medieval men ardently, profoundly loved women

Spring has long been a season associated with love. But in medieval Europe, men’s love for women was so ardent that it could change the season:

The woods have dressed themselves in foliage, now nightingales sing,
and with varied colors now the fields are welcoming.
Sweet it is to wander along wooded paths,
sweeter to pluck now the lily with the rose,
yet sweetest to play in love with a well-formed young woman.

But when I ponder in my mind such delights,
I feel my vitals becoming anxious.
If she for whom I burn is cold and doesn’t wish to warm to me,
what then of birds’ singing, how can they be of value to me?
What then of spring’s proclaiming? Now is truly winter!

{ Fronde nemus induitur, iam canit philomena,
cum variis coloribus iam prata sunt amena.
Spatiari dulce est per loca nemorosa;
dulcius est carpere iam lilium cum rosa,
dulcissimum est ludere cum virgine formosa.

Verum cum mente talia recensens oblectamina,
sentio quod anxia fiunt mea praecordia.
Si friget, in qua ardeo, nec mihi vult calere,
quid tunc cantus volucrum mihi queunt valere,
quid tunc veris praeconia? Iam hiems erit vere! }[1]

medieval man and woman embracing in love

Medieval men were willing to give up their lives for a woman’s love:

I would be happier than Jove on high,
if she whom I desire would deem me worthy,
if I came to know her lips once,
if for one night I slept with her.
To submit to death,
to go towards it appeasingly,
and to end my life
gladly I can,
if such joy I’ll regain,
yes I can, yes I can, yes I can,
if such joy I’ll regain.

{ Felicitate Iovem supero,
si me dignetur, quam desidero,
si sua labra semel novero
una cum illa si dormiero,
mortem subire,
placenter obire
vitamque finire
libens potero,
tanta si gaudia recepero,
a potero, a potero, a potero,
tanta si gaudia recepero. }[2]

Given men’s lifespan shortfall relative to women, men’s health should be a public-policy priority. The ancient, wise lawmaker Solon was concerned for men’s welfare. Medieval Latin literature recognized that men’s health and men’s happiness are closely related:

So hope of blissful sex, when fragrant breath from a tender mouth
leans in for a kiss,
breaks up the cloud of all
cares, but to be pulled away
from those isn’t known, unless association be the secret, healing tussle.

Happy the hour of this tussle
for whom it brings together nectar mixed with honey.
How happy a union
that with its cup of sweetness
feelings and narrowing eyes go to sleep.

{ Sic beari spes, halitus fragrans oris tenelli
dum acclinat basium,
scindit nubem omnium
curarum, sed avelli
nescit, ni congressio sit arcani medica duelli.

Felix hora huius duelli,
cui contingit nectar adunare melli!
Quam felix unio,
cuius suavitatis poculo
sopiuntur sensus et ocelli! }[3]

Of course, one needs to be concerned for men’s safety. The greatest threat to men’s safety isn’t the corona plague, climate change, or structural sexism. Nothing can lead faster to the destruction of the world than gyno-idolatry:

I would grow pale, were it not that a young woman, wondrous with Venus’s beauty,
approves of me.

I would wither, were it not that she, keeping me darkened with the old fear,
stimulates me.

A glorious deed I have come to know. Its loss would be death to me,
I who ask for it.

Her pious kisses, sweet and delicious, double
as I multiply them.

I drink cups of life through her.
This to me is peaceful glory.

Worship of her is enough for me,
with many years of meetings to come.

{ Pallerem, nisi me Veneri miranda decore
virgo probaret,

marcerem, nisi spe veteri fuscata timore
me stimularet.

Inclita res ita cognita, perdita dat mihi fata,
namque rogavi,

cui pia basia, dulcia, suavia, congeminata

Hac bibo pocula vitae;
hoc decus est mihi mite.

Quae satis est mihi culta,
obvia saecula multa. }[4]

Men’s worship of women can rival men’s worship of God. God declared to Saint Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you {mihi sufficit tibi gratia}.”[5] God’s grace alone is sufficient for all women and men. Men who worship women as goddesses lead themselves to lonely misery, or even worse, sexless marriage. If worship of women becomes prevalent, men start castrating themselves to serve the goddess. Then civilization’s fall is near.

Men by nature are romantically simple. But men shouldn’t be devalued as vagabonds superficially interested in only wine, women, and song. Medieval men ultimately desired intimate friendship with women:

I am captivated in love
for one whose flower is still flowering.
Sweet is made the labor of my laboring
if her mouth takes a kiss from mine.
I will not be healed by the touch of her lips
unless both our hearts become one,
and so our wishes. Be well, flower of flowers!

{ Illius captus sum amore,
cuius flos adhuc est in flore.
Dulcis fit labor in hoc labore,
osculum si sumat os ab ore.
Non tactu sanabor labiorum,
nisi cor unum fiat duorum
et idem velle. Vale, flos florum! }[6]

According to the classical Latin orator Cicero, the ultimate in friendship is a second self.[7] That’s a highly abstract formulation. Moreover, a man and a woman differ by sex and cannot be second selves to each other. Medieval Christian theology emphasized conjugal partnership between a woman and a man. That conjugal partnership included each spouse having an obligation to have loving sex with the other. That’s what medieval men ultimately sought. They sought intimate friendship with women in unity of body and mind, in love incarnated in daily life together.

Our benighted age proclaims sterile absurdities such as “sex-positive feminism.” Men who believe in “sex-positive feminism” probably also believe that women desire them for kitchen help. In the face of such ignorant belief, one can only pray: God help Denmark!

In more enlightened medieval Europe, men ardently and profoundly loved women. Medieval men understood that their seminal blessing, provided lovingly to women, was a matter of life and death to women and to civilization as a whole. Well-educated medieval men recognized women’s natural superiority to men in guile, yet with the help of great literature such as Virgil’s Aeneid men learned to cope with women’s guile. While the medieval Archpoet suffered like Jonah, he understood the profundity of men’s love for the beautiful women of Pavia.

* * * * *

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[1] Carmina Burana 140: “The earth now opens her lap with the mildness of spring {Terra iam pandit gremium vernali lenitate},” stanzas 4-5 (of 5), Latin text from Traill (2018), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. For an alternate, freely available translation of the whole poem, Waddell (1929) pp. 206-9.

[2] Carmina Burana 116: “Thus in my fate I take solace in singing {Sic mea fata canendo solor},” stanza 2 (of 3), Latin text from Traill (2018), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. The third stanza describes the man’s delight in touching the woman’s breasts. Waddell, who had fine appreciation for men’s desires, nonetheless omitted this stanza. Waddell (1929) pp. 206-9. Carol Anne Perry Lagemann seems to me to over-interpret sexually the third stanza both in her “direct” and “poetic” translations, but this would surely be a worthy matter for classroom discussion in a medieval Latin course.

Several recordings of “Sic mea fata canendo solor” are on YouTube. Perhaps the most interesting is that of Andrew King from his album Deus Ignotus (2011). Other recordings are those of Thomas Binkley & Studio der Frühen Musik, Ensemble für frühe Musik Augsburg (2020), and the Clemencic Consort (2008).

[3] Carmina Burana 68: “As Mercury sparkles, the cold-blue star of Saturn {Saturni sidus lividum Mercurio micante},” stanzas 5-6 (of 6), Latin text from Traill (2018), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. Vatican Mythographers {Mythographi Vaticani} (Vatican Reg. lat. 1401) noted of Saturn:

This star Saturn is considered the coldest.. whose signal is the most remote…that is to say, it has its home in the constellations Aquarius and Capricorn.

{huius stella frigidissima existimatur … quum in signis remotissimis … aquario videlicet et capricorno, domicilia sua habeat }

Mythographi Vaticani 3.1.4, as noted by Marshall (2014) p. 387, n. 70.

With respect to beari spes is 5.1, Traill noted:

Beari (to bless) seems to be used in Medieval Latin love poetry as a euphemism for “to grant sexual favors,” as at CB 70.2.8 and 73.6a.2.

Traill (2018) vol. 1, p. 533, note to 5.1.

[4] Carmina Burana 65: “In whatever way the stirred seasons are tumbled into the past {Quocumque more motu volvuntur tempora},” stanzas 4a-6b (of 10a-b), Latin text from Traill (2018), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. In 3a.1, the poem refers to a “bearded Venus {Cypris barbata},” which could be a man or a transsexual. Nonetheless, the poem may be addressed to a woman. Men certainly have read it as addressed to a woman. On this issue, id. vol. 1, p. 529, note to 3a.

[5] 2 Corinthians 12:9, with Latin text of the Vulgate, the standard Christian bible in medieval Europe.

[6] Carmina Burana 78: “The newness of a new year is returning {Anni novi rediit novitas},” stanza 4 (of 4), Latin text from Traill (2018), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. For an alternate, freely available translation of the whole poem, Waddell (1929) pp. 256-7.

[7] Cicero, About friendship {De amicitia}. Marshall cited Sallust, The Conspiracy of Catiline {De coniuratione Catilinae} 20.4: “wanting the same and not wanting the same — that, after all, is solid friendship {idem velle atque idem nolle, ea demum firma amicitia est}.” Marshall (2014) p. 390, n. 113.

[image] Medieval woman and man embracing in love. The depicted man (minnesinger) is Albrecht von Johansdorf, who lived in thirteenth-century Germanic lands. Illustration from Codex Manesse, made between 1305 and 1315. Manuscript preserved as UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 179v. Thanks to University of Hiedelberg and Wikimedia Commons.


Marshall, Tariq. 2014. The Carmina Burana: Songs from Benediktbeuren: a full and faithful translation with critical annotations. 3rd edition. Los Angeles: Marshall Memorial Press.

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

Waddell, Helen. 1929 / rev. 1948. Mediaeval Latin Lyrics. New York: Henry Holt.

tales of Jereslaus’s wife & Jonathas in Hoccleve’s subversive Series

Thomas Hoccleve suffered elite women’s displeasure after his Letter of Cupid was published in London in 1402. Hoccleve, a married man who wrote hymns to the Virgin Mary, understood that social power centered on women. But as a man of Christian faith and a sophisticated poet, he refused to produce for women merely unctuous flattery or gyno-idolatry. He turned to medieval Latin literature with its rich, subtle treatments of gender and men’s sexed protest. In producing his intricate, subversive Series about 1420, Hoccleve wove together exempla of Jereslaus’s wife and Jonathas from the medieval Latin Deeds of the Romans {Gesta Romanorum}. The exempla of Jereslaus’s wife and Jonathas, written more than a century earlier, depict saintly and wicked female behavior within a critical perspective on social justice.

Hoccleve in writing his Series had the benefit of a friend’s advice. The friend wrongly accused Hoccleve of claiming that women do wrong. Even worse, Hoccleve allegedly blamed women for doing wrong. The friend advised Hoccleve:

Write something now in honor and praise
of women, so you might make amends
in some part for your offense and misbehavior.
You are fully out of their affection.
It is now in your choice
whether you desire to again purchase their love
or stand as you do out of love and grace.

Beware, I advise, choose the better part.
Trust well this: women are fierce and wise.
To please them requires great craft and skill.
Where no fire is made, may no smoke arise.
But you have often, if you well consider yourself,
made smokey brands, and for all that guilt,
yet may you stand in grace, if that you seek.

By obedient heart and by submission
to their graces, offering yourself as culpable,
you may have their pardon and forgiveness.
And do unto them proper effort to please.
You are in no way able to make a fight with them.
Humble your spirit, be not firm of heart.
Better that than they make you suffer.

The Wife of Bath I take for an authority
that women have no joy or delight
when men should upon them attribute any vice.
I know well so, or something like that, she says.
By written words, Thomas, offer yourself.
Just as you by scripture have offended them,
rightly then let it be by writing you amend.

{ Sumwhat now wryte in honour & preysynge
Of hem / so maist thow do correccioun
Sumdel of thyn offense and mis-berynge.
Thow art cleene out of hir affeccioun;
Now syn it is in thyn eleccioun
Whethir thee list / hir loue ageyn purchace,
Or stonde as thow doost / out of loue & grace /

Bewar, rede I / cheese the bettre part.
Truste wel this / wommen been fell and wyse;
Hem for to plese / lyth greet craft & art.
Wher no fyr maad is / may no smoke aryse;
But thow haast ofte / if thow thee wel auyso,
Maad smoky brondes / and for al þat gilt,
yit maist thow stonde in grace / if þat thow wilt.

By buxum herte & by submission
To hir graces / yildinge thee coupable /
Thow pardon maist haue, & remission
And do vn-to hem plesance greable.
To make partie / art thow nothyng able;
Humble thy goost / be nat sturdy of herte;
Bettre than thow art / han they maad to smerte.

The wyf of Bathe, take I for auctrice
þat wommen han no ioie ne deyntee
þat men sholde vp-on hem putte any vice;
I woot wel so / or lyk to þat, seith shee.
By wordes writen / Thomas, yilde thee;
Euene as thow by scripture hem haast offendid,
Right so / let it be by wrytynge amendid. }[1]

Just as they have in many other times and places, elite women controlled the literary field in early fifteenth-century London.[2] Nonetheless, the friend urged Hoccleve not to place himself under women’s “rule and governance” and not to be concerned if a woman bashed him in the head. Who could follow such advice? Hoccleve himself seemed to be afraid of his wife. The friend’s advice mainly followed the hoary wisdom “happy wife, happy life”:

Now Thomas, if you wish to live in ease,
seek after women’s benevolence.
Although it be difficult, it’s good to please them,
for it’s hard to rein in their taking offense.
Whatever they say, take it all with patience.
You’re not better than your fathers who came before
have been, Thomas. Be very well wary therefore.

{ Now Thomas / if thee list to lyue in ese,
Prolle aftir wommennes beneuolence.
Thogh it be dangerous / good is hem plese,
ffor hard is it / to renne in hir offense.
What so they seyn / take al in pacience.
Bettre art thow nat / than thy fadres before,
Thomas, han been / be right wel waar therfore. }

With his friend’s help, Hoccleve came to understand gender reality and what he needed to do:

When he was gone, I in my heart dreaded
to stand out of women’s benevolence.
And to fulfill that, which he advised me,
I resolved to endure my pain and work
to win their love by obedience.
Although my words I cannot well portray,
see, hear, the form of how I them obey.

All my ladies, as wisely god blessed me,
why can I not know why you’ve been peeved at me?
My guilt never yet came to its ripeness,
although you deem and trust me to be your foe.
But I am your friend, or may the crow bite me!
I am other to you than you think.
By my writing has it been and shall be seen.

But nevertheless, I, lowly me, submit
to your virtues, as far as they have a place
in you. For me, a wretch, it may well be appropriate
to ask pardon, though I have not trespassed.
Better it is for me, with piteous demeanor and face
and meek spirit, to do so, than unimpeded war
you wage on me, and put me at war.

Also, a tale which in the Roman deeds I
now recently saw, in honor and pleasing
of you, my ladies — as I much need,
or I’ll go my way for fear into France,
though I’m not fit to ride or prance —
that I will translate and that shall purge, I hope,
my guilt as clean as handkerchiefs do soap.

{ Whan he was goon / I in myn herte dredde
Stonde out of wommennes beneuolence;
And to fulfille þat / þat he me redde,
I shoop me do my peyne and diligence
To wynne hir loue by obedience.
Thogh I my wordes can nat wel portreye /
Lo, heer the fourme / how I hem obeye.

My ladyes all / as wisly god me blesse,
Why þat yee meeued been / can I nat knowe;
My gilt cam neuere yit to the ripnesse,
Al-thogh yee for your fo / me deeme & trowe;
But I your freend be / byte me the crowe!
I am al othir to yow / than yee weene;
By my wrytynge / hath it, & shal be, seene.

But nathelees / I lowly me submitte
To your bontees / as fer as they han place
In yow / vn-to me, wrecche, it may wel sitte
To axe pardoun / thogh I nat trespace;
Leuer is me / with pitous cheere & face,
And meek spirit, do so / than open werre
yee make me / & me putte atte werre.

A tale eek / which I in the Romayn deedis
Now late sy / in honur & plesance
Of yow, my ladyes / — as I moot needis.
Or take my way / for fere in-to ffrance, —
Thogh I nat shapen be / to prike or prance, —
Wole I translate / and þat shal pourge, I hope.
My gilt / as cleene / as keuerchiefs dooth sope. }

Hoccleve didn’t dedicate his Series to Duke Humphrey, a patron to whom to Hoccleve promised a book. Hoccleve prudently dedicated his book to Joan Beaufort Neville, Duchess of Westmorland.

To honor and praise women, Hoccleve translated from the medieval Latin Gesta Romanorum what he entitled, “A tale of a certain Roman Empress {fabula de quadam Imperatrice Romana}.” When her husband the Roman Emperor Jereslaus went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, this Empress ruled alone. She was beautiful and virtuous in a Christian way, quite unlike Empress Theodora. Men, including the Emperor’s brother, eagerly sought to have sex with her. Acting like Potiphar’s wife, these men treated the Empress wrongly when she rebuffed them. With betrayal, false accusation, and treachery, the men deposed the Empress and caused her to enter a convent as an unknown, impoverished nun.[3] The unrecognized Empress became a holy nun with extraordinary powers of healing.

When the Emperor Jereslaus returned from the Holy Land, he was told that the Empress had been abducted and killed. Jereslaus’s brother had subsequently been afflicted with leprosy. All the other men who wronged the Empress were also mortally ill. When Jereslaus heard of the nun with extraordinary powers of healing, he took his brother to her. All the other sick men who had wronged the Empress went too. The nun-Empress refused to heal them until they confessed fully their sins. They each confessed to having wronged the Empress. She then cured them, showing great mercy to men and rejecting the gender structure of penal punishment. After that exemplary act of mercy, she uncovered her face:

When the Emperor saw her, he immediately recognized her. He ran to her and immediately kissed her and wept for joy, saying: “Blessed be God. Now I have found what I long desired.” And he brought her to their palace with great jubilation, and in peace she thus finished out her life.

{ Imperator, cum eam uidisset, noticiam statim eius habebat. Ad eam cucurrit, statimque amplexatus est eam et pre gaudio flueit, dicens: “Benedictus Deus. Iam inueni quod diu desideraui.” Eamque ad palacium cum magno iubilo duxit et sic in pace uitam finiuit. }

The Empress was a saintly woman.[4] She loved men and was loved by men. But just as not all men act like the wicked men who wronged the Empress, not all women act like the Empress with love and mercy toward men. Hoccleve observed:

O, in this land is many a wretch, I think,
that though his wife had longer been away from him
with no reason other than spitefulness,
he would have wanted her to be away even longer.
Finding of her would be to him only woe,
for he would think that such a finding
would turn him to loss and harming.

{ O / many a wrecche is in this lond, y weene /
þat thogh his wyf lengere had been him fro,
No kus / but if it had been of the spleene,
Shee sholde han had / & forthermore also,
ffyndynge of hire / had been to him but wo,
ffor him wolde han thoght þat swich a fyndynge,
To los sholde han him torned, and harmynge. }

Recognizing diversity among women, Hoccleve thus lined up husbands’ support for female separatism and the Amazon fantasy. Moreover, with this realistic interpolation, Hoccleve separated the story of Jereslaus’s wife from its moralization. The Empress is not just the soul of any human being, as in the moralization. She is represented as a distinctive, realistic possibility for women.

Hoccleve dared to show another possibility for women. His friend asked him for a story to warn his fifteen-year old son about harm from loving a woman prostitute. Hoccleve recognized this to be a dangerous writing assignment:

Friend, it would be difficult for me to say no to you,
but I suppose it may be none other,
or else women will liken me to Maggie, the good cow,
and thus say, “O, behold and see
that deceitful man. O, yonder look, there he goes
that first gave honey and now gives gall.
He is a foe in his heart to all women.

Until he utters words about wicked women,
it seems that he is fasting from words. All day long
falsehoods swarm thick out of his mouth.
He will offer no good word about women.
And if he doesn’t refuse to speak well of women,
he doesn’t move as he tries to speak or write.
O, the lewd simpleton, his wit is worth no more than straw!”

{ “ffreend, looth me were nay seye vn-to yow,
But y suppose / it may noon othir be,
Lest wommen vn-to Magge, the good kow,
Me likne / and thus seye / ‘o, beholde & see
The double man / o, yondir, lo, gooth he
That hony first yaf / and now yeueth galle:
He fo in herte is / vn-to wommen alle;

Til he of wommen oute wordes wikke,
He fastynge is / him seemeth; al the day,
Out of his mowth / lesynges swarmen thikke;
On wommen / no good word / affoorthe he may;
And if he wel speke / or wryte / is no nay,
He nat meueth / as he spekith or writ:
O lewde dotepol / straw for his wit!'” }

The friend pointed out that blaming wicked women is no shame to good women. Only women who had done wrong would attack a man for criticizing such women. Moreover, rebuking persons who do wrong is right. In response to such reasonable arguments, Hoccleve agreed to translate from the medieval Latin Gesta Romanorum a tale that he prudently titled, “A tale of a certain wicked woman {Fabula de quadam muliere mala}.”

In this tale, the Roman Emperor Godfrey on his deathbed gave his son Jonathas three precious objects: a ring, a necklace, and a carpet. The ring made the wearer beloved of everyone. Anyone would give the ring’s wearer whatever he requested. The necklace was such that the wearer would obtain directly whatever he desired. The carpet had the magical property that if one sat one it and thought to go to a place, the carpet would instantly convey those sitting on it there. Jonathas’s mother, the Empress, held these precious objects for him. Before sending him off to university, she gave him the ring and advised him:

Son, acquire knowledge and beware of women so that you don’t by bad fortune lose the ring.

{ Fili, scienciam acquire et a muliere caveas, ne forte annulum perdas. }[5]

Mothers typically love their children and offer them caring advice. Jonathas would have been wise to have adhered to his mother’s wisdom.

Fortunatus receiving the purse of plenty (bottomless purse) from Lady Fortune

At university, Jonathas progressed well as a student. With the ring he received from others whatever material goods he wanted. He was able to live in luxury, as well as provide friends with lavish feasts. One day Jonathas saw a beautiful woman walking on the street near the university. He fell ardently in love with her. In his romantic simplicity, he naively propositioned her:

He immediately spoke with her about his extreme love for her. She acquiesced to his love. He slept with her and kept her with him in his room.

{ Cum ea statim de amore loquebatur inordinato. Que concessit et cum ea dormivit et ipsum secum retinuit. }[6]

The former street-walker’s name was Felicia. That’s Latin for “auspicious things.” As students of rhetoric should learn, words can be deceptive.

Jonathan’s live-in girlfriend Felicia was amazed that he always seemed to have goods, yet never had any money. That situation made no sense to her:

One night it happened that they were lying in bed together and she said: “My respected lord, you have had my virginity and as long as I live I will completely serve your desire. I beg you to grant me one small petition. Tell me, please, how you acquire so many goods and put on various feasts, and yet I see that you have no money nor treasure.”

{ Accidit una nocte quod simul in lecto iacuerunt, aitque illa: “Domine mi reverende, virginitatem meam habuistis et totaliter, quamdiu vixero, ad vestram voluntatem ero. Rogo vos ut unam parvam peticionem michi concedatis. Dicite michi, si placet, quomode tot bona adquiritis et diversa convivia facitis et nullum denarium nec thesaurum vidi vos habere.” }

Jonathas told Felicia about his ring. She in turn warned him of the danger of losing it and told him to give it to her for safe-keeping. So he did. But then others’ love for him waned. They no longer gave to him as before. One night, Jonathas asked Felicia to give him back his ring:

She, however, got up and invented a lie in the bedroom. She said with a worthy cry: “Alas for me, alas! My jewelry box has been broken open and the ring has been stolen!” Hearing this, Jonathas was all sick to his stomach and said: “Perish the day in which I saw you!” She began to weep and express sorrow. Jonathas believed her and said: “Don’t weep. God will still help me.”

{ Ipsa vero surrexit et mendacium infra cameram finxit, dixitque cum clamore valido: “Heu michi, heu! Cista mea est gracta et anulus asportatus est!” Ionathas, hec audiens, commota sunt omnia viscera eius et ait: “Peria dies in qua vidi te!” Ipsa incepit flere et dolorem ostendere. Ionathas credebat ei et ait: “Noli flere. Deus adhuc adiuvabit me.” }

Women’s tears often gain them forgiveness for their crimes. That contributes to vastly gender-disproportionate incarceration of men. Typically deprived of justice and mercy in this world, men’s best hope is in God.

Since his mother is as close to God as a man has here on earth, Jonathas went home to his mother. Like most mothers would be, Jonathas’s mother was concerned:

When she saw him, the Empress said: “O my son, why have you come back from school so soon?” He said to her: “O mother, I have lost my ring because I gave it to my girlfriend.” And she said: “O son, I have often said to you that you should beware in a relationship with a woman. Now I’m giving you a necklace and henceforth beware not to lose it.”

{ Imperatrix, cum hec vidisset, ait: “O fili mi, quare tam cito de studio venisti?” Ait ille: “O mater, anulum meum perdidi eo quod amasie mee tradidi.” At illa: “O fili, sepius tibi dixi ut a sosietate mulieris caveas. Tunc tibi monile trado et de cetero caveas ne illud perdas.” }

Mothers typically love even their male children. Sons should take seriously their mothers’ advice about women.

When Jonathas returned to the university, his girlfriend welcomed him back to his room. Jonathas continued to live with her. With the power of his necklace he again lived in luxury. His girlfriend again wondered about how he acquired so many goods:

Day and night she urged him to reveal the truth to her about how he provided for himself, because he dined so sumptuously and invited others to his feast. However, for a long time he was unwilling to inform her. She, however, wept continually and said: “Alas for me, alas! You don’t trust me! If you were to tell me the truth, I would pledge my life that I would never again lose your precious item.” Jonathas, when he heard this, believed her and informed her about the power of his necklace.

{ Ipsum diebus et noctibus pulsabat ut veritatem ei propaleret quomodo se habebat, quod tam splendide comedebat et alio ad convivium invitabat. Ille vero ei indicare per magnum tempus nolebat. Ille vero ei indicare per magnum tempus nolebat. Ipsa vero continue flebat et dicebat: “Heu mich, heu! Tu non confidis in me! Si veritatem michi diceres, vitam meam obligarem ut numquam iterum iocale perderem.” Ionathas, cum hec audisset, ei credidit et de virtute monili ei indicabat. }

Felicia appreciated the enormous power of her tears. This weeping girlfriend kept weeping:

She wept bitterly and would not be consoled. Jonathas said to her: “Why are you weeping like this, and for what reason is your spirit distressed?” She said: “I fear that you will lose the necklace and so lose its great power.” He said: “And you, what would you like to recommend to me concerning this?” She said: “That you give it to me to keep as custodian.” To which he said: “I fear that you will lose the necklace just as you did the ring.” And she said: “In truth, death will separate my soul from my body before I lose the necklace!” Jonathas, believing her, gave her the necklace.

{ fleuit amare nec consolari volebat. Ait ei Ionathas: “Cur sic fles, et ob quam causam affligitur anima vestra?” At illa: “Timeo quod monile perdes et sic magnam virtutem perdes.” At ille: “Et tu, quid velles michi super hoc consulere?” At illa: “Ut michi ad custodiendum tradas.” Cui dixit: “Timeo quod monile perdes sicut anulum.” At illa: “Revera mors animam meam a corpore separabit antequam monile perdam!” Ionathas, credens ei, tradidit ei monile. }

After giving her his necklace, Jonathas became impoverished. He asked her to return his necklace. Felicia wept and pitied herself once more:

She went into their bedroom and cried out in a loud voice: “Alas for me, alas! The necklace has been stolen! I want to kill myself from too much sorrow!” She pulled out a knife and pretended to stab herself. When Jonathas saw this, he ran to her, believing that she wanted to kill herself from too much sorrow. He took the knife away from her and said: “Do not grieve so. I forgive you for everything.”

{ Ipsa cameram intrabat et alta voce clamabat: “Heu michi, heu! Monile est ablatum! Volo meipsam interficere pre nimio dolore!” Cultellulm extraxit et finxit seipsam percutere. Ionathas, cum vidisset, cucurrit ad eam, credens quod vellet seipsam interficiere pre dolore. Cultellum ab ea abstraxit et ait: “Nolite sic dolere. Totum tibi remitto.” }

Jonathas again returned to his beloved mother. He told her how he had lost the necklace. She responded:

Son, you know well that I have only one more precious item, namely a very valuable carpet. You can now choose whether to lose it or to leave it with me. I have often told you to beware of a woman’s trickery.

{ Fili, tibi constat quod non habeo nisi unum iocale, scilicet pannum preciosum. Modo poteris eligere illum perdere vel dimittere. Sepius tibi dixi a fraude mulieris cavere. }

This mother showed some sarcasm in telling her son he could choose to lose the carpet or leave it with her. Mothers are human beings. If a mother occasionally makes sarcastic remarks to her son, that doesn’t mean that she despises him. Jonathas took the magic carpet from his mother and promised not to lose it.

flying carpet

Jonathas attempted to be an active, initiating partner in his relationship with his girlfriend. When he returned to his room at the university, he spread the carpet and told his girlfriend to sit on it with him. Then he silently wished to be transported to an utterly remote place. The magic carpet immediately took him and his girlfriend there:

When the woman perceived their situation, she cried out: “Alas for me, alas! How have we been transported here?” And he said: “Now we are here and I will abandon you to be alone and wild beasts will devour you, because you have taken into your possession my ring and necklace.” “Ah, lord, have mercy on me! If you will take me back to the city where I was today, I will give the ring and necklace to you without any objection, and if I don’t fulfill this pledge, I obligate myself to the most foul death.” Jonathas immediately put his trust in what she said. He responded to her: “See that from now on you do no wrong, because if you do, you will die.”

{ Mulier, cum hec percepisset, clamabat: “Heu michi, heu! Quomodo hic positi sumus?” At ille: “Iam hic sumus et te solam relinquam et bestie devorabunt te, quia anulum meum et monile penes te tenuisti.” “A, domine, miserere mei! Si me ad civitatem meam duxeris ubi eram hodie, anulum et monile tibi dabo sine contradiccione, et nisi hoc implevero, ad mortem turpissimam me obligo.” Jonathas vero statim adhibebat fidem dictis suis et ait ei: “Videas de cetero quod no delinquas, quia, si sic, morieris.” }

Felicia then asked Jonathas how they had been transported to that remote place. He explained that the magic carpet took persons sitting on it wherever they wished to go.

After all his initiative and activity in responding to his girlfriend’s treachery, Jonathas felt sleepy. He sought to sleep while enjoying his girlfriend’s bodily presence:

He said to her: “Beyond what can be believed, I have a wish to sleep. Open your lap so that I may rest in it and sleep a little.” She was instantly ready and received his head in her lap. He began to sleep deeply. Perceiving this, she pulled the part of the carpet that was under him totally to her and thought: “If only I were now where I was in the morning.” Immediately she was placed in that location. Jonathas remained in the former place. He was now sleeping alone.

{ ait ille: “Ultra quam credi potest voluntatem dormiendi habeo. Extende gremium tuum ut in eo quiescam et paululum dormiam.” Statim erat parata et caput eius in gremium recipiebat. Incepit fortiter dormire. Ipsa, hec percipiens, traxit partem panni que sub ipso erat totaliter ad eam et cogitavit: “Utinam modo fuissem ubi mane eram.” Statimque posita est in eodem loco et Ionathas solus dormiendo remansit. }

When Jonathas woke, he realized that he was alone, without his magic carpet, amid wild beasts in some unknown place. That’s what it’s like to have the rug pulled out from under you.[7] Jonathas wept bitterly, but no one would care because he was a man.

Jonathas started walking along a path in the wilderness. He had to step through some water. The water was so hot and foul that it parted the flesh from the bones of his feet. Jonathas stored some of this burning water in a bottle. Subsequently he saw a tree laden with fruit. He ate some of that fruit and was immediately transformed into a leper. He took some of that leprous fruit with him. Subsequently he had to step through another stream. This water healed his burned feet. He filled another bottle with that healing water. After that, he saw another fruit tree. When he ate the fruit of that tree his leprosy was healed. He kept some of that healing fruit.

Jonathas then came to a castle. Squires of the castle asked him who he was. He said that he was a doctor from a far-away land. The squires explained that the king was a leper and was desperately seeking a doctor who could cure his leprosy. Many doctors had tried, failed, and been killed for failing. Jonathas proclaimed that he could cure the king. He gave the king some healing fruit to eat and some healing water to drink. The king was instantly cured of his leprosy. The king acclaimed Jonathas and gave him many gifts. At Jonathas’s insistence, the king helped him to find a ship to take him back to the university where he had studied.

After many days’ voyage aboard the ship, Jonathas arrived back at his university. His girlfriend Felicia had become the richest person in its city through the power of the ring, the necklace, and the magic carpet that she had stolen from Jonathas. She, however, was afflicted with a terrible illness. No doctor could cure her. Hearing that a newly arrived doctor could miraculously cure, she summoned him. She didn’t recognize that the new doctor was Jonathas, the boyfriend she had grievously betrayed.

Jonathas told the sick Felicia that for his medicine to be effective, she had to first confess any thieving she had done and return the stolen property. The desperately ill Felicia confessed that she had stolen a ring, a necklace, and a carpet from the Emperor’s son Jonathas. She said that these items were in a chest at the foot of her bed. Jonathas opened the chest and found the items. He put the ring on his finger, the necklace around his neck, and held the carpet under his arm. Then he gave his girlfriend the leprous fruit to eat and the burning water to drink. She ate and drank this medicine. Immediately her body broke open and all her internal organs pushed out. With Jonathas’s help, she thus finally fulfilled one promise that she had made to him: if she betrayed him, she promised to die “a most foul death {mors turpissima}.”[8]

Go, small book, to the noble excellence
of my lady of Westmerland and say,
her humble servant, with all reverence
commends it unto her nobility.
And beseech and beg her on my behalf
to receive you for her own right.
And you look in all manner of ways
to please her royal womanhood with your might.

{ Go, smal book / to the noble excellence
Of my lady / of Westmerland / and seye,
Hir humble seruant / with al reuerence
Him recommandith vn-to hir nobleye;
And byseeche hire / on my behalue, & preye.
Thee to receyue / for hire owne right;
And looke thow / in al manere weye
To plese hir wommanhede / do thy might. }

To serve women with his Series, Thomas Hoccleve translated the tale of Jereslaus’s wife and the tale of Jonathas from the medieval Latin Gesta Romanorum. Hoccleve was far from a woman-server like the knight Ulrich von Liechtenstein in the thirteenth-century Service of Ladies {Frauendienst}. His final rhyme of “right” and “might” underscores that his Series challenges women’s social dominance. “Right” could mean “correctness” that needs to be achieved, and “might” plausibly puns with “mite,” which in turn suggests the rascal Hoccleve’s small effort to reform gynocentrism. Hoccleve showed women that they didn’t necessarily have to be contentious, mendacious, self-centered persons. Woman can reject the sickness of anti-meninism and show mercy and love even for wrong-doing men, just as the Empress did. As for men, if they don’t want to be sick and false, they should worship God rather than women.

Farewell my sorrow — I cast it to the cock.
With patience I henceforth think to unpick
the lock of such thoughtful disease and woe,
and let out thoughts that have made me sick.
Hereafter our Lord God may, if He likes,
make all my old friends return,
and in hope of that I will comfort myself.

Through God’s just decree and His judgement,
and for my good I now take and deem
that the good Lord gave me my punishment.
In wealth I took of him no attention or heed
to please him and honor him and worship him,
so he gave me a bone on which to gnaw,
to correct me and to have for him awe.

He gave me wit, and he took it away
when he saw that I badly spent it,
and gave it again when it was to his glory.
He granted me my guilt to repent
and henceforth to set my intent
upon his godliness and to do his bidding
and to amend my sinful behavior.

{ farwell my sorow / I caste it to the cok.
with pacience / I hens-forthe thinke vnpike
of suche thowghtfull dissease and woo / the lok,
and let them out / that have me made to sike;
here-aftar owr lorde god / may, yf hym lyke,
make all myne olde affection resorte;
and in hope of that / woll I me comforte.

Thrwghe gods iust dome / and his iudgement,
and for my best[e] / now I take and deme,
gave that good lorde / me my punishement:
in welthe I toke of hym / none hede or yeme,
hym for to please / and hym honoure and queme,
and he me gave a bone / on for to knaw[e],
me to correcte / and of hym to have awe.

he gave me wit / and he toke it away
when that he se / that I it mys dyspent[e],
and gave agayne / when it was to his pay,
he grauntyd me / my giltes to repent[e],
and hens-forwarde / to set myne entent[e],
vnto his deitie / to do plesaunce,
and to amend / my synfull governaunce. }[9]

* * * * *

Read more:


Follow-up: Scholarly anti-meninism in the reception of this post.

[1] Thomas Hoccleve, Series, A Dialogue {A dialoge} st. 97-100 (vv. 673-700), Middle English text from Furnivall (1892) pp. 134-5, my English modernization. Hoccleve’s writings have a complex manuscript corpus. The best current editions for Hoccleve’s Series are Burrow (1999) and Ellis (2001). For a Middle English edition and English modernization of Hoccleve’s Letter of Cupid, Erler & Fenster (1990). Here’s a bibliography of scholarly articles on Hoccleve.

I refer to the author-figure of Hoccleve’s Dialogue as Hoccleve for convenience. The text itself refers to him familiarly as Thomas. This persona of the poem is not necessarily identical with the historical Thomas Hoccleve. According to a literary platitude going back at least as far as Catullus, poetry isn’t a historical record of actual lives. But at least for Hoccleve, it’s clearly relevant. For a sophisticated consideration of personal indications, Sobecki (2019).

On Hoccleve’s Letter of Cupid and whether it offended women, Fleming (1971). Fleming seems to have offended women by pointing out that the arguments in Hoccleve source, Christine de Pizan’s Letter to the God of Love {L’Epistre au Dieu d’Amours}, are “obtuse and naïve.” Id. p. 36. Writing as a zealous advocate for medieval anti-meninist Christine de Pizan, Winstead (1993) considers at length whether Hoccleve should be charged with “antifeminism.” Winstead complained: ‘the “Tale of Jereslaus’s Wife” develops in a way that could only irritate proponents of feminine maistrie.’ Moreover, “Hoccleve the author is adhering to his design of mocking troublesome women.” Id. pp. 146, 148. Scholars should recognize that troublesome and contentious men authors deserve support and encouragement.

In his Series, Hoccleve considers what choosing the better part means in relation to a man author writing amid women’s social dominance. Cf. Luke 10:42.

Subsequent quotes from Hoccleve’s Series are similarly sourced. They are from Dialogue, st. 103, v. 718 (rule and governance), st. 107, vv. 743-9 (Now Thomas…), st. 115-8, vv. 799-826 (When he was gone…); Tale of Jonathas, st. 6-7, vv. 36-49 (Friend, it would be difficult for me…); Concluding Dedication (Go, small book…); Complaint, st. 57-9, vv. 386-406 (Farewell my sorrow…).

[2] Larsen & Pendell (2018) p. 509. Vines observed:

The interactions between Hoccleve and the Friend, as laid out in both the formal Dialogue and their continued conversations throughout the Series, provide not only the connective tissue for the disparate selections, but also an ideological center to the Series, a safe and intimate environment conducive to exploring new ways of interacting with the often overwhelming social and creative requirements of the patronage system. These conversations and the awkward progression of the Series texts demonstrate Hoccleve’s attempts to control his re-entry into the fraught world of literary politics, and guard against fully abdicating his authorial control and newly re-acquired sanity.

Vines (2013) p. 203.

[3] The tale of Jereslaus’s wife (“Chaste Empress”) is exemplum 100 in the Anglo-Latin Gesta Romanorum, edition of Bright (2019). In this article, quotes from this exemplum use the Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) of id. The exemplum of Jereslaus’s wife isn’t included in some versions of the Continental Gesta Romanorum. It’s supplemental exemplum 249 in Oesterley (1872). In Bright’s Anglo-Latin edition, the Emperor is written as Gerelaus. Hoccleve translated Gerelaus as Jereslaus. On the Gesta Romanorum generally, Bennett (2017) and Classen (2017).

The tale of Jereslaus’s wife features four evil men. One of the evil men was the Emperor Jereslaus’s brother. He propositioned the Empress for sex. She rebuffed him. Then she had him bound and imprisoned because “he oppresses the simple and the poor, robs the rich, and would do other outrageous things, if he could {simplices et pauperes deprimit, divites spoliat, et aliud enorme perpetrare vellet, si posset}.”

When the Emperor was returning to Rome, his brother begged the Empress to release him from prison. He promised to refrain from doing wrong. She thus mercifully released him. He then viciously betrayed her. In a remote forest, he hung her on a tree by her hair and then abandoned her.

A count passing through the forest rescued the Empress and took her to his castle. The Empress identified herself only as: “I am a foreign woman from far-away lands {mulier extranea sum de partibus longinquis}.” The count then hired her to be a governess to his young daughter. The count’s steward fell in love with her and repeatedly propositioned her. She rebuffed him. Furious at her rejecting him, the steward killed the count’s daughter and framed the Empress as the murderer. The count then expelled the Empress from his lands.

As the Empress rode away from the count’s castle, she saw preparations to hang a thief. She paid a fee to save the thief’s life. He pledged faithfulness to her for saving his life. But then he betrayed her to a shipowner, who abducted her. The shipowner sought to have sex with her. She refused. He then threatened to rape her. Before he could rape her, a storm sunk the ship. Only the Empress and the shipowner survived the shipwreck. She then went to a convent as an anonymous nun.

In the tale of Jereslaus’s wife, the negative portrayal of men as sexually desperate, vicious persons draws upon anti-meninist stereotypes. Not all men are like that. Men, who have long suffered oppressive structural injustices, are wonderful persons whose sexuality can be a precious gift to women.

[4] As thoughtful medieval Christians would have understood, the Empress was like the mother of God, but not herself God.

[5] Continental Gesta Romanorum 120, “About the subtle deceits of women {De mulierum subtili deceptione},” Latin text from Oesterley (1872), my English translation, benefiting from that of Stace (2018). The corresponding tale in Bright’s Anglo-Norman Gesta Romanorum is 54, “Jonathas.” Here I’ve drawn on the continental version because it’s more contextually descriptive.

In 1614, William Browne incorporated into Eclogue 1 of his book The Shepheard’s Pipe Hoccleve’s translation of the tale of Jonathas. For that text, Hazlitt (1868) vol. 2, pp. 165ff. On the Gesta Romanorum in English translation, Herrtage (1879).

The tale of Jonathas in the Gesta Romanorum probably contributed to the story of Fortunatus, first known through publication in German in Augsburg in 1509. Fortunatus acquired a bottomless purse: a purse from which money could be continually taken without any being put into it. He also acquired a magic hat that would transport the wearer anywhere he desired. Fortunatus gave his precious items to his two sons. They behaved badly and eventually were imprisoned or killed. The story of Fortunatus was translated into many European languages in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Elizabethian dramatist Thomas Dekker wrote The Pleasant Comedie of Old Fortunatus in 1599.

Fortunatus’s bottomless purse and magic hat are similar to the necklace and carpet in the tale of Jonathas. Jonathas eventually took to heart his mother’s teaching about women and triumphed in the end. The tale of Fortunatus contains no such wisdom, and Fortunatus’s sons came to a bad end. The tale of Fortunatus regrettably became more popular than the tale of Jonathas.

[6] This and subsequent quotes above from the Gesta Romanorum are from Bright’s Anglo-Norman Gesta Romanorum, exemplum 54, “Jonathas.” In Hoccleve’s tale of Jonathas, the girlfriend is named Fellicula. Hoccleve highlighted Jonathas’s foolish sexual ardor:

With a woman, a morsel of pleasure,
by the streets of the university
as he was doing his walking, met he.

And right away with her he had an affair
and there all ardent he burned in love with her.
Gay, fresh, and pointed was she to sell herself,
because to that end and to that intent
she came thither, and both went forth,
and he soon paddled a pestle in her,
not something I know, because I was not there.

She was his paramour, shortly to say.

{ With a womman, a morsel of plesance.
By the streetes of the vniuersitee
As he was in his walkynge, mette he;

And right as blyue he with hire had a tale,
And ther-with-al / sore in hir loue he brente:
Gay / fressh and pykid was shee to the sale,
ffor to þat ende and to þat entente
Shee thidir cam / and bothe foorth they wente,
And he a pistle rowned in hire ere:
Nat woot y what / for y ne cam nat there.

Shee was his paramour, shortley to seye. }

From Hoccleve, Series, Tale of Jonathas, st. 23-25, vv. 160-9. Representing Jonathas’s penis as a pestle dehumanizes him and his sexuality. Men’s penises have historically been brutalized and dehumanized.

[7] The Online Etymology Dictionary attributes the expression “pull the rug out from under (someone)” only back to 1936. It seems to me likely that the expression comes from a magic-carpet episode like that of Jonathas having the carpet pulled out from under him in the above tale.

[8] Functioning in support of dominant gynocentric ideology, Richardson interpreted Hoccleve’s tale of Jonathas as a “male revenge fantasy” rather than a triumph of social justice. He declared:

I do not think it is farfetched to perceive in Fellicula’s destruction a kind of symbolic rape, a form of penetration and internal destruction. … This misogynistic violence is a function of Jonathas’s disenchantment with Fellicula …. The poem violently nullifies Fellicula’s power over Jonathas, rendering the once alluring and mysterious to be simply revolting.

Richardson (2018) pp. 280-1. The impersonal, anti-hyperbolic interpretative rhetoric of the first quoted sentence indicates the extent to which the author is delusional. Simply revolting indeed. But his is a functional delusion. Vicious anti-meninism is highly valued in literary studies today.

Richardson went on to quote Camille Paglia’s gender essentialism:

Sex crimes are always male, never female, because such crimes are conceptualizing assaults on the unreachable omnipotence of woman and nature.

Id., quoting Paglia (1990) p. 22. Such pretentious nonsense supports mendacious newspaper reporting about rape and the massively gender-disproportionate imprisonment of men.

Richardson’s concluding paragraph conjures a stirring evocation of poor-dearism:

In male revenge fantasy, villains such as Fellicula perform the vital work of affirming readers’ faith in a moral universe, as long as such women suffer terribly in the end. To paraphrase Voltaire, if Fellicula did not exist, it would be necessary to invent her.

Richardson (2018) p. 286. Readers’ faith in a moral universe would be much better affirmed by eliminating the massively gender-disproportionate imprisonment of men, ending the rhetorical and actual disproportionate violence against men, eliminating men’s lifespan shortfall relative to women, establishing reproductive rights for men, and erasing acute sex discrimination against men in child-custody and child-support decisions.

Stavsky disparaged Jonathas for gaining appreciation for his mother’s wisdom about women and living with his mother. Stavsky declared:

Returning to his mother’s house, he comes full circle to a state of stunted growth: that of a self-centered youth who cannot become a man. His trajectory mirrors the circularity of his thinking, which is unable to advance beyond its premises and to create something new, much like the antifeminist banter criticized in the Epistre.

Stavsky (2014) p. 454. Women such as Christine de Pizan in her Epistre saying that men have offended them is nothing new. See, e.g. Socrates’s wife Xanthippe. Jonathas recognized the value of his mother’s wisdom about women and returned to care lovingly for his mother in her old age. Such action in no way implies that Jonathan doesn’t become a man. For far too long men have been required to prove that they are a man. That gender hypocrisy should be decisively rejected.

[9] Hoccleve, Series, My Complaint {My Compleinte} st. 57-9 (vv. 386-406), Middle English text from Furnivall (1892) p. 109, my English modernization. Here’s Jenni Nuttall’s prose modernization of all of Hoccleve’s Complaint. Hoccleve also wrote a complaint featuring the voice of the Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross: Paramount Complaint {Conpleynte paramont}. For an English modernization, Varnum (2019).

[images] (1) Fortunatus, sporting a large cod-piece, receives the purse of plenty from the generous Lady Fortune. Woodcut from the 1509 Ausburg first edition {editio princeps} of Fortunatus. Woodcut by Jörg Breu the Elder. Via Michael Haldane. (2) Ivan Tsarevich on a flying carpet. Oil on canvas painting by Viktor Vasnetsov in 1880. Preserved in the Nizhny Novgorod State Art Museum in Russia. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Bennett, Alastair. 2017. Entry for Gesta Romanorum. The Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature in Britain. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.

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.

Burrow, John, ed. 1999. Thomas Hoccleve’s Complaint and Dialogue. Early English Text Society, Original series, 313. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Classen, Albrecht. 2017. “The Gesta Romanorum: A Sammelbecken of Ancient Wisdom and Didactic Literature and a Medieval ‘Bestseller’ Revisited.” Literature & Aesthetics. 27 (1): 73-98.

Ellis, Roger, ed. 2001. Thomas Hoccleve. My compleinte and other poems. Exeter: University of Exeter Press. Review by Michael Calabrese.

Erler, Mary Carpenter and Thelma S. Fenster, ed. and trans. 1990. Poems of Cupid, God of Love: Christine de Pizan’s Epistre au dieu d’amours and Dit de la rose, Thomas Hoccleve’s The Letter of Cupid: editions and translations, with George Sewell’s The Proclamation of Cupid. Leiden: Brill.

Fleming, John V. 1971. “Hoccleve’s ‘Letter of Cupid’ and the ‘Quarrel’ over the Roman de la Rose.” Medium Ævum. 40 (1): 21-40.

Furnivall, Frederick J., ed. 1892. Hoccleve’s works. Vol. 1 (no. 61), The minor poems in the Phillipps ms. 8151 (Cheltenham) and the Durham ms. III. 9. Early English Text Society, Extra Series, no. 61, 72, 73. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner.

Hazlitt, W. Carew, ed. 1868. The Whole Works of William Browne, of Tavistock … Now first collected and edited, with a memoir of the poet, and notes. London: Printed for The Roxburghe Library. Vol. 1, Vol. 2.

Herrtage, Sidney J. H. 1879. The Early English Versions of the Gesta Romanorum. London: Published for the Early English Text Society by Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press.

Larsen, Vickie and John Pendell. 2018.”Thomas Hoccleve’s Series and English Verse in Early Fifteenth-Century London.” Philological Quarterly. 97 (4): 499-514.

Oesterley, Hermann, ed. 1872. Gesta Romanorum. Berlin: Weidmann.

Paglia, Camille. 1990. Sexual Personae: art and decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Richardson, Gavin. 2018. “Disenchantment: Hoccleve’s Tale of Jonathas and Male Revenge Fantasy.” Ch. 8 (pp. 267-287) in Bedos-Rezak, Brigitte, and Martha Dana Rust, eds. Faces of Charisma: image, text, object in Byzantium and the medieval West. Leiden; Boston: Brill.

Sobecki, Sebastian. 2019. Last Words: The Public Self and the Social Author in Late Medieval England. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stace, Christopher, trans. 2018. Gesta Romanorum: A New Translation. Manchester University Press.

Stavsky, Jonathan. 2014. “Hoccleve’s Take on Chaucer and Christine de Pizan: Gender, Authorship, and Intertextuality in the Epistre au dieu d’Amours, the Letter of Cupid, and the Series.” Philological Quarterly. 93 (4): 435-460.

Varnam, Laura. 2019. “Hoccleve Recovery Day: Translation of The Complaint Paramount.” Blog of Dr Laura Varnam. Entry dated Nov. 1, 2019.

Vines, Amy N. 2013. “The Rehabilitation of Patronage in Hoccleve’s Series.” Digital Philology: A Journal of Medieval Cultures. 2 (2): 201-221.

Winstead, Karen A. 1993. ‘“I am al othir to yow than yee weene”: Hoccleve, Women, and the Series.’ Philological Quarterly. 72 (2): 143-155.

reason and rage of Achilles after gazing on Polyxena

Achilles fighting Hector; illumination from archaic Attic vase

In the Trojan War, the eminent Greek warrior Achilles killed the famed Trojan warrior Hector, son of Trojan King Priam. The Trojans honored with great festivals and a solemn ceremony the anniversary of Hector’s death. Renowned men of the Greek army, including Achilles, were allowed to attend that commemoration. There Achilles gazed upon King Priam’s daughter Polyxena:

There Achilles saw Polyxena’s
face in full view.
That was the cause and the way
leading to the loss of his life
and his soul’s departure from his body.

The great beauty and manner
that Achilles saw in the young woman
ignited in his heart a spark
that would never be extinguished by him.
In his heart it inscribed and depicted
her very lovely bright eyes and her forehead
and her beautiful hair that was so blond
that it resembled pure gold in his estimation.
He took note of all her beautiful features.
Nothing about her was there that he missed
and nothing failed to wound him mortally.
The splendor that came from her face
infused his body with cold and ice.
Her nose, her mouth, and her chin
ignited within him such a fire
that it would burn from then on within his body.
Love pinched and bit him.
Her very beautiful body and her chest
made him to endure such torment
that he would not cease by night nor day
to feel Love’s rods striking him,
often with more than fourteen blows.
From now on he would be so distraught
that he couldn’t think clearly.
From now on he necessarily would lie awake
through long nights without closing his eyes.
Quickly love had vanquished his pride.
So his shield to him would be useless
and likewise his hauberk of fine mail.
His sharp, steel sword
wouldn’t have any use in this encounter.
Neither strength, virtue, nor courage
have any value at all against love.

{ Veüe i a Polixenain
Apertement en mi la chiere:
C’est l’acheison e la maniere
Par qu’il sera getez de vie
E l’ame de son cors partie.

La grant beauté e la façon
Qu’Achillès vit en la pucele
L’a cuit el cuer d’une estencele
Que ja par li nen iert esteinte.
En son cuer l’a escrite e peinte:
Ses tres beaus ieuz vairs e son front
E son bel chief, qu’ele a si blont
Que fins ors resemble esmerez,
Totes denote ses beautez;
N’a rien sor li qu’il ne retraie
E ne li face mortel plaie.
La resplendor qu’ist de sa face
Li met el cors freidor e glace.
Sis nes, sa boche e sis mentons
Le resprenent de teus arsons,
Dont ardra mais dedenz son cors:
Pinciez sera d’Amors e mors.
Sis tres beaus cors e sa peitrine
Li font prendre tel decepline
Que ja n’iert mais ne nuit ne jors
Ne sente le verjant d’Amors
Sovent plus de quatorze feiz.
Dès or sera mais si destreiz
Qu’il ne se savra conseillier,
Dès or li estovra veillier
Les longes nuiz senz clore l’ueil.
Tost a Amors plaissié orgueil:
Poi li vaudra ci sis escuz
E sis haubers mailliez menuz.
Ja s’espee trenchant d’acier
Ne li avra ici mestier:
Force, vertu ne hardement
Ne valent contre Amors neient }

In the archaic Greek Iliad, Achilles raged at the Greek leader King Agamemnon for taking for himself Achilles’s war-prize Briseis. In Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s influential, twelfth-century French Romance of Troy {Roman de Troie}, Achilles gazing upon the Trojan woman Polyxena prompted him to fall madly in love with her. Benoît apparently intuited the backstory for Achilles’s rage. It wasn’t simply a matter of honor and shame. Achilles had been madly in love with Briseis, too.

According to Benoît, Achilles himself recognized his love madness. Achilles lived long before the Roman general Gallus made love madness a conventional feature of Roman love elegy. Achilles thus declared:

I don’t believe that in this way
any man ever loved. I am mad
and lacking my senses so deplorably
that I don’t know what I’m doing.

{ Onc mais ne cuit qu’en tel maniere
Amast nus hom: jo sui desvez
E de mon sen si forsenez
Que jo ne sai que jo me faz. }

Men today who haven’t read any fiction written before this century might also think that they are suffering the first ever case of love madness. That’s utterly false. Throughout history many men have suffered love madness, usually to their great loss if they don’t come back to their senses quickly.

Achilles in his love madness for Polyxena found treacherous reason. Recognizing the de facto Trojan leader in matters of marriage, Achilles secretly sent a messenger to the Trojan Queen Hecuba. Betraying his Greek allies, Achilles proposed a love-alliance with the Trojans:

Greet Hecuba in my name
and tell her that I’m very eager
to come to terms with her immediately.
Towards her I have acted very badly.
My heart is saddened by this.

I wish to make it right, if she allows,
such that she will take me for a friend.
Let her give me her daughter as a wife,
and if she can make it so that
King Priam and Paris offer her to me,
I’ll return to my country.
I’ll take my Myrmidon army with me.
Then no Greek will be bold enough
to remain here after I’ve left.
I offer her in all faithfulness
that I will make the Greek army depart.
In good peace the Trojans will be able to keep
henceforth their city and their country.

{ Salue la de meie part
E di que mout me sereit tart
Qu’o li eüsse acordement.
Vers li me sui trop malement
Meslez: trist en ai le corage.

Dreit l’en vueil faire a sa merci
Tel dont me tienge por ami:
Sa fille me doint a moillier,
E s’el la me fait otreier
Al rei Priant e a Paris,
Jo m’en irai en mon pais.
Merrai en mes Mirmidoneis:
Ja puis n’iert si hardiz Grezeis
Que ici remaigne après mei.
Trestot leiaument li otrei
Que jo ferai l’ost departir:
En bone pais porront tenir
Lor cité mais e lor païs. }

In ancient warfare, men of a defeated tribe were commonly massacred. Women were taken as captives to be incorporated into the victorious tribe. These captive women, in addition to having the gender benefit of not being dead, could become well-regarded companions like Ausonius’s Bissula. Achilles promised to love and honor the Trojan Polyxena if she were given to him:

Their lovely-bodied daughter will come
to be protected and honored,
for she will enter into a splendid marriage.
I will place a crown on her head,
and if God so grants me long enough life
such that she will be my wife,
I will have accomplished all my desires
and will be enriched above all others.

{ Lor fille o le cors avenant
Sera guarie e honoree,
Quar richement iert mariëe:
El chief li aserrai corone.
E se Deus tant vivre me donc
Que jo de li saisiz me veie,
Toz mes buens acompliz avreie;
Tant me sereie amanantiz
E sor toz autres enrichiz }

Queen Hecuba convinced Polyxena, King Priam, and Paris of the merits of this proposal. It would fulfill Achilles’s and Polyxena’s desires. More importantly, this proposal would save the lives of many thousands of Greek and Trojan men by ending the Trojan War. All that remained was for Achilles to convince the Greek army to depart.

Briseis leaving Achilles; wall painting from Pompeii

Achilles argued strongly that the Trojan War was foolhardy and should be ended immediately. The day after he heard that Hecuba had accepted his proposal to marry Polyxena, Achilles managed to summon an assembly of the Greek leaders. To that assembly he declared:

“My lords,” he began, “I wish to explain to you
that through our excesses and arrogance
we are daily causing our own deaths.
Already have died about thirty thousand men
who were very bold and valiant.
And this is what will befall all of us.
By the faith I owe you, know that
not a single one of us will escape
going to his death here
before this realm is conquered,
if we do not adopt a different strategy.
We have undertaken too foolish an enterprise.
For the cause of one woman
we have left so many noble realms,
so many kingdoms, so many good countries.
More than five years we have been here,
yet we haven’t accomplished anything
that can make it well-worthwhile.
With great anguish and great suffering
we have stayed here most of this year.
Our men are very impoverished
and very badly chilled.
I am extremely amazed
that here among us so many wise men
have not decided on a different course.
and that none of them see what I see.
Very contemptible is the cause
of our enormous destruction.
Men from Europe and men from Africa and
men from beyond the ports of Salonika
have come together to await death.
And I call to your fine attention
that never has there been a greater folly,
nor greater arrogance, nor greater outrage,
than for us to die for one woman.
For her we are destroying ourselves.”

{ “Seignor,” fait il, “mostrer vos vueil
Que par sorfait e par orgueil
Nos faisons chascun jor ocire:
Jan i a morz teus trente mire
Qui mout erent hardiz e proz;
A ço revertirons nos toz.
Par cele fei que jo dei vos,
Ja n’en eschapera uns sous
Qu’il ne seit a la mort aquis,
Ainz que cist regnes seit conquis,
Se autre conseiz n’en est pris.
Trop fol plait avons entrepris,
Qui por l’acheison d’une femme
Avons guerpi tant riche regne,
Tant reiaume, tant bon pais.
Plus de cinc anz avons ci sis:
Ancor n’i avons chose faite
Que en bien puisse estre retraite.
A grant angoisse, a grant ahan
Somes ici le plusde l’an;
Nostre gent est trop bosoignose
E trop malement sofraitose.
Mout me merveil estrangement
Que tant a ici sage gent
Qui n’en ont pris autre conrei,
Tuit n’i veient ço que j’i vei.
Mout est mauvaise l’acheison
De nostre grant destrucion:
Cil d’Europe e cil d’Aufrique,
Cil d’outres porz de Salenique
Sont asemblé a mort receivre;
E si vos sai bien amenteivre
Ne fu onc mais graindre folages
Ne graindre orguieuz ne graindre outrages,
Que por une femme morons
E que por li nos destruions.” }

Achilles urged Menelaus to leave Helen at Troy and find another woman among the many noble, loyal Greek women. Achilles spoke about the joy of being at home. He declared that he and his men would no longer participate in the massive violence against men of the Trojan War. Men’s lives should matter. But Achilles spoke out for the value of men’s lives only because he wanted to marry Polyxena.

The withdrawal of Achilles and his men from the Trojan War was disastrous for their Greek allies. The Trojans slaughtered thousands of Greek men. They pushed the Greeks back to their tents and ships and then burned the Greeks’ ships. Greek leaders pleaded with Achilles for help. He paid no attention to them. He played chess while the Greeks continued to be slaughtered. Again and again Greek leaders begged Achilles for help. He finally allowed his Myrmidons to fight for them, but he himself refused to fight. Lacking Achilles’s leadership, many Myrmidons were killed in the fighting.

The Greeks again were driven back to their tents. The fighting came close to Achilles’s tent. There he was still languishing in love for Polyxena. Greek soldiers yelled to Achilles:

your enemies are already so close
that, if you wish to wait for them here,
soon you will see a thousand dismount,
not one of whom wouldn’t strike you,
so increasing our shame and scandal.
Today you have lost your men.
They are hacked to pieces, dead, covered in blood.
You have failed us in our hour of need.
But those will render you thanks —
your enemies who have no peace or truce with you.

{ Achilles,
Vostre enemi sont ja si près
Que, se ci les volez atendre,
Jan i verreiz teus mil descendre,
N’i avra cel qui ne vos meisse,
Honte e damage nos i creisse.
Perdu avez hui vostre gent:
Detrenchié sont, mort e sanglent.
Al bosoing nos estes failliz,
Mais cil vos en rendront merciz
Qui o vos n’ont ne pais ne trieve. }

Achilles was in anguish at the thought of dying without a fight. In a daze he took up his weapons and armor. Then he acted madly in a different way:

Cruel and maddened and inflamed with anger,
Achilles sallied forth amid his enemies.
He dealt with them as a wolf with lambs:
more than two hundred heads he bloodied
in only a little time.
He was like a wolf that devours all.
In the thickest fighting he thrust himself,
striking with sword and lance.
He received many blows, but what did they do?
He took the blows as nothing, nor did they bother him.

{ Fel e desvez e d’ire espris,
Sailli entre ses enemis.
D’eus fait ensi com lous d’oëilles:
Plus de dous cenz testes vermeilles
Lor i a fait en petit d’ore;
Il est li lous qui tot devore.
Es greignors presses se treslance,
Fiert de l’espee e de la lance.
Mout rest feruz, mais ço que vaut?
Rien nel prise ne ne l’en chaut. }

With Achilles’s help, the Greeks staved off annihilation. King Priam in turn declared that Achilles had betrayed them, and that he would never allow him to marry Polyxena. This didn’t please Polyxena, because she would have liked to be Achilles’s wife. Achilles himself knew that his love for Polyxena was now doomed. He felt deep sorrow. He kept fighting, driven by his anger at Trojan warriors killing Greeks warriors in institutionalized violence against men. He even killed Troilus, another of Queen Hecuba’s sons.

Achilles killing King Memnon during Trojan War; decoration on grave amphora

Queen Hecuba plotted revenge against Achilles. She summoned her son Paris. She told him that she would die unless he did what she asked him to do. Before knowing what she wanted him to do, Paris declared:

My lady, why
do you have this doubt about me
and assume, whether it be good or foolish,
that I would reject anything you desire?
Command me. I am ready to do
whatever you order me to undertake in obligation to you.

{ Dame, por quei
Avez de ço dote de mei,
Seitmaus, seit biens, sens o folie,
Que de rien nule vos desdie?
Comandez mei, prez sui del faire,
A quel que chief j’en deie traire. }

Paris didn’t even care what his father would think about what his mother would ask him to do. Mothers rule under gynocentrism. Hecuba in fact asked Paris to kill Achilles by betraying an agreement. She would tell Achilles to come secretly at night to Apollo’s Temple to take Polyxena as his wife. There Paris and his Trojan accomplices would surprise Achilles and kill him. Paris recognized that such action was shameful:

I see that you are dying. I don’t know how
I can turn down your request.
I don’t dare refuse what pleases you.
I know well that I must obey you,
but here lurks a very great wrong.
Once an affair has turned to betrayal,
he who does it brings shame upon himself.
I will suffer much reproach because of this.
I fear losing esteem and becoming less worthy.
Yet above all I haven’t the strength to oppose
anything, mother, that pleases you.
Therefore I will carry out what you ask.
However it turns out, you will have me ready to act.

{ Morir vos vei: ne sai coment
Jo ne face vostre talent;
N’os desdire vostre plaisir.
Bien sai que vos dei obeïr,
Mais ci a mout grant mespreison:
Puis qu’uevre torne a traïson,
S’i a honte cil qui la fait.
Trop me sera en mal retrait:
Baissier en criem e meins valeir.
Ensorquetot n’os desvoleir
Nule rien, mere, que vos place:
Por ço vos otrei que jol face.
A que que tort, prest m’i avreiz }

Paris was Hecuba’s adult son. Yet he was an obedient child in relation to his mother. Is it any wonder that under gynocentrism no affirmative action addresses the gender disparity of 90% of elementary school teachers being women?

Despite his education with King Lycomedes’s daughters at Scyros, Achilles didn’t suspect treachery in Trojan Queen Hecuba’s offer of Polyxena to be his wife. He instructed a messenger to tell Hecuba:

From now on, I will be her loyal son,
faithful and without deception
for all the days of my life.
Through me, if I can live for a long time,
Troy will be completely free.
This I assure her by swearing and vowing
that I shall never again seek more my own interest
than seek what is to her advantage.

Go there and greet Hecuba in my name.
Say to my lady and my beloved Polyxena
that I am entirely hers and will be forever.
By her, this kingdom will be at peace.

{ D’ore en avant serai sis fiz
Leiaus, feeiz e senz boisdie,
A toz les jorz mais de ma vie.
Par mei, se longement puis vivre,
Sera Troie tote delivre.
Ço li afi e jur e vo,
Ja ne voudra mais plus mon pro
Que autretant le suen ne vueille.

Va t’en, e si la me salue.
Di a ma dame e a ma drue
Que toz sui suens e serai mais:
Par li iert cist regnes en pais. }

When Achilles and his close friend Antilogus arrived without armor at the temple of Apollo, Paris and his twenty heavily armed accomplices attacked them. Achilles and Antilogus fought strongly, killing many of the Trojan men. But eventually they fell and died. Paris hacked their bodies to pieces and threw the pieces out of Apollo’s temple.

Achilles’s mad love, his “courtly love {fine amor}” for Polyxena, perverted both his reason and his rage. Achilles ultimately recognized his self-destruction:

I have been maliciously deceived.
Love set up this whole affair for me.
Love has made me feel deadly pain.
We are not the first,
nor will we be the last,
to die or to have died for love.
Beautiful sweet friend, there’s no comfort in this.
Alongside you, like it or not,
I must die in this place.
I can scarcely defend myself any longer.

{ Deceüz sui trop malement.
Tot cest plait m’a basti Amors:
Sentir m’en fait morteus dolors.
Ne somes pas des premerains,
Ne ne serons des dererains,
Qui en morront ne quin sont mort.
Beaus douz amis, n’i a confort:
Dejoste vos, o peist o place,
M’estuet morir en ceste place.
Ne me puis mais guaires aidier }

Achilles’s grief in love for Antilogus parallels his grief in love for Patroclus and for Polyxena. Achilles was intimately associated with Patroclus and Antilogus, yet he never even spoke personally with Polyxena. Men’s mad love is most typically and most ridiculously oriented toward women. Men’s mad love and men’s glory-seeking in war too often come together in death, predominately men’s deaths.

To end epic violence against men, men most love better than the best of the Achaeans, Achilles. The wise, ancient Roman dispeller of delusions Lucretius long ago satirized gyno-idolatry. The great ninth-century Christian cleric Walahfrid Strabo promoted love for men and for gardening. Women and men are earthly beings. They must love each other within the mud of ordinary life.

* * * * *

Read more:


All the quotes above are from Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s Roman de Troie. Quotes from the Roman de Troie show Old French text from Constans (1904) and English translation (modified slightly) from Burgess & Kelly (2017). Benoît wrote the Roman de Troie about 1165. It enormously influenced subsequent understandings of the matter of Troy and Achilles. For an alternate, non-meninist account of Achilles’s relationship with Polyxena, Thompson (1981). On the development of Achilles’s character through literary history, Radin (1983) and Gödde (2016).

In ancient Greek, the name Polyxena literally means “entertaining many guests.” That name thus associates Polyxena with courtesans. Benoît extravagantly praised both her beauty and her character:

She was tall and gracile and full-grown and upright,
and by the hips she was slender and narrow.
Her head was blond, and her hair long,
extending down to her heals.

She was the loveliest, the best raised,
and the most highly esteemed of all women.

{ Haute ert e graile e longe e droite,
Par les flans deugiee e estreite;
Le chief ot bloi, les cheveus lons,
Qui li passoënt les talons.

Plus bele ert e mieuz enseigniee
E de totes la plus preisiee. }

Roman de Troie, vv. 5545-8, 5575-6. Men throughout history have tended to admire women’s long hair. See note [5] in my post on Paul seducing Thecla.

Benoît, who didn’t have access to the Homeric Iliad, explicitly drew upon the Latin account of Dares Phrygius, The History of Troy’s Fall {De excidio Troiae historia}. Dares only briefly addressed Achilles’s love for Polyxena:

He gazes on Polyxena, transfixes her in his mind, and he begins to fall vehemently in love with her. Then, compelled by his burning passion, he wastes away his hated life in unrequited love.

{ Polyxenam contemplatur, figit animum, amare vehementer eam coepit. Tunc ardore conpulsus odiosam in amore vitam consumit }

Dares, De excidio Troiae 19, my English translation.

Achilles wept after Hector killed Patroclus. Just as for Antilogus, Achilles referred to Patroclus as his “beautiful sweet friend {beaus douz amis}” (v. 10335) and lamented:

The love I bore for you was very poor.
Well I recognize that I did wrong
since you have died without me,
because, if I had been beside you
in this grievous fighting,
you would have feared no living man.
As I depart from you from now on,
I will have neither love nor companionship
at all for the rest of my life.
To you belonged my heart entirely,
because you were very handsome and worthy,
loyal and noble and of a good family.
I believe that I will never again do
anything that gives me joy or happiness.
All my days I will henceforth be sorrowful.

{ Mauvaise amor vos ai portee:
Bien reconois miens est li torz,
Dès que vos senz mei estes morz;
Quar, se jo fusse delez vos
Al torneiement doloros,
Ne crensisseiz home vivant.
Quant jo de vos depart a tant,
N’avrai amor ne compaignie
A rien que seit mais en ma vie.
En vos esteit mis cuers trestoz,
Quar mout estiëz beaus e proz,
Leiaus e frans e de bon aire.
Ja mais ne cuit nul jor rien faire
Dont aie joie ne leece:
Toz jorz serai mais en tristece. }

Roman de Troie, vv. 10338-52. Achilles got over his love for Patroclus and went on to love Polyxena and Antilogus with similar intensity.

When Achilles rejoined the fighting and King Priam renounced Achilles’s proposal to marry Polyxena, she was upset:

Polyxena heard this news.
Know that it did not please her.
Many conversations, much advice,
much deliberation, and much thought
she had had with her mother.
It had pleased her very much and was to her liking
that Achilles was to take her as his wife.

{ Polixena sot cez noveles:
Sacheiz ne li furent pas beles.
Maintes paroles, mainz conseiz,
Mainz parlemenz e mainz segreiz
Aveit o li tenu sa mere:
Mout li plaiseit e bel li ere
Qu’il la deveit prendre a moillier. }

Roman de Trioe, vv. 21227-33. The killing of Achilles caused Polyxena much grief:

She was very angry towards her mother,
who had contrived the plot to kill him.

In her heart she was thus greatly upset
because Achilles had died for love of her.
She never got over these feelings
and never stopped blaming her mother for it.

{ Vers sa mere en fu mout iriee,
Que l’uevre aveit apareilliee.

En son cuer ot puis grant iror
De ço qu’il ert morz por s’amor:
Onc puis ne fu ne l’en pesast
E que sa mere n’en blasmast. }

Roman de Troie, vv. 22449-50, 22457-60. To reduce violence against men, more women must confront their mothers and insist on social justice for men.

The above quotes from Roman de Troie are from vv. 17540-4, 17552-84 (There Achilles saw Polyxena’s…), 17684-7 (I don’t believe…), 17757-61, 17767-79 (Greet Hecuba in my name…), 17788-97 (Their lovely-bodied daughter…), 18163-98 (“My lords,” he began…), 21057-67 (Achilles, your enemies…), 21097-105 (Cruel and maddened…), 21887-92 (My lady, why…), 21943-55 (I see that you are dying….), 22026-33, 22047-50 (From now on I will be her loyal son…), 17547 (courtly love), 22256-66 (I have been maliciously deceived….).

[images] (1) Achilles fighting Hector. Painting on Attic red figure volute-krater made in Athens about 490 BGC. By artist known as Berlin Painter. Preserved in British Museum (London, UK) as inventory # 1848,0801.1. Source image thanks to ArchaiOptix and WikimediaCommons. (2) Briseis being lead from Achilles to Agamemnon. Wall painting from Pompeii VI.8.5. (House of the Tragic Poet, atrium), made in first century GC. Preserved as inventory # 9105 in Museo Archeologico Nazionale (Napoli, Italy). Image thanks to ArchaiOptix and Wikimedia Commons. (3) Achilles killing King Memnon. Decoration on grave amphora made in southern Italy about 330 BGC. Source image thanks to rob koopman and Wikimedia Commons.


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

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.

Gödde, Susanne. 2016. “Modern Achilles: The Beauty of War and the Battle of the Sexes.” Pp. 229-258 in Caston, Victor, and Silke-Maria Weineck, eds. Our Ancient Wars: rethinking war through the classics. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Radin, Alice Pauline. 1983. The Romance of Achilles: from Homer to Benoit de Sainte-Maure. Ph.D. Thesis, University of California at Berkeley.

Thompson, Diane. 1981. “Love Destroys Achillès in Benoit de Sainte Maure’s Roman de Troie.” Adapted from Diane P. Thompson. 1981. Human Responsibility and the Fall of Troy. Ph.D. Thesis, CUNY.

hear, see, and keep quiet if you want to live in peace

The early-fourteenth-century story collection Deeds of the Romans {Gesta Romanorum} tells of the knight Acheron and his beautiful wife. She became madly in love with another knight. When her husband traveled abroad, she and that knight at night got together in bed at her house.

Three cocks lived in the house. While the wife and her lover committed adultery, a cock crowed. The wife asked her maidservant what the cock said. The maidservant answered:

The cock is saying in his song that you are doing your husband wrong.

{ Gallus dicit in cantu suo quod facis iniuriam viro tuo.

The cok saithe in his songe þat thowe dost thyn husbond wrong. }[1]

Not interested in hearing the truth, the wife ordered the cock to be killed immediately. Then another cock crowed. Again the wife asked her maidservant what the cock said. The maidservant answered:

My companion has lost his life by telling the truth and rests very low.

{ Socius meus pro sua veritate perdidit vitam suam et iacet valde basse.

My felawe for his sothe sawe hathe lost his lyfe and lythe fulle lowe. }

The wife ordered that cock also to be killed immediately. Then the third cock crowed. In response to the wife’s query, the maidservant recounted that the cock said:

Hear, see, and keep quiet if you want to live in peace.

{ Audi, vide, et tace, si tu vis vivere in pace.

Se and here and holde þe stille, than myghtis þowe lyffe and haue þi wille. }[2]

The third cock crowed prudent advice for men living under gynocentrism. If men want to live in peace, they should not acknowledge or criticize women’s social dominance, to say nothing of men’s lack of reproductive rights, acute sex discrimination against men in child-support and child-custody rulings, the vastly gender-disproportionate incarceration of men, etc., etc., and so on, and so on.

In a story that Rüdiger von Munre wrote about 1300, a husband learned from his wife, his daughter, and their young cleric-lovers not to believe or report what he saw or heard. The husband and wife, along with the daughter, were hosting in their home two visiting young clerics. One night, while the wife was having sex with one cleric, the other cleric, dressed as the wife, took her place in bed next to her husband. The husband didn’t notice that the person sleeping next to him wasn’t his wife. Seeking to engage in intimate conjugal relations, the husband kissed and embraced his imposter-wife:

The husband strove energetically
for sweet love
and with this in mind
he pulled up his wife’s nightshirt.
Then he found things
exactly as God had created them.
This troubled the poor fool
and dampened his spirits.
He wondered what was wrong.
He quickly pulled back his hand
and then took another feel,
but it was just the same.
His mind was paralyzed.
“Who has falsified my wife?
Now she has the body of a man.
I’ve never heard such a strange thing.
God is angry with me in earnest
since I am so led astray.
But now I remember the advice
my grandmother gave me,
that I should pay no attention
to what I seem to notice.”

{ Der wirt dô mit vlîze kreik,
daz er die süeze minne
verstæle, in deme sinne
daz hemde er ir ûf las;
dô vant er dâ, rehte als ez was
von Gote dar geschaffen.
Daz machte dem affen
sîn trüebe gemüete swære,
in wunderte, waz ez wære;
die hant zukte (er) snel[lek]lîchen dan
und greif aber wider dar an,
dô was ez aber alsam;
des wart er an den sinnen lam.
“Wer hât mir vervelschet daz wîp?
Si hât nû (gar) mannes lîp;
diu vrembde mære ich nie mê vernam.
Mir ist God wol mit vlîze gram,
dâ von ich sus verirret bin.
Nû gedenke ich an den sin,
den mich mîn bâbe lêrte,
daz ich mich dar an niht kêrte,
ob mich ihtes bedûhte.” }[3]

Nonetheless, the husband shook the imposter-wife awake and accused her of turning into a man. Playing his role well, the imposter-wife strongly denied that horrible accusation:

Be still, husband,
you don’t know what you’re talking about.
When you never know enough to hold your tongue
about what happens to you,
you’re in for trouble.
I can tell that you’ve
been seeing things again.
I surmise that much from the fact
that you think I’m a man.
Not I, in truth. I’m a woman.
After all, you’ve been familiar
with my body for many years.
Test it again with your hand.
Since you’re so eager for it,
you shouldn’t object to it.

{ Habe, herre, dîn gemach;
dû enweist niht, waz dû sagest.
Nû dû nimmer niht verdagest,
waz dir sulhes wider vert,
sô ist dir ungemach beschert.
Nû sage ich dir ez wol, daz
dich bedunket aber etewaz;
daz kiuse ich (vil) wol dar an,
daz dich dunket, ich sî ein man
nein ich, z’wâre, ich bin ein wîp.
Nû hâst dû doch mînen lîp
manik jâ (vil) wol bekant:
versuoch’ ez baz mit dîner hant;
sint daz dû mîn wil lâgen,
sô endarf dich es niht betrâgen. }

The husband felt again his imposter-wife’s genitals. Lacking modern learning, he then foolishly declared her to be a man. The wife insisted that she would fetch a candle and show that she’s a woman. Then the imposter-wife got up and swapped places with the actual wife:

She went to the bed and
brought the candle in her hand
and said, “It’s too much
that you run me ragged
and don’t recognize
your own wife, and it’s a good thing
I can give you proof now.
So take hold and see,
admit it and say
that I am indeed a woman.
What I wouldn’t give for a husband
with a little more sense!”

{ Vür daz bette gienk si stân,
daz lieht si in der hant truok;
si sprach, “Des dunket mich genuok,
daz dû mich sus umb trîbes
und dînes eigen wîbes
niht erkennes; daz ist wol,
sint ich dir’z nû zeigen sol,
sô grîf vil ebene unde sich,
bekenne mich (nû) baz, und sprich,
daz ich vür wâr ein wîp bin.
Waz gæbe ich umbe den sin,
der [n]iht bezzer wære!” }[4]

Of course the wife went on to give her husband advice:

It seems to me that it would be a good thing
if you with your foolishness
would turn to me for counsel
and recognize better
the ways of those evil demons
who are forever causing you
to announce whatever
they put before your eyes.

{ Miche dûhte daz noch rehte guot,
daz dû dînen tumblen muot
an mînen rât gewentes,
und ein teil baz erkentes
der übelen ungehiuren site,
die pflegen dir des immer mite,
wilt dû ez allez gesagen,
daz si dir ze den ougen tragen. }

The husband then felt his wife, who identified as a woman, to be a woman. Realizing his confusion and ignorance, he apologized profusely to his wife:

Forgive me for my error
and be patient with me, my lady.
I can see now what ails me.
Alas, I’m deprived
of my senses.
Whatever I do
and whatever happens to me,
I’ll never again give way
to my gullibility,
even if I’m beset
nine times a day.
I’ll act blind
and dumb
if I can only avoid
this sort of thing.

{ nû vergib mir mîne schult,
vrouwe, mit grôzer gedult,
Ich sihe wol, was mir wirret,
ich bin ot verirret
leider [mir] mîner sinne;
swie sô ich es beginne,
ez engeschiht mir nimmer mê,
wære mir alle tage wê
mêr den niun stunt an eime tage,
daz ich nimmer mêr gesage
keinen swachen gelouben.
Eime blinden touben
dem wold’ ich mich gelîchen,
möht’ ich dâ mite entwîchen
alsus getânen sachen }

Henceforth no matter what he heard or saw, the husband kept quiet.[5] He never again accused his wife of being a man or behaving wrongfully. This husband thus put into practice the contemporary saying, “Hear, see, and keep quiet if you want to live in peace {audi, vide, et tace, si tu vis vivere in pace}.” His wife and daughter were then able to carry on easily and happily their affairs with the young clerics. Since Rüdiger von Munre wrote this story near Aachen about 1300, many men have behaved likewise. Happy wife, happy life!

The gender context of “Hear, see, and keep quiet if you want to live in peace {audi, vide, et tace, si tu vis vivere in pace}” has been scarcely preserved. The Freemasons are an all-men organization that has for centuries provided a safe space for men under gynocentrism. Quite appropriately, the motto “hear, see, and keep quiet {audi, vide, tace}” appeared in the Freemasons’ calendar for 1777. That motto was incorporated into the coat of arms of the Freemasons’ United Grand Lodge of England in 1813.[6] Freemason lodges that keep quiet about admitting only men may still survive to our day. Such lodges, however, possess nowhere near the wealth and status of today’s elite women-only colleges such as Wellesley College in the United States.

In modern folklore, the wisdom of hearing, seeing, and saying nothing was separated from appreciating women’s superiority in guile relative to men. The English proverbial saying “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” has its origin in “three wise monkeys.” That’s a Japanese cultural artifact with Confucian and Buddhist resonances:

The Japanese words associated with the Wise Monkey figures ‘Mi-zaru, kika-zaru, iwa-zaru {not seeing, not hearing, not speaking}’ are in the nature of a pun, for the Japanese word for monkey (‘saru’) becoming voiced as it does after a vowel (thus ‘zaru’) is then the same as the negative ending of a verb. Only in Japanese are the words (Not seeing, not hearing, not speaking) appropriately and wittily illustrated by monkey images.[7]

The first known English reference to the Three Wise Monkeys exists in Satow and Hawes’s Handbook for Travellers in Central and Northern Japan, published in 1884. The first known western reference to figures of the Three Wise Monkeys is in the 1926 Catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores of London.[8] Today, the only hint of the relation of the saying “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” to gynocentrism is a variant statue composition in which one monkey protects his genitals. As meninist literary criticism has revealed, castration culture connects medieval culture to modern culture.[9] Men, amid evil, protect your genitals!

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[1] Anglo-Latin (Bodleian Library, Douce MS 310) Gesta Romanorum 53 (“Cockcrows”), Latin text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Bright (2019). The subsequent two quotes above are similarly from id. This story also occurs in the continental Gesta Romanorum. For a loose English translation, see tale 68 in Swan & Hooper (1876).

The Anglo-Latin Gesta Romanorum has the maidservant speak in Middle English. The clerical author then translates her words into Latin. Above the Latin is then translated into modern English. For the third cock’s saying, the Latin slightly re-arranges the Middle English, probably to fit an existing Latin proverb.

“Cockcrows” probably arose in India within the folk tradition of talking parrots. It then diffused to Europe. “Cockcrows” is a folktale of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 243A and Stith Thompson motif J551.1 (under “Intemperate zeal in truth-telling”). For variants and analogues, Ashliman (1999) and Clouston (1887) v. 2, p. 196 (“The Merchant, his wife, and his parrot”).

[2] Walther (1963) lists three versions of this proverb: 1709, “‘Hear, perceive, keep quiet’ is a good way to live in peace {Audi, cerne, tace! bona res est vivere pace}”; 1712, “Hear, believe, keep quiet, if you want to live in peace {Audi, fide, tace, si tu vis vivere pace}”; 1720, “Hear, see, and keep quiet, if you want to live in peace {Audi, vide, tace, si tu vis vivere pace}.”

Taylor dated the first Latin instance of this proverb to a sermon about 1300. Taylor (1958) p. 26, citing Hauréau (1890) vol. 3, pp. 90, 102. In that sermon, the proverb is attributed to Lombards (“say Lombards {dicunt Lombardi}”). Lombards had a medieval reputation for cowardice.

Taylor dated the first English instance to around 1430. Taylor (1958) p. 27. “Cockcrows” in the Anglo-Norman Gesta Romanorum indicates that the proverb existed in English more than a century earlier.

Eustache Deschamps evoked similar proverbial wisdom in a balade that he wrote in 1392:

He who would live peacefully
without peril to his body
should have a mouth like an elephant,
eyes as blind as a mole,
and hear only as much as a smoked herring,
if he wants to preserve his body and goods.
And he should act as if he were dead,
without seeing, hearing, nor speaking.

{ Qui veult vivre paisiblement
Sanz avoir peril de son corps,
Si ait gueule comme oliphant,
Et com taupe les oeulx dehors,
Et n’oie ne c’uns harens sors
S’il veult son corps et biens garder,
El face ainsi com s’il fust mors,
Sans veoir, oir ne parler. }

Balade no. 83, Old French text via Taylor (1958) p. 26 from Édouard & Raynaud (1878) pp. 186-7, English translation (modified slightly) from Mieder (1987) p. 159. Deschamps titled this balade “In order to live in peace, it’s necessary to be blind, deaf, and mute {Pour vivre en paix il faut être aveugle, sourd, et muet}.” Id.

[3] Rüdiger von Munre, Wayward One and Lusty Rascal {Irregang und Girregar} vv. 1126-47, Middle German text and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Benson & Andersson (1971) pp. 124-93. Id. reprints, with minor changes, the Middle German text of Hagen (1850) vol. 3, pp. 43-82. Irregang und Girregar survived in only one manuscript, Königsberg, Universitätsbibliothek MS 907 b. That manuscript was lost during World War II. The cross-gender person substitution motif also occurs in Decameron VII.7 and VIII.8.

No evidence other than Irregang und Girregar exists about Rüdiger von Munre. Some aspects of the text suggest that it was written near Aachen. Benson & Andersson (1971) p. 124.

Subsequent quotes from Irregang und Girregar are similarly sourced. They are vv. 1162-76 (Be still, husband…), 1212-23 (She went to the bed…), 1227-34 (It seems to me that it would be a good thing…), 1237-51 (Forgive me for my error…).

[4] The phrase “tace is Latin for candle” is attested no later than 1676. That phrase is thought to have originated in expressing disapproval by throwing down a candle in order to end a religious service or theater performance. But it has also been associated with a “curtain lecture.” Samuel Johnson’s English dictionary (1755) defined a “curtain lecture” as “a reproof given by a wife to her husband in bed.” Tréguer (2017). Combining a candle and a wife in bed admonishing her husband to be silent is a prominent feature of Irregang und Girregar.

More generally, the phrase “tace is Latin for candle” has ironic precision in relation to the Latin proverb “Hear, see, and keep quiet, if you want to live in peace {Audi, vide, et tace, si tu vis vivere in pace}.” A candle sheds light, commonly associated with knowledge, on the circumstances around itself. The Latin proverb counsels to keep quiet about what the candle allows one to see.

[5] The ability of women to confound men’s senses is a theme in literature of men’s sexed protest of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It occurs in fables of Marie de France and Matheus of Boulogne’s Lamentations of Little, Little Matheus {Lamentationes Matheoluli}. See note [1] in my post on men’s inferiority in guile.

[6] Square (2020).

[7] Smith (1993) p. 144. Smith appropriately questioned Taylor (1958)’s claim that the medieval European proverb “Audi, vide, et tace, si tu vis vivere in pace” is related to the Three Wise Monkeys:

considering the medieval predilection for animal illustration, the whole ‘fable’ tradition and the virtually total absence of any such association with the sentiment ‘Audi, vide, tace’ in any language, I feel Archer Taylor’s case is far from made. No medieval Sam Weller can be found who added the clause ‘ut dixit simius {as the monkey said}’.

Smith (1993) p. 145.

[8] Mieder (1987) pp. 164-5. Mieder’s Chapter 5, “The Proverbial Three Wise Monkeys: Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil,” follows Taylor (1958)’s claim about a medieval European source for the Three Wise Monkeys. The Three Monkeys became popular in Europe only from the twentieth century. Smith (1993) p. 145. On current ardent collectors of Three Monkeys’ figurines, Three Monkeys (2004).

[9] British weather has been described with the saying “cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.” Smith (1993) p. 149. That saying directly relates castration culture to a common material realization of the Three Wise Monkeys.

[images] (1) Three Wise Monkeys miming “speak no evil, see no evil, hear no evil.” Representation of Mahatma Gandhi’s smaller statue of the three monkeys Bapu, Ketan and Bandar, at the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India. Source image and description thanks to Kalyan Shah and Wikimedia Commons. (2) Billboard, probably from the late 1940s, encouraging workers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory not to talk about their work. Oak Ridge National Laboratory was established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb. On the history of Oak Ridge, Freeman (2015). Source image thanks to James E. Westcott and Wikimedia Commons. (3) Four wise monkeys in brass. The additional brass monkey protects his genitals from attack. Source image thanks to Bildforyou7 and Wikimedia Commons.


Ashliman, D. L. 1999. “Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil.” Online at University of Pittsburgh.

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

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.

Clouston, W. A. 1887. Popular Tales and Fictions, their migrations and transformations. Edinburgh/London: William Blackwood & Sons. Vol. 1, Vol. 2.

Édouard, Auguste Henry, Marquis de Queux de Saint-Hilaire, and Gaston Raynaud. 1878. OEuvres complètes de Eustache Deschamps, pub. d’après le manuscrit de la Bibliothèque nationale par le marquis de Queux de Saint-Hilaire. Paris: Firmin Didot & Cie.

Freeman, Lindsey A. 2015. Longing for the Bomb: Oak Ridge and Atomic Nostalgia. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

Hagen, Friedrich Heinrich, ed. 1850. Gesammtabenteuer: Hundert allfeutsche Erzählungen: Ritter- und Pfaffen-Mären Stadt- und Dorfgeschichten Schwänke, Wundersagen und Legenden von Jakob Appet, Dietrich von Glatz, dem Freudenleeren, Heinz dem Kellerer, Jansen Enenkel, Heinrich und Johannes von Freiberg, Hermann Fressant, dem Hufferer, Konrad von Würzburg, Niemand, Rafold, Rüdiger dem Hunthover, Rüdiger von Müner, Ruprecht von Würzburg, Sibot, dem Stricker, Volrat, dem Vriolsheimer, Wernher dem Gartener, von Wildonie, dem Zurngäuer und Anderen, meist zum erstenmal gedruckt und hrsg. Stuttgart und Tübingen: J.G. Cotta’sche Verlag. Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3.

Hauréau, Jean-Barthélemy. 1890-1893. Notices et extraits de quelques manuscrits latins de la Bibliothèque Nationale. Paris: C. Klincksieck.

Mieder, Wolfgang. 1987. Tradition and Innovation in Folk Literature. Hanover: Published for University of Vermont by University Press of New England.

Smith, A. W. 1993. “On the Ambiguity of the Three Wise Monkeys.” Folklore. 104 (1-2): 144-150.

Square (editorial). 2020. “Audi, vide, tace.” The Square Magazine (“the foremost independent magazine for Freemasons worldwide”). April, 2020 issue.

Swan, Charles, and Wynnard Hooper, trans. 1876. Gesta romanorum: entertaining moral stories. New York: Dover Publications Inc. (reprint edition of 1969).

Taylor, Archer. 1958. “‘Audi, Vide, Tace,’ and the Three Monkeys.” Fabula. 1 (1): 26-31.

Three Monkeys. 2004. “The Three Monkeys: A 400 year old Japanese image for a 2,500 year old Chinese code of conduct.” The Three Monkey Collector’s Website. Updated: December 10, 2020.

Tréguer, Pascal. 2017. “The mysterious origin of ‘tace is Latin for candle.’word histories. Online.

Walther, Hans. 1963-1969. Proverbia sententiaeque latinitatis Medii Aevi: lateinische Sprichwörter und Sentenzen des Mittelalters in alphabetischer Anordnung. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

medieval tension between young & old men in loving women

Men might feel that they are unlovable or unable to earn women’s love. Medieval European culture countered such feelings. It strongly supported love between women and men. While major organs of public propaganda today mendaciously smear a large share of men as rapists, a medieval poem urged young men and young women to love:

Young men with hearts full of love,
embrace the young women!
Birds singing together
prompt games of love.

O grow vigorous,
o blossom,
o rejoice,
youth in its season!

Arise, young lords,
seek out young ladies!
Birds singing together
prompt games of love.

O grow vigorous,
o blossom,
o rejoice,
youth in its season!

{ Iuvenes amoriferi,
virgines amplexamini!
Ludos incitat
avium concentus.

O vireat,
o floreat,
o gaudeat
in tempore iuventus!

Domicelli, surgite,
domicellas quaerite!
Ludos incitat
avium concentus.

O vireat,
o floreat,
o gaudeat
in tempore iuventus! }[1]

Medieval European culture celebrated the joy of sex and reproductive fruitfulness. Jesus represented fully the seminal blessing of God. Mary the mother of Jesus exalted motherhood. Not surprisingly, imposing celibacy on priests required considerable medieval regulatory effort and encountered vigorous protest.

Poets have long figured spring as the season for love. Medieval sexual love, however, wasn’t limited to the springtime of adulthood. Young men and old women and old men and young women had loving sexual relations with each other. Age didn’t control love for women or men.

tree with a living root, old man, two young women

Old men in medieval literature insisted on their ability to please women sexually. One old man declared:

Let women not believe, since I have white hair,
that I have renounced or tired of pleasing them.
Many trees bloom at the top and in secondary branches.
If the root is alive, it’s not too tired to bear fruit.

{ No credano le femene, però c’ài pelo blanco,
qe deli soi deporti sia recreto ni stanco;
molti arbori florise en cima et en branco:
s’el à viva radice de fruitar non è stanco. }[2]

Against the horrors of castration culture, men must preserve living roots in their wonderful masculinity. That’s not easy to do.

Men compete with other men in loving and serving women. That’s why men lack reproductive rights, are vastly gender-disproportionately incarcerated, suffer four times as many violent deaths, and endure the many other gender injustices of gynocentrism. Given men’s burden of performance, men not surprisingly tend to be concerned about their penises in relation to other men’s penises. In The Mirror of Fools {Speculum stultorum}, the donkey Burnel despaired of his “short tail.” In a medieval Latin poem, a young man crudely bragged to a young woman about his penis:

Experience, young woman.
my penis.
Old men’s penises always are
Only young men’s are
This one’s ready to use,
easily aroused,

{ Experire, filia,
semper sunt senilia
sola iuvenilia
hec sunt utensilia
habilia }[3]

A man bragging that his penis is slender, fragile, and small is rather unusual. Classical Greek and Latin literature represented women as favoring donkeys for their large penises. Priapus visuals and poetry figured men with enormous penises. But in competing for sexual access to a young, probably virginal woman in the context of brutalizing representations of men’s penises, a young man might want to highlight that his penis would do her no harm. At the same time, the young man disparages old men’s penises as not being sexually useful to the young woman.

Young men’s sexual disparagement of old men suggests that young women were attracted to old men. Ponder another medieval young man urging the young woman he loved not to take an old man as her lover or husband:

Unbending and ice-cold,
an old man should never be your companion.
He sleeps often and is sorrowful
and frigid in his penis.
Nothing is more disgusting to you!

{ Rigidus et gelidus
numquam tibi socius!
Dormit dolens saepius
in natura frigidus —
nihil tibi vilius! }[4]

If young women weren’t at all attracted to old men, young men wouldn’t need to disparage sexually old men and to urge young women not to take old men as their companions. Old men typically aren’t as sexually vigorous as young men. But old men have more life experience than young men. Old men’s greater life experience may make them more interesting to women. Moreover, old men may have more long-term relational experience with women and thus may better know how to please women long-term. In addition, old men tend to have higher wealth and status than young men, and women tend to be hypergamous. Whatever the reason, medieval poetry in which young men sexually disparage old men to young women indicates that young men were competing with old men for young women’s affection.[5]

Growing old is painful and humiliating for both men and women. Human bodily reality is readily apparent in intimate relations, even if verbal representations of it are repressed. Like others, the young Jonathan Swift disparaged the “dirty old man.” Old men should take that as a wary compliment.

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[1] Carmina Burana 96, “Young men with hearts full of love {Iuvenes amoriferi}” st. 1-2, with refrain, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018).

[2] Proverbs that speak about the nature of women {Proverbia que dicuntur super natura feminarum}, stanza 97, Old Italian text from Meneghetti & Tagliani (2019) pp. 125-6, my English translation, benefiting from the Italian translation of Bonghi & Mangieri (2003) and the English translations of this stanza in Psaki (2019), p. 128.

[3] Carmina Burana 86, “I’m not caressing {Non contrecto},” refrain vv. 1-15, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018). Traill translated humilia as “low-hanging.” That implies bragging about a large penis. The context seems to me to suggest the opposite with a more central sense of humilia.

The final two verses of the refrain involve a textual difficulty. Traill has:

and so on and so forth.

{ Caecilia,
et si qua sunt similia. }

Id. Vollmann amended cecilia to sessilia {fit for sitting on}, but Traill, following other scholars, favored the former. Id. vol. 1, p. 545, which also notes that the final verse of the refrain is the closing words of Donatus’s Ars Minor, “the most widely used textbook of Latin grammar for a thousand years.”

Marshall, in contrast, read sessilia and provided a looser translation that nonetheless seems to me closer to the spirit of the poem:

fit for sitting upon,
and whatever suchlike to you occurs.

{ sessilia,
et si qua sunt similia. }

Marshall (2014) p. 116.

Both Marshall’s and Traill’s translations at least overcame modern philology’s penis problem. More than a century earlier, Symonds excised the penis from this refrain with his translation:

Try, my girl, O try what bliss
Young men render when they kiss!
Youth is always sturdy, straight;
Old age totters in its gait.
These delights of love we bring
Have the suppleness of spring,
Softness, sweetness, wantoning;
Clasp, my Phyllis, in their ring
Sweeter sweets than poets sing,
Anything and everything!

Symonds (1884) p. 117.

The second verse of “Non contrecto” provides an unusual and very beautiful flowery interpretation of ejaculation:

After the fervor
the lilies offer
Heaven’s dew.
After the greenness
comes the white flower,
after the whiteness,
lilies give off their fragrance.

{ Post fervorem
caeli rorem,
post virorem
album florem,
post candorem
dant odorem
lilia. }

Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Traill (2018). In the context of systemic disparagement of men’s penises, Traill helpfully explicates:

The “dew,” “white flower,” and the “lily’s fragrance” refer in elegant language to the different stages of the process of male ejaculation.

Id. vol. 1, pp. 545-6.

Perceiving in troubadour poetry “a new, profound valuation of women,” Cook derides the Carmina Burana’s love poems as “usually simply phallic poems.” Cook (1995) pp. 135, 157. That’s nonsense. The phallus is an anti-meninist abstraction associated with master ideological simplifications such as “patriarchy.” In reality, the penis is a wonderfully designed bodily organ that both provides pleasure and has an essential role in creating new life. Perhaps because medieval literary studies is so hostile to meninist literary criticism, “Non contrecto” has attracted little attention.

[4] Carmina Burana 87, “Love controls everything {Amor tenet omnia},” Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018). Cf. “Love conquers all {omnia vincit Amor},” a tag associated with Virgil’s Gallus.

[5] In a humorous medieval poem drawing extensively on Ovid’s Art of Love {Ars amatoria}, bedraggled Cupid lamented the loving behavior of people today:

People today pride themselves on Love’s disrepute,
without basis they anxiously pursue bragging rights,
boasting of Venus’s rites when bodies haven’t touched.
Alas, we make nocturnal exploits our claimed titles.

{ Amoris ob infamiam moderni gloriantur,
sine re iactantiam anxii venantur,
iactantes sacra Veneris corporibus non tactis.
Eheu, nocturnis titulos imponimus actis. }

Carmina Burana 105, “When I was carefully tending {Dum curata vegetarem},” st. 10, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Traill (2018). Cf. Ars Amatoria 2.625, which invokes the temporal context “now {nunc}.” Loving behavior has gotten worse since the time of “people today / modern people {moderni}” in medieval Europe.

[image] (1) Old man standing next to a tree with a living root and gesturing to two young women. Folio 106r (stanzas 97-102) of Proverbia que dicuntur super natura feminarum in MS. Berlin, Staatsbibliothek und Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Saibante-Hamilton 390.  (2) Fan video combining the song “Amor Volat {Love flies}” (an alternate designation for Carmina Burana 87, “Amor tenet omnia”) from Qntal’s 2005 album, Qntal IV (Ozymandias) with video from Sapphire & Steel, a British sci-fi/fantasy series that originally ran from 1979 to 1982 on ITV. Thanks to hydrargyrum80 and YouTube.


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

Cook, Albert Spaulding. 1995. The Reach of Poetry. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.

Marshall, Tariq. 2014. The Carmina Burana: Songs from Benediktbeuren: a full and faithful translation with critical annotations. 3rd edition. Los Angeles: Marshall Memorial Press.

Meneghetti, Maria Luisa and Roberto Tagliani. 2019. Il Manoscritto Saibante-Hamilton 390: Edizione CriticaImages. Roma: Salerno Editrice.

Psaki, F. Regina. 2019. “Medieval misogyny and the French of Italy: the Chastiemusart and the Proverbia que dicuntur super natura feminarum.” Pp. 101-140 in Nicola Morato et Dirk Schoenaers, eds. Medieval Francophone Literary Culture Outside France: Studies in the Moving Word. Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe, 28. Turnhout: Brepols.

Symonds, John Addington. 1884. Wine, Women and Song. London: Chatto and Windus. Alternate textual presentation.

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