bawdy medieval version of The Merchant of Venice’s pound of flesh

In William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the Venetian merchant Antonio borrowed a large amount of money from the moneylender Shylock. Under the terms of the loan, Shylock was entitled in default to a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Shakespeare composed The Merchant of Venice about 1597. Its pound-of-flesh motif, however, is from no later than 1190.[1] A version from the Acts of the Romans {Gesta Romanorum}, a work probably dating to the early fourteenth century, shows medieval sexual earthiness within a Christian moralized tale.

O you, whose loveliness
surpasses the face
of beautiful Absalom,
it cannot be such
that you are a mortal

In my loneliness,
lady, don’t
be dismissive of me.
The end I seek
is to be released
from my despair.

{ O decora
super ora
belli Absalonis,
et non talis,
ut mortalis
sis conditionis.

Michi soli,
virgo, noli
esse refragata!
Quaeso finem,
ut reclinem
a re desperata. }[2]

Celestine, the ruler of Rome, had a beautiful daughter. A knight burned in love for her. Men will do almost anything in their love for women:

The knight thought to himself: “I’m certain that the emperor will never allow me to marry his daughter, because I am not worthy of this. Nonetheless, if by some other means I could obtain the young woman’s love, that would be sufficient for me.” And at every opportunity he hurried to the young woman and earnestly inquired about her willingness. But she said, “You are laboring in vain. Do you think that you will beguile me by your flattering, silly, and deceitful words? That will not be for my heart!”

{ intra se cogitabat: “Michi non est dubium quin imperator nunquam filiam suam michi dabit in uxorem, quia ad hoc non sum dignus. Verumptamen, si per aliquam uiam possem amorem puelle adquirere, michi sufficit.” Et omni tempore perrexit ad puellam et de eius uoluntate diligenter inquirebat. At illa: “Incassum laboras. Credis tu quod me decipies per uerba tua blanda, friuola, et deceptoria? Non fiet ita in anima mea!” }[3]

Experienced in the ways of the world, the knight offered the young woman an alternate proposition:

He said, “Since I’m not be able to have you as my wife, what can I give you so that you will lie with me for one night?” She replied, “If you give me one hundred marks in florins, you may lie beside me the entire night.” The knight said, “Your wish will be fulfilled.” Immediately he provided himself with that much money and gave it to the young woman.

{ Ait ille: “Cum ergo te no poetero haber in uxorem, Quid dabo tibi ut una nocte mecum iaceas?” At ill: “Si michi dederis centum marcas de forenis, iuxta me tota nocte iacebis.” Ait miles: “Implebitur uoluntas tua.” Statimque prouidit sibi de tanta pecunia et puelle tradidit. }

Men tend to be romantically simple. Men seek to marry women who are beautiful and warmly receptive, rather than pursuing their economic interest in marrying high-earning women. If men can’t marry beautiful, warmly receptive women, they’ll settle for just having sex with them.

She again acts as a true magnet,
a young woman of marvelous perfection.
She frequently overwhelms me by
the attractiveness of her unaffected grace.

{ Magnetem verum iterat
virgo mire perfecta,
attractu crebro superat
me gratia directa. }

The knight’s attempt to buy sex turned into an epic disaster. The b…beautiful young woman set him up:

When night came, the knight entered into the young woman’s bed. He immediately fell asleep. Then the young woman took off her clothes and lay down beside the knight. He in this situation lay in sleep the whole night. When it was the next morning, the young woman got up and put on her clothes and washed her hands. The knight was then awakened from his sleep by the young woman. After he had awakened, he said to the young woman, “Come to me so that I will be able to fulfill my desire with you.” But she said, “By my father’s health, I will do no such thing. Beloved, I’m doing you no wrong. Didn’t you come to an agreement with me that you would lie with me for one night? And so it was. You, however, for one whole night slept and didn’t offer me any solace. Therefore blame yourself and not me.”

{ Cum autem nox adest, miles lectum puelle intrauit. Statim dormiuit. Puella uestimenta deposuit et iuxta militem se collocauit. Miles uero per totam noctem sic in dormiendo iacuit. Mane autem facto, puella surrexit et uestimentis suis se induit, manus lauit, et miles per puellam a sompno excitatus est. Cum autem fuisset excitatus, ait puelle: “Veni ad me ut uoluntatem meam tecum potero adimplere.” At illa: “Per salutem patris mei non faciam hanc rem! Amice, non facio tibi iniuriam. Nonne mecum conuenisti ut una nocte mecum iaceres? Et sic factum est. Tu autem per unam noctem totaliter dormisti et nullum solacium michi optulisti. Imputes ergo tibiipsi et non michi.” }

The young woman had carefully prevented the knight from even seeing her naked. She washed her hands after sleeping next to him as if he were emitting dirty thoughts while he was sleeping. She obviously knew in advance that the knight would fall asleep and not have sex with her; in other words, not offer her any solace. She took money for sex under false pretenses. If he were a she, surely he would be guilty of raping her by deception.

If I were flourishing, financial ruin
would not upset me,
but my thoughts become more fearful
the longer the joys of sex are delayed:
what am I to do?

{ Florenti desolatio
non esset conturbatio,
sed eo plus tremit ratio,
quo Dionaea sit dilatio:
quid facio? }

The knight, despondent, had only one concern. He asked her how much he would have to pay to sleep with her for another night. Despite his lack of satisfaction on the prior night, she offered him no discount. Her price was the same as before. The knight sold all his movable goods to raise the money. He again paid her to go to bed with her. But his second night with the young woman went just as before.

This fate of mine is grim.
Not even death is harsher.
My life’s destiny
isn’t on a happy course.
She whom I compare to the sun
resists her young admirer.

{ Istaec est dira sors,
nec durior est mors.
Non meae vitae fors
stat ritu prospero.
Quam soli confero,
repugnat tenero. }

The knight was still desperate to have sex with the young woman. He asked her for her price for a third night. Again the young woman offered no discount to the unsatisfied knight. Having exhausted all his money and goods in paying for the previous two nights, the knight traveled to distant lands to try to raise money for a third night with her. A merchant offered to lend him the money on the condition that if he did not repay on the designated day, the merchant could cut off all the flesh on the knight’s body. The knight desired the young woman so much that he consented to such a loan.

She whom I obey beyond all other young women
can sustain me even in the gloom of death,
if the intimate, most important distinction
she favors to have.

{ Cui pre cunctis virginum oboedio,
me potest alere vel mortis taedio.
si decus intimum
mavult potissimum. }

Fortunately, before returning to sleep again with the young woman, the knight met Master Virgil {Magister Virgilius}, the author of the keenly gender-perceptive Aeneid. The knight explained to Master Virgil his intense desire for this young woman, his difficulties in the two previous nights he spent in bed with her, and his third, desperate attempt using a death-threatening loan. Master Virgil, a writer of immense power, told the young man that text placed between the sheet and cover of her bed made anyone who got into her bed fall asleep until roused by her. Virgil advised him to find that text and throw it far from the bed. The knight would then be able to enjoy the young woman and sleep only when he sought to sleep.

You who are grace itself,
grant solace
to my languishing heart —
you my treasure,
my choicest love,
good-natured and life-filled!

{ Gratia,
donato menti languide,
mea dos,
amorum flos,
morigerata vivide! }

The knight, by following Virgil’s advice, initiated an enduring love affair with the young woman. After paying the woman to sleep with her, he matched her sexual deception with his own:

When night came, the knight entered the young woman’s bedroom. He secretly placed his hand between the bed’s sheet and cover and found the text. Having found it, he threw it far from himself. He then entered the bed and pretended to sleep. The young woman, thinking him to be asleep as before, took off her clothes and got into bed. The knight immediately placed his hand on her. The young woman, stunned by this, said, “Have pity on me and do not deprive me of my virginity. I will double for you all the money you have given me.”

{ Cum autem nox adest, miles cameram puelle intrauit et priuate inter linthiamen et cooportorium manum ponebat et literam inuenit, quam, inuentam, longe a se proiecit, et lectum intrauit et finxit se dormire. Puella uero, putans eum dormire sicut ante, uestimenta deposuit et lectum intrauit. Statim miles manum ad eam posuit. Puella, ex hoc stupefacta, ait: “Miseremini mei et nolite uirginitatem meam deflorare et duplicabo tibi omnem pecuniam quam michi dedisti.” }

The soporific text that prevented sex was perhaps just another academic work characterizing men as misogynists. In any case, the young woman found herself in the position of Antonio, the merchant of Venice. She sought to buy herself out of a contract with unexpected implications. Like Shylock, the knight refused to settle for money. He wanted sex with this woman:

The knight replied, “You speak in vain. That for which I have long striven, I will now accomplish.” He then knew the young woman sexually. After doing that, he loved her exceedingly, so much so that he remained with her two weeks beyond the term set between himself and the moneylender.

{ At ille: “In uanum loqueris. Circa quid diu laboraui, iam implebo. Puellam cognouit et post hoc miro modo ipsam dilexit in tantum quod cum ipsa associatus est ultra quindenam termini sui inter ipsum et mercatorem. }

After having sex with the young women, the knight didn’t want to leave her. Many men are like that. Many men delight in intimate relations with women.

Winter’s desolation has seen its end.
As flowers bloom, those who know the Love Goddess
rejoice from the bottom of their hearts
and applaud her.

{ Terminum vidit brume desolatio;
gaudent funditus in florum exordio,
qui norunt Cypridem,
plaudentes eidem. }

Shylock and Portia in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice

The knight’s attachment to the woman after having sex with her caused him to default on the loan he had taken to pay her. The money-lending merchant thus gained the right to cut all the flesh from his body. The young woman, who apparently came to love the knight through his loving work, advised him:

Don’t grieve excessively. Go to the merchant and double his money for him, and if he is not willing to accept, ask how much he wants and I will give it to you.

{ Nolite nimis dolere. Ite ad mercatorem et duplicate ei pecuniam suam, et, si noluerit accipere, petat quantum uoluerit et dabo tibi. }

Apparently drawing upon her study of Cicero and other classics, this woman offered the knight classical advice on grief. She also offered to support him financially. That’s a good woman.

She whose shining presence,
marvelous kindness,
and endless generosity
always and everywhere
smile without fail,
she is the one I desire.

{ Cui tanta claritas
ac mira caritas,
fecunda largitas
semper et undique
arrident utique —
hanc opto denique. }

This good woman even took on the masculine gender in her love for the knight. When the knight in court sought to buy himself out of the merchant’s loan, the merchant refused any amount of money. He wanted to kill the knight by cutting away his flesh. The woman had persons reporting to her about the proceeding. When she heard that the merchant was preparing to cut from her knight’s beloved body, she dressed as a knight and rode to the place where her beloved knight was to receive his death sentence. She declared to the judge trying the loan-default case:

I am a knight from distant lands. By chance I was riding my horse through this city. Reports reached me that a certain knight here among you was about to be sentenced to death on account of the binding promise that he made to a merchant. I came here therefore in order to save the knight from death.

{ Miles sum de partibus longinquis et a casu per istam ciuitatem equitabam, rumoresque ad me uenerunt quod quidam miles inter uos hic existens ad mortum iudicari deberet propter quoddam obligatorium quid uni mercatori fecerat, et ideo huc ueni ut militem a morte liberarem. }

Women must act to make men’s lives matter. The woman-knight turned to the merchant and asked him to take financial compensation rather than the man-knight’s life. The merchant refused. Assuming the role of a lawyer, the woman-knight then made a sophisticated legal argument:

My lord judge, give a just verdict on what I shall say to you. You have heard how much I have offered the merchant for the knight’s life. He refused all, but seeks his right under law. This is very pleasing to me in every way. Therefore listen to me, all of you. Lords, you know that the knight never bound himself to anything by his contract other than that the merchant had the right to cut his flesh from his bones. About the flow of blood no word was specified in advance. If the merchant is truly able to cut the flesh without a flow of blood, let him lay his hand on the knight at once. If in fact he spills blood, the king will have a lawsuit against him.

{ Domine mi iudex, da rectum iudicium super hiis qui uobis dixero. Vos audistis quantum mercatori optuli pro uita militis et omnino renuit, sed beneficium legis querit. Michi per omnia bene placet. Audite ergo me omnes. Satrape, uos scitis quid miles nunquam se obligabat ad aliud per literam nisi quod mercator potestatem habebat carnes ab ossibus scindere, sed de sanguinis effusione nunquam erat uerbum prelocutum. Si poterit uero carnes scindere sine sanguinis effusione, statim manum mittat in eum. Si uero sanguinem effuderit, rex contra eum accionem habebit. }

Stunned, the merchant immediately offered to drop his lawsuit in exchange for payment. The women-knight, turning the tables on the merchant, refused to pay. She insisted he fulfill the contract, if he dared to try. The merchant realized that he was defeated. He left without receiving any payment.

The woman-knight quickly returned home and dressed again as a woman. When her beloved knight returned to her, she disingenuously inquired how he had escaped death. The knight explained that a handsome knight had saved him with a highly intelligent legal argument. The woman asked if he would recognize that knight if he saw him again. The knight declared that he would. She then again dressed as that knight and came to her beloved knight. He wept and embraced her with joy. He was extremely grateful that he had sought to buy sex from her: “Blessed be the hour in which I made an agreement with you {Benedicatur hora in qua tecum conueni}!” They then married and lived happily ever after as pious souls dedicated to God.

Let none marvel at such a leader’s
for with her outstanding power
she makes me more learned than before
by infusing her generous gifts.

{ Ne miretur ducis tantae
quis sublimitatem,
quae me sibi vi praestante
doctum reddit plus quam ante,
stillans largitatem! }

The Gesta Romanorum’s moral range is evident in comparing it with Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. The Gesta Romanorum contains a more bawdy version of the pound-of-flesh motif than does Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. The Gesta Romanorum also contains the three-caskets motif of The Merchant of Venice, but with a woman rather than a man making the choice among the caskets.[4] Having a woman actively demonstrate to a man her worthiness for love is a highly unusual pattern in European culture relative to a man striving to show his worthiness to a woman.

Portia with casket in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice

Unlike much writing today, medieval Latin literature went beyond narrow, unimaginative, careerist work upholding the orthodox beliefs of its time. Medieval Latin literature encompassed outrageous generic mixtures, parodies of divine liturgy and even of women, and deeply humane engagements with earthly life. The medieval songbook known as the Carmina Burana tends to be associated with a distinctive class of young, bohemian clerics (Goliards). The Gesta Romanorum, which provides a Christian moralization for each of its many prose tales, has in contrast been called a product of the “monkish” imagination. Yet the Carmina Burana and the Gesta Romanorum share sexual frankness and extensive cultural mixing. Both the Carmina Burana and the Gesta Romanorum are part of the cultural stream that fed Shakespeare’s expansive imagination.

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Read more:


[1] The earliest known instance of the pound-of-flesh motif is the story of the fourth sage in Johannes de Alta Silva’s Dolopathos, or, The King and the Seven Wise Men {Dolopathos sive de Rege et Septem Sapientibus}, written about 1190. For Latin text, HIlka (1913); for an English translation, Gilleland (1976) or Gilleland (1981). Dolopathos is part of the Sindibad / Seven Sages corpus. Dolopathos itself is the name of a legendary king of Sicily. That name means “one who suffers treachery or grief.” Gilleland (1976) p. 99. On the history of the pound-of-flesh motif, Cardozo(1925), Ch. 8. The Gesta Romanorum‘s story “no doubt descends” from Dolopathos. Id. p. 281.

Absalom was the most beautiful person in all of Israel. 2 Samuel 14:25. That’s particularly remarkable given that men’s beauty tends to be under-appreciated relative to women’s beauty.

[2] Carmina Burana 61, “If the assembly of Muses has enriched someone {Siquem Pieridum ditavit contio},” st. 4a-b, Latin text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Traill (2018). Subsequent quotes of Latin verse are similarly from “Siquem Pieridum ditavit contio.”

[3] Anglo-Latin (Bodleian Library, Douce MS 310) Gesta Romanorum 48 (“Pound of Flesh”), Latin text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Bright (2019). Cf. 2 Corinthians 12:9: “My grace is sufficient for you {Vulgate: sufficit tibi gratia mea}.” Subsquent quotes of Latin prose are similarly from Gesta Romanorum 48.

[4] Gesta Romanorum 84 (“Whale, Three Caskets”) in Bright (2019). The three-caskets motif probably originated in India. It’s found in manuscripts of the Barlaam and Ioasaph corpus.

The Gesta Romanorum also includes a version of the story of King Lear from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain {Historia regum Britanniae}. In the Gesta Romanorum, the sincerely loving daughter tells her father that she loves him “as much as you are worth and neither more nor less {tantum sicut tu uales et non plus neque minus}.” See Gesta Romanorum 21 (“Lear”) in Bright (2019).

[images] (1) Shylock and Portia discussing the contract in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Painting by Thomas Sully in 1835. Preserved as accession # FPa78 in the Folger Shakespeare Library (Washington, DC; USA). (2) Portia with gold casket and key in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Painting by Joseph Severn in 1840. Via Sofi on flickr.


Bright, Philippa, ed. and trans. 2019. The Anglo-Latin Gesta Romanorum: from Oxford, Bodleian Library, Douce MS 310. Oxford Medieval Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cardozo, Jacob Lopes. 1925. The Contemporary Jew in the Elizabethan Drama. University of Amsterdam, Dissertation. New York: Burt Franklin.

Gilleland, Brady B. 1976. “Three Stories from the Dolopathos of Johannes de Alta Silva.” Allegorica. 2: 99–117.

Gilleland, Brady B. 1981. Johannes de Alta Silva. Dolopathos, or, The king and the seven wise men. Binghamton, N.Y.: Center for Medieval & Early Renaissance Studies.

Hilka, Alfons, ed. 1913. Historia septem sapientum. II. Johannis de Alta Silva Dolopathos, sive De rege et septem sapientibus. Heidelberg: C. Winter.

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

Jason’s impotence in love with Medea in Benoît’s Roman de Troie

Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s influential Romance of Troy {Roman de Troie}, from about 1165, describes Medea and Jason consummating their clandestine marriage. The relevant verses are coy and intricate:

Then all night long they lay together,
just as I found in the book,
naked body to naked body and arm in arm.
I hide from you nothing else.
If Jason wasn’t impotent,
that night he had her virginity.
Because if he desired this, she too did just as much.

{ Tote la nuit se jurent puis,
Ensi com jo el Livre truis,
Tot nu a nu e braz a braz.
Autre celee ne vos faz:
Se il en Jason ne pecha,
Cele nuit la despucela;
Quar, s’il le voust, ele autretant. }[1]

While the general nuptial direction is obvious, these verses have puzzling elements. They subtly concern major themes of the Roman de Troie as a whole.

Roman de Troie explicitly reports its primary source to be Dares of Phrygia’s The History of Troy’s Fall {De excidio Troiae historia}. According to Benoît, Homer lived a hundred years after the Trojan War. Dares of Phrygia, in contrast, claimed to be an eye-witness to the Trojan War. Benoît regarded Dares’s Latin account of the Trojan War to be more credible than Homer’s famed Iliad. Benoît pledged to follow Dares:

Here I shall begin the account.
The Latin version I will follow faithfully.
I would like to add nothing to it,
but write only what is written there.
I will include some fine sayings
of my own, if I am able to do so,
but I will follow my source material.

{ Ci vueil l’estoire comencier:
Le latin sivrai e la letre,
Nule autre rien n’i voudrai metre,
S’ensi non com jol truis escrit.
Ne di mie qu’aucun bon dit
N’i mete, se faire le sai,
Mais la matire en ensivrai. }

In his description of Medea and Jason in bed on their wedding night, Benoît’s attribution “just as I found in the book {ensi com jo el Livre truis}” plausibly refers to Dares’s De excidio Troiae. But Dares’s history doesn’t mention Medea and Jason at all.[2] Benoît may be ironically signaling his own important contribution to the history of Troy’s fall.

After describing Jason and Medea intertwined naked in bed, Benoît declared, “I hide from you nothing else {autre celee ne vos faz}.” The typical behavior of a newly married couple naked in bed is well-known. What is Benoît hiding in relation to “nothing else”? Benoît stated that Jason might have been impotent. Hidden from the reader is whether Medea and Jason actually had sex that night. The larger issue is men’s hidden weakness.

The possibility of Jason being impotent contrasts sharply with Medea’s powers and initiative. Medea was the daughter of Aeetes, King of Colchis. After briefly describing Medea’s familial position and her beauty, Benoît elaborated extensively upon Medea’s capabilities:

She was his daughter
and she was a very great beauty.
He didn’t have any other child or heir.
She had great knowledge,
with much skill and mastery
concerning conjuring and sorcery.
She had applied herself to these arts so intently
that she was extremely wise and learned.
Astronomy and necromancy
she had all learned by heart as a child.
About magical arts and conjuring she knew so much
that a bright day she could turn into a dark night.
If she wished so, it would appear
that you were flying through the air.
She made rivers flow upstream.
Her knowledge had great range.

{ C’est une fille qu’il aveit,
Que de mout grant beauté esteit;
Il n’aveit plus enfant ne heir.
Trop ert cele de grant saveir:
Mout sot d’engin e de maistrie,
De conjure e de sorcerie;
Es arz ot tant s’entente mise
Que trop par ert sage e aprise;
Astronomie e nigromance
Sot tote par cuer des enfance;
D’arz saveit tant e de conjure,
De cler jor felïst nuit oscure;
S’ele vousist, co fust viaire
Que volisseiz par mi cel aire;
Les eves faiseit corre ariere;
Scientose ert de grant maniere. }

Medea inquired about the Greek visitors, identified Jason, and gazed upon him:

She well inquired and asked
from where these men were and of what kingdom.
When she knew for certain
that Jason was there, she was very pleased.
She had heard much talk of him
and much was he praised far and wide.
She became very fond of him in her heart
and wasn’t able in any way
to take her eyes off him.
He seemed to her to have a very noble bearing.
She examined the form of his body,
his golden, curly hair
and beautiful eyes and lovely face.
Already I fear she will find him too attractive!
He had a lovely mouth and a tender look,
a lovely chin, a lovely body, and beautiful arms;
large and broad were his hips.
He spoke very demurely,
and was wise and well-mannered.
Many times she gazed upon his face,
many times Medea directed her eyes at him,
tenderly, openly, honestly, without contempt.
Many times she tenderly looked at him.

{ Bien ot enquis e demandé
Dont cil erent, de quel regné.
Quant ele certainement sot
Que c’ert Jason, meut par li plot:
Moot en aveit oï parler
E mout l’aveit oï loër.
Mout l’aama enz en son cuer:
Ne poëit pas a nesun fuer
Tenir ses ieuz se a lui non;
Mout li ert de gente façon.
La forme esguarde de son cors:
Cheveus recercelez e sors
A e beaus ieuz e bele face
Dès or criem que trop ne li place; —
Bele boche a e dous reguarz,
Bel menton, bel cors e beaus braz;
Large e grant a la forcheure,
Si a mout simple parleure,
Sage est e de bone maniere.
Mout le reguarde en mi la chiere.
Mout i a Medea ses ieuz
Douz, frans e simples, senz orguieuz;
Mout le remire doucement }

Men typically don’t get offended by the female gaze. In contrast to the usual instrumental view of men, women appreciating men’s objective physical beauty can provide welcome relief from the gender oppression that men endure.[3] Medea became madly in love with Jason. She wanted to have sex with him right away and wanted to marry him. For a whole week she considered and plotted how she could have complete joy in an affair with him.

Medea soon found an opportunity to proposition Jason. One day after a meal, King Aeetes urged Medea to make pleasant conversation with Jason and Hercules. Medea approached them and urbanely introduced herself. Jason appreciated Medea’s initiative:

I thank you beyond anything
that you have seen fit to talk to me
and to address me first.
What you have done shows good breeding,
and since it pleased you to act in this way,
know that all the days of my life
for this I shall be grateful to you.

{ Merci vos rent sor tote rien
Dont il vos plot qu’a mei parlastes
E que première m’areisnastes.
Fait i avez que de bon aire,
E quant tant vos en plot a faire,
A toz les jorz de mon aé
Sacheiz vos en savrai mais gré. }

To this day men continue to bear a vastly gender-disproportionate burden of soliciting amorous relationships, to say nothing of paying for dinners. Unlike far too many women today, Medea took the initiative to speak first to a man in whom she had a love interest.

As a confident, knowledgeable woman, Medea strongly advised Jason not to seek the Golden Fleece. She explained that many men had died in seeking the Golden Fleece. Men’s lives, especially Jason’s, mattered to Medea. She explained in detail the mortal dangers that he would encounter if he sought the Golden Fleece. She declared that he would never succeed on his own in acquiring the Golden Fleece. Instead, he was sure to die like so many other men had.

With the lack of self-appreciation typical among men under gynocentrism, Jason brushed off Medea’s concern for his life. He declared:

“Lady,” he said, “don’t alarm me.
I didn’t come here in order to turn back
like someone who has lost heart.
I prefer to die rather than not to try
to see if I can somehow get hold of it.
If I cannot take it away with me,
I don’t wish to go back home.
If I did that, I would be shamed forever,
and would never recover my honor.
I must carry out this task as planned.
I have done so much that I cannot change.
Whatever comes as my fate, be it bad or good,
I cannot change course now.”

{ “Dame,” fait il, “ne m’esmaiez:
Ne sui mie por ço venuz
Que m’en torge come esperduz;
Mieuz vueil morir que jo n’essai
S’en nul sen aveir le porrai.
Se mei ne l’en puis porter,
Ja mais ne m’en quier retorner;
Quar a toz jorz honiz sereie,
Si que ja mais honor n’avreie.
Par ci m’en covient a passer:
Tant en ai fait nel puis muer;
Seit maus, seit biens, que que m’en vienge,
Ne puet estre que jo m’en tienge.” }

Jason valued shame and honor attributed to him under gynocentrism above his own survival. That’s pure folly. That’s the same folly that Benoît repeatedly attributed to the Greeks as they allowed the Trojan War’s brutal violence against men to continue for ten horrific years.

Medea heroically intervened to save Jason’s life. She proposed to help him if he would marry her:

But if I could be sure
of having your love,
that you would take me as your wife,
and would never abandon me
when you return to your homeland,
and so you wouldn’t leave me in this place
but remain faithful to me,
I would skillfully devise a plan
by which you could achieve your goal,
without incurring death or grave harm.
Only I and no other could help,
guide and counsel you.
Indeed, I know so much necromancy
that I have learned from my youth
that, when I wish something to be, I can do it.
I won’t have any difficulty or impediment.
However arduous the task, all is easy for me.
I shall not find any obstacles to doing it.
Now consider how you will respond,
whether you will accept what I offer.
Tell me your heart, without deceiving me.
All that you intend I wish to know.

{ Mais se de ço seüre fusse
Que jo t’amor aveir poüsse,
Qu’a femme espose me preisses,
Si que ja mais ne me guerpisses,
Quant en ta terre retornasses,
Qu’en cest pais ne me laissasses,
E me portasses leial fei,
Engin prendreie e bon conrei
Com ceste chose parfereies,
Que mort ne mahaing n’i prendreies.
Fors mei ne t’en puet rien aidier
Ne aveier ne conseillier.
Mais jo sai tant de nigromance,
Que j’ai aprise dès m’enfance,
Que, quant que jo vueil, tot puis faire:
Ja ne m’iert peine ne contraire.
Quant que est grief, tot m’est legier:
Ja n’i troverai encombrier.
Or esguarde que tun feras,
Saveir se tu[l] m’otreieras:
Ton cuer m’en di senz deceveir,
Tot ton corage en vueil saveir. }[4]

Jason needed Medea’s sorcery in order to avoid dying in attempting to retrieve the Golden Fleece. He accepted her marriage proposition. He swore to be faithful to her and to love her more than anyone else.

Medea and Jason in the Roman de Troie

In fact, Medea and Jason’s marriage was based on deception. Gynocentrism deceives men into thinking that they must subordinate themselves to women in order to be worthy of women’s love. Jason promised to subordinate himself to Medea as his wife:

You will be my lady and my beloved, and
you will have lordship over me.
I will devote myself to your service such
that I will do whatever pleases you.

I have consented to be your prisoner.

{ Ma dame sereiz e m’amie,
De mei avreiz la seignorie:
Tant emendrai a vos servir
Que tot ferai vostre plaisir.

S’en vostre prison me sui mis }

Men held as women’s prisoners cannot truly love women. Jason surrendered himself in abject service to his wife Medea:

My lady, he who is your knight
will be totally and completely yours
all the days of his life.
He beseeches you and humbly requests
that you receive him as your feudal subordinate
under the condition that he will never do anything
that causes you grief or otherwise displeases you.

{ Dame, li vostre chevaliers,
Icil qui quites senz partie
Sera toz les jorz de sa vie,
Vos prie e requiert doucement
Quel receveiz si ligement,
Qu’a nul jor mais chose ne face
Que vos griet ne que vos desplace. }

Jason’s proclaimed subordination to his wife Medea is a repugnant travesty of the medieval ideal of a conjugal partnership. The quagmire of men’s subordination to women is a perilous foundation for marriage. Not surprisingly, Medea and Jason’s marriage ended in epic disaster — betrayal and horrific violence, just like the Trojan War.[5]

Jason gets the Golden Fleece in the Roman de Troie

Men’s impotence leads inexorably to epic disaster. Of course men occasionally experience sexual incapability. That’s not a social-systemic problem. Castration culture is the social-systemic problem corresponding to men’s impotence. Castration culture can function indirectly under figures brutalizing men’s sexuality. Men’s internalization of a distorted, violent honor-shame complex prevents them from striving to preserve the seminal blessing that men carry. That’s why Jason didn’t turn away from his quest for the Golden Fleece, nor the Greek men turn away from their quest to ravage Troy.

* * * * *

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[1] Benoît de Sainte-Maure, Roman de Troie, vv. 1643-9, Old French text from Constans (1904) vol. 1, English translation (modified slightly) from Burgess & Kelly (2017). For v. 1647, “Se il en Jason ne pecha,” translations differ: “Unless Jason experienced any impotence,” “Jason did not sin therein,” and “if nothing was lacking in Jason,” in Burgess & Kelly (2017) p. 65, O’Callaghan (1995) p. 38, and Feimer (1983) p. 174. With regard to Jason’s performance in bed with Medea, De Santis observed:

and yet it is surprising that even this evidence is called into doubt by the author with an allusion to a possible failure by the hero

{ eppure è sorprendente che anche questa evidenza venga revocata in dubbio dall’autore con l’allusione a una possibile defaillance da parte dell’eroe }

De Santis (2016) p. 32. Above I’ve followed Burgess & Kelly’s translation, which seems to me best in context.

Benoît’s massive 30,316-verse Roman de Troie has survived in 58 manuscripts, 30 of which are complete. That’s far more than any medieval Old French Arthurian romance, including those of Chrétien de Troyes. Id. pp. 1-3. Guido delle Colonne’s History of Troy’s Destruction {Historia Destructionis Troiae} drew largely upon Benoît’s Roman de Troie.

The Roman de Troie is one of three twelfth-century Old French “romances about antiquity {romans d’antiquité}.” The other two are the Roman de Thèbes and the Roman d’Eneas.

In his account of Jason and Medea, Benoît condemned Jason for betraying his vows to Medea. Roman de Troie vv. 1635-8; for discussion, Nickolaus (2002) p. 72. Benoît focused on Medea’s experience of love and ignored Medea’s familial crimes. De Santis (2016). Modern scholarly study of the love relationship between Medea and Jason has similarly focused on Medea, with solicitousness toward the woman and righteous claims of misogyny. See, e.g. McElduff (2012), Morse (1996). While the myth of Medea provides a representation of women’s violence, women’s violence in ordinary life is well-known in actual experience.

Subsequent quotes from Roman de Troie are similarly sourced. They are vv. 138-44 (Here I shall begin the account…), 1213-28 (She was his daughter…), 1255-77 (She well inquired and asked…), 1322-8 (I thank you beyond anything…), 1388-1400 (“Lady,” he said…), 1407-28 (But if I could be sure…), 1435-8, 1597 (You will be my lady and my beloved…), 1602-8 (My lady, he who is your knight…).

[2] Feimer (1983) p. 153. Nonetheless, Burgess & Kelly (2017) has “in Dares’s book” in its translation of v. 1644. Benoît drew upon Ovid’s account of Medea and Jason, but added much more than “fine sayings {bons dits}.” Unlike in Ovid, Benoît’s Medea doesn’t agonize over the conflict between modesty and love passion. Feimer (1983) p. 161.

[3] Apparently striving to preserve the poor-dearing literary ideology of the “male gaze,” O’Callaghan declared:

Medea is, in fact, made passive by her gaze. Her look lacks aggression and, therefore, does not objectify Jason. … Love has effectively transformed Medea from mighty sorceress to submissive woman, for she cannot restrain her feelings for Jason … Thus she is torn between the passivity which accompanies her initial visual perception of Jason and an overwhelming and aggressive determination to possess him. This seeming dichotomy serves to heighten the sense of Medea’s inner turmoil for the reader.

O’Callaghan (1995) pp. 19, 24. 47. Jason, in contrast, is so passive that Medea has to send a serving-woman to bring him to her bedroom. Roman de Troie vv. 1521-84. For relevant discussion, De Santis (2016) pp. 31-2.

[4] Medea’s boast, “when I wish something to be, I can do it” shows no self-consciousness of her need to bargain with Jason to gain his love. Despite all her powers, Medea cannot just make Jason love her in the way she apparently seeks to be loved.

In the only surviving fragment of Ovid’s Medea, Medea declares to Jason:

I had the power to save you. You question whether I have the power to destroy you?

{ servare potui: perdere an possim rogas? }

Quoted in Quintilian, The Orator’s Education {Institutio Oratoria} 8.5.6. Power to destroy doesn’t imply ability to compel love. Women have great power to destroy. But women, for all their power, cannot force men to love them.

Modern female supremacists extensively expand Medea’s lack of self-consciousness. Consider, for example, a vision obviously meant to be exhilarating for courageous, progressive thinkers:

Women who do not marry, who choose, limit, and control the time and place of their sexual encounters, who use sex as either an end in itself or a means to reproduce, who choose the children they will keep and raise, who in some versions kill their partners or their male children — such women, depending on our own attitudes towards women’s sexuality, can seem either terrifying or exhilarating.

Carl (1998) p. 114. In this fantasy of female totalitarianism, when a woman declares to a man the time and place for a sexual encounter, he submissively complies. Men have no reproductive rights and no rights to custody of their children. Women’s lethal domestic violence against men and male children is socially approved. This “exhilarating” vision of female supremacism surely cannot include men loving women as persons like themselves.

[5] Gynocentrism, women-are-wonderful myth, and anti-meninism have led to scholarly absurdities such as the claim: “Refined, humanistic, and feminine values enter the European stage around 1100.” Cormier (2004) p. 67. Writing in early-ninth-century Europe, Walahfrid Strabo was more refined and more humanistic, as well as less ignorant and less sexist, than many modern scholars.

[image] (1) Medea and Jason. Painting by John William Waterhouse in 1907. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Jason getting the Golden Fleece. Illumination made in 1340s for an instance of Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s Roman de Troie. From folio 14r of MS. Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana 1505.


Burgess, Glyn S., and Douglas Kelly. 2017. The Roman de Troie by Benoît de Sainte-Mauré: a translation. Gallica, 41. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer. Review by Sylvia Federico and by Cristian Bratu.

Carl, Glenda Warren. 1998. “Tu cuides que nos seions taus / come autres femes comunaus: the sexually confident woman in the Roman de Troie.” Ch. 6 (pp. 107-127) in Taylor, Karen J., ed. Gender Transgressions: Crossing the Normative Barrier in Old French Literature. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities. New York, Garland.

Constans, Léopold, ed. 1904-12. Le roman de Troie, par Benoît de Sainte-Maure, publié d’après tous les manuscrits connus. Société des Aanciens Textes Français. Paris: F. Didot. Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

Cormier, Raymond. 2004. “Brutality and violence in medieval French romance and its consequences.” Ch. 2 (pp. 67-82) in Classen, Albrecht, ed. Violence in Medieval Courtly Literature: a casebook. New York: Routledge.

De Santis, Silvia. 2016. “Amors, vers cui rien n’a defense. Medea e Giasone nel Roman de Troie di Benoît de Sainte-Maure.” Studj romanzi. 12: 9-35.

Feimer, Joel N.. 1983. The Figure of Medea in Medieval Literature: A Thematic Metamorphosis. Ph.D. Thesis, The City University of New York.

McElduff, Siobhan. 2012. “Epilogue: The Multiple Medeas of the Middle Ages.” Ramus. 41 (1/2): 190-205.

Morse, Ruth. 1996. The Medieval Medea. Cambridge: Brewer.

Nickolaus, Keith. 2002. Marriage fiction in old french secular narratives, 1170-1250: a critical re-evaluation of the courtly love debate. New York: Routledge.

O’Callaghan, Tamara Faith. 1995. Love imagery in Benoit de Sainte-Maure’s Roman de troie, John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Toronto. Preserved in the National Library of Canada = Bibliothèque nationale du Canada.

De Paulino et Polla: context for Chaucer’s Reeve’s Prologue

Simkin the Miller was cheating King’s Hall, Cambridge, in the grinding of its corn. John and Alan, two clerics studying at King’s Hall, brought corn to Simkin to try to figure out his cheating. After seeking their missing horse for hours, the clerics had to pay for overnight lodging at Simkin’s house. Simkin, who had set the horse loose, had stolen half their corn while they were chasing the horse.

Alan pondered law as he lay in bed in Simkin’s house. Simkin had a twenty-year old daughter Malyne “with broad buttocks and breasts round and high {with buttokes brode and brestes rounde and hye}.” Alan lustfully eyed the daughter and reasoned:

“Yes, John,” said he, “as ever I might thrive,
if I can, that wench there I’ll screw.
Some redress the law has shaped for us,
yes, John, there is a law that says thus:
that if a man in one point is injured,
that in another he shall be relieved.
Our grain is stolen, truly, you can’t say nay,
and we’ve had a hard time all this day,
and since I’ll have no amendment
for my loss, I will have easement.
By God’s soul, it shall be no other way!”

{ “For, John,” seyde he, “als evere moot I thryve,
If that I may, yon wenche wil I swyve.
Som esement has lawe yshapen us,
For, John, ther is a lawe that says thus:
That gif a man in a point be agreved,
That in another he sal be releved.
Oure corn is stoln, sothly, it is na nay,
And we han had an il fit al this day;
And syn I sal have neen amendement
Agayn my los, I will have esement.
By Goddes sale, it sal neen other bee!” }[1]

Alan went and embraced Malyne in her bed. A hard-working cleric, Alan had sex with her three times that night.[2] That was his “easement.”

Malyne and Alan came to love each other in accordance with a long literary tradition. When morning came, Alan was weary, “for he had labored all night long {for he had swonken al the longe nyght}.” But, following the classical literary genre of “dawn song,” he was mournful because he had to leave his beloved:

He said, “Farewell, Malyne, sweet creature!
The day is come. I may no longer remain here.
But evermore, wherever I go or ride,
I am your own clerk, sure as I may prosper!”

{ And seyde, “Fare weel, Malyne, sweete wight!
The day is come; I may no lenger byde;
But everemo, wher so I go or ryde,
I is thyn awen clerk, swa have I seel!” }

Malyne responded lovingly:

“Now, dear sweetheart,” said she, “go, farewell!
But before you go, one thing I’ll tell you:
when you go homeward by the mill,
right at the entry behind the door
you’ll find a half-bushel cake
that was made of your own meal
that I helped my father to steal.
And, good sweetheart, God save and keep you!”
And with that word she almost began to weep.

{ “Now, deere lemman,” quod she, “go, far weel!
But er thow go, o thyng I wol thee telle:
Whan that thou wendest homward by the melle,
Right at the entree of the dore bihynde
Thou shalt a cake of half a busshel fynde
That was ymaked of thyn owene mele,
Which that I heelp my sire for to stele.
And, goode lemman, God thee save and kepe!”
And with that word almoost she gan to wepe. }[3]

Malyne appreciated Alan’s love for her and his sexual effort. As The Reeve’s Tale shows, men’s love can convert women from thieves into generously loving persons.

Oswald the Reeve. teller of the Reeve's Tale in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

Aging affects what men can do for women. As an old man, Oswald the Reeve in the Reeve’s Prologue observed:

We dance always while the world will pipe,
for in our will there sticks ever a spur
to have a white head and a green tail,
as a leek has. Although our power is gone,
our will desires folly on and on.
And when we cannot do, then we’ll talk about it.

{ We hoppen alwey whil that the world wol pype.
For in oure wyl ther stiketh evere a nayl,
To have an hoor heed and a grene tayl,
As hath a leek; for thogh oure myght be goon,
Oure wyl desireth folie evere in oon.
For whan we may nat doon, than wol we speke }[4]

Just because an old man can no longer perform like a young man, his power to love isn’t gone. He can tell amusing stories to a beloved, and he can listen and laugh at a beloved’s amusing stories. The mutuality of love isn’t limited to sexual intercourse.

Men typically undervalue themselves in relation to women. Consider the case set out in the thirteenth-century comedy About Paulino and Polla {De Paulino et Polla}. As a young man, Paulino sought to marry Polla. She refused his love. When they became old, she sought to marry him. But as an old man he felt unworthy to be a husband:

In the past I greatly desired
that I would be able to have a wife.
Many times I proposed to Polla herself,
yet fate was such that she didn’t become my wife.
Since the best part of my life has now past,
I don’t want to subordinate myself to marriage bonds,
especially since my horse doesn’t respond to any
spurs on account of its frigidity.
It would be shameful to me if, when my wife was thirsty,
my horse wasn’t able to rise and ease her thirst with its fountain.
In fact it’s wiser to keep this infirmity covered up
than make it open to the gossip of common words.
Therefore my defect must be kept hidden, not revealed,
so that in old age I don’t fall into everyone’s talk.

{ Tempore preterito fuerat michi magna voluntas
Ut possem nuptam consociare michi,
Per pluresque vices ad Pollam misimus ipsam,
Nec fortuna fuit ut michi nupta foret.
Sed cum lapsa mee melior sit portio vite,
Nulli coniugio subdere colla volo,
Precipue quia noster equus calcaribus ullis
Respondere nequit frigiditate sua:
Esset turpe michi si, cum mea nupta sitiret,
Non posset medio fonte levare sitim.
Hunc etenim morbum consultius esse tegendum
Quam patulum fieri publica verba canunt;
Ergo meum vitium celari, non reserari
Debet, ne senio gentis in ore cadam. }[5]

The lawyer Fulco, whom Polla had hired to plead her love-suit to Paulino, sought to undermine Paulino’s claim of sexual infirmity:

You are naive to say that no spur can make
your horse move due to its frigidity.
You know well that an incessant drop bores through rock,
a stick whirled repeatedly on another stick heats up,
and iron is made sharp mutually with iron.
Thus, united with you, Polla will arouse your horse.
A woman’s flesh united with a man’s flesh re-ignites
flames, even those that tremble with deadened vigor.
Nothing is sweeter than the touch of female flesh,
the touch of no other mortal things has such power.
Every time you touch feet, legs, and the secret joy,
frigidity ceases and a fire warms your inners.
Thus as soon as you are joined as one in her grove,
believe me, frigidity will not be paralyzing you.
Your horse will spontaneously desire to run
that delightful race to the ring.
But if so much cold is in your genitals
such that you’re completely without power in its service,
you will be brought back to life with warm compresses
and roots used to arouse sexual activity.

{ Es simplex quia dicis equum calcaria nulla
Posse movere tuum frigiditate sua.
Assidua gutta bene scis quia petra cavatur,
Cum ferula ferula sepe rotata calet,
A ferro ferrum sibi mutuo sumit acumen:
Sic tibi iuncta tuum Polla movebit equum.
Feminea caro carne viri commixta resumit
Igniculos, quamvis mortificata tremat;
Feminee tactu carnis non dulcior ullus
Humanis rebus tactus inesse potest;
Crura, pedes quotiens secretaque gaudia tangis,
Cessat frigiditas, igne medulla calet.
Ut secum fueris congramineatus in unum,
Crede michi quia te frigora nulla prement;
Illius ad circi certamen delitiosum
Sponte sua cupiet currere vester equus.
Sed si tantus inest vestris genitalibus algor,
Hoc ut ad officium sis minus ipse potens,
Fomentis calidis, radicibus utilibusque
Moturis Venerem, vivificatus eris. }

Men historically have endured painful treatments to be able to engage in erection labor. But men unable to engage in erection labor can still hope to have loving relationships. Fulco advised the elderly Paulino:

If in that part you are totally ruined,
you nonetheless henceforth will not be hateful to Polla.
Perhaps to this work she will never call you,
since she might be suffering the disaster of a similar infirmity.
If you have a wrinkled face and white hair,
so too does she. You are frigid? She trembles with frigidity.
She will not charge you with a fault when she has an identical fault.
A blind man is wrong to reproach another blind man
for loss of sight, since he recalls his own shame.
Who would not laugh if a lame man said to another lame man
that he must walk with a straight step?

{ Denique si totus in ea sis parte peremptus,
Inde tamen Polle non odiosus eris:
Hoc ad opus numquam te forsitan illa vocabit,
Cum simili morbi clade laboret ea.
Est tibi si facies rugosa, capillus et albens,
Est et ei; friges? Frigiditate tremit.
Non ab ea poteris reprehendi frigiditatis
De vitio, vitium cum sibi presit idem.
Est cecum ceco de visus perditione
Improperare nephas: nam sua probra refert;
Quis non ridebit si claudus dicere claudo
Passibus ut rectis debeat ire velit? }

Although women lack men’s burden of performance, men should not assume that women will hypocritically disparage men. Women and men are equally human in aging.

Old men and old women retain their capacity to love simply by being alive. In the elderly Oswald the Reeve’s tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the young cleric Alan had sex three times in one night with the Simkin the Miller’s twenty-year-old daughter Malyne. In the medieval comedy De Paulino et Polla, the match-making lawyer Fulco was punished harshly for fostering Polla and Paulino’s marriage. Fulco was punished on the grounds that “sterile spouses are unable to bear fruit for God {nequeant steriles fructificare Deo}.” Medieval Christians, while valuing highly reproductive fruitfulness, didn’t actually believe that having sex was necessary to bear fruit for God. Some holy women and men in fact renounced sex in order to focus on bearing fruit for God. The comedy of the Reeve’s Tale and De Paulino et Polla encompasses the delusions of old men.

You wallow, promiscuous lover,
in a pool of wretchedness
and a mire of lust,
senselessly wasting time.
Why no fear
of offending heaven
or of humans’ mockery
as you ravage
body, property, and soul?
Save at least
your life’s last little portion.
Offer to heaven’s dwellers
in exchange for youth’s flowers
the stubble of old age.

{ In lacu miseriae
et luto luxuriae
volveris, inutile
tempus perdens, Panphile!
cur offensas numinum
aut derisum hominum
non metuis,
dum destruis
corpus, rem et animam?
salva saltem ultimam
vitae portiunculam,
offerens caelestibus
pro iuventae floribus
senectutis stipulam. }[6]

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[1] Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, vv. 4177-87, from the Reeve’s Tale, Middle English text from Benson (1987) / Riverside Chaucer, via Harvard’s Geoffrey Chaucer Website (pioneered by Larry Benson), my English modernization, benefiting from that of id. The previous short quote (with broad buttocks…) is similarly from v. 3975. Alternate modernizations of the Reeve’s Tale include those of Gerard NeCastro (eChaucer) and Michael Murphy (with overview of Reeve’s Tale).

The cleric John has sex with the Miller’s wife by moving an infant’s cradle from the foot of the bed of the Miller and his wife to the foot of his own bed. The wife, returning to bed, thus accidentally gets in bed with John and mistakes him for her husband. Other earlier, analogous “cradle trick” fabliaux are Jean Bodel’s Gombert and the Two Clerks {De Gombert et des II clers} (written between 1190 and 1194), The Miller and the Two Clerks {Le meunier et les II clers} (written in the thirteenth century), The Students’ Adventure {Das Studentenabenteuer} (written in the middle of the thirteenth century), Rüdiger von Munre’s Wayward One and Lusty Rascal {Irregang und Girregar} (written about 1300), and Tale 9.6 in Boccaccio’s Decameron (written about 1350). For English translations of the first four of these earlier analogues, Benson & Andersson (1971). Chaucer almost surely read Boccaccio’s Decameron. Beidler (1994), Harkins (2013).

Chaucer describes the clerks as being from “Soler Hall at Cambridge {Soler Halle at Cantebregge}” (v. 3990). That’s convincingly identified with the medieval King’s Hall at Cambridge. Brewer (1971).

Subsequent quotes from the Reeve’s Tale are similarly sourced. Those above are vv. 4235 (for he had labored…), 4236-9 (He said, “Farewell, Malyne…”), 4240-48 (“Now, dear sweetheart,”…), 3876-81 (We dance always…).

[2] Chaucer toned down the sexual vigor of earlier, analogous fabliaux. In Le meunier et les II clers, the clerk who slept with the daughter told the Miller, mistaken for the other clerk:

Friend, now go, if you can keep it quiet,
and get your share of the bacon.
There’s enough of it left over.
Seven times tonight I’ve taken her,
and yet there’s enough there to load down an ass.

{ Conpeignon, car va, si t’i muce,
Et si pran do bacon ta part;
Assez en a jusq’à la hart;
Par VII foiz l’ai anuit corbée,
Dès or sear boene l’asnée }

vv. 285-9, Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Benson & Andersson (1971) pp. 112-5. In Tale 9.6 of Boccaccio’s Decameron, the clerk more modestly declares, “I’ve gotten me up to the farm some six times {poscia che io mi parti’ quinci}.” Italian text from V. Branca’s Einaudi edition (1992), English translation of J. M. Rigg, 1903. In De Gombert et des II clers, the clerk describes having sexual intercourse three times from different directions:

I took her from the front and from the side;
I tapped her wine barrel.

{ Pris en ai devant et encoste;
Aforé li ai son tonel }

vv. 152-3, Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Benson & Andersson (1971) pp. 96-7. In this fabliau, the other clerk has sex three times with the Miller’s wife. Id. v. 115.

[3] Murphy observed:

Alan’s farewell (in dialect) and Malin’s response are parodies of the aube, aubade, or tagelied, the genre poem of the dawn parting of aristocratic lovers. But the aristocrat would not refer to his lady as wight, and neither would one ever use lemman, a very plebeian word for “lover.” Also the aube rarely dealt with the details of recovering stolen property.

See Murphy’s edition of the Reeve’s Tale, note 4, p. 18.

[4] The Reeve complains, “But I am old; because of age I do not want to play…. My heart is as moldy as my hairs {But ik am oold; me list not pley for age…. Myn herte is also mowled as myne heris}” (Reeve’s Prologue, v. 3867, 70). But he also declares:

Our old limbs may well be feeble,
but desire isn’t lacking, that’s the truth,
and I have always a young colt’s passion.

{ Oure olde lemes mowe wel been unweelde,
But wyl ne shal nat faillen, that is sooth.
And yet ik have alwey a coltes tooth }

Reeve’s Prologue, vv. 3886-8. The Reeve’s Prologue presents elaborate figures of men’s aging in relation to their sexuality. On those figures, Everest (1996).

[5] Richard of Venosa {Richardus Venusinus}, About Paulino and Polla {De Paulino et Polla} vv. 747-60, Latin text from Pittaluga (1986), my English translation, benefiting from the Italian translation of id. For earlier Latin editions, Rigillo (1906) and Briscese (1903).

In Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale, the clerks’ horse amorously chases after mares. But the horse might have been a gelding. A gelded horse is a possible allusion to the old man Oswald the Reeve. On the imagery of the Reeve’s sexual exhaustion, Everest (1996). On the sexual behavior of the horse, Feinstein (1991). The voluminous scholar work on the Reeve’s Tale apparently hasn’t noticed De Paulino et Polla and its old man Paulino discussing his horse. Students of Chaucer today surely would benefit from more attention to medieval Latin literature. In relatively liberal and tolerant medieval Europe, De Paulino et Polla was used as a school text. Parker (2012) p. 477.

Richard of Venosa names himself within his work: “a nursling of a Venosian family, the judge Richard wrote such an excellent work {Venusine gentis alumpnus / iudex Richardus tale peregit opus}.” De Paulino et Polla vv. 13-4. The judge Richard apparently worked as a city magistrate. He dedicated De Paulino et Polla (vv. 11-2) to the Emperor Frederick {Fredericus Cesar}, probably Frederick II of Swabia. Fulco appeals his case to Duke Rainald (vv. 1109-10). That’s almost surely Rainald of Urslingen, Lord of Spoleto, a duke who assumed the regency of Swabia when Frederick II went to the Holy Land. Hence Richard probably composed De Paulino et Polla in southern Italy in 1228-9. Little else is known about Richard of Venosa. See Ferruccio Bertini’s entry for Riccardo da Venosa in Federiciana (2005) and Fulvio Delle Donne’s entry for Riccardo da Venosa in the Biographical Dictionary of Italians, volume 87 (2016).

De Paulino et Polla is a highly learned work. It’s written in elegant Latin and draws upon the literary models of Ovid, Horace, and Virgil. De Paulino et Polla, “by the world’s Savior who governs all {per Salvatorem mundi qui cuncta gubernat}” (v. 325), alludes to Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy {De consolatione philosophiae}, “O you who in perpetual order govern the universe {O qui perpetua mundi ratione gubernas}” (Carmen 3.9.1). On this reference, Bisanti (2015).

De Paulino et Polla is within the medieval Italian tradition of Latin comedy. That Italian tradition includes De uxore cerdonis and Versus Eporedienses. Medieval Latin comedy wasn’t confined to the Loire Valley of France.

The subsequent two quotes from De Paulino et Polla are sourced as previously. They are vv. 777-96 (You are naive to say…) and 797-808 (If in that part you are totally ruined…).

[6] Carmina Burana 29, Philip the Chancellor, “The Conversion of Humankind {De conversione hominum},” st. 1, Latin text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Traill (2018). Both “De conversione hominum” and De Paulino et Polla evoke Pamphilus. Pamphilus is a character in a widely disseminated medieval Latin comedy.

“De conversione hominum” was earlier attributed to Peter of Blois. Traill, a leading authority on Philip the Chancellor and medieval Latin literature, attributes it to Philip. Philip was a lover, a poet, a theologian, and a college administrator:

Philip the Chancellor (ca. 1160–1236) was the youngest of the great Latin poets of the latter part of the twelfth century. His earliest datable poem commemorates the death of the Henry the Liberal, Count of Champagne, and so must be dated after, but presumably not long after, 17 March 1181. He studied and probably taught theology in Paris before becoming chancellor of Notre Dame in 1217.

Traill (2006) p. 164. In modern repressive, insular, and unforgiving Western culture, no college leader could have Philip the Chancellor’s range of experience and learning. At least today there is a psychedelic-rock interpretation of “De conversione hominum.”

[image] Oswald the Reeve, teller of the Reeve’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Illumination on folio 42r of the Ellesmere Manuscript (created between 1400 and 1410) of the Canterbury Tales. Preserved as MS. EL 26 C 9 in Huntington Library (San Marino, California).


Beidler, Peter G. 1994. ‘Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale, Boccaccio’s Decameron, IX, 6, and Two “Soft” German Analogues.’ The Chaucer Review. 28 (3): 237-251.

Benson, Larry D. and Andersson, Theodore Murdock. 1971. The Literary Context of Chaucer’s Fabliaux: texts and translations. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Benson, Larry D., ed. 1987. The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bisanti, Armando. 2015. ‘Riccardo da Venosa, De Paulino et Polla 325 e la fortuna medievale in un “incipit” boeziano.’ Bollettino di Studi Latini. 45 (1): 143-146.

Brewer, Derek S. 1971. “The Reeve’s Tale and the King’s Hall, Cambridge.” The Chaucer Review. 5 (4): 311-317.

Briscese, Rocco, ed. 1903. Paolino e Polla: pseudo-commedia del secolo XIII di Riccardo da Venosa. Melfi: Grieco.

Everest, Carol A. 1996. “Sex and Old Age in Chaucer’s Reeve’s Prologue.” The Chaucer Review. 31 (2): 99-114.

Feinstein, Sandy. 1991. “The Reeve’s Tale: About That Horse.” The Chaucer Review. 26 (1): 99-106.

Jessica Harkins. 2013. “Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale and Boccaccio’s Decameron X.10.” The Chaucer Review. 47 (3): 247-273.

Parker, Holt. 2012. “Renaissance Latin Elegy.” Ch. 29 (pp 476–90) in Barbara K. Gold, ed. A Companion to Roman Love Elegy. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackw

Pittaluga, Stefano, ed. and trans. (Italian). 1986. “Ricardus Venusinus, De Paulino et Polla.” Pp. 106-226 in Bertini, Ferruccio, ed. Commedie latine del XII e XIII secolo. Vol. 5. Genova: Istituto di Filologia Classica e Medievale, Università di Genova.

Rigillo, Michele, ed. and trans (Italian). 1906. Paolino e Polla: poemetto drammatico giocoso del sec. XIII di Riccardo da Venosa. Trani: Ditta V. Vecchi e C.

Traill, David A. 2006. “More Poems by Philip the Chancellor.” The Journal of Medieval Latin. 16: 164-181.

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

Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria shows courtly lover’s folly

In the Latin comedy Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria, which was probably written in the Loire Valley of France in the second half of the twelfth century, Pamphilus and his sweet beloved Gliscerium fought bitterly. She ran away to Paris. There she apparently supported herself by working as a prostitute.[1] Nonetheless, Pamphilus ardently sought to regain her love. He journeyed to Paris on horseback. His servant Birria accompanied him on foot. Anticipating Cervantes’s romantic fool Don Quixote, Pamphilus is a parody of the courtly lover.

When Pamphilus finally met Gliscerium in Paris, he was struck speechless in a reverent stupor. Then he behaved as few clients of prostitutes did:

Exulting excessively, Pamphilus wanted to appear to be
a knight beyond his level. He spurred his horse
to the extent that his nature and practice allowed.
With legs extended, he paraded as a knight in front of her.

{ Pamphilus exultans nimis affectansque uideri
Miles plus equo calcibus urget equum;
In quantum natura sibi concessit et usus,
Cruribus extensis, militat ante suam }[2]

She pretend not to recognized him. Instead of greeting him, she greeted his servant Birria. She told Birria, “I am yours, and you are mine {Sum tua; tu meus es}.” Birria suggested that they all go to an inn where Pamphilus could retake Gliscerium. Pamphilus was delighted with that proposal.

At the inn, Birria was unable to fit Pamphilus’s horse into their room, so he had it bed down in front of their door. Then Birria cooked a big dinner. The servant-cook ate quickly:

Pamphilus said: “You have industrious teeth, Birria,
and active hands in emptying the dish.”
Birria replied: “Long fasts exhaust the walker.
I feed on feasts, but you, Pamphilus, feed on love.”

{ Pamphilus inquit: “Habes operosos, Birria, dentes,
Et discum promtas euacuare manus.”
Qui contra: “Peditem ieiunia longa fatigant;
Nos epule, sed te, Pamphile, pascit amor.” }

Birria is a no-nonsense man of the flesh. Pamphilus, who feeds on live like the insane classical elegiac lover Gallus, exists in the unworldly realm of courtly love. Worldly existence, however, has its perils:

Birria said this, and amid swallowing, a fish-bone
sticks cross-ways in the channel of his throat.
Rising, Pamphilus saves Birria’s life with a beating
and a harsh antidote applied to his neck.
He said: “Be lenient on yourself with meals. It appears wiser to
live fasting than to die eating.”
Birria responded: “I suffer more from your blows than from the illness’s weight.
The illness itself is burdensome, but the medicine is worse.”

{ Dixit et in medio semesi piscis arista
Gutture transuersa gutturis artat iter;
Pamphilus assurgens uitam ledendo redemit,
Et durum collo contulit antidotum,
Dicens: “Parce cibis; discrecius esse uidetur
Viuere ieuiunus quam comedendo mori.”
Birria: “Plus doleo colaphis quam pondere morbi;
Morbus enim grauis est, sed medicina magis.” }

This comedic scene underscores a theme. Despite occasionally having to endure a beating, being a living, eating human being is better than being a fleshless spirit within the corporal world.

Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria repeatedly signals its parodic intent. After dinner, with the fire in the hearth fading, an odd event occurs:

And immediately the cock crowed. Birria alone
with his big ears catches the sound of its crowing.
Then he responds: “Listen, my dear Pamphilus! The herald of the day
beating its wings joyfully announces the day with its mouth.”

{ Et statim gallus cantauit; Birria solus
Cantantis patula suscipit aure sonum;
Deinde refert: “Audi, mi Pamphile; praeco diei
Alis et leto nunciat ore diem.” }

As a servant who relished eating, Birria certainly looked forward to breakfast. But this cock wasn’t behaving normally. This cock was correctly announcing the start of the solar day according to classical Roman time accounting. The time was midnight, not dawn.[3]

With ritual paralleling Christian Eucharistic communion, Pamphilus then enjoyed Gliscerium in bed. These were rites of the love goddess Venus:

Pamphilus then orders that wine be brought and the bed be prepared,
and the commanded by commanding is done.
Birria pours wine into a chalice for his lord and offers it,
bending his knees and with his hand under the cup.
The straw is collected and the bed arranged to honor the love goddess,
but it would be more apt for a humble religious brother.
The bed’s furnished glory is covered
with animal skins, and linen sheets are totally lacking.
Pamphilus meanwhile is serving his lady.
With head bowed to her, he pulls off her shoes.
Before laying down for the lady, he pulls off her clothes.
Not remembering the Psalms or the Cross, he goes down for the lady.
Gliscerium at last is stripped of all her clothing. With her arms she
embraces her companion, and he places her on their wedding bed.
He embraces her, performing playful negotiations,
and totally subjects himself to services for the love goddess.

{ Tunc iubet afferri uinum lectumque parari
Pamphilus et iussus iussa iubentis agit;
Infundit uinum calici dominoque propinat,
Defixis genibus subpositaque manu.
Stramine construitur modico Venerique paratur
Lectus qui potius religiosus erat;
Sternuntur supra decus ornatusque cubilis
Pelles, sed pannus lineas omnis abest.
Pamphilus interea domine famulatur et eius
Pronus de pedibus calciamenta trahit;
Qui prius accumbens domine resupinat amictum;
Psalmorumque subit immemor atque crucis;
Gliscerium tandem spoliis nudatur et ulnis
Amplexam socio collocat ille thoro;
Amplexatur eam iocunda negocia tractans,
Et Veneris totius subditur obsequiis }

The text connects God’s creation of the world in Genesis to arranging a straw bed. The courtly lover bows to his lady. That gesture here doesn’t signal feudal subservience, but his taking off her shoes. Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria moves readily between honoring the Christian God’s love with Eucharistic wine to worshiping the traditional Greco-Roman love goddess Venus on a straw bed. It shows the Christian literary sense of Jesus healing with mud spittle.[4]

The fate of the horse shows that same Christian comic sense. During the night, “the wretched horse philosophizes in front of their door {miser ante fores philosophatur equus}.” What philosophizing means is soon made clear. In the morning:

Taking hay, Birria opens the door. The servant,
seeing the inanimate horse on its side, kicks it three times.
It’s kicked uselessly. The dead would rise again before
by warning of voice or foot that horse would rise.

{ Assumpto feno, reseratur porta; minister
In latus exanimem ter pede pulsat equum;
Frustra pulsatur, quod mortuus ante resurget
Quam monitu uocis uel pede surgat equus. }

In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates declares that philosophy is preparation for death. The horse philosophizing means that it was preparing itself for death. Jesus promised that the dead would rise again. Birria and Pamphilus treat the horse’s death with a mash of classical and Christian thought:

Pamphilus comes out the door, saying, “You were slow,
are slow, and always will be slow, Birria.”
He: “Why do you scold me? I’m not the cause of the delay, but this
horse that has died a unexpected death delays us.”
Pamphilus: “Aw, what? The horse is dead?” He: “Look!
If you don’t wish to believe my words, believe the thing.
Now be the king of your soul. Moderate your sorrow.
Sorrow isn’t able to assist anyone in lessening damages.”

{ Egrediturque foras dicens: “Lentusque fuisti
Et nunc et semper, Birria, lentus eris.”
Ille: “Quod obiurgas? in me mora nulla, set iste
Nos insperata morte moratur equus.”
Pamphilus “Heu, quid? equus est mortuus?” Ille: “Videto:
Si non uis uerbo credere, crede rei;
Nunc animi rex esto tui; moderare dolorem;
Nemo doloris ope dampna leuare potest.” }

The ancient Christian doxology “Glory be to the Father {Gloria Patri}” declares the Father’s glory, “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be {sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper}.” Pamphilus applied that to Birria being slow. The closing two verses seem to refer to the classical tradition of consolation running through Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound {Προμηθεὺς Δεσμώτης} and Cicero’s Consolation {Consolatio}. Pamphilus then outrageously interpreted God repaying persons:

Pamphilus: “Alas! He was useful. God repays all.”
Birria responds: “Let’s skin him!”
Pamphilus: “Turn him into money, Birria. Sell the hair,
the tail, the saddle, sell the bridle and the skin.”

{ Pamphilus: “Ha! conductus erat; Deus omnia areddet.”
Birria respondit: “Excoriemus eum!”
Pamphilus: “Ad nummos trahe, Birria, uende capillum,
Subsellam, frenum, cingula uende, cutum.” }

That’s what they did. That’s not how God typically repays for sorrows and losses. Medieval Latin comedies include extensive satire of avarice.[5] That’s what these verses are.

Pamphilus in Plautus's Andria

Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria literally thrusts the courtly lover into the mud of everyday reality. As the three walk back to the home of Gliscerium’s father in Lisieux, guards at Evreux catch them. The guards think that they are thieves:

Pamphilus, seized by the hair of his forehead, is tumbled
into the mud and repeatedly his back parts sound with whipping.

{ Pamphilus in cenum, prensis a fronte capillis,
Voluitur et crebro uerbere terga sonant. }

In a parody of the trial of Jesus, Pamphilus and the others are released through the supportive cries of a crowd gathered for their trial. Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria concludes with a mundane happy ending:

They enter the town. The joyful father receives them from their captivity.
They rejoice: she thus to have him, and he to have her.

{ Vrbi succedunt; hilaris pater excepit illos;
Gaudent; illa suum sic habet, ille suam. }

In medieval Europe, men and women having each other’s love was regarded as sufficient for them. The figure of the courtly lover abjectly serving his haughty, beloved lady is fundamentally inconsistent with Christianity. Christians understand that they are made of mud and live in mud. Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria is a muddy mixture of classical and Christian literature organized as a parody of a courtly love quest.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Smolak observed:

The lady who once left her lover after a quarrel or dispute now obviously earns her living in the capital as a prostitute — which is not explicitly stated, but seems inevitable in a medieval social context.

Smolak (2013) pp. 87-8. Contextual aspects of Gliscerium’s behavior strongly support that interpretation.

[2] Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria, vv. 21-4, Latin text from Cordier (1931), my English translation, benefiting from the French translation of id. and the English translation of Crawford (1977). For a freely available Latin text that’s quite good, Lohmeyer (1897). Currently the best critical edition is Savi (1976), which unfortunately wasn’t available to me. Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria survives in two manuscripts: Vatican Library, Reg. lat. 344, folios 55v-56v, apparently written at the beginning of the thirteenth century; and Royal Library of Copenhagen, Codex 2020, apparently written late in the twelfth century.

The author of Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria apparently was a French cleric living in the Loire Valley. The reference to King Henry in v. 203 plausibly refers to Henry II Plantagenet. That suggests a date of composition between 1154 and 1189. Crawford (1977) p. 136.

The names of the characters apparently come from Terence’s Woman from Andros {Andria}. In Terence’s play, Pamphilus’s beloved is Glycerium, and Byrrhia is a slave under Charinus, Pamphilus’s friend. The plot of Andria has little relation to that of Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria.

Subsequent quotes above from Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria are similarly sourced. They are vv. 30 (I am yours, and you are mine), 51-2 (Pamphilus said: “You have industrious teeth…”), 55-62 (Birria said this, and amid swallowing…), 69-72 (And immediately the cock crowed…), 73-88 (Pamphilus then ordered that wine be brought…), 96 (the wretched horse philosophizes…), 135-8 (Taking hay, Birria opens the door…), 141-7 (Pamphilus comes out of the door…), 149-52 (Pamphilus: “Alas! He was useful…”), 179-80 (Pamphilus, seized by the hair…), 207-8 (They enter the town…).

[3] Crawford missed this subtlety. He translated, “the herald of the day, beating its wings, announces the dawn with joyful cries.” Crawford (1977) p. 161. That would be conventional. But in its context in Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria, the time clearly isn’t dawn.

[4] Smolak argues that Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria “is conceived as a parody of the Passion of Christ, his resurrection, and ascension into his Father’s reign.” Smolak (2013), from the Abstract. It seems to me more than a Christian parody such as medieval liturgical parodies.

[5] For medieval satire of avarice in Latin comedy, see, e.g. The wife of the handicrafts-man {De uxore cerdonis}, The Turnip {Rapularius}, Vitalis of Blois’s The Little Pot {Aulularia}, and Arnulf of Orléans’s Braggart Soldier {Miles Gloriosus}.

[image] Pamphilus in Terence’s Andria / The Girl from Andros, Illumination made c. 1100 in Tours, France. Excerpt from folio 8 of Ms. Tours, Bibliothèque municipale, 0924. Via Portail Biblissima.


Cordier, André, ed. and trans. (into French). 1931. “Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria.” Ch. IX (pp. 83-101) in vol. 2 of Cohen, Gustave, ed. La “Comédie” Latine en France au XIIe Siècle. Paris: Les Belles-Lettres.

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

Lohmeyer, K, ed. 1897. “Pamphilus und Gliscerium. Eine unedierte elegische komödie.” Zeitschrift Für Deutsches Altertum Und Deutsche Literatur. 41: 144-155.

Savi, Annamaria, ed. and trans. (Italian). 1976. “Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria.” Pp. 199-277 in Bertini, Ferruccio, ed. Commedie latine del XII e XIII secolo. Vol. 1. Genova: Università di Genova.

Smolak, Kurt. 2013. “Narrative, Elegy, Parody: The Medieval Latin Comedy Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria.” Medievalia et Humanistica. 39: 87-102.

Tyolet and Tydorel underscore Perceval’s devastating father-death

Both Perceval in Chrétien de Troyes’s late-twelfth-century French romance Perceval and Tyolet in an early thirteenth-century lai Tyolet grew up in the woods with their mothers after their fathers died. Neither Perceval nor Tyolet knew a father’s love. A father’s death or absence from his son’s life tends to re-orient his son’s seminal blessing toward death-seeking.[1] Perceval and Tyolet experienced men’s loyalty and devotion to other men as knights engaged in the death-seeking of brutal violence against men. In the lai Tydorel from about the same time, Tydorel ardent desire to know his father similarly prompted him to die to this world in departing to another world.

Men deeply need fellowship with other men. Consider, for example, Tyolet’s encounter with men “knight-beasts {chevaliers bestes}.” A stag that Tyolet was hunting crossed a river. It then metamorphosed:

It assumed the appearance of a knight.
The knight was fully armed at the water’s edge
and, mounted on a horse with flowing mane,
he sat just like an armed knight.
The youth observed him.
He had never seen the like.
He looked upon him in amazement
and gazed at him for a long time.
He wondered at such a thing,
for he had never before seen its like.
He stared at him intently.

{ Et .I. chevalier resembloit;
Tot armé sor l’eve s’estoit,
Sor .I. cheval detriés comé,
S’estoit com chevalier armé.
Le vallet l’a aparceü;
Onques mes tel n’avoit veü.
A merveilles l’a esgardé
Et longuement l’a avisé.
De tel chose se merveilloit,
Car onques mes veü n’avoit;
Ententivement l’avisa. }[2]

The knight pleasantly greeted Tyolet. When Tyolet inquired “what kind of beast a knight was {quel beste chevalier estoit},” the knight explained:

It’s a beast which is much dreaded.
It captures and eats other beasts.
Much of the time it dwells in the woods,
but it dwells as well on open land.

{ C’est une beste molt cremue;
Autres bestes prent et menjue,
El bois converse molt souvent
Et a plainne terre ensement. }

Tyolet hunted in the woods, capturing and eating various beasts. But he had never before encountered a beast like a knight. He asked about the knight’s helmet, shield, hauberk, greaves, sword, and lance. Tyolet, who hunted with whistling and a knife, envied the knight’s elaborate equipment, but he also sought companions:

Would to God, who never lied,
that I might have such equipment
as you have, so fine and handsome,
that I had such a coat, such a cloak,
as you have, and such a head-piece.
Now tell me, knight-beast,
in God’s name and his holy festival,
if there are any other beasts like you
or any as beautiful as you are.

{ Car pleüst Dieu qui ne menti
Que j’eüsse tiex garnemenz
Con vos avez, si biaus, si genz,
Tel cote eüsse, et tel mantel
Con vos avez, et tel chapel.
Or me dites, chevalier beste,
Por Deu, et por la seue feste,
Se il est auques de tiex bestes
Ne de si beles con vos estes. }

The knight pointed out many other men knight-beasts:

Two hundred armed knights
were making their way across a meadow.
They came from the king’s court and
had been carrying out his orders.
They had captured a fortress,
set fire to it, and reduced it to ashes.
They were returning fully armed
in three squadrons in close array.

{ Que .II. cenz chevaliers armez
Erroient tres par mi uns prez,
Qui de la cort au roi venoient.
Son commandement fet avoient;
Une fort meson orent prise
Et en feu et en charbon mise,
Si s’en repairent tuit armé,
En .III. eschieles bien serré. }

Marveling at them, Tyolet wanted to become one of them:

Would to God on his holy festival
that I were a knight-beast.

{ Car pleüst or Dieu a sa feste
Que je fusse chevalier beste. }

Men, all wearing similar equipment, working together on a common mission — that’s an ideal of masculine fellowship. That their mission is killing and burning matters little relative to the good of masculine fellowship. Tyolet was a young man living in the woods with only his mother. Men will become beasts to be part of a group with other men.

Islamic Republic of Iran Army soldiers marching

Tyolet became a knight-beast against his mother’s wishes. She didn’t want her son to become a beast that captures and devours others, where the others were not the deer and wild game that Tyolet hunted for food, but human beings like him.[3] Tyolet insisted. Then his mother brought him his father’s armor:

All the arms she had
she quickly brought him.
The arms had belonged to her husband.
She armed her son with them splendidly,
and when he had mounted his horse,
he looked just like a knight-beast.
“Do you know, fair son, what you will do now?
You will go straight to King Arthur,
and I shall tell you all you need to know.
Do not associate with any man,
nor pay court to any woman,
who is of ill-repute.”

{ Totes les armes qu’ele a
Isnelement li aporta,
Qui son seignor orent esté.
Molt en a bien son f[i]lz armé.
Et quant el cheval fu monté(z)
Chevalier beste a bien semblé.
‘Sez or, biauz filz, que tu feras?
Tot droit au roi Artur iras
Et de ce te dirai la somme:
Ne t’acompaingnes a nul homme,
Ne a fame ne donoier
Qui commune soit de mestier.’ }

The mother directed her son into a quest for social status. Seeking social status is different from seeking masculine fellowship.

Tyolet took up the quest that his mother set for him. He went to King Arthur’s court. There he sought to learn about good breeding, wisdom, courtliness, knighthood, and gift-giving. These are qualities associated with knightly status.

Tyolet also sought to gain status through marriage. The daughter of the King of Logres arrived at King Arthur’s court. She ominously was described as being as beautiful as Dido or Helen of Troy. She established a challenge for a man to become her husband: the man must cut off the white foot of a stag guarded by seven lions and living across a menacing river. Many knights attempted the challenge, but turned back at the river. Tyolet, however, plunged into river, risking his life. He made it across. He found the stag and cut off its white foot. Then the seven lions attacked him. The lions mauled him badly before he managed to kill them. Then another knight deceived Tyolet and sought to kill him. Ultimately, the badly wounded Tyolet got back to Arthur’s court, prevailed over the deceptive knight, and earned the hand of the daughter of the King of Logres.

The lai ends with Tyolet withdrawing from King Arthur’s court. The daughter of the King of Logres led the badly wounded Tyolet away:

Then she took him to her land.
He was king and she was queen.
Here ends the lai of Tyolet.

{ En son païs donc le mena;
Rois fu et ele fu roïne.
De Tyolet le lai ci fine. }

Marrying the daughter of the King of Logres great increased Tyolet’s social status, land-holdings, and other wealth. That’s beneficial, but gender-atypical. A man executive might marry a low-status woman secretary. In contrast, a woman executive might have an affair with a low-status man manual laborer, but she’s unlikely to marry him. Much more than men, women commonly seek to marry up (hypergamy). Marrying up can lead to passionless, unsatisfying marital life. Because masculine fellowship largely motivated Tyolet to become a knight, the ending of the lai Tyolet should imply troubling thoughts about the mauled Tyolet’s future.[4]

The lai Tydorel has a more obviously troubling conclusion. Tydorel’s parents, the queen and king of Brittany, had been married for ten years without producing any children. One day when the queen was relaxing in a garden, a handsome knight proposed a sexual affair with her. She quickly fell passionately in love with him and consented to an affair, provided he told her his name and where he was from. That at least shows some interest in the man beyond his sexual allure. He mysteriously showed her that he came to her from passing through the bottom of a deep lake. This knight was an unworldly man.

As the knight predicted, the queen soon became pregnant. The king was overjoyed to have a forthcoming heir, but in fact the child wasn’t of his lineage:

He didn’t know the true state of affairs.
The peasant says to his neighbor,
in a spiteful saying in his own language:
“A man thinks he’s bringing up his own child
when it does not belong to him at all.”
This is what happened to the king in this case.
The child was not his, but someone else’s.

{ Mes ne sot pas tout le covine.
Li vilains dit a son voisin
Par mal respit en son latin:
‘Tex cuide norrir son enfant
Ne li partient ne tant ne qant’.
Issi fist li rois de cestui;
N’iert mie siens, ainz est autrui. }[5]

Gender asymmetry in parental knowledge is a fundamental gender inequality. It could easily be eliminated with modern DNA testing, but under gynocentrism, that fundamental gender inequality is of relatively little public concern. Gender asymmetry in parental knowledge has enormous implications for men and women.

After the queen’s husband died and Tydorel had reigned as king for ten years, he learned that his father wasn’t the queen’s husband. Tydorel was furious about this deception:

He arose swiftly,
took his sword from his bedside
and went into his mother’s chamber.
He came to her bed and woke her up.
When she saw him, she sat up,
reclining on her elbow.
“Son,” she said, “have mercy, in God’s name!
What is this? What do you want here?”
“By God!” he said, “you shall die.
You will never escape my hands,
unless you tell me the truth,
whose son I am, I want to know.”

{ Il s’est levez hastivement,
Soz son chevez s’espee prent,
En la chambre sa mere entra;
A son lit vint, si l’esveilla.
Qant el(e) le vit, si s’est drecie,
Sor son coute s’est apuïe.
‘Filz’, fet ele, ‘por Deu merci!
Qu’es[t] ce? Que querez vos ici?’
‘Par Deu!’ fet il, ‘toute i morrez,
Ja de mes mains n’eschaperez,
Se vos ne me dites le voir
Qui filz je sui, je veil savoir.’ }

Children deserve to know the truth about who their biological fathers are. Tydorel’s mother told him the truth that he wasn’t her husband’s son. She told him that his father was a knight who came to her from the deepest part of a deep lake.

Tydorel immediately resolved to go to his father’s place. The lai Tydorel ends with Tydorel’s dramatic journey:

When Tydorel heard this,
he left his mother.
He returned to his chamber,
woke his chamberlains,
and gave orders for his arms to be brought
and his good horse to be fetched.
They did what he commanded,
and he armed himself at once.
As soon as he was armed,
he mounted his horse.
Spurring it, he came to the lake
and plunged straight into the deepest part.
There he remained, in this way,
and never came back.
This tale is held to be true
by the Bretons who composed the lai.

{ Qant Tydorel a tot oï,
De sa mere se departi;
En ses chambres est reperiez,
Ses chambellans a esveilliez,
Ses armes rova aporter
E son bon cheval amener.
Cil ont fet son conmandement,
Et il s’arma delivrement.
Sitost conme il se fu armez,
Sor son cheval estoit montez;
Poignant en est au lai venuz,
El plus parfont s’est enz feruz.
Illec remest, en tel maniere,
Que puis ne retorna ariere.
Cest conte tienent a verai
Li Breton qui firent le lai. }[6]

Perhaps Tydorel downed in the lake. But the lai Tydorel is filled with supernatural elements. Tydorel is better understood to have gone to his father and remained with his father. Persons today, living among pervasive falsehoods, should be able to understand ardently seeking to go to one’s true father.

The death or absence of a father inflicts terrible pain on children. Medieval literature recognized this human reality in various ways. Perceval’s comically absurd behavior in Chrétien de Troyes’s Perceval is one example. Tyolet’s burning desire to become a “knight-beast {chevalier beste}” like other men and Tydorel’s plunge into the depths of a deep lake are both directly connected to their lacking a true father. Children, especially young men, need fathers.

* * * * *

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[1] In recent decades, academics have invented the denial of reality. Following this invention with little additional creativity, Braet (1981) considers the “invention of the father” in Tyolet and Perceval. In fact, organisms have been sexually reproducing on earth for at least 1.2 billion years. Denying the reality of fatherhood supports sex discrimination against men in child custody and child support rulings.

[2] Tyolet, vv. 109-19, Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Burgess & Brook (2007). Burgess & Brook (2005), freely available online, provides a similar Old French edition and English translation. For earlier Old French editions, Tobin (1976b) and Paris (1879). For earlier English translations, Donnelly (1998) and Weston (1900). For a freely available Spanish translation, Cobos (1985). The lai (lay) Tyolet survives in only one manuscript, MS S: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, nouvelles acquisitions françaises, 1104, f. 15v-20r.

Subsequent quotes from Tyolet are similarly sourced. Those above are vv. 137 (what kind of beast a knight was), 141-4 (It’s a beast which is much dreaded…), 184-92 (Would to God, who never lied…), 197-204 (Two hundred armed knights…), 217-8 (Would to God on his holy festival…), 263-74 (All the arms she had…), 702-4 (Then she took him to her land…).

[3] Tyolet consistently describes knights as engaged in vicious violence. The knight that Tyolet first encountered himself described a knight as a beast “that deceives and kills others {que autre engingne et autre tue}.” Tyolet, v. 236.

[4] The academic Arthur regarded as problematic that all men’s achievements, including those of Tyolet, aren’t fully and clearly credited to women. In his view, Breton lais, apparently including the lais of Marie de France, represent a conversation among an anachronistic “class” of men:

These texts are the record of an oft-repeated conversation between the members of a historically-defined class of men, some of whom fought battles, some of whom wrote poems, some of whom, for that matter, wrote philosophy and delivered sermons.

Arthur (1992) p. 71. In contrast, medieval women themselves regarded knights and clerics as distinctive classes of lovers. Medieval estate satire such as Richeut assumed that knights and clerics belong to different estates. Arthur’s intellectual contortions in his interpretation of Tyolet apparently were directed toward a concluding flourish of poor-dearism:

This romantic text, and all the others which share its concerns, says, repeatedly, “We may be in a situation of powerlessness, in which all that we do, from writing poetry through to risking our lives in battle, is done for the benefit of a master. But it could be worse. We could be isolated from each other, with no sense of a community and no governing providential plan to ensure our escape. We could be stuck here permanently. We could be women.”

Id. p. 72. With such a poignant conclusion, Arthur could hope to be recognized as a good man within gynocentric academia. However, medieval women weren’t isolated from one another. Women were at the center of medieval communities. What it means to have a providential plan to escape from “here” isn’t clear. Death might be regarded as an escape. Largely as a result of pervasive violence against men, medieval men had a life expectancy about nine years less than that of medieval women.

[5] Tydorel, vv. 164-70, Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Burgess & Brook (2007). Burgess & Brook (2016) includes a similar English translation not presented by corresponding Old French verse. For earlier Old French editions freely available online, Tobin (1976a) and Paris (1879). Donnelly (1998) provides a freely available English translation of Tydorel.

Subsequent quotes from Tydorel are similarly sourced. Those above are vv. 339-50 (He arose swiftly…) and 475-90 (When Tydorel heard this…).

[6] The eminent nineteenth-century medievalist Gaston Paris described Tydorel as a “beautiful lai {beau lai}.” Paris (1879) p. 66.

[image] Soldiers of the Islamic Republic of Iran Army. Image thanks to Reza Dehshiri and Wikimedia Commons.


Arthur, Ross G. 1992. “Tyolet and the Marginalization of the Romance Feminine.” LittéRéalité. 4 (2): 65-72.

Braet, Herman. 1981. “Tyolet/Perceval: l’invention du père.” Incidences, Médiévalités. Nouv. Série, 5 (1): 71-77. Translated into English as “Tyolet/Perceval: The Father Quest,” in Varty, Kenneth, and Lewis Thorpe, eds. 1981. An Arthurian Tapestry: essays in memory of Lewis Thorpe. Glasgow: British branch of the International Arthurian Society.

Burgess, Glyn S., Leslie C. Brook, ed. and trans. 2005. Doon And Tyolet: Two Old French Narrative Lays. Liverpool Online Series, 9. Liverpool: University of Liverpool, Department of Modern Languages and Cultures.

Burgess, Glyn S., Leslie C. Brook, ed. and trans. 2007. French Arthurian Literature. Volume IV: Eleven Old French Narrative Lays. Cambridge, UK: D.S. Brewer.

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

Cobos Castro, Esperanza. 1985. “Tyolet lay anonimo Francés del siglo XIII.” Alfinge. 3: 283-294.

Donnelly, Linda Marie Asfodel. 1998. The Anonymous Fairy-Knight Lays: Tydorel, Tyolet, Doon and Espine. M.A. Thesis, University of Alberta.

Paris, Gaston. 1879. “Lais inédits de Tyolet, de Guingamor, de Doon, du Lecheor et de Tydorel.” Romania. 8 (29): 29-72.

Tobin, Prudence Mary O’Hara, ed. 1976a. Tydorel. Genève: Droz. Publié en ligne par l’ENS de Lyon dans la Base de Français Médiéval, dernière révision le 19-6-2016.

Tobin, Prudence Mary O’Hara, ed. 1976b. Tyolet. Genève: Droz. Publié en ligne par l’ENS de Lyon dans la Base de Français Médiéval, dernière révision le 19-6-2016.

Weston, Jessie L., trans. 1900. Guingamor, Lanval, Tyolet, Bisclaveret: Four Lais Rendered Into English Prose From the French of Marie De France and Others. With Designs by Caroline Watts. London: David Nutt. Alternate textual presentation.