madly in love: fool for Gallus love lacked Eracle’s Christian wisdom

Over two millennia ago, the Roman poet and military leader Cornelius Gallus figured insane love and love as war. The enormity of these love figures in defining love norms within subsequent European culture can hardly be under-estimated. The most influential challenge to Gallus’s ideas about love has been the Christian New Testament. In twelfth-century France, the cleric Gautier d’Arras centrally contrasted Gallus’s love and Christian love in his story of the empress Athenaïs committing adultery.

After an extensive bride-show failed to provide a suitable wife for the Roman Emperor Laïs, Athenaïs through the annunciation of Eracle gained that highly privileged position without even seeking it. She was a young, beautiful, and impoverished woman. She was also loyal, pious, sensible, intelligent, and good-spirited. Emperor Laïs and all the Roman people came to love dearly Empress Athenaïs.

After seven years of blissful marriage, Laïs had to leave Rome to quash a rebellion. That would be a long and difficult military campaign besieging a city. Laïs was reluctant to depart from his wife, but her traveling with him would be too difficult and dangerous for her. As the Roman Emperor, he was required to lead this violence against men. He feared not the violence, but losing his wife’s love:

He would be forced always to have fear,
for a courtly lover always fears
losing what he holds in his hands,
for he is always afraid in love.
One never suspicious has never loved!

{ tos jors estuet que crieme i ait,
que fins amans tos jors se crient
de perdre ce c’a ses mains tient,
qu’il a tos jors crieme en amor:
qui ne mescroit, ains n’ama jor! }[1]

Those fearful and suspicious in love are loving in the way of Gallus. Jesus instructed his followers to be not afraid before the revelation of love. Those who love in the way of Gallus lack wisdom in their madness:

And even a wise man
always fears very distressingly,
henceforth no man will ever be wise
if he does all that the love god requires of him.
But self-made madness isn’t such
as is natural madness,
because one can be very wise in character
who is very foolish in courtly love,
and that madness and that knowledge
make one have fear in love.

{ Et sages hom meïmement
se crient tous jors molt durement,
mais ja nus hom sages nen iert
s’il fait tout ce c’Amors requiert.
Mais se folie n’est pas teus
com est folie natureus,
car teus est de molt sage ator
qui molt est faus en fine amor,
et tel folie et tel savoir
font en amor paour avoir. }

Here the “love god {Amors}” is the traditional Greco-Roman love god of Gallus. The associated analysis of wisdom and foolishness must be read along with Paul of Tarsus’s words about a different god of love:

For since in the wisdom of god, the world through wisdom did not know god, it pleased god through the foolishness of what we preach to save those who believe.

{ ἐπειδὴ γὰρ ἐν τῇ σοφίᾳ τοῦ θεοῦ οὐκ ἔγνω ὁ κόσμος διὰ τῆς σοφίας τὸν θεόν εὐδόκησεν ὁ θεὸς διὰ τῆς μωρίας τοῦ κηρύγματος σῶσαι τοὺς πιστεύοντας }[2]

In Christian understanding, god is love. Christians are fools for the sake of Christ. Being madly in love in the worldly sense of Gallus isn’t wise in Christian understanding.

holy fool Nikolay Salos castigating Ivan IV

Emperor Laïs sought advice from his divine counselor Eracle on how to keep an eye on the Empress Athenaïs during his long absence. Eracle vehemently advised against putting her under guard. He declared:

Lord, if you restrain her
with locks or barring,
no shackles of iron or locking
will ever manage to hold her.
If you let her do what suits her,
she’ll be such a good wife as never was.
Leave her fully in peace, lord,
so to have always a good beloved.

{ Sire, se vos le destraigniés
n’en fremetés n’en siereüre,
loiiens de fer ne fremeüre
ne le poroit jamais tenir.
Se vous laissiés çou couvenir,
3035 si bone feme n’ert jamais.
Laissiés le, sire, tout em pais
si arés tous jors bone amie. }[3]

Eracle understood that matters concerning men’s relations with women are complicated. Some women will betray men who trust them. Eracle was certain that Athenaïs was not such a woman.

Laïs insisted that he wanted advice on how to guard his wife. Eracle in response observed that some counselors will tell their lord whatever their lord wants to hear. He declared that only foolish lords have such counselors. Eracle again advised Laïs not to confine Athenaïs under guard. Defying Eracle’s advice, Laïs had her confined to a heavily fortified tower under the watchful eyes of twenty-four trusted barons with their wives. Then Laïs left Rome for his lengthy, distant imperial duty.

While Laïs and his men soldiers were brutally suffering in besieging the rebel city, Athenaïs was lamenting being confined in the spacious, safe imperial tower. She reasoned instrumentally in relation to her husband:

I see nothing that isn’t a thing
for me to grieve. My heart makes the case against me
that I for god and for honor
have kept the faith of my lord.
Certainly I am not aware
of a thing that I have gained
apart from great dishonor heaped upon me.

{ Je ne voi onques nule cose
qui ne me griet; mes cuers me cose
que je por Diu et por honor
ai foi gardee mon signor;
car je ne sui aperceüe
de cose que jou aie eüe
fors de grant honte c’on m’alieve. }

Athenaïs recalled again and again that she had been faithful to her husband and that he had treated her badly. Her resentment tormented her.

The time came for a grand festival in Rome. All the people of Rome attended this festival, and the empress customarily attended as well. The young, noble men of Rome would play harps and dance for the empress there. Athenaïs insisted on her customary attendance even while her husband was out of town. All her guards accompanied her to the festival.

The preeminent young man at the festival was Paridés. The son of a Roman senator, he was the best dressed, most handsome, and most courtly of all the young men. He had beautiful eyes, lovely curly hair, a finely sculpted face, shapely arms, and an attractive, well-built body. Leaping and twirling, he danced vigorously in front of Athenaïs. He also played sweetly on his harp. She gazed on him, and he gazed on her, and they became madly in love with each other.[4]

Athenaïs and Paridés both experienced all the symptoms of Gallus’s love madness. They suffered great distress, uncertainty, and inner torment. Neither was able to sleep at night. They turned pale and refused to eat. They continually sighed, wept, and lamented the misfortune of not being with the beloved other. They regretted that love had attacked them. Both sensed that they were on the verge of dying.

An old woman, a friend of Paridés’s family, intervened to save him from death. She perceived that he was languishing in love for a woman. With her womanly wisdom gathered from many years of life, she told him:

Not even the most lowly woman in Rome,
if she saw a very high man
languishing for her in such a manner,
would not become haughty and proud.
According to many witnesses, a woman always
comes closer to him who is more distant
such that there wasn’t much familiarity.
And those who are well set-up with her
are thrust well behind
for lamenting in this manner.
A woman doesn’t esteem highly
a man who is too captivated by her.
But she loves that one, esteems that one
who has her under foot, who has her captivated.
I, who am I woman, say it by my experience.
I have made many men anguish in the past
when I was a young wench.
I wouldn’t have loved a man for all Toulouse
because he loved me. Instead I’d play with him,
but I’d always take from him.
To the contrary, I gave sexual access to those
who weren’t concerned about my love.

{ Il nen a tant vil garce en Rome,
s’ele veoit un bien haut home
languir por li en tel maniere,
ne devenist estoute et fiere.
Feme est tos jors de tel tesmoing
que mius li vient plus en est loing
por qu’il n’i soit bien acointiés,
et teus i est bien empointiés
qui s’en reboute bien arriere
por dolouser en tel maniere.
A feme n’est pas de grant pris
hom puis que trop en est soupris,
mais celui aime, celui prise
qui l’a sous piés, qui l’a souprise.
Jel di por moi qui feme sui:
ja ai je fait maint home anui;
quant je estoie jovene touse
je n’amaisse home por Toulouse
por qu’il m’amast, ains l’amusoie,
ne mais du sien tos jors prendoie:
a ceus le donoie a droiture
qui de m’amor n’avoient cure }

Most men throughout history have had great love for women. That’s not to men’s advantage. The old women counseled Paridés to be moderate in his love. She assured him that she could acquire for him love from the woman whom he loved. A strong, independent, self-confident woman, she explained:

There isn’t any woman, if I so seek,
whom I cannot make to believe in my god.
I’m not speaking of the god of history,
of the “Our Father” and of the gospel.
I know of such trickery and guile
that your good would be obtained,
even if it were with the empress.

{ Il n’i a nule, se je voel,
que je ne face en mon diu croire:
je parol bien d’el que d’estoire,
de patre nostre et d’evangile;
tant sai de barat et de gile
que vostres bons ert acomplis,
se c’ert nes li empereïs. }

The old woman’s god was sex. Devotion to that god provided her with mammon. Paridés fainted when he heard her mention the empress. The old woman then discerned that he was in love with the empress. She assured him that she could help him even with the empress.[5] Then she encouraged him to take some soup. Paridés’s mother, distressed that her son was wasting away without eating, was so delighted with him taking soup that she gave the old woman a good cloak and much money.

The old woman then acted as a go-between in arranging a sexual encounter for the empress and Paridés. Under those arrangements, Athenaïs rode out to the festival on a prized, frisky horse. As she was passing by the old woman’s house, she struck the horse. It bucked and she fell into a pre-arranged puddle. She then went into the old woman’s house to change her clothes and treat her alleged rheumatism with warmth and rubbing. The men imperial guards stood outside the house. Inside, the old woman opened a trap door. Paridés was waiting for Athenaïs in an underground den. They met for the first time and quickly had bestial sex.[6] Then Athenaïs returned to her place in front of the fire. The old woman closed the trap door and covered it to make invisible the existence of a man within an underground chamber. Athenaïs’s guards were completely fooled.

Emperor Laïs’s divine counselor Eracle perceived immediately that the empress had committed adultery. He informed the emperor, who then ceased besieging the rebel city and returned to Rome. Athenaïs knew that Eracle with his extrasensory perception would perceive her crime. She knew that cuckolding the emperor would subject Paridés to the death penalty and her probably to some less severe punishment. In her love madness, she committed adultery despite the expected cost to her beloved and her.

Eracle declared that Emperor Laïs was at fault. Showing considerable concern for his own reputation as a counselor, Eracle declared to Laïs:

It’s your fault for what she has done.
She was chaste and noble and free from sin.
She was the best woman in all the world
when you put her in prison,
so making a great mistake.
I told you in public
that you would lose her for this.

{ que c’est par vos canqu’ele a fait.
Ele ert et caste et fine et monde,
ele ert li miudre riens del monde;
quant le mesistes en prison,
si fesistes grant mesproison,
que je vos dis tout en oiant
que vos le perderiés par tant }

That Laïs did wrong doesn’t imply that he’s to blame for Athenaïs doing wrong. But blaming a man makes for a more popular story. With Christian compassion, Eracle advised:

If you don’t want to keep her any longer,
let her go as is suitable.
You can arrange an amicable parting from her
by the Pope’s law.

{ Se vos nel volés mais tenir,
toute le laissiés convenir;
se vos en partés bielement,
par l’apostole loiaument }

Despite his distress, Laïs recognized his wrong in not following Eracle’s earlier advice. He realized that he must follow the wise-fool Eracle’s advice now. Laïs thus granted mercy to Paridés, a divorce to Athenaïs, and provisions such that the two could marry. In ceasing to besiege a city and acting mercifully toward his wayward wife, Emperor Laïs rejected Gallus’s love madness and love warfare. He acted instead with the wisdom of fools for Christ.[7]

Gallus’s figures of love madness and love as war have been even more damaging to human relationships than has been the men-abasing ideology of courtly love. Those who know nothing of classical and medieval love poetry nonetheless love under its influence through representations all around them. Freedom from the shackles of oppressive poetic culture doesn’t come easily. At least Christians can strive to be madly in love as fools for a much different love god.

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[1] Gautier d’Arras, Eracle vv. 2992-6, Old French text from Pratt (2007), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. Raynaud de Lage (1976) represents an earlier critical edition. Besieging a city / a man insistently pleading for entry at the door of a beloved woman’s house is a figure of Gallus’s insane love.

Subsequent quotes, unless otherwise noted, are similarly from Eracle. They are vv. 2997-3006 (And even a wise man…), 3030-7 (Lord, if you restrain her…), 3317-24 (I see nothing that isn’t a thing…), 4139-60 (Not even the most lowly woman in Rome…), 4174-80 (There isn’t any woman, if I so seek…), 4972-8 (It’s your fault for what she had done…), 5007-10 (If you don’t want to keep her any longer…).

[2] 1 Corinthians 1:21. More generally, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, 3:18-20, 4:1-14. On not being afraid, e.g. Isaiah 40:9-11, Mark 5:35-43. On the Christian god being love, e.g. John 13:34, 1 John 4:7-21, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13.

[3] Eracle here alludes to god setting prisoners free in Psalm 107:14-6.

[4] Pratt (2007) translated “qui sont d’amor soupris” (v. 3509) as “those who have fallen madly in love.” A more literal translation is “those who are captivated by love.” In Gallus’s figures of love, the military metaphor of being captured is closely associated with being madly in love.

[5] The old woman go-between is a well-established character in medieval literature. Examples can be found in the weeping-dog fabliau, Libro de buen amor (Trotaconventos), Judah al-Harizi’s Tahkemoni, medieval Welsh erotic poetry, and La Celestina (Celestina), among other medieval works.

In the thirteenth-century pseudo-Ovidian About an old woman {De vetula}, an old woman was extremely reluctant to take up the work of a go-between for Ovid:

I implore you, by the gods, do not trouble me further
about this matter! I ask that you permit me to finish
my old age in peace. I would prefer to live in safety
than for the sake of riches go to the dead with bloody hands.
This poverty of mine should suffice for me
for the few days that fate, one thinks, will grant me.
Let me pass! I would prefer to live in safety
than have your promise subject me to so much fear.

{ Obsecro per superos ne sollicitaveris ultra
Me super his! In pace meam finire senectam
me, rogo, permittas. Magis eligo vivere tuta,
sufficiatque mihi paupertas haec mea paucis,
quos mihi concedunt fatalia pensa, diebus,
quam pro divitiis adeam cum sanguine manes,
Esto, quod evadam! Magis eligo vivere tuta,
quam metui tanto tua me promissio subdat! }

De vetula vv. 2.371-8, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Hexter, Pfuntner & Haynes (2020) pp. 220-1. The old woman eventually took up the job for high pay. Unable or unwilling to convince the young woman to sleep with Ovid, the old woman arranged a bed-trick to sleep with Ovid herself.

[6] Pratt interprets Gautier d’Arras to be rationalizing Athenaïs committing adultery: “he has produced a largely sympathetic account of how an active heroine responds to marital injustice and loss of freedom.” Pratt (2007) p xl. Another scholar has interpreted Eracle to be critical of courtly love: “courtly love, masquerading as a superficial veneer for animal passion, is being satirised by Gautier.” Id., citing Pierreville (2001) p. 191. Pierreville’s reading seems to me more perceptive. In satirizing courtly love, this section of Eracle may have influenced the thirteenth-century Old Occitan Flamenca.

[7] Pratt seems to me to misinterpret the love contrast between Laïs and Athenaïs / Paridés: “The couple’s concept of fin’amor (4913-44), a compulsion which cannot easily be broken, is similarly contrasted with Laïs’s possessive love (2959-68, 2983-3009).” Pratt (2007) p. xliii. Ovidian fin’amor is a development of Gallus’s love madness. Both Laïs and Athenaïs / Paridés behave according to that pattern, which includes possessiveness and jealousy. In the end, however, Laïs shifts to Christian expressions of love: repentance, self-sacrifice, and mercy.

The hagiography and folk-tale episodes preceding the adultery episode in Eracle establish Eracle as a wise-fool. He’s conceived when his mother follows bizarre angelic instructions to have sex with her husband on a particular carpet placed on the floor. Eracle and his mother accept selling him into slavery to get more money for alms-giving. Eracle’s apparently foolish recommendations concerning stones, horses, and women turn out to be astonishingly wise. Emperor Laïs belatedly recognized the wisdom of the wise-fool Eracle in relation to women.

The adultery episode in Eracle has a didactic thrust. It doesn’t celebrate love madness briefly consummated in a hole in the ground. It doesn’t ridicule Laïs or laugh with him about the comic position of husbands. Cf. Konstan (2014) on adulterous wives in classical Greece. The adultery episode in Eracle goes beyond satire to function as a substantive Christian critique of Gallus-Ovidian love madness.

[image] Holy fool Nikolay Salos reproaches Ivan the Fearsome (Ivan IV) for bloodthirstiness at Pskov. Painting by Pelevin Ivan Andreevich {Пелевин Иван Андреевич}. Painted in 1877. Preserved in the Art Gallery of the Foundation of Generations of the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug of Ugra {Художественная Галерея Фонда поколений ХМАО Югры} (Russia). Via Wikimedia Commons.


Hexter, Ralph J., Laura Pfuntner, and Justin Haynes, ed. and trans. 2020. Appendix Ovidiana: Latin poems ascribed to Ovid in the Middle Ages. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 62. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Konstan, David. 2014. “Laughing at Ourselves: Gendered Humor in Classical Greece.”  In Anna Foka and Jonas Liliequist, eds. Humour, Gender and Laughter Across Times and Cultures. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan.

Pierreville, Corinne. 2001. Gautier d’Arras: l’autre Chrétien. Paris: H. Champion.

Pratt, Karen, ed. and trans. 2007. Gautier d’Arras. Eracle. King’s College London Medieval Studies 21. London: King’s College London, Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies.

Raynaud de Lage, Guy, ed. 1976. Gautier d’Arras. Eracle. Paris: Champion. Published online in by ENS de Lyon in the Base de français médiéval, last revised 28-5-2013.

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