Babio, courtly lover to his step-daughter, cuckolded & castrated

In the twelfth-century Latin comedy Babio, Babio is an “old man in love {senex amans}.” That’s an unfair classical figure of ridicule. Old men, just like old women, can love well. But Babio wasn’t in love with his rather difficult wife Petula. He loved his step-daughter Viola, and he loved her with the babbling nonsense of a courtly lover. That’s loving badly. Prone to delusions, Babio lost Viola and was cuckolded and castrated.

At the beginning of the story, the possibility of Viola leaving home to marry the local lord Croceus tormented Babio. He thought to himself:

With what means could I endure being separated from my companion Viola,
in whose mouth you bees make honeyed honeycomb?
Her eyes are stars, her hair is such as you carry forth, Phoebus.
Phyllis exists in her fingers, in her foot is Thais’s foot,
she bears Helen’s face and the slender figure of Corinna.
Noon is equal with her smile, and ivory with her teeth.
When seeing such a one, happy is he who is destined to touch her!
By day she emits incense, by night she has the taste of balsam.
Viola would shine completely, if her heart would shine faithfully,
if she would remain with me, if she would refuse to go far away!

{ Qua ratione queam Viola caruisse sodali?
Cuius in ore favum mellificatis, apes.
Sidera sunt oculi; quales fers, Phoebe, capilli;
Phillis inest digitis; in pede pes Thetidis.
Fert Helene faciem, gracilem praecincta Corinnam;
meridiem risu, dente coaequat ebur.
Talem cum videat, felix cui tangere fas est!
Thura die redolet, balsama nocte sapit.
Tota nitet Viola, niteat si pectore fido,
si mecum maneat, si procul ire neget. }[1]

Learned medieval descriptions of beautiful women proceed from the top of the head downward. Mixing up that form, Babio praised the beautiful woman’s ivory teeth after her praised her feet. Moreover, Phyllis was a shepherdess while Corinna was one of Ovid’s urbane beloveds. Other of the women paragons are inappropriate in context. Thais was a classical Greek sex-worker. Helen was a two-faced women who betrayed her husband and caused the horrific Trojan War.[2]

comic actor in Roman comedy

Babio engaged in gyno-idolatry like a learned cleric betraying his Christian vocation. Babio declaimed to Viola:

Flower of violets Viola, splendor of flowers inviolate,
likeness of spring, beauty of noonday,
gem of your family, happy engendering of your parents,
if the divinities weren’t jealous, you would nearly be a goddess.
Viola is more than a violet, more flowering than a fresh flower,
by your worth more worthy, and by your beauty more beautiful.

{ Flos viole Viola, floris nitor inviolati,
effigies veris, meridiane decor.
Gemma tui generis, felix genitura parentis,
si non invideant numina, paene dea.
Plus viola Viola, plus florens flore recenti,
plus pretio praestans, plusque decore decens. }

Only a creepy courtly lover would speak to his step-daughter like that. Babio begged Viola not to marry Croceus:

Will you stay or will you leave? If you stay, I can live.
If you go, I cannot. You control my fate.
I grant that Croceus is beautiful, and my figure is disfigured,
but he doesn’t surpass Paris, and I don’t follow behind a monster,
and pepper is chosen, and black wool selected,
and white hair, while it would remain, is merely an accustomed nuisance.
Be my lady, and I will be beneath you with my wholesome sex.
Croceus wishes to be your king. Babio will be your slave.

{ Stabis an abscedes? Si stas, ego vivere possum;
Si cedis, nequeo: tu mea fata tenes.
Pulcra licet Croceo, deformis sit mihi forma,
non Paridem superat, non ego monstra sequor.
Et piper eligitur et vellera nigra leguntur,
et nix cum maneat esse molesta solet.
Esto mihi domina, salvo tibi subdar sexu:
vult fore rex Croceus; Babio servus erit. }

Babio was a deformed old man with pungent smell, dark hairy skin, and a head of receding white hair.[3] These weren’t physical characteristics attractive to young women in medieval Europe. More importantly, self-abasement and willingness to be a woman’s slave doesn’t make a man attractive to most women. Viola pretended to want to remain with Babio. She actually despised him and sought to get far away from him as soon as possible.

When Croceus took Viola to be his wife, Babio was distraught. His mind was filled with the usual criminalization of men’s sexuality and a muddle of lurid rustic and scholastic thought:

Now Croceus violates Viola, playing at spreading her legs.
Now he’s handling her hidden parts. Banish, you wicked woman, the wicked deed!
You’ve suffered force, Viola. Now, I expect, the sexual act is a pleasure.
Not far indeed is it that a conjunction will be between them.
What I planted, he carried away. I sowed the field, another has harvested.
I cut down the bushes, another has seized the birds.
I live deprived of my soul. He took it when he took her.
I marvel that I live, a human not ensouled.
Babio is and is not. I’ve already perished. Yet who is speaking?
Babio. I change in a way that I am not what I am.
From nothing I have returned to nothing. I wish I were nothing.
I complain so as to be something, I complain not to be nothing.

{ Jam violat Violam Croceus, ludumique bipertit.
Abdita jam tractat. Pelle, nefanda, nefas.
Vim pateris, Viola; nunc, spero, facta voluptas.
Non procul est etiam quod “que” sit inter eos.
Quod posui tulit hic; sevi sata, messuit alter;
excussi dumos, occupat alter aves.
Vivo carens anima; tulit hanc dum tollitur illa.
Miror quod vivo non animatus homo.
Babio sum, non sum; perii dudum. Loquitur at quis?
Babio. More novo non ego sum quod sum.
In nichil ex nichilo redii. Vellem nichil esse.
Esse queror quicquam, non queror esse nichil. }

Unlike the student-slave Geta in the twelfth-century Latin comedy Geta, Babio didn’t study in Paris. Babio was a rustic living in a small home with cow dung on floor. Yet medieval abstract learning was so culturally influential that even the rustic Babio had acquired it.[4] Today, everyone recognizes that a man needs a woman like a plow needs a field. Men’s lives always matter even if a woman says that men are filled with toxic masculinity. In short, Babio wasn’t nothing even without Viola.

After voicing words of men’s sexed protest in response to what he regarded as Viola’s disloyalty, Babio realized that not all women are like that. He then incoherently re-directed his gyno-idolatry to his wife Petula:

She’s not like Viola. One is faithless, the other faithful;
one night, the other day; one a prickly bush, the other a rose;
one a wolf, the other a sacrificial lamb; one a serpent, the other a dove;
one light, the other weighty; one grief, the other glory.
A wolf amid brambles birthed one, a viper put her forth.
Amid hell an Erinys smelted Viola.
O how dissimilar Viola and Petula are! One young, the other getting old.
She’s well-worn more than fresh, more or less worthy.
The child isn’t such as the mother. Oil thus brings forth foam;
wine, dregs; wool, moths; water, ice.
Petula isn’t another Penelope, but almost herself;
the same modesty, and Petula almost more so.
Petula is not at all petulant, not at all inconstant, not at all flighty,
as if she were a woman with a man thrusting inside of her.
Petula is Penelope in piety, a Sabine in chastity,
a Livia in elegant attire, Marcia in faithful fidelity.
You should cultivate her again, Babio, and fulfill the marital contract’s debt.
Wholly inside of her, you should henceforth to your death entrust yourself to her.

{ Non Violam sequitur. Haec fallax, illa fidelis;
haec nox, illa dies; haec rubes, illa rosa;
haec lupus, illa bidens; haec serpens, illa columba;
haec levis, illa gravis; haec dolor, illa decus.
Sentibus hanc mediis genuit lupus, edidit aspis.
In medio baratri fudit Erinnys eam.
O quam dissimiles! Haec junior, illa senescens,
trita magisque recens, plusque minusque decens.
Non genus ut nutrix, oleum sic promit amurcam,
vina luem, tineam tela, latex glaciem.
Penelope Petula non altera, pene sed ipsa;
Ipsa pudicitia, peneque major ea.
Nil petulans Petula, nil mobile, nil leve sentit,
nec tamen esse potest foemina plena viro.
Penelope Petula pietate, pudore Sabina,
Labia munda situ, Marcida fida fide.
Hanc, Babio, recolas; huic foedera debita solvas;
totus in hanc pauses amodo fisus ei. }[5]

Despite all Babio’s classical references, he didn’t understand a vitally important lesson from the great classical dispeller of delusions Lucretius: gyno-idolatry is always folly. Neither Viola nor Petula was a goddess. Both were fully human, just as men are.[6]

Sophrona and Chremes in Terence's Phormio

Babio soon learned that Petula was having sex with their servant Fodio. From a hidden place, Fodio spoke out in a disguised voice:

Folks are saying, Babio, that Fodio is adding to Petula,
as far as making a new being from their being together on four knees.

{ Plebs, Babio, recitat Petulam Fodio patuisse,
usque genu quarto connumerasse genus. }

Fodio’s name comes from the Latin verb fodere, which means to prick, thrust, or dig. That’s a figure for masculine sexual action. In short, Petula from her position of power and privilege within the household was having sex doggy-style with her servant Fodio. Babio sought to be a love servant to his step-daughter Viola. But he never served her in the way that Fodio was serving Petula.

Babio noticed that Fodio appeared to be receiving additional compensation. The impoverished servant who had a thin face, bare feet, tangled hair, and tattered clothes changed into a servant with full cheeks, well-shod feet, groomed hair, and splendid clothing. Babio realized whose goods Fodio was receiving:

Babio, they are your goods! Petula doesn’t save your goods for you.
While she serves them to Fodio, the servant has the goods.
While he serves them to her, Babio is badly served.
Cursed be such dignity of service!
More depraved than Viola, Fodio accomplishes worse.

{ Haec tua sunt Babio! Tua non tibi Petula servat.
Haec dum servit ei, dona satelles habet.
Haec dum servit ei, male servitur Babioni.
Servitii talis sit maledictus honor.
Prava nimis Viola, Fodius pejora patravit. }

Most men aren’t paid for their sexual work. Petula appreciated Fodio’s additional service. She was paying him additional for it. That meant that Babio was effectively paying for being cuckolded.

When Babio sought to hang Fodio for cuckolding him, Fodio insisted that he receive due process of law. Due process of law is an aspect of humane civilization no longer available to men students charged with sex crimes at many universities today. But due process of law matters. Using classical learning and a sophisticated Latin pun in a false oath of innocence, Fodio with the benefit of due process deceived Babio. More importantly, Petula testified in a support of Fodio with a verbal counter-charge against Babio:

So I seem to you an adulteress? Don’t nourish this gossip!
Perhaps you think all men and women are like you.
I seem to you a sex-worker Thais, but I strive more to be a chaste Sabine.
Because you’re as debauched as Gnatho you think I’m similar to Thais.
Either a frenzy presses upon you, or lethargy drives you away from me,
or you rage, or you’re made senseless by Lethe’s waters.
Your jealous mind doesn’t permit you to be calm.
A suspicious man has neither hope nor rest.

{ Moecha tibi videor: ne das ita pabula fame!
Forsitan hos et eas qualis es esse putas.
Thais ego videor; studui magis esse Sabina;
Me similem similis Thaida Gnato putas.
Aut frenesi premeris, aut te letargus abegit,
Aut furis, aut Lethes infatuaris aquis.
Mens tua zelotipa te non sinit esse quietum;
nec spem nec requiem suspiciosus habet. }

Women accuse men of being suspicious and angry to deflect attention from justified grounds for men’s suspicion and anger. As is commonly the case between women and men, the woman’s counterattack prevailed. Babio relented on hanging Fodio for adultery with Petula.

Babio subsequently sought to catch Petula and Fodio in the act of having sex and then to castrate Fodio. Men historically have been castrated for illicit but consensual sex. The famous medieval scholar Peter Abelard was castrated for his love affair with Heloise. The dwarf Segoncin was castrated for his love affair with Emperor Constance’s wife.[7] Babio similarly planned to castrate Fodio:

I carry my trusty knife.
May God give me daring. May it provide to him a sharp point!
Fodio will be captured; captured, he will not be totally transformed, but
I’ll take away simultaneously his slinging penis and his testicle stones.

{ … Artavum porto fidelem.
Det Deus ausa michi! Praestet acumen ei!
Captus erit Fodius; captus non totus abibit —
mecum devenient funda petraeque simul. }

Drawing upon deeply entrenched brutalization of men’s sexuality, Babio figured Fodio’s genitals as a sling and stones. Fodio was thus using a “weapon” to “attack” a woman. Babio in response planned only violence against the man. Punishment for adultery has long been strongly gender-biased toward punishing men.

Transforming the folktale motif of trickster tricked, the castrator was castrated. When Babio came again at night to catch Petula and Fodio together in bed, Petula mis-identified Babio as a thief. He was after all seeking to take her beloved Fodio from her. Supporting Petula’s strategy of mis-identification, Fodio in turn mis-identified Babio as an adulterer:

You aren’t Babio.
You’re an adulterer, and you’ll give up your dangling genital members to Fodio.

{ … Babio non es.
Moechus es et Fodio pendula membra dabis. }

Babio pleaded for a fair examination of himself in the light. Fodio refused that primitive element of due process:

There is no need to bring light.
I know within my heart that no Babio is here.
Now you’ll no longer be seen. You’ll henceforth not play three parts.
You’ll yield only your testicles, and you’ll suffer no greater harm.

{ Non est opus addere lumen.
Id scio corde tenus, Babio nullus adest.
Nunc eris eclipsis. Non ludes amodo ternis.
Symbola sola dabis, nolo nocere magis. }

Fodio then castrated Babio. A man’s testicles bear his seminal blessing. There can be no greater harm than to cut off a man’s seminal blessing. Babio cried out:

What would hurt more? Is there anything worse to bewail?

{ Ultra quis ledat? Est nimis ista queri? }

There can be nothing worse: castration is war on women. Cuckolded and castrated, Babio departed for the comfort of a monk’s life.

Smart medieval students learned from Babio the folly of imitating models of courtly lovers in medieval romances and troubadour lyrics. They learned of the dangers of gyno-idolatry, whether for a step-daughter or one’s wife. They saw the horror of castration culture in practice.[8] These are lessons that men and women today need to learn.

*  *  *  *  *

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[1] Babio, vv. 33-42, Latin text of Bate (1976), with a few variant readings and generally normalized with classical Latin spellings and distinguishing u/v and i/j; my English translation, benefiting from those of Crawford (1977), Elliott (1984), and Symes (2012). Bate’s Latin text follows closely MS Oxford Digby 53. That manuscript was written in the last quarter of the twelfth century.

The best current critical edition of Babio is Dessì Fulgheri (1980). Unfortunately I haven’t been able to consult that book. Dessì Fulgheri’s Latin text formed the basis for Elliott’s and Symes’s English translations. The quotes from Babio presented here are substantively consistent with those translation and hence Dessì Fulgheri’s Latin text. For freely available Latin texts, Wright (1844), pp. 65-75, and De Douchet (1854).

Babio’s author, who apparently was English, isn’t securely known. Walter Map and Nigel of Canterbury are regarded as posssible authors. Bate (1976) p. 7, Ziolkowski (1993) p. 24. Babio probably was written mid-twelfth century, or between 1150 and 1185. Symnes (2012) p. 1, Bate (1976) p. 7, respectively. Babio has survived in seven manuscripts.

Babio consists almost exclusively of spoken verses (dialogues and monologues). Its plot of violence against men parallels the fabliau The townswoman of Orléans {La borgoise d’Orliens}. Scholars have debated at length the genre of Babio and other medieval Latin comedies and whether they were performed as plays. With respect to Babio, Faral (1924), Faral (1948), Brennan (1968), Axton (1974) pp. 29-30, and Symes (2012). In 2015, a staged reading of Babio in Symes’s translation took place at the Newberry in Chicago. Questions of Babio’s genre and performance seem to me less important than Babio’s presentation of men’s difficulties in their love for women and castration culture.

The name Babio evokes the confused speech associated with the biblical Tower of Babel:

Therefore it is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the earth.

{ et idcirco vocatum est nomen eius Babel quia ibi confusum est labium universae terrae et inde dispersit eos Dominus super faciem cunctarum regionum.

עַל־כֵּ֞ן קָרָ֤א שְׁמָהּ֙ בָּבֶ֔ל כִּי־שָׁ֛ם בָּלַ֥ל יְהוָ֖ה שְׂפַ֣ת כָּל־הָאָ֑רֶץ וּמִשָּׁם֙ הֱפִיצָ֣ם יְהוָ֔ה עַל־פְּנֵ֖י כָּל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ פ }

Genesis 11:9, Hebrew, Latin Vulgate, and English translation. Babel in the Tower of Babel actually refers to Babylon, but the association of Babel with confused speech is easily made. Cf. Pentecost in Acts 2:1-31 and Jesus’s injunction against “babbling” in prayer (Matthew 6:7).

Subsequent quotes from Babio are similarly sourced. The quotes above are (by verse number in Bate’s edition) vv. 47-52 (Flower of violets Viola…), 57-64 (Will you stay…), 179-90 (Now Croceus violates Viola…), 199-216 (She’s not like Viola…), 217-8 (Folks are saying, Babio…), 229-33 (Babio, they are your goods…), 287-94 (So I seem to you an adulteress…), 335-8 (I carry my trusty knife…), 445-6 (You aren’t Babio…), 449-52 (There is no need to bring light…), 458 (What would hurt more…).

[2] Babio comically fails in acting like a noble, generous host to Croceus and his retainers. Babio had the cow dung swept out of his home and a half-chicken prepared as a feast for Croceus. Croceus’s three servants got the usual beans and cabbage. Babio variously mimics the voices of peasants, courtly lovers, and clerics. Wailes (1974).

[3] MS Oxford Digby 53 includes a short prose preface that refers to Babio as a “priest {sacerdos}” five times. The text of Babio doesn’t indicate that he’s a priest, but married priests existed in twelfth-century England. Symes (2012) p. 1. The prose preface includes one obvious mistake. Other manuscripts of Babio don’t refer to him as a priest. Whether Babio was a priest or not, he was a rustic with impressive clerical learning.

[4] Babio conspicuously displayed learning in error-prone, ridiculous ways. He declared:

All the same, I know logic. Having well premeditated, I’ll prove
that Socrates is Socrates and that a human is a human.

{ Nosco tamen logicam: bene praemeditando probabo
Quod Socrates Socrates et quod homo sit homo. }

Babio, vv. 135-6. On this and related humor of logic, Ziolkowski (1993).

[5] This passage is filled with sexual double-entendres. In v. 209, Penelope Petula non altera, pene sed ipsa could also mean “Petula isn’t another Penelope, but she herself has a penis.” Similarly, v. 210. The pun arises from the medieval spelling pene of paene {nearly}, and the ablative form of penis {penis}, which is pene {with penis}.

Earlier Babio exultantly described himself as plus Iove pene potens (v. 76), which could mean “more potent with a penis than Jove.” Later Babio deprecatingly referred to himself as Babio pene senex (v. 174), which could mean “Babio, an old man with a penis.”

[6] Babio is misogynistic because the two women in it, Petula and Viola, are depicted as “carnal schemers, out for their own pleasure and advantage.” Elliott (1984) p. xli, citing Brennan (1968) p. 45. If a literary work doesn’t depict at least one woman as wonderful, modern scholars generally categorize it as misogyny. Ultra-orthodox scholars label any negative depiction of women as misogyny.

[7] According to Béroul, King Mark declared of Tristan:

He will meet a worse fate at my hands
than that inflicted by Constantine
on Segoncin, whom he had castrated
when he found him with his wife.

{ Par moi avra plus dure fin
Que ne fist faire Costentin
A Segoçon, qu’il escolla
Qant o sa feme le trova. }

Béroul, Tristan, vv. 277-80, Old French text and English translation by Lacy (1998). Lacy noted:

Segoncin (or Segestes), a character in a story well known during the Middle Ages, was a dwarf reputed to be the lover of the emperor’s wife.

Id. p. 205, n. 280.

[8] In relatively liberal and tolerant medieval Europe, Babio and other medieval Latin comedies were studied in schools:

Babio, like other comedies, was often used in schools. The chance to read and perform such plays provided an incentive to improve one’s Latin, and comedies were also an amusing way to learn verse forms, new vocabulary, classical syntax, and Greco-Roman mythology. Most importantly, they were funny; and they were often funny at the expense of characters frequently mocked by schoolboys and the young men they grew up to be — educated young men who were increasingly needed to run the burgeoning royal and papal bureaucracies of Europe in the twelfth century.

Symes (2012) p. 1. See also Bate (1979). Babio exemplifies more important life lessons as well. Students today also need such lessons, but aren’t getting them.

[image] (1) Comic actor depicted at the start of Terence’s Andria. Illumination from a ninth-century manuscript compilation of Terence’s plays. Made in France, perhaps at Rheims. From folio 3r in Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Latin 7899, via Gallica. (2) Chremes pulling on Sophrona in Terence’s Phormio. Similarly from folio 167v in Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Latin 7899.


Axton, Richard. 1974. European Drama of the Early Middle Ages. London: Hutchinson University Library.

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.

Bate, Keith. 1979. “Language for School and Court: Comedy in Geta, Alda and Babio.” L’eredità classica nel Medioevo: il linguaggio comico, atti del 3. convegno di studio, Viterbo, 26-27-28 maggio 1978. Viterbo: Agnesotti. 

Brennan, Malcolm M., trans. 1968. Babio. A twelfth century profane comedy. Translated with introduction and notes. Charleston, SC: Military College of South Carolina.

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

De Douchet, Jules. 1854. “Babio.” Columns 1291-1314 in Migne, J.P., ed. Nouvelle Encyclopédie Théologique. vol. 43. Dictionnaire des mystères. Paris: S’imprime et se vend chez J.P. Migne.

Dessì Fulgheri, Andrea. “Babio.” Pp. 242-301 in in Bertini, Ferruccio, ed. Commedie latine del XII e XIII secolo. Vol. 2. Genova: Istituto di filologia classica e medievale.

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

Faral, Edmond. 1924. “Le Fabliau Latin au Moyen Âge.” Romania. 50 (199): 321-385.

Faral, Edmond, ed. and trans. (French). 1948. De Babione: Poème comique du 12. siècle, avec une introduction, des notes et un glossaire. Paris: Champion.

Lacy, Norris J. 1998. “Béroul’s Tristan.” Pp. 3-218 in Lacy, Norris J., ed. Early French Tristan Poems. Vol. 1. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Symes, Carol, trans. 2012. “Babio.” Pp. 10-21 in Christina M. Fitzgerald and John T. Sebastian, eds. The Broadview Anthology of Medieval Drama. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press. (cited by online pages 1-11)

Wailes, Stephen L. 1974. “Role-Playing in Medieval Comediae and Fabliaux.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen. 75 (4): 640-649.

Wright, Thomas, ed. 1844. Early mysteries, and other Latin poems of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. London: Nichols and Sons.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1993. “The Humour of Logic and the Logic of Humour in the Twelfth-Century Renaissance.” The Journal of Medieval Latin. 3: 1-26.

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