old men’s sexual difficulties: all-encompassing medieval perspectives

Classical Latin literature recognized the epic disaster of men’s impotence. According to medieval European authorities, heterosexuality is divinely commanded. One of Peter of Blois’s twelfth-century lyrics moves from an opening stanza describing seasonal change from winter to spring to celebrating heterosexual coupling:

Enter now the Western breeze,
putting mist and clouds to flight.
Enter Venus, who decrees
all her creatures should unite,
male with female, in communion,
following their appetite.
Humans, too, are linked in union,
urged by her to love’s delight.

{ Ethera Favonius
induit a vinculis.
Ornat mundum Cyprius
sacris dive copulis.
Castra Venus renovari
novis ovat populis
et tenellas copulari
blandis mentes stimulis. }[1]

From Venus’s universal commandment, Peter turned to his personal circumstances:

Through my veins I feel the hot
runnels of divine desire.
Flora’s mouth’s the honey-pot
that alone can quench my fire.
Flora, flower of uniqueness,
perfect pattern all admire,
only you can salve my weakness
with the succor I require.

{ Tuum, Venus, haurio
venis ignem bibulis.
Tuis, Flora, sicio
favum de labellulis.
Flora, flore singulari
preminens puellulis,
solum sola me solari
soles in periculis. }

Envious persons, hypocrites, and gossips forced Flora and Peter to part. This early example of vicious cancel culture caused the lovers to suffer. Peter morosely declared:

Rather anything than part
with no kiss, but it was so.
What was in your silent heart
only gestures dared to show.
Words were banned, but your revealing
eyes and features let me know
all the pain you were concealing
when your tears began to flow.

{ In discessu dulcibus
non fruebar osculis.
Salutabas nutibus
pene loquens garrulis.
Fas non erat pauca fari.
Fuere pro verbulis,
quas, heu, vidi dirivari
lacrimas ex oculis. }

Love doesn’t necessarily win. Harsh persecution of men’s sexuality along with social viciousness can nullify a divine decree to unite.

Men’s heterosexuality might end in an apocalypse. In the sixth century, the Irish Christian leader Columba wrote a poem describing such a day:

Day of the king most righteous,
that day is near at hand,
the day of wrath and vengeance,
and darkness on the land.

Day of thick clouds and voices,
of mighty thundering,
a day of narrow anguish
and bitter sorrowing.

Love of women is over,
and ended is men’s desire.
Men fight with men no longer,
and the world lusts no more.

{ Regis regum rectissimi
prope est dies domini,
dies irae et vindictae,
tenebrarum et nebulae,

diesque mirabilium
tonitruorum fortium,
dies quoque angustiae,
maeroris ac tristitiae,

in quo cessabit mulierum
amor et desiderium,
hominumque contentio
mundi huius et cupido. }[2]

In this poem, the day of God’s judgment has come. God now holds all persons to account for their deeds. Love relations between women and men and violence against men have created horrible wrongs that infuriate God. The only men who will not be condemned to devouring flames and burning of thirst and hunger and weeping and gnashing of teeth will be MGTOWs (Men Going Their Own Way):

Since humans have fragmented
glorious laws of truth,
who can please God
in the new time
other than those who despise
this present world?

{ Quis potest deo placere
novissimo in tempore
variatis insignibus
veritatis ordinibus
exceptis contemptoribus
mundi praesentis istius? }

Some persons are in the present world, but not of the present world. They live and pray and sing and tell old tales and laugh. They marvel at the mystery of things.

Re-orienting one’s life in that way isn’t easy. Writing early in the thirteenth century, the French theologian Philip the Chancellor, born into a family of powerful clerics, declared:

In the flourishing days of my youth
it was permitted — and a joy —
to do whatever I wanted:
to run around at will
and exhaust
all the pleasures of the flesh.

I want to change my ways,
to leave behind and put right
my rash behavior.
Then I will focus on
serious matters and for my vices
compensate with virtues.

{ Dum iuventus floruit,
licuit et libuit
facere, quod placuit:
iuxta voluntatem
currere, peragere
carnis voluptatem.

Volo resipiscere,
linquere, corrigere,
quod commisi temere;
deinceps intendam
seriis, pro vitiis
virtutes rependam. }[3]

Old age helps men to change their lives from sexual coupling with as many beautiful, young persons as possible to other virtuous actions.

Honestly recognizing reality is helpful for old men. On seeing a lovely young woman, a young, medieval knight urged her to have sex with him. Like Abishag crawling into bed with the aged King David, she apparently was interested in old men. The young knight, however, proclaimed to her:

Join in the rejoicing and have fun —
lead out all the dancers!
Young men are full of life,
old men are past it!

Listen, my lovely,
knighthood confers
a thousands ways of making love.

Young men deserve your love —
we are as hot as fire!
Old men make you shudder —
they are as cold as ice!

{ Congaudentes ludite,
choros simul ducite!
Iuvenes sunt lepidi,
senes sunt decrepiti!

Audi, bel’ amia,
mille modos Veneris
dat chevaleria.

Iuvenes amabiles,
igni comparabiles;
senes sunt horribiles,
frigori consimiles! }[4]

In ancient Athens, the famous philosopher Epicurus employed the services of the courtesan Leontium, who was also one of his students. She complained bitterly about him:

Nothing is harder to please, it seems, than an old man who is just starting to behave like a boy again. How this Epicurus is controlling me, criticizing everything, suspecting everything, writing me incomprehensible letters and chasing me out of his garden. By Aphrodite, even if he had been an Adonis, though nearly eighty years old, I wouldn’t put up with him, this lice-ridden and sickly man who is all wrapped up in fleece instead of felt. How long must one endure this philosopher? Let him have his Principal Doctrines on Nature and his distorted Canons, and permit me to live according to nature, my own mistress, without anger and violence.

{ Οὐδὲν δυσαρεστότερον, ὡς ἔοικεν, ἐστὶν ἄρτι πάλιν μειρακευομένου πρεσβύτου. οἷά με Ἐπίκουρος οὗτος διοικεῖ πάντα λοιδορῶν, πάντα ὑποπτεύων, ἐπιστολὰς ἀδιαλύτους μοι γράφων, ἐκδιώκων ἐκ τοῦ κήπου. μὰ τὴν Ἀφροδίτην, εἰ Ἄδωνις ἦν, ἤδη ἐγγὺς ὀγδοήκοντα ἔτη, οὐκ ἂν αὐτοῦ ἠνεσχόμην φθειριῶντος καὶ φιλονοσοῦντος καὶ καταπεπιλημένου εὖ μάλα πόκοις ἀντὶ πίλων. μέχρι τίνος ὑπομενεῖ τις τὸν φιλόσοφον τοῦτον; ἐχέτω τὰς περὶ φύσεως αὐτοῦ κυρίας δόξας καὶ τοὺς διεστραμμένους κανόνας· ἐμὲ δὲ ἀφέτω ζῆν φυσικῶς κυρίαν ἐμαυτῆς ἀστομάχητον καὶ ἀνύβριστον. }[5]

As a general principle, the higher the social status of a man, the more likely that a young woman will be amorously interested in him (hypergamy). Intellectual achievement tends to raise a man’s social status. Nonetheless, no amount of scholarly study can make an old men into a young man in reality.

Old men with well-developed minds are able to think extensively about love. In medieval Europe, an old man reasoned:

The unicorn customarily shows himself to young unmarried women,
and only a woman whose virginity is truly unstained
can retain him in her embrace.

Thus the young woman who associates with a young man
and rejects me as an old man is rightly deprived
of the privilege by which the unicorn allows her to capture him.

In the threshing of young women, what’s owed to old men
as reward is chaff. The grain goes to young men.
So as an old man I leave the threshing floor to the next man.

{ Rhinoceros virginibus se solet exhibere;
sed cuius est virginitas intemerata vere,
suo potest gremio hunc sola retinere.

Igitur que iuveni virgo sociatur
et me senem spreverit, iure defraudatur,
ut ab hac rhinoceros se capi patiatur.

In tritura virginum debetur seniori
pro mercede palea, frumentum iuniori;
inde senex aream relinquo successori. }[6]

In addition to spitefully thinking through women’s amorous opportunities with unicorns, this old man focused on the separation of the wheat from the chaff in the narrow, temporal judgment leading to a night in the bedroom. Obsession with that final judgment doesn’t allow a man to enjoy the fullness of life here on earth.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Peter of Blois (attributed), Arundel Lyrics 7, “The earth applauds, the north wind {Plaudit humus Boree},” vv. 11-8 (stanza 2), Latin text and English translation from Adcock (1983) pp. 66-7. This twelfth-century poem survives in only one manuscript, London, British Library, Arundel 384 III, f. 234r. Here’s an online Latin text of the whole song. The subsequent two quotes above are from “Plaudit humus Boree,” vv. 21-28 (stanza 3) and 41-8 (stanza 5 of 5). I’ve made some insubstantial changes to Adcock’s lovely translation.

While Adcock’s and McDonough’s readings are identical for stanza 3, in stanza 2 McDonough has a slightly different Latin text for vv. 12, 14, 16. That reading gives stanza 2 a somewhat different tone:

The west wind clothes the sky with small birds. The Cyprian god beautifies the world through the sacred bonds of the gods. Venus exults that her camp is being revived by new followers and that tender hearts are being ravaged by stings of seduction.

{ Ethera favonius
induit aviculis.
Ornat mundum Cyprius
sacris dium copulis.
Castra Venus renovari
novis ovat populis,
et tenellas populari
blandis mentes stimulis. }

Latin text and English translation from McDonough (2010), pp. 32-3. In the context of the whole song, Adcock’s Latin reading seems to me thematically superior. The difference between the two readings emphasizes the importance of paleographic study.

[2] Columba {Colum Cille} (attributed), “The high creator, ancient of days and engendered {Altus prosator vetustus dierum et ingenitus}” vv. 98-103, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Waddell (1929) pp. 68-9. Cf. Zephaniah 1:15-7.

Waddell’s Latin text is identical to that of Blume (1908) p. 277. Blume’s Latin text is based on early continental manuscripts. Stevenson regards it as the best text. Stevenson (1999) p. 326, n. 4. Columba lived in sixth-century Ireland. Stevenson questions the attribution of “Altus prosator” to Columba and suggests that it’s a seventh-century Hiberno-Latin poem.

“Altus prosator” is the greatest of all surviving Hiberno-Latin poems. “No other Hiberno-Latin poem has anything like its range and originality.” Stevenson (1999) pp. 326-7. It’s an abecedarian hymn with each stanza having twelve verses, or six, if couplets are joined to form leonine verses. It has a radial thematic structure: “The Altus Prosator’s stanzas come together in an organised whole if one reads the poem out from the center, rather than down the page.” Wesseling (1988) p. 51.

“Altus prosator” is available online in various Latin texts and translations. Chasing Columba provides a rather literal English translation. Bernard & Atkinson (1898) vol. 2, pp. 142-53, provides scholarly commentary, a Latin text, and a literal English translation. For another Latin text and an English paraphrase, Stone (1897) pp. 126-75.

The subsequent quote above is the refrain (antiphon) for “Altus prosator” from Blume (1908) p. 275, with my English translation.

[3] Carmina Burana 30: Philip the Chancellor (probably), “In the flourishing days of my youth {Dum iuventus floruit},” stanzas 1 and 4 (of 4), Latin text and English translation from Traill (2018). Here’s an online Latin text. The Carmina Burana was compiled about 1230 in a Germanic location near Italy. Its songs thus date no later than 1230.

[4] Carmina Burana 94: “Join in the rejoicing and have fun {Congaudentes ludite},” stanza 1, refrain, stanza 3 (of 3), Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Traill (2018). Here’s an online Latin text that differs significantly from Traill’s text.

[5] Alciphron, Letters 4, Letters of the Courtesans {Επιστολαι Εταιρικαι} 17, Leontium to Lamia {Λεόντιον Λαμίᾳ} ll. 1-12, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified slightly) from Granholm (2012). Alciphron wrote roughly about the year 200 GC.

[6] Carmina Burana 93: “An unattractive woman has a garden for young women {Hortum habet insula virgo virginalem},” stanzas 6-8 (of 8), Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Traill (2018). In a note to the first stanza, Traill insightfully suggests that the garden is a brothel. Id. vol. 1, p. 555. The old man’s reasoning about unicorns suggests that he and the woman have a loving, physically affectionate relationship, but don’t have sex. On threshing, cf. Luke 3:15-7. On wheat and chaff in the Bible, Wakefield (2019).

Some editors have separated “Hortum habet insula virgo virginalem” into two poems, Carmina Burana 93 and 93a. Traill convincingly argues for one poem. Id.

[images] (1) Recording of Benjamin Britten’s “A Hymn of St Columba” (“Regis regum rectissimi” stanza from “Altus prosator”) performed by the Merbecke Choir at Southwark Cathdral on 13 July 2013. Via YouTube. Here are recordings by The Sixteen and Harry Christophers (2002) and by the Memphis Chamber Choir (1995). (2) Performance of “Dum iuventus floruit” by La Camera delle Lacrime (2017) in the play “Dante Troubadour: Les Cercles de l’Enfer.” Via YouTube. This performance refers to verses from Dante’s Inferno:

It flows into a swamp whose name is Styx,
this gloomy little brook, descending to
the bottom of the gray, malignant slope.

And I, who gazed intently as I stood,
saw people in that slough all slimed with mud,
stripped naked, and their faces torn with rage.

{ In la palude va c’ha nome Stige
questo tristo ruscel, quand’è disceso
al piè de le maligne piagge grige.

E io, che di mirare stava inteso,
vidi genti fangose in quel pantano,
ignude tutte, con sembiante offeso. }

Dante, Inferno 7.106-11, Italian text and English translation from Esolen (2002).


Adcock, Fleur. 1983. The Virgin and the Nightingale: medieval Latin poems. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books.

Bernard, J. H. and R. Atkinson. 1898. The Irish Liber Hymnorum. 2 volumes (vol. 1, vol. 2). London: Harrison and Sons.

Blume, Clemens. 1908. Die Hymnen des Thesaurus Hymnologicus H.A. Daniels und anderer Hymnen-Ausgaben. Analecta Hymnica Medii Aevi 51. Leipzig: O.R. Reisland.

Esolen, Anthony M., trans. 2002. Dante Alighieri. The Inferno. New York: Modern Library.

Granholm, Patrik, ed. and trans. 2012. Alciphron: Letters of the Courtesans. Uppsala: Institutionen för Lingvistik och Filologi, Uppsala Universitet.

McDonough, Christopher J., ed. and trans. 2010. The Arundel lyrics; The poems of Hugh Primas. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 2. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Stevenson, Jane. 1999. “Altus Prosator.” Celtica: Journal of the School of Celtic Studies. 23: 326–368.

Stone, Samuel John. 1897. Lays of Iona and other Poems. London: Longmans & Co.

Traill, David A. 2018, ed. and trans. Carmina Burana. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 48-49. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Waddell, Helen. 1929 / rev. 1948. Mediaeval Latin Lyrics. New York: Henry Holt.

Wakefield, Dexter B. 2019. “The Wheat and the Chaff.” Living Church News (Living Church of God). September / October 2019, online.

Wesseling, Margaret. 1988. “Structure and Image in the Altus Prosator: Columba’s Symmetrical Universe.” Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium. 8: 46-57.

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