medieval tension between young & old men in loving women

Old men might feel that they are unlovable. 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.

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
floppy.
Only young men’s are
firm.
This one’s ready to use,
versatile,
slender,
fragile,
small,
easily aroused,
teachable,
capable

{ Non contrecto,
quam affecto;
ex directo
ad te specto
et annecto
nec deflecto
cilia.

Experire, filia,
virilia:
semper sunt senilia
labilia,
sola iuvenilia
stabilia.
hec sunt utensilia
agilia,
facilia,
gracilia,
fragilia,
humilia,
mobilia,
docilia,
habilia }[2]

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! }[3]

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.

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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Notes:

[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] 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:

Cecilia,
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.

[3] 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.

[image] 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.

References:

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.

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.

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