Matthew of Vendôme’s Milo: poetic justice for low-status men

According to mythic medievalism, a medieval lord had the right to sleep with any woman in his realm before any other man did. That’s known as the “right of the first night {jus primae noctis},” “right of the lord {droit du seigneur},” or “right of the thigh {droit de cuissage}.” It’s an ideological fabrication like medieval use of chastity belts, medieval belief that the world is flat, and patriarchy and misogyny.[1] In behavioral reality, women generally find high-status men more sexually attractive than low-status men. That makes low-status men vulnerable to an “alpha male” gaining sexual opportunities with the low-status man’s girlfriend or wife. In France about the year 1165, the cleric Matthew of Vendôme in his Latin comedy Milo narrated the low-status man Milo prevailing through poetic justice against the king who was sleeping with his wife.

In composing Milo, Matthew of Vendôme apparently drew upon the ancient Seven Sages corpus. Within that corpus, a story known as Senescalcus tells of an Egyptian king who was extremely fat. He was thought to be a frequent, actively receptive homosexual.[2] His seneschal advised that the labor of having semen-giving sexual intercourse with women would bring him to a healthy weight in six months. With men’s characteristic solicitous towards women, the sexually naive king rejected that health treatment for fear that he would crush a woman. Hence the seneschal put the king on a harsh diet of barley bread and water. He also squeezed the king’s body by wrapping him tightly in a sheet. After some time, these cruel treatments reduced the king’s body to a normal weight.

No longer fearing that he would crush a woman in sexual intercourse, the king now sought to have heterosexual intercourse. He offered the seneschal a large sum of money to procure a well-born woman to have sex with him. Throughout history, even high-status men have felt compelled to pay women for sex. The seneschal financially exploited this gender injustice by having his wife have sex with the king and collect the sex payment. The seneschal assured her that it would be only one day of work outside the home and that he would ensure that she would come and go under the cover of darkness.

However, when the seneschal came to take his wife home after she had sex with the king, she refused to leave. The king similarly refused to let her go. Showing his lack of sexual self-esteem, the king had fallen in love with this otherwise-unknown woman who had sex with him for money. Upon learning that this woman was the seneschal’s wife, pimped to him because of the seneschal’s greed, the king banished the seneschal. The king then married the seneschal’s wife. While the pathetic king deserves the reader’s sympathy, Senescalcus emphasizes that the seneschal’s greed led him to disaster.

Within the Seven Sages corpus, another story known as Leo inverts the status-based sexual drama of Senescalcus. In Leo, the king from a lofty place in his palace saw a beautiful woman below. He asked her to come to him to have sex.[3] She replied that she would not because her husband was at home. The king then sent her husband, a soldier, into the violence against men of war. The king subsequently came to the woman’s home. She then handed him a book on laws and judgments concerning adultery. She told him to read it while she went to beautify herself. Reading the book, the king became ashamed at committing the wrong of adultery. He then hurried away from her home. He accidentally left his sandals behind.

When the husband returned from his brutal war assignment, he noticed in his home the king’s sandals. He surmised that his wife was having sex with the king. Terrified, he didn’t say anything, but stopped having sex with her. In medieval Europe, a husband’s sexual obligation to his wife was regarded as a matter of life-and-death importance. The wife complained to her family that her husband wasn’t having sex with her. Her family confronted him. He explained that he saw the king’s sandals in his home and that he didn’t dare have sex with his wife since she was now the king’s lover. The soldier thus expressed internalized sexual subordination to the king.

With the husband’s cooperation, the wife’s family brought him before the king for justice. They charged the husband with not cultivating a field that they had given to him. The husband responded that he was afraid to cultivate the field because he had seen lion tracks there. The king understood this allegory. He explained that a lion entered the field, but did no harm. The king ordered the man to resume cultivating the field. No merely listening and believing even the king, the husband confirmed with his wife that the king didn’t have sex with her. The husband and wife then resumed their loyal marital relationship.

With keen insight into men’s gender position, Matthew of Vendôme about 1165 adapted Leo of the Seven Sages corpus for his Milo. In Milo, the beautiful young woman Afra is the first character to appear:

Worthy Afra is blessed with beauty. Nature’s skillful hands
are dedicated to adding to her grace.

{ Afram forma decens beat, huic natura decori
Artifices studuit apposuisse manus. }[4]

Matthew described Afra like he described Helen of Troy. Paris’s desire for Helen led to the horrific massacre of men in the Trojan War. Yet Afra’s bodily beauty signaled the possibility of a great blessing for a man:

Yes, the honeycomb is hidden, yet what inclination, what joy, how many
delights — about these her face is able to be a prophet.
Well-knowing is the blessed man who sees the features
of her face and who is permitted to touch what he has seen.
He who will be permitted to caress her, warm her, and have the rest
can number himself with the most fortunate.

{ Quis favor, immo favus lateat, que gaudia, quante
Delicie, vultus esse propheta potest.
Argumentose faciei signa beatus
Qui videt, immo cui tangere visa licet;
Cetera cui tractare, fovere, tenere licebit,
Cum fortunatis se numerare potest. }

Not surprisingly, Afra had many wealthy suitors:

While she hastens down a line of men who one at time speak to her,
each fears that he is chided for his extravagant offer.

{ Dum perpendiculo percurrit singula, dici
Prodiga formidat increpitatque manum. }

Buying women, whether explicitly or implicitly, is always a bad bargain for men. Men who believe that their wealth is the best of what they have to offer women don’t appreciate their own seminal blessing.

Afra and Milo married. He was materially poor, but rich in the character of a manly man:

Milo is given to Afra as a husband. He has little fortune,
but with slim wealth he works as a soldier with abundant loyalties.
His poverty doesn’t break him, and anger at his wintry prosperity
doesn’t suppress the honor of his face.
His poverty is softened in turning to his wife’s dignity and image.
The anxiety of the husband can be seen in his face.
Milo soldiers for a living daily. Displaying his
merchandise, he diligently augments his modest wealth.

{ Afre Milo datur coniunx, cui parva facultas
Sed tenui censu militat ampla fides.
Paupertas non frangit eum, non mergit honorem
Vultus irate prosperitatis hiems;
Ad decus, ad speculum sponse dulcescit egestas,
Anxietas viso coniugis ore sapit.
Militat ad victum Milo mercesque diurnas
Exponens modicas sedulus auget opes. }

Money and social status affect enormously men’s access to women. Most men throughout history have been poor, low-status men like Milo. Yet women have loved poor, low-status men for their intrinsic value as men. With little more than the comforting thought that their wives appreciate their labors, most men have worked hard and fruitfully throughout history.

The king fell in love with Milo’s beautiful wife Afra. Backed by his wealth and power, he begged Afra for sex. She consented. While Milo was working in the field to grow produce, the king was plowing Milo’s wife at home. She enjoyed her affair with the king. Not surprisingly, she grew cold and domineering toward Milo. He wondered why his marital relationship had gone bad. He was filled with sorrow and felt beaten down. But then Milo remembered Afra’s beauty. He could not imagine that a beautiful women could do ugly deeds:

When Milo recalls Afra’s beauty and her keeping of faith,
joys renew his footing, and his sorrow recedes.
For a revered woman, the ray of her beauty argues for her.
It supports Afra’s case, and it acts for the rights of the silent.
If a beautiful woman injures, her beauty speaks for her sinning,
recommends a judgment, and makes her sin pardonable.
The husband’s indignation vanishes when it comes to the wife’s image.
His fear apparently deceives, and his case is abandoned.

{ Dum speciem recolit Afre fideique tenorem
Milo, pedem referunt gaudia, maror abit.
Pro domina radius speciei disputat, Afre
Causam sustentat, iura tacentis agit;
Si formosa nocet, peccanti forma perorat,
Crimen commendat et veniale facit.
Ad sponse speculum perit indignacio sponsi,
Mentiturque metus et sua causa iacet. }

Women’s privileged position explains in part the fifteen-to-one gender protrusion in persons incarcerated under penal punishment. Men find myriad reasons to excuse women’s wrongs, especially if the woman cries.

One day when Milo returned home, Afra and the king were in bed engaging in foreplay. The king fled, not because he feared punishment, but because he was ashamed at what he was doing. Milo stormed in brandishing a sword. He was ready to castrate or kill the man committing adultery with his wife. Milo didn’t find the man. He saw, however, the royal sandals that the king had left behind in his rush to leave. Milo rightly surmised that the king was having sex with his wife. He couldn’t castrate or kill the king. That would be a grave wrong. Moreover, neither of those punishments were applied to wives who committed adultery. Milo instead stopped having sex with Afra. Because medieval society appreciated the joy of sex, Milo’s action was a serious matter: “the husband revoked from his wife her joys {a sponsa revocat sponsus sua gaudia}.”

Afra complained to her brothers that Milo had stopped having sex with her. Her brothers charged him with neglecting his wife. The case was brought before the king. To avoid revealing the king’s adulterous behavior and shaming him, the brothers presented their case allegorically. They argued that this vine-grower was neglecting his vine:

The vine lacks children. Hair and arms that should reach to the sky
instead lie on the earth with impoverished foliage.
She complains to be as motionless as an inactive young widow
and to suffer the sorrowful damages of a sterile life.
She doesn’t birth an heir as fruit, or branches as descendants,
nor a young shoot to redeem the violent death of a mother.

{ Cedit in oppositum spes fructus, vinea languet
Cultorisque sui sentit abesse manus;
Vinea prolis eget crinitaque brachia celo
Debens serpit humi pauperiore coma;
Languida conqueritur viduam torpere iuventam
Et sterilis vite tristia dampna pati:
Non parit heredem fructum ramosve nepotes
Nec matris redimit postuma virga necem; }

The brothers asked the king to order Milo to pay his debt, meaning his marital debt to his wife. Unlike in the modern world, sexless marriage in medieval Europe could not legally occur without the consent of both spouses.

Milo in response spoke allegorically and eloquently about his sexual service to his wife. He was active, attentive, and assiduous in cultivating and caring for the vine. Then he saw lion tracks in his vineyard. He stopped cultivating the vine because he feared for his life. He didn’t want to waste his life foolishly.

The king was impressed with Milo’s eloquence. The king in turn knew his “crime {scelus}.” He recognized that he was the lion in the allegory of the vine. The king ordered Milo to return in peace and cultivate his vine. He assured Milo that he would never again see lion tracks in his vineyard. The king declared:

May the vine sprout forth fruit on its branches, and
may the vineyard pledge to be united to its cultivator.

{ Pullulet in ramos vitis fructumque propinet
Vinea cultori conciliata suo. }

Responding to the allegory of the vine, the king replaced adultery with the unity of husband and wife. That’s poetic justice.

Milo was happy with the king’s decision. Milo forgave his wife, and she once again appreciated him:

Applause returns from exile. The integrity of love
revives — unity of mind, faithful loyalty.
Anger cools, and love expands. Afra, who at first
was pleasing to her husband, after this can be more pleasing.
Thus with their minds united as one, they rejoice
to enjoy in the course of life more prosperity.

{ Plausus ab exilio remeat, respirat amoris
Integritas, mentis unio, fida fides;
Ira tepescit, amor exuberat, Afra marito
Grata prius post hoc gracior esse potest:
Sic dum mentis eos confederat unio, gaudent
Vitae curriculo prosperiore frui. }

In concluding Milo, Matthew of Vendôme insisted, “I do not adorn my speech with falsehoods {non falero falsum}.” That’s true. Respect for men, even for low-status men, promotes happiness and prosperity.

With Milo, Matthew of Vendôme greatly amplified Leo of the Seven Sages corpus. In its story of men’s sexual-status dynamics, Leo created a bland soldier to take the place of the greedy, cruel seneschal in the related Seven Sages’s Senescalcus. Matthew gave the low-status soldier of Leo much more human vibrancy and added greater insight into men’s gender position.

Meninism is the radical notion that men are human beings. While meninism wasn’t a school of critical thought in medieval Europe, Matthew of Vendôme’s Milo can be rightly regarded as a seminal work of proto-meninist literature.[5]

man climbing out of a sewer

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Notes:

[1] On the chastity belts that medieval husbands allegedly used to prevent their being cuckolded, Classen (2007). The myth of the flat earth is more understandable than modern myths about rape. On the former, Russell (1991). On the myth of the “right of the first night {jus primae noctis},” “right of the lord {droit du seigneur},” or “right of the thigh {droit de cuissage},” Boureau (1998). Elites seem to have intentionally created these myths, along with the myth that elite Roman women didn’t find Roman gladiators sexually attractive.

[2] In the eastern part of the Seven Sages corpus, a story called Balneator is an earlier version of Senescalcus. A bathhouse-keeper, a prince, and the bathhouse-keeper’s wife are the principal figures in Balneator. They correspond to the seneschal, the king, and the seneschal’s wife in Senescalcus. The prince in Balneator isn’t characterized as homosexual, but he’s so fat that he can’t see his penis. Moreover, the bathhouse-keeper describes the prince as being sexually impotent. The prince pays the bathhouse-keeper to bring him a beautiful woman. The bathhouse keeper brings his own wife in the expectation that the prince wouldn’t be able to have sex with her. But the prince and the wife have enjoyable sex. The bathhouse-keeper, seeing his wife having sex with the prince, orders her to go home. She, however, insists on staying for the night, as they originally agreed. The bathhouse-keeper then hanged himself. The suicide rate for men is about four times that for women.

For Balneator in the eastern Seven Sages corpus, Hilka (1912) v. 1, pp. xxiv-v (table of manuscripts), pp. 20-1 (Latin text). For an English translation of Balneator from The Book of the Wiles and Fabrications of Women {El Libro de los Engaños e los Asayamientos de las Mugeres}, Keller (1956) pp. 29-30. El Libro de los Engaños was translated from Arabic into Spanish in 1253 at the request of Frederick of Castile, the brother of King Alfonso X (Alfonso the Wise). Here’s a listing of the stories in that book, which is also known as Sendebar. For a Hebrew version with English translation, Epstein (1967) pp. 209-17.

For Senescalcus in the western Seven Sages corpus, Paris (1876) pp. 9-11, Speer (1989) p. 77, Haro Cortés (2015), and Speer & Foehr-Janssens (2017). Senescalcus, along with Canis, Aper, and Avis, are the only stories shared between the eastern and western parts of the Seven Sages corpus. Here’s an extensive bibliographic reference on western versions of The Seven Sages of Rome {Les Sept Sages de Rome}. Speer asserted:

Seemingly extraneous details, like the reputed homosexuality of the King of Egypt and the strange cure that makes him heterosexual, or reawakens his heterosexual appetites, divert our attention from the greedy seneschal whose dual betrayal anchors the plot and provides the moral the queen wishes to emphasize.

Speer (2014) p. 194. These details show the value of heterosexuality to men, just as the experience of the seneschal’s wife indicates the value of heterosexuality to women. The redactor of this version (K manuscript) apparently sought to dampen the anti-meninism of Senescalcus. Matthew of Vendôme’s Milo went further in that same direction.

[3] Leo is included only in the eastern part of the Seven Sages corpus. For the Latin version, Hilka (1912) pp. 5-6; for an English translation of Leo from El Libro de los Engaños, Keller (1956) pp. 21-2. Leo draws on the account of David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11-12) with the Uriah-letter motif as well as with the king looking down and seeing a beautiful woman that he desires.

[4] Matthew of Vendôme {Matheus Vindocinensis}, Milo, vv. 9-10, Latin text from Munari (1982) pp. 59-72, my English translation, benefiting from that of Crawford (1977), pp. 51-61. For a critical edition with more extensive commentary, Busdraghi (1976). For a freely available Latin text that is quite good, Haupt (1834) pp. 19-28.

Milo has survived in two manuscripts: Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, MS 303, f. 155-158, and Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, MS 312, f. 27-30. Milo is thought to have been composed between 1160 and 1170. Crawford (1977) p. 44.

Matthew styled Milo as a classical work. In a prologue, he invokes his muse Thalia and declares:

I sing of Milo of Constantinople.
I sing playful Greek with a Roman song.

{ De Milone cano constantinopolitano,
Carmine Romano ludicra Greca cano. }

Milo, vv. 5-6. The classical Roman plays of Plautus and Terence were known as “plays in Greek clothes {fabula palliata}.” Matthew again links Milo to Constantinople in vv. 253-4. Matthew thus emphasizes that his source is Eastern, e.g. Leo of the Seven Sages corpus.

Many other works of Matthew of Vendôme have survived, including his Art of Writing Verse {Ars Versificatoria} and his Tobias. Gronbeck-Tedesco (1980) sees in Milo a connection between medieval rhetoric and drama. Other Latin comedies, e.g. Babio and Geta, have much more dialogue than Milo. For a comparison of narrative shares in the medieval Latin comedies, Crawford (1977) p. 385.

Subsequent quotes from Milo are similarly sourced. Those above are vv. 33-8 (Yes, the honeycomb is hidden…), 41-2 (While she hastens down a line of men…), 43-50 (Milo is given to Afra…), 103-110 (When Milo recalls Afra’s beauty…), 155 (the husband revoked from his wife her joys), 175-81 (The vine lacks children…), 221 (crime), 241-2 (The king was impressed with Milo’s eloquence…), 247-52 (Applause returns from exile…), 253 (I do not adorn my speech with falsehoods).

[5] Anti-meninism has become deeply entrenched in medieval scholarship. For example, the special issue of Narrative Culture on the Seven Sages tradition (Fall 2020, vol. 7, no. 2) is thoroughly anti-meninist. For an overview, Reynders & Sleiderink (2020). Consider this “reasoning” with respect to the Seven Sages’ frame story of the queen falsely accusing the king’s son of raping her:

This type of story implies a deeply misogynistic argument for rape culture: every accusation of rape could be the result of a woman’s invention, used to hide uncontrollable female lust. This way of reasoning can give substance to the opinion according to which all accusations of rape are fictitious or deserve to be treated as such.

Foehr-Janssens (2020) p. 165. Such totalitarian claims about “this type of story” are part of the dominant, censorious ideology that supports the fifteen-to-one gender protrusion in persons incarcerated, as well as public ignorance and bigotry concerning rape. The Seven Sages corpus surely isn’t an argument for modern, hateful rape-culture culture, nor for treating all accusations of rape as fictitious. The Seven Sages corpus should help readers to appreciate a medieval culture that took seriously the serious problem of false accusations of rape.

[images] (1) Older man handing a bird to a younger man in agricultural work. Photo (excerpt) by Rex Gary Schmidt, an employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Made between 1950 and 1972. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Three Austrian men working in iron mines in Minnesota in 1911. Photo (excerpt) by F.L. Washburn of the Agricultural Experiment Station, Anthony Park, MN. Via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Sculpture of Čumil, a sewer worker in Bratislava, Slovakia. Installed in 1994. Photo by Dennis Jarvis, who shared it under a Creative Commons BY-SA-2.0 license.

References:

Boureau, Alain. 1998. The Lord’s First Night: the myth of the droit de cuissage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Translation by Lydia G. Cochrane of Boureau, Alain. 1995. Le droit de cuissage: la fabrication d’un mythe (XIIIe-XXe siècle). Paris: Albin Michel.

Busdraghi, Paola, ed. and trans. (Italian). 1976. “De Afra et Milone.” Pp. 168-195 in Bertini, Ferruccio, ed. Commedie latine del XII e XIII secolo. Vol. 1. Genova: Università di Genova.

Classen, Albrecht. 2007. The Medieval Chastity Belt: a myth-making process. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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

Epstein, Morris. 1967. Tales of Sendebar = Misle sendebar: an edition and translation of the Hebrew version of the Seven Sages based on unpublished manuscripts. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America.

Foehr-Janssens, Yasmina. 2020. “Misogyny and the Trends of a European Success: The French Prose Roman des sept sages de Rome.” Narrative Culture. 7 (2): 165-180.

Gronbeck-Tedesco, John L. 1980. “An Application of Medieval Rhetorical Invention to Dramatic Composition: Matthew of Vendôme’s Ars versificatoria and Milo.” Theatre Journal. 32 (2): 235-247.

Haro Cortés, Marta. 2015. “De Balneator del Sendebar a Senescalus de los Siete sabios: del exemplo al relato de acción.” Revista De Poética Medieval. 29: 145-175.

Haupt, Moritz. 1834. Exempla Poesis Latinae Medii Aevi. Vindobonae: Gerold.

Hilka, Alfons. 1912. Historia Septem sapientum I: eine bisher unbekannte lateinische Übersetzung einer orientalischen Fassung der Sieben weisen Meister (Mischle Sendabar). Heidelberg: Carl Winter.

Keller, John Esten, trans. 1956. The Book of the Wiles of Women. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Munari, Franco, ed. 1982. Mathei Vindocinensis Opera. Vol. 2: Piramus et Tisbe. Milo. Epistule. Tobias. Roma: Edizioni di storia e letteratura.

Paris, Gaston. 1876. Deux Redactions du Roman des Sept Sages de Rome. Paris: Firmin Didot.

Reynders, Anne, and Remco Sleiderink. 2020. “Shades of Misogyny: Medieval Versions of the Seven Sages Tradition from a Gender Perspective.” Narrative Culture. 7 (2): 119-123.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. 1991. Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and modern historians. New York: Praeger.

Speer, Mary B. 1989. Le Roman des sept sages de Rome: a critical edition of the two verse redactions of a twelfth-century romance. Lexington, KY: French Forum.

Speers, Mary B. 2014. “What Ails the Sodomite King of Egypt? ‘Senescalcus’ in the K Sept Sages de Rome.” Pp. 193-208 in Uhlig, Marion, and Yasmina Foehr-Janssens, eds. 2014. D’Orient en Occident les recueils de fables enchâssées avant les ‘Mille et une nuits’ de Galland (‘Barlaam et Josaphat’, ‘Calila et Dimna’, ‘Disciplina clericalis’, ‘Roman des sept sages’). Turnhout: Brepols.

Speer, Mary Blakely, and Yasmina Foehr-Janssens. 2017. Le Roman des Sept Sages de Rome: édition bilingue des deux rédactions en vers français. Paris: Honoré Champion.

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