Abishag & David: Guillaume de Machaut’s Voir Dit shows possibilities

The aged King David felt cold in bed. On their own initiative, his retainers undertook a wide-ranging search for a young, beautiful, woman to keep him warm. Abishag the Shunammite was victorious in that beauty search. She thus gained the opportunity to crawl into bed with King David.

The young, beautiful Abishag nestled in bed with the aged David. He accepted her warm care for him. But he didn’t have sex with her. Because an old heterosexual man abstaining from sex with a beautiful, young, willing woman tends to regarded as a pious delusion, modern scholars commonly assume that David was impotent.[1] The love affair that Guillaume de Machaut documented in his fourteenth-century book, The True Poem {Le Voir Dit}, provides an important counterpoint to superficial interpretations of Abishag and David’s relationship in bed.

King David in bed with Abishag the Shunammite

When Guillaume de Machaut was in his sixties, a young woman wrote to him of her ardent love for him. She was the nineteen-year-old Peronne d’Armentières, the daughter of the wealthy lord of Armentières in the Aisne department of France. Machaut was then an eminent cleric, poet, and musical composer. Without having talked with him or even just gazed upon him, Peronne came to love Machaut through the public acclaim for his written work.[2] Her love was a case of the well-known medieval possibility of experiencing “love from afar {amor de lonh}.”

Machaut had established his fame in part through writing men-abasing courtly love poetry associated with deeply entrenched gyno-idolatry. Imagine the desperate misery of a man who would write a poem such as this:

Sweet, lovely lady,
for God’s sake do not think
that any other has sovereignty
over my heart — only you alone.

Always, without treachery,
I have cherished you,
and all the days of my life humbly,
without base thoughts, served you.

And since my malady will
never be healed without you, sweet
enemy who takes delight
in my torment,

with clasped hands I beg
your heart that forgets me,
that it mercifully kill me,
for too long have I languished.

{ Douce dame jolie,
Pour dieu ne pensés mie
Que nulle ait signorie
Seur moy fors vous seulement.

Qu’adès sans tricherie
Vous ay et humblement
Tous les jours de ma vie
Sans villain pensement.

Et quant ma maladie
Ne sera nullement
Sans vous, douce anemie,
Qui lie
Estes de mon tourment,

A jointes mains deprie
Vo cuer, puis qu’il m’oublie,
Que temprement m’ocie,
Car trop langui longuement. }[3]

Machaut beloved lady couldn’t even be bothered to fulfill his request to kill him. Like men foolishly soldiering in love, Machaut was frustrated and deprived of joy. He thus made himself ill in his old age.

Defying the men-oppressing gender norm for initiating amorous relationships, Peronne took the initiative with Machaut. She sent him a rondel that she had composed for him:

The woman who has never seen you
and who loves you faithfully
with all her heart makes you this present.
She says she sees nothing to her liking
because she cannot see you often,
the woman who has never seen you
and who loves you faithfully,
but because of the good that
all the world in unison says of you,
you have with virtue conquered her.
The woman who has never seen you
and who loves you faithfully
with all her heart makes you this present.

{ Celle qui onques ne vous vit
Et qui vous aimme loiaument
De tout son cuer vous fait present
Et dit qua son gre pas ne vit
Quant veoir ne vous puet souvent
Celle qui onques ne vous vit
Et qui vous aimme loiaument
Car pour les biens que de vous dit
Tous li mondes communement
Conquise lavez bonnement
Celle qui onques ne vous vit
Et qui vous aimme loiaument
De tout son cuer vous fait present }[4]

The messenger who brought Peronne’s rondel to Machaut described her as a dream-woman:

She is noble, young, gay, and elegant,
lithe, well-shaped, pretty, and attractive,
wise at heart, and in her manner
very humble, and with a quiet way,
beautiful, good, and the best singer
born in the last hundred years,
and even her dancing is exceptional.
Indeed she’s such a sweet creature
that she surpasses and exceeds all other women
in intelligence, in sweetness, and in grace.

{ Gente, iuene, jolie, et iointe
Longue, droite, faitice, et cointe
Sage de cuer et de maniere
Treshumble et de simple chiere
Belle, bonne, et la mieux chantans
Qui fust nee de puis .C. ans
Mais elle dance outre mesure
Et sest si douce creature
Que toutes autres veint et passe
En sens en douceur et en grace}

According to the messenger, Peronne felt compassion for the ill Machaut. She wanted to make him well. Warm-hearted medieval women cared for suffering men. The beautiful, young Peronne cared for the eminent, sick, much older Machaut.

Unlike Machaut, King David had vigorously pushed forward God blessing with loving action. God’s fundamental blessing in Hebrew scripture is more life — descendants as numerous as stars in the sky and sand on the seashore. David had eight wives, at least ten concubines, and numerous children. His sexual vigor was such that when he saw the beautiful Bathsheba bathing, he intensely lusted for her and arranged to have sex with her. Moreover, he arranged to have Bathsheba’s husband killed. Then David married her. Promoting violence against men blasphemes against God’s blessing of life. David subsequently realized that his lust for Bathsheba had caused him to sin against God. He repented his wrong.[5]

King David gazing upon Bathsheba

Machaut, a cleric who never married and had no children, was delusional in his perception of women and love. Like Pygmalion and other idolaters, Machaut confused works of human hands with a living being. He loved the text of Peronne’s poem as if it were the woman herself:

And I kissed the poem unabashedly
more than a hundred times or thereabouts,
and afterward I doffed my cap
and got down on my knees in front of it.
Nor did I let this writing get far from me.
Instead I guarded it quite tenderly
and carefully next to my heart,
kissing it many times
because of the great pleasure I found there.

{ Et si le baisay sans doubtance
Plus de cent fois ou environ
Et puis iostay mon chaperon
Et devant lui magenouillay
Ne de moy pas ne leslongnay
Eins le garday tresdoucement
Sus mon cuer et songneusement
Et souventes fois la baisoie
Car trop grant plaisence y avoie }

Like Machaut, David was a musically talented man. Like Machaut, David was thought to be a poet who authored many psalms. Unlike Machaut, David’s heart was fully true to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Explicitly engaging in gyno-idolatry, Machaut loved an image of his beloved woman. Machaut asked Peronne to send him a painted portrait of herself. When her portrait arrived, he was overjoyed:

I took out the pretty portrait,
which had been carefully wrapped
in my sweet love’s kerchiefs,
undoing these without delay.
And seeing how very beautiful she was,
I gave her the name All-Beautiful.
At once I made a sacrifice to her,
but not one of bull or calf.
I instead performed a true act of homage
with my hands, mouth, and heart,
on my knees, my palms together.
And this truly was the least I might do
because her sweet, pleasant image
had been too strongly impressed on my heart
ever to depart as long
as this body treads the earth.
She will thus by me be adored,
served, loved, and honored
as my sovereign goddess.

{ Je pris ceste ymage iolie
Qui trop bien fu entortillie
Des cuevrechies ma douce amour
Si la desloiay sans demour
Et quant ie la vi si tresbele
Je li mis a non toute bele
Car tantost li fis sacrefice
Nompas de tor ne de genice
Einsois li fis loyal hommage
De mains, de bouche, et de corage
A genous et a iointes mains
Et vraiement ce fu dou meins
Car sa douce plaisant empreinte
Fu en mon cuer si fort empreinte
Que iamais ne sen partira
Tant com li corps par terre ira
Eins sera de moy aouree
Servie amee, et honnouree
Com ma souvereinne deesse }

Machaut referred to Peronne throughout his book only with the name that he gave to her portrait: “All Beautiful {Toute Belle}.” Fourteenth-century European Christians hyper-venerated lavishly dressed and bejeweled statues of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Machaut acted that way toward his portrait of Peronne:

I placed the portrait high above my bed
with great joy and delight.
I could thus gaze at her and touch her
when rising in the morning and laying down at night.
I dressed and adorned the image,
many times comparing it
to Venus in my worship,
and even beyond that, for I said:
“Sweet image, sweet likeness,
you have more power than Venus.
Sweet lady, yours is every virtue,
and so you’ll be adorned with damask
made from pure gold woven finely,
since no woman compares to you.”
I placed her above my bedhead,
acting the true servant and faithful lover.
Meanwhile, when catching sight of her, many persons
wondered what this was.
Placing the portrait there was my wish.

{ Si la mis haut dessus mon lit
A grant ioie et a grant delit
Pour li veoir et atouchier
A mon lever et au couchier
Je la vesti ie la paray
Et meintes fois la comparay
A venus, quant ie laouroie
Et plus encor, car ie disoie
Douce ymage douce samblance
Plus que venus as de puissance
Toute vertus douce dame has
Pour ce dun fin drap de damas
Fait de fin or seras paree
Qua toy nulle nest comparee
Einsi sus mon cheves la mis
Com vrais sers et loiaus amis
Dont moult de gens se mervilloient
Que cestoit quant la resgardoient
Einsi la mis et tout de gre }

Within the tradition of the patriarch Jacob of God’s chosen people, the great King David, and Saint Mary Magdalene, Machaut’s actions are ridiculous. No medieval Christian would take seriously his claim that no woman compares to Peronne’s image in virtue and that her image is even more powerful than Venus. Machaut is mocking himself for his unfleshly love for Peronne.[6]

Peronne had warm, caring vitality like Abishag the Shunammite. When she and Machaut finally met at a dinner party, she pulled him aside and said:

Make sure I can find you in this garden
after dinner so we may enjoy ourselves
when the sun loses its light.

{ Faites quen ce vergier vous truisse
Apres souper pour nous deduire
Quant li solaus laira le luire }

Later than evening with her in the garden, Machaut got down on his knees, clasped his hands, and spoke of his love for her. He then disparaged knights with their lances at ready and a cooking pot that’s been used many times and thrown out. Those old poetic images don’t interest young women. Machaut proposed a multi-day Christian pilgrimage with him acting as her squire. Peronne agreed.

In addition to Machaut, Peronne took with her on this pilgrimage her sister and her cousin Guillemette. After spending the first part of a hot pilgrimage afternoon browsing goods at a fair, the women said that they felt sleepy. A drunk man directed them to a peasant’s home offering a room for rent with a day rate. The room had two beds. Peronne’s sister reclined on one bed. Peronne and Guillemette reclined on the other. Peronne called out to Machaut:

Come sleep between us two
and do nothing shameful.
Here, your place is all ready.

{ Venez couchier entre nous .ij.
Et ne faites pas le honteus
Vesci tout apoint vostre place }

“…and lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil….” Machaut responded:

May God never please
that I rest there. Outside I’ll stay
and await you here
and I’ll wake you at nine,
the moment I hear the hour rung.

{ ia dieu ne place
Que ie y voise la hors seray
Et la ie vous attenderay
Et vous esveilleray a nonne
Si tost com iorray quon la sonne }[7]

Peronne, however, was a strong, independent woman:

Then my lady argued vehemently
that I should come in, and when things got heated,
I drew by her side in jest,
excusing myself all the while,
saying I was not worthy.

{ A dont ma dame iura fort
Que ie yroie, et quant vint au fort
De li maprochay en rusant
Et toudis en moy escusant
Que ce a moy pas napartenoit }

Every man is a worthy man. Men’s lives should matter. Raping men is as wrong as raping women:

But she took me very firmly by the hand
and they pulled me roughly onto the bed.
And then I cried out: “I’m being forced!”
But God knows that to lie there
was my greatest desire,
nor did I want other nourishment,
and I whinnied for no other grain.
The sergeant who had opened the door
covered us with two mantles.
He closed the window completely
and then the door so no one could see a thing.
And there my lady slept,
one arm all the while across me.

{ Mais par la main si me tenoit
Quelles mi tirerent a force
Et lors ie criay on mefforce
Mais dieux scet que de la gesir
Cestoit mon plus tresgrant desir
Nautres pastez ne desiroie
Dautre aveinne ne hanissoie
Li sergens qui luis nous ouvri
De .ij. manteles nous couvri
Et la fenestre cloy toute
Et puis luis si quon ni vit goute
Et la ma dame sendormi
Toudis lun de ses bras seur my }[8]

Just as David unexpectedly found himself in bed with Abishag, Machaut found himself forced into bed with Peronne. Machaut, however, didn’t warm up:

I lay by her side a long time,
more coyly than any young woman,
for I didn’t dare utter a word,
or touch or speak to her
since she was asleep.
There the power of Love was apparent to me,
for I lay just like a log
beside my lady on this bed.
And I didn’t stir any more than I’d have done
if someone had been threatening to kill me.

{ La fui longuement dales elle
Plus simplement cune pucelle
Car ie nosoie mot sonner
Li touchier ne araisonner
Pour ce quelle estoit endormie
La vi ge damour la maistrie
Car iestoie comme une souche
Dalez ma dame en ceste couche
Ne ne mosoie remuer
Nient plus quon me vosist tuer }

Love and death threats typical stir emotions and flush blood throughout the body. Machaut lay there like a log. Men’s impotence is an epic disaster. Machaut’s condition was even worse. He was totally deprived of living vitality.

Not merely dogs, men are personally complex human beings. Long before the reign of terror of today’s sex police, Machaut was afraid. He wisely recognized that, when in social danger, acting like a woman is a man’s safest practice. To act like women, men must strive to be dynamic and always adapting:

The lady I love with a pure heart,
who had slept and dreamt in that place,
quite softly awakened,
coughed rather discreetly
and said: “Friend, are you here?
Embrace me — it’s safe.”
And I did so like a coward.
But she kept whispering to me quite softly,
and so I put my arms around her.

{ Ma dame que iaim de cuer fin
Qui la dormi et sommilla
Moult doucettement sesveilla
Et moult bassettement touci
Et dist amis estes vous cy
Acolez moy seurement
Et ie le fis couardement
Mais moult le me dist a bas ton
Pour ce lacolay a taston }

Men need to feel encouraged and safe. Embracing Peronne, Machaut overcame one of his fears:

Now I couldn’t see a thing
but knew quite well
this was not her companion.

{ Car nulle goute ni veoie
Mais certeinnement bien savoie
Que ce nestoit pas sa compaigne }

The biblical Jacob suffered a bed-trick. So did a newly married man in thirteenth-century Italy. Machaut was at least sure that he knew the woman:

And so I was like someone who bathes
in the river of the earthly paradise,
for honorably bestowed upon me
was all the goodness that could exist.
And I was provided for to my liking
completely because of the great abundance
that I now had of what pleased me,
because everything she said
too loudly satisfied me,
while all the goodness I felt
I savored, tasting mercy.

{ Sestoie com cils qui se baigne
En flun de paradis terrestre
Car de tout le bien qui puet estre
Par honneur estoie assevis
Et saoulez a mon devis
Sans plus pour la grant habundance
Que iavoie de souffissance
Car tout ce quelle me disoit
Trop hautement me souffissoit
Et tout le bien que ie sentoie
A goust de mercy savouroie }

Early in fifteenth-century France, Alain Chartier suffered from a beloved woman who lacked mercy. Many men desperately need mercy from women, even if just a taste of mercy.

Mercy for Machaut ultimately came through godly protection. Naked in bed, Peronne called for Machaut and urged him not to be afraid. Not quite like Tobias, Machaut got on his knees and prayed to Venus. Hidden in a dark cloud, Venus incensed the room with manna and balm, and then spread her dark cloud to hide Peronne and Machaut.[9] Venus went on to perform a miracle such that Machaut’s desire was satisfied. He wrote a ballad about the fruit of that sweet union. She gave him a key and said that he now held the key to her heart.

The young, beautiful, warm Abishag crawled into bed with the old, cold King David. She warmed him up. That’s simply the physics of heat transfer. He didn’t have sex with her. That’s biblical truth. Modern scholars have interpreted the text to imply that King David was sexually impotent. That interpretation demeans men’s personal complexity.

David might have refrained from having sex with Abishag for a wide variety of personal, relational, and moral reasons. Perhaps he thought that having sex with her would create additional familial obligations that he didn’t want, or reduce the care with which she ministered to him. Perhaps he though that his other wives and concubines would be upset if he had sex with her. Perhaps he resolved not to have sex with additional women in repentance for the wrong he did to Bathsheba’s husband. Perhaps he now felt that extra-marital sex is sinful. Perhaps he wanted to write love poems for Abishag and felt that he would be more inspired to do so if he didn’t have sex with her. Machaut’s relationship with Peronne shows the wide range of possibilities for an old man’s behavior in relation to a young, beautiful woman eager to have sex with him. David was no less a unique person than was Machaut.

Even as an old man, David wasn’t impotent as a king. He decreed that his son Solomon would succeed him as king. He gave detailed instructions for the ceremony by which Solomon would be declared king. He also gave moral, religious, and political instructions to Solomon.[10] Even without having sex with Abishag, David worked hard right up to the time of his death. The significance of David not having sex with Abishag is no more clear than the significance of Machaut’s long and elaborate poetic relationship with Peronne before he had sex with her.

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[1] For the account of King David relationship with Abishag the Shunammite, 1 Kings 1:1-4, 15. Most scholars from the twentieth century onward assert that David failed a sexual virility test or that he was impotent. Meek (2014) pp. 4-6. Meek observed:

For David, the issue of impotency is far from a foregone conclusion. In fact, the narrator goes out of the way to tell the reader that David did not have sex with Abishag.

Id. p. 12. That so many “critical” interpreters uncritically assumed that David was impotent because he didn’t have sex with Abishag shows pervasive lack of appreciation for men’s personal, sexual complexity.

[2] Guillaume de Machaut was one of the most famous and influential poet-musicians of fourteenth-century Europe:

Machaut’s reputation rested on his production of an immense and varied corpus of works, many of which were composed for, and in honor of, the several grand nobles with whose courts he was at various times associated. As a musician, he set more than forty balades, thirty virelays, twenty rondeaux, lais and motets and composed a polyphonic setting of the mass; the virtuosity and innovations of these productions made him one of the most important figures of late medieval music

Leech-Wilkinson & Palmer (1998) pp. xi-xii. Here are eight of Machaut’s songs, with English translations. Machaut’s Remede de Fortune includes both narration and notated, lyric-poetic inserts. Some recordings of Machaut’s music are freely available online, including: Je puis trop bien ma dame comparer (ballade) by Ferrara Ensemble / Crawford Young (2001); J’aim sans penser by Dominique Vellard (Cantus Records, 2001); Dame, ne regardes pas (LIBER: Ensemble for Early Music, 2004); Je vivroie liement, by Elisabeth Pawelke / Almara from album Outros Amores (2016).

The extent to which Machaut’s Voir Dit records personal history is a matter of considerable scholarly controversy. The most detailed recent examination has supported an “autobiographical view”:

True to its name, the Voir Dit offers a story that is plausibly situated in real time and place as well as events that often involve the verifiable movements of historically documented people (the king of France, the duke of Normandy, the duke of Bar); often the narrative and letters connect plausibly to historical events. … The finished work provides evidence that as Machaut composed the verse narrative into which the letters were to be set, he rewrote some to reflect that narrative. In the form they now have for us, the letters, in fact, are both reliable documents of Guillaume’s relationship with the lady and fictionalized accounts.

Leech-Wilkinson & Palmer (1998) pp. xxv, xli, lix. Voir Dit apparently recounts events that occurred between 1361 and 1365. Id. pp. 752-3. Machaut, who died in 1377, probably wrote Voir Dit about 1365. On the history of prior interpretations of Voir Dit, id. pp. xxi-xxv and Sturges (1992).

In 1875, the eminent French scholar Paulin Paris identified Machaut’s beloved as Peronnelle d’Armentières (Peronnelle d’Unchair), the daughter of Gaucher d’Unchair. The historical evidence limits her age to between 15 and 20 years old. Id. pp. 22, 38-9, nn. 4-5. Scholars have favored the age of nineteen. The evidence also supports the name Peronne. I use that name conventionally above. Overall, the evidence for identifying Machaut’s beloved lady with Peronne d’Armentières is ambivalent and circumstantial.

[3] Guillaume de Machaut, virelai “Sweet, lovely lady {Douce dame jolie}” stanzas 1-2, 6-7 of 7, Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Horton (2009). Wikipedia has a similar English translation. Lyrics Translate includes a variety of translations of this song.

[4] Guillaume de Machaut, The Book of the True Poem {Le Livre dou Voir Dit} vv. 203-215 (rondel from the lady), Old French text and English trans. (with minor changes) from Leech-Wilkinson & Palmer (1998).

All the subsequent quotes above are from Voir Dit and are similarly sourced. They are vv. 109-18 (She is noble, young, gay, and elegant…), 190-8 (And I kissed the poem unabashedly…), 1556-74 (I took out the pretty portrait…), 1586-1604 (I placed the portrait high above my bed…), 3606-8 (Make sure I can find you in this garden…), 3765-7 (Come sleep between us two…), 3768-2 (May God never please…), 3773-7 (Then my lady argued vehemently…), 3778-90 (But she took me very firmly by the hand…), 3791-3800 (I lay by her side a long time…), 3802-10 (The lady I love with a pure heart…), 3811-3 (Now I couldn’t see a thing…), 3814-24 (And so I was like someone who bathes…).

[5] On David’s character, skills and devotion to God, 1 Samuel 16:18 and 1 Kings 11:4. The wives of David were Michal, daughter of King Saul; Ahinoam the Yizre’elite; Abigail, the wife of Nabal the Carmelite; Maacah, the daughter of Talmay, King of Geshur; Haggith, mother of Adonijah; Abital, mother of Shephatiah; Eglah, mother of Ithream; and Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. On David having at least ten concubines, 2 Samuel 15:16, 20:3. On David and Bathsheba, 2 Samuel 11:1 – 12:15.

[6] Within medieval French culture that hyper-venerated Mary, the mother of Jesus, Machaut wrote a mass in honor of her. This Messe de Nostre Dame, written before 1365, is the first complete setting for the mass ordinary that a single composer wrote. On this mass, Leech-Wilkinson (1990). Here’s a recording of Messe de Nostre Dame by the Ensemble Gilles Binchois, under the direction of Dominique Vellard, from their 1999 album, De Machaut: Sacred and Secular Music.

[7] Writing to the young soldier Nepotian who had recently become a Christian parish priest, the Christian hermit-scholar Jerome of Stridon in 394 GC advised:

Women’s feet should rarely or never be carried forth into your lodging-room. To all young women and to all Christ’s virgins show equal indifference and equal love. Don’t remain under the same roof with them. Don’t trust in your prior continence. Neither holier than David nor wiser than Solomon can you be. Always remember that a woman ejected the cultivator from his possession of Paradise.

{ Hospitiolum tuum aut raro aut numquam mulierum pedes ferant. Omnes puellas et virgines Christi aut aequaliter ignora aut aequaliter dilige. Ne sub eodem tecto manseris; ne in praeterita castitate confidas. Nec David sanctior nec Salomone potes esse sapientior; memento semper, quod paradisi colonum de possessione sua mulier eiecerit. }

Jerome of Stridon, Letters 52, To the priest Nepotian {Ad Nepotianum presbyterum} section 5, Latin text from Wright (1933) p. 202, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. Here’s the translation of Freemantle (1892). A rhetorically sophisticated writer, Jerome here alludes to soldiers’ reputations for eagerly having sex with women. A soldier carrying a woman into his lodging room suggests a passionate affair. Cultivating a possession in Paradise suggests a man having sex with a woman who has given herself in love to him. Jerome counseled Christian priests to refrain from sexual intercourse and treat all women equally. Jerome himself had many women friends.

In the context of advising Christian clergy, the biblical text concerning Abishag and David created a pastoral challenge for Jerome. Rhetorically exaggerating, Jerome suggested that a literal reading of that biblical passage would create a scene fit for a pantomime show or Atellan farce. A young soldier-priest could easily be led into temptation if he attempted to imitate David in bed with Abishag. Jerome allegorized Abishag as wisdom:

Who is then this Shunammite, this woman and virgin, so glowing as to warm the cold, yet so holy as not to arouse lust in the warmed? … Let Wisdom alone embrace me, that is our Abishag, who never grows old. Let her nestle in my bosom. She is unpolluted and a virgin forever. She is like Mary, who daily conceives and unceasingly brings to birth and who is uncorrupted.

{ Quae est igitur ista Somanitis uxor et virgo tam fervens, ut frigidum calcfaceret, tam sancta, ut calentem ad libidinem non provocaret? … Amplexetur me modo sapientia et Abisag nostra, quae numquam senescit, in meo requiescat sinu. Inpolluta est virginitatisque perpetuae et in similitudinem Mariae, cum cotidie generet semperque parturiat, incorrupta est. }

Jerome, Ad Nepotianum presbyterum 3, 6, sourced as previously. Jerome thus interpreted 1 Kings 1:1-4 to instruct priests to embrace and warm themselves with God’s wisdom. This sophisticated didactic interpretation has little relevance to historical interpretation of the passage.

[8] Men being raped is about as prevalent as women being raped. Literary scholars tend to ignore directly described violence against men and focus on imagined forms of violence against women. Hence a recent scholarly article on Voir Dit declared:

when we consider the consequences of this glorification for the woman called Toute Belle, who must also have an allegorical other imposed upon her, we start to glimpse an economy of domination that underlies Guillaume’s retelling of the love affair. Tapping into that economy and describing it will allow us to move beyond limitations of previous scholarship concerning the Voir dit, limitations that — while discerning ulterior motives in Machaut’s depiction of the love affair (i.e., building his own image) — have ignored the violence done to the woman the text must sacrifice to realize those motives.

Armstrong (2011) p. 92.

[9] Cf. Exodus 13:21, Psalm 105:39.

[10] Schreiner interprets 1 Kings 1:1b (David could not warm himself) and 1 Kings 1:4 (Abishag was beautiful and ministered to David, but he didn’t have sex with her) to imply that David was impotent. Schreiner (2018) pp. 124-5. Machaut’s account shows that this inference of impotence isn’t necessary true.

Schreiner further reasons that David’s impotence motivated Abonijah to rebel, as described in 1 Kings 1:5. Id. pp. 129-30. Abonijah might have rebelled on the basis of his inference that David was sexually impotent and therefore politically impotent. David wasn’t in fact politically impotent. He quashed Abonijah’s rebellion by having Solomon formally invested as king. See 1 Kings 1:28-53. Abonijah seems to have thought that Abishag was David’s wife and that he could usurp the throne by marrying her. See 1 Kings 2:13-8. That suggests that Abonijah thought that David had sex with Abishag. In any case, scholars who assume that David was sexually and politically impotent are more mistaken than Abonijah was.

[images] (1) King David in bed with Abishag the Shunammite. Oil on canvas painted by Pedro Américo in 1879. Preserved in Museu Nacional de Belas Artes (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil). Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Recording of Guillaume de Machaut’s virelai “Sweet, lovely lady {Douce dame jolie}” by Annwn, on album Orbis Alia (2007). Via YouTube. Here are recordings by Mil Marie Mougenot (2014) and by La Morra (2015). (3) Nude Bathsheba bathing and King David gazing upon her. Oil on canvas painted by Jean-Léon Gérôme in 1889. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Armstrong, Joshua. 2011. “The Glorified Woman: Abstraction and Domination in Le Livre du Voir Dit.” Romanic Review. 102 (1-2): 91-108.

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Horton, Scott. 2009. “Machaut — Douce dame jolie.” Harper’s Magazine. March 1.

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Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel, ed. and R. Barton Palmer, trans. 1998. Guillaume de Machaut. Le Livre dou Voir Dit / The Book of the True Poem. New York: Garland Publishing.

Meek, Russel. 2014. ‘The Abishag Episode: Reexamining the Role of Virility in 1 Kings 1:1-4 in Light of the Kirta Epic and the Sumerian Tale “The Old Man and the Young Woman.”Bulletin for Biblical Research. 24 (1): 1-14.

Schreiner, David B. 2018. ‘“But He Could Not Warm Himself”: Sexual Innuendo and the Place of 1 Kgs 1,1-4.’ Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament. 32 (1): 121-130.

Sturges, Robert S. 1992. “The Critical Reception of Machaut’s Voir-Dit and the History of Literary History.” French Forum. 17 (2): 133-151.

Wright, F. A., ed. and trans. 1933. Select Letters of St. Jerome. Loeb Classical Library, no. 262. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

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