Amours & Machaut’s Voir Dit: failed medieval gender revolution

Marginalized medieval French literature depicts strong, independent women who initiated amorous relationships with men. These weren’t unattractive, self-centered women merely seeking someone, anyone who would talk with them and spend time with them. The French lay Loves {Amours}, written roughly about the year 1200, and Guillaume de Machaut’s True Poem {Voir Dit}, probably written about 1365, both depict beautiful, generous women who joyously desired and deeply appreciated men’s sexuality and men’s gender-distinctive human being. But their beloved men focused on arranging letters rather than providing masculine fleshly presence. Amours and Voir Dit represent men’s failure to support a gender revolution affirming the value of men’s persons.

In the French lay Amours, an “eminent man {haut home}” met at a conference an “eminent, very noble woman {haute dame molt noble}.” Conferences in relatively liberal and tolerant medieval Europe didn’t impose highly repressive codes of conduct. The male gaze wasn’t pathologized and criminalized, and neither was the female gaze:

As soon as they saw each other,
they set their hearts and bodies and eyes
to gazing, and thus they stared at each other.
But in the looks they bestowed on each other
love struck, and the fire of love
was kindled, which burns and ignites
hearts and bodies, and it captivated them.
And love, which has seized many persons,
pursued them, stuck them, and harried them.
Each looked at the other and became bound to the other.

{ Aussi tost comme il s’entrevirent
Les cuers, les cors, o les elz mirent
Por esgarder, si s’entresgardent;
Mes en l’esgart qu’il se regardent
S’i fiert Amors, et li feus prent
D’amors qui alume et esprent
Lor cuers, lor cors, et a sorpris.
Et amors, qui mains en a pris
Les chace et fiert et les destraint.
Chascuns se regarde et estraint }[1]

The woman recognized women’s privilege in requiring men to solicit amorous relationships:

She thought and said: “O God! What would I say?
I would be going against all other women.
I shall not speak to him; I must remain silent.”

{ Pense et dit: “Dex! Que diroie?
Contre toutes dames feroie.
Nu dirai pas ; tere m’estuet.” }

But the woman ultimately rebelled against that gynocentric imperative. Not knowing whether her amorous advance would be welcomed or unwelcomed, she went up to the man and said:

My lord, be fully aware, without any doubt
that in this land I should like to have
your love and your friendship,
if it pleases you, and be truly aware
that I am yours — do not doubt it.

{ Sire, sachiez bien sanz doutance
Vostre amor et vostre acointance
En cest païs voudroie avoir,
S’il vos plet, et sachiez de voir
Que vostre sui, n’en doutez point. }

The man didn’t report to conference organizers that a creepy woman was weirdly harassing him. However, there was some misunderstanding between the two:

He thanked her tenderly for her words,
then replied: “My lady, without hesitation
my friendship and my love
I grant you, for I would do
for you whatever I could.”
She replied immediately:
“What I am thinking, you are not thinking the same?
Understand the situation is this —  I am telling you
that I love you passionately with my whole body.”
“Passionately?” he said. “Yes, indeed,” she said.

{ Del dit doucement la mercie,
Puis respont: “Dame,sanz demor
De moi l’acointance et l’amor
Vos otroi ge, car je feroie
Por vos qanque fere porroie.”
Ele respont isnel le pas:
“Ce que pens, n’i pensez vos pas?
Einz est einsint, que tot a cors
Vos di que je vos aing d’amors.”
“D’amors?” fet il. “Voire,” fet ele, }

Modern applied theorists of amorous relationships would classify the women’s words as an “apocalypse opener.”

The man responded receptively. He explained that he wanted to say what she said, but didn’t dare. As has been all too common throughout history, the man then foolishly expressed his willingness to be the woman’s servant, apparently in the expectation that she would then have sex with him:

Entirely and without reservation
I give myself to you, at your command.
I ask God as a reward
that he grant me such a noble gift
over time to show gratitude for it,
for that is the thing I most desire.

{ Tot entiers sanz nul contredit
M’otroi a vos, a vos commant.
A Dieu en guerredon demant
Que il me doint de si haut don
En tens rendre le guerredon.
Que c’est la riens que plus desir. }

Men shouldn’t exchange servitude to women for sex. Fortunately, that wasn’t this man’s destiny. News came that he needed to return home immediately on an urgent matter. He explained to her that he needed to depart immediately. The woman was filled with sorrow, but she didn’t rave violently like Dido.

medieval author Machaut writing

The man and woman’s love affair subsequently was only the exchange of love letters. They seemed to have become a book:

The eminent man summoned
his clerk to write the letter
and he put his whole heart into describing
the looks, the laments, the words
point by point, just as I have told them;
with the letter he put them into the book.

{ Li hauz hom a fet demander
Son clerc por le salu escrire,
Qui tot son cuer mist el descrire
Les regarz, les plaintes, les diz,
Point a point, si con jes ai diz;
O le salu les mist el livre. }[2]

The narrator is Girart, the eminent man’s clerk. Girart insists that the tale of the woman and man’s love depends on their letters:

I shall not continue this tale,
whatever may happen,
until the messenger returns.
I have refrained from speaking
until the return of the messenger
bringing me the material
I need to speak new words.
What does the messenger say? Now let it be heard.

{ De cest conte plus ne diroie,
Par aventure qui aviengne,
De si la que li mes reviengne.
Je me sui de dire tenuz
Tant que li mes est revenuz
Qui m’en aporte la matire
Dont il m’estuet noveaus moz dire.
Que dit li mes? Or soit oi. }

The woman wrote back declaring that the man’s letter filled her with great joy. But she sought love words enacted in the flesh:

I would like nothing better,
fair lover, than to be in your arms
to bring about joy and solace.
One whole night I would hold you,
naked flesh against naked flesh, so to feel
your body, your sweet breath,
the sweet, the pure, the wholesome,
which I desire to experience so much.
And God be willing to consent
that in my arms, as my heart drives me to do,
I could embrace for comfort
your body, the most beautiful in the world.
My lord, to bring about such joy,
come and visit without delay
her who in sweet hope
is awaiting your sweet arrival.

{ Rien ne vodroie avoir,
Biaus amis, qu’estre entre vos braz
Por joie fere et por solaz.
Une seule nuit vos tenisse
Si nu a nu que je sentisse
Vostre cors, vostre douce alainne,
La doce, la fine, la sainne,
Que je tant désir a sentir,
Et que Diex vosist consentir
Qu’a mes braz, dont cuers me semont,
Vostre cors, le plus biau du mont,
Estrainsisse por conforter.
Sire, por tel joie aporter,
Venez veoir sans demorance
Cele qui en douce esperance
Vostre douce venue atent. }

Her lover responded with a letter filled with abstract fawning over her and academic reasoning about love. He didn’t promptly visit her in person. She apparently never sent a letter in response.[3]

medieval author Machaut writing for woman

Like Amours, Guillaume de Machaut’s Voir Dit centers an exchange of love letters. In Amours, the clerk Girart presents himself as a loyal writer-servant for the eminent man in love. In Voir Dit, Machaut himself takes over the role of Girart. Machaut makes a book from love letters and poems he exchanges with the beautiful, young woman Peronne:

Woman beautiful, good, and charming,
pleasant and sweet beyond compare,
I cannot overpraise you.
My heart grants you without reserve
its song in your honor,
woman beautiful, good, and charming,
pleasant and sweet beyond compare,
and if with a lover’s heart
you ever deign call me darling,
I would ask no more of you.
Woman beautiful, good, and charming,
pleasant and sweet beyond compare,
I cannot overpraise you.

{ Bele bonne et envoisie
Plaisant et douce sans per
Je ne vous puis trop loer
Mes cuers tous a vous sottrie
Son chant pour vous honnourer
Bele bonne et envoisie
Plaisant et douce sans per
Et se amy de cuer damie
Me daingniez iamais clamer
Je ne vous weil plus rouver
Bele bonne et envoisie
Plaisant et douce sans per
Je ne vous puis trop loer }[4]

Machaut justifies compiling this and much other literary work through a compelling argument within gynocentric society:

And if anyone should reproach me
or consider to be ill-served
that I record here our messages,
the pleasant ones as well as the bitter,
which one ought rightly call letters
— that’s their true name and correct title —
I respond thus to them all:
it is at the sweet command
of my lady, who gives the order.

{ Et sil est nuls qui me repregne
Ou qui mal a paiez se teingne
De mettre cy nos escriptures
Autant les douces que les sures
Que len doit appeller Epistres
Cest leurs drois noms et leurs drois titres
Je respons a tous telement
Que cest au dous commandement
De ma dame qui le commande }

Machaut declares that he must “make this book for her love {faire pour samour ce livre}.” Men have often failed to understand the worth, not of their doing, but of their very being.

Peronne herself spurred Machaut’s literary and musical composing. She asked him to write poems and music for her. She sent him her own poems and asked him to help her with writing them and to set them to music. She corrected Machaut’s work on Voir Dit, which he frequently called “her book”:

You may be pleased to learn that I have been very occupied with composing your book and am still … I will send along quite soon what has been completed of your book and your rondel as well. Now I beg you by the affection you have for me not to show the book to anyone who isn’t close to your heart. And if anything therein needs correcting, please note it. For you have been pleased that I put there everything pertaining to our affair, and I don’t know if I’ve included too much or too little.

{ Plaise vous savoir que iay este si embesongniez de faire vostre
livre, et sui encores … ie vous envoieray bien tost et par certein message ce qui est fait de vostre livre, et vostre Rondel aussi, Mais ie vous pri si chier que vous mavez que vous ne moustrez le livre que a gens qui soient trop bien de vostre cuer, Et sil y a aucune chose a corrigier que vous y faites enseingnes, Car il vous a pleue que ie y mette tout nostre fait, si ne say se ie y met ou trop ou po }[5]

A literary relationship isn’t what Peronne most ardently sought.[6] The first news of this beautiful, young woman’s love for Machaut urgently conveyed her request that he abide with her:

And she has never in all her life seen you,
but this is her very great desire.
And, sweet lord, were it possible
for you to go where she is,
she would offer you a welcome
so full of love and sincere affection
that it should very nicely satisfy
the greatest lord in the empire.

{ Et se ne vous vit en sa vie
Mais elle en a trop grant envie
Et dous sires sil pooit estre
Que vous venissiez en son estre
Elle vous feroit tele chiere 165
Si amoureuse et si entiere
Quelle devroit tresbien souffire
Au plus grant signeur de lempire }

Like the eminent man in Amours, Machaut didn’t understand the answer to the question, “What are you seeking {quid quaeritis}?” Machaut constantly had excuses for not being with Peronne and was timid in physically expressing love for her. But he worked strenuously on producing her book, The Book of the True Poem {Le Livre dou Voir Dit}.[7]

Machaut and Peronne in bed

Words of love aren’t the same as love made in flesh. The sexual feudalism of men-abasing courtly love isn’t the love of embracing another human being like oneself. These false understandings of love have supported gender inequality, misandry, and anti-meninism. With enough study of medieval literature, we shall overcome some day.

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[1] Old French lay Loves {Amours} vv. 59-68, Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Burgess & Brook (2010). A prose translation, without the Old French source, is available in Burgess & Brook (2016). Paris (1878) provides a freely accessible, quite good Old French text. Amours has survived in only one manuscript, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, nouvelles acquisitions françaises 1104, f. 66rb-69va. This lay “was probably composed in the late twelfth or the first half of the thirteenth century.” Burgess & Brook (2010) p. 199.

The man is called an “eminent man {haut home}” thirteen times in Amours, with the first such reference in v. 10. The lady is called an “eminent, very noble woman {haute dame molt noble}” in v. 31. Those different referents suggest that the man is a prosperous merchant, while the woman has the higher status of noble birth. Poe (2011) p. 366. The woman thus transgresses gender norms not only in initiating an amorous relationship, but also by engaging in a non-hypergamous relationship while treating the man as personally equal to her.

Unlike other lays, Amours has realistic circumstances throughout and a temporal setting in the here and now. Poe (2011) pp. 365-6, Beston (2015) pp. 7, 15. That distintive literary feature of Amours suggests that its love letters represent an alternate, unrealized version of the present world.

Subsequent quotes from Amours are sourced as above. Those quotes above are from vv. 115-7 (She thought and said…), 127-31 (My lord, be fully aware…), 136-45 (He thanked her tenderly…), 152-7 (Entirely and without reservation…), 282-7 (The eminent man summoned…), 290-7 (I shall not continue this tale…), 338-53 (I would like nothing better…).

[2] Love letters as literature weren’t an innovation in Amours. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Byblis wrote a love letter to her brother Caunus. Metamorphoses 9.530-63. Ovid’s Heroides consists of women’s letters concerning love. Lavinia sent a love letter to Aeneas in the twelfth-century Roman d’Eneas. Love letters are central to Marie de France’s lay Milun. On Milun and the literary history of love letters, Poe (2006). In Milun, like in Amours and Voir Dit, the lady initiates the amorous relationship with Milun.

In Amours, like in Voir Dit, love letters {saluts d’amour} dominate the poem. Poe observed:

In devising a narrative to tell the story surrounding an exhange of saluts d’amour, Girart was doing nothing new. What is unique about this exchange of saluts is that it is not just one episode among many. It is the main event, indeed the only event. The narrative exists for the sake of the saluts d’amour, not the other way around.

Burgess & Brook (2010) p. 203. Elizabeth W. Poe wrote most of the introduction to Amours in id. See id. p. 202, n. 3.

[3] In Amours, “Particularly notable are the forthrightness of the lady and the comparative timidity of the nobleman.” Burgess & Brook (2016) pp. 244-5. “The essential character that Girart creates is of a man who wants the lady, but is too indecisive to advance their relationship.” Beston (2015) p. 10.

Beston asserts that Amours ends unresolved: “The most enduring appeal of the story, however, is the fact that the love story is unresolved.” Id. p. 15. In fact, Amours hasn’t had much enduring appeal. Scholars have written little on it. Poe at Burgess & Brook (2010) p. 202. Most persons have never heard of Amours.

Amours seems to me best interpreted as resolved through the woman’s frustration and resulting apathy. The lay ends after the man sent her his love letter replying to her love letter replying to his love letter. The last verses of the lay:

The messenger who journeyed to her
departed, and this tale comes to an end
until the time when necessity brings back
the messenger who took the letter.
If he returns and brings him
news that differs from before,
Girart will tell more of the lays.

{ Li mes s’en va qui s’avoia
A li, et cis contes remaint,
Jusqu’a tant que besoinz ramaint
Le mesage qui l’escrit porte;
Car s’il revient et il aporte
Autres noveles que devant,
Girarz dira des lais avant. }

Amours, vv. 512-8. That no more was written suggests that the love affair ended through lack of contact. Writing about love, or talking about love, is no substitute for incarnating love.

[4] Guillaume de Machaut, The Book of the True Poem {Le Livre dou Voir Dit} vv. 536-50 (a rondel), Old French text and English trans. (with minor changes) from Leech-Wilkinson & Palmer (1998). Kline (2020) provides a freely accessible English translation of Voir Dit.

Voir Dit includes intimate details of Machaut’s relationship with Peronne. Leech-Wilkinson observed:

the lover is hesitant, even fearful about including so much improper detail; he provides every 2000 lines or so a disclaimer that he does so only at her explicit command (lines 490-517, 2158, 4262-73, letter 33).

Id. p. xxxviii. On the historicity of Voir Dit, see note [2] in my post on Abishag and David. Huot attributes to Voir Dit “fictionality.” Huot (1987) p. 286. Fictionality is consistent with Voir Dit being based on an actual romantic relationship and with Voir Dit containing historical documents of that relationship.

Subsequent quotes from Voir Dit are sourced as above. They are from vv. 490-8 (And if anyone should reproach me…), v. 1681 (must make a book for her love), L33 after v. 6281 (You may be pleased to learn…), vv. 161-8 (And she has never in all her life seen you…).

[5] In his literary work on Voir Dit, the eminent Machaut strove to please the beautiful, young Peronne:

My sweet heart, my dear sister, and my very sweet love, I beg you to guard my book well and show it to as few people as you can. And if there is anything in it that displeases you or seems to you that it might be improved, make a mark near that passage, which I will remove and then make what improvements I can.

{ Mon dous cuer, ma chiere suer et ma tresdouce amour Je vous pri que vous gardez bien mon livre, et que vous le monstrez a meins de gens que vous porrez, Et se il y a aucune chose qui vous desplaise, ou qui vous samble qui ne soit mie bien, si y faites .j. signet, et ie losteray et amenderay a mon pooir }

Voir Dit, L37 after v. 6541.

[6] Machaut’s Voir Dit is similar to the thirteenth-century Old Occitan romance Flamenca in emphasizing exchange of literary words in establishing a love affair. Another commonality is the use of irony and satire. In Flamenca, Guillem outrageously misconceives words of Psalm 116:1: Dilexi quoniam. In Voir Dit, Machaut outrageously misconceives the kiss of peace within the Mass:

But a very happy chance befell me
when the “Agnus Dei” was being said.
By the faith I owe St. Caprais,
she sweetly gave me the kiss of peace
between two pillars of the church.
And this I needed very much
because my lover’s heart became
troubled when she departed so soon afterward.

{ Mais trop richement me chei
Que quant on dist agnus dei
Foy que ie doy a saint crapais
Doucement me donna la pais
Entre .ij. pilers dou moustier
Et ien avoie bien mestier
Car mes cuers amoureus estoit
Troubles, quant si tost se partoit }

Voir Dit, vv. 2947-54. Both Flamenca and Voir Dit lightly satirize the men-abasing cult of courtly love.

[7] At the end of his Lay de Plour, Machaut has a woman in love declare:

But before I do die,
my heart humbly begs
the true God to look upon us
with such a loving countenance
that in a book we’ll find life.

{ Mais einsois que je devie,
Humblement mes cuers supplie
Au vray Dieu qu’il nous regart
De si amoureux regart
Qu’en livre soiens de vie. }

Machaut, Lay de Plour vv. 207-10 Old French text and English translation from Palmer et al. (2016). With the hope, “in a book we’ll find life {en livre soiens de vie},” Machaut ironically refers to a book of love poetry, not the Bible. That’s not the Biblical idea of love. Huot astutely observed:

Machaut’s sublimation of love — what we might call “love for love’s sake” — is an essential quality of his poetic oeuvre and is related to the primacy of writing in Machaut’s concept of poetic process. … Within the Voir Dit, Guillaume’s difficulties as lover are associated not only — perhaps not even primarily — with his old age and his nonnoble status but with his identity as writer. … What Guillaume discovers is that writing does not reenact or enable lovemaking but, rather, replaces it entirely.

Huot (1987) pp. 237, 284, 285.

Men authors tend to be delusional about the importance of their literary work for their personal relationships. The man trobairitz Bernart de Ventadorn wrote:

But there’s one thing that comforts me:
that she knows letters and them understands,
and I’m pleased to write the wording
so if she finds all this pleasing,
she can read it for my deliverance.

{ mais d’una re me conort be:
ela sap letras et enten,
et agrada·m qu’eu escria
los motz, e s’a leis plazia,
legis los al meu sauvamen. }

Bernart de Ventadorn, “In care and in dismay {En cossirer et en esmai}” vv. 52-6 (from stanze 7), Old Occitan text from Corpus des Troubadours, English translation (modified) by James H. Donalson. Here’s a performance of “En cossirer et en esmai” by Véronique Chalot. Bernart’s song almost surely didn’t deliver the woman to him.

[images] (1) Guillaume de Machaut writing. Illumination from Machaut’s Poésies, a compilation of his work made between 1372 and 1377, possibly under Machaut’s direction. Detail from folio Fv in MS. Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Français 1584. On this compilation, Huot (1987) Ch. 9. On its illuminations, Leo (2016). (2) Machaut writing for Peronne. Illumination for Voir Dit on folio 242r in MS. Français 1584. (3) Machaut in bed with Peronne under the auspices of the goddess Venus. Illumination for Voir Dit on folio 255r in MS. Français 1584.


Beston, John. 2015. “The Role of the Secretary Girart in the Old French Lay of Amours.” Le Cygne. 2: 7-16.

Burgess, Glyn S., and Leslie C. Brook, eds. 2010. The Old French Lays of Ignaure, Oiselet and Amours. Gallica 18. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Burgess, Glyn S., and Leslie C. Brook, trans. 2016. Twenty-Four Lays from the French Middle Ages. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Huot, Sylvia. 1987. From Song to Book: the Poetics of Writing in Old French Lyric and Lyrical Narrative Poetry. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Kline, A. S., trans. 2020. Guillaume de Machaut: The Book of the True Poem (Le Livre dou Voir Dit). Poetry in Translation. Online.

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.

Leo, Domenic. 2016. “BnF, fr. 1584: An Art Historical Overview.” In Palmer et al. (2016).

Palmer, R. Barton, Yolanda Plumley, Domenic Leo, and Uri Smilansky, ed. and trans. 2016. Guillaume de Machaut, the Complete Poetry and Music. Volume 1, The Debate Poems: Le Jugement dou Roy de Behaigne, Le Jugement dou Roy de Navarre, Le Lay de Plour. Kalamazoo, MI: Published for TEAMS (Teaching Association for Medieval Studies) in association with the University of Rochester by Medieval Institute Publications.

Paris, Gaston. 1878. “Un lai d’amours.” Romania. 7 (27): 407-415.

Poe, Elizabeth W. 2006. “Marie de France and the Salut d’amour.” Romania. 124 (495-496 (3-4)): 301-323.

Poe, Elizabeth W. 2011. “Lai d’Amours as Lai.” Pp. 357-368 in Catherine M. Jones, and Logan E. Whalen, eds. “Li premerains vers”: essays in honor of Keith Busby. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Walahfrid followed Sedulius in Christian literary gardening

In the middle of the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment philosopher-hero Voltaire ended his picaresque novel Candide with the wisdom, “We must cultivate our garden {Il faut cultiver notre jardin}.” In ninth-century Europe, the scholar-monk Walahfrid Strabo wrote a small book About the Cultivation of Gardens {De cultura hortorum}. Walahfrid apparently drew upon Caelius Sedulius’s fifth-century re-orientation of literary excellence in his Paschal Song {Paschale carmen}. These vastly under-appreciated literary works should be cultivated to support humane culture.

In the preface to his Paschale carmen, Sedulius associated modesty with gardening. Rhetoric of affected modesty has been well-known from the classical Roman writers Cicero and Quintilian.[1] Adapting the classical affection of modesty, Sedulius offered to his reader, figured as his dinner guest, not the whole world to eat but simple, meaningful food:

Do not be scornful, if you acknowledge yourself to be my friend,
and do not seek here a literary masterpiece,
but contentedly approach the solemnities of my modest table,
and drink more of spirit than satiate yourself with food.
If you are, to the contrary, more taken with great things’ sweetness
and a voluptuary who prefers riches,
feed yourself on splendid meals offered by noble men of learning,
whose vast wealth cannot be calculated.
There you will find to eat whatever grows in the sea,
whatever the earth brings forth, whatever flies up to the stars;
waxen honey gleams in jeweled containers,
and golden vessels glow with the color of the honeycomb within.
But I have picked a few greens from a poor man’s garden,
and placed them for serving on a red earthen potsherd.

{ Pone supercilium si te cognoscis amicum,
Nec quaeras opus hic codicis artificis,
Sed modicae contentus adi sollemnia mensae
Plusque libens animo quam satiare cibo.
Aut si magnarum caperis dulcedine rerum
Divitiasque magis deliciosus amas,
Nobilium nitidis doctorum vescere cenis,
Quorum multiplices nec numerantur opes.
Illic invenies quicquid mare nutrit edendum,
Quicquid terra creat, quicquid ad astra volat.
Cerea gemmatis flavescunt mella canistris
Collucentque suis aurea vasa favis.
At nos exiguum de paupere carpsimus horto,
Rubra quod appositum testa ministrat holus. }[2]

This passage presents a self-subverting contrast between low and high interests. Concern for food is classically regarded as lower than concern for spirit. Voluptuaries seeking only sweetness lack cultural sophistication. They’re attracted to gold and its sensory correlative, honey. Sedulius instead serves on red baked clay a few greens from a poor man’s garden. From a Christian perspective, Sedulius is offering to God-created humans — clay animated with spirit and colored with blood — the life that the servant-savior Jesus offers to everyone.

Sedulius’s Paschale carmen immediately repudiates the superficially affected modesty of its preface. Sedulius harshly disparages traditional Greco-Roman literary culture and boldly goes a different way:

Since pagan poets strive to trick out their fictions
with pompous phraseology and use tragic bombast
or the comic Geta, or any other style of singing
to recreate the cruel contagions of wicked deeds
and memorialize criminals in song in the traditional way,
passing on multiple lies in books of papyrus from the Nile,
why should I, who am used to chanting in songs of David
psalms for the ten-stringed lyre and standing in awe
in the holy choir and singing of heaven with peaceful words,
why should I keep silent about famous miracles of Christ the Savior,
when I can speak plain truth and with wholehearted delight
confess the thundering Lord with all my senses?

{ Cum sua gentiles studeant figmenta poetae
Grandisonis pompare modis, tragicoque boatu
Ridiculoque Geta seu qualibet arte canendi
Saeva nefandarum renovent contagia rerum
Et scelerum monumenta canant, rituque magistro
Plurima Niliacis tradant mendacia biblis,
Cur ego, Daviticis adsuetus cantibus odas
Chordarum resonare decem sanctoque verenter
Stare choro et placidis caelestia psallere verbis,
Clara salutiferi taceam miracula Christi,
Cum possim manifesta loqui, Dominumque tonantem
Sensibus et toto delectet corde fateri }

In traditional Greco-Roman religion, the Thunderer was the head god in charge of the cosmos — Juno’s husband Jupiter. Sedulius replaced Jupiter with Jesus — Christ the Savior born of the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to Sedulius, from seeds of life nourished with divine water the Christian way offers fruit that piles up a hundred-fold in huge barns.[3] That’s not simple gardening. Sedulius didn’t literally write about gardening. He recast the Bible into the high poetry of classical epic.

Sedulius was an enormously influential author. Over four hundred manuscripts containing at least some of Sedulius’s writings have survived to the present. He was commonly part of the medieval European school curriculum:

In fact, of the “patristic poets” in general, both Greek and Latin, only Prudentius can be said to match the popularity and influence that Sedulius’s works enjoyed across the centuries. … To judge from the evidence of manuscript production, there was a great flowering of interest in Sedulius during the Carolingian Age, which continued unabated during the rest of the Middle Ages and well into the early modern period.[4]

In eighth-century Europe, the leading scholar-cleric Alcuin of York, who advised Charlemagne, studied and lauded Sedulius. So too did the sixteen-century German theologian and church reformer Martin Luther.

medieval woman and man gardening

The ninth-century scholar-monk Walahfrid Strabo developed the garden figure of Paschale Carmen’s preface differently. Walahfrid was a tutor employed by Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious, the Carolingian emperor succeeding Charlemagne. Given his personal connections and his interests, Walahfrid almost surely read Sedulius’s Paschale carmen.[5] Moreover, Walahfrid literally cultivated a garden. For dinner guests, Walahfrid may have actually served on a red clay plate some greens from his humble little garden.

Walahfrid wrote About the Cultivation of Gardens {De cultura hortorum}. So humbly is that verse work constructed that modern readers have commonly received it merely as a charming medieval book about gardening. In European culture, artful, learned literature concerning agriculture has revered roots in Virgil’s Georgics and Hesiod’s Works and Days. Walahfrid dedicated his book on gardening to Father Grimold, his teacher at Reichenau Abbey:

Most learned Father Grimold,
your servant Strabo sends you his book,
a trivial gift and of no account, only so that,
seated in your own garden, where peach and apple
cast their ragged opacities
and your small students, laughing, gather up
the shining or furred fruit and bring it you
clutched to the stomach with both hands,
or put it away in bushels,
you might find some utility in it — more,
that you may prune it back,
strengthen, fertilize, and transplant it
as seems best to you. So may you at last
be brought to such flourishing
as grapples God’s trellis toward
the evergreening of unwithering life:
this may Father, Son and fruitful Spirit grant you.

{ Haec tibi servitii munuscula vilia parvi
Strabo tuus, Grimalde pater doctissime, servus
Pectore devoto nullius ponderis offert,
Ut cum consepto vilis consederis horti
Subter opacatas frondenti vertice malos,
Persicus imparibus crines ubi dividit umbris,
Dum tibi cana legunt tenera lanugine poma
Ludentes pueri, scola laetabunda tuorum,
Atque volis ingentia mala capacibus indunt,
Grandia conantes includere corpora palmis:
Quo moneare habeas nostri, pater alme, laboris,
Dum relegis quae dedo volens, interque legendum
Ut vitiosa seces, deposco, placentia firmes.
Te deus aeterna faciat virtute virentem
Inmarcescibilis palmam comprendere vitae:
Hoc pater, hoc natus, hoc spiritus annuat almus. }[6]

This vignette of ordinary life in a fruit garden enacts a theological message. Immediately preceding his series of poems on plants in his vegetable garden, Walahfrid wrote:

I take up this work now with my talents and learning,
now with my understanding and eloquence,
so that I may touch upon the names and virtues of such a
harvest, so that small matters may be adorned with vast honor.

{ Nunc opus ingeniis, docili nunc pectore et ore,
Nomina quo possim viresque attingere tantae
Messis, ut ingenti res parvae ornentur honore. }

Walafrid’s “small matters {res parvae}” subtly follows Sedulius’s self-subverting rhetoric. Read with appreciation for Walahfrid’s consistently maintained modesty, De cultura hortorum addresses the all-encompassing, vital matter of love. Walahfrid replaced traditional Greco-Roman love elegy with poetry of love for men and gardening.

The pernicious weeds of misandry, sexism, and anti-meninism are now choking out reason in our garden of enlightenment. Women and men must understand themselves and imaginative literature through the ages with appreciation for the lived experiences of ordinary men and women. We must cultivate our garden.

The closer the path
of a pure life is to the ground, the nearer it is to the sky.

{ sic purae semita vitae
Quantum prona solo, tantum fit proxima caelo. }[7]

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] See Cicero, On Invention {De Inventione} 1.16.22, and Quintilian, Institutes of Oratory {Institutio Oratoria} 4.1.8. On the “affected modesty” topos in European literary history, Curtius (1953) pp. 83-5.

[2] Caelius Sedulius, The Paschal Song {Paschale carmen} preface, vv. 2-16, Latin text and English translation from Springer (2013) pp. 94-5. Sedulius wrote in the fifth century GC, perhaps in Rome in the second quarter of the fifth century. Caelius, which means “heavenly,” isn’t clearly attested as his first name {praenomen}. Id. pp. xv-xvii. He is sometimes confused with Sedulius Scottus, a ninth-century cleric-poet.

The fifth-century rhetorician Bellesarius praised Sedulius in a poem celebrating “cheap vegetables produced by a poor man’s garden {holus vile producit pauperis hortus}.” Bellesarius explicitly associated the modest food of the poor man’s garden with Jesus:

Let their minds despise riches and be content with little,
taking their lead from the Lord, who satisfied five thousand
with modest food when they all were in the wilderness.

{ Temnat divitas animus paucisque quiescat
Exemplo assumptus domini, qui milia quinque
Semotis cunctis modicis saturauit ab escis. }

“Verses of Bellesarius the Rhetorician {Versus Bellesarii Scholastici}” vv. 14-16 (of 16), Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Springer (2013) p. 230. The previous short quote is from v. 8.

The subsequent quote above is similarly from Paschale carmen 1.17-28. The verse numbers for Paschale carmen book 1 continue from the last preface verse, v. 16. The preface differs from the rest of the poem formally. It’s written in elegiac distichs, while the rest of the poem is in epic hexameter.

[3] See Sedulius, Paschale carmen 1.49-59. Springer observed:

when Sedulius assures us in his preface that as our host he will be serving up a simple rustic paschal meal, not featuring the fancy kind of food served by the pagan culinary competition, his metaphorical declaration is hardly simple or straightforward. It is the height of sophistication to claim lack of sophistication. His own sophisticated rhetoric undercuts what he is saying.

Springer (2013) p. xxxvi. John of Damascus, who died in 749, is another example of an author who subverted the modesty topos. Alexakis (2005).

Curtius put Sedulius in the class of “inflated, vain, soulless, and unintelligent rhetors”:

He demonstrates that even a recent convert could take over the frippery of the pagan school rhetor into his Christian life, could indeed make it over into Christian clothing and strut about in it. … What affected modesty! Certainly we are here dealing with a stylistic convention. But it is employed with such self-satisfaction that we cannot but doubt the seriousness of the poet’s religion. … Sedulius had a large measure of literary ambition, but he had nothing to say.

Curtius (1953) p. 460, 462. That’s as absurd a projection as is misogyny. Sedulius’s explicit and exuberant destruction of the modesty topos is better interpreted as indicating his ardent belief in the importance of what he had to say relative to pagan literature.

Curtius condemned Sedulius and Biblical epic with dogmatic academic assertions:

Throughout its existence — from Juvencus to Klopstock — the Biblical epic was a hybrid with an inner lack of truth, a genre faux. The Christian story of salvation, as the Bible presents it, admits no transformation into pseudo-antique form. Not only does it thereby lose its powerful, unique, authoritative expression, but it is falsified by the genre borrowed from antique Classicism and by the concomitant linguistic and metrical conventions.

Id. p. 462. Sedulius’s Paschale carmen transformed the Christian story of salvation into the antique epic form. For more than a millennium, readers found Sedulius’s Biblical epic helpful for incarnating the Bible in their lives and so witnessing to the continuing vitality of the Christian story.

Curtius’s assertion of Biblical epic’s “inner lack of truth” seems to draw upon the medieval interpretive practice of distinguishing surface meaning (chaff) from inner meaning (fruit or kernel). Jerome’s interpretation of the captive maiden demonstrates that perceiving inner meaning can help to reveal socially suppressed truths. Nonetheless, many today regard the inner meaning of the Bible as no more true than that of the Aeneid. Beyond that modern commonplace, Curtius seems to say nothing coherent. He seems to offer nothing but dogmatic assertions supported with a massive apparatus of surface erudition.

[4] Springer (2013) p. xviii. On four hundred surviving manuscripts of Sedulius and Alcuin of York’s and Martin Luther’s appreciation of his work, id. pp. xvii, xix.

[5] Springer includes Walahfrid Strabo among his “list of authors and works apparently influenced by Sedulius.” Springer (2013) p. xxx.

[6] Walahfrid Strabo, Book about the Cultivation of Gardens {Liber de cultura hortorum}, also less appropriately known as The Little Garden {Hortulus}, “Dedication of this little work {Commendatio opusculi},” Latin text from Dümmler (1881), vol. 2, pp. 349-50, English translation (modified slightly) from Reynolds (1964). The subsequent quote is from Ch. 3, “Perseverance of the Gardener and Fruits of the Labor {Instantia cultoris et fructus operis},” vv. 73-5, Latin text from Dümmler (1881), vol. 2, pp. 337-8, my English translation, benefiting from those of Mitchell (2009), p. 31, and Payne & Blunt (1966) p. 31.

Here’s an overview of Walahfrid’s Hortulus, a review of the plants in Walahfrid’s garden, and a reconstruction of the garden’s layout.

[7] Sedulius, Paschale carmen 3.324-5, Latin text and English translation from Springer (2013) pp. 94-5. The context of this quote is Sedulius elaborating on Jesus’s teaching of humility in Matthew 18:1-11, Mark 9:32-6, and Luke 9:46-8.

[image] Woman and man harvesting squash (cucurbite) from garden. Illumination from Notebook of Health with Medicine {Tacuinum Sanitatis in Medicina}, a Latin translation of Ibn Butlan of Baghdad’s Taqwīm as‑Siḥḥa {تقويم الصحة}. For information concerning this work, Mendelsohn (2013). Illumination on folio 22v of MS. Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek, Codex Vindobonensis series nova 2644, written about 1390. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Alexakis, Alexander. 2005. “The Modesty Topos and John of Damascus as a Not-so-Modest Author.” Byzantinische Zeitschrift. 97 (2): 521-530.

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

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

Mendelsohn, Loren D. 2013. “The Tacuinum Sanitatis: a Medieval Health Manual.” Petits Propos Culinaires. 99: 69-89.

Mitchell, James, trans. 2009. Walahfrid Strabo. On the Cultivation of Gardens: a ninth century gardening book. San Francisco: Ithuriel’s Spear.

Payne, Raef and Wilfrid Blunt. 1966. Hortulus: Walahfrid Strabo. Translated by Raef Payne. Commentary by Wilfrid Blunt. Hunt Facsimile Series, no. 2. Pittsburgh, PA: The Hunt Botanical Library.

Reynolds, Tim. 1964. “Walafrid Strabo: With His Book, Of Gardening.” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics. 3 (4): 126.

Springer, Carl P. E., ed. and trans. 2013. Sedulius. The Paschal Song and Hymns. Writings from the Greco-Roman world, v. 35. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature. (Introduction)

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.

Freemantle, William Henry, trans. 1892.  The Principal Works of St. Jerome.  Philip Schaff, ed. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, vol. 6. Oxford: Parker.

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

Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel. 1990. Machaut’s Mass: an introduction. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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.

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.

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[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).


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