, unless otherwise specified. The quoted phrase vita fidesque / inculpata fuit is from Metamorphoses 9.672-3, with my English translation.

For vires fortuna negat in 9.677, Lombardo translated: “it is their {girls’} misfortune to be weak.” Reading vires as “resources” with an indirect object “us” seems to me better in context. On different interpretations of this phrase, Wheeler (1997) pp. 196-7.

For his account of Iphis and Ianthe, Ovid drew upon the myth of Leucippus {Λεύκιππος}, probably from Nicander of Colophon’s Metamorphoses (Heteroeumena). Nicander’s Metamorphoses has not survived. Antonius Liberalis’s Metamorphoses 17 provides a summary of Nicander’s story. For English translation, Celorai (1992).

In Ovid’s poetry, etymology often signifies. In Nicander’s version as represented by Antonius Liberalis, Leucippus, who corresponds to Iphis, has as parents Galatea and Lamprus. The names Galatea (“white as milk”), Lamprus (“shining”), and Leucippus (“white horse”) suggest brilliance and whiteness. Moreover, Lamprus was from a family with high social status. His father was Pandion, a prestigious name shared with an ancient Athenian king. Lamprus, however, was poor. Ligdus, in contrast, was both low-born and poor. The name Ligdus was very unusual at Ovid’s time. Ligdus lived on the island of Crete. The common Latin word for clay is creta. The Greek word λíγδος is “the standard word for the clay mold used by the potter.” Wheeler (1997) p. 193. The etymology of Ligdus apparently indicates that he had the humble status of potter. These transformations in names and characteristics have general significance for the retold myth:

Ovid thus appears to be “correcting” the source by making his a tale of humble piety rewarded rather than nobility recognized.

Id. p. 192. A pun with the Greek word for white marble, λνγδóς, perhaps provides a simultaneous link to the etymologies of the names in Ovid’s source. Id. p. 193.

In telling about Leucippus, Antonius Liberalis recounted the existence of other transgender persons: Tiresias, Caenis / Caeneus the Lapith, Hypermestra, and the Cretan Siproites. Tiresias changed from man to woman and then from woman back to man. Tiresias thus understood relative sexual pleasure by gender. Poseidon, who loved the girl Caenis, granted her wish to be transformed into a boy. She thus became Caeneus. Unlike Danaus’s daughter Hypermestra, who refused to slaughter her husband, another Hypermestra changed from woman into a man or other animals to defraud repeatedly men who married her. Siproites {Σιπροιτεσ}, also called Sypretes {Συπρετεσ}, was a hunter from Crete. He was transformed from man into woman because he gazed upon Artemis bathing in the woods. Nothing more is known of Siproites. Celoria (1992) p. 83, n. 204.

[4] Irrespective of who formally specifies the baby’s name, mothers have always had enormous influence on baby names. Mothers, after all, can choose to not use a particular baby name and can substitute another name (a “nickname”) instead. Ovid doesn’t make clear whether Iphis was Telethusa’s father’s name, or Ligdus’s father’s name. It could have been either. Ovid tells of Telethusa’s ironic delight in the name Iphis:

The mother rejoiced in this name,
for it had non-specific gender; she wouldn’t be in any way deceiving her husband.

{gavisa est nomine mater,
quod commune foret, nec quemquam falleret illo. }

Metamorphoses 9.709-10, my English translation.

Men engage in gender-specific, relatively strenuous sexual labor without receiving any monetary compensation. Men’s physical strength is also exploited in the social institutions of physical labor. Iphis’s name indicates this gender inequality:

Iphis is derived from the Greek ἶφι (“by force”), the instrumental of ἴς, a form found in Homer and in his epic imitators. Given the prevalence of bilingual etymologizing in the Metamorphoses, it is probable that Ovid’s learned audience would equate Iphis with the Latin vis, which is the same in meaning, gender, and declination as ἴς.

Wheeler (1997) p. 194. Underscoring the historical bias toward violence against men, “Romans often etymologize vir with reference to vis.” Id. p. 195. Moreover, vires, understood as male sexual potency, is associated with the socially constructed brutalization of men’s sexuality.

[5] Ovid, Metamorphoses 9.716-25. Ovid emphasizes Iphis and Ianthe’s equal passion for each other: “no less hotly the other young woman / burned in love {nec lenius altera virgo / aestuat}.” Id. 9.764-5, my English translation.

In Nicander, as summarized by Antonius Liberalis, Leucippus has no love interest. But he / she is also very beautiful: “As the girl grew up {presenting herself as a boy}, she became unutterably beautiful.” Celoria (1992) p. 17. Nicander’s myth thus turns on the impossibility of a boy being as “unutterably beautiful” as a girl. That socially constructed problem reflects the social instrumentalization of men.

[6] Ovid’s story of Iphis and Ianthe includes characteristic indications of gynocentrism: the husband is burdened with providing material resources for the family, female children require more resources, what the husband says is ignored, the husband is marginalized in the life of his children, a husband must be wary of being cuckolded, men must struggle for sexual access to women, and the controlling deity is female. Cf. Pintabone (2002) p. 262.

[7] Ovid, Metamorphoses 9.782-94. Ovid’s telling of the myth of Iphis and Ianthe concludes with nuptial joy:

After the sun’s rays had revealed the world’s broadness,
when Venus, Juno, and Hymen convened the marriage fires,
the boy Iphis was encompassed by his Ianthe.

{ postera lux radiis latum patefecerat orbem,
cum Venus et Iuno sociosque Hymenaeus ad ignes
conveniunt, potiturque sua puer Iphis Ianthe. }

Metamorphoses 9.795-7, my English translation.

In Nicander, as summarized by Antonius Liberalis, the myth of Leucippus ends with the establishment of a festival and a pre-marriage ritual:

Leto took pity on Galatea because of her unremitting and distressed prayers and changed Leucippus’s sex into that of a boy. In memory of this change the citizens of Phaestus still sacrifice to Leto the Engenderer because she had sprouted a penis and testicles on the girl. They gave her festival the name Ecdysia because the girl had stripped off her female dress. It is now a custom before marriages to lie down beside the statue of Leucippus.

Translation from ancient Greek from Celoria (1992) p. 17, with my minor changes. For “Leto the Engenderer” the ancient Greek text is “Λητώ Φυτία {Leto Phytia}.” Phytia {Φυτία} means in ancient Greek “causer of sprouting.” In this context, Phytia refers to the emergence of male genitals on Leucippus. Celoria translated the phrase as “Leto the Grafter.” The festival Ecdysia {ὲκδύσια} is etymologically rooted in the Greek “to undress {ἑκδύω}.” Celoria noted that Antonius Liberalis’s text doesn’t explicitly specify whether brides or grooms lie down beside the statue of Leucippus. The text specifies the female dress as a “peplos {πέπλος}.”

[8] Parthenius of Nicaea, Sufferings in Love {Ἐρωτικὰ Παθήματα} 15.1 (About Daphne {Περὶ Δάφνης}), ancient Greek text and English translation (modified slightly to be more easily readable) from Lightfoot (2009). Subsequent quotes from the myth of Daphne and Leucippus are similarly sourced. Here’s the Greek text of Hercher (1858).

Parthenius here provides the earliest surviving account of the myth of Daphne. The manchette for this story states, “The story is told by Diodorus of Elaea in his elegies and in the fifteenth book of Phylarchus {Ἡ ἱστορία παρὰ Διοδώρῳ τῷ Ἐλαΐτῃ ἐν ἐλεγείαις καὶ Φυλάρχῳ ἐν ιε΄}.” Lightfoot (2009). Diodorus of Elaea is “almost entirely unknown”; Phylarchus flourished in the third century BGC. Lightfoot (1999) p. 471, n. 209.

Leucippus’s love for Daphne is largely missing in the literary history of the myth of Daphne. Pausanias is the only other ancient author to mention it. Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.20.2-4; Lightfoot (1999) p. 471. On other ancient stories, not referring to Daphne, in which Leucippus / Leucippi / Leucippae / Leucippe undergoes a gender transformation, id. pp. 474-5.

[9] After the women cast their javelins at Leucippus, Parthenius’s text cryptically states:

The gods willed it that he disappeared.

{ καὶ ὁ μὲν δὴ κατὰ θεῶν βούλησιν ἀφανὴς γίνεται}

Pausanias provides more detail:

seeing that Leucippus was not a woman, they killed him with their javelins and daggers.

{ ἰδοῦσαι δὲ οὐ παρθένον τοῖς τε ἀκοντίοις αὐτὸν καὶ ἐγχειριδίοις τύπτουσαι διέφθειραν. }

Description of Greece 8.20.4 (concerning Arcadia), Greek text and English translation (changed insubstantially) from Jones (1933). The young women apparently saw that Leucippus had male genitals. They then assumed that he was a man and sought to kill him. Some transmen endure similar risk.

[10] Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars 6 (Nero) 29, Latin text from Rolfe (1913) via Bill Thayer’s LacusCurtius, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. The subsequent quote is similarly sourced. Rolfe’s translation specifies a maiden being “deflowered.” The verb “deflower” reflects historical disparagement of men’s heterosexual activity of reproductive type. Particularly in the context of gender-bigoted representations of rape, disparaging terms such as “deflower” should be avoided.

Nero’s spouse Doryphorus seems to refer to a man elsewhere called Pythagoras:

Nero himself, polluted by every licit and illicit lust, had left no abomination to make himself more perverted. Nonetheless, a few days later he basely became the wife of one from that marriage-dirtying swarm — the groom’s name was Pythagorus — in solemn wedding rites. With the bridal veil placed over the emperor’s face, then were sent forth witnesses, dowry, the marital bed, and wedding torches. All that nightime covers for a woman was open to view at length.

{ Ipse per licita atque inlicita foedatus nihil flagitii reliquerat, quo corruptior ageret, nisi paucos post dies uni ex illo contamina-torum grege (nomen Pythagorae fuit) in modum sollemnium coniugiorum denupsisset. Inditum imperatori flammeum, missi auspices, dos et genialis torus et faces nuptiales, cuncta denique spectata, quae etiam in femina nox operit. }

Tacitus, Annals 15.37, Latin text from Jackson (1937), my English translation, benefiting from that of id.

Doryphorus is a Latin transliteration of the Greek Δορυφόρος, meaning literally “spear bearer.” Doryphorus / Pythagoras sexually “finishing off” the savage Nero evokes gladiator hunts of wild animals (venatio).

Nero associated himself with hermaphroditic animals:

Nero always used to show off harnessed to his chariot hermaphrodite mares that he had found in the Trier district in Gaul — as if the emperor of the world sitting in a portentous carriage was a thing to be plainly seen.

{ ostentabat certe hermaphroditas subiunctas carpento suo equas, in Treverico Galliae agro repertas — ceu plane visenda res esset principem terrarum insidere portentis. }

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 11.262, Latin text from Rackham (1940), my English translation, benefiting from that of id.

[image] Two women lying together, with the woman below apparently resisting. From photo of Augustes Rodin’s plaster sculpture entitled “The Metamorphosis of Ovid.” Rodin made this sculpture about 1886. Preserved as accession # A.117-1937 in the Victoria and Albert Museum (London, UK). Source image thanks to va_va-val and Wikimedia Commons.


Abbouchi, Mounawar. 2018. “Yde and Olive.” Medieval Feminist Forum. Subsidia Series no. 8. Medieval Texts in Translation 5.

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