medieval insight: what prevents hate amid gender injustices

With worldly authorities coldly indifferent to men’s sufferings, men endure harsh gender injustices of love and hate. These gender injustices might drive men themselves to hate. Yet men express relatively little hate. Medieval literature shows ways in which men are saved from hate.

Consider the example of the medieval man Spurinna, who longed to have children with his wife. He didn’t assume that his wife was infertile and divorce her. Instead, following a common medieval European practice, he went on a Christian pilgrimage:

Since Spurinna desires to rear children,
he climbs the summit of the high Pyrenees
to offer his prayers to Saint James,
then passes over the snowy Alps
to visit the shrines of Peter and Paul.
And soon, having doubled back to the Adriatic,
with trembling he prays to the goddess of Loreto.
Then passing through dangers on the deep sea,
arriving at holy Palestine,
he heads for the holy sepulcher of the Lord.
Not content with this, he traverses
the dry sands of Arabia, land of thieves,
on the hump of a camel,
hastens to the lofty Sinai
and to the sacred summit of Saint Catherine.
What resulted from this effort, you ask?
When he returned home, he found three children.

{ Tollendae cupidus Spurinna prolis
Altae dum superat iugum Pyrenes,
Divo porrigat ut preces Iacobo,
Inde Alpes quoque praeterit nivosas,
Petri ut limina visat atque Pauli:
Et mox Hadriacum in sinum reflexus
Laureti attonitus deam precatur:
Inde per medii maris pericla
Sacram perveniens ad usque Idumen,
Sacratum Domini petit sepulchrum.
Nec contentus adhuc, latrocinantum
Arenas Arabum siticulosas
Gibbo permeat insidens cameli,
Sublimem properans ad usque Sinam,
Et divae iuga sacra Catharinae.
Quid profecerit hoc labore quaeris?
Tres natos reperit domum reversus. }[1]

Spurinna didn’t place his wife under guard while he was gone. He didn’t encourage his wife to work as a prostitute so as to produce children for him. Like Joseph, the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus, Spurinna accepted the children he found upon returning home as fruits of the Holy Spirit working during his pilgrimage. He showed no concern for his wife’s disrespect for his biological interests and for institutionally supported cuckolding of men. In Spurinna’s understanding, God had provided children for him.

Understanding of Holy Scripture prompted another medieval man to have scorn for his ex-girlfriend’s love. This man complained that his sweet, chaste girlfriend, perhaps bored with him, had left him to become a prostitute:

A palace of chastity
now is open for all as a brothel.
The virgin lily withers
at the touch of the vulgar throng
in shameful commerce.

{ Patet lupanar omnium
pudoris in palatium,
nam virginale lilium
marcet a tactu vilium
commercio probroso. }[2]

He satirically advised his ex-girlfriend:

Be more careful in your loving,
for fear that it be discovered.
What you do, do in darkness,
far from the eyes of Rumor.
Love, with its sweet enticements
and playful murmurings,
takes joy in hidden places.

{ Cautius ama,
ne comperiatur!
Quod agis, age tenebris
procul a Famae palpebris!
Laetatur amor latebris
et dulcibus illecbris
cum murmure iocoso. }

This man apparently deliberately reversed a Biblical exhortation:

Once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light, for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret.

{ ἦτε γάρ ποτε σκότος νῦν δὲ φῶς ἐν κυρίῳ ὡς τέκνα φωτὸς περιπατεῖτε ὁ γὰρ καρπὸς τοῦ φωτὸς ἐν πάσῃ ἀγαθωσύνῃ καὶ δικαιοσύνῃ καὶ ἀληθείᾳ δοκιμάζοντες τί ἐστιν εὐάρεστον τῷ κυρίῳ καὶ μὴ συγκοινωνεῖτε τοῖς ἔργοις τοῖς ἀκάρποις τοῦ σκότους μᾶλλον δὲ καὶ ἐλέγχετε τὰ γὰρ κρυφῇ γινόμενα ὑπ᾽ αὐτῶν αἰσχρόν ἐστιν καὶ λέγειν }[3]

With another Biblical inversion, the man further castigated his ex-girlfriend:

Men who merely ask for your love
you dismiss with angry words;
those who offer gifts
you warmly embrace in bed.
Men from whom you get nothing
you tell to go away.
You receive the blind and the lame;
illustrious men you deceive
with your envenomed honey.

{ Verbo rogantes
removes hostili,
munera dantes
foves in cubili.
Illos abire praecipis
a quibus nihil accipis.
Caecos claudosque recipis,
viros illustres decipis
cum melle venenoso. }

The Gospel of Matthew described Jesus cleansing commerce from the temple of God. Jesus within the temple healed at no cost:

The blind and the lame came to Jesus in the temple, and he healed them.

{ προσῆλθον αὐτῷ τυφλοὶ καὶ χωλοὶ ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ καὶ ἐθεράπευσεν αὐτούς }[4]

Medieval literature tells of warm-hearted women saving men from death from lovesickness with mercy for them, not to gain gifts. This man’s ex-girlfriend, in contrast, accepted men into her body, her temple of the Holy Spirit, for material gain. At least blind men correctly perceived her relationship with them. Betrayed by his ex-girlfriend, the man who wrote this poem doesn’t hate her in opposition to the love he had for her. With keen Christian understanding wrapped in scorn, he regards her as having made God’s freely given love irrelevant to loving her.

A Galician-Portuguese poem from the middle of the thirteenth century more explicitly depicts a man who doesn’t hate a woman. The man laments:

If I could only learn to hate
the one who’s always hated me!
If I could only make her hurt
for all the ways that she’s hurt me!
I would have revenge at least
if I could pay back part of the grief
to the heart that so grieved me.

But I can’t even learn to fool
my very own heart. It fooled me
by making me completely fall
for one who’d never fall for me.
And this is why I never sleep:
I try but can’t repay the grief
to the heart that so grieved me.

{ Se eu podesse desamar
a quem me sempre desamou
e podess’algum mal buscar
a quem me sempre mal buscou!
Assi me vingaria eu,
se eu pudesse coita dar
a quem me sempre coita deu.

Mais sol nom poss’eu enganar
meu coraçom que m’enganou,
per quanto mi fez desejar
a quem me nunca desejou.
E por esto nom dórmio eu,
porque nom poss’eu coita dar
a quem me sempre coita deu. }[5]

Medieval men’s sense of women’s disloyalty to them prompted vibrant poetry of men’s sexed protest. But this man felt that he couldn’t repay hate for hate, hurt for hurt, grief for grief. He turned to God for help:

I pray that God will yet reject
the one who always rejected me,
or that I’ll make her feel upset
for all the times she’s upset me.
Then I’d finally sleep in peace
if I could pay back part of the grief
to the heart that so grieved me.

Or that I’ll bring myself to ask
the one who never once asked me,
why I’ve always thought of her,
though she’s never thought of me.
And this is why I’m suffering:
I try but can’t repay the grief
to the heart that so grieved me.

{ Mais rog’a Deus que desampar
a quem m’assi desamparou,
ou que podess’eu destorvar
a quem me sempre destorvou.
E logo dormiria eu,
se eu podesse coita dar
a quem me sempre coita deu.

Vel que ousass’en preguntar
a quem me nunca preguntou,
por que me fez em si cuidar,
pois ela nunca em mi cuidou;
e por esto lazeiro eu:
porque nom posso coita dar
a quem me sempre coita deu. }

In medieval Christian understanding, God offers peace beyond all understanding. Yet this man has no peace. He suffers because he cannot hate her, even for his own sake.

Christian understanding of love built upon earlier Aristotelian understanding of  love. More than three centuries before Jesus was born, Aristotle influentially declared:

Let being loving be defined as wishing for someone what one thinks to be good for that person, not what one thinks benefits oneself, and procuring good for that person as much as one can. A friend is one who loves and is loved in return, and those who think their relationship is of this character consider themselves friends.

{ ἔστω δὴ τὸ φιλεῖν τὸ βούλεσθαί τινι ἃ οἴεται ἀγαθά, ἐκείνου ἕνεκα ἀλλὰ μὴ αὑτοῦ, καὶ τὸ κατὰ δύναμιν πρακτικὸν εἶναι τούτων. φίλος δέ ἐστιν ὁ φιλῶν καὶ ἀντιφιλούμενος. οἴονται δὲ φίλοι εἶναι οἱ οὕτως ἔχειν οἰόμενοι πρὸς ἀλλήλους. }[6]

The man yearns to ask the woman why he has always thought of her. Asking her would compel her to think about him and his love for her. In Aristotelian understanding, love means both altruism and reciprocal altruism. Hate similarly involves the wish that the other perish.[7] The man’s beloved woman doesn’t love him or hate him. In reality, as the concluding stanza makes clear, she has never given him a thought.

Christians are commanded to love everyone, even their enemies. Within finite possibilities for real personal relationships and weaknesses of fully human beings, a Christian man might strive not to love a woman who doesn’t love him. But to hate a woman who actually hasn’t even thought of him — that is much more difficult.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Théodore de Bèze, Iuvenilia (first edition, 1548), Epigrams 87, “About Spurinna {In Spurinnam},” Latin text and English translation (modified) from Summers (2001) pp. 296-7. Here’s a translation into Dutch. In 1564, Théodore de Bèze succeeded John Calvin as the spiritual leader of the Calvinists.

Other medieval husbands responded to such situations differently. A Swabian wife told her husband that, as a result of eating snow she had a child (a “snow child”) while he was absent. Five years later the husband sold the child to a trader and told his wife that the child had melted in the sun.

[2] Carmina Burana 120: “A deadly rumor {Rumor letalis}” 2.13-17, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018) v. 2. Subsequent quotes from this poem are similarly from 1.11-17 (Be more careful in your loving…) and 3.11-17 (Men who merely ask for your love…).

Peter Dronke, an influential exponent of men-abasing courtly love, interpreted this poem as “the savage song of a jealous lover”:

This astonishing fantasy of love and hate conjoined is unlike anything else in the love-lyrics of the age. I would see it as a dramatic creation, depicting the progression of the disappointed lover into delusion, hysteria, and paranoia.

Dronke (2000 / 2007) pp. 263, 264. That wild hyperbole reflects the anti-meninism that has made literary studies unwelcoming to men students.

[3] Ephesians 5:8-12. Similarly, Matthew 5:14-16, 10:27, Romans 13:12-14. Prudentius’s Book of the Daily Round {Liber Cathemerinon}, written about 400 GC, emphatically links the darkness of night with evil:

Wily, crafty crime likes
the protection of darkness,
the undercover lover favors
the night, it suits his dirty deeds.

{ Versuta fraus et callida
amat tenebris obtegi,
aptamque noctem turpibus
adulter occultus fovet. }

Cathemerinon 2.6, Latin text and English translation from O’Daly (2012). Cathemerinon associates the light of day with God:

What a worthy thing, God, your flock offers you
at the beginning of dewy night —
light, your most previous gift,
light, by which we see all else that you have granted.

{ O res digna, Pater, quam tibi roscidae
noctis principio grex tuus offerat,
lucem, qua tribuis nil pretiosius,
lucem, qua reliqua praemia cernimus. }

Cathemerinon 5.38, sourced as above.

[4] Matthew 21:14. Similarly, Matthew 11:4-5. On the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit, 1 Corinthians 6:19. “Rumor letalis” laments the woman’s heart changing:

Now I weep for …
the dove-like
sweetness of your heart then,
its serpentine
venon now.

{ Nunc plango …
tunc columbinam
mentis dulcedinem
nunc serpentinam
amaritudinem. }

“Rumor letalis” 3.1, 5-8, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018) v. 2. Matthew, in contrast, advises Christians facing persecution to be like both doves and serpents, but in different ways: “wise as serpents, innocent as doves {φρόνιμοι ὡς οἱ ὄφεις καὶ ἀκέραιοι ὡς αἱ περιστεραί}.” Matthew 10:16.

[5] Pero da Ponte, love song {cantiga d’amor}, “Song of a Lover Who Would Hate” / “If I could only learn to hate {Se Eu Podesse Desamar},” Galician-Portuguese text and English translation (by Richard Zenith) from Cantigas Medievais Galego-Portuguesas. Zenith (1995), pp. 44-5 (song 21) has nearly the same translation, but is slightly looser at a few points. The subsequent quote above is the second half of this song, which has an alternating refrain. Here’s a spoken recording of this song by Nuno Miguel Henrique (1995).

Apparently alluding to oppressive regulation of men’s sexuality, the Galician word “grief {coita}” is close to the Latin word “sexual intercourse {coitus}.” The great early-seventh-century Spanish scholar Isidore of Seville surely would have understood this issue.

Writing in the first century BGC, Catullus both hated and loved:

I hate and I love. Why I do this, perhaps you ask?
I don’t know, but I feel it happens and am tortured.

{ Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior. }

Catullus 85, Latin text of Merrill (1893) via Perseus, English translated (modified slightly) of Smithers (1894) via Perseus. Here’s William Harris’s insightful analysis.

Ovid expressed a similar problem:

I struggle with my flighty heart pulling in contrary directions,
now love, now hate, but, I think love is winning.
I will hate, if I’m able. If not, I’ll love unwillingly.

{ Luctantur pectusque leve in contraria tendunt
hac amor hac odium, sed, puto, vincit amor.
odero, si potero; si non, invitus amabo.}

Ovid, Amores 3.11.33-5. In this poem, the woman’s beauty forces the man to love her despite her treating him badly. Similarly, Carmina Burana 113, “The snow and ice have slipped away {Transit nix et glacies},” stanza 4. Christian poets, writing after Catullus and Ovid, generally had more difficulty hating.

[6] Aristotle, Rhetoric {Ῥητορική} 2.4.2 (1380b–1381a), ancient Greek text and English translation (modified) from Freese & Striker (2020). Here’s an English translation by Kennedy (2007).

[7] After careful study, Konstan concluded:

Philia, then, has two uses. In one sense, it coincides with philein and refers to an altruistic wish for the good of the other; in another, it names the state of affairs that obtains between philoi, which requires that each philos have the corresponding wish for the other.

Konstan (2008) p. 212. On hate, Aristotle, Rhetoric 2.4 and Spatharas (2013). On the Christian command to love one’s enemies, Matthew 5:44.

[image] Recording of “If I could only learn to hate {Se Eu Podesse Desamar}” by Pedro Barroso, published on his album Pedro Barroso (1988). Via YouTube.


Dronke, Peter. 2000 / 2007. “Latin Songs in the Carmina Burana.” Pp. 26-40 in Jones, Martin H., ed. 2000. The Carmina Burana: four essays. London: King’s College, London, Centre for Late Antique & Medieval Studies. Reprinted as pp. 257-270 in Dronke, Peter. 2007. Forms and Imaginings: from antiquity to the fifteenth century. Roma: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura.

Freese, J. H., trans., revised by Gisela Striker. 2020. Aristotle. Art of Rhetoric. Loeb Classical Library 193. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Konstan, David. 2008. “Aristotle on Love and Friendship.” Schole {Σχολη}. 2 (2): 207-212.

O’Daly, Gerard J. P. 2012. Days Linked by Song: Prudentius’ Cathemerinon. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (review by Catherine Conybeare)

Spatharas, Dimos. 2013. “Plutarch’s De invidia et odio and Aristotle’s Rhetoric.” Pp. 411-422 in Volpe Cacciatore, Paola, and Giovanna Pace, eds. Gli scritti di Plutarco: tradizione, traduzione, ricezione, commento: Atti del 9. convegno internazionale della International Plutarch Society. Ravello, Auditorium Oscar Niemeyer 29 Settembre – 1 Ottobre 2011 = Plutarch’s writings: transmission, translation, reception, commentary: Proceedings of the 9th International Conference of the International Plutarch Society. Ravello, Auditorium Oscar Niemeyer september 29 – October 1, 2011. Napoli: D’Auria.

Summers, Kirk M., ed. and trans. 2001. A View from the Palatine: the Iuvenilia of Théodore de Bèze. Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, v. 237. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

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

Zenith, Richard, trans. 1995. 113 Galician-Portuguese Troubadour Poems. Manchester: Carcanet, in association with Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Instituto Camões.

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