shepherds, angel, and devil converse about Jesus’s birth

A Christmas play preserved in the Carmina Burana is no children’s Christmas pageant. This highly sophisticated play, probably composed around 1160, begins with an unusual Order of Prophets {Ordo Prophetarum}: Isaiah, Daniel, a Sibyl, Aaron, and then Balaam sitting on his ass. The play emphasizes that Mary would give birth without the joy and blessing of a mortal man’s seminal gift:

Behold, a virgin will give birth without a man’s seed.
By that she will cleanse the world from the crime of sin.

While retaining the lily of chastity’s flower,
a virgin, blessed with childbirth, gives birth to a king.

This new star brings a new message
that a virgin not knowing any intercourse with a man
and continuing as a virgin after giving birth,
will bear a son bringing salvation to the people.

Just as this branch lacking all nourishment has flourished,
so too a virgin without loss of flesh will give birth.

{ Ecce virgo pariet sine viri semine,
per quod mundum abluet a peccati crimine.

cum retento floridae castitatis lilio,
virgo regem pariet felix puerperio.

Haec stellae novitas fert novum nuntium,
quod virgo nesciens viri commercium
et virgo permanens post puerperium
salutem populo pariet filium.

Ut haec floruit virga omni carens nutrimento,
sic et virgo pariet sine carnis detrimento. }[1]

While emphasizing that the savior of the world came without a woman and man’s sexual intercourse, the play is earthy and includes detailed human characterizations.[2] Moreover, the play’s last verses show a mother’s courageous love for her son:

All hardships I will endure to avoid danger to my son.
As his mother I am ready. I shall go now. Come with me!

{ Omnia dura pati, vitando pericula nati
Mater sum presto. Iam vadam, tu comes esto! }

A closely associated play includes the destruction of idols.[3] The Carmina Burana’s Christmas play isn’t a paean to gynocentrism, even less to gyno-idolatry. A conversation among shepherds, an angel, and the devil emphasizes the play’s celebration of personal encounters.

Prior to the nativity play within this play, Augustine of Hippo and the president of a synagogue debate the credibility of a virgin birth. Their debate occurs in the intellectual style of debates within the church.[4] It concludes with a slightly adapted Christmas sequence from no later than the eleventh century and a slightly adapted Easter liturgical chant. Neither Augustine nor the synagogue president prevails in argument. Augustine then tells his opponent to learn from what he sees. With an angel’s annunciation to Mary, the nativity play within a play begins.

Within the nativity play, three magi, kings of learning from the East, struggle to interpret the Christmas star. One magus declares:

I’m frequently tormented by problems of the quadrivium
and my mind’s reasoning suffers shipwreck
when I consider this star bearing the indication
that its newness bears a new message.

I have studied the courses and natures of the constellations
and I recall investigating their very number.
But when inspect this one, I once again marvel
that nothing appears about it in any of the ancient authorities.

{ Per curarum distrahor frequenter quadruvium
rationis patiens et mentis naufragium,
cum hanc stellam video portantem indicium,
quod ipsius novitas novum portet nuntium.

Cursus ego didici et naturas siderum
et ipsorum memini perscrutari numerum.
sed cum hanc inspicio, ego miror iterum,
quia non comparuit apud quemquam veterum. }

The magus speculates that the star portends the birth of a great king whom the world will obey and revere. The other magi similarly display their learning and struggle to the same extraordinary conclusion.

Meanwhile, an angel appears to unlearned rural folk — shepherds. The angel declares:

Shepherds, I announce to you a message of great joy.
God has clothed himself in a garment of your flesh.
His mother do not give birth to him from fleshly intercourse.
Indeed, a mother continuing as a virgin has had a son.

{ Magnum vobis gaudium, pastores, annuntio:
Deus se circumdedit carnis vestrae pallio,
quem mater non peperit carnali commercio;
immo virgo permanens mater est ex filio. }

But then the devil tells them:

Don’t believe such words, you simpleminded shepherds!
Be assured that what cannot be proved true is nonsense.
As for a divinity being buried in a manger,
it’s disclosed to the eye to be an extreme falsehood.

{ Tu ne credas talibus, pastorum simplicitas!
Scias esse frivola, quae non probat veritas.
Quod sic in praesepio sit sepulta deitas,
nimis est ad oculum reserata falsitas. }

Shepherds commonly see animals having sexual intercourse and subsequently giving birth. Animals, not a god, typically rest in a manger. The shepherds thus decide to continue to graze their animals.

Ignoring the devil’s arguments, the angel urges the shepherds to go quickly to the manger and venerate the mother and child. The shepherds go to do so. Then the devil whispers in their ears:

You simple-minded clump, see how clever
he is. He’s making up such stories contrary to truth,
and also dressing up his lies with baubles,
rendering in rhythmic verse all his pronouncements.

{ Simplex coetus, aspice, qualis astutia
eius, qui sic fabricat vero contraria
utque sua phaleret nugis mendacia,
in rhythmis conciliat, quae profert, omnia. }

The devil’s disparagement that the angel pronounces in Latin poetry is learned humor. The devil and even the ignorant shepherds are also speaking Latin poetry.[5] After more conflicting words from the angel and the devil, one shepherd says to his companions:

Listen again, brothers! What incompatibility!
First I hear something, then something to the contrary.
My simple soul and my confused understanding
is ignorant about which of these wise words is more apt.

{ Audi, frater, iterum! Qualis repugnantia!
Inde quaedam audio, hinc quaedam contraria.
Meus simplex animus, mea mens non sobria
ignorat quae potior sit horum sententia. }

The resolution doesn’t come through more sophisticated reasoning. A chorus of angels gathers and sings:

Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of good will. Halleluja! Halleluja!

{ Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.
Alleluia! Alleluia! }

Upon hearing the angelic chorus, another shepherd says to his companions:

These singing voices make my heart breath.
From this music within myself I have joy.
So let us proceed together to the manger
and on bended knees adore the son!

{ Ad hanc vocem animi produco suspirium.
Ex hac intus habeo citharizans gaudium.
Procedamus igitur simul ad praesepium
et curvatis genibus adoremus filium! }[6]

The shepherds go the manger singing “Gory to God!” and adore the newly born babe. Beautiful singing wins!

May the artist who created the human from mud
and smeared the blind man’s eyes with sacred spit
release you from sin and save your souls.
I greet you, “Peace be with all of you!”

{ Artifex, qui condidit hominem ex luto,
et linivit oculos caeci sacro sputo,
salvet vestras animas crimine soluto:
“Pax vobis omnibus!” ego vos saluto. }[7]

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[1] Carmina Burana 227, “Christmas play {Ludus de Nativitate},” vv. 1-2 (from Isaiah’s prophecy), 9-10 (from Daniel’s prophecy), 16-9 (from the Sibyl’s prophecy), 36-7 (from Aaron’s prophecy), Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018). For alternate English translations, Bevington (1975) Ch. 7, and Pakenham (1947). Subsequent quotes are similarly from the Ludus de Nativitate, unless otherwise noted.

On the play dating to around 1160, Baumgaertner (1979) p. 13, Bevington (1975) p. 178. The play was copied by the master-scribe of the Codex Buranus, H1-Conrad, probably at Neustift (Novacella) near to Brixen (Bressanone) in South Tyrol about 1230. Godman (2016) p. 107, Godman (2015) pp. 246-9.

Bevington ranked this play as “among the most splendid and elaborate works of dramatic art ever produced by the medieval church.” Bevington (1975) p. 178. In addition to an Order of Prophets {Ordo Prophetarum}, the play includes an Order of the Star / Magi {Ordo Stellae}, an Order of the Shepherds {Ordo Pastorum}, and an Order of Rachel {Ordo Rachelis} / Massacre of the Innocent Boys.

Sibyls were female prophets in ancient Greece. In medieval Europe, Christians regarded Virgil, Eclogues 4 as foretelling the birth of Jesus. This sibyl prophetically uses words from Matthew 1:21. Similar words are included in the communion antiphon for the mass of the nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

[2] For example, Herod is depicted as a scheming, murderous megalomaniac. In the end, “Herod is consumed by worms {Herodes corrodatur a vermibus}.”

[3] Carmin Burana 228, “Play about the king of Egypt {Ludus de rege Aegypti}.”

[4] The debate between Augustine and the president of the synagogue draws upon the sixth-century pseudo-Augustine Sermon against Jews, Pagans, and Arians concerning the creed {Sermo Contra Judeos, Paganos, et Arianos de Symbolo}. On the debate in Ludus de Nativitate, Lee (2006).

Augustine is characterized as “restrained and discreet {sobrius et discretus} (stage direction preceding v. 90). He nonetheless figures the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary like Jupiter coming to Danae:

Just as a sunbeam comes in through a solid window
and the passage through is completely open to it,
so the Son of the Father on high will slip
into the virgin’s womb and yet do her no harm.

{ Ut specular solidum solis intrat radius,
et sincere transitus servit ei pervius,
sic in aulam virginis summi patris filius
lapsum quidem faciet, et tamen innoxius. }

Here Jesus slips into Mary’s womb like a sunbeam through a solid window. Jupiter slipped into a bronze chamber as “golden rain {pluvium aurum}” to impregnate Danae with Perseus. Ovid, Metamorphoses 4.611.

[5] In the shepherds’ play in N-Town, Wakefield, and Chester cycles (mystery plays), the shepherds puzzle over the Latin words the angels sing. Carlson (2006) pp. 29-32.

[6] Lee noted:

This episode thus does not simply portray “the conflict between rational faithlessness and belief in divine miracle,” as Bevington observes, but more accurately counters logic with an invitation to see for oneself, which will lead to belief and to understanding.

Lee (2006) p. 92.

[7] Carmina Burana 224, stanza 1 (of 3), Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Traill (2018).

[images] (1) Hymn “Let resound in praise {Resonet in laudibus},” from the Gradual of the Augustinian Collegiate Church of St. Castulus in Moosburg, Germany. It was written in 1360. This hymn may date from much earlier, perhaps from about the year 850 in Metz (see descriptive text here). Recording by the Capella Antiqua Munich in 1977. Via YouTube. (2) “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen from his album Various Positions (1984). Via YouTube.


Baumgaertner, Jill P. 1979. “The Benediktbeuern Ludus De Nativitate: Journey to Fulfillment.” Christianity & Literature. 28 (3): 13-30.

Bevington, David M. 1975. Medieval Drama. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Carlson, Marvin. 2006. Speaking in Tongues: language at play in the theatre. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Godman, Peter. 2015. “Rethinking the Carmina Burana (I): The Medieval Context and Modern Reception of the Codex Buranus.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies. 45 (2): 245-286.

Godman, Peter. 2016. “Re-thinking the Carmina Burana II: The Child, the Jew, and the Drama.” Viator. 47 (1): 107-122.

Lee, Christopher A. 2006. “Augustine vs. Archisynagogus: Competing Modes of Christian Instruction in the Benediktbeuern Ludus de nativitate.” Florilegium. 23 (2): 81-97.

Pakenham, Alphonsus L. 1947. Carmina Burana: an annotated English translation of No. CCII of Codex Lat. 4460 of the Staatsbibliothek of Munich. M.A. Thesis, Loyola University of Chicago.

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

epic violence against men involves women

The Iliad and the Aeneid, epics that are classics of classics, recount massive violence against men. That gender profile of violence scarcely registers in the reception of these and other epics. Vastly gender-disproportionate violence against men, like vastly gender-disproportionate incarceration of men, hasn’t mattered. That’s an imaginative, emotional, and deliberative failure. Some are satisfied merely with blaming men for killing men (or more pretentiously, blaming patriarchy), as if blaming men makes men’s deaths less of a personal and social loss. Epic violence against men concerns deep social structures of gender. Epic violence against men unquestionably involves women.

Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s twelfth-century Roman de Troie explains why men came to fight in the horrific Trojan War. Regarding Greek men-soldiers, Benoît declared:

As many troops as one could have
whether by force or by command,
by volunteering or by other means,
by summons or by entreaty,
were assembled at Athens.

{ Quant qu’il porent de gent aveir
Ne par force ne par poëir,
Par gré ne par autre maniere,
Par somonse ne par preiere,
A Athenes fu assemblee }[1]

Men, but not women, have long been compelled to fight in wars. Today, the U.S. has fully gender-integrated armed forces, but only men are still legally compelled to register to be conscripted. Women, who comprise the majority of voters in the U.S, help to sustain that fundamental gender inequality.

Elite men have much broader choices than do ordinary men. Benoît explained why thirty-three kings and dukes came to fight for the Trojans:

Many of them came there
for fame, for renown, and for love,
and a number for feudal obligation,
and others because of familial relations.

{ Dedenz se mistrent li plusor
Por los, por pris e por amor,
E li auquant por seignorage,
E li autre por parentage }

Social status for men — fame, renown, and love — depends to a large extent on women’s evaluations of them. Men compete with other men to win women’s favor.

Henry I, Count of Anhalt engages in violence against men as women watch

From behind the walls of Troy, Trojan women watched their men engaged in the brutal violence against men of the Trojan War. It was a horrific spectator event:

On top of Troy’s walls were the ladies,
none of whom had a calm heart,
and all the daughters of the king.
They were there in order to watch the great battle.
Helen was the most anxious one there,
and the most downcast, and the most afraid.
A thousand young women and a thousand wealthy women,
noble and courtly, appeared there.
Not one of them wasn’t fearful.

{ Les dames furent sor les murs,
Que de rien n’ont les cuers seûrs,
E totes les filles le rei,
Por esguarder le grant tornei.
Heleine i fu moût paorose
Et moût pensive e moût dotose.
Mil puceles e mil borgeises
I perent gentes e concises:
N’i a celi ne seit dotanz. }

Some women watched from gilded windows. Women identified specific men preparing for brutal battle:

One of the women called to the other
while she pointed: “See there Paris!
There is Hector, so it seems to me,
and see over here is Polidamas,
who soon will angrily charge into the fray.
He much resembles a fine knight.
See how his steel helmet fits him.
There is Troilus’s division.
Look! Now Deiphebus is emerging.
See how close now the sides are to each other.
Soon we shall have in full stride
a thousand horrific jousts.
Much we have to be fearful,
for the lives and the health
and the joys of our young men
are being put into the balance.
May death not part them from us.”

{ E l’une d’eles l’autre apele;
Al dei mostrent: “Vez la Paris;
La rest Hector, ço m’est avis:
E vez deça Polidamas,
Qui ja s’ira ferir el tas.
Mout ressemble bien chevalier:
Vez com li siet l’eaumes d’acier!
Ça rest li conreiz Troïlus.
Vez! or s’en ist Deïphebus.
Vez come or sont ja près a près!
Ja i avra de plain eslais
Mil jostes faites haïnoses.
Mout devons estre paoroses,
Que les vies e les santez
E les joies de noz aez
Veons en si faite balance.
Que mort n’en face desevrance,
N’i a nule doter n’en deie.” }

In medieval Europe, women loved men. Women didn’t want to see their men killed or to have their men imprisoned. Yet women did little to prevent violence against men. Helen, one of the women watching fearfully the battles of the Trojan War, was the primary cause of the Trojan War.

Epic violence against men is starkly explicit. Benoît narrated:

Then commenced the ferocious battle,
awful, extraordinary, and murderous.
You would have seen there so many in anguish,
who were wounded and who were lamenting,
who slew and maimed each other.
Large were the lines and rows of combatants,
large were the battle and the contests,
large were the chases and throngs of fighting.
They hadn’t armed their heads well enough
to prevent their brains being smashed,
and their entrails and their guts splattered.
The mire of their blood was huge on the field.
So many lay dead and fallen
that no man could count them.

{ Puis comença li estors fiers,
Pesmes, estranges, doloros:
La veïsseiz tant angoissos,
Qui sont navré e qui se plaignent,
Qui s’entrociënt e mahaignent.
Grant sont li renc e li conrei,
Grant la bataille e li tornei,
Granz les chaces e les meslees;
Si n’ont les testes si armees
Qu’il ne s’espandent les cerveles,
Les entrailles e les boëles.
De lor sanc est grant la paluz.
Tant i gist morz e abatuz,
Nus hom n’en set esmee faire; }

Watching such violence against men would have been vomit-inducing to persons not inured to it. Benoît typically focused on the fighting of famous men. But Benoît wasn’t just narrating the exploits of heroes. Consider the following battle description:

An admiral, Morin d’Aresse,
fell dead, not living any longer,
from such a blow Menelaus gave him.
Isdor, Morin’s brother, had so harshly struck
a noble count that he was lifted
from his saddle and died.
Chirrus shattered his lance
when he thrust it through the body of a Greek
descended from counts and kings.
Meles of Orop was the nephew of Thoas.
Meles engaged Celidonias,
whom he knocked from his horse
and wounded in the middle of his face.
Hermagoras avenged his brother.
He struck a foe beneath his sword belt,
causing his lungs and guts
to spill out over the bow of his saddle.
Scedius was a noble king
and very esteemed among the Greeks.
Mauden Clarueil engaged him and
struck Scedius right in the eye
so that it came flying out of his head.
Scedius would have fallen in pain
if he hadn’t held onto his horse with both hands.
He was never completely well again.

{ Uns amirauz, Morins d’Aresse,
Est chaeiz morz, ne vesqui plus:
Tel coup li dona Menelus.
Isdor, sis frere, i ra ataint
Un riche conte e si empeint
Que mort le seivre de la sele.
Chirrus sa lance i enastele:
Par mi le cors fiert un Grezeis
Estrait de contes e de reis.
Meles d’Orep niés fu Thoas:
Cist joinst o Celidonias,
Que del cheval l’a enversé
E par mi la chiere navré.
Hermagoras son frere venge:
Celui fiert si desoz la renge
Que li poumons e la boële
Li chiet sor l’arçon de la sele.
Scedius ert uns riches reis
E mout preisiez entre Grezeis:
O cestui joinst Maudanz Clarueil;
Si l’a feru tres par mi l’ueil
Que fors del chief li est volez.
De l’angoisse chaîst pasmez,
S’il ne se fust tenuz as mains;
Dès or n’est mie del tot sains. }

Here Benoît explicitly combined high status with brutal violence against men. Being brutalized in war united ordinary men and elite men.

Women rewarded men for their prowess in violence against men. Consider, for example, Antigone and Ismene, daughters of Oedipus, the former king of Thebes. In the twelfth-century Roman de Thèbes, Antigone and Ismene watched from the walls of Thebes as a large group of men besieged the city. The besiegers were fighting on behalf of Polynices, who was Antigone’s and Ismene’s younger brother. The current ruler of Thebes was Eteocles, their older brother. Athon, a son of a king from the East, came to fight on behalf of Eteocles because he was in love with Ismene. He could have for the same reason fought on behalf of Polynices. Antigone was in love with Parthenopaeus, the king of Arcadia. He was fighting on behalf of Polynices. Antigone and Ismene thus watched as their beloved men fought against each other’s side.

Antigone wanted to be with Parthenopaeus after she learned that he had killed a man in battle. He killed Itys with a violent spear thrust. Then he seized Itys’s horse and sent it to Antigone via a youth. The youth greeted Antigone:

“The king of Arcadia, your beloved,
has sent me and this to you,” he said.
“Know that he is fighting well as he should.
He has left one foe totally dead on the field.
He sends that man’s war-horse to you here.”

{ Li rois d’Archade, vostre amis,
m’a ça, fet il, a vous tramis.
Sachiez que bien i joint a droit,
un en lessa u champ tot froit,
le destrier vous tramet ici. }[2]

Antigone had no need of a war-horse. Nonetheless, she was very pleased. She responded:

I offer him my thanks.
May he know well that for this gift
I intend to give him a great reward.
May he know well, without any doubt,
that he has me and my entire love.
When he leaves the battle,
ask him to come and talk with me.
Have him come here and I shall see him.
I don’t know when I will have the opportunity again.

{ Seue merci,
sache bien que por icest don
l’en cuit rendre grant guerredon.
Ce sache bien sanz nule doute
que il a moi et m’amor toute.
Quant il partira du tornoi,
mant lui que il parolt a moi.
Par ci s’en tort si le verrai,
ne sai quant g’i recouverrai. }

The great reward that she wanted to give him apparently was to have sex with him. Sex might be as much a reward to her as it is to him. But men’s sexuality is social devalued such that women regard sex with men as a reward to them. Men commit violence against men to earn that “reward.”

Ismene was eager to give Athon such a reward. She saw Athon strike Garsy of Marre with a strong blow. Garsy was knocked off his war-horse into the mud. Athon then took away Garsy’s horse. Ismene was watching:

Ismene saw this blow very clearly
and also the war-horse that Athon seized.
She very clearly recognized Athon
from the sleeve of silk
that he had as a personal identifier
laced to the end of his lance.
She pointed him out to her sister,
saying to her tenderly in private:
“That is Athon I can see there.
See how he spurs his horse in this battle,
I must love him above all things,
for he is doing all this here for me.
May I never be a king’s daughter,
if I’m not led astray through love for him.
Whether I do right or I act foolishly,
I will lie with him, so I believe,
because fire doesn’t spread in secret
as much as the love I have for him within me.

{ Icest coup vit tres bien Ysmaine
et le destrier qu’Athon amaine.
Ele cognut tres bien Athon
a la manche du syglaton
que il avoit par connoissance
lacié el soumet de sa lance.
A sa seur l’a moustré au doi,
belement li dist en secroi:
“Ce est Athes que je la voi,
veez com broche a cel tornoi!
Sor toute rien amer le doi,
car tout ice fet il por moi.
Ja ne soie fille de roi,
se pour s’amor ne me desroi.
Ou face bien ou ge foloi,
coucherai moi o lui, ce croi,
car feux n’esprent si en requoi
com fet l’amor que j’ai o moi.” }

Ismene was delighted that Athon was fighting for love of her. That’s sickening.[3]

medieval woman awards prize to man-knight

Love and war became perniciously associated in literature through Gallus’s influential Latin love elegy in the first century BGC. Grotesque effects can be seen in the behavior of Antigone and Ismene during the brutal violence against men at Thebes:

About their beloveds they joked and laughed,
and they argued about their men’s prowess,
because each, in her own opinion,
believed that she had the better one.
Antigone said to Ismene:
“You can talk with good spirit
because you kiss and embrace Athon
and all day have intercourse with him.
I cannot have intercourse with my mine,
nor kiss him nor embrace him.
I will never see him, unhappy one,
except from here, through these battlements.”
“Now envy will never die,” Ismene said.
“I’m not taking away anything from you, dear friend.
If I take my ease with my beloved
and do whatever pleases him greatly,
why would that upset you?
You would soon do the same
if you could have your beloved.
May God give me pleasure and joy!”

{ De leur amis joent et rient,
de leur proueces contralient,
car chascune, au sien espoir,
en cuide le meillor avoir.
Anthigoné dist a Ysmaine:
“Tu puez parler de teste saine,
car Athon baises et acoles
et toute jour a lui paroles.
Je ne puis pas au mien parler,
ne lui baisier ne acoler.
Ja nel pourrai veoir, chetive,
se de ça non, par ceste eschive.”
“Ja ne mourra,” fet ele, “envie!
Je ne vous toill du vostre, amie!
Se je faz o le mien mon aise
et cele rien qui mout li plaise,
pour quoi vos en seroit il mal?
Ja ferïez vous autretal
se pouïez le vostre avoir.
Diex m’en doint bien et joie avoir!” }[4]

Ismene didn’t have pleasure and joy with Athon for long. Tydeus struck Athon a mortal blow to the chest. Athon fell to the ground and was soon bathed in his own blood. On the brink of death, he was brought back into Thebes. He opened his eyes at the sound of Ismene’s voice and then immediately died.

Literature influential for thousands of years provides an important perspective on human social life. Epic violence against men in such literature has largely been regarded as natural. Yet vastly disproportionate violence against men isn’t natural. Ending epic violence against men requires greater imagination. The Life of Aesop and Lucian’s True Story, both from the second-century GC, Walahfrid Strabo’s ninth-century response to elegiac love and war, the eleventh-century Verses from Ivrea {Versus Eporedienses}, and great medieval troubadour poetry are under-appreciated resources for overcoming the epic curse of violence against men. You can make a different. Read, and imagine more!

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[1] Benoît de Sainte-Maure, Roman de Troie, vv. 5589-93, Old French text from Constans (1904), English translation (modified slightly) from Burgess & Kelly (2017).

Subsequent quotes from the Roman de Troie are similarly sourced. Those above are vv. 6909-12 (Many of them came there…), 8081-89 (On top of Troy’s walls were the ladies…), 10602-19 (One of the women called to the other…), 12704-17 (Then commenced the ferocious battle…), 9890-9914 (An admiral, Morin d’Aresse…).

[2] Roman de Thèbes, vv. 4611-5, Old French text from Raynaud de Lage (1968), English translation (modified slightly) from Burgess & Kelly (2021).

Subsequent quotes from the Roman de Thèbes are similarly sourced. Those above are vv. 4616-24 (I offer him my thanks…), 4677-94 (Ismene saw this blow very clearly…), 5879-98 (About their beloveds they joked and laughed…).

[3] Men fighting amid the horrific violence were aware of women watching them. Paris perceived Helen watching him fight with her husband Menelaus:

But Menelaus made him slip
from a blow, right next to the river.
Over the cropper of his horse
Paris fell. He was much ashamed from this
because Helen was watching him.

{ Mais Menelaus l’a fait glacier,
A l’empeindre, tot contre val.
Par sor la crope del cheval
Paris chaï: grant honte en ot
Por Heleine, que l’esguardot. }

Roman de Troie, vv. 11364-8. That wasn’t a particular effect of Helen. Hector also felt shame on the battlefield under women’s gaze:

When Hector perceived that he was covered in blood
and forcibly driven from the battlefield,
and he saw Helen and his sisters
and seven hundred ladies watching from the towers,
anger from shame entirely seized him.
From evil intention he shuddered and trembled.
He turned madly to oppose the Greeks.

{ Quant il se vit ensanglantez
E par force del champ getez,
E vit Heleine e ses sorors
E set cenz dames par les tors,
Ire ot e honte tôt ensemble;
De mautalent fremist e tremble.
Torne desvez contre Grezeis. }

Roman de Troie, vv. 14129-35.

Gautier d’Arras’s late-twelfth-century romance Ille and Galeron {Ille et Galeron} describes Roman women watching Ille and Roman soldiers fight Greeks:

The young women who are sitting at the casements
are keenly watching from the windows
how Ille goes, how Ille comes,
how beautifully he conducts himself.
The pray to God to protect him from harm
and have greater compassion for him
than for their brothers who are out there.

{ Les puceles qui sont as estres
ont mout esgardé des fenestres
com Illes vait, com Illes vient,
com belement il se contient;
Diu proient qu’il le gart d’anui
et ont grignor pitié de lui
que de lor freres qui i sont. }

Gautier d’Arras, Ille et Galeron, vv. 2843-9, Old French text and English translation (modified) from Eley (1996). Ille castigates fleeing Roman soldiers by reminding them of the women watching them:

Bad men, vile and cowardly,
where are you fleeing in this way?
Are you going to announce to those in the tower
that you have been defeated in the battle?
Are you going to announce the news
to the ladies and to the young women?
Alas, how evil that they have ever seen you!

{ Malvaise gent, vix et laniere,
u fu(i)iés vos en tel maniere?
Alés vos noncier a la tour
que vencu estes en l’estour?
Alés vos noncier les noveles
as dames et as damoiseles?
Lasses, com mar vos virent onques! }3001-7

Ille et Galeron, vv. 3001-7, sourced as previously. The Roman men, ashamed, returned to fight and die in the horrific violence against men.

[4] “The verb parler here (v. 5886) seems to be used in the sense of ‘to have sexual relations with.'” Burgess & Kelly (2021) p. 121, n. 92. On such use, see also note [2] and associated text in my post on the lai of Argentille and Haveloc. Above I’ve used the less explicit term “intercourse.”

Subsequently, Antigone and Salemander together watched Parthenopaeus and Eteocles, their respected beloveds, fight each other. Roman de Thèbes, vv. 8641-78. Drias joined the fight and killed Parthenopeaus.

[images] (1) Henry I, Count of Anhalt (1218-1252) engages in violence against men as women watch. Illustration from Codex Manesse, made between 1305 and 1315. Manuscript preserved as UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, folio 17r. Thanks to University of Hiedelberg and Wikimedia Commons. (2) Rudolf von Rotenburg, who lived in Germanic lands in the middle of the thirteenth century, receives for his fighting prowess a prize from a woman. Codex Manesse, folio 54r. Thanks to University of Hiedelberg and Wikimedia Commons. Other, similar images exist in the Codex Manesse.


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.

Burgess, Glyn S., and Douglas Kelly, trans. 2021. The Roman de Thèbes and The Roman d’Eneas. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

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.

Eley, Penny, ed. and trans. 1996. Gautier d’Arras. Ille et Galeron. London: King’s College London, Centre for Late Antique & Medieval Studies.

Raynaud de Lage, Guy, ed. 1968. Roman de Thèbes. Paris: Champion. Published online by ENS of Lyon in the Base de français médiéval, last revised 2013-06-18. Part 1. Part 2.

Montaigne on the work of human reason

The sixteenth-century philosopher Michel de Montaigne pondered human reason. He observed:

I was recently letting my mind range wildly, as I often do, over how human reason is a vacant and rambling instrument. I normally see that men, if you ask them about facts, occupy themselves most willingly in searching for reasons rather than in searching for truth. They ignore the things that exist right there, and occupy themselves with examining causes … They pass over the actualities, but they examine carefully consequences. They begin normally in this way: “How does this come about?” — But does it actually exist? That is what should be said! Our discourse is capable of decorating a hundred other worlds and discovering their principles and foundations.

{ Je ravassois presentement, comme je faicts souvant, sur ce, combien l’humaine raison est un instrument libre et vague. Je vois ordinairement que les hommes, aux faicts qu’on leur propose, s’amusent plus volontiers à en cercher la raison qu’à en cercher la verité : ils laissent là les choses, et s’amusent à traiter les causes. … Ils passent par dessus les effects, mais ils en examinent curieusement les consequences. Ils commencent ordinairement ainsi: Comment est-ce que cela se faict? — Mais se fait il? faudroit il dire. Nostre discours est capable d’estoffer cent autres mondes et d’en trouver les principes et la contexture. }[1]

Montaigne respected Greek and Latin classics as repositories of human experience and wisdom. He preferred specific things and events embedded in narrative over speculative theory. In short, he recognized value in realistic stories.

Portrait of Michel de Montaigne about 1565

Sex with a lame person has long been regarded as more pleasing than sex with a non-lame person. The eminent Christian theologian Erasmus of Rotterdam early in the sixteenth century cited in Greek and Latin the proverb, “The lame man best performs as a man {Ἄριστα χωλὸς οἰφεῖ / Claudus optime virum agit}.”[2] This classical wisdom wasn’t merely elite thinking. Drawing upon the authority of Erasmus, Montaigne declared:

It’s said that in Italy a common proverb asserts that one who hasn’t had sex with a lame woman doesn’t know sex in its sweet perfection. Chance, or some particular incident, long ago placed that saying in the mouth of the common people. And this is said for males as well as females, for to the Scythian who solicited her for sex, the Queen of the Amazons responded, “The lame man does it the best.”

{ on dict en Italie, en commun proverbe, que celuy-là ne cognoit pas Venus en sa parfaicte douceur qui n’a couché avec la boiteuse. La fortune, ou quelque particulier accident, ont mis il y a long temps ce mot en la bouche du peuple ; et se dict des masles comme des femelles. Car la Royne des Amazonnes respondit au Scyte qui la convioit à l’amour: Ἄριστα χωλὸς οἰφεῖ, le boiteux le faict le mieux. }[3]

The Amazons rejected their male children and attacked any men who entered their land. Amazons liked to dominate men. They could more easily dominate lame men.

Montaigne reasoned about the sexual superiority of lame persons. He explained:

I would have said that the erratic movement of the lame woman brought some new pleasure to the work and some prick of sweetness to those who tried it, but I have just learned that ancient philosophy itself has decided the cause. Philosophy says that the legs and thighs of lame women cannot receive, because of their imperfection, the nourishment that normally goes to them. It thus occurs that the genitals, which are above, become more full, more nourished, and more vigorous. Or it could well be that, since this defect inhibits exercise, those who are marred by it dissipate less of their strength and thus come more fully to the games of sex. That is also the reason why the Greeks proclaimed women who worked at the loom to be more hot in lust than other women. It was because of the sedentary job that these women did, a job without major exercise of the body.

{ J’eusse dict que le mouvement detraqué de la boiteuse apportast quelque nouveau plaisir à la besongne et quelque pointe de douceur à ceux qui l’essayent, mais je viens d’apprendre que mesme la philosophie ancienne en a decidé: elle dict que, les jambes et cuisses des boiteuses ne recevant, à cause de leur imperfection, l’aliment qui leur est deu, il en advient que les parties genitales, qui sont au dessus, sont plus plaines, plus nourries et vigoureuses. Ou bien que, ce defaut empeschant l’exercice, ceux qui en sont entachez dissipent moins leurs forces et en viennent plus entiers aux jeux de Venus. Qui est aussi la raison pourquoy les Grecs descrioient les tisserandes d’estre plus chaudes que les autres femmes: à cause du mestier sedentaire qu’elles font, sans grand exercice du corps. }[4]

One might question the validity of this reasoning. Montaigne noted:

About what could we not reason in that way there? About those weavers, here I could also say that the back-and-forth movement of their seated work therefore gives them arousal and stimulation, like the jerking and shaking of coaches does for ladies. Do not these examples serve to show what I said at the beginning: our reasons often go before the actuality, and have the extent of their jurisdiction so infinite, that they judge and apply themselves even to the void itself and to the non-existent?

{ De-quoy ne pouvons nous raisonner à ce pris là? De celles icy je pourrois aussi dire que ce tremoussement que leur ouvrage leur donne ainsin assises les esveille et sollicite, comme faict les dames le crolement et tremblement de leurs coches. Ces exemples servent-ils pas à ce que je disois au commencement: que nos raisons anticipent souvent l’effect, et ont l’estendue de leur jurisdiction si infinie, qu’elles jugent et s’exercent en l’inanité mesme et au non estre? }

Such working of reason can even colonize immediate experience. Montaigne observed:

Outside of the flexibility of our inventiveness in forging reasons for all sorts of fancies, our imagination similarly can find itself easily receiving false impressions from very fanciful appearances. Based on the sole authority of ancient and widespread repetition of that saying about a lame woman, I once made myself to believe that I had received more pleasure from a women because she wasn’t rightly formed, and I even accounted this among her graces.

{ Outre la flexibilité de nostre invention à forger des raisons à toute sorte de songes, nostre imagination se trouve pareillement facile à recevoir des impressions de la fauceté par bien frivoles apparences. Car, par la seule authorité de l’usage ancien et publique de ce mot, je me suis autresfois faict à croire avoir reçeu plus de plaisir d’une femme de ce qu’elle n’estoit pas droicte, et mis cela en recepte de ses graces. }[5]

The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing and explains only capriciously. Humans are a rationalizing animal.

the evidence suggests that disabled people were ironically seen as more unreal or inhuman than the anatomical drawing or the mythical figure of Adonis in the garden. It was only in this way that the idea of a ‘natural’ individual, one whose body and desires fit within accepted parameters, could be maintained. To allow the disabled individual to live and love without comment was to accept a continuum wherein no one fit the physical or erotic ideals that accompanied the changing beliefs of the spirit or the emerging science of the body. In Garland-Thomson’s terminology, the anatomical standard had to be ‘shored up’ by the infinite variety of the lecherous grotesque and the sexual sinner, in order to eventually emerge in the form of the normate, the socially sanctioned object of erotic desire.[6]

Reason’s best hope is in studying imaginative literature created before today’s dominant ideologies colonized our minds. Reason can then better perceive lack of imagination.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Michel de Montaigne, Essays {Essais}, Book 3, Chapter 11, “On the lame {Des boyteux},” French text from the Villey & Saulnier (1965) version of the 1595 edition of Essais, my English translation, benefiting from that of Screech (1993). Subsequent English translations from Montaigne’s Essais are similarly sourced.

[2] Erasmus of Rotterdam {Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus}, Adages {Adagia}, 1849 (2.9.49), Greek and Latin text via Corpus Corporum (alternate source), my English translation. An alternate, moralizing translation: “The lame man makes the best lecher.” Mynors et al. (1982-2006) vol. 34, p. 108.

Erasmus provided a general sense of the proverb:

Customarily used when someone prefers his own lot, though it may be far from grand, to another man’s, though it seems preferable.

{ Dici solitum, ubi quispiam suam sortem vel parum egregiam anteponit alienae tametsi praestantiori. }

But Erasmus also provided an explanation for the literal sense, apparently under the assumption that the literal sense is true:

The same thing has been observed in our own day. Those who have deformed legs or lack some other limb are often sexually more effective than the rest of men, presumably by way of some natural compensation.

{ Animadversum est etiam illud nostris temporibus, plerunque qui tibiis sunt mutilis aut quopiam membro trunci, eos ad usum Veneris reliquis magis idoneos esse, nimirum paria faciente natura. }

Id. pp. 108-9. Montaigne may have been mocking Erasmus for his reasoning about a lame man’s sexual superiority.

Erasmus first distributed his Adagia in 1500. He subsequently expanded it until his death in 1536. Here’s a list of all Erasmus’s adages in Latin.

[3] Montaigne, Essais, from “Des boyteux.” All subsequent quotes from Montaigne are also from this chapter.

[4] In reference to ancient philosophy, Montaigne follows Erasmus’s explanation of better sex with the lame from Problemata attributed to Aristotle.

[5] Runyon (2013) detected symmetry in Montaigne’s Essais in chapters around the center chapter of each book. In Book 3 (consisting of 13 chapters), the symmetric chapter to “Des boyteux” (chapter 11) is “Of three kinds of intercourse {De trois commerces}” (chapter 3). In “De trois commerces,” Montaigne wrote:

On my part, I no more know Venus without Cupid than a maternity without offspring. These are things that lend and owe their essence to each other.

{ De moy, je ne connois non plus Venus sans Cupidon qu’une maternité sans engence: ce sont choses qui s’entreprestent et s’entredoivent leur essence. }

Montaigne apparently is saying that he no more knows sex without love than maternity without offspring. Here the phrase “ne connois non plus Venus” connects to “ne cognoit pas Venus” in “Des boyeux.” Id. pp. 203-4. Montaigne apparently didn’t just have casual sex with a crippled woman; he also loved her. Cf. id.

[6] McLelland (2017) p. 204.

[image] Portrait of Michel de Montaigne. Painted about 1565. Via Wikimedia Commons.


McLelland, Kaye. 2017. “The lame man makes the best lecher: Sex, sin, and the disabled Renaissance body.” Pp. 189-209 in Lidman, Satu, Meri Heinonen, Tom Linkinen, and Marjo Kaartinen, eds. Framing Premodern Desires: sexual ideas, attitudes, and practices in Europe. Crossing Boundaries: Turku Medieval and Early Modern Studies 9. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Mynors, R.A.B. et al. 1982-2006. Erasmus. Adages. Vols. 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36 in Collected Works of Erasmus. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Runyon, Randolph Paul. 2013. Order in Disorder: intratextual symmetry in Montaigne’s Essais. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.

Screech, M. A., trans. 1993. Michel de Montaigne: the Complete Essays. London, England: Penguin Books.

Villey, Pierre, and Verdun Louis Saulnier. 1965. Les Essais de Michel de Montaigne. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Montaigne essayed his sexual difficulties and inadequacies

In his influential Essays {Essais}, the leading sixteenth-century philosopher Michel de Montaigne shared himself much more honestly and extensively than persons using social media commonly do today. Montaigne explained:

Every one of my parts, each as much as another, makes me myself. I owe to the public my complete portrait.

{ Chacune de mes pieces me faict esgalement moy que toute autre. Et nulle autre ne me faict plus proprement homme que cette cy. Je dois au publiq universellement mon pourtrait. }[1]

Montaigne therefore discussed his sexual difficulties and inadequacies. His frank self-disclosure built in part upon medieval poetry presenting old men’s sexual difficulties.

Montaigne suggested that his penis is small. Defending women switching sexual partners, Montaigne declared:

When I have found a woman discontented with me, I have not immediately gone and accused her of fickleness. I have asked myself rather if I don’t have reason to accuse Nature:

If my penis isn’t sufficiently long, if it’s not good and thick

surely then Nature has treated my unlawfully and unjustly

even good matrons know all too well
and do not gladly see a tiny penis

and Nature has inflicted on me the most enormous injury.

{ Quand j’en ay veu quelqu’une s’ennuyer de moy, je n’en ay point incontinent accusé sa legereté; j’ay mis en doubte si je n’avois pas raison de m’en prendre à nature plustost.

Si non longa satis, si non bene mentula crassa,

Certes, elle m’a traitté illegitimement et incivilement,

Nimirum sapiunt, videntque parvam
Matronae quoque mentulam illibenter.

Et d’une lesion enormissime. }[2]

In truth, men with small penises shouldn’t accuse Nature of doing an enormous injury to them. Burnel the donkey failed to understand that his penis was sufficient and good. Men shouldn’t be asses like Burnel.

Portrait of Michel Montaigne, made in 1584

Montaigne defended men’s penises against a hypothetical conviction of rebelliousness. Montaigne apparently referred implicitly to his own difficulties:

We are right to note the license and disobedience of this member which thrusts itself forward so inopportunely, when we don’t want it to, and fails so inopportunely, when we need an affair the most. It imperiously contests for authority with our will. It stubbornly and proudly refuses all our incitements, both mental and manual. Yet if this member were arraigned for rebelliousness, found guilty on these charge, and then I was retained to plead its cause, I would doubtlessly cast suspicion on our other members, its companions, for having deliberately brought a trumped-up charge. They seek to be raised relative to it because of fine envy at its importance and sweetness of usage. They would be plotting to arm everybody against it, maliciously accusing it of a defect common to them all.

{ On a raison de remarquer l’indocile liberté de ce membre, s’ingerant si importunement, lors que nous n’en avons que faire, et defaillant si importunement, lors que nous en avons le plus affaire, et contestant de l’authorité si imperieusement avec nostre volonté, refusant avec tant de fierté et d’obstination noz solicitations et mentales et manuelles. Si toutesfois en ce qu’on gourmande sa rebellion, et qu’on en tire preuve de sa condemnation, il m’avoit payé pour plaider sa cause: à l’adventure mettroy-je en souspeçon noz autres membres, ses compagnons, de luy estre allé dresser, par belle envie de l’importance et douceur de son usage, cette querelle apostée, et avoir par complot armé le monde à l’encontre de luy: le chargeant malignement seul de leur faute commune. }[3]

Montaigne argued that other bodily members act similarly. He argued that men sometimes defecate, urinate, and pass gas without consciously willing the action. Moreover, the penis deserves more respect than the bowels, bladder, and anal sphincter. Summing up, Montaigne declared:

Finally, on behalf of my noble client, may it please the court to consider that, in this matter, my client’s case is inseparably and indistinguishably joined to a consort. Yet the suit is addressed to my client alone, employing arguments and making charges which, granted the characteristics of the Parties, can in no way be brought against the aforesaid consort. By this can be seen the manifest animosity and legal impropriety of the accusers. The contrary notwithstanding, Nature registers a protest against the lawyers’ accusations and judges’ sentences, and she will meanwhile proceed as usual, as one who acted rightly when she endowed the aforesaid member with its own particular privilege to be author of the only immortal achievement know to mortals.

{ En fin je diroy pour monsieur ma partie, que plaise à considerer, qu’en ce faict, sa cause estant inseparablement conjointe à un consort et indistinctement, on ne s’adresse pourtant qu’à luy, et par des arguments et charges telles, veu la condition des parties, qu’elles ne peuvent aucunement apartenir ny concerner son-dit consort. Partant se void l’animosité et illegalité manifeste des accusateurs. Quoy qu’il en soit, protestant que les advocats et juges ont beau quereller et sentencier, nature tirera cependant son train : qui n’auroit faict que raison, quand ell’ auroit doué ce membre de quelque particulier privilege, autheur du seul ouvrage immortel des mortels. }

Surely a fair appellate judge would overturn a charge and conviction of rebelliousness against Montaigne’s penis.

Montaigne himself wasn’t satisfied with his penis’s behavior. As an old man, he declared:

But it’s most unwise (is it not?) to bring our inadequacies and weaknesses to a place where we would desire to please and to leave there a good impression and reputation. For the little I need nowadays

even for one go,
limp work.

I wouldn’t embarrass any woman whom I hold in reverence and awe:

you escape being mistrusted,
you whose life staggers
to limp fifty years.

Nature should be content to have made that age pitiful, without making it also ridiculous. I hate to see old age with an inch of paltry vigor that arouses it three times a week, dashing about and bragging with the same vehemence as if it had a good day’s legitimate work in its belly.

{ Mais n’est ce pas grande impudence d’apporter nos imperfections et foiblesses en lieu où nous desirons plaire, et y laisser bonne estime de nous et recommandation? Pour ce peu qu’il m’en faut à cette heure,

ad unum,
Mollis opus

je ne voudrois importuner une personne que j’ay à reverer et craindre:

Fuge suspicari,
Cujus heu denum trepidavit aetas,
Claudere lustrum.

Nature se devoit contenter d’avoir rendu cet aage miserable, sans le rendre encore ridicule. Je hay de le voir, pour un pouce de chetive vigueur qui l’eschaufe trois fois la semaine, s’empresser et se gendarmer de pareille aspreté, comme s’il avoit quelque grande et legitime journée dans le ventre }[4]

The essayist lamented:

Assaying us, the women might perhaps find us not worthy of their choice:

After exploring his thighs and a cock like a damp leather
thong, which falls to stand even when urged by a weary hand,
she deserts the impotent bed.

{ En nous essayant, elles ne nous trouvent, à l’adventure, pas dignes de leur chois,

experta latus, madidoque simillima loro
Inguina, nec lassa stare coacta manu,
Deserit imbelles thalamos. }[5]

Men’s impotence is an epic disaster. Old men are relatively prone to it. A medieval poem observed:

Love looks for young men to play with young women.
Venus despises old men, who are beset with infirmities.

{ Amor quaerit iuvenes, ut ludant cum virginibus;
Venus despicit senes, qui impleti sunt doloribus. }[6]

Montaigne apparently knew well the reality of old men’s sexual difficulties.

portrait of Michel de Montaigne, made in 1590

Medieval literature recognized the possibilities of miracles, even for old men. The right attitude and the right circumstances can make an old man young again:

Recently grown old, I’m becoming young again.
Aging in reverse,
I don’t restrain
my emotions.
When my friends
chide me,
they incite me more
and make me go crazy.
May I die while having sex!

My love had grown old,
until, in a thoroughly loving event,
it rekindled.
A little spark of sexual desire
— a new spark toward a new little love —
deprived me of my senses.
In this flame may I die
while with pleasure I’m wounded.
By the earnestness of the offense,
the fault is made faultless,
and her beauty incites
the vehemence of my love.

{ Nuper senex iuvenesco,
nec compesco
motus animi.
Nam cum proximi
me castigant,
plus instigant
et me cogunt furere.
Moriar in Venere.

Amor noster senuit,
dum re peramata
Veneris scintillula
in novam novellula
michi me subripuit.
In hac flamma morior,
dum iocunde saucior.
Honestate criminis
culpa deculpatur,
et furori virginis
forma suffragatur. }

Of course, burning passion can be painful for an old man, especially if he consciously tries to resist it:

He is twice jabbed
who strives
to kick against the goad.
So it is right that I should suffer
and be tortured
a thousand times
and more
on the brink of death.
Spare me, Venus, spare me!
My fire blazes
in its leader’s head!

{ Bis pungitur,
qui nititur
repugnare stimulo.
Ergo iuste patior
et crucior
ac pluries
mortis sub articulo.
Parce, Venus, parce!
Noster ignis aestuat
principis in arce! }

The fire blazing in the leader’s head seems to be in the head of his rebellious penis. As Montaigne argued, a man’s penis has a mind of its own. For that it shouldn’t be charged with a crime.

Medieval poetry indicates that old men competed with young men in loving women. The physical reality of aging disadvantages old men. Not surprisingly, the old man Paulino hesitated to marry the old woman Polla because he thought he couldn’t adequately serve her as his wife. But a husband doesn’t have to be as vigorous as Charlemagne’s peer Oliver to have a happy marriage. Men’s sexual inadequacies often are mainly in their own minds. So it probably was for Michel de Montaigne.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Michel de Montaigne, Essays {Essais} 3.5 (389v), “On some lines of Virgil {Sur des vers de Virgile},” French text from the Villey & Saulnier (1965) version of the 1595 edition of Essais, English translation from Screech (1993) p. 1004. Subsequent English translations from Essais are similarly sourced, with some modifications in the English translations. The quotation references are from Screech’s footnotes.

[2] Montaigne, Essais 3.5 (389v). The first Latin quote is Priapeia 80.1, and the second is Priapeia 8.4-5.

[3] Montaigne, Essais 1.21 (35v), “On the power of the imagination {De la Force de l’Imagination}.”

[4] Montaigne, Essais 3.5 (389v). The first Latin quote is Horace, Epodes 12.15-6; the second, Horace, Odes 2.4.22-4.

[5] Montaigne, Essais 3.5 (389v). The first Latin quote is Martial, Epigrams 7.57.3-5.

[6] Carmina Burana 152, “No summer has appeared in times past {Aestas non apparuit praeteritis temporibus},” stanza 4, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018). Here are some Latin reading notes for this poem.

[7] Carmina Burana 104, “I am fed up with my sickness {Aegre fero, quod aegroto},” stanzas 2-3, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018). The subsequent quote is similarly from Carmina Burana 104, stanza 5. Id. notes that 5.1-2 is a proverbial expression derived from Acts 26:14, which in the Vulgate: “It’s hard for you to kick against the goads {durum est tibi contra stimulum calcitrare}.”

[images] (1) Portrait of Michel de Montaigne. Painted in 1587 and attributed to Étienne Martellange. Source image via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Portrait of Montaigne. Painted about 1590. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Screech, M. A., trans. 1993. Michel De Montaigne: the Complete Essays. London, England: Penguin Books.

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

Villey, Pierre, and Verdun Louis Saulnier. 1965. Les essais de Michel de Montaigne. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Roman de Thèbes reoriented ending of Statius’s Thebaid

The Thebaid, which Statius wrote early in the 90s GC, highlights women’s power and women’s unity in lamenting beloved men killed in civil war. Although built upon the Thebaid, the twelfth-century Roman de Thèbes gives women’s laments over dead men less political importance. The Roman de Thèbes concludes by imploring respect for nature. Men’s lives don’t naturally have less value than women’s lives. While the ending of Statius’s Thebaid acknowledges a man’s natural beauty, the ending of the Roman de Thèbes radically challenges epic’s vastly disproportionate violence against men.

In the Thebaid, women’s laments spur men leaders into war. For example, Polynices in exile in Argos fumed because his brother Eteocles repudiated their agreement to rule Thebes in alternate years. Eteocles insisted that he would rule Thebes perpetually. Polynices’s wife Argia, daughter of King Adrastus of Argos, went with torn hair and tear-stained cheeks to her father. She brought at her breast her little boy. Tears and grandchildren are tools with which daughters dominate their fathers. Argia said to her father, the king of Argos:

Why, in tears and without my grieving husband, I cross
your threshold at night, a suppliant, you know, Sire, though words
should fail me. But, by wedlock’s holy bonds I swear,
and by you, Father: he didn’t send me. Wakeful anguish
did. Ever since Hymen and inauspicious Juno first
waved the wedding torch left-handed, my sleep’s been disturbed
by the tears and groans beside me. I couldn’t bear it — not
if a tiger’s hackles or looming sea-girt crags rose hard
within my heart. You alone can help, your power to heal
reigns supreme. Start the war, Father!

I for one never filched Venus’s fires in secret,
the steal-away wedding torch — no! I followed your advice,
observed your august commands. Should I now turn on him, scorn
his grievous woes? You don’t know, best Father, you don’t know
what love a chaste woman feels, wed to an unhappy man!

{ cur tua cum lacrimis maesto sine coniuge supplex
limina nocte petam, cessem licet ipsa profari,
scis genitor, sed iura deum genialia testor
teque pater, non ille iubet, sed pervigil angor;
ex quo primus Hymen movitque infausta sinistram
Iuno facem, semper lacrimis gemituque propinquo
exturbata quies, non si mihi tigridis horror
aequoreasque super rigeant praecordia cautes,
ferre queam; tu solus opem, tu summa medendi
iura tenes; da bella, pater

non egomet tacitos Veneris furata calores
culpatamve facem: tua iussa verenda tuosque
dilexi monitus, nunc qua feritate dolentis
despiciam questus? nescis, pater optime, nescis,
quantus amor castae misero nupsisse marito. }[1]

As fathers typically do, King Adrastus responded sympathetically to his daughter. He said she deserved praise for urging him to take Argos into war against Thebes. As a leader, however, he feared for his men and felt the weight of responsibility for sending them into war. He comforted his daughter by declaring that the war would come. He told her that judicious delays in starting the war increased the odds of the war’s success.

U.S. Civil War, dead men, Battle of Gettysburg, 1863

The Roman de Thèbes closely linked the start of the war to the Thebans’ egregious ambush of Adrastus’s messenger, his son-in-law Tydeus. Polynices had proposed to go to Thebes himself:

When the time had passed
by which he should have been crowned,
Polynices realized he was totally betrayed
and he made strong threats against his brother.
He couldn’t laugh or joke,
nor could he sleep or rest at night,
and he said he would go to Thebes in anger
and claim his kingdom.

{ Des que li termes est passez
qu’il deüst estre coronnez,
Pollinicés s’en tint a mort
et menaça son frere fort.
Ne puet pas rire ne jouer,
par nuit dormir ne reposer;
et dist qu’a Thebes s’en ira
et son regne chalengera. }[2]

According to Argia in the Thebaid, Polynices’s morose restlessness was causing her distress in bed. King Adrastus, however, persuaded his son-in-law not to go to Thebes. Instead, Adrastus advised sending a messenger to Eteocles with a demand that he adhere to the reign-sharing agreement. When no one else dared to convey that message, Tydeus, husband to Adrastus’s daughter Deipyle, volunteered to go. Tydeus returned from Thebes exhausted and terribly wounded:

He said to everyone: “Arm yourselves quickly!
Let the king send for his army
and summon his knights,
because the messenger is wounded.”

{ A touz leur dist: “Armez vos tost!
Li rois face banir son ost
et semoingne ses chevaliers,
car navrez est li mesagiers.” }

The messenger being wounded implies that Eteocles refused to uphold his agreement to share the Theban crown with his brother Polynices. Moreover, wounding a messenger was a grave insult to a king. King Adrastus in response immediately went to war with Thebes. He neither needed nor received supplication from his daughter to persuade him to start the war.

Adrastus’s war against Thebes produced massive slaughter of men. Sybaris by sword, Periphas by spear, Itys by arrow — the means differed, but the results were the same: dead men. Caeneus was suddenly decapitated, and his startled eyes sought out his torso’s heart. Abas was killed as he seized another man’s shield. Capaneus flung a spear at Eunaeus:

But first, “Why, in your last moments, make men wince with your
womanish trills? I just wish the god you rave for would
show up! Sing this to your Theban mothers!” Jeering, he hurled
his spear.

{ ante tamen ‘quid femineis ululatibus’ inquit,
‘terrificas. moriture, viros? utinam ipse veniret,
cui furis! haec Tyriis cane matribus!’ et simul hastam
expulit }

That spear pierced Eunaeus front to back and he bled out, dying like multitudes of men, almost never women, do in epic. Amphiaraus killed the men Phlegyas and Phyleus with javelin throws. Then his scythed chariot cut down the men Clonis and Chremataon. The men Chromis, Gyas, Lycoreaus were killed, and also Alcathous, who had a wife and children. Men being killed continued:

They shut out the light of day with their weapons, iron clouds
hung in the heavens, the choked air could not hold all their spears.
Some men died by enemy javelins, some by their own flung
back. Spears collided in empty air, a wasteful exchange
of wounds. Staves collided, slingshot hissed and fell
like rain, flying pellets mimicked lightning bolts, as
did arrows — much to be feared, dealing no single death.
No weapon made it to earth — each piece of steel sank
into flesh. Men hit home, dropped dead — all unawares!

{ exclusere diem telis, stant ferrea caelo
nubila, nec iaculis artatus sufficit aer.
hi pereunt missis, illi redeuntibus hastis,
concurrunt per inane sudes et mutua perdunt
volnera, concurrunt hastae, stridentia funda
saxa pluunt, volucres imitantur fulgura glandes
et formidandae non una morte sagittae,
nec locus ad terram telis: in corpora ferrum
omne cadit; saepe ignari perimuntque caduntque. }

Menalcas, Phaedimus, Iphis, Argus, Daphneus, Aon, Pholus, Cromis — these men were then killed. The massive violence against men continued:

Herculean Haemon whipped through thousands with sword unsated,
wasting now Calydon’s crack regiments, now Pylene’s
grim ranks, now men in gloomy Pleuron’s foster care
until, spear grown weary at least, he encountered Olenian
Butes — attacked him just as he turned to forbid his men
to retreat. A boy, that one, a child with beardless cheeks and
baby curls. The hefty Theban axe cleft his casque:
he never knew what hit him. Temple was split off from
temple, his hair — parted! — fell down around his elbows.
He departed this life without fear, by way of a trap door.
Haemon next slew Hypanis (blond) and Polites (blond):
one grew his beard for Phoebus, one his hair for Iacchus.
Both gods were cruel. Hyperenor he joined to his victims, also
Damasus, who’d turned to flee when the hero’s spear, stabbing
between his shoulders, came out through his chest, struck the buckler
out of his grip. On flew the spear, his shield pinned to its nose!

{ Nec minus Herculeum contra vagus Haemona ducit
sanguis: inexpleto rapitur per milia ferro,
nunc tumidae Calydonis opes, nunc torva Pylenes
agmina, nunc maestae fundens Pleuronis alumnos,
donec in Olenium fessa iam cuspide Buten
incidit, hunc turmis obversum et abire vetantem
adgreditur; puer ille, puer malasque comamque
integer, ignaro cui tunc Thebana bipennis
in galeam librata venit: finduntur utroque
tempora dividuique cadunt in bracchia crines,
et non hoc metuens inopino limine vita
exsiluit. tunc flavum Hypanin flavumque Politen —
ille genas Phoebo, crinem hic pascebat Iaccho:
saevus uterque deus — victis Hyperenora iungit
conversumque fuga Damasum; sed lapsa per armos
hasta viri trans pectus abit parmamque tenenti
excutit et summa fugiens in cuspide portat. }

Tydeus with spear-throw pierced Prothous and his horse, which then trampled Prothous’s face and chest. The horse died with its neck across Prothous’s corpse. Tydeas killed Atys with a spear to the groin. That blow eviscerated delusions and truly indicated castration culture. After Tydeus had killed many more men, Melanippus, the son of Astacus, struck Tydeus lethally. Tydeus returned a mortal hit before he fell. As he lay dying, Tydeus had his companions sever Melanippus’s head and bring it to him. He proudly watched its grim eyeballs grow cold. Then he drank the fluid brains from Melanippus’s shattered skull.

U.S. Civil War, dead men, Battle of Antietam

The brothers Polynices and Eteocles eventually faced off. They fought like wild boars, furious to shed each other’s blood. With great effort, Polynices thrust a sword into his brother’s groin. Eteocles retreated, growing weaker. He then fell to the ground in final treachery. Polynices, thinking he was victorious, came to strip Eteocles of his armor and weapons. But Eteocles clung to his life with vengeful anger. When Polynices loomed over him, Eteocles thrust his sword into his brother’s chest. Polynices fell on top of his brother, crushing him while dying.

Massive killing of Argive men in their attack on Thebes didn’t end epic violence against men. The women of Argos lamented the deaths of their men. They grieved that Creon, the new king of Thebes, refused to allow anyone to cremate the dead Argive men. Telesilla of Argos had organized Argive women to defeat Cleomenes, King of Sparta.[3] Following the tradition of Telesilla, the Argive women might have formed an army of women to attack Thebes.

The Argive women instead formed an army of women mourners. They went to Athens to plead to the Athenian King Theseus. Evadne, wife of Capaneus, who had enthusiastically sought to fight Thebes and did so impiously, pleaded to Theseus for help:

Warlike son of Aegeus, for whom — through our downfall —
Fortune discloses her mightiest seeds of sudden glory,
no foreign-born women we, nor is ours a group
guilty of vile crime. Argos was our home, our husbands brave
kings — would they had not been! For what need was there to raise
a sevenfold host to set the House of Agenor to rights?
Our complaint is not that they’re slain — such are the rules of war,
the fortunes of arms. But those who fell in battle were not
monsters sprung from Sicilian caves, not Ossa’s half breeds.
Their births, their famous sires I omit — they were men, renowned
Theseus, flesh and blood of men, born to the same stars, same
mortal destinies, nourished on food and drink like yours. Yet
these Creon bars from the fire and the Stygian portal’s threshold.

Seven times now, Aurora, rising with trembling team,
has skirted the unburied. The star-spangled sky in all
its splendor shudders and draws back its light. Now even
wild beasts and birds nearby loathe this disgusting fare
and the field that freights the air and breeze with its fetid stench.
Realistically, how much would remain? Bare bones, putrid
muck — he should let us scoop this up! Make haste, honored
offspring of Cecrops! Decency bids you exact vengeance before
Emathians mourn, and Thracians, and any race at all
that hopes to burn atop a pyre and receive last rites.
For what will curtail his savagery? True, we made war. But
enmity’s slain. Death’s put an end to sullen wrath.

{ belliger Aegide, subitae cui maxima laudis
semina de nostris aperit Fortuna ruinis,
non externa genus, dirae nec conscia noxae
turba sumus: domus Argos erat regesque mariti,
non utinam et fortes! quid enim septena movere
castra et Agenoreos opus emendare penates?
nec querimur caesos: haec bellica iura vicesque
armorum; sed non Siculis exorta sub antris
monstra nec Ossaei bello cecidere bimembres.
mitto genus clarosque patres: hominum, inclyte Theseu,
sanguis erant, homines, eademque in sidera, eosdem
sortitus animarum alimentaque vestra creati,
quos vetat igne Creon Stygiaeque a limine portae,

septima iam surgens trepidis Aurora iacentes
aversatur equis; radios declinat et horret
stelligeri iubar omne poli; iam comminus ipsae
pabula dira ferae campumque odere volucres
spirantem tabo et caelum ventosque gravantem.
quantum etenim superesse rear? nuda ossa putremque
verrere permittat saniem, properate, verendi
Cecropidae; vos ista decet vindicta, priusquam
Emathii Thracesque dolent, quaeque exstat ubique
gens arsura rogis manesque habitura supremos,
nam quis erit saevire modus? bellavimus, esto;
sed cecidere odia et tristes mors obruit iras. }[4]

Men throughout history have perceived glory in serving women. Evadne and other women knew that and used it to their advantage:

She was done. All the women, with pleading hands outstretched,
loudly took up the cry. Neptune’s heroic son flushed, much
moved by their tears. After a moment, stirred by righteous rage,
he exclaimed: “What Erinys has brought on this madness,
so strangely unkinglike? No such hearts did I leave behind
when I set out for Scythia’s Black Sea snows — where does
this strange frenzy originate? Did you, dread Creon, think
Theseus conquered? Well, here I am, and not — trust me! —
exhausted by slaughter. This spear thirsts yet for guilty blood.
No hesitation here! This instant, trusty Phegeus,
wheel your charger and, riding hard to the Tyrian towers,
proclaim, “Either pyres for Danaans, or war for Thebes!”

{ Dixerat; excipiunt cunctae tenduntque precantes
cum clamore manus; rubuit Neptunius heros
permotus lacrimis; iusta mox concitus ira
exclamat: “quaenam ista novos induxit Erinys
regnorum mores? non haec ego pectora liqui
Graiorum abscedens, Scythiam Pontumque nivalem
cum peterem; novus unde furor? victumne putasti
Thesea, dire Creon? adsum, nec sanguine fessum
crede; sitit meritos etiamnum haec hasta cruores.
nulla mora est; verte hunc adeo, fidissime Phegeu,
cornipedem, et Tyrias invectus protinus arces
aut Danais edice rogos aut proelia Thebis.” }

Men thus again assembled to wage violence against men. Grief for men and proper handling of men’s dead bodies doesn’t end epic violence against men.[5]

In the Roman de Thèbes, Theseus is solicitous of the women’s laments. Threatening non-participants with exile, he ordered all fighting-fit men to serve in his army. He explained to them why they must wage war against Thebes:

“My lords,” he said, “I shall tell you this,
without lying to you in any way.
A piece of news has come to me —
that is the reason why this army is on the move.
These ladies you see here,
these are the daughters of Adrastus —
Deipyle and Argia.
You have heard talk of Adrastus,
who was born in Greece and became its lord.
He took his great army to Thebes
and found a very great multitude there.
All except three Greeks are dead.
Three hundred thousand men died there,
men of great fame and of great strength.
King Adrastus is still alive.
He and two other men have survived, but no more.
His daughters have come here
with these other women to beg for mercy.
They have suffered great hardship,
and for the love of their lords,
I shall in truth go and avenge them.
For this I have summoned my troops.”

{ “Seingnors,” fet il, “je vos dirai,
que ja ne vous en mentirai:
unne nouvele m’est venue
par quoi ceste ost est esmeüe;
ces dames que veez la sus,
ce sont les filles Adrastus,
Deyphilé et Argÿa,
qui sieent o ces autres la.
D’Adrastus avez oÿ dire,
qui de Gresce fu nez et sire,
a Thebes sa grant ost mena
et mout grant gent dedenz trova.
Mort i sont trestuit li Grejois,
n’en y a remés que seul trois;
trois cent mile houmes y a mors
de grant pris et de grant esfors.
Encore est vis rois Adrastus,
soi tierz s’en estort et non plus.
Ses filles sunt venues ci
et ces autres crier merci;
mout ont souferte granz dolors,
et pour l’amour de lor seingnors
les irai vengier voirement,
et pour ce ai mandé ma gent.” }

Tearful women can prompt violence against men. Theseus, however, claimed that he will wage war “for love of their lords {pour l’amour de lor seingnors}.” In a significant detail, the Roman de Thèbes remade Theseus from King of Athens to a duke of Athens. When Theseus met the defeated King Adrastus of Argos, Theseus dismounted from his horse, came to him on foot, bowed to him, and kissed him. Theseus then clearly declared his obligation:

I must help you in this time of need,
and I can surely tell you why:
I am your vassal and I must do so.

{ Aidier vous doi a cest besoing,
et vous sai bien dire por quoi:
car vostre hom sui, faire le doi. }

In the Roman de Thèbes, feudal obligation, not pleading, weeping women, ultimately motivated Theseus’s war against Thebes.

U.S. Civil War, dead man soldier

For ending epic violence against men, the most significant closure in Statius’s Thebaid is shared appreciation for the young Arcadian Parthenopaeus’s physical beauty. The beauty of men’s bodies jars against the sadness of men’s deaths in war. So it was for Parthenopaeus:

No man setting out for hazard’s grim game had face
more fair, none was more indulged for his peerless beauty.

{ pulchrior haud ulli triste ad discrimen ituro
vultus et egregiae tanta indulgentia formae }

Statius declared his words unable to do justice to the lamenting of Parthenopaeus’s mother for Parthenopaeus’s death in the war:

how the Arcadian’s Erymanthian mother loudly bewailed him —
the Arcadian, who kept his looks though he lost his lifeblood,
the Arcadian, equally mourned by soldiers on both sides.

{ Arcada quo planctu genetrix Erymanthia clamet,
Arcada, consumpto servantem sanguine vultus,
Arcada, quem geminae pariter flevere cohortes }

A man’s beautiful dead body is no substitute for the living man. Soldiers on both sides of the war saw that war destroys the living beauty of a man.[6] While Spartan mothers lamented the loss of their sons in war, they nonetheless encouraged their sons to fight to death. Statius himself declared: “Beautiful still is the face of war {pulcher adhuc belli vultus}.” Statius’s Thebaid offers no compelling end to epic violence against men.[7]

The Roman de Thèbes has much clearer closure than Statius’s Thebaid. It emphasizes respect for Nature:

And so the war came to an end.
All of their land and their country
was destroyed and wasted.
Many wretched pains and great hardships
and curses came down on their children
because their fathers had brought down this destiny
and Fortune confirmed their fate.
They were born contrary to Nature,
and for this they were destined
to be filled with wickedness.
In their lives they could do no good.
By God, my lords, pay heed to this:
do not do anything against Nature
in order to avoid coming to an end
such as those whose story here I bring to an end.

{ ainsint la guerre se define.
Destruite en fu et degastee
toute lor terre et lor contree;
mout chaï paine et granz ahanz
et maudiçons sor les enfanz,
car li peres leur destina
et Fortune leur otroia:
contre Nature furent né,
pour ce leur fu si destiné
que plains furent de felonie;
bien ne porent fere en lor vie.
Pour Dieu, seignor, prenez i cure,
ne faites rien contre Nature
que n’en veingniez a itel fin
com furent cil dont ci defin. }

No other animal organizes the massive, gender-based violence of war. Epic violence against men is unnatural. Read as reflexive meta-commentary, the ending of the Roman de Thèbes points to ending epic violence against men.

Now regarding themselves as masters of Nature, modern humans pride themselves on constructing their own orders. Within a liberal, democratic order, each individual has equal civic value. Treating men as relatively disposable humans renders incoherent that and other personal, civic, and cosmic orders. Epic violence against men is a social injustice. The Roman de Thèbes and Statius’s Thebaid can help in teaching the social injustice of epic violence against men.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Statius, Thebaid 3.687-96, 701-5, Latin text of Mozley (1928), English translation (modified insubstantially) of Joyce (2008). For freely available English translations, Mozley (1928) and A. S. Kline (2013).

Subsequent quotes from the Thebaid are similarly sourced. They are 7.676-80 (But first…), 8.412-20 (They shut out the light of day…), 8.481-96 (Herculean Haemon whipped…), 12.546-58, 563-74 (Warlike son of Aegeus…), 12.587-98 (She was done…), 4.251-2 (No man setting out for hazard’s grim game…), 12.805-7 (how the Arcadian’s Erymanthian mother…), 8.402 (Beautiful still is the face of war).

[2] Roman de Thèbes vv. 1185-92, Old French text from Raynaud de Lage (1968), English translation (modified slightly) from Burgess & Kelly (2021).

Roman de Thèbes was composed about 1150. It has survived in five complete manuscripts. Id. pp. 2, xi. Raynaud de Lage’s Old French text and Burgess & Kelly’s English translation are based on MS. C: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 784, f. 1ra-67ra, written in the middle of the thirteenth century. Ferrante & Hanning (2018) translates MS S: London, British Library, Additional 34114 (formerly Spalding), f. 164ra-226vb, written at the end of the fourteenth century. MS C has 10562 verses compares to 12059 verses in MS S.

The most extensive analysis of the Roman de Thèbes in relation to its sources is Clogan (1990). Clogan observed:

From the Thebaid, medieval commentaries on Statius’ epic, and other medieval sources the Thèbes poet created a real work of art, balanced and structured, and full of human interest and inventions of his own. The new love stories are not only interludes designed to provide variety between the long battle scenes, but have become a subplot of chivalry, introducing new kinds of scenes into courtly medieval romance, and revealing new directions in twelfth-century courtly narrative.

Id. p. 66. Clogan noted that the author of the Roman de Thèbes introduced two new heterosexual love relationships: Salemandre and Etheocles in the episode concerning Daire le Roux, and Antigone and Parthenopaeus.

Subsequent quotes from the Roman de Thèbes are sourced as previously. They are vv. 1851-4 (He said to everyone…), 10141-64 (“My lords,” he said…), 10336-8 (I must help you…), 10548-62 (And so the war came to an end…).

[3] Plutarch, Moralia, The manliness of women {Mulierum Virtutes}, 4. Women of Argos; Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.20.8-9. Cf. Herodotus, Histories 6.76-84.

[4] Theseus had just returned from defeating the Amazons in Scythia on the Black Sea. Theseus brought back many Amazon women as captives, including the Amazon leader Queen Hippolyte. Statius implies that the Amazons were guilty of a crime. Some authorities reported that the Amazons killed their male children to preserve their female-only society. Theseus may have rightly regarded such gendercide as a serious crime. In any case, Theseus planned to marry Hippolyte, who was willing to enter into the privileged status of queen consort. No man leader of a hostile group could receive such a privilege. The “conquered” Amazons and the lamenting Argives display different aspects of women’s privilege. Cf. Braund (1997) pp. 12-3, which suggests that the Amazons’ crime was to “resist the ‘rules’ of patriarchal Roman society.”

Creon became king of Thebes when Polynices killed Eteocles. Creon forbid funeral rites for the dead Argives / Greeks / Danaans.

[5] Statius recognizes women’s moral agency, values their emotion of grief for dead men, and takes seriously the social relatedness of individuals. Voigt (2016). That has no more relation to ending epic violence against men than it does to ending men-only conscription for war. The same is true for the question of whether Theseus is a good king within his Roman context. For an argument that Theseus is a good king, Braund (1997).

[6] Putnam perceives Statius replacing the Aeneid’s Dido and Pallas with Parthenopaeus. That signals an end to particular epic violence against men:

as the Thebaid ends, mourning for a single comely warrior functions as further indication that fratricidal fighting is over and that both belligerent entities can unite in sorrow and in peace. … he {Statius} has us envision how Atalanta’s personal bereavement, a mother grieving for her dead son, expands into a universal act of lamentation that serves to unite opposing forces and bring an end to conflict.

Putnam (2016) pp. 104, 111. More appreciation for men’s physical beauty, including men’s penises carrying men’s seminal blessing, could help raise the value of men’s lives. However, lamenting a beautiful man killed in epic violence against men scarcely seems sufficient to end the epic tradition of massive violence against men.

[7] Scholars have established that Statius in writing the Thebaid was deeply engaged with the epic tradition, particularly its leading exemplars the Iliad and the Aeneid. Some scholars have seen closure in Argive and Theban women’s unity in lamenting dead men. Braund (1997), Dietrich (1999), and Voigt (2016). Voigt went as far as to claim, “Statius proposes to us a utopian female alternative to the male dominated epic genre.” Id., Abstract, similarly at p. 61. Lovatt (1999) more plausibly points to competing endings for the Thebaid. Coleman doesn’t regard the competing endings as having overall significance:

The close of the epic demonstrates that this is a story that cannot really end: male violence and, especially, female mourning are without limit.

Coleman (2004) p. 21. By “male violence,” Coleman means “male violence against men.” By “female mourning,” Coleman means “female mourning for dead men.” None of these scholarly works squarely faces the gendered problem of epic violence against men. Scholars scarcely recognize in epic the massive slaughter of men — the slaughter of distinctively gendered male human beings. Men’s deaths are recognized only peripherally through women’s laments. See, e.g. Augoustakis (2010). This literary problem is like global elites today ignoring highly disproportionate violence against men and emphasizing violence against women.

[images] (1) Dead men soldiers from the U.S. Civil War, Battle of Gettysburg, July, 1863. Source image from Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War, vol. 1, p. 36, photograph by Timothy H. O’Sullivan. Reproduction number LC-B8184-7964-A (b&w film neg.) from U.S. Library of Congress. More on this and closely related photos. (2) Dead men soldiers from the U.S. Civil War, Battle of Antietam, September-October 1862. Source image from reproduction number LC-DIG-cwpb-01093 (digital file from original neg. of variant) from U.S. Library of Congress. (3) Dead man soldier from the U.S. Civil War, Battle of Gettysburg, June-July, 1863. Source photo from reproduction number LC-DIG-cwpb-00915 (digital file from original neg. of left half) from U.S. Library of Congress.


Augoustakis, Antony. 2010. Motherhood and the Other: Fashioning Female Power in Flavian Epic. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Review by Tracy Deline and by Randall Ganiban.

Braund, Susanna Morton. 1997. “Ending epic: Statius, Theseus and a merciful release.” Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society. 42: 1-23.

Burgess, Glyn S., and Douglas Kelly, trans. 2021. The Roman de Thèbes and The Roman d’Eneas. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Clogan, Paul M. 1990. “New Directions in Twelfth-Century Courtly Narrative: Le Roman de Thèbes.” Mediaevistik. 3: 55-70.

Coleman, Kathleen M. 2004. “Recent Scholarship.” Pp. 9-31 in D. R. Shackleton Bailey, ed. and trans. Statius. Thebaid, Volume I: Thebaid: Books 1-7. Loeb Classical Library 207. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Dietrich, Jessica S. 1999. “Thebaid‘s feminine ending.” Ramus. 28 (1): 40-53.

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