living classics: Amphitryon cuckolded & Geta duped via book learning

Mighty abstractions, when connected to ordinary life, tend to lead to folly. In the twelfth century, the Latin comedy Geta appropriated Plautus’s classical Roman comedy Amphitryon to challenge the abstract book learning preoccupying European universities. Within today’s sphere of decaying European cultural heritage, Geta is equally relevant to much less sophisticated abstractions now captivating universities and other organs of authoritative discourse.

To raise his social status, the wealthy Greek householder Amphitryon goes to study at the most prestigious center of scholarly learning. That of course is Athens.[1] Amphitryon has with him his head slave Geta, who also participates in learning. They study piles of books. They learn new words and new ways of thinking. They learn to argue about all the burning concerns in twelfth-century European universities.

Meanwhile Jupiter, the nominal head god in charge of the cosmos, is looking down from his seat on high. He laments that Amphitryon’s wife Alcmene is beautiful and pleasing. His own wife is the domineering goddess Juno. She acts like a hateful fury. Jupiter declares his desire for Alcmene to the messenger god Mercury, called Archas:

I’m burning for Alcmene, yet I don’t burn her, but I’m burning.
Her spouse Amphitryon is temporarily absent. I myself will enjoy his place.
Let Jupiter study Alcmene in the marital bed. Let her husband in Athens
philosophize. Let Jupiter love, let the husband read.
Let Amphitryon dispute and let Jupiter deceive. The arts
let him cultivate. Jupiter himself will plow his Alcmene.
But already he prepares to return. Therefore I pray, assume Geta’s form.
I, your father god himself, will assume Amphitryon’s form.

{ Uror in Almenam, nec eam tamen uro, sed uror.
Tempore sponsus abest, utar et ipse loco.
Jupiter Almenae studeat thalamo, vir Athenis
philosophetur; amet Jupiter, ille legat.
Disputet Amphitryon et fallat Jupiter; artes
hic colat, Almenam Jupiter ipse suam.
Jam parat et reditus. Ergo, precor, indue Getam:
induet ipse tuus Amphitriona pater. }[2]

In medieval Europe, wives rejoiced when their husbands returned from long absences. Pious Christian wives wouldn’t rejoice to the degree that they would at the return of the Lord Jesus Christ, but they would rejoice highly:

Acting through various rumors, news announces to Alcmene
the return of her husband, and the news delights her.
She orders that the household rejoice at the return of its lord.
The halls are newly surfaced ivory-white and purple is spread on beds.
The marital bedroom smiles and shines, decorated with gold.
She brings out the wealth of the absent Amphitryon.
Her joy attests, with splendor and magnificence in her clothing
proclaiming, that her husband has returned home.
Her hair artfully flows down, her right hand is also ringed with gold,
and she paints her face such that art vivifies her beauty.
So she conquers other women, so she conquers even herself.
Made new and more attractive, she thus pleases Jove more.

{ Nunciat Almenae variis rumoribus acta
Fama viri reditum, famaque juvit eam.
Ad reditum domini domus exultare jubetur;
Atria vestit ebur, purpura lata thoros.
Arridet talamus positoque refulgerat auro,
Absenti assurgunt Amphitrionis opes.
Gaudia testatur dominae nitor atque superba
Significat domui veste redire virum.
Arte jacent crines, auro quoque dextra superbit,
Pingit et haec vultus vivit ut arte decor.
Sic alias vincit, sic a se vincitur ipsa.
Fit nova plusque decens, plus placet ergo Jovi. }[3]

Jupiter, also known younger as Jove, appreciated Alcmene’s efforts. He proclaimed:

Just look at
how Alcmene is, how good and how beautiful,
how much better than my Juno! Alcmene vanquishes my constellations,
outshines the stars, and makes daylight seem like shadows.
So she pleases me, so let her come out and meet me,
and now let her undergo Jupiter as her Amphitryon.

{… Ecce
quanta sit Almena, quam bona quamque decens,
quam melior Junone mea! Mea sidera vincit,
praeradiat stellis obtenebratque diem.
Sic placet illa michi, sic exeat obvia nobis,
iamque suo subeat Amphitrione Jovem. }

Jupiter and Archas, assuming the forms of Amphitryon and Geta, respectively, immediately descend from the heavens to Alcmene’s home. They arrive before Amphitryon and Geta return.

Alcmene and Amphitryon from Plautus's Amphitryon

Perceiving Jupiter to be Amphitryon, Alcmene delights in her husband’s return home. They greet each other and warmly embrace:

They multiply kisses, they give and repeat giving.
Alcmene is temperate, and she soothingly restrains kisses,
and virginal modesty tames her words.
The god lusts. With his mouth pressing her mouth, he eagerly licks.
His kisses taste of an adulterer, and his words of Jove.
Hanging from Jove’s neck, she presses with blessed
heaviness the god’s shoulders. Thus he loved to be weighed down.
“I truly would not be happier if I embraced Jove himself,”
she said, and thus she compares Jove to Jove.
They pour together kisses. Now Jove burns hotter.

{ Oscula multiplicant, dant iterantque data.
Temperat Almena, castigat et oscula blande,
et sua virgineo verba pudore domat.
Luxuriat deus, ore premens os lambit hiulco,
et moechum sapiunt oscula, verba Jovem.
Dependet collo Jovis illa premitque beato
Pondere colla dei: sic amat ille premi.
“Non equidem mage laeta Jovem complecterer ipsum,”
Dixerat, atque Jovem comparat illa Jovi.
Oscula confundunt; jam Jupiter acrius ardet. }

Jove immediately orders Archas-Geta to shut the door and bolt it.[4] Jove orders that if any sailors or others arrive, they be driven away. Then he leads Alcmene to an intimate chamber and unites with her in bed. To the unknowing, this would be just a normal medieval spousal homecoming.

Meanwhile, the ship carrying the real Geta and Amphitryon has docked. Alcmene has sent her kitchen slave Birria out to meet them and carry baggage. Birria walks slowly and takes detours. He hopes to avoid carrying baggage. Glimpsing Geta coming and carrying a massive load of books, Birria hides. Geta notices that Birria is hiding in a cavern. Stopping to rest nearby, Geta complains to himself of the books’ weight. He complains of the terrible conditions he suffered as a student in Athens. But he proclaims to himself:

But as a prize for my punishment, I bring back amazing sophisms.
Now I know how to prove that a human is an ass.
When my plates, hearth, and greasy kitchen are returned to me,
I will prove that these persons are asses, and those, cows.
I am a logician! I will make all whatever animals I wish.
Birria, since he’s excessively slow, will be an ass.

{ Sed pretium poenae miranda sophismata porto,
Jamque probare scio quod sit asellus homo.
Dum michi me reddent patinae, focus, uncta popina,
Hos asinos, illos esse probabo boves,
Sum logicus, faciam quaevis animalia cunctos;
Birria, nam nimis est lentus, asellus erit. }[5]

Overhearing this nonsense, the no-nonsense Birria affirms to himself the prize of his cherished manliness:

What? Birria will become an ass?
Will he take away what nature has given to me?
To Geta, whatever problems he may roll out, Birria thus
will respond: “Birria will always be a human!”

{ Quid? Birria fiet asellus?
Quod natura dedit auferet ille michi?
Birria sic Getae, quaecunque problemata volvat,
respondebit: erit semper Birria homo. }

Geta continues to philosophize grandly and incoherently:

I have also learned this: that nothing can ever perish,
that once anything is, it never can be nothing.
A thing to which is given to be, never is permitted not to be,
but it changes appearance and renews its state.
Thus it cannot not be.

Death destroys all. It’s reported that learned Plato has died,
and also that Socrates himself lies in the grave.
My reputation will live, but it too will perish with death.
Death destroys all. With death all ceases.

{ Hoc etiam didici quod res nequid ulla perire;
quod semel est aliquid, hoc nichil esse nequid.
Cui semel esse datur nunquam non esse licebit,
sed faciem mutat et novat esse suum.
Sic nequeo non esse. …

Omnia mors tollit; doctum cecidisse Platonem
atque ipsum Socratem occubuisse fertur.
Fama mei vivet, sed et hoc quoque morte peribit.
Omnia mors tollit; omnia morte cadunt. }

Geta throws stones at Birria hiding in the cavern. Birria calls out that it’s he, Geta’s friend. Geta at first refuses to believe. They argue. Only when Birria shows his face does Geta finally acknowledge Birria’s identity.

After sending Birria to meet Amphitryon at the ship, Geta continues home. At home, he encounters a locked door and a silent house. He yells for the door to be opened. Archas-Geta comes to the door and tells Geta to go away. Geta is stunned to encounter his double. He questions what’s going on. Archas-Geta answers that Alcmene and Amphitryon are enjoying themselves in bed, and that Birria has also returned after Archas-Geta threw stones at him hiding in a cavern. The god Archas-Geta knows all that Geta knows. Geta is stupefied:

His voice and deeds prove that he’s the real Geta.
Have I gone astray? Has Birria, whom I just sent on,
returned faster than I or by a shorter way?
It is I who am talking to myself, but I don’t know
by reason how two could have been made from what was one.
All that is, is one, but I who am speaking am not one.
Therefore Geta is nothing, but nothing cannot be.
I was one when my voice against the closed door first
thundered, but he answered me with myself.

{ Hunc verum Getam factaque voxque probant.
Numquid aberravi? Numquid modo Birria missus
me citius rediit vel breviore via?
Est ego qui mecum loquitur; sed nescio fiat
qua ratione duo qui primus unus erat.
Omne quod est unum est, sed non sum qui loquor unus.
Ergo nichil Geta est, nec nichil esse potest.
Unus eram clausa cum prima limina voce
intonui, sed me reddidit ille michi. }

Learning has confused Geta about who’s who. Geta and Archas-Geta argue, with each evoking Roman gods in cursing the other. Their dispute doesn’t concern the now-contentious issue of cultural appropriation, but the even more vital issue of personal identity and personal appropriation. Geta thus asks Archas-Geta to describe himself so that Geta can know whether someone other than himself is he. Archas-Geta responds:

First of all, for you to be wise, you must not believe that you are Geta.
I don’t think you really believe that, but believe me just now:
my Greece knows no other Geta than me.
You seek to deceive me with a name that’s certainly mine.
I alone am Geta.

{ Principio ut sapias Getam te credere noli,
Nec puto quod credas; sed modo crede michi.
Non alium Getam nisi me mea Graecia novit;
fallere me quaeris nomine nempe meo.
Solus ego Geta. }

But does Archas-Geta have lived experience to support his identity claim? With his university learning, Geta asks that question. Archas-Geta answers:

“Listen to my tricks and wiles,” Archas-Geta says,
“so that you will swear that I am Geta and you are nothing.
Even though Geta is ugly, women rejoice to love me.
Would you wish to know the motive? She herself is ugly.
Yet there’s an even better cause: my dick is never sated.
It always has the madness of desire and length without measure.
So I should confess the truth: they love not Geta but his groin.
Women whom my face makes enemies, my groin returns to me as lovers.
Thus one part of me makes it such that I am loved as a whole.
I deceive the old man, I lessen goods committed to me, I secretly steal.
With stolen resources I nourish my sex-worker Thais.

Take up now the truth of how I recently behaved in Athens
so that you will prove me to be Geta by my deeds.
Schools preoccupy Amphitryon. Geta’s sex-worker Thais preoccupies Geta.
When I change countries, I seek a new sex-worker Thais.
A good supply of these Thaises seek Geta.
With gifts I conquer. Love conquers with gift.”

{ “Furta dolosque meos audi,” Caducifer inquit,
“ut jures Getam me fore, teque nichil.
Est quamvis turpis Geta, qua gaudet amari,
Scire velis causam? turpis et illa quidem.
Causa subest melior: nunquam satiati priapi
semper inest rabies, et modus absque modo.
Ut verum fatear non Geta sed inguen amatur;
si qua meos vultus non amat, inguen amat;
quas hostes vultus, inguen michi reddit amicas.
Sic ut totus amer pars facit una mei.
Fallo senem, minuo commissa, recondita furor,
furtivisque opibus Thaida pasco meam.

Accipe nunc verum quod gessi nuper Athenis
ut fore me Getam per mea facta probes.
Amphitriona scholae, sua Getam Thais habebat.
Dum muto patriam Thaida quaero novam;
Thaidas exquiro quarum bona copia Getam;
Vinco muneribus: munere vincit amor.” }[6]

Archas-Geta accurately represented Geta, who immediately recognized his own ugly person and barren activities. Men deserve to be loved for their whole, fully human persons, not just their groins and their material gifts. Yet Geta didn’t understand himself in that way.

Geta in Terence's Phormio

Despondent with his nothingness, Geta heads back to Amphitryon at the ship. He complains to himself:

“Woe to me who was, who now is nothing!
Geta, who can you be? You are a human being. No, by the hero Hercules, since
if Geta is a human being, who can not Geta be?
I am Plato? Perhaps my studies have made me Plato.
If I’m not Geta they shouldn’t call me Geta.
I used to be called Geta. What will my name be?
I will have no name because I am nothing. Alas, I am nothing!
Yet still I am speaking and seeing and I touch myself with my hand.”
Touching himself with his hand, he thus adds: “By the hero Hercules, I am touched!
That which has the power to be touched assuredly cannot be nothing.
Whatever has been something, does not cease to be.
That which once was given to be, always is.
Thus I am, thus I am not. May the logic perish
by which I have perished so completely! Now I know: knowing is harmful.
When Geta learned logic, then he ceased to be.
What makes others cows has made me nothing.
For me these sophistries have been heavily experienced.
Merely changing others, they have deprived me of my very self.
If it is thus, woe to all logic.”

{“Vae michi! qui fueram, quomodo fio nichil!
Geta, quid esse potes? Es homo. Non, Hercule, namque
si quis homo Geta est, quis nisi Geta foret?
Sum Plato? Me forsan artes fecere Platonem.
Geta quidem non sum Getaque dicor ego.
Si non sum Geta non debeo Geta vocari.
Geta vocabar ego; quod michi nomen erit?
Nomen erit nullum quia sum nichil. Heu michi sum nil!
Jam loquor et videor, tangor et ipse manu.”
Seque manu tangens sic addidit: “Hercule, tangor!
Quodque valet tangi non erit, hercle, nichil.
Est aliquid quodcumque fuit, nec desinit esse.
Est etiam semper cui datur esse semel.
Sic sum, sic nil sum. Pereat dialectica per quam
sic perii penitus. Nunc scio: scire nocet.
Cum didicit Geta logicam, tunc desiit esse,
quaeque boves alios me facit esse nichil.
Sic in me gravius experta sophismata! Mutans
tantum alios michimet abstulit esse meum.
Vae logicis, si sic est, omnibus! …” }[7]

Condemning logic follows from reasoning to folly. A slave-student deserves to be taught better than that.

Amphitryon sees the woeful Geta approaching. Geta reports that Amphitryon, Geta, and Birria have already arrived home, and that he is nothing. Birria, a common-sense household thinker, perceives what has happened:

Birria laughs. “Greece received them sane,”
he says, “but sent them back insane.
Logic makes everyone to be insane fools.
Let this intellectual skill never be known to you, Birria.
It’s good that you lack this intellectual skill that by some fantasy
makes humans into asses or nothing.
Let whoever wishes have logic. You, Birria, be always a human.
Let them be pleased with study, and you with a greasy kitchen.”

{ Birria subridens: “Accepit Graecia sanos
hos,” ait, “insanos illa remisit eos.
Insanire facit stultum dialectica quemvis:
ars ea sit nunquam, Birria, nota tibi.
Arte carere bonum est quae per fantasmata quaedam
aut homines asinos aut nichil esse facit.
Sit logicus quivis; tu, Birria, sis homo semper.
His studium placeat, uncta popina tibi.” }

Amphitryon is concerned about his wife. Calling Geta a fool, Amphitryon suspects that an adulterer is with Alcmene. He urges all to seize weapons and prepare to retake their home. Amphitryon will attempt to regain his wife’s love by force. But soldiering for love is folly. Geta will attempt to conquer his nothingness with a sword. Fighting cannot overcome nothing. In reality, men are never nothing. Men are entitled to love and men’s lives always matter, whether in bed with their wives or in the kitchen.

Birria in Terence's Andria

Brandishing weapons and invoking the aid of the god Jupiter, Amphitryon, Geta, and Birria arrive at home. Jupiter and Archas have already left. Alcmene rushes out to meet Amphitryon. She’s bewildered by their weapons. She kisses him and seeks to comfort him. He forgets his suspicion and enjoys embracing her. But Geta boldly calls out threats to no one. Alcmene laughs and explains that Geta himself barred the door when she was in bed with Amphitryon. Knowing that she wasn’t in bed with him, Amphitryon is enraged at being cuckolded. Alcmene explains that she must have been dreaming. Affirming a dream is sometimes necessary to re-establish happiness:

“Dreams they surely are!” lowly Birria suggests. “Geta
is insane. He’s made stupid by his intellectual skill.
Put far away all these insane disputations. I’m heading to the kitchen.
Let Amphitryon rejoice, and let Geta be a human.”
Amphitryon is happy with his wife, Birria with his gleaming kitchen,
and Geta is happy to be human himself. Each of them is contented.

{ “Sompnia sunt, hercle!” subjecit Birria; “Geta
insanit factus stultus arte sua.
Jurgia sint insana procul. Succedo coquinae,
gaudeat Amphitryon, Getaque fiat homo.”
Laetatur sponsa Amphitrion, nidore coquine
Birria, Geta hominem se fore. Quaeque placent. }

Alcmene subsequently gives birth to two boys, the fully mortal Iphicles, son of Amphitryon, and the half-god Heracles, son of Jupiter.[8] Like Joseph, the father of Jesus, Amphitryon loved his extra-marital son Heracles. Moreover, despite their different fathers, Iphicles and Heracles became loyal friends. That’s the sort of love that would have pleased Catullus.

For today’s students, study of medieval Latin literature offers the best hope for avoiding an idiocy of book learning. Unfortunately, university-level study of medieval Latin literature and the humanities more generally often are not welcoming, supportive, and affirming for men students. Everyone in today’s universities should be concerned, because such a situation is bad for women. All students should seek to encounter a culture that embraces the labyrinth of life and that doesn’t impose doctrinaire ideological conformity. Minds, hearts, and souls are terrible gifts to waste.

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[1] Bate states that Athens “here stands for Paris, the centre of philosophical studies.” Bate (1976) p. 16, note to v. 31. Early in the twelfth-century Europe, Paris came to be known as the Athens of the North. Peter Abelard was a leading twelfth-century master-teacher in Paris. Id. p. 5, Ziolkowski (1993) pp. 2-3. Study of the Greeks in twelfth-century Paris would have meant Platonism and Aristotelianism, particularly as taught in the cathedral school of Chartres.

Geta, in fact, explicitly sets Athens in Greece. Amphitryon arriving home by ship suggests that he lives in a place where long-distance travel by land from Athens isn’t feasible. Geta doesn’t specifically indicate the location of Amphitryon’s home. Amphitryon’s wife is named Alcmena, the Doric Greek form of the Attic Greek Alcmene. In Plautus’s Amphitryon, Amphitryon lives in Thebes. Thebes in the classical period was associated with the Aeolian dialect.

[2] Vitalis of Blois {Vitalis Blesensis}, Geta, vv. 29-36, Latin text of Bate (1976), with a few variant readings and normalized with classical Latin spellings and distinguishing u/v and i/j based on Wright (1844); my English translation, benefiting from those of Crawford (1977) and Elliott (1984). For another freely available Latin text, Montaiglon (1848). The best current critical edition is Bertini (1980). Unfortunately I haven’t been able to consult that work. Bertini’s Latin text formed the basis for Elliott’s English translation. Subsequent Latin quotes from Geta are similarly sourced. They’re all substantively consistent with Elliott’s translation and hence Bertini’s Latin text.

As a god associated with communication and commerce, Mercury acted as a go-between in facilitating other of Jupiter’s extra-marital affairs. For example, Mercury, known as Hermes in ancient Greek myth, distracted and killed Argus to facilitate Zeus’s affair with the mortal woman Io. Lucian represents Hermes complaining about the burden of serving as a go-between for Zeus in his numerous affairs with mortal women:

The sons of Alcmena and Semele, whose mothers were only women and came to a bad end, can gorge themselves without a care in the world, while I, the son of Maia, the daughter of Atlas, must wait on them hand and foot. I’m just back from Cadmus’ daughter at Sidon, where he sent me to see how things were with her. Now, without giving me time to get my breath back, he’s sent me off again to Argos to have a look at Danaë. “Then,” says he, “you’d better go on from there to Boeotia, and take a peep at Antiope on your way.” But I’m already worn out, half-dead. If only it were possible, I’d gladly ask to be sold in the market, like mortal slaves who find their lives too onerous.

{ καὶ οἱ μὲν Ἀλκμήνης καὶ Σεμέλης ἐκ γυναικῶν δυστήνων γενόμενοι εὐωχοῦνται ἀφρόντιδες, ὁ δὲ Μαίας τῆς Ἀτλαντίδος1 διακονοῦμαι αὐτοῖς. καὶ νῦν ἄρτι ἥκοντά με ἀπὸ Σιδῶνος παρὰ τῆς Κάδμου θυγατρός, ἐφ᾿ ἣν πέπομφέ με ὀψόμενον ὅ τι πράττει ἡ παῖς, μηδὲ ἀναπνεύσαντα πέπομφεν αὖθις εἰς τὸ Ἄργος ἐπισκεψόμενον τὴν Δανάην, εἶτ᾿ ἐκεῖθεν εἰς Βοιωτίαν, φησίν, ἐλθὼν ἐν παρόδῳ τὴν Ἀντιόπην ἰδέ. καὶ ὅλως ἀπηγόρευκα ἤδη. εἰ γοῦν δυνατὸν ἦν, ἡδέως ἂν ἠξίωσα πεπρᾶσθαι, ὥσπερ οἱ ἐν γῇ κακῶς δουλεύοντες. }

Lucian, Dialogues of the Gods 4 (24), “Hermes and Maia {Ερμου Και Μαιασ},” ancient Greek text and English translation (modified slightly) from MacLeod (1961). Lucian here alludes to Zeus’s affairs with Alcmena, Semele, Europa, Danaë, and Antiope. In Dialogues of the Gods 14 (10), “Hermes and the Sun {Ερμου Και Ηλιου},” the sun complains to Hermes about Zeus ordering him not rise for three days so that Zeus can spend that time in bed with Amphitryon’s wife Alcmena.

Bate’s Latin text of Geta is based closely on MS Berne, Burgerbibliothek 702. That manuscript is closely associated with the Loire Valley in central France. Geta apparently was copied into MS Berne 702 about 1150. Bate (1973) p. 6. The only significant deviation from Bate’s Latin text in the Latin quotes here are two additional verses for one particular quote, which are noted for that quote.

Vitalis of Blois apparently was a learned cleric who lived in the middle of the twelfth century in the Loire Valley. He wrote Geta in the first half of the twelfth century, probably about 1125-30. Elliott (1984), citing Bertini (1980). Vitalis of Blois also wrote another Latin comedy, Aulularia (Latin text). In his prologue to Aulularia , he explicitly describes adapting both Geta and Aulularia from Plautus’s Amphitryon and Plautus’s Aulularia, respectively. The Roman comic playwright Plautus wrote in Latin in the second century BGC. However, Vitalis adapted Aulularia from a pseudo-Plautine fourth-century text, Querolus sive Aulularia. Some scholars believe that Vitalis adapted Geta from a fourth-century text that Caelius Sedulius in his Easter Song {Carmen paschale} referred to as “ridiculous Geta {ridiculove Geta}.” Bate (1976) pp. 3-4. No other evidence of that Geta text has survived.

In adapting Plautus’s Amphitryon, Vitalis of Blois significantly changed the characters. Plautus’s Amphitryon had been away at war, thus anticipating Gallus’s theme of love and war. Vitalis of Blois made Amphitryon, along with Geta, into students seeking elite Greek knowledge. Amphitryon’s slave Sosia in Plautus is given more prominence as Geta in Vitalis of Blois’s version. Vitalis’s transformation of Bromia into Birria also gives the latter more prominence. Just as in Aulularia, satire of scholastic learning becomes a central focus. At a nominal level, rather than using Plautus’s name for the slaves, Vitalis turned to the second-century BGC Roman comic playwright Terence. The name Geta is used for a slave in Terence’s Phormio and Adelphoe, and Byrria for a slave in Terence’s Andria.

Geta is one of the earliest and most popular of the surviving medieval Latin comedies. Other Latin comedies refer to it. Quotes from Geta were commonly included in medieval compilations of excerpts, known as “gatherings of flowers {florilegia}.” Bate (1976) p. 2-3. Moreover:

The names of Geta and his fellow servant, Birria, became proverbial and the poem became a school-text, the object of glosses and commentaries.

Ziolkowski (1993) pp. 12-3. Geta has survived in sixty-seven complete manuscripts, and seven fragmentary manuscripts. An additional sixteen manuscripts are known to have contained Geta. Bertini (1980) p. 142, n. 6, via Ziolkowski (1993) p. 12. In the fifteenth century, an Italian adaptation, Geta e Birria, was made. Kuhn (2017). About 1421, Eustache Deschamps translated Geta into French as Le traité de Geta et d’Amphitryon. Deschamps, who was dead by 1405, wrote his translation and had it performed as a play perhaps about 1393. Deschamps’s translation has been erroneously dated about 1421. Kendrick (2014) pp. 393-6.

Subsequent quotes above from Geta are similarly sourced. By verse numbers in Bate (1973), they are: vv. 39-50 (Acting through various rumors…), 51-6 (Just look at …), 90-9 (hey multiply kisses…), 161-6 (But as a prize for my punishment…), 167-70 (What? Birria will become an ass?…), 171-5, 177-80 (I have also learned this…), 270-8 (His voice and deeds prove…), 321-5 (First of all, for you to be wise…), 350bc-60, 365-70 (Listen to my tricks and wiles…), 388-407 (Woe to me who was…), 443-50 (Birria laughs…), 517-22 (Dreams they surely are!…).

[3] The reference to wearing a gold wedding ring ironically suggests that she didn’t wear it while Amphitryon was away. Using cosmetics similarly would suggests falseness to the medieval reader familiar with classical critiques of women’s use of cosmetics. See, e.g. Juvenal, Satires 6.457-73 and Tertullian, On Female Fashion {De cultu feminarum} 2.5-7.

After Alcmene sent Birria to meet the home-bound Amphitryon, Birria on his way expresses suspicion about her fidelity to her husband:

A woman wants her slaves to sweat, and Alcmene’s learned to command.
Hardship grips her servants while she renews her skin with cosmetics.
So that an adulterer may enter, she pretends that her husband has returned.
So that you don’t see the adulterers, Birria, you depart, shoved out.

{ Femina vult sudare suos didicitque jubere;
poena tenet famulos, innovat illa cutem.
Moechus ut introeat mentitur adesse maritum;
Ne videas moechos, Birria, pulsus abis. }

Geta, vv. 111-4. In v. 73, Birria is called a servus {servant / slave}. Many men throughout history have, like Birria, experienced oppressive subordination to highly privileged women.

[4] I use the name Archas-Geta to refer to Archas (Mercury) in the form of Geta. Archas as a name for Mercury was unknown in Plautus’s Latin of the second century BGC. Use of the name Archas for Mercury became widespread in Latin after the fifth century GC. Crawford (1977) p. 181, n. 13. The Latin prefix archi-, from the ancient Greek ἀρχι-, means chief or highest. Archas thus might function as a pun for the god Mercury becoming a “higher” form of Geta.

[5] The phrase “sed pretium poenae” is literally written “sed precium pene.” It thus has the punning translation, “But as a prize with my penis.” A similar pun exists in Geta, v. 402, which seems to refer to Peter Abelard’s castration.

Twelfth-century scholars pondered at length logical fallacies. The great twelfth-century Parisian scholar Peter Abelard observed sometime before 1125:

If Socrates is an animal and an ass would be that animal, from very necessity, one must be convinced “Socrates is an ass.”

{ si Socrates est animal et illud animal sit asinus, ex necessitate, et ‘Socrates est asinus’ conuincitur. }

Peter Abelard, Dialectica 317, Latin text from Corpus Corporum, my English translation. Two more twelfth-century sophisms: “Every ass is an animal, and whoever says that you are an animal says the truth. Therefore, whoever says that you are an ass says the truth {tu es vel eris asinus, sed tu non es asinus, ergo eris asinus.” “You are or you will be an ass, but you are not an ass. Therefore, you will be an ass {tu es vel eris asinus, sed tu non es asinus, ergo eris asinus}.” From Rijk (1962) pp. 368, 579, as cited by Ziolkowski (1993) pp. 7-8, with my insubstantial modifications. At Oxford early in the fourteenth century, William of Heytesbury compiled and analyzed such sophisms in his Sophisms of the ass {Sophismata asinina}. On that work, Pironet (1993).

Many other sophisms have also been long known. An early-twelfth-century letter from Wibald of Stavelot to Manegold of Paderborn stated:

Subtleties and sophistic conclusions (which are called Gualidian, after a certain Guaio) you should neither use proudly nor entirely contemn. Examples of such are: “What you have not lost, you have. You have not lost horns. Therefore you have horns.” Another: “Mus {mouse} is a syllable. A mouse nibbles cheese. Therefore a syllable nibbles cheese.”

{ Argutias et sophisticas conclusiunculas, quas Gualidicas a Gualone quodam vocant, nec exercebis superbe nec contemnes penitus. Haec huiusmodi sunt: Quod non perdidisti, habes; cornua autem non perdidisti, comua ergo habes; item: Mus sillaba est; mus autem caseum rodit; sillaba ergo caseum rodit. }

From Ziolkowski (1993) p. 10 (modified insubstantially). These sophisms go back to classical Greek and Roman literature. Id. p. 10, n. 34. Boethius’s Latin translation of Aristotle’s On Sophistical Refutations {Σοφιστικοὶ Ἔλεγχοι / De Sophisticis Elenchis}, as well as the translation by James of Venice, became available in western Europe between 1120 and 1150. Dod (1982) pp. 46, 75. Concerning Aristotle’s On Sophistical Refutations, Krabbe (2012).

[6] The first two verse in this quote (Wright’s vv. 357-8) don’t exist in the Geta of Ms. Berne 702 in the edition of Bate (1973), but do exist in the edition of Bertini (1980) according to the translation of Elliott (1984).

Thais was a common classical Greek name for a courtesan (high-class woman sex-worker). Archas-Geta described the scope for Geta’s genital gifts:

I have hairy thighs,
so that licentious itching holds their powers,
and when with repeated shaking my cock swells with passion,
it certainly extends down to my knees.

{ … hispida crura
sunt michi quae scabies ut sua regna tenet,
sed sic dum crebro singultu colligit iram
ad certum muto tenditur usque genu. }

Geta, vv. 111-4. Reflecting historical disparagement of men’s penis, actors in classical comedies wore huge, grotesque penises {φαλλοί / phalloi}. Gallus in Virgil, Eclogues 10.69, influentially declared, “Love conquers all {omnia vincit Amor}.”

Like many men, Eustache Deschamps understood his penis to be central to his life. One of his ballads includes the wistful refrain, “If only I had my (cock / life) of my Orleans student days {Se j’eusse mon vit d’Orliens}.” Yet he, like Geta, sadly thought that women loved him only for his penis. Kendrick (2014) p. 395.

[7] Questions concerning universals (species) and particulars (which have accidentals) were a focus of study in early twelfth-century Parisian schools. Boethius’s Latin translation of Porphyry’s Isagoge largely shaped these questions. Geta parodies scholarly debates about universals and particulars. Bertini (1979); Elliott (1984) pp. xxxvi-ii; Ziolkowski (1993) pp. 18-20, 24-5. The concluding verse of the twelfth-century About Clerics and a Rustic {De clericis et rustico} also refers to this philosophical debate. Very few scholars today are interested in such debate.

“Thus I am, thus I am not {sic sum, sic nil sum}” (v. 409) may be a parody of Peter Abelard’s treatise Yes and No {Sic et Non}. That parody is sharpened with a pun in the next verse: “Thus my penis has perished {sic perii penitus}.” Elliott (1984) p. xxvii. Abelard was castrated for having a sexual affair with Heloise of the Paraclete. He suffered additional abuse for being a victim of castration.

The oath “by Hercules {Hercule}” has the contracted form “assuredly {hercle}.” Repeated use of this oath is humorous in a play concerning the myth of Hercules’s birth. Kendrick (2014) p. 392.

[8] Alcmene giving birth to Iphicles and Heracles isn’t included in Geta. That outcome is known from ancient Greek myth and Plautus’s Amphitryon.

[images] (1) Amphitryon and Alcmene in Plautus’s Amphitryon. Illuminated initial painted in fifteenth-century Italy. Excerpt from folio 1r of Ms. Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 36.41. Source image via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Geta in Terence’s Phormio, act 3, scene 2. Illumination made c. 1100 in Tours, France. Excerpt from folio 71v of Ms. Tours, Bibliothèque municipale, 0924. Via Portail Biblissima. (3) Birria in Terence’s Andria / The Girl from Andros, act 2, scene 1. Illumination made c. 1100 in Tours, France. Excerpt from folio 4 of Ms. Tours, Bibliothèque municipale, 0924. Via Portail Biblissima.


Bate, Keith. 1976. Three Latin Comedies. Toronto: Published for the Centre for Medieval Studies by the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies. (contains Latin texts of Geta, Babio, and Pamphilus)

Bertini, Ferruccio. 1979. “Il Geta di Vitale di Blois e la scuola di Abelardo.” Sandalion. 2: 257-265.

Bertini, Ferruccio, ed. 1980. “Vitale di Blois, Geta.” Pp. 139-242 in Bertini, Ferruccio, ed. Commedie latine del XII e XIII secolo. Part III. Genova: Istituto di filologia classica e medievale.

Crawford, James Martin. 1977. The Secular Latin Comedies of Twelfth Century France. Ph. D. Thesis. Indiana University, USA.

Dod, Bernard G. 1982. “Aristoteles latinus.” Ch. 2 (pp. 45-79) in Kretzmann, Norman, Anthony Kenny, Jan Pinborg, eds. The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy: From the rediscovery of Aristotle to the disintegration of scholasticism, 1100-1600. Cambridge: Cambridge Univerity Press.

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

Kendrick, Laura. 2014. “Medieval Vernacular Versions of Ancient Comedy: Geoffrey Chaucer, Eustache Deschamps, Vitalis of Blois and Plautus’ Amphitryon.” Pp. 377-96 in Olson, S. Douglas, ed. 2014. Ancient Comedy and Reception: essays in honor of Jeffrey Henderson. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Krabbe, Erik C. W. 2012. “Aristotle’s On Sophistical Refutations.” Topoi. 31: 243–248.

Kuhn, Barbara. 2017. “‘nulla son io; […] due siam fatti d’uno’ (Geta e Birria) – Subtracting by Duplicating, or The Transformations of Amphitryon in the Early Modern Period.” Pp. 99-125 in Helmut Pfeiffer, Irene Fantappiè, Tobias Roth, eds. Renaissance Rewritings. Transformationen der Antike 50. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter.

MacLeod, M. D., ed. and trans. 1961. Lucian. Dialogues of the Dead. Dialogues of the Sea-Gods. Dialogues of the Gods. Dialogues of the Courtesans. Loeb Classical Library 431. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Montaiglon, Anatole de, ed. 1847-48., “Le livre de Geta et de Birria, ou l’Amphitryonéide, poëme latin du XIIIe siècle composé par un auteur inconnu nommé Vitalis, et publié d’après cinq manuscrits de la Bibliothèque nationale.” Pp. 474-505 in Bibliothèque de l’École des Chartes. 2nd series, 4. Paris: J. B. Dumoulin.

Pironet, Fabienne. 1993. “The Sophismata Asinina of William Heytesbury.” Pp. 128-143 in Stephen Read, ed. Sophisms in Medieval Logic and Grammar: Acts of the Ninth European Symposium for Medieval Logic and Semantics, held at St. Andrews, June 1990. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Rijk, Lambertus Marie de. 1962. Logica modernorum. Vol. 1, On the twelfth century theories of fallacy. Assen: Van Gorcum.

Wright, Thomas, ed. 1844. Early mysteries, and other Latin poems of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. London: Nichols and Sons. (alternate presentation of Wright’s Geta)

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1993. “The Humour of Logic and the Logic of Humour in the Twelfth-Century Renaissance.” The Journal of Medieval Latin. 03: 1-26.

Pyramus & Thisbe from Ovid’s gender subtlety to polarized Chaucer

The ancient Greek tale Hero and Leander tells of two young lovers who died for love of each other. While gender symmetry characterizes ancient Greek romance, Hero and Leander is starkly gender-asymmetric.[1] Ovid’s myth of Pyramus and Thisbe, like Hero and Leander, narrates two young lovers dying for love of each other. But Ovid’s myth rejected romantic gender symmetry. Pyramus bluntly blamed himself for Thisbe’s death. Thisbe, in contrast, evoked sympathy for her plight. Gender differences loom even larger in medieval retellings. Thisbe became the dominant figure in the story, while Pyramus’s masculine sexuality was bestialized. In his book The Legend of Good Women, Chaucer went as far as to include explicitly anti-meninist sentiment to serve gynocentric interests.

ancient Greek myth of Pyramus and Thisbe before Ovid

Ovid initially described Pyramus and Thisbe as gender-equal rather than gender-symmetric. Showing her literary learning, Arsippe told the story. Her story began:

Pyramus and Thisbe — one the most beautiful of young men,
the other eminent among young women in the Orient —
lived in adjacent houses.

{ Pyramus et Thisbe, iuvenum pulcherrimus alter,
altera, quas Oriens habuit, praelata puellis,
contiguas tenuere domos }[2]

Pyramus and Thisbe were one to another {alter / altera}. But they didn’t necessarily look like one another. Each had beauty eminent within their own respective genders. Moreover, their love burned mutually:

With equally captivated thoughts, they both burned with love.
Each was lacking a go-between. They spoke with nods and signs.
The more they covered their love, the hotter the covered fire boiled.

{ ex aequo captis ardebant mentibus ambo.
conscius omnis abest; nutu signisque loquuntur,
quoque magis tegitur, tectus magis aestuat ignis. }

When their parents separated them by confining them to their respective homes, Thisbe and Pyramus together found a crack in a common wall across which they could communicate. Ovid emphasized the lovers’ unity in communication through the crack, not the crack’s physical structure.

Gender difference ultimately protruded. Pyramus and Thisbe jointly planned to meet at night outside their city under a mulberry tree near an ancient tomb. When Pyramus arrived at the meeting point, he found only a lioness’s tracks and Thisbe’s cloak smeared with blood. With internalized misandry, he condemned himself:

“Two lovers will perish in one night,” he said,
“and she was more worthy of a long life.
My life-breath is guilty. I have killed you, pitiable one,
I who ordered you to come at night to this place filled with danger,
and I didn’t come first. Claw to pieces my body
and consume my harmful flesh with your fierce bites,
O whatever lions live beneath this cliff!”

{ … ‘una duos’ inquit ‘nox perdet amantes,
e quibus illa fuit longa dignissima vita;
nostra nocens anima est. ego te, miseranda, peremi,
in loca plena metus qui iussi nocte venires
nec prior huc veni. nostrum divellite corpus
et scelerata fero consumite viscera morsu
o quicumque sub hac habitatis rupe leones!’ }[3]

She, who was for him, isn’t more worthy of a long life than he. He wasn’t more guilty than she, he didn’t order her to come to that place, and he certainly didn’t kill her. Men’s flesh is not harmful but life-giving. Those who understand know that men should be more pitied than women. Believing that a lioness had devoured Thisbe, Pyramus committed suicide with his own sword.[4] About four times more men than women die from suicide. Pyramus’s suicide is another manifestation of structural sexism.

Thisbe’s actions at the midnight meeting point also manifested structural sexism. When Thisbe saw the lioness coming, she fled. She accidentally dropped her cloak. The lioness befouled it with cattle’s blood from a recent kill. Like many women, Thisbe didn’t consider men’s welfare. In particular, although she knew Pyramus was coming to that spot, she didn’t do anything to warn him about the lioness. She simply hid herself. Men, in contrast, are taught to give up their lives to save women.

When Thisbe emerged from her hiding place, she didn’t understand what was writhing on the bloody ground. Apparently Pyramus’s fate in this dangerous situation wasn’t foremost in Thisbe’s mind:

But after some delay, she recognizes her lover.
Wailing loudly, she strikes at her shameful arms
and tears her hair. Embracing her lover’s body,
she fills his wounds with tears, mingling tears
with blood and kissing his face fixed in death’s coldness.

{ sed postquam remorata suos cognovit amores,
percutit indignos claro plangore lacertos
et laniata comas amplexaque corpus amatum
vulnera supplevit lacrimis fletumque cruori
miscuit et gelidis in vultibus oscula figens }

Just as readers have sympathized with Dido, they have also sympathized with Thisbe. Translators have thus translated “indigni lacerti” as “innocent arms” or elided “indigni.”[5] Thisbe’s arms embraced her dying lover, the lover that she failed to warn of mortal danger. “Shameful arms” is a better translation in this context.

Social status is prominent in Thisbe’s competitive evaluation of Pyramus’s death. She wanted to be regarded as being as brave and loving as he:

I too have a brave hand for this one deed,
and I too have love. This will give me strength for the fatal wound.
I will follow you in being extinguished, and I will be called the most unhappy
cause and companion of your ruin.

{ … est et mihi fortis in unum
hoc manus, est et amor: dabit hic in vulnera vires.
persequar extinctum letique miserrima dicar
causa comesque tui … }

Thisbe didn’t declare herself guilty of Pyramus’s death. She declared that others would say that she suffered for having caused his death. Others thus would focalize her welfare, just as she did. Women are much more likely to receive pity and compassion than are men. Meninism is the radical notion that men are human beings, equal to women in being worthy of compassion. Ovid’s account of Pyramus and Thisbe shows what a radical notion meninism is.

Phyllis riding Aristotle and Ovid's myth of Pyramus and Thisbe

The arc of literary history has bent away from gender equality for men. Consider the twelfth-century lai Pyramus and Thisbe {Piramus et Tisbé}. It explicitly refers to Ovid as a source for its story, but makes significant changes to Ovid’s version. Unlike Ovid’s myth, the lai initially emphasizes gender symmetry:

In the city of Babylon
there were two men of great renown,
of great valor and high rank,
wealthy men from noble families.
These wealthy men had two children
alike in beauty and appearance.
One was a boy, the other a girl.

Their being of the same age and disposition,
their great beauty, their noble birth,
their conversations, laughter and games,
and their delightful surroundings,
and being able to see one another frequently,
all predisposed them to love.

{ En Babilone la cité
Furent dui home renomé,
De grant valour, de grant hautesce,
De parenté et de richesce.
Li riche home orent deus enfans
D’une biauté et d’uns samblans;

Li pers aëz, l’igaulz corages,
Lor grans biautez, lor grans parages,
Les paroles, li ris, li jeu
Et li aaisement del leu
Et li entreveoir souvent
Lor donnerent espirement. }[6]

As a child, Pyramus had equal freedom for the male gaze:

During the day they were preoccupied with gazing at one another,
and they could never have their fill of this.

{ Le jour pensent d’eulz esgarder,
Qu’il ne s’en pueent saoler }

They both poured out monologues expressing their love-sickness for each other. He fainted for love of her, and she fainted for love of him.

Despite this initial representation of gender symmetry, Piramus et Tisbé subsequently heightened gender difference. Thisbe told herself that as a proper young noble woman, she should refuse to speak to Pyramus. She then repented to herself of that aloofness in a gender-distinctive way:

My love,
I never meant what I said.
Now, it seems to me, you can say
that there is no constancy in a woman’s love.
Fair sweet love, duly receive
this pledge:
Have it, my lord, for this outrage —
I grant you hereby my virginity.
I was too proud-hearted just now.
Too proud?
I should bow my head before you.

{ Amis,
Onques a certes ne le dis.
Or poez dire, ce m’est vis,
A droit
Qu’en amours de feme n’a foit.
Biaux douz amis, prenez a droit
Le gage:
Tenez, sire, pour cest outrage
Vous otroi ci mon pucelage.
Trop iere ore de fier corage.
De fier?
Vers vous doi ge bien supploier. }

The oppressive tradition of “courtly love” positioned men as feudal servants to women. In vowing to bow to Pyramus, Thisbe challenged that systemic gender inequality. At the same time, Thisbe figured her virginity as compensation to Pyramus. Yet Pyramus apparently was also a virgin. Thisbe and Pyramus having sex would be as much him giving her his virginity as she giving him her virginity.

Thisbe was the more active of the two lovers. In Piramus et Tisbé, she both found the crack and penetrated it:

The two lovers were the first ones
to notice this hole:
first Thisbe, then Pyramus.
Thisbe discovered the crack.
She took the pendant on her belt
and pushed its metal part through
so that her beloved could see it.

{ Li dui amant premierement
Aperçurent celui pertus:
Primes Tysbé, puis Piramus.
Tysbé trouva la creveüre,
Prist le pendant de sa cainture,
S’en fist outre le fer paroir,
Que ses amis le pot veoir. }

Thisbe also planned the tryst under a mulberry tree outside the city at midnight. She urged Pyramus to follow her plan. She declared that she would be there waiting for him. When Thisbe left the city, the night watchman saw her, but he didn’t stop her because he thought she was a goddess. Pyramus’s departure didn’t merit even a mention. Thisbe acted like a goddess of love in guiding forward the love affair between her and Pyramus.[7]

Piramus et Tisbé bestialized Pyramus’s masculine sexuality. The lai trans-gendered Ovid’s female lion into a male lion. It also changed from cattle to sheep the animals that the lion devoured. A scholar perceptively explained:

Ovid’s lioness ‘dripping with the blood of freshly-killed cattle’ (vv. 96- 97) becomes a male lion covered with the entrails and wool of a whole flock of sheep. The Biblical connotations of sheep and lambs immediately invite us to see this slaughter in terms of the destruction of innocence, while the associations of the male lion imply that the innocence lost here is sexual. The lion was often used as a symbol of virility, and could represent male sexuality in a negative sense as well: Hildegarde of Bingen, for example, defends her sex against accusations of lechery by accusing men of being the real offenders, whose desire is as fierce as a (male) lion. … Lucken suggests that the lion should be seen as the hero’s double, representing the ardor that he has only been able to express verbally up to this point. Not only does the animal arrive at the meeting-place instead of the hero, it also engages in a symbolic deflowering of Tisbé’s wimple, which functions as a metonym of the heroine’s sexual self. On finding the bloodstained wimple under the mulberry tree, Piramus accuses the lion of being sated with her flesh (vv. 723-24), a phrase which is clearly open to a sexual as well as a carnivorous interpretation.[8]

A lion devouring sheep is a bestializing figure for a virgin man having sex with a virgin woman. Despite Ausonius’s courageous and outrageous intervention, men have endured such figural macro-aggressions for centuries. Insane bestialization of men’s sexuality draws upon the classical love insanity of Gallus. “Love that conquers all {Amours, qui toutes choses vaint}” isn’t truly love.

Thisbe's sexual suicide with Pyramus's sword

At the command of a mythic queen Alceste, Chaucer wrote The Legend of Good Women to serve the interests of the English queen, other women, and Chaucer himself under their rule. Alceste commanded him:

You shall, while you live, year by year,
spend the most part of your time
in making a glorious legend
of good women, maidens, and wives,
that were true in loving all their lives.
And tell of false men that betrayed them,
men that all their lives did nothing but strive
to see how many women they could shame.

{ Thow shalt, while that thou lyvest, yer by yere,
The moste partye of thy tyme spende
In makyng of a glorious legende
Of goode wymmen, maydenes and wyves,
That weren trewe in lovyng al hire lyves;
And telle of false men that hem bytraien,
That al hir lyf ne don nat but assayen
How many women they may doon a shame }[9]

With similar anti-meninism, Chaucer mid-story implied that Pyramus betrayed and shamed Thisbe as men allegedly do generally:

This Thisbe had so great affection
and so great desire to see Pyramus
that when she saw her time might be,
at night she stole away fully secretly,
with her face covered with wimple wisely.
All her friends — for to keep her pledge —
she had forsaken. Alas! And it is pitiful
that a woman should ever be so faithful
to trust a man, unless she knew him better.

{ This Tisbe hath so greet affeccioun
And so greet lyking Piramus to see,
That, whan she seigh her tyme mighte be,
At night she stal awey ful prively
With her face y-wimpled subtiny;
For alle her frendes — for to save her trouthe —
She hath for-sake; allas! and that is routhe
That ever woman wolde be so trewe
To trusten man, but she the bet him knewe! }

Thisbe herself warned women of overconfidence while asserting that women are more true in love than men are:

And may the righteous God grant to every lover
that truly loves more prosperity
than Pyramus and Thisbe ever had!
And let no gentlewoman be so confident
to put herself in such an adventure,
but God forbid that a woman can be only
as true in loving as any man!

{ And rightwis god to every lover sende,
That loveth trewely, more prosperitee
Than ever hadde Piramus and Tisbe!
And lat no gentil woman her assure
To putten her in swiche an aventure.
But god forbede but a woman can
Been as trewe in lovynge as a man! }

In the end, Chaucer extolled Pyramus while disparaging men generally. The last verse in his legend of Thisbe asserts that a woman is as good of a lover as even the best of men:

And thus are Thisbe and Pyramus gone.
Of true men I find but few more
in all my books, other than this Pyramus,
and therefore I have spoken of him thus.
For it is excellent for us men to find
a man that can in love be true and kind.
Here you may see, whatsoever lover he may be,
a woman has daring and knowledge as well as he.

{ And thus ar Tisbe and Piramus ago.
Of trewe men I finde but fewe mo
In alle my bokes, save this Piramus,
And therfor have I spoken of him thus.
For hit is deyntee to us men to finde
A man that can in love be trewe and kinde.
Heer may ye seen, what lover so he be,
A woman dar and can as wel as he. }

True love isn’t interpersonal competition. Women competing to be better than men doesn’t promote love between women and men.[10]

The double suicide of Pyramus and Thisbe represents the ultimate result of anti-meninism. Ovid protested vigorously against disparagement of men’s sexuality. Medieval French literature appreciated men’s hardships. In contrast, the marginal, woman-serving courtier Chaucer celebrated a man receiving an ass-reaming with a hot plow-blade. The deathly legacy of the feminized Chaucer casts a malignant shadow over medieval literary studies, especially in English-speaking countries. If they are to overturn gynocentrism and struggle effectively for social justice, students must be taught much more of medieval literature than just Chaucer.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] On gender symmetry in ancient Greek romances, Konstan (1994). This important classical heritage has regrettably been marginalized. Ovid’s Heriodes includes an exchange of letters between Hero and Leander.

[2] Ovid, Metamorphoses, 4.55-7, Latin text of Magnus (1892) via Perseus, my English translation, benefiting from those of Lombardo (2010), Kline (2000), and Miller (1916). Arsippe was one of the daughters of Minyas. She and her sisters rejected the cult of Bacchus and metamorphosed into bats.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses provides the earliest written tale of Pyramus and Thisbe. This story is set in Babylon, a famous ancient walled city. Ovid’s myth credits Semiramus, the wife of the Assyrian King Ninus, with building Babylon’s walls. Ovid’s myth also indicates that Ninus’s tomb was outside the city walls near where Thisbe and Pyramus met. The Greek historian Ctesias of Cnidus, writing about 400 BGC, attests to Semiramus having built a temple-tomb for Ninus outside Babylon. Before she decided to tell of Pyramus and Thisbe, Arsippe considered several other stories, including one about Decretis of Babylon. Ovid probably found these stories in a collection of stories from the Near East.

Ovid changed the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. A scholar observed:

In all likelihood, however, the form in which the story was told before Ovid was quite different from his version. References to Pyramus and Thisbe in later Greek texts suggest that the deaths of the unhappy lovers were accompanied by an altogether different kind of metamorphosis than that described by Ovid, in which their blood permanently changes the color of the hitherto white berries of the mulberry tree to red. In the Greek east, where the story originated, Pyramus was transformed into the river in Cilicia that bears his name, while Thisbe became a nearby spring.

Knox (2014) p. 38. Five frescoes of Pyramus and Thisbe have survived from first-century Pompeii. Id. pp. 39-40. A second-century GC mosaic from Nea Paphos on Cyrus shows an earlier Greek version of the myth. Id p. 38.

The story of Thisbe and Pyramus was widely disseminated in medieval Europe. It survives in seven Latin versions, the French lai Piramus et Tisbé, and numerous other vernacular versions, including ones in German, Dutch, Italian, and English. In addition to being included in Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women, the story of Thisbe and Pyramus is also included in Boccaccio’s About Famous Women {De mulieribus claris}, chapter 12. On its medieval reception, Pratt (2017), Delany (1994) pp. 124-5, and Glendinning (1986). The story went on to shape Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet.

Other quotes from Ovid’s myth of Pyramus and Thisbe (Metamorphoses 4.55-166) are similarly sourced. Those above are (by verses in Book 4): vv. 62-4 (With equally captivated thoughts…), 108-14 (Two lovers will perish…), 137-41 (But after some delay…), 137-41 (I too have a brave hand…).

[3] Ovid’s myth states that Pyramus “came out late {serius egressus}” (Metamorphoses 4.105). Being late may not have been his fault if some factor outside of his control, e.g. the watchman, had hindered him. Nonetheless, the Old French lai Piramus et Tisbé, discussed subsequently, similarly has Pyramus condemning himself for allegedly killing Thisbe:

Dear sister,
I killed you, by last
coming to the rendez-vous, while you were first.

{ Suer chiere,
Je vous ai morte qui derriere
Ving a mon terme, et vous premiere. }

Piramus et Tisbé, vv. 752-4. Burgess & Brook (2016), p. 189, has “Dear sister, I killed you when I arrived late for my appointed time, and you arrived first.” The translation “late” seems to me an incorrect interpretative coloring of “last {derriere}” in obvious relation to “first {premiere}.” Pyramus’s appointed time was also Thisbe’s appointed time. The probably of both arriving at the rendezvous at exactly the same time was essentially zero. One had to be first, and one had to be last. Piramus et Tisbé, vv. 644-52 indicates that Pyramus was late. But it seems to me inappropriate to project that earlier context into Pyramus’s thought in v. 753. From themselves and others, both women and men deserve generosity in interpreting lateness to meetings.

A small delay in arriving at a meeting is a minor matter. Gender equality in compassion and care is a vitally important matter. The crucial interpretive question: if Pyramus had happened to arrive first and seen the lioness / lion, would he have had hid himself without doing anything to warn and protect Thisbe?

Ignoring this important question of gender equality, Chaucer internalized Pyramus’s erroneous self-blame:

And at last this Pyramus came,
but he had stayed at home too long, alas!

“Alas!” said he, “the day that I was born!
This one night will slay both us lovers!
How could I ask mercy of Thisbe
when I am he that have slain you, alas!
My pleading has slain you, as in this case.
Alas! To plead to a woman to travel by night,
and I so slow! Alas, if only I had been
here in this place two fields-length before you!
Now whatever lion may be in this forest,
may he tear apart my body, or whatever wild beast
there is, may he now gnaw my heart!”

{ And, at the laste, this Piramus is come,
But al to longe, allas! at hoom was he.

“Allas!” quode he, “the day that I was born!
This o night wol us lovers bothe slee!
How sholde I axen mercy of Tisbe
Whan I am he that have yow slain, allas!
My bidding hath yow slain, as in this cas.
Allas! to bidde a woman goon by nighte
In place ther as peril fallen mighte,
And I so slow! allas, I ne hadde be
Here in this place a furlong-wey or ye!
Now what leoun that be in this foreste,
My body mote he renden, or what beste
That wilde is, gnawen mote he now myn herte!” }

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Legend of Good Women, The Legend of Thisbe, vv. 823-44, Middle English text from Skeat (1899) via the Medieval and Classical Literature Library, my English modernization, benefiting from that of eChaucer & Gerard NeCastro.

[4] Ovid represented Pyramus’s death as gruesome. Pyramus’s blood spurted into the air like long jets of water from a leaking, high-pressure water-pipe. In his death-throes, Pyramus’s limbs beat against the earth. These gruesome details apparently had literary justifications. The first concerns word-play across mora {mulberry tree}, amors {love}, and mors {death}. Keith (2001). The latter reflects the heal-beating death-throes topos of the Aeneid. Burns (1997).

[5] E.g. “guiltless arms,” “innocent arms,” “arms,” “innocent arms,” “arms,” and “arms” in respectively Lombardo (2010),  Kline (2000), Melville (1986), current Loeb edition of Miller (1916), More (1922) via Perseus, and Golding (1567) via Perseus.

[6] Pyramus and Thisbe {Piramus et Tisbé}, vv. 1-7, 17-22, Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Eley (2001). Where Burgess & Brook (2016), pp. 180-191, seems to me to offer a significantly better translation, I’ve drawn upon that. In English translation, I’ve used the classical spelling of the names, rather than Piramus and Tisbé.

Piramus et Tisbé probably dates from 1155 to 1170. It’s unknown author was learned in Latin and vernacular poetry. Eley (2001) pp. 11-3. Piramus et Tisbé has survived in twenty-two manuscripts. Eley’s edition takes Rouen, Bibliothèque municipale 1044 (0.4) as its base manuscript, emending only where necessary. That manuscript comes from a fourteenth-century copy of Ovid Moralized {Ovide moralisé}. Id. pp. 7-10. The translation in Burgess & Brook (2016) is based on Eley’s edition.

Other quotes from the Old French lai Piramus et Tisbé are similarly sourced. The quotes above are vv. 55-6 (During the day they were preoccupied with gazing…), 241-52 (My love…), 317-3 (The two lovers were the first ones…), 364 (Love that conquers all). With respect to “Love that conquers all {Amours, qui toutes choses vaint}” Eley observed:

We should note that the phrase is used here in its original sense of ‘love is stronger than anyone or anything’, rather than its more optimistic modern interpretation as ‘love overcomes all obstacles’.

Eley (2001) p. 23, n. 34.

[7] Eley perceptively observed:

the Piramus poet changes the whole dynamics of the story, in order to focus attention on the psychology of love and the figure of the heroine. … Tisbé’s monologue is always the second in each pair, but far from creating an impression of her as someone who is purely reactive, this tends to give her speeches added force, as they come over as ‘the final word’ on each topic. The heroine also has a higher proportion of the lines in the lyric sequences: 54.1% as against 45.9% for Piramus. Under the original conditions of performance, her voice would have been noticeably more insistent than that of the hero. … Overall, the psychology of the heroine is more carefully explored than that of the hero. The contradictions of youth are well represented in the figure of Tisbé, who is depicted as both impulsive and thoughtful, impetuous and slightly afraid of her own daring. … In comparison, Piramus comes across as rather passive, given to lyric outbursts rather than action….

Eley (2001) pp. 15, 20, 23, 24.

[8] Eley (2001) pp. 28-9 (omitted reference citing Lucken (1999) p. 386). Lucken failed to consider this figure gender-critically.

[9] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Legend of Good Women, vv. 481-8 (prologue), Middle English text from Skeat (1899) via the Medieval and Classical Literature Library, my English modernization, benefiting from that of eChaucer & Gerard NeCastro. According to the prologue of The Legend of Good Women, the god of Love charged Chaucer with having written badly about Criseyde in his Troilus and Criseyde.

Chaucer was writing according to dominant gynocentric values. As Pratt aptly observed, “the most popular exemplary figures in medieval culture seem to have been women (Griselda, Dido, Medea, Thisbe, and the Chastelaine de Vergi, to name but a few).” Pratt (2017) p. 258. Delany urged compensatory action in response to “the ambivalence of Chaucer’s attitude toward women.” Delany (1994) p. 240. Nothing but continual, fulsome praise for women is acceptable.

Subsequent quotes above from Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women are similarly sourced. They are vv. 792-801 (This Thisbe had so great affection…), 905-11 (And may the righteous God grant to every lover…), 916-23 (And thus are Thisbe and Pyramus gone …).

[10] Lucken concluded:

The schoolboy always dreams of love. He doesn’t yet know that it’s death that writes.

{ L’écolier rêve toujours à l’amour. Il ne sait pas encore que c’est la mort qui écrit. }

Lucken (1999) p. 395. Men’s educational experience must be better than that. The Old French lai Piramus et Tisbé more appropriately concluded:

Say ‘Amen’ aloud, each of you,
and may God grant them true forgiveness,
and grant us redemption,
and give us his blessing.

{ Dites amen, chascun par non,
Que dieus lor face voir pardon,
Et nos face redemption
Et nos otroit beneïcon. }

Piramus et Tisbé, vv. 909-12. Repenting of gynocentrism and seeking forgiveness from men surely would help in bringing about such a blessing.

In a medieval love song that’s a dialog between Thisbe and an unnamed man, the man summons his courage to the sticking point and thinks, “Fortune always favors the bold {Audaces fortuna iuvat penitus}.” Carmina Burana 70, “Summertime was blooming with flowers {Aestatis florigero tempore},” 3.4. Cf. Turnus rallying his men to war in Aeneid 10.284. The man then declares to Thisbe his burning love for her:

The fire that tortures me,
or rather the fire that I glorify,
is an unseen fire.

If it’s not extinguished
by the one who sparked it,
it cannot be extinguished.

So it’s up to you
whether I live or die.

{ Ignis, quo crucior,
immo quo glorior,
ignis est invisibilis.

Si non extinguitur,
a qua succenditur,
manet inextinguibilis.

Est ergo tuo munere
me mori vel me vivere. }

After some hesitation, Thisbe recognizes the value of the man’s life and the value of the man’s love for her:

Sweetest one,
I give myself wholly to you.

{ Dulcissime,
totam tibi subdo me. }

“Aestatis florigero tempore” 6a-7a, 15 (of 15), with Latin text and English trans. (modified slightly) for this song from Traill (2018).

[images] (1) Mosaic of Thisbe and Pyramus {Θίσβη καὶ Πύραμος} from Nea Paphos on Cyrus. This second-century mosaic shows a Greek version of the myth from before Ovid. Source image thanks to Gérard Janot and Wikimedia Commons. (2) Courtesan Phyllis riding the philosopher Aristotle (leftmost panel) and Ovid’s myth of Pyramus and Thisbe (second and third panels to right). A small box (coffret) with carved, elephant ivory illustrations. Made in Paris, France, c. 1310-30. Preserved as accession # 17.190.173a, b; 1988.16 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, USA). Credit: Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917; The Cloisters Collection, 1988. Source image available under The Met’s generous and public-spirited open-access public domain license. (3) Thisbe committing sexual suicide with Pyramus’s sword. Painted by Pierre Gautherot in 1799. Via Wikimedia Commons. (4) Video of the Beatles performing “Pyramus and Thisbe” in a 1964 television special. Adapted from the performance of the Rude Mechanicals in William’s Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Scene I. Featuring Paul McCartney as Pyramus, John Lennon as Thisbe, George Harrison as Moonshine, and Ringo Starr as Lion, with Trevor Peacock in the role of Quince. Produced by Jack Good for ITV/Rediffusion London and first aired on April 28, 1964. Thanks to GeorgianBeatlesfans and YouTube.


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

Burns, Maggie. 1997. “Classicizing and Medievalizing Chaucer: The Sources for Pyramus’ Death-Throes in the Legend of Good Women.” Neophilologus (Groningen). 81 (4): 637-647.

Delany, Sheila. 1994. The Naked Text: Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.(review by Peter Travis)

Eley, Penny, ed. and trans. 2001. Piramus et Tisbé. Liverpool Online Series, 5. Liverpool: University of Liverpool, Department of Modern Languages and Cultures.

Glendinning, Robert. 1986. “Pyramus and Thisbe in the Medieval Classroom.” Speculum. 61 (1): 51-78.

Keith, A. M. 2001. “Etymological Wordplay in Ovid’s ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ (Met. 4.55-166).” The Classical Quarterly. 51 (1): 309-312.

Kline, A. S., trans. 2000. Ovid. Metamorphoses. Poetry in Translation. Online.

Knox, Peter E. 2014. “Ovidian Myths on Pompeian Walls.” Ch. 3 (pp. 36-54) in Miller, John F., and Carole E. Newlands, eds. A Handbook to the Reception of Ovid. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Konstan, David. 1994. Sexual Symmetry: love in the ancient novel and related genres. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Lombardo, Stanley, trans. 2010. Ovid. Metamorphoses. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub. Co.

Lucken, Christopher. 1999. “Le suicide des amants et l’ensaignement des lettres. Piramus et Tisbé ou les métamorphoses de l’amour.” Romania. 117 (467): 363-395.

Magnus, Hugo. 1892. Die Metamorphosen des P. Ovidius Naso: für den Schulgebrauch erklärt. Gotha: F.A. Perthes.

Melville, A. D., trans. 1986. Ovid. Metamorphoses. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Miller, Frank Justus, revised by G. P. Goold. 1916. Ovid. Metamorphoses. Vol 1: Books 1-8. Loeb Classical Library 42. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pratt, Karen. 2017. “The Dynamics of the European Short Narrative in its Manuscript Context: The Case of Pyramus and Thisbe.” Pp. 257-285 in Pratt, Karen, Bart Besamusca, Matthias Meyer, and Ad Putter, eds. The Dynamics of the Medieval Manuscript: Text Collections from a European Perspective. Göttingen: V&R Unipress.

Skeat, Walter W., ed. 1899. The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. 7 vols. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

sex & gender trouble addressed with medieval creativity and tolerance

Adults now teach children the complexities of properly identifying girls and boys. That’s a crucial life skill, because if you wrongly gender a person today, you could be demonized and ostracized forever. Controversial journals publish casuistic articles such as “Lesbians Aren’t Attracted to a Female ‘Gender Identity.’ We’re Attracted to Women.” Amid intense concern for gender equality, a woman has fought against British Columbia courts requiring persons to state their preferred pronouns. This gender activist supports the moral crusade to “protect against male encroachment on female spaces” such as women-only golf courses and women-only colleges. If it’s discovered that in a best-selling creative book you disparaged persons identified as women, you could be instantly fired. Ordinary life was much less morally perilous in medieval Europe. In that relatively enlightened time, realities of biological sex were openly acknowledged, and gender diversity was humanely, tolerantly, and creatively embraced.

Medieval European poetry frankly expressed the joy of sex. Rather than being understood as problematic, sex between women and men was then thought to be natural. An exquisite thirteenth-century poem associated sex and sleep. It depicted these activities as natural bodily functions:

After pleasurable exchanges of love,
the brain’s substance becomes languid.
Then with a wonderful strangeness the eyes
mist over, floating on the eyelids as a raft.
Ah, how happy is the transition from love to sleep,
but sweeter and more welcome is the return to love.

{ Post blanda Veneris commercia
lassatur cerebri substantia.
Hinc caligant mira novitate
oculi nantes in palpebrarum rate.
Hei, quam felix transitus amoris ad soporem;
sed suavior <et gratior> regressus ad amorem. }[1]

Benefiting from much study, the learned, twelfth-century Parisian master-teacher Alan of Lille understood that young women and men tend to be sexually attracted to each other. Appreciating young’s women’s strong, independent sexuality and figuring it as a raging fire, Alan exhorted young men:

It’s better to come close to a raging fire than to a young woman, when you yourself are a young man.

{ magis approxima igni ardenti quam mulieri iuveni, cum et ipse sis iuvenis. }[2]

Sex has risks. Christian authorities have long taught doctrinally that sex is licit only between heterosexual spouses. In a more pastoral mode, medieval church leaders instructed that if one cannot be chaste, one must be careful.

Medieval thinkers understood that some aspects of sex and gender are complicated and confusing. Building upon Alan of Lille’s twelfth-century writings, in the twilight of medieval Europe Janus Secundus represented revered grammarians resolving gender trouble. In Latin, nouns have grammatical gender. But “cunt {cunnus}” and “cock {mentula}” have surprising grammatical gender:

“Tell us, Grammarians, why is ‘cunt’ a masculine noun,
and why is ‘cock’ considered a feminine noun?”
Thus I asked. Thus a more senior one among that respected clan
responded, raising his bushy eyebrows:
“The cock carries the business of the feminine across the sexes.
Therefore its gender is properly claimed for itself.
Untiringly performing without end the affairs of men,
the cunt is not thoughtlessly considered a feminine noun.”

{ Dicite, Grammatici, cur mascula nomina cunnus,
Et cur femineum mentula nomen habet?
Sic ego: sic aliquis senior de gente verenda
Retulit, attollens longa supercilia:
Mentula feminei gerit usque negotia sexus;
Inde genus merito vindicat illa sibi.
Indefessus agit res qui sine fine virorum,
Mascula non temere nomina cunnus habet. }[3]

Some grammarians themselves had gender trouble. Using today’s popular terms, one grammarian wasn’t cis-gendered, but was gender-fluid.

So a certain poet reported to me
that a grammarian of well-known strictness
was painfully tormented night and day.
He couldn’t call himself a learned masculine grammarian
nor could he call himself a learned feminine grammarian
in the title of his elegant book
since he himself was of neither gender.
My inspired poet, so as to lighten
now the heavy labor of this pitiful old man,
said, “Father, you will enunciate carelessly
if the masculine grammarians,
together with you and the feminine grammarians,
and with those of common gender and with those of neuter gender,
you will call all together the grammarian herd.”

{ Nam quidam mihi retulit poeta,
Notae Grammaticum severitatis
Noctes atque dies dolenter angi.
Quod nee Grammaticum vocare doctum,
Nee se Grammaticam vocare doctam
In libri titulo sui venusti
Possit, cum generis sit ipse neutri:
Cui vates meus, ut gravi labore
Iam tandem miserum senem levaret,
Secure pater, inquit, eloqueris.
Si te Grammaticosque masculinos
Tecum, Grammaticosque femininos,
Communesque simul, simulque neutros,
Omnes, Grammaticum pecus vocabis. }[4]

Inclusion and togetherness thus solved the grammarian’s gender trouble. Inclusion, togetherness, and fearless poetic creativity can also alleviate gender trouble today.

Douglas Galbi against the plague

Asking persons what pronouns they prefer can be a simple courtesy. According to Théodore de Bèze, who followed John Calvin to became the spiritual leader of the Calvinists in sixteenth-century Geneva, a priest conducting a queer marriage asked a similar question:

That little curly-haired guy, whose wavy
hair weighs down upon his shoulders,
who has smooth skin and a small lisping voice,
who has flirty, winking eyes, and a soft walk,
and painted lips like a young woman —
yesterday, Posthumus, he was preparing for marriage,
when the most vile priest of all,
certainly very urbane and witty,
asked, “Among you women, which is going to be the groom?”

{ Cincinnatulus ille, cui undulati
Propexique humeros gravant capilli,
Qui tersa cute, blaesulaque voce,
Qui paetis oculis, graduque molli,
Et pictis simulat labris puellam,
Heri, Posthume, nuptias parabat,
Cum nequissimus omnium sacerdos,
Urbanus tamen et facetus hercle,
Utra sponsus foret rogare coepit. }[5]

Bèze’s disparaging characterization of the priest suggests that the priest knew, or should have known, which of the spouses identified as a man. Authorities today teach that the gender identities of spouses cannot be taken for granted. This early sixteenth-century priest anticipated current normative practice of asking persons for their pronouns. Yet this poem indicates a significant change in moral fervor. Neither Bèze and nor the priest was interested in demon-hunting dissenters from prevailing gender-identity orthodoxy. Such demon-hunting is pervasively practiced today.

Public attention to sex and gender should be directed to the most publicly important issues of gender equality. A fundamental good for human beings is life. A public health priority should be to eliminate men’s life expectancy shortfall relative to women. Another fundamental good is personal freedom. Public policy should reduce the massive gender disparity in men incarcerated relative to women. Public policy should also eliminate forced financial fatherhood and enact legal reproductive choice for men. A third fundamental good is having children. Public policy should ensure gender equality for men in parental knowledge and eliminate acute gender discrimination against men in child custody and child support decisions. Progress on these vitally important gender-equality imperatives doesn’t depend on choices of pronouns, who uses what bathroom, or who has the advantage of participating in “women’s” sports.[6]

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Carmina Burana 62, “When Diana’s crystal lamp {Dum Dianae vitrea},” st. 6, Latin text from Traill (2018) vol. 1, p. 244, English translation (modified slightly) from id. p. 245. Here’s an online Latin text of “Dum Dianae vitrea.” This poem, which has survived only in the Carmina Burana, has a variety of textual difficulties. On these issues, Traill (1988). Traill observed: “This is generally reckoned to be one of the finest poems in the Carmina Burana.” Traill (2018) vol. 1, p. 524.

[2] Alan of Lille {Alanus de Insulis}, The Art of Preaching {Ars praedicandi}, Chapter 5, “Against Dissipation {Contra luxuriam},” Latin text from Patrilogia Latina vol. 210, col. 121D, my English translation, benefiting from that of Evans (1981).

[3] Janus Secundus, Epigrams 1.73, Latin text from Price (1996), p. 86, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. For an earlier Latin text, Burmannus & Bosscha (1821) vol. 1, p. 356. On sexual ambiguity in medieval literature, Murphy (2018). On the significance of grammar and sex in Alan of Lille’s thinking, Ziolkowski (1985). On grammatical gender and sex in ancient Rome, Corbeill (2008) and Corbeill (2015). Corbeill analyzed “the imagined development of sex and gender in ancient Rome.” Id. 19. One might also consider the actual development of sexually reproducing organisms that have inhabited the earth for approximately 1.2 billion years.

In Venice about 1733, Giacomo Casanova reportedly was given a different answer to this query about the genders of cunnus and mentula: “It’s said that a slave always bears the name of his master {Disce quod a domino nomina servus habet}.” Giacomo Casanova, The Story of My Life {Histoire de ma vie}, via Kluth (2008). That answer apparently drew upon marginalized analysis of gynocentrism going back to classical Greece and Rome.

[4] Janus Secundus, Epigrams 1.18.32-45, Latin text from Price (1996), p. 85, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. For an earlier Latin text of the full epigram, Burmannus & Bosscha (1821) vol. 1, pp. 303-6.

An earlier epigram expressed concern about the effect of castration on grammatical gender:

His genitals removed, the boy’s sex shifted from settled to unsettled —
he whom the hand grasping for profit cut.
Since the eunuch moves with a feminine sway,
you would doubt what it is, man or more of a woman.
The castrator has removed the entire art of grammar,
he who has taught that “human” has a neuter gender.

{ Incertum ex certo sexum fert pube recisa,
quem tenerum secuit mercis avara manus.
Namque ita femineo eunuchus clune movetur,
ut dubites quid sit, vir <magis> an mulier.
Omnem grammaticam castrator sustulit artem,
qui docuit neutri esse hominem generis. }

Anthologia Latina 97 (108R), Latin text from Kay (2006) p. 43, my English translation, benefiting from those of id. p. 43 and Corbeill (2015) p. 152. In effects on human welfare, castration culture is surely much more significant than problems of grammatical gender.

[5] Théodore de Bèze, Iuvenilia (first edition, 1548), Epigrams 96, “To Posthumus about a certain man {in quendam, ad Posthumum},” Latin text from Summers (2001) p. 312, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. p. 313. For a freely available Latin text, Machard (1879).

A more feminine appearance probably makes men more appealing to woman tending toward self-absorption. In one of Lucian’s Dialogues of the Gods, Zeus complains that he has to make major transformational efforts to have women fall in love with him. Eros in response counsels Zeus:

If you want women to fall in love with you, you shouldn’t go shaking that shield of yours or carrying your thunderbolt around with you. Instead, make yourself as attractive as you can and tender to behold. Let your hair grow long in curls and do your hair up with a ribbon like Bacchus. Wear a purple robe and golden slippers, and come in dancing to the music of pipes and timbrels. Then you’ll find you have more women running after you than all of Apollo’s Bacchantes put together.

{ εἰ δ᾿ ἐθέλεις ἐπέραστος εἶναι, μὴ ἐπίσειε τὴν αἰγίδα μηδὲ τὸν κεραυνὸν φέρε, ἀλλ᾿ ὡς ἥδιστον ποίει σεαυτὸν, ἁπαλὸν ὀφθῆναι, καθειμένος βοστρύχους, τῇ μίτρᾳ τούτους ἀνειλημμένος, πορφυρίδα ἔχε, ὑποδέου χρυσίδας, ὑπ᾿ αὐλῷ καὶ τυμπάνοις εὔρυθμα βαῖνε, καὶ ὄψει ὅτι πλείους ἀκολουθήσουσί σοι τῶν Διονύσου Μαινάδων. }

Lucian, Dialogues of the Gods 6(2), “Eros and Zeus {Ερωτοσ και Διοσ},” ancient Greek text and English translation (modified slightly) from MacLeod (1961).

[6] Corbeill ominously observed:

Grammatical gender may have originated as an innocent accident of morphology. In practice, however, its system provided Latin speakers a means of organizing, categorizing, delineating — and in many cases marginalizing — features of the world around them.

Corbeill (2015) p. 19. The grotesque marginalization of injustices against men doesn’t seem to be an effect of grammatical gender. The marginalization of acute injustices against men seems to be related to real social and biological processes.

[image] Selfie by Douglas Galbi, May 21, 2021.


Burmannus, Petrus, and Petrus Bosscha, eds. 1821. Ioannis Nicolaii Secundi Hagani Opera omnia. Vol. 1. Vol. 2. Lugduni Batavorum: Apud S. et J. Luchtmans.

Corbeill, Anthony. 2008. “Genus quid est?: Roman Scholars on Grammatical Gender and Biological Sex.” Transactions of the American Philological Association. 138 (1): 75-105.

Corbeill, Anthony. 2015. Sexing the World: Grammatical Gender and Biological Sex in Ancient Rome. Princeton University Press.(review by Matthew P. Loar, by Sarah Rey)

Evans, Gillian R., trans. 1981. Alan of Lille. The Art of Preaching. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications.

Kay, N. M. 2006. Epigrams from the Anthologia Latina: text, translation and commentary. London: Duckworth.

Kluth, Andreas. 2008. “Casanova, aged 11, discovers wit.” Hannibal and Me: life lessons from history. Online.

MacLeod, M. D., ed. and trans. 1961. Lucian. Dialogues of the Dead. Dialogues of the Sea-Gods. Dialogues of the Gods. Dialogues of the Courtesans. Loeb Classical Library 431. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Machard, Alexandre. 1879. Les Juvenilia de Théodore de Bèze. Paris: I. Liseux.

Murphy, Kevin M. 2018. Vile Affections: Medieval Literature in Reprobum Sensus Traditus. Ph.D. Thesis. University of Chicago.

Price, David. 1996. Janus Secundus. Tempe, Arizona: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies.

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

Traill, David A. 1988. “Notes on ‘Dum Diane vitrea’ (CB 62) and ‘A globo veteri’ (CB 67).” Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch 23: 143-151.

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

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1985. Alan of Lille’s Grammar of Sex: the meaning of grammar to a twelfth-century intellectual. Cambridge, Mass: Medieval Academy of America.

Narcissus & Lai de l’Ombre: putting men into their gynocentric place

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the prophet Tiresias declares that the infant Narcissus would live to an old age “if he would not know himself {si se non noverit}.” That prophecy contradicts famous ancient Greek wisdom of the Delphic Oracle: “know yourself {γνῶθι σεαυτόν}.” To the ancient Greeks, γνῶθι σεαυτόν meant know your place with respect to your familial and civic status and dominant ethics.[1] As a double transsexual, Tiresias knew that women get more pleasure from sex than men do. Moreover, men are expected to give up their lives for women, accept being criminalized in relation to women, endure risks of being cuckolded, and tolerate being forced into financial fatherhood. Anti-men gender injustices can motivate men to structure their relationships with women so as to protect themselves. But the anonymous twelfth-century lai Narcissus and Danae {Narcisus et Dané} and Jean Renart’s early thirteenth-century Lai of the Reflection {Lai de l’Ombre} show naturalized gods of gynocentrism putting men into their gynocentric place of self-abasing love for women.

know yourself; be mindful of death

Unlike Ovid’s subtle linguistic play and irony, the twelfth-century lai Narcisus et Dané explicitly declares its didactic intent. Men bear a vastly gender-disproportionate burden of soliciting amorous relationships and enduring love rejections. Not challenging that gynocentric construct, Narcisus et Dané instead teaches that men must not reject women’s love solicitations:

And if it happens that a woman begs a man for his love,
if he rejects her, whoever he may be,
I insist and maintain without contradiction
that he should be burned or hanged.

{ Et s’il avient que femme prit,
Qui que il soit qui l’escondit,
Je voel et di sans entreprendre
Que on le doit ardoir u pendre. }[2]

Narcisus et Dané thus works to deprive men of choice in love, just as men are deprived of reproductive choice.

In Narcisus et Dané , Narcissus is a beautiful, fifteen-year-old. Like the much-honored virgin goddess Artemis, Narcissus enjoyed hunting wild animals rather than pursuing love relationships with humans:

He has no interest in love and knows nothing about it.
He dislikes ladies in their chambers and keeps away from them.

{ D’amer n’a soing ne rien n’en set,
Dames en canbres fuit et het. }

While most men intensely love women, men should have the freedom to choose to live apart from women. That’s what Narcissus sought to do.

Unfortunately, the king’s daughter Danae became madly in love with Narcissus. Not privileged enough to receive a golden shower from Jupiter as the classical Danae did, this medieval Danae resolved to accost Narcissus early in the morning:

The maiden came straight to him.
He looked at her and saw how beautiful she was.
Because she is up and about at that time of day,
he believes that she is a goddess or a fairy.
He dismounts and bows to her.
The young girl draws close to him,
and before she says a word to him,
she kisses his eyes and embraces him.

{ Tot droit a lui vint la pucele;
Cil l’esgarda, si la vit bele:
Por ce qu’a tele eure est levee
Cuide que ce soit diuesse u fee.
Del ceval descent, si l’encline.
Pres de lui se trait la mescine;
Eins que li die autre parole,
Les eus li baise, si l’acole. }

Under today’s sex regulations, Danae sexually assaulted Narcissus. But women even raping men is scarcely taken seriously. Narcissus asked the self-absorbed Danae to identify herself. She then performed what modern seduction authorities call the “apocalypse opener”:

Fair lord, I will tell you this clearly:
I desire you more than anything.
My heart is completely distraught because of you.
From now on it’s only right
that you should have mercy on me.
I’m not sending you word of this, but telling you in person,
and I’m begging on my own account, not for anyone else.
Look at me, know who I am!
I who am speaking to you like this,
I am the daughter of your lord, the king.
For love of you I’m lost in thought day and night.
Love has given me safe conduct here,
and love is making me bold.
I would not have come here otherwise.
Now let the one who cries for mercy receive mercy,
for my whole life depends on you.
You alone can restore me to health,
and we are free to love one another.
Fair lord, grant me your love,
give me back my health, and take away my pain,
for we are very much alike in age,
and very similar in beauty.

{ Biaus sire, ce te di jou bien:
Je te desir sor tote rien,
Mes cueurs est mout por toi destrois;
Des ore mais est il bien drois
Que tu aies de moi merci.
Nel te mant pas, ains le te di;
Je pri por moi, nient por autrui.
Esgarde, saces qui je sui!
Je qui ensi paroil a toi
Sui fille ton seignor le roi.
Por t’amor pens et jor et nuit;
Amors m’a ça livré conduit,
Amors me done hardement:
N’i venisce pas autrement.
Or ait merci, qui merci crie,
Car en toi pent tote ma vie.
Tu seus me peus santé doner:
Mout nous poons bien entramer
—Biaus sire, otroie moi t’amor,
Rent moi santé, tol moi dolor!—
Car assés somes d’un aé
D’une maniere de biauté. }

In soliciting love from Narcissus, Danae asserted the power differential between them. She was the king’s daughter. He was just a handsome young man. What man would dare say no to the king’s daughter?

Despite the power differential between them, Narcissus decisively rejected Danae’s proposition. He looked at her and said:

By God, maiden, you are very foolish
to have ever broached this subject,
and you have taken upon yourself an unwise course
by getting yourself involved in love already.
You would have done better to stay asleep!

Should a king’s daughter behave like this?
It’s not appropriate for either me or you
to know anything whatsoever about love,
for we are still too young.
You say that Love is ill-treating you.
I cannot put that right for you,
and I know nothing about such suffering.
I shall not be trying it out in the near future,
but if it’s true that love is causing you pain,
I shall avoid it. God forbid
that I should try it out, just to suffer!
I don’t wish to know anything about love,
and I advise you to go home.
You are wasting time with your useless entreaties.

{ Par Diu, pucele, mout es fole
Quant onques en meüs parole,
Et male cose as mout enprise,
Qui ja t’es d’amer entremise:
Encor te venist mius dormir!

Doit ensi aler fille a roi?
N’apartient pas n’a moi n’a toi
K’amer saçons ne tant ne quant,
Car trop somes encor enfant.
Tu dis qu’Amors te fait mal traire:
De ce ne te puis jou droit faire;
Je ne sai rien de tel ahan
Ne ne l’asaierai auan.
Mais se c’est voirs que mal te face,
Garderai m’en: ja Diu ne place
Que je l’assai por mal avoir!
Je ne quier rien d’amer savoir.
Mais je te lo, va t’en ariere;
Tu pers et gastes ta proiiere. }

Danae cried. She was wearing scarcely any clothes, and she had a beautiful body. But unlike so many other men, Narcissus didn’t yield to a woman’s tears, even when she was young, beautiful, and nearly naked. It was an astonishing situation:

There is no nobleman on earth so splendid,
no prince, count or king so lofty,
no emperor or emir,
who could for very long prevent himself
from weeping in sympathy with her.
Narcissus doesn’t care about anything she says to him.

{ Sousiel n’a si rice baron,
Prince, conte ne roi si haut,
Enpereor ne amiraut,
Ki longement se tenist mie
Qu’i ne plorast de conpaignie.
De quanqu’ele li dit n’a cure: }

In response to Narcissus’s rejection of her, Danae cursed him using traditional Greco-Roman religion:

You gods of heaven and earth,
and of the air and of the sea,
all of you who know anything about love
and are in his power,
and you, Venus, who have betrayed me,
together with the god of Love, your son,
rescue me from this peril,
and take vengeance on him
for whom I am dying in despair!
Make him find out what love is
in such a way that nothing can save him!

{ Vous, diu du ciel et de la terre,
Et cil de l’air et de la mer,
Vos tuit qui rien savés d’amer
Et qui estes en sa baillie,
Et tu, Venus, qui m’as traïe
Ensanble au Diu d’Amors, ton fil,
Giete me hors de cest peril
Et de celui prendés vengance
Por cui je muir sans esperance!
Faites qu’il sace qu’est amors,
Si qu’il ne puist avoir secors! }

Danae’s curse is cruel and unjust. Men should be allowed to say no to women.

While hunting a stag like Aeneas’s son Iulus, Narcissus sought a drink in a pool of clear, deep water. In that pool he saw his reflection. But he didn’t know himself. He perceived his reflection to be a beautiful woman. He felt intense love for this reflection of a woman. He grieved that she wouldn’t come out to him. He stayed beside the pool all day and throughout the night, but the woman never came to him or spoke to him. After his tears disturbed the water and the woman vanished, he realized in despair that he loved his own reflection. He declared:

The body, the face that I see there,
I can find all this in myself.
I love myself. This is folly!
Was such madness ever heard of?

{ Le cors, le vis que je la voi,
Ce puis je tot trover en moi.
J’aim moi meïsme, c’est folie!
Fu onques mais tes rage oïe? }

Loving oneself isn’t madness. The Torah commands, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself {וְאָֽהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ}.” Christian scripture repeats that commandment seven times.[3] Loving yourself, in the sense of cherishing the wonderful work that you are, is a prerequisite to loving others. Men must love themselves in their human being, not merely regard themselves as instruments that others value.

Echo and Narcissus painting of John William Waterhouse

Narcissus didn’t understand love. He sought to love Danae as an alternative to loving himself. That led to both of them dying:

The young man dies, his life ebbs away.
The maiden moves closer to him.
She holds him so tightly to her
that she forces the soul out of her body.
This is the work of Love, which had overwhelmed her.
Both of them died in this way.

{ Li vallés muert, la vie s’en vait;
La pucele plus pres se trait,
Vers soi le trait par tel aïr
Du cors se fait l’ame partir.
Ç’a fait Amor, qui l’a souprise:
Andui sont mort en itel guise. }

Men must understand that they bear a seminal blessing.[4] Women must understand that if they treat men as their personal possessions and smother men, they will kill themselves and men.

Jean Renart’s Lai of the Reflection {Lai de l’Ombre} presents a man who had sex with many women, but didn’t love any of them in the sense of being a woman’s feudal servant. Then the god of Love intervened to compel this man to became madly in love with one particular woman.[5] His insane love was associated with his sensual desire:

If only the lady I love had made a noose
around my neck with her two arms!
All night I dream that I embrace her
and that she grasps me tightly and holds me close.
But waking up tears me away from this embrace
before I can achieve the greatest of pleasures.
Then I search my bed and feel for
her lovely body that burns and inflames me.

{ Car m’eüst ceste fet un laz
De ses deus braz entor le col!
Tote nuit songe que l’acol
Et qu’ele m’estraint et embrace.
180 Li esveilliers me desembrace
En ce qu’i plus me delitast;
Lors quier par mon lit et atast
Son biau cors qui m’art et esprant }[6]

The man journeyed to propose his love to this woman. He offered to be her feudal servant and fight battles for her. He proposed:

Retain me as your servant by giving me a jewel,
or a belt or a ring,
or accept one of mine.
Then I assure you that there will be no service
a knight renders a lady
that I would not perform for you,
even if I should lose my soul, God help me.
Your sweet face and soft features
can retain me for very little.
I am completely under your authority
with whatever strength and power I have.

{ [Retenez] moi par un joel,
Ou par çainture ou par anel,
Ou vos [recevez] un des miens;
Et je vos creant qu’il n’iert biens
Que chevalier face por dame—
Se j’en devoie perdre l’ame,
Si m’ait Dex—que je n’en face.
Vo douz vis et vo clere face
Me puent de pou ostagier;
Je sui toz en vostre dangier,
Qanque jë ai force et pooir.’ }

That’s a death-wish like having her make a noose with her arms around his neck. Men have long accepted living in sexual feudalism to women. Men in love with women should instead insist on their equal human dignity with women and seek a conjugal partnership.

This woman, who was married, flirted adroitly with the man. She speculated that he must have many mistresses already. She refused to become his mistress. Then he secretly slipped his ring onto her finger and promptly left. In Ovid’s Amores 2.15, a man gives a ring to a beloved woman with much sexual innuendo. Medieval miracle stories told of men being married to Mary, the mother of Jesus, by placing a ring onto the finger of a statue of her.[7] The woman could have just sent the ring back to the man. Instead, she summoned him back to her.

The woman insisted that the man accept personally her return of the ring to him. He didn’t want to receive it. They argued at length. Ultimately the man reasoned according to the gynocentric ideology of “courtly love“:

He is not a true lover who does not
do his utmost according to his lady’s wishes.
And know this, that a man who neglects to do
a thing of which he’s capable does not love at all.
And so everything I decide to do
must be governed by her command,
since my actions cannot be otherwise
than according to what she desires.

{ N’est pas amis qui jusqu’en son
Ne fet au voloir de s’amie;
Et sachiez que cil n’ainme mie
Qui riens qu’il puisse en lait a fere.
Si doi atorner mon afere
Du tot en son conmandement,
Car il n’en doit estre autrement
S’a la seue volenté non. }

If all of a man’s actions are in accordance with a woman’s desire, his self has been absorbed into her. The man no longer remains for her to love. In fact, the fastest way to lose a woman’s love is to act as her doormat.

After taking back his ring in accordance with the woman’s command, the man enacted a transformed version of the story of Narcissus. He and the woman were sitting at a well:

He leaned over the well,
which was only nine feet
deep, and he did not fail
to recognize in the clear, still water
the reflection of the lady whom
he loved more than anything in the world.

{ Il s’est acoutez seur le puis,
Qui n’estoit que toise et demie
Parfonz, si ne meschoisi mie
De l’eaue, qui ert bele et clere,
L’ombre de la dame qui ere
La riens ou mont que plus amot. }

If the man leaned over the well, he would have seen his reflection, not the reflection of the lady. Given his subservience towards her, he not surprisingly mistook himself for her. While absorbed in her, he nonetheless retained his own vitally important guile:

“Know this now for sure,” he said,
“that I will not take this ring back with me.
Instead, my sweet lover will have it,
the one I love best after you.”

{ ‘Sachiez’, fet il, ‘tot a un mot,
Que je n’en reporterai mie;
Ainz l’avra ja, ma douce amie,
La riens que j’aing miex enprés vos.’ }

These words spurred the women. Women compete intensively with other women for men’s love:

“God!” she said, “It’s only us here!
Where have you found her so quickly?”

{ ‘Diex!’ fet ele, ‘ci n’a que nos!
Ou l’avrez vos si tost trovee?’ }

The man played out his version of the story of Narcissus:

“In God’s name, that noble, worthy lady
will be shown to you immediately.”

“Where is she?”

“By heavens, see her there,
your lovely reflection which is waiting for it!”
He took the ring, and held it out to her.
“Here!” he said, “my sweet lover,
since my lady wants nothing of it,
you will certainly take it without argument.”
The water rippled gently
as the ring fell into it,
and when the reflection broke up,
he said, “Look, my lady, she has now accepted it.
My reputation is greatly enhanced,
since she, who emanates from you, has taken it.
Would that there were a door or gate
down there! Then she could come here,
so that I might thank her
for the honor that she has done to me.”

{ ‘En non Deu, ja vos ert mostree
La preuz, la gentil qui l’avra.’
‘Ou est?’ ‘En non Deu, vez la la,
Vostre bel ombre qui l’atent!’
L’anel a pris, et si l’i tent.
‘Tenez!’ fet il, ‘ma douce amie:
Puis que ma dame n’en velt mie,
Vos le prandrez bien sanz mellee.’
L’eaue s’est un petit troblee
Au chëoir que li aneaus fist;
Et quant li ombres se desfist,
‘Vez, dame!’ fet il, ‘or l’a pris.
Molt en est amendez mes pris,
Quant ce, qui de vos est, l’enporte.
Car n’eüst or ne huis ne porte
La jus! si s’en venroit par ci,
Por dire la seue merci
De l’oneur que fete m’en a.’ }

While the man apparently confused his reflection and the woman’s reflection, he knew that no one could pass through a reflection to the world above. The woman, in contrast, was as deluded as Narcissus:

Never, either before or after,
since Adam bit into the apple,
has a man made such a fine, courtly gesture!
I cannot imagine how he thought of it,
when to my reflection for love
he threw his ring into the well.

{ Onques mes devant në aprés
N’avint, puis que Adanz mort la pome,
Si bele cortoisie a home!
Ne sai conment il l’en membra
Quant por m’amor a mon ombre a
Jeté son anel enz ou puis. }

In Genesis, no man came before the Adam who bit into the fruit in the Garden of Eden. In Jewish and Christian understanding, the man biting into the fruit was a grave wrong against God’s love for humans, humans that God made in God’s own image. However, the woman’s misunderstandings about Genesis are ones that today many persons might make. More significantly, while Jean Renart doesn’t quite say so explicitly, he implies that the woman thought that the man actually loved her reflection.[8] She apparently perceived only the pretext of his action:

Now your heart has joined with mine
by these fine words and pleasing ways,
and by the gift that you have made
to my reflection in my honour.

{ Tot vostre cuer ont el mien mis
Cil doz mot et cil plesant fet,
Et li dons que vos avez fet
A mon ombre, en l’onor de moi. }

The woman loved herself in the sense that she valued highly her own being and regarded her love for another as a precious gift to the other. Yet she loved the man because of what the man did in relation to what he described as her reflection. Like Narcissus, she came to love through her reflection and delusion.[9]

Narcissus at well: early 17th-century painting

Lai de l’Ombre ends with anticipation. The married woman gave one of her rings to the man and took him as a lover. Jean Renart then concluded:

For since their wit and Love
have brought their hearts together,
the game which remains, it seems to me,
they will both manage to enjoy well.
And so, from now on, be fully silent about this.
Here ends the Lay of the Reflection.
Count, you who know of numbers!

{ Que puis que lor sens et Amors
Ont mis andeus lor cuers ensenble,
Du geu qui remaint, ce me senble,
Venront il bien a chief andui;
Et or s’en taise a tant meshui!
Ici fenist li Lais de l’Ombre:
Contez, vos qui savez de nombre! }

The concluding imperative, “Count, you who know of numbers,” evokes the calculating behavior by which the man gained the woman’s love. Others among Jean Renart’s audience probably were able to count similar experiences.[10] The man had pledged to be completely subservient to her. She in turn was as deluded about him as Narcissus was about his own reflection. Listeners with literary sophistication would have heard echoes of falling tears in the ending of the Lai de l’Ombre.

The oppressive, deeply entrenched tradition of putting men into their gynocentric place in relation to women offers neither women nor men a true way to love. Men who allow themselves to be merely reflections of women’s desires bring death to themselves. Women who love images of men imagined to be women are as deluded and ill-destined as Narcissus was.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] For Tiresias’s prophecy to Narcissus, Ovid, Metamorphoses 3.348. According to Pausanius, the Seven Sages of Greece dedicated the maxims “know yourself {γνῶθι σαυτὸν} and “nothing to excess {μηδὲν ἄγαν}” to Apollo at Delphi. Pausanius, Description of Greece {Ἑλλάδος Περιήγησις} 10.24.1. Among other maxims attributed to the Delphic oracle are ones relevant to men living under gynocentrism:  “intend to marry {γαμεῖν μέλλε}” and “control your wife’s spending {γυναικὸς ἄρχε}.” See Joannes Stobaeus, Anthology 3.1.173. The significance of these ancient maxims suggest that in the ancient Mediterranean world men were reluctant to marry and that men who did marry had difficulty controlling their wives’ spending.

[2] Narcissus and Danae {Narcisus et Dané} vv. 29-32, Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Eley (2002). Where Burgess & Brook (2016), pp. 194-207, seems to me to offer a significantly better translation, I’ve drawn upon that.

Narcisus et Dané survives in three manuscripts providing a complete text and one manuscript providing a partial text. Eley (2002) and Burgess & Brook (2016) are based on the C manuscript: Paris, BnF fr. 2168. Narcisus et Dané is thought to have been written c. 1155-1170. Eley (2002) p. 10.

Both Eley (2002) and Burgess & Brook (2016) use the names Narcisus and Dané within their English translations. Critical studies typically use those names as well. I’ve favored the classical spellings Narcissus and Danae to emphasize the relationship to classical myth. On the classical myth of Danae, see, e.g. Hyginus, Fabulae 63. A relevant connection between Danae and Dané is the father constraining his daughter’s opportunities for love.

Subsequent quotes from Narcisus et Dané are similarly sourced. They are vv. 119-20 (He has no interest in love…), 447-54 (The maiden came straight to him…), 461-82 (Fair lord, I will tell you this clearly…), 485-9,493-506 (By God, maiden…), 526-31 (There is no nobleman on earth…), 612-22 (You gods of heaven and earth…), 865-8 (The body, the face…), 999-1004 (The young man dies…).

[3] Leviticus 19:18. Similarly, Matthew 19:19, 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27, Romans 13:9, Galatians 5:14, and James 2:8. Thinking according to preoccupations of gynocentrism, scholars have debated whether Narcissus concerns courtly love. “Narcissus does not in fact support the courtly model.” Seaman (1998) p. 25. More importantly, Narcissus challenges gynocentrism and provokes thought about how men are to love themselves rightly.

[4] In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Narcissus didn’t know what he looked like. He loved his reflection because he was deluded, not because he suffered from excessive self-love. Modern understandings of narcissism differ significantly from the classical story of Narcissus. Stone (2016). A similar difference existed in medieval stories of Narcissus. Seaman (1998). Narcisus et Dané superficially attributes Narcissus’s and Danae’s death to Narcissus refusing Danae’s amorous solicitation.

[5] In Marie de France’s lai Guigemar, the knight Guigemar had similarly pursued a non-gynocentric lifestyle:

There was no lady or young woman under heaven,
no matter how noble or beautiful,
who, if he had asked her for her love,
would not have willingly accepted him.
Many women asked him often,
but he had no desire for that.
No one could perceive
that he wished to have love:
on account of this both strangers and his friends
considered him lost.

{ Suz ciel n’out dame ne pucele
ki tant par fust noble ne bele,
se il de amer la requeïst,
ke volentiers nel retenist.
Plusurs l’en requistrent suvent,
mais il n’aveit de ceo talent.
Nuls ne se pout aparceveir
k’il volsist amur aveir:
pur ceo le tienent a peri
e li estrange e si ami. }

Marie de France, Guigemar, vv. 59-68, Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Waters (2018). While hunting, Guigemar chased a stag (adult male deer) and shot it in the head with an arrow. But the deer was actually a hind (adult female deer). The arrow that Guigemar shot bounced back and wounded him in the “thigh {cuisse}.” The hind then cursed Guigemar to suffer great pain and sorrow in love for a woman. He subsequently did.

Marie de France had loving concern for men. She used this incident of dooming Guigemar’s non-gynocentric lifestyle in an ironic critique of violence against men, castration culture, and gynocentrism.

[6] Jean Renart {Jehan Renart}, Lai of the Reflection {Lai de l’Ombre} vv. 176-83, Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Tudor, Hindley & Levy (2004). Where Burgess & Brook (2016), pp. 229-243, seems to me to offer a significantly better translation, I’ve drawn upon that.

Lai de l’Ombre survives in seven manuscripts. Tudor, Hindley & Levy (2004) and Burgess & Brook (2016) are based on the E / S manuscript: Paris, BnF nouv. acq. fr. 1104. Lai de l’Ombre was written early in the thirteenth century, probably between 1202 and 1204, or between 1217 and 1222. Jean Renart {Jehan Renart} is explicitly named as the author of Lai de l’Ombre within the text. He also wrote Romance of the Rose or of Guillaume de Dole {Roman de la Rose ou de Guillaume de Dole}.

Subsequent quotes from Lai de l’Ombre are similarly sourced. They are vv. 515-25 (Retain me as your servant…), 850-7 (He is not a true lover…), 878-83 (He leaned over the well…), 884-7 (Know this now for sure…), 888-9 (“God!” she said…), 890-907 (In God’s name, that noble, worthy lady…), 918-23 (Never, either before or after…), 932-5 (Now your heart has joined with mine…), 956-62 (For since their wit and Love…).

[7] The story of putting a ring on the finger appears in Gautier de Coincy’s early thirteenth-century compilation, The Miracles of Our Lady {Les Miracles de Nostre-Dame}. For an English translation of the relevant text, Blumenfeld-Kosinski (2001) pp. 636-8. Blumenfeld-Kosinski explained:

The story of the ring on the statue originated in Roman times when the statue was that of the goddess of love, Venus. William of Malmesbury in the twelfth century was the first to substitute the Virgin Mary for Venus.

Id. p. 652, n. 6. This story of putting a ring on the finger occurs as story 8 in John of Garland’s Star of the Sea {Stella Maris}, as well as in many other medieval works. For a review, see Baum (1919) and notes on story 8 in Wilson (1946).

[8] The important vv. 921-3 are:

Ne sai conment il l’en membra
Quant por m’amor a mon ombre a
Jeté son anel enz ou puis.

Tudor, Hindley & Levy (2004) translated those verses as:

I cannot imagine how he thought of it,
when for love of my reflection he threw
his ring into the well.

But as Burgess & Brook (2016), p. 243, indicates, a more accurate translation of “a mon ombre” is “to my reflection.” That leaves narrowly ambiguous the man’s love-object in throwing his ring into the well. Ambiguity is a characteristic of the language of Lai de l’Ombre. Kay (1980), Tudor, Hindley & Levy (2004) pp. 12, 15. In the larger context, the man’s love-object in throwing his ring into the well seems to me clearly the woman, not whatever reflection appears in the well.

[9] The woman subsequently offered the man a ring of her own. Her action underscores her earlier delusion that the man surreptitiously putting a valuable ring on her finger was an act of force. She was free at any time to take his ring off, sell it, throw it away, or send it back to him. Instead, exerting her privilege of gynocentric domination, she summoned her man-servant back to her to receive his ring personally.

With gross anti-meninist animus, literary scholars have asserted that the man surreptitiously placing his valuable ring on her finger and leaving was tantamount to him attempting to rape her. Gier (1998) pp. 454-5, Rouillard (1998) pp. 62-3, Burrell (2004) pp. 79-80. Forcefully putting a ring on a finger more precisely figures a woman raping a man. Willful ignorance and bigotry regarding rape contributes to the acute social injustice of vastly gender disproportionate incarceration of men. On the literary reflectiveness of the Lai de l’Ombre, Cooper (1981).

[10] The concluding verse of Lai de l’Ombre evokes in part Ovid, Amores 1.5.25: “Who wouldn’t know what followed {cetera quis nescit}?” Beston commented:

Literally Renart’s farewell invites the potential poets in his audience to go on and compose their own version of the story from the point where he leaves it, but he may also be making a pun on con [cunt] and nombre [numbers, metre], saying also, “Let your sexual imagination play freely upon their games, you who know all about it from your own ample experience!”

Beston (1998) p. 29.

[images] (1) Mosaic with human lying on earth (representing “be mindful that you are a human being; be mindful of death {hominem te esse memento; memento mori}”), with inscription “ΓΝωΘΙ CΑΥΤΌΝ {know yourself}.” From the first century at San Gregorio, along the Via Appia in Rome, Italy. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) The nymph Echo observing as Narcissus gazes lovingly at his reflection in a pond. Painted by John William Waterhouse in 1903. Preserved as accession # WAG 2967 in the Walker Art Gallery (UK). Via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Narcissus gazing into a well. Painted by Dirck van Baburen early in the seventeenth century. Held in a private collection. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Baum, Paull Franklin. 1919. “The Young Man Betrothed to a Statue.” PMLA. 34 (4): 523-579.

Beston, John. 2011. “Sex and other games in Jean Renart’s Le Lai de l’Ombre.” AUMLA: Journal of the Australasian Universities Modern Language Association. 115: 21-35.

Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Renate. 2001. “Gautier de Coincy: Miracles of the Virgin Mary.” Ch. 28 (pp. 627-653) in Head, Thomas F., ed. Medieval Hagiography: an anthology. New York, NY: Routledge.

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

Burrell, Margaret. 2004. “Reflections on a Foxy Trick.” Florilegium. 21 (1): 74-82.

Cooper, Linda F. 1981. “The Literary Reflectiveness of Jean Renart’s Lai de l’Ombre.” Romance Philology. 35 (1): 250-260.

Eley, Penny, ed. and trans. 2002. Narcisus et Dané. Liverpool Online Series, 6. Liverpool: University of Liverpool, Department of Modern Languages and Cultures.

Gier, Albert. 1998. “L’anneau et le miroir: Le Lai de l’ombre à la lumière de Narcisse.” Romanische Forschungen. 110 (4): 445-455.

Kay, Sarah. 1980. “Two Readings of the Lai de l’Ombre.” The Modern Language Review. 75 (3): 515-527.

Rouillard, Linda Marie. 1998. “You can lead a Lady to water, but can you make her drink? Rings of Rhetoric in Jean Renart’s Le Lai de l’Ombre.” Chimères. 25 (1): 59-70.

Seaman, Gerald. 1998. “The French Myth of Narcissus: Some Medieval Refashionings.” Disputatio. 3: 19-33. Disputatio, vol. 3, is Poster, Carol, and Richard J. Utz, eds. Translation, Transformation and Transubstantiation in the Late Middle Ages. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press.

Stone, Greg. 2016. “The Myth of Narcissus as a Surreptitious Allegory about Creativity.” Philosophy and Literature. 40 (1): 273-284.

Tudor, Adrian, trans. and Alan Hindley and Brian J. Levy, eds. 2004. Jean Renart. Le Lai de l’Ombre. Liverpool Online Series, 8. Liverpool: University of Liverpool, Department of Modern Languages and Cultures.

Waters, Claire M. 2018. The Lais of Marie de France: Text and Translation. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.

Wilson, Evelyn Faye. 1946. The Stella Maris of John of Garland, edited, together with a study of certain collections of Mary legends made in northern France in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Cambridge, Mass: Published jointly with Wellesley College by the Mediaeval Academy of America.

Helen, Laodamia, Lesbia: dispelling men’s myths about women

What man today would wish to be married to Helen of Troy? According to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, millennia ago King Menelaus of Sparta was married to Helen. They had serious difficulties in their marriage. In brief, after marrying Menelaus, Helen eloped with the handsome Trojan prince Paris. That adultery prompted the Trojan War and its massive slaughter of men. Helen called herself a shameless whore. Nonetheless, Menelaus welcomed her back as his wife.

Menelaus’s servant-man Eteoneus seemed to appreciate the risk of Helen committing adultery again. When two king’s sons, Telemachus and Pisistratus, arrived in regal style at Menelaus’s palace, Eteoneus asked if he should send them away. Not offering hospitality to these young men would be a serious violation of ancient Greek ethics. However, given Helen’s past behavior and the terrible Trojan War, sending the young men away might be a prudent choice.

Menelaus called Eteoneus a fool for thinking of sending the young men away. Menelaus, who favored forgetfulness with respect to Helen, instead welcomed them to his table. When Helen arrived and saw these regal, handsome young men, she was amazed:

Do we know, Menelaus, favored by Zeus, who these
men declare themselves to be who have come to our house?
Shall I lie or speak the truth? My heart bids me speak.
For never yet, I declare, have I seen one so like another,
whether man or woman — amazement holds me, as I look —

{ ἴδμεν δή, Μενέλαε διοτρεφές, οἵ τινες οἵδε
ἀνδρῶν εὐχετόωνται ἱκανέμεν ἡμέτερον δῶ;
ψεύσομαι ἦ ἔτυμον ἐρέω; κέλεται δέ με θυμός.
οὐ γάρ πώ τινά φημι ἐοικότα ὧδε ἰδέσθαι
οὔτ᾽ ἄνδρ᾽ οὔτε γυναῖκα, σέβας μ᾽ ἔχει εἰσορόωσαν }[1]

As an astute scholar has pointed out, Helen might be thought to be re-imagining Paris coming to meet her. But recognizing a different handsome young man, she continued:

as this man resembles the greathearted Odysseus’s son,
Telemachus, whom that warrior left in his home
a newborn child when for me, a shameless whore, you Achaeans
came to the walls of Troy, pondering in your hearts fierce war.

{ ὡς ὅδ᾽ Ὀδυσσῆος μεγαλήτορος υἷι ἔοικε,
Τηλεμάχῳ, τὸν ἔλειπε νέον γεγαῶτ᾽ ἐνὶ οἴκῳ
κεῖνος ἀνήρ, ὅτ᾽ ἐμεῖο κυνώπιδος εἵνεκ᾽ Ἀχαιοὶ
ἤλθεθ᾽ ὑπὸ Τροίην πόλεμον θρασὺν ὁρμαίνοντες. }

Helen acted like a shameless whore in committing adultery with Prince Paris of Troy. Moreover, Helen’s epithet for Menelaus, “favored by Zeus,” recalls that Helen’s father was Zeus. Having taken the form of a swan, Zeus cuckolded King Tyndareus of Sparta to engender Helen with Tyndareus’s wife Leda. Menelaus was thus in a royal line of cuckolds. He knew that Helen was not truly a goddess, nor even a faithfully loving, flesh-and-blood woman. Yet he remained married to her.

Before modern technologies of repression and censorship, men freely discussed the dangers of marriage. Late in sixteenth-century Europe, Ponticus questioned Cornelius’s interest in marrying:

Since, Cornelius, you wish to have a wife, I seek to know:
by what motive does marriage attract you?
You assume that you would live thereafter more happily. While
I may be wrong, you will not thus choose to be blessed.
Either your wife will be ugly (no lying, I implore:
if you’re joined to such a spouse, will you be blessed?),
or she’ll be average-looking. This moderate beauty, I admit,
is best, but this moderate beauty fades quickly.
If beautiful, she’ll have a thousand adulterous men,
and you could never say, “She’s wholly mine.”
Even if she’s faithful to you (if no other happens to ask),
she’ll bear a thousand births, and bear a thousand griefs.
If sterile, with you alone she’ll thus slowly spend years.
Out of many days, none would be without strife.
You may add she’ll be stubborn-headed, clinging to her opinion,
and other traits that you can learn from many husbands.
So cease to hope then for a blessed life;
rather, let your bed be celibate and without strife.
If the narrow path of happiness actually exists,
it isn’t hidden between a woman’s buttocks.

{ Cum velis uxorem, Corneli, ducere: quaero
Coniugium placeat qua ratione tibi?
Scilicet ut deinceps vivas foelicior: atqui
Fallor ego, aut non hac lege beatus eris.
Uxor enim aut deformis erit, (tune, obsecro, talis
Si tibi sit coniunx iuncta, beatus eris?)
Aut forma mediocris erit: modus iste, fatemur,
Optimus; at subito deperit iste modus.
Aut formosa, ideoque viris obnoxia mille,
Et de qua nequeas dicere, tota mea est.
Ut sit casta tamen, (nemo si forte rogarit),
Mille feret natos, taedia mille feret.
Aut sterilis tecum tardos sic exiget annos,
Nullus ut e multis sit sine lite dies.
His addas caput indomitum, mentemque tenacem,
Caeteraque a multis quae didicisse potes.
Desine sic igitur vitam sperare beatam,
Sic potius celebs et sine lite torus
Hic etenim si qua est felicis semita vitae,
Femineas iuxta non latet illa nates. }[2]

If Thersites had convinced all the Greek men not to marry, the Trojan War and its massive slaughter of men wouldn’t have happened. Juvenal attempted to warn his friend Postumus against marriage. Valerius sought to dissuade his friend Rufinus from marrying. None succeeded.

Neoptolemus killing King Priam of Troy

In most men’s minds, all women are like Laodamia of Phylace. Unlike the Spartan mothers instructing their sons to achieve victory or death, Laodamia urged her husband Protesilaus to enjoy her love. Nonetheless, Protesilaus joined all the other Greek men leaving home to besiege Troy. Laodamia urged him to guard his life in that horrific Trojan War:

Against Hector, whoever he is, if you have care for me, be on guard.
Have this name inscribed in your mindful heart!
When you have avoided him, remember to avoid others,
and think that there are many Hectors there.
And make sure that you say, as often as you prepare to fight:
“Laodamia herself commanded me to hold back.”
If it’s fated that Troy should fall to the Greek army,
it will fall without you receiving any wound.
Let Menelaus fight and strive against the enemy.
Let the husband seek his wife among enemies.
Your case is different. You fight only to live,
and to be able to return to your lady’s loyal breasts.

{ Hectora, quisquis is est, si sum tibi cura, caveto;
Signatum memori pectore nomen habe!
Hunc ubi vitaris, alios vitare memento
Et multos illic Hectoras esse puta;
Et facito dicas, quotiens pugnare parabis:
‘Parcere me iussit Laodamia sibi.’
Si cadere Argolico fas est sub milite Troiam,
Te quoque non ullum vulnus habente cadet.
Pugnet et adversos tendat Menelaus in hostis;
Hostibus e mediis nupta petenda viro est.
Causa tua est dispar; tu tantum vivere pugna,
Inque pios dominae posse redire sinus. }[3]

Laodamia truly cared about gender equality. She resisted the institutional sexism and deeply entrenched gender biases of war:

Mothers of Phylace gather and cry out to me:
“Put on your royal garments, Laodamia!”
No doubt I should wear cloth soaked in purple dye
while he wages war beneath the walls of Troy?
Should I comb my hair, while his head is pressed by a helmet?
Should I wear new clothes, while my husband bears harsh arms?
As I can, I imitate your labors in my rough attire,
so they say, and I go through these times of war in sadness.

{ Conveniunt matres Phylaceides et mihi clamant:
“Indue regales, Laudamia, sinus!”
Scilicet ipsa geram saturatas murice lanas,
Bella sub Iliacis moenibus ille geret?
Ipsa comas pectar, galea caput ille premetur?
Ipsa novas vestes, dura vir arma feret?
Qua possum, squalore tuos imitata labores
Dicar, et haec belli tempora tristis agam. }

Some women are combative, savage, and eager to fight men. Some men aren’t. Associating men as a gender with war is wrong. Laodamia appreciated her husband Protesilaus as a lover:

He is not suited to engage with naked steel
and bear a savage breast against opposing men.
He is able with far greater strength to love than to fight.
Let others wage war; let Protesilaus love!

{ Non est quem deceat nudo concurrere ferro,
Saevaque in oppositos pectora ferre viros;
Fortius ille potest multo, quam pugnat, amare.
Bella gerant alii; Protesilaus amet! }

Great men like Roland’s peer Oliver have distinguished themselves in love. Many other men could be love-heroes, but lamentably they live by misleading myths.

The depth and passion of men’s love for women can hardly be understood. Probably sensing his love for her, Laodamia of Phylace ardently loved her husband:

No snow-white dove ever so rejoiced in her
partner, though it’s much said that she shamelessly,
always nipping with her beak, gathers kisses,
more so than a much-willing woman sex-worker.
But you alone overcame the great madness of these doves
as soon as you were first matched with your golden-haired man.

{ nec tantum niveo gavisa est ulla columbo
compar, quae multo dicitur improbius
oscula mordenti semper decerpere rostro
quam quae praecipue multivola est mulier:
sed tu horum magnos vicisti sola furores,
ut semel es flavo conciliata viro. }[4]

Laodomia’s golden-haired husband Protesilaus didn’t go to Troy because he wanted Helen or was lacking a woman’s love at home. He suffered from a mythic understanding of what it means to be a hero:

His wife, her cheeks torn in wailing, was left in Phylace
and his house was but half completed when a Trojan warrior killed him
as he leapt from his ship, by far the first of the Achaeans to Trojan land.

{ τοῦ δὲ καὶ ἀμφιδρυφὴς ἄλοχος Φυλάκῃ ἐλέλειπτο
καὶ δόμος ἡμιτελής· τὸν δ᾿ ἔκτανε Δάρδανος ἀνὴρ
νηὸς ἀποθρῴσκοντα πολὺ πρώτιστον Ἀχαιῶν. }[5]

Protesilaus was thus killed in violence against men at Troy, “hateful Troy, unhappy Troy {Troia obscena, Troia infelice}”:

Troy, the evil, a communal grave for Asia and Europe,
Troy the bitter ashes of men and all manliness,
have you not even brought pitiful death to our brother?
Oh, brother in misery taken from me,
you a delightful light taken from your miserable brother.

{ Troia (nefas) commune sepulcrum Asiae Europaeque,
Troia virum et virtutum omnium acerba cinis:
quaene etiam nostro letum miserabile fratri
attulit. Hei misero frater adempte mihi,
hei misero fratri iucundum lumen ademptum }[6]

Love lost for many of our brothers. Men who are dead cannot entertain women with stories of their daring deeds. Men need not entertain women with stories of their daring deeds. Men’s very selves are more than sufficient for truly loving women.

Catullus's beloved Lesbia with sparrow

Men and women must be realistic. To Catullus, a woman like Lesbia was “a shining-white divine woman {candida diva}.” Although adored with all-too-common gyno-idolatry, that woman like Lesbia didn’t love like Laodamia. Catullus explained:

I will bear the rare infidelities of my modest mistress
so as not to be too annoying in the manner of fools.

Nonetheless, not led to me by her father’s right hand,
she comes into the house smelling of Assyrian perfumes
and gives a stolen, sweet gift in a wonderful night,
taken from the very embrace of her husband himself.
That is enough, if that alone is given to me.

{ quae tamen etsi uno non est contenta Catullo,
rara verecundae furta feremus erae,
ne nimium simus stultorum more molesti:

nec tamen illa mihi dextra deducta paterna
fragrantem Assyrio venit odore domum,
sed furtiva dedit mira munuscula nocte
ipsius ex ipso dempta viri gremio.
quare illud satis est, si nobis is datur unis }

Catullus dearly loved Lesbia, or another woman like Lesbia, even though she wasn’t faithful to him:

And far before all, she who is dearer to me than myself,
my light, who living, makes it sweet for me to live.

{ et longe ante omnes mihi quae me carior ipso est,
lux mea, qua viva vivere dulce mihi est. }[7]

Medieval lyric, which developed across many more centuries than Catullus’s poetry, offered a way that suits many men better:

I say that it’s a great folly
to investigate or test
one’s wife or one’s lover
as long as one wants to love her,
since one should rightly keep
from investigating through jealousy
what one would not like to discover.

{ Je di que c’est granz folie
d’encerchier ne d’esprover
ne sa moullier ne s’amie
tant com l’en la veut amer,
ainz s’en doit on bien garder
d’encerchier par jalousie
ce qu’en n’i voudroit trover. }[8]

Men’s love for women doesn’t actually arise from mythic ideals in men’s minds. It arises from men’s desire to love and be loved in the flesh, with all the weaknesses and conflicts of human desire born within the chain of merely human being.

Many women and men today understand their love to depend on a shared commitment to social justice. Biological parental knowledge has long been a stark gender inequality. Women know for certain who their biological children are. Without modern DNA testing, men don’t. Moreover, modern societies impose crushing financial obligations on men who suffer unplanned parenthood and even on men who are cuckolded. Women and men in love with social justice should join hands and walk side-by-side in the struggles for equal parental knowledge for men and reproductive choice for men.[9]

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Odyssey 4.138-42, archaic Greek text and English translation (modified slightly) from Murray (1919). The subsequent quote is similarly from Odyssey 4.143-6. A. S. Kline’s translation is freely available online.

Konstan (2015), pp. 304-6, identified the subtle wit in this incident. Konstan remarked:

Telemachus is no longer a boy; he is later described as entering upon manhood, and now possessing beauty or κάλλος (18.219), a word associated with sexual attractiveness and applied in the Homeric epics particularly to Paris and Helen, as well as to Odysseus when he is rejuvenated by Athena and meant to look sexy (Nausicaa falls for him).

Id. p. 306.

[2] Théodore de Bèze, Iuvenilia (first edition, 1548), Epigrams 91, “Ponticus to Cornelius, on not getting married {Ponticus Cornelio, de uxore non ducenda},” Latin text from Summers (2001) p. 304, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. p. 305. For a freely available Latin text, Machard (1879).

Like many medieval and early modern scholars, Bèze was well-versed in the classics. His reference to “moderate” beauty as being best alludes to an Aristotelian ethical precept. In v. 11, “if no other happens to ask {nemo si forte rogarit},” Bèze invokes Ovid, Amores 1.8.43, “The only chaste woman is one who hasn’t been propositioned {Casta est quam nemo rogavit}.”

Bèze’s subsequent epigram presents Cornelius’s contrasting evaluation. It concludes:

The path of virtue is tight, so it’s truly said.
That’s what I’m seeking, Ponticus, the road that is tight.

{ Semita virtutis stricta est, si vera loquuntur.
Haec quoque quam quaero, Pontice, stricta via est. }

Epigrams 92, “Cornelius to Ponticus, on getting married {Cornelius Pontico, de uxore ducenda}” vv. 17-8, sourced as previously. Cf. Matthew 7:14. Within this apparent double-entendre is Cornelius’s desire for a virgin’s tight vagina. Summers (2001) p. 432, note to v. 18. The contrast between semita and via similarly plays across chastity and promiscuity in women.

Théodore de Bèze became the Geneva-based spiritual leader of the Calvinists late in the sixteenth century. Today’s hate-guardians scrutinize years of social-media posts to denounce persons who have uttered offensive words. These commissars are far more doctrinaire and intolerant than Bèze and other sixteenth-century Calvinists ever were.

[3] Ovid, Heroines {Heroides}, “Laodamia to Protesilaus {Laodamia Protesilao},” vv. 65-78, Latin text from Ehwald (1907) Teubner edition via Perseus, my English translation, benefiting from those of James M. Hunter (2013), A. S. Kline (2001), and the Showerman (1931) Loeb edition. The subsequent two quotes above are similarly from Heroides, vv. 35-42 (Mothers of Phylace…) and 81-4 (He is not suited to engage…).

Laodamia’s love for Protesilaus is nearly incomprehensible in modern literary criticism. Underscoring the need for meninist literary criticism, Manwell (2007) includes the following section titles: “Studying Masculinity, or Why Should we care about men?” and “Studying Roman Masculinity or Why Should We Care about Dead White Men?”

[4] Catullus, Poems {Carmina} 68.125-9, Latin text of Merrill (1893) via Perseus, my English translation, benefiting from those of A. S. Kline (2001) and Smithers (1894) via Perseus.

Pliny the Elder observed about doves {columbae}:

These possess the greatest modesty, and adultery is unknown to either sex: they do not violate the faith of marriage. They maintain house together. Unless unmated or widowed, a dove doesn’t leave its nest.

{ inest pudicitia illis plurima et neutri nota adulteria: coniugii fidem non violant, communemque servant domum: nisi caelebs aut vidua nidum non relinquit. }

Pliny, Natural History 10.104, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Rackham (1940). Propertius 2.15.27-8 similarly suggests doves’ fidelity.

Laodamia, along with the female dove, are best interpreted as figuring Catullus:

One thing is made clear by the end of the dove simile: that Laodamia has stood for Catullus all the time. He is the extravagant kisser, and he has expressed feelings of almost fatherly love toward Lesbia.

Theodorakopoulos (2007) p. 327. Put less starkly, Laodamia refers to both Lesbia and Catullus, with Catullus more like Laodamia than Lesbia is. de Villiers (2008).

For good scholarly companions to reading Catullus 68, Theodorakopoulous (2007) and Leigh (2015). Some scholars have divided Catullus 68 into two or three poems. Leigh (2015) convincingly argues that it is one poem.

[5] Iliad 2.700-2, archaic Greek text of Allen & Monro (1920) Oxford edition via Perseus, English translation (modified slightly) of Murray (1924) Harvard edition via Perseus. Here’s A. S. Kline’s translation.

[6] Catullus, Carmina 68.89-96, sourced as previously. Troia obscena, Troia infelice is from id. v. 99. The subsequent three quotes are from vv. 70 (shining-white divine woman), 135-7, 143-7 (I will bear the rare infidelities…), and 159-60 (And far before all…). A woman being led by her father’s right hand signifies a marriage ceremony.

Brotherhood among men potentially threatens gynocentrism. Scholars working in support of the dominant ideology strive to make brotherhood among men suspect, e.g. by pitting it against men’s love for women:

But this idea of brotherhood, absorbed from the Catullan corpus, takes its place in a certain emotional geography in which brotherhood has as its concomitant, or even its motivation, a rejection of the woman.

Fitzgerald (1995) p. 213. As Walahfrid Strabo so poignantly illustrated, men are fully capable of loving men and women, both of whom are commonly their neighbors.

Literary studies of Catullus have generally lacked adequate appreciation for men within critical understanding of men’s social position. For example:

In this article, I argue that Catullus, having found the masculine vocabulary of grief inadequate, turns to the more expansive emotions and prolonged focus on the deceased offered by mythological examples of feminine mourning.

Seider (2016) p. 280. The gendered disposal of men in war, with resulting massive slaughter of men represented in epics such as the Iliad, socially constrains possibilities for men’s grief. To be adequately understood, gendered distinctions in mourning must be considered within the context of social devaluation of men’s lives. Similarly, Catullus’s wide-ranging and often outrageous performance of masculinity is best understood with respect to the constraints of dominant gynocentrism. Cf. Wray (2001).

[7] For contrasting views on Lesbia’s relation to Catullus’s beloved woman in Catullus 68, Öhrman (2009) and Rawson (2016).

According to Lowrie, aspects of the third section of Catullus 68 suggest movement to “a verbal artifact that exists outside the realm of physicality,” and it also emphasizes “blessing and life.” Lowrie (2006) pp. 129, 130. That section seems to me to embrace a mundane, embodied appreciation for women and men’s love for each other — love that’s entrenched and rooted in the realm of physicality.

Under regimes of paternity attribution by marriage, a man having sex with a married woman not his wife doesn’t face the risk of forced financial fatherhood. In a twelfth-century pseudo-Ovidian poem, Ovid recognized this advantage of having sex with married women:

If furtive sexual intercourse, as often happens, produces
a birth, her spouse will always raise it for you, because
the wife’s son is always presumed to be the husband’s.

{ … si coitum furtivum ut saepe, sequatur
fetus, semper eum tibi sponsus alet, quia semper
filius uxoris praesumitur esse mariti. }

About the Old Woman {De vetula} 2.397, Latin text from Hexter, Pfuntner & Haynes (2020) pp. 146-8, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. On the other hand, men committing adultery have throughout history been subject to being punished with castration.

[8] Jean Renart, The Romance of the Rose or of Guillaume de Dole {Le roman de la Rose ou de Guillaume de Dole} vv. 3625-31, Old French text from Lecoy (1962), English translation (modified slightly) from Psaki (1995). The French trouvère Gace Brulé composed this lyric that Renart inserted into Le roman de la Rose ou de Guillaume de Dole.

In a thirteenth-century Galician-Portuguese song, the main trobairitz complained that a noble husband ignored being cuckolded:

Never have I seen such wrong
as what this nobleman does to me,
and everybody in these parts
knows exactly what I mean:
the nobleman, whenever he likes,
goes to bed with his lovely wife
and doesn’t pay me the slightest heed!

He doesn’t fear me in the least
but holds me in disdain instead,
for his wife, whom he adores,
will give him sons until she’s dead:
what nerve he has to give his name
to the three children that I made
without giving me a shred of credit!

I feel such pain I’m sure it must
be worse than any other kind:
he takes my lady off to bed,
says she’s his and spends the night
in peace without a second thought,
and when she bears a son or daughter,
he doesn’t recognize it’s mine!

{ Nunca [a]tan gran torto vi
com’ eu prendo dun infançon;
e quantos ena terra son,
todo-lo tẽẽ por assi:
o infançon, cada que quer,
vai-se deitar con sa molher
e nulha ren non dá por mi!

E já me nunca temerá,
ca sempre me tev’en desden;
des i ar quer sa molher ben
e já sempr’ i filhos fará;
si quer três filhos que fiz i,
filha-os todos pera si:
o Demo lev’ o que m’en dá!

En tan gran coita viv’ oj’ eu,
que non poderia maior:
vai-se deitar con mia senhor,
e diz do leito que é seu
e deita-s’ a dormir en paz;
des i, se filh’ ou filha faz,
nono quer outorgar por meu! }

Joam Garcia de Guilhade, song of scorn {cantiga d’escarno}, manscript B 1498, V 1108, Galician-Portuguese text and English translation from Zenith (1995) pp. 70-1. Also freely available online at Cantigas Medievais Galego-Portuguesas.

[9] Men have long struggled to understand themselves, not as instances of “man,” but as distinctively gendered human beings. Consider an academic vignette from the beginning of the twenty-first century:

the implied reader of this monograph has just staggered into my office to turn in his seminar paper after pulling an all-nighter.

He slumps into the nearest chair, then leans forward, frowning and steepling his fingers. “Remember back in the introduction, where you say ‘Catullus, c’est nous’? In reader-response terms, you mean the mental picture you get of the author is an essential part of the reading process. The reader imagines him, in the flesh, speaking to her as she reads, right? OK, according to Iser, she draws on her own knowledge and experience to fill in the gaps and naturally, if she’s a classicist, she’s going to give the author she imagines a background and life story, based on the immediate historical context, any biographical data, and so on. So what do you think happened to your Catullus, the one you imagined when you were reading the poems?”

He looks over at me expectantly. The kid has absorbed all the theory, and he can talk it even when brain-dead. He should go far in this profession.

Skinner (2003) pp. 181-2. This man graduate student in the humanities suffers from learned gender abstraction. In the U.S. today, about twice as many women as men are now earning advanced degrees in literary and humanistic fields. For data, see note [8] in my obituary for Peter Dronke. Even as this man graduate student speaks as a reader of Catullus, he imagines a woman reading Catullus. For men students’ personal well-being and the intellectual development of all students, meninist literary criticism must be welcomed and included in university literary courses.

[images] (1) Neoptolemus killing King Priam of Troy. Painting on an Attic black-figure amphora, made c. 520-510 BGC in Vulci, a Etruscan city on the west coast of central Italy. Preserved as accession # F 222 in the Louvre Museum (Paris, France). Credit: Canino Collection, 1837. Source image thanks to Jastrow / Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Catullus’s beloved Lesbia holding a sparrow. Painting by Edward John Poytner in 1907. Generously made available by flickr user eoskins under CC BY 2.0.


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