gender equality & sexual harassment in medieval understanding

In thirteenth-century Germany, a priest who ranked as the provost of a religious order became gravely ill. He apparently was lovesick. He believed that having sex with a woman was the only possible cure for him. So he had sex with a woman despite his vow of chastity. He died a few days later. A contemporary Cistercian monk, Caesarius of Heisterbach, said only, “I commit the judgment of his soul to God {Judicium animae Deo committo}.”[1]

A monastic novice recognized that such a moral failing wasn’t particular to men. After hearing this story, the novice said:

We spoke before about holy Job’s maxim: “The life of man upon the earth is temptation.” Isn’t this to be understood for both sexes?

{ Estne praedicta sententia sancti Job: tentatio est vita hominis super terram, de utroque sexu intelligenda? }[2]

The monk teaching the novice responded:

Yes, because this word “man” means both sexes. Both sexes are subject to the same emotions. Just as by women the devil weakens and overthrows men, so too by men does it win over many women.

{ Est, quia hoc nomen homo, utrumque sexum comprehendit, et eisdem motibus uterque sexus subiacet. Sicut enim diabolus per feminas viros deiicit et enervat, ita per viros mulierum multitudinem lucratur. }

Using the word “man” for women and men obscures men’s gender distinctiveness and should be avoided. But underlying values are more important than mere words. Both the monk and the novice communicated an admirable medieval understanding of gender equality. That authentic sense of gender equality has lamentably been lost in the frenzy to demonize, criminalize, and incarcerate more men in our benighted and bigoted age.

opening page of a manuscript of Caesarius of Heisterbach's Dialogus Miraculorum

The novice and the monk both forthrightly recognized that women sexually harass men. Consider the case of a noble woman in charge of a castle that she held with her husband. One day this woman was seized with the “spirit of fornication {spiritus fornicationis}.” Her husband was then away from the castle:

Now suddenly she was so strongly inflamed that she ran here and there and couldn’t stand nor sit. She behaved as if a hot iron had been pulled out of her thigh. When she could no longer ignore the fire of love, she went down to the castle’s porter, and ignoring chastity, wanted to have sex with him. With much urgency she begged him for sex.

{ Nam subito tam valide est inflammata, ut huc illucque discurrens, stare vel sedere non posset, ac si ferrum candes in suo femore excepisset. Cumque ignem amoris tolerare non posset, ad portarium castri, castitatis oblita, descendit, et ut sibi commisceri vellet, cum multa instantia supplicavit. }[3]

The porter was in a dangerous situation. He could be fired or falsely accused of attempted seduction or rape if he refused the lady’s urgent request for sex. Nonetheless, the porter dared to say no to his workplace superior:

Since he was a good man, the porter responded: “What is this that you’re saying, master-lady? Where is your sense? Respect God and have regard for your honor.” Caring for neither of these, when she had suffered being rejected by the porter, she with a nod from God exited the castle and ran to the river that flowed by the castle. She immersed herself in the cold waters and sat there until she had restrained the tinder of her burning libido.

{ Cum ille, sicut vir bonus, respondit: “Quid est quod loqueris, domina? Ubi est sensus tuus?” Respice Deum, attende honorem tuum.” Illa nihil horum curans, cum a portario repulsam pateretur, nutu Dei, de castro exiens, ad flument praeterfluens cucurrit, aquis gelidis se immersit, in quibus tamdiu sedit, donec fomitem ardentis libidinis restringeret. }

The nod from God perhaps saved the porter from unjust punishment for refusing his superior’s sexual solicitation. Men experiencing inappropriate or misdirected sexual desire are commonly advised to take a cold shower. That advice is just as applicable to women, as God’s nod to the lady indicates.[4]

Lacking Twitter hashtags for support, solidarity, and mobbing, medieval men suffered alone from women’s sexual harassment of them. For example, a medieval lay-brother delivered a barge of wine from his monastery to a merchant in Flanders. A maid-servant prepared a bed for him to stay overnight at his host’s house. She also prepared a bed for herself at the lay-brother’s feet. After he went to bed and the room was dark, she silently undressed. She then acted with a sense of sexual entitlement:

She reclined in the bed she had prepared, and with her nude feet pushed on the soles of the lay-brother’s feet and coughed so that he would know that she was there.

{ in lectum preaparatum se reclinavit, nudis pedibus conversi plantas pulsans, et quia ipsa foret, tusciendo se prodens. }[5]

Men can perceive women treating them like dogs. The lay-brother got up, dressed himself, and went to the window of the bedroom. There he prayed, waiting for morning to come. The naked maid-servant was stunned that he was ignoring her. Eventually she got up, got dressed, and left. Men should not have to suffer this sort of unwanted disruption to their sleep.

Caesarius of Heisterbach learning at the feet of Saint Benedict of Nursia

In addition to sexual harassment, men have also endured the penal justice system’s bias toward punishing persons with penises. Consider the medieval case of a young clerk who came to the German city of Soest. He was “tall and handsome {corpus procerus, pulcher aspectus}.” Not surprisingly, he attracted the female gaze:

A certain woman-citizen living in that city cast her eyes on him. She became so inflamed in love that she said to him: “If you will embrace me in every way, all that is mine will be yours.”

{ In hunc femina quaedam eiusdem civitatis civis oculos iniecit, adeo ab illo inflammata, ut diceret: “Si volueris meis amplexibus uti, omnia mea tua erunt.” }[6]

This high-status woman, who apparently was already married, deserves credit for taking the initiative in seeking an amorous relationship and for being willing to provide materially for a man she loved. But all her moral credit was wiped away when she wouldn’t take no for an answer:

The young man, remembering holy Joseph, despised her words and promises. When she perceived she could get nothing from him, she accused him before the judges of sexually assaulting her. He denied that charge, but he wasn’t believed. He was sent into a walled prison, the place for those condemned to death.

{ Cuius verba vel promissa cum iuvenis, memor sancti Joseph, despiceret, et illa nihil se proficere cerneret, de oppressione illum coram iudicibus accusavit. Qui cum negaret, nec ei crederetur, missus est in claustrum murorum, locum scilicet damnatorum. }

Do women need to be taught not to falsely accuse men of crimes? Teaching probably would have been futile in this case. This woman was love-crazy:

Stimulated by lust, she pretended that the clerk made her insane. She climbed the prison wall with a ladder, threw herself down, and embraced the young man. She begged him to have sex with her. But she got nothing from him.

{ Illa, stimulante luxuria, a clerico se dementatam simulans, murum cum scala ascendit, doersum se praecipitavit, iuvenem amplexatur, ad commixtionem illum sollicitans. Nec sic profecit. }

As has long been regular practice, judicial officials blamed the man:

The judges learned of this. They pulled the innocent young man from prison and sent him to be burned at the stake as if he were an evil wizard. When he was burning such that his ribs were open and his lungs could be seen, he chanted the angelic greeting, that is, “Hail Mary” and so on. All could hear it. Immediately one of the bystanders, a relative of the falsely accusing woman, snatched a burning cinder and thrust it into his mouth. She said: “I will stop these prayers of yours.” She thus suffocated him.

{ Hoc cognito iudices, extrahentes innocentem, tanquam maleficum et magum miserunt in ignem. Qui cum arderet, ita ut patentibus costis pulmo eius videretur, salutationem angelicam, id est, Ave Maria et cetera, cunctis audientibus decantavit. Mox unus de circumstantibus, mulieris cognatus, titionem ardentem arripiens, orique eius immittens, ait: “Ego auferam tibi orationes istas;” et suffocavit eum. }

An innocent young man was burned at the stake because a crazy woman was madly in love with him. As he was being burned, a bystander stuck a burning cinder into his mouth so no one could hear what he was saying. At least this medieval case wasn’t as bad as what a falsely accused man could suffer on college campuses today.

snow-covered memorial to Caesarius of Heisterbach

Men are not more evil or more intrinsically criminal than women are. Women and men have the same emotions, including sexual desire. Why then are men around the world vastly gender-disproportionately incarcerated by penal justice systems? Gender enlightenment can start with thinking about that question.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Caesarius of Heisterbach, The Dialogue on Miracles {Dialogus miraculorum} 4.101, Latin text from Strange (1851), my English translation, benefiting from that of Scott & Bland (1929). Subsequent quotes from Dialogus miraculorum are similarly sourced, with the subsequent two above from id. 4.101.

Caesarius wrote his Dialogus miraculorum about 1220. He heard the story of 4.101 in the provost’s house from a priest of the provost’s order. Moreover, Caesarius knew that priest personally.

Lovesickness was recognized as a serious illness in medieval Europe. For example, a medieval man lamented:

The fire is gathering strength and my end is near,
for death has its grip on my bones deep within me.

The fate that this emaciated body of mine forebodes
is what it claims as its own after endless wasting.

I feel the pain, excruciating pain,
my heart wounded and filled with passion,
and I struggle to drive out the seeds of love.

{ Imminet exitus igne vigente
morte medullitus ossa tenente.

Quod caro predicat haec macilenta,
hoc sibi vendicat usque perempta.

Dum mala sentio, summa malorum,
pectora saucia, plena furorum,
pellere semina nitor amorum. }

Carmina Burana 73, “With Cronus confined and locked {Clauso Cronos et serato},” stanzas 7a-8a, Latin text and English translation from Traill (2018).

[2] The novice quotes Job 7:1, with the Latin translation apparently deriving from the Septuagint: “Is not the life of man upon the earth a trial {πότερον οὐχὶ πειρατήριόν ἐστιν ὁ βίος ἀνθρώπου ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς}?” The current Vulgate for Job 7:1 is “Is not the life of man upon the earth a hard service {militia est vita hominis super terram}?” While the Vulgate was the dominant text of scripture in medieval Europe, other Latin translations also existed.

[3] Dialogus miraculorum 4.102. The lady was a noble chatelaine {chastelaine}, meaning she governed the castle. The subsequent quote above is similarly from this story. Scott & Bland (1929) bowdlerizes the translation. Caesarius of Heisterbach reports that a priest told him this story.

[4] After the chatelaine cooled herself in the river, she thanked the porter for refusing her sexual advance. She declared that now she wouldn’t accept being propositioned for sex even if she were paid 5000 marks of gold. In other words, she was thinking about being a prostitute.

Caesarius appended to this story an earthly, feminine image of God:

So does the merciful Lord, who like a merciful mother, permits her beloved child to crawl around a fire to feel well the warmth of the fire, but when the child wishes to enter the fire, she draws it back with much haste.

{ Facitque pius Dominus, ut mater pia, quae infantem dilectum circa ignem reptantem bene ignis calorem sentire permittit, sed intrare volentem cum multa festinatione retrahit. }

While Jesus was a fully masculine man, God encompasses male and female and isn’t limited to the gender binary.

[5] Dialogus miraculorum 4.100.

[6] Dialogus miraculorum 4.99. Subsequent quotes above are also from this story.

Men’s beauty, so seldom acknowledged publicly, tends to prompt women’s lust. Such was the case in England with a man appointed to preside over a convent:

He was moreover of tall stature and dignified appearance, with ruddy cheeks and cheerful eyes.

{ Erat autem staturae procerae, decorus aspectu, genas habens rudicundas, oculos laetos }

Dialogus miraculorum 4.103. A young nun of this convent often gazed upon this man. Prompted by her female gaze, she amorously propositioned him. He emphatically refused. She then said that if he wouldn’t have sex with her, she would die. In short, she claimed she was mortally lovesick. This man-leader cured her of her lovesickness by arranging a meeting in which he took off his clothes and showed her his ascetic body. It was roughened by a hair shirt, eaten with worms, and covered with sores and grime. That correction to the female gaze cured the young nun of her lovesickness.

Implicitly indicating some men’s awareness of their beauty, Caesarius included two stories disparaging men for wearing tight leather leggings. In one of the stories, the leaders of a Benedictine (Black Order) monastery in France sent a young monk from a noble, well-connected family to King Philip to complain about another noble pillaging the monastery. The young monk told the king that the noble was carrying away the monastery’s goods, leaving the monks with scarcely anything. King Philip responded:

“Truly, my lord, that is well apparent in your leggings. If that other had left you enough leather, your leggings wouldn’t be so tight. The nobler you are, the more humble you should be.” Then desiring after this reproof to please him, the king added: “You shouldn’t be burdened by my reproof, which is made for your good. Return to your monastery, and that other noble won’t trouble you any longer.”

{ “Vere, domine, hoc bene apparet in calciis vestris. Si aliquid dimississet vobis corei, non essent tam stricti. Quanto estis ceteris nobilior, tanto esse debetis humilior.” Tunc volens post correptionem illum placare, adiecit: “Non vos gravare debet correctio mea, quia ad bonum vestrum facta est. Revertimini ad claustrum vestrum, et de cetero non moestabit vos nobilis ille.” }

Dialogus miraculorum 4.12, “About Philip, King of the Franks, who reproached a black monk about tight leggings {De Philippo Rege Francorum, qui nigrum monachum ob stricta calciamenta reprehendit}.” Dialogus miraculorum 4.13 similarly has “Philip, King of the Romans {Philippus Rex Romanorum}” criticize an abbot for wearing tight leather leggings.

[images] (1) First page of a copy of Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogus Miraculorum. Folio 2r of University Library Düsseldorf, MS C 27. Source image via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Caesarius of Heisterbach (on right) as a novice learning at the feet of Benedict of Nursia (on left), a sixth-century monastic leader. Detail from folio 2r of University Library Düsseldorf, MS C 27. Source image via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Snow-covered memorial stone for Caesarius of Heisterbach. It was erected in 1897 “to recognize his importance for the local history and the knowledge of the people’s life of the Hohenstaufen time {zur Anerkennung seiner Bedeutung für die heimische Geschichte und die Kunde des Volkslebens der Hohenstauferzeit}.” Text from plaque on memorial. Source image via Wikimedia Commons. From 1199 to about 1240, Caesarius lived as a monk at the Cistercian Heisterbach Abbey. Heisterbach Abbey, founded about 1192, is in the Seiben Mountains in the North Rhine-Westphalia region of present-day Germany. All that now remains of Heisterbach Abbey is a choir cloister.


Scott, Henry von Essen and C. C. Swinton Bland, trans. 1929. Caesarius of Heisterbach. The Dialogue on Miracles. 2 vols. (vol. 1, vol. 2). London: Routledge.

Strange, Joseph, ed. 1851. Caesarius of Heisterbach. Dialogus miraculorum: textum ad quatuor codicum manuscriptorum editionisque principis fidem accurate. 2 vols. (vol. 1, vol. 2). Coloniae: J.M. Heberle.

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

4 thoughts on “gender equality & sexual harassment in medieval understanding”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current month ye@r day *