Baucis et Traso: can’t make a whore into a virgin

Men tend to be romantically simple. Many men just want to have sex with a woman thrilled with the joy of her first experience of the masculine sexual gift. Unfortunately, sophisticated women can easily exploit naive, trusting men. That’s what happened to Traso in the twelfth-century Latin comedy Baucis and Traso {Baucis et Traso}.

Baucis was a corrupt, vicious old bawd. Historically, mothers eager for financial gain have prostituted their daughters. Baucis pandered the aging prostitute Glycerium. Baucis gave Glycerium many different fabricated names as she repeatedly sold her as a virgin:

She promises friendships, joys, wines, and meals.
Theirs would be the virgin’s conversation, caressing, kisses, and the deed.
She recounts the virgin’s ancestor to be Jove.
She commends her, she promises her to anyone, to those giving gifts she gives
the virginal glory, first sexual intercourses:
first to this man, first to that man. What more should I report?
She promises firsts to all who themselves make gifts.

{ Spondet amicicias, gaudia, uina, cibos,
Virginis alloquium, contactus, oscula, factum.
Narrat progeniem uirginis esse Iouem.
Hanc probat, hanc cuivis spondet, dat dantibus huius
Primos concubitus uirgineumque decus:
Huic primos, illi primos, quid plura referrem?
Tot spondet primos, quot sibi dona ferunt. }[1]

Popular media today promotes and celebrates firsts, e.g. the first obese female fox with grey hair appointed to lead a liberal arts college for vixens. In more sophisticated medieval Europe, thinkers distinguished between significant firsts and insignificant firsts. Consider the first time a man has sexual intercourse with a particular woman and the first time a woman has sexual intercourse with any man. For a man having sex with a prostitute, the former first would be regarded as insignificant within relatively well-developed medieval public reason. Nonetheless, naive persons who accept any first as significant have existed throughout history. Baucis exploited such naive persons in pimping Glycerium.

Traso was a soldier indoctrinated with the ideals of courtly love. He apparently used his mind little: “his glory is drinking, / his stomach is his god, and the sex goddess his ready companion {cui gloria potus, / Cui venter deus est, cui Venus apta comes}.”[2] When Traso came to Baucis’s house, she regarded him as easy-pickings:

Coming to him, she says: “O soldier, child of love,
you soldier, officer of love, you are my way’s reason.
What does your heart itself want? Where are you marching? What fires do you nurture?
If a virgin is your need, I have a virgin in my house,
a virgin, yet a young shoot, a flower, love’s fruit.
She shines virginal brightness in elegant beauty.

{ Accedens ait hec: “O miles, Amoris alumpne,
Miles, Amoris honos, tu mihi causa uie.
Quid sibi uult tua mens? quo tendis? quos alis ignes?
Virgine si sit opus, est mihi uirgo domi.
Virgo, set uirga, set flos, set fructus amoris,
Lumen uirgineum forma decore nitens.” }

That mendacious description of Glycerium was enough to make Traso burn in love for her, sight unseen. Extensively experienced women prostitutes such the soldadeira Balteira worked soldiers’ camps in medieval Europe. Traso probably had never had sex with a virgin. Baucis characterized Glycerium as the opposite of a hard-working sex-worker:

Baucis said to him: “She sleeps, and it’s not permitted to wake her.
She’s soft, and long periods of sleep comfort a soft woman.
If she stays awake too much, she’s sick. If she sleeps badly,
she’s weak. If she’s cold, she fears to be feverish.
If she has to fast too much against her will, she ignores food.
If she’s not given drink when she wants it, she spurns it.”

{ Baucis ad hec: “Dormit nec eam licet euigilare.
Est mollis, mollem sompnia longa fouent.
Si nimium uigilet, egrotat: si male stertit,
Languet; si friget, febricitare timet;
Si nimis inuita ieiunet, negligit escas;
Ni des, cum uoluit, pocula, spernit ea.” }

In short, Glycerium was a highly privileged, high-maintenance woman. Deluded courtly lovers and masochistic men seek out highly privileged, high-maintenance women. That’s what Traso did.

Baucis exploited Traso’s burning love for Glycerium. Although a soldier, Traso acted like a courtly lover:

The new love inflames Traso. The new suffering grabs him.
He thinks about sex, and while meditating on it, he feeds his desire.
He is destitute of reason. An immoderate love presses on him,
a love whose customary measure is to wish to lack any limit.
He returns to his reasoning and finally breaks his silence.
He repeats his groans and reiterates his prayers.
He pulls a gold ring from his finger and gives that gift to Baucis.

{ Trasonem nouus urit amor, noua poena cohercet;
Cogitat et Venerem, dum meditatur, alit.
Stat rationis inops, premit hunc Venus immoderata,
Qua solet esse modus, uelle carere modo.
Ad mentem rediit rupitque silentia tandem,
Ingeminat gemitus exiterando preces.
Arreptum digitis aurum dat munera Bauci. }

Baucis told Traso that Glycerium would be sweeter towards him because of his generosity. Then she took him to the marketplace. There she bought all that she wanted and had Traso pay for her purchases. She subsequently disappeared into the crowd. With his dreams broken, Traso sadly returned home.

Men, who are human beings with feelings, understandably get upset and angry when they are exploited and abused. Grieving Traso in emotional turmoil condemned women in general:

Woman, wicked flame, intimate grief, enemy that I befriend!
Woman is the highest evil, woman is worthy of death.
Woman offers seeds of rot, woman offers death.
Woman, what have I done? She has seized me from under myself.
O whore! You have the face of a monster and the image of a Chimera!
Why has your guile deceived me and how?

{ Femina flamma nocens, dolor intimus, hostis amico;
Femina summa mali, femina digna mori;
Femina fetoris dat semina, femina mortem;
Femina, quid feci? me mihi subripuit.
O meretrix! monstri facies et imago Chimare!
Cur me decepit fraus tua quoue modo? }

Traso here refers to Eve leading Adam to expulsion from eternal life in the Garden of Eden. He also refers to a man being deprived of the unity of heterosexual intercourse. In biblical understanding, women, like men, are made in the image of god.[3] Yet in Traso’s eyes, woman became an image of a Chimera.

Traso’s slave Davus understood the problem more precisely. According to Davus, a woman could scarcely do more evil that Baucis did in trafficking in women sex-workers to exploit men:

Baucis alone rejoices in injuring loving with damages.
If she injures, she rejoices. If she cannot do thus, she grieves.
She is grief. She is fraud and the origin of fraud in loving.
She in her very self, so I think, was born to deceive.

{ Baucis sola nocens dampnis letatur amantis;
Si noceat, gaudet; si nequit, inde dolet.
Hec dolor est, hec fraus el origo fraudis amantum,
Hec hec, ut credo, fallere nata fuit. }[4]

Davus consoled Traso, who didn’t implacably hate all women. Then Davus set off to settle the matter with Baucis.

At Baucis’s house, Davus became part of Baucis’s abusive family. They both viciously abused each other verbally. Then, like an abused wife lashing out in self-defense, Davus started slapping Baucis and pulling her hair. Glycerium came out and threatened Davus. With Glycerium’s intervention, Baucis and Davus reconciled. They agreed to work together to deceive and exploit Traso.

That evening, Davus took Traso to Baucis’s house. Outside the house, Davus instructed Traso to hide in a hole. Then Davus went inside to make further arrangements. The enemy pimp Byrrhia saw Traso hiding. At first Byrrhia planned to throw rocks at Traso. Then he decided on a safer and more insulting action: “he would really piss all over him {permingatur enim}.” To Traso, it was like rain:

He sticks his head out of the hole, checking if it’s raining.
When he looks up, a stream of piss-water fills his mouth.
He spits it out. He doesn’t yet sense it to be a deception.
Admiring the rain, in order not to spoil his robe,
he takes it off. What more? The playing with him is finished.

{ Extulit os antro, si pluat experiens.
Riuus aque saliens os implet suspicientis;
Expuit hos nec adhuc sensit adesse dolos.
Admirans pluuiam, pallam ne deterioret
Vertit. Quid plura? luditur hic et ita. }

Medieval Latin literature has an earthy, comic sense of life scarcely conceivable today. Unable to distinguish between rain and piss, Traso was the sort of man who also would be unable to distinguish between a virgin and a whore. When Davus came out of Baucis’s house to summon Traso, Davus saw Byrrhia pissing on him. Davus chased Byrrhia, caught him, and beat him extensively. Then Davus took Traso into the house to have sex with Glycerium. Traso must have smelled like a latrine.[5]

Even after being exploited by Baucis and drenched in piss, Traso was thrilled to meet Glycerium. As soon as he saw her, he rose in excitement and went to her:

Coming to her, Traso rises up. He undertakes
her mouth, her hand. Happily he honors her with gifts.
Testing approaches, he insists on love with loving words.

{ Assurgit Traso uenienti, suscipit illam
Ore, manu; donis letus honorat eam.
Pretemptans aditum uerbis insistit amantum. }

Glycerium feigned innocence. She said she was a virgin and didn’t know anything about love. She said she was afraid of sex. She told him to go find some other woman to sate his ardor.

Traso faltered, but the thought of having sex with a virgin inspired him to new amorous efforts. Baucis urged Glycerium: “What love is, you should learn! You shouldn’t want to be uncultivated {Quid sit amor, discas nec rudis esse uelis}.” Traso then gave Baucis money and promised to give her more. She in turn set an appointment for Traso to have sex with Glycerium the next evening.

To support her deception of Traso, Baucis recreated Glycerium’s virginity. Only a fool would believe that she was successful:

Trying to renew virginal modesty, Baucis
collects the auspiciously suitable items for that proposed deed.
These are herbs, unguents, drink, medicines, incantations —
these are desirable for me to enumerate briefly to you:
whiteness of a raven, smoke, three gusts of wind,
the light of a certain benighted one, a bird of the night,
hairs from the brow of a bald man and a eunuch’s penis,
the hearing of a deaf man, words from one lacking speaking ability,
ice vomiting fire and the heat of the dead,
the sense of the insane with the reason of a cow,
the softness of a hard rock with the murmuring of standing water,
oak trees bearing apples, willows full with pears;
in addition, a child’s wrinkles, an old woman’s beard,
and the venom of Cerberus. These she seeks so as to add to those.
With all the means combined, she makes a virgin from a whore.

{ Baucis uirgineum temptans reuocare pudorem
Prouida proposite colligit apta rei:
Herbas, unguenta, potus, medicamina, cantus,
Que uobis breuiter enumerare libet.
Corui candorem, fumum, tria flamina uenti,
Ceci cuiusdam lumina, noctis auem;
A calui fronte crines membrumque spadonis;
Auditum surdi, uerba carentis eis;
Igniuomam glaciem defunctorumque calorem;
Insani sensum cum ratione bouis;
Duri molliciem lapidis cum murmure stagni;
Quercus pomiferas, uimina plena piris;
Praeterea rugas pueri, barbas uetularum;
Virus Cebereum querit, ut addat eis.
His sibi confectis facit ex meretrice puellam. }

The medieval Latin author here uses the well-established rhetorical figure of impossibility (adynaton {ἀδύνατον}). This sense of the impossibility of turning a whore into a virgin perhaps influenced the widely known rap wisdom: “can’t turn a ho into a housewife.”[6]

The next evening, Traso gave all his promised gifts to Baucis. He thus gained the opportunity to have sex with Glycerium. The final verse of Baucis et Traso is shockingly abrupt: “He enjoyed Glycerium, and having obtained her, he departed {Glicerio fruitur atque potitus abit}.” Traso may have wrongly believed that Glycerium was a virgin. However, in his relation to her, he treated her like a whore.

Baucis et Traso shows the diversity and inclusiveness of medieval European culture. That culture revered the Virgin Mary. It also promoted the ideal of a wife and husband’s conjugal partnership. In addition, medieval European culture celebrated Mary Magdalene and other holy whores. But like leading modern rap artists, medieval European culture vigorously affirmed that whores who don’t seek holiness remain merely whores despite mendacious claims otherwise. Diversity and inclusiveness doesn’t necessarily imply rejecting truth.

* * * * *

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[1] Baucis and Traso {Baucis et Traso}, vv. 12-18, Latin text from Mouton (1931), my English translation, benefiting from the French translation of id. and the English translation of Crawford (1977), pp. 141-55. For a freely available Latin text that’s quite good, Hagen (1868). Currently the best critical edition is Orlandi (1980).

An unknown author composed Baucis et Traso probably between 1150 and 1175. It survives in only one manuscript: Bern, Universitätsbibliothek. Burgerbibliothek (Bibliotheca Bongarsiana), 568.

The names of the characters in Baucis et Traso have classical referents. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses 8.612-727 (Baucis and Philemon), Baucis is a kind, old woman who provides warm hospitality to guests who turn out to be the gods Jupiter and Mercury. The Baucis of Baucis et Traso transgressively inverts the moral characteristics of Ovid’s Baucis. Glycerium, Davus, and Byrrhia are a beloved young woman, a slave, and another slave, respectively, in Terence’s Andria. Thraso is a braggart soldier in Terence’s Eunuchus.

Baucis et Traso hasn’t been adequately appreciated. It has been interpreted narrowly:

This short poem, despite its abundance of platitudes, awkward expressions, and pointless developments, nevertheless presents a certain literary interest. It is above all a school exercise. The author is a scholar who, having practiced Latin poetry, ultimately assimilated certain phrasing from it. We will sometimes see him borrow certain details from the Virgilian or Ovidian style.

{ Ce court poème, malgré l’abondance des platitudes, des gaucheries et des développements inutiles, présente cependant un certain intérêt littéraire. C’est avant tout an exercice d’école. L’auteur est un érudit qui, ayant pratiqué la poésie latine, a fini par s’en assimilier quelques tournures; on le verra parfois emprunter certains détails du style virgilien ou ovidien. }

Mouton (1931) p. 67 (my translation from the French). It’s been interpreted as being unsophisticated and derivative:

The story lacks the sophisticated humour of the other comediae and is to some extent a pastiche of traditional comic elements.

Rigg (1992) p. 114. Baucis et Traso transgressively reinterprets Ovid’s Baucis and presents an outrageous parody of courtly love and gyno-idolatry. Most importantly, Baucis et Traso memorably represents an old women’s sex-trafficking and exploitation of men.

In Baucis et Traso, v. 13, the phrase “conversation, caressing, kisses, and the deed {alloquium, contactus, oscula, factum}” refers to four “stages of love {gradus amoris},” where “the deed {factum}” refers to sexual intercourse. These stages are metaphorically prefigured in v. 12: “she promises friendships, joys, wines, and meals {Spondet amicicias, gaudia, uina, cibos}.” The association of meals with sexual intercourse evokes medieval understanding of Eucharist and Incarnation (love made in human flesh) as the ultimate expression of love.

Medieval literature explored extensively stages of love. The medieval Latin comedy About the Shrewd Envoy {De nuncio sagaci}, vv. 117-245, includes lengthy play with five stages of love. The first stage in De nuncio sagaci is “sight {visum}.” Another poem from no later than early in the thirteenth century similarly describes five stages of love:

There are five stages by which we become linked in love.
Sight, conversing, touching, and an equal mingling
of the nectar of each other’s lips leads easily to the end.
Venus silently squeezes out the fifth act in bed.

{ Quod sunt quinque modi quibus associamur amori:
visus, colloquium, tactus, compar labiorum
nectaris alterni permixtio commoda fini;
in lecto quintum tacite Venus exprimit actum. }

Carmina Burana 154, “Love is a winged and fickle boy equipped with a quiver {Est Amor alatus puer et levis, est pharetratus},” vv. 7-10, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018). Matthew of Vendôme’s Art of poetry-making {Ars versificatoria} describes six stages of love. The topos of stages of love was transmitted from antiquity to medieval Europe via the works of Horace. Friedman (1965). On five stages of love in Polish Baroque romance, Woron-Trojanowska (2016). Medieval sermons described ten stages of love for God. Janz-Wenig (2017).

Subsequent quotes from Baucis et Traso are similarly sourced. Those above are vv. 29-30 (his glory is drinking…), 45-50 (Baucis said to him…), 53-9 (The new love inflames Traso…), 89-94 (Woman, wicked flame…), 103-6 (Baucis alone rejoices…), 242-6 (He sticks his head out of the hole…), 269-71 (Coming to her, Traso rises up…), 290 (What love is, you should learn…), 307-21 (Trying to renew virginal modesty…), 324 (He enjoyed Glycerium…).

[2] Baucis et Traso, vv. 29-30. Cf. Philippians 3:19.

[3] Genesis 1:27, 9:6.

[4] Modern scholarship on old women in medieval literature tends to be moralistic and misandristic. Men tend to regard young, beautiful women as considerably more sexually attractive than old, ugly women. Many men rightly despise old women who attempt to deceive them and exploit them. That reality doesn’t mean that men don’t love dearly old women who are their loving wives, mothers, sisters, and friends. A categorical assertion of “male revulsion at old female bodies” is mindless academic cant. See. e.g. Mieszkowski (2007) p. 319. It gets worse:

The hateful {sic} old women in these major medieval works are no oddity, no accident. They speak from the heart of medieval culture and its beliefs about old women.

Id. Such ridiculous, totalitarian poor-dearism has been remarkably successful in promoting simplistic, dualistic gender history and buttressing gynocentric oppression of men. Men in fact show remarkably little hate in relation to hateful old women.

[5] While scholars tend to treat violence against men as normal, horrendous abuse of men deserves notice. Violence against men commonly targets men’s penises and testicles. King Gulinus brutally tortured a knight’s penis in St. Patrick’s Purgatory. Long subject to oppressive regulation, men’s sexuality continues to be more harshly regulated than women sexuality.

Echoing motifs in Baucis et Traso, a fabliau from the first quarter of the thirteenth century also narrates exploitation and abuse of a man. Alexander, the rich chaplain of Saint-Cyr just west of Paris, urgently desired the merchant lady Mahauz’s young, beautiful daughter Marian. Mahauz’s refused Alexander’s request to give Marian to him for a night in return for financial and material “gifts.” But then, seeing the opportunity for profit, Mahauz’s accepted the pandering opportunity.

Mahauz arranged to substitute secretly the highly experienced whore Alison for her daughter Marian. Mahauz thoroughly bathed Alison and declared, “I’ll sell you as a virgin {senprés te vendrai por pucele}.” To make matters worse, Mahauz and her servant-girl Hercelot arranged for the chaplain to be exposed in bed with Alison. Alexander had sex nine times with the young woman he thought was Marian. Then Hercelot deliberately ignited a fire in the room to reveal the woman to be Alison and to expose Alexander to neighbors coming to help extinguish the fire. In modern terms, the chaplain Alexander was raped by deception. In addition, the neighbors quickly arriving on the scene viciously beat him:

The blows of those heavy sticks
left marks you could see on his back
and ribs and flanks. They beat him
black-and-blue and put him through the mill.
He took off for home running, still
trembling like a leaf on a tree.

{ les cous li parent par le dos,
par les costez & par les flans
des bastons, qui furent pesanz,
molt fu laidengiez & batuz.
It est en maison enbatuz,
tranblant com une fuille d’arber. }

Guillaume le Normand, “The Priest and Alison {Le Prestre et Alison},” vv. 432-7. Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Dubin (2013) pp. 46-7. Mahauz’s boast to the whore Alison that she’d sell her as a virgin is similarly sourced from “Le Prestre et Alison,” v. 163. Medieval literature doesn’t celebrate men’s strong, independent sexuality like modern authorities celebrate women’s strong, independent sexuality.

[6] The phrase “can’t turn a ho into a housewife” occurs in the song “Housewife” on American rapper Dr. Dre’s 1999 studio album The Chronic 2001. That song drew upon Kurupt’s “Ho’s a Housewife” from his 1998 studio double album Kuruption! Ludacris also used the phrase “can’t turn a ho into a housewife” in his song “Ho” on his 2001 album Back for the First Time. Ludacris’s natal name is Christopher Brian Bridges. Attesting to the influence of Latin, Ludacris apparently comes from “ludicrous,” which comes from the Latin adjective ludicrus, which is from the Latin verb ludo, meaning “to play.”

Dr. Dre’s aphorism goes back at least to a thirteenth-century Old Italian poem of men’s sexed protest. The poem advises a man not to give a promiscuous woman the key to his house, “because you can’t put a whore into a good house {ké çamai la puitana meter no pòi en bon domo}.” Verse 556 in Proverbs that discuss the nature of women {Proverbia que dicuntur super natura feminarum}, Old Italian text of Gianfranco Contini via Bonghi & Mangieri (2003), my English translation, benefiting from the modern Italian translation of id.

Early in the eleventh century, Egbert of Liège in his schoolbook The Well-Laden Ship {Fecunda ratis} provided related wisdom: “A fallen virgin will not afterward restore her ruin {Lapsa suam non post solidabit virgo ruinam}.” Fecunda ratis 1.299, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Babcock (2013). An eleventh-century gloss to this verse in the one surviving manuscript explains: “After a virgin has fallen, she cannot be a virgin {Virgo postquam lapsa fuerit, virgo esse non poterit}.” Babcock (2013) p. 299, note for Fecunda ratis 1.299.

For a medieval poem on a beloved woman who apparently became a whore, Carmina Burana 120: “A deadly rumor {Rumor letalis}.” Here’s some analysis of that poem. For a medieval poem on a beloved woman thought to be chaste, but not, Carmina Burana 121, “Strum the lyre, please, with happy hands {Tange, sodes, citharam manu letiore}.”

[image] (1) The old woman Baucis and her husband Philemon providing generous hospitality to the disguised Jupiter and Mercury in accordance with the tale in Ovid’s Metamorphoses 8.612-727. Oil on canvas painting from the workshop of Peter Paul Rubens. Painted c. 1620-1625. Preserved as accession # GG 806 in the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Vienna, Austria). Via Georges Jansoone and Wikimedia Commons. (2) Video recording of Ludacris’s song “Ho” from his 2001 album Back for the First Time. Via YouTube.


Babcock, Robert Gary, ed. and trans. 2013. Egbert of Liège. The Well-Laden Ship {Fecunda ratis}. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 25. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bonghi, Giuseppe, and Cono A. Mangieri, trans. (Italian) with notes. 2003. Proverbia que dicuntur super natura feminarum. Biblioteca dei Classici Italiani. Online. Alternate source.

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

Dubin, Nathaniel. 2013. The Fabliaux. New York: Liveright.

Friedman, Lionel J. 1965. “Gradus Amoris.” Romance Philology. 19 (2): 167-177.

Hagen, Hermann. 1868. “Eine antike Komödie in distichischer Nachbildung.” Jahrbücher für classische Philologie. 14: 711-729.

Janz-Wenig, Katrin. 2017. Decem gradus amoris deutsch: Entstehung, Überlieferung und volkssprachliche Rezeption einer lateinischen Predigt: Untersuchung und Edition. Berlin: Erich Schmidt Verlag.

Mieszkowski, Gretchen. 2007. “Old Age and Medieval Misogyny.” Pp. 299-320 in Classen, Albrecht, ed. Old Age in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Interdisciplinary Approaches to a Neglected Topic. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter.

Mouton, Jean, ed. and trans. (into French). 1931. “Baucis et Traso.” Ch. VIII (pp. 61-83) in vol. 2 of Cohen, Gustave, ed. La “Comédie” Latine en France au XIIe Siècle. Paris: Les Belles-Lettres.

Orlandi, Giovanni, ed. and trans. (into Italian). 1980. “Baucis et Traso.” Pp. 245-303 in Bertini, Furruccio, ed. Commedie Latine del XII e XIII Secolo. Vol. 3, Pamphilus, Geta, Baucis et Traso, De mercatore. Genova: Università di Genova, Facoltà di Lettere. (review by Roland Crahay)

Rigg, A. G. 1992. A History of Anglo-Latin Literature, 1066-1422. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Woron-Trojanowska, Joanna. 2016. ‘Topos “quinque gradus amoris” w polskim romansie barokowym.’ Meluzyna: Dawna Literatura i Kultura. 23-34.

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