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.

* * * * *

Read more:

Notes:

[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 Reg.lat 1505.

References:

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.

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