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.

* * * * *

Read more:


[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.

3 thoughts on “medieval tension between young & old men in loving women”

  1. I could not continue reading after the first few sentences. Celibacy is taught by Chrisr Himself, indeed Holy Scripture teaches that it is best not to marry. Ugly men will not “love” women, but appear as creeps. I am ugly and hate my existence, I hate my father and I hate all those who pass on mental illnesses. Sex is a disgusting origin anyway, as not only Schopenhauer knew; Catholic Andy Nowicki, in his “Confessions of a Would-Be Wanker”, thinks so, too. Or the great Colombian Catholic reactionary Gómez Dávila:

    Sex does not solve even sexual problems.

    In the end, there is no area of the soul sex would not succeed in corrupting.

    It is not worth talking about even one erotic topic with someone who does not feel the unalterable baseness of erotism.

    It is above all against what the crowd proclaims to be “natural” that the noble soul rebels.

    Despite what is taught today, easy sex does not solve every problem.

    By merely looking at the face of the modern man one infers the mistake in attributing ethical importance to his sexual behavior.

    Modern man’s life oscillates between two poles: business and sex.

    To liberate man is to subject him to greed and sex.

    This century has succeeded in turning sex into a trivial activity and an odious topic.

    When the modern consciousness suspends its economic routines, it only oscillates between political anguish and sexual obsession.

    Sexual promiscuity is the tip society pays in order to appease its slaves.

    The problem is not sexual repression, nor sexual liberation, but sex.

    Sex and violence do not replace transcendence after it has been banished.
    Not even the devil remains for the man who loses God.

    The 19th century did not live with more anguish because of its sexual repression than the 20th century with its sexual liberation.
    Identical obsession, even when the symptoms are the opposite

  2. Don’t hate yourself and don’t hate the means by which human beings are engendered. Certainly some men and women throughout history have led great lives as celibate persons. You could do that, too.

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