beauty contests: De tribus puellis no judgment of Paris

In the ancient account of the judgment of Paris, the noble shepherd Paris judged a beauty contest between the goddesses Juno, Athena, and Venus. For choosing her, Venus promised Paris the love of the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Troy. Paris eloping with the already-married Helen led to the massive violence against men of the Trojan War. The medieval Latin elegiac-verse narrative About Three Young Women {De tribus puellis} rewrote the judgment of Paris to lead only to love for men. Beyond the horror of violence against men in ancient epic, beauty and love triumphed in medieval Latin literature.

In De tribus puellis, a man was traveling alone and longing for a woman’s love. Suddenly he saw in the distance three young women running. Able to outrun even the heroine huntress Atalanta, the man sprinted and caught up with the three young women:

Venus, Juno, or beautiful Pallas Athena scarcely
could I compare with these young women.
Soon their faces, their long, flowing hair, their bodies
and their fingers intensely pleased me,
because the love god Cupid himself had driven under my heart
his arrows and his blazing torches.

{ vix Venerem, vix Iunonem, vix Pallada pulchram
istis virginibus assimilare queam.
Mox facies, mox caesaries, mox corpus earum,
mox manus et digiti complacuere mihi,
namque Cupido suam nostro sub corde sagittam
ardentesque faces fixerat ipse suas. }[1]

These young women were competing, not in running, but in singing. The tallest of them was as beautiful as the man-hating huntress Diana, who had Acteon killed merely because he gazed on her naked. The man fearlessly offered to judge their singing contest. All the young women readily accepted his offer.

Atalanta running race picking up apples

The three women chose different themes to showcase their singing talents. The first woman sang of the fierce battles between Jupiter and the giants. That song recalls epic violence against men. The second woman sang of Paris’s love for Helen of Troy. That song too recalls epic violence against men. The third woman, however, sang of Jupiter’s strong, independent sexuality and his ability to overcome his wife’s jealousy and other obstacles to enjoy numerous extra-marital affairs. What loving person wouldn’t like such a song?

Her voice, pleasing to everyone, pleased more only me,
for I was the only one who was pleasing to her.
Each time when sound poured forth from her rosy lips,
the surrounding stones echoed the sound.
No differently long ago among the Ismarian hills Orpheus
sang, stirring all with the music of his lyre.
So too the Sirens are said to have once sung
when they wished to delay Odysseus’s ships.
Each one by her song contrived to capture Odysseus,
but they couldn’t detain that shrewd man.
What if he had heard the voice of my young woman?
Only she would have been able to detain him with song.

{ Vox sua grata fuit conctis, mihi gratior uni;
unus enim fueram qui sibi gratus eram.
Haec quotiens sonitum roseo fundebat ab ore,
reddebant sonitum proxima saxa suum,
haud secus Ismariis in collibus Orpheus olim
cantabat cythara cuncta movendo sua.
Sic quoque Sirenes quondam cecinisse feruntur,
cum vellent Ithacas detinuisse rates;
cantu quaeque suo retinere parabat Ulixem,
non tamen astutum detinuere virum.
Quod si vox nostrae foret hinc audita puellae,
sola licet cantu detinuisset eum.}

The man of course declared the victor to be the young woman who rejected commemorating violence against men and who beautifully affirmed men’s sexuality. The other two women were extremely and foolishly upset at not having been judged best.

The victorious young woman promised the judge any reward that he desired. With the romantic simplicity that characterizes men, the judge asked for her:

Now I ask you, I seek, I desire to sleep with you
— for you surely please me — if perhaps that’s pleasing to you.
I swear that no gift is more precious than you.
If you give yourself to me, you will give me a great prize.
When Venus, Pallas Athena, and Juno came to Paris,
each offered to him her own particular gift.
When they were presenting their gifts, he chose one of the three gifts.
As is known, he chose that a beautiful young woman be given to him.
But if he had known of anything more precious than a young woman,
he wouldn’t have chosen for himself a beautiful young woman.
His example thus teaches what gifts we should request.
Following his example, I ask for you, lovely one.

{ Nunc peto te, quaeso, cupio tibi consociari
— tu mihi nempe places — si tibi forte placet.
Nullum me teste donum pretiosius est te;
te mihi si dederis praemia magna dabis.
Cum Venus ad Paridem, Pallas Iunoque venirent
offerreque sibi munera quaeque sua,
cum sibi dona ferunt, elegit de tribus unum,
scilicet ut pulchra virgo daretur ei,
sed si quid sciret pretiosius esse puella,
non electa sibi pulchra puella foret.
Exemplo docet ergo suo quae dona petamus.
Huius ad exemplum te, speciosa, peto }

This medieval man clearly was classically well-educated. In colleges and university today, men aren’t taught about truth and beauty and right choices. No wonder that love between women and men is now listless. But life in more enlightened medieval Europe was more blessed.

MIT Dance Workshop

Compared to women today, women in medieval Europe were stronger and more assertive. The prize-winning young medieval virgin woman declared to the man that he should have no doubt about her gift to him:

I alone will be joined to you alone in love.
You will be mine and I will give you my virginity,
because for you is reserved my virginity’s honor.
And so that in dubious hope you aren’t pulled for a long time,
on this night you will have your promised reward.

{ sola quidem soli iungar amore tibi.
Noster eris nostramque dabo tibi virginitatem,
nam tibi servatur virginitatis honor.
Et ne spe dubia per tempora longa traharis
hac in nocte tori munera pacta feres. }

One can scarcely imagine a woman saying such today. It’s well-nigh unthinkable. It’s probably now unsharable on Facebook and even illegal to read.

That evening, the woman took the man to her bedroom in a castle. She was not only young and beautiful, but evidently also wealthy and well-connected. Even though medieval society was relatively welcoming and inclusive of heterosexually vigorous men, this medieval man questioned the reality of the woman’s words. Following the scientific practice of questioning and testing, the man said that he wished to return home immediately. As was possible only before modern sex regulations, the woman immediately, without asking for prior affirmative consent, kissed the man with the sweetest kisses. Then she said:

“For you here dinner is prepared with me,” she said,
“For you here are the mutual joys of my bed.
Here one passion and one love would anoint us.
Shadowy night comes, night holds the entire world,
and the moon doesn’t shine serenely in its heaven.
No gate is open through which you can depart,
nor can you go home through the shadows alone.
Indeed often the spirits of the night have harmed
those who often in the night continue on their way.
Here night and love attempt to keep you:
behold, each reason impedes you in going your way.
I am the third reason. I try to keep you with my prayers.
Do not, I beg, make my prayers be in vain.
I marvel if three — night, love, and a beautiful young woman —
cannot keep you, who are only one man.
Dear one, I beg, remain: soon you will feel aroused
with love’s fires, if you don’t have a heart of iron.”

{ “Hic tibi nobiscum cena paretur,” ait,
“hic tibi sint nostri communia gaudia lecti,
hic nos una Venus ungat et unus Amor.
Nox tenebrosa venit, totum nox occupat orbem,
nec nitet in caelo luna serena suo,
ianua nulla patet per quam possis remeare
nec potes in tenebris solus abire domum.
Saepe solent etiam noctis simulacra nocere
his qui nocte viam continuare solent.
Hinc nox, hinc et amore te conantur retinuere:
impedit ecce tuas utraque causa vias.
Tertia sum, quae te conor precibus retinere;
tu modo non vanas fac, precor, esse preces.
Miror si tria, nox et amor et pulchra puella,
non poterunt unum te retinere virum.
Care, precor, remane: motus sensurus amoris
atque faces, si non ferrea corda geris.” }

To ensure his safety, which is always everyone’s most important priority, the man remained with the beautiful young woman. The dinner included plentiful meat, and the woman encouraged the man to eat:

“My dear, eat now these thighs that I extend to you,
just as tonight I will offer you my thighs.
I am giving you a great gift, for in taking my thighs,
you will be taking a large prize, if you actually take them.”
I took them and ate the bones with the flesh;
never to me was sweeter any other dish.

{ “Care meus, comede quas nunc tibi porrigo coxas,
ut tribuam coxas hac tibi nocte meas.
Grande tibi pretium do, name mea crura ferendo
praemia magna feres, si tamen illa feres.”
Has ego suscepi, cum carnibus ossa comedi,
nam non ulla mihi dulcior esca fuit }[2]

She praised his meat-eating and gave him a drink from a golden cup. He drank from the same place on the cup that she had earlier drank.

After dinner, the woman and man lay together on a luxurious bed. Flames from a golden lamp lit the room. This young woman hadn’t been taught in literature class that the male gaze is evil and oppressive:

She made herself naked, for she wished to be seen naked,
and on her tender flesh there wasn’t any blemish.
Now believe me, lovers, if you wish to believe:
her body was whiter than snow,
not snow that, touched by the sun, has melted,
but snow that no sun has yet warmed.
Ah! What shoulders and what arms I saw!
Her white legs were no less very arousing.
Her nipples were small, suitable, and beautiful,
if a little rigid now, no less suitable.
Her chest was flat, flat too her belly under her chest,
and her two hips shaped the body in between.
I will not tell, even though I could tell of better
when I saw her naked, but I will not tell you.

{ Se facit haec nudam, voluit quoque nuda videri,
at non in tenera carne fuit macula.
Nunc mihi credatis, si credere vultis, amantes:
membra fuere sibi candidiora nive,
nec nive quae tacta Phoebo fuerat liquefacta,
sed nive quam nullus sol tepefecit adhuc.
Ah! Quales umeros et qualia brachia vidi;
candida crura nimis non valuere minus.
Parva papilla fuit, fuit apta, fuit speciosa,
si paulo rigida, non minus apta fuit.
Pectus erat planum, planus sub pectore venter,
formabat medium corpus utrumque latus.
Non referam, quamvis poteram meliora referre,
illam cum vidi, sed tibi non referam. }[3]

While evincing a healthy and inspiring appreciation for human sexuality, medieval Latin literature isn’t pornographic. Medieval Latin literature includes a sense of Christian modesty so conspicuously absent in post-Christian, attention-seeking media.

Alexandre Cabanel, Birth of Venus

Just as Christianity centers on love, so does outstanding medieval Latin literature. The woman and man incarnated love in the flesh:

Immediately pulling her white neck into my arms,
I began to give my lady pressing kisses.
I gave a thousand kisses, and she gave back to me just as many.
A thousand were given to her, and a thousand were returned to me.
She joined her side to my side;
my side rejoiced at being planted into her side.
Then she pressed her belly to my belly
and sought to please me in a thousand ways.

{ Protinus, adductis ad candida colla lacertis,
incepi dominae basia pressa dare;
oscula mille dedi, totidem mihi reddidit illa,
sunt data mille sibi, reddita mille mihi.
Illa suum nostro lateri latus associavit;
gaudebam lateri conseruisse latus.
Ventre suo ventrum nostrum tunc illa premebat
quaerebatque modis mille placere mihi. }

These thousands of kisses are part of the great tradition of kissing in Latin poetry from Catullus to Secundus.[4] Generous, loving, and learned medieval women encouraged men in love:

“Quickly complete your desire with me,” she declared,
“for the black night soon flees and day itself returns.”
Then she asked for my right hand. My right hand I offered to her,
but she gave her breasts to me: “What do you feel now?” she asked.
As I held them, I spoke to her in this way:
“I feel,” I responded, “a prize that pleases me.
The prize I now hold is what I have always desired to hold,
and how greatly I wished for the prize that I hold.”
Then I pulled back my hand and stroked her tender thighs.
They were much sweeter to me than honey.
Soon I said: “No gold is more precious.
No matter in the world is more pleasing to me.
I truly enjoyed the dove’s thighs that you gave me,
but the thighs that I hold now I enjoy even more.
Therefore let us join our two bodies, let us press them together,
and let our bodies accomplish their parts.”

{ “Tu mihi velle tuum comple velociter,” inquit,
“nam mox atra fugit et redit ipsa dies.”
Inde rogat dextram, dextram porreximus illi;
sed mihi dans mammas: “Quid modo sentis?” ait.
Quas dum tenui, dicens ego taliter illi:
“Sentio,” respondi, “munera grata mihi.
Munera iam teneo quae saepe tenere cupivi,
et nimis optavi munera quae teneo.”
Inde manus retrahens, palpabam crura tenella,
illa fuere mihi dulcia melle magis.
Mox dixi: “Non est ullum preciosius aurum.
Non est in mundo res mihi commodior.
Dilexi vero nobis data crura columbae,
sed quae nunc teneo diligo crura magis.
Ergo iungamus duo corpora, iuncta premamus,
et peragant partes corpora nostra suas.” }

A Roman couple traditionally joined right hands to signify their marital partnership.[5] This generous young woman, however, thought first of her beloved man’s pleasure. She had given him delicious dove thighs to eat for dinner, but as he frankly declared in his romantic simplicity, her thighs pleased him more. He also understood what more than a billion years of sexual reproduction on earth had designed their bodies to do. Like Ovid, this man with Christian modesty refrained from telling the rest of what they did in bed. But who in relatively enlightened medieval Europe wouldn’t know? Amost everyone then appreciated how babies are made.

Classical Latin literature reached its fullest development in medieval Europe. Just as Virgil redirected the matter of Troy with his Aeneid, medieval Latin literature further developed Virgil’s critique of gynocentrism. De tribus puellis replaces the massive violence against men of both Homeric epic and the Aeneid with a beautiful young woman’s generous, incarnate love for a man.[6] After the fall of medieval Europe, ignorance, bigotry, and intolerance blanketed the literary heritage of European culture. Few persons today have even heard of De tribus puellis. To rebuild a culture of love, De tribus puellis must be given its rightful place at the center of the classics canon.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] About Three Young Women {De tribus puellis} vv. 19-24, Latin text from Pittaluga (1976a) via Hexter, Pfuntner & Haynes (2020), my English translation, benefiting from those of id. and Elliott (1984). For a freely available Latin text, Jahnke (1891) pp. 91-102.

De tribus puellis apparently was written in the twelfth century in the Loire Valley of France. Pittaluga (1976a) pp. 281-8, cited by Kretschmer (2013) p. 38. Since 139 of its 300 verses echo verses from Ovid, it has been called an Ovidian cento. Pittaluga (1976b) pp. 4-12, cited by Kretschmer (2013) p. 39, n. 21. It has survived in two fifteenth-century manuscripts and several incunables. Elliott( 1984) p. xlvii. On its textual history, Pittaluga (1976a), Reeve (1980), Pittaluga (1983), Reeve (1985), and Reeve (1997) (none of which I’ve been able to examine because of coronaplague-related closures).

The opening of De tribus puellis, “I was traveling by chance along a certain path {Ibam forte via quadam},” parodies Horace, Satires 1.9.1, “I was traveling by chance along the Sacred Way {Ibam forte Via Sacra}.” Laughter is vital for affirming men’s lives and renewing humanistic culture.

Susequent quotes above are from De tribus puellis and are similarly sourced. They are vv. 91-102 (Her voice, pleasing to everyone…), 127-38 (Now I ask you, I seek…), 150-4 (I alone will be joined…), 166-82 (For you here dinner is prepared…), 205-10 (My dear, eat now these thighs…), 249-62 (She made herself naked…), 273-80 (Immediately pulling her white neck…), and 281-96 (Quickly complete your desire with me…).

[2] For similar erotic play with food, consider Lucius enjoying Photis stirring her pot in the kitchen in Apuleius, Metamorphoses 2.7.

[3] Cf. Ovid, Loves {Amores} 1.5. After praising the appearance of a fully dressed woman in a typical medieval “description of the young woman {descriptio puellae},” a medieval man expressed heterosexual men’s typical joy in seeing a beloved woman naked:

And I think that no dress and no accessories
could have suited her better than if she was without clothes.
O, if only I could see her naked at least once, if to touch her naked
is not my destiny, if no more is given to me!

{ Et puto, quod nullus cultus nullusque paratus
aptior esset ei, quam si sine vestibus esset.
O utinam nudam videam, si tangere nudam
non est fas, saltemque semel, si non datur ultra! }

About the old woman {De vetula} 2.329-32, Latin text from Hexter, Pfuntner & Haynes (2020) p. 216, my English translation, benefiting from that of id.

[4] On Catullus’s claimed influence on De tribus puellis, Arcaz Pozo (2005). Most scholars believe that Catullus was known in ninth-century Tours, then lost and only rediscovered around 1300. That Catullus influenced De tribus puellis is not an accepted scholarly claim. It’s not even a claim that has attracted significant scholarly attention. On Catullus’s reception history and claims of medieval Catullan influence, Butrica (2007) pp. 45-52.

[5] On the ancient Roman tradition of joining right hands to signify marriage, see note [14] in my post on the centos of Ausonius and Proba.

[6] De tribus puellis isn’t an aberrational medieval poem. A cleric at Ivrea in northwestern Italy about the year 1080 wrote Versus Eporedienses, a Latin poem of 150 leonine distichs. Versus Eporedienses plausibly influenced De tribus puellis. Kretschmer (2013). For a magisterial study of Versus Eporedienses, Kretschmer (2020).

Ovid in Amores 1.1 accidently avoided epic, but he turned back to epic in his Metamorphoses. Medieval authors learned from Ovid being castrated and developed themes from the Metamorphoses in more realistic, socially engaged ways.

[images] (1) The Race between Hippomenes and Atalanta (excerpt). Painting by Noël Hallé, painted between 1762 and 1765. Preserved as INV 5270 in Louvre Museum (Paris, France). Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) MIT Dance Workshop performance c. 1990. (3) The Birth of Venus. Painting by Alexandre Cabanel, painted in 1863. Preserved as accession # RF 273 in Musée d’Orsay (Paris, France). Via Wikimedia Commons.


Arcaz Pozo, Juan Luis. 2005. “La poesia latina en el contexto amoroso de la comedia elegiaca medieval: Catulo y Ovidio en el De tribus puellis.Cuadernos De Filología Clásica. Estudios Latinos (Madrid, Spain). 25 (1): 101-110.

Butrica, J. L. 2007. “History and Transmission of the Text.” Ch. 2 (pp. 34-56) in Skinner, Marilyn B, ed. A Companion to Catullus. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Elliott, Alison Goddard, trans. 1984. Seven Medieval Latin Comedies. New York: Garland.

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

Jahnke, Richard, ed. 1891. Comoediae Horatianae Tres. Lipsiae: Teubner.

Kretschmer, Marek Thue. 2013. “The Elegiac Love Poems Versus Eporedienses and De Tribus Puellis and the Ovidian Backdrop.” The Journal of Medieval Latin. 23: 35-47.

Kretschmer, Marek Thue. 2020. Latin Love Elegy and the Dawn of the Ovidian Age: A Study of the Versus Eporedienses and the Latin Classics. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers.

Pittaluga, Stefano, ed. and trans. (Italian). 1976a. “De tribus puellis.” Pp. 304-333 in Bertini, Ferruccio, ed. Commedie latine del XII e XIII secolo. Vol. 1. Genova: Università di Genova.

Pittaluga, Stefano. 1976b. “Le De tribus puellis, Comédie Ovidienne.” Vita Latina. 61: 2-13 (article part 1), .

Pittaluga, Stefano. 1977. “Le De tribus puellis, Comédie Ovidienne.” Vita Latina. 62: 2-14 (article part 2).

Pittaluga, Stefano. 1983. “Encore au sujet du De tribus puellis.” Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch. 18: 128-130.

Reeve, Michael D. 1980. “Early editions of De tribus puellis.” Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch. 15: 131-133.

Reeve, Michael D. 1985. “The tradition of De tribus puellis.” Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch. 20: 124-127.

Reeve, Michael D. 1997. “Dating Three Girls.” Filologia Mediolatina. 4: 319-324.

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