medieval healthcare for men too expensive

As difficult as it is to comprehend today, men suffered greatly from lovesickness for women in medieval Europe. A medieval European man declared:

Held tight by an oppressive love,
I likened myself to a bird
tied to its sweet home
that sees the heavens far away
yet refuses to cease singing —
happy to die from the effort.

{ Captus amore gravi
me parem rebar avi
sede revincte suavi,
quae procul aethra videt
nec modulando silet;
inde perire libet. }[1]

Not having realized his desired love and unable to keep it up, the man was overwhelmed with despair:

Grief, tears,
anger, fear —
all with my trembling limbs
are together brooded.

Because of grief
my way has reversed.
My singing has ceased.
Nothing is left to do but weep.

{ Dolor, fletus,
irae, metus
tremebundis artubus
simul incubuere.

Prae dolore
verso more
canticum conticuit.
Nil restat nisi flere. }

Apparently lacking sufficient money to procure needed healthcare, he complained to the woman he loved: “You are devoted to profit {effluis in meritum}.”[2] Healthcare shouldn’t be a matter of profit. Healthcare for men and women is a human right. Nonetheless, just as is the case today, many men in medieval Europe lacked needed healthcare.

Some medieval men were able to overcome their lovesickness with treatment. One, apparently a grammarian, explained:

Because of love’s stress
I’ve been taking a doctor’s treatment
meant for a person in love.
My heart burns within,
my mind, once pure, now languishes.
I also suffer outwardly
according to the laws of nature.

If I desire to be healed
or to prolong my life,
I should hurry with firm steps
to meet with Corinna,
who can give me hope
if I seek her favor.
Thus I seek to be made well.

{ Ob amoris pressuram
medentis gero curam
amanti valituram.
Cor aestuat interius,
languet mens quondam pura,
affligor et exterius
propter nature iura.

Si cupio sanari
aut vitam prolongari,
festinem gressu pari
ad Corinnae presentiam,
de qua potest spes dari,
eius quaerendo gratiam:
Sic quaero reformari. }[3]

Corinna was an excellent men’s healthcare provider:

Her appearance is without flaw.
Nothing vile is heard from her.
Her looks smile.
But even more delightful than this
is the spot covered by her dress.
Here a man lodges better
not lying down, but staying erect.

If I were to recline there,
I would decline through all the parts,
I would render them case by case,
For present or past
time, I would have no regard,
but toward the reward for my labors
I would go faster and faster.

{ Non in visu defectus,
auditus nec abiectus;
eius ridet aspectus.
Sed et istis iocundius
locus sub veste tectus;
in hoc declinat melius
non obliquus, sed rectus.

Ubi si recubarem,
per partes declinarem,
casum pro casu darem;
nec praesens nec praeteritum
tempus considerarem,
sed ad laboris meritum
magis accelerarem. }

Corinna apparently provided treatment to this grammarian for free. She was a warm-hearted, caring woman, like the stereotype of nurses of old.

Other medieval men exhausted all their resources in paying for healthcare. For example, one medieval man, after drinking heavily, entered a building in which multiple women healthcare providers worked. He wore expensive clothes and carried a full purse. He declared to the receptionist:

“I stand before you wounded internally and externally
by an arrow of Venus. I have carried a shaft in my heart
from the time I was born, and I am not yet healed.
I have come here secretly to be set free.

I beg you repeatedly, young woman thrice blessed,
to take as my envoy this message to Venus.”
She, moved by my requests and my insistent begging,
conveyed to Venus the intended message:

“You, the divine salvation of all who are wounded,
the all-powerful queen of sweet love,
strive with your medicine to take care
of a sick young man, and please hurry!”

{ “Intus et exterius asto vulneratus
a sagitta Veneris. Ex quo fui natus,
telum fero pectoris nondum medicatus,
cursu veni tacito, quo sim liberatus.

Incessanter rogo te, virgo tu beata,
ut haec verba Veneri nunties legata.”
Ipsa, mota precibus, fortiter rogata,
nuntiavit Veneri verba destinata:

“Sauciorum omnium salus o divina,
quae es dulcis praepotens amoris regina,
aegrum quendam iuvenem tua medicina
procurare studeas, obsecro, festina!” }[4]

The woman physician responded as many physicians working in group practice do:

“You are most welcome, my charming young man,” she said.
“You will make a most suitable member of my group.
If you give money of good coinage,
you will be counseled to perfect health.”

{ “Bene,” inquit, “veneris, noster o dilecte
iuvenis! Aptissime sodes nostre secte.
si tu das denarios monete electe,
dabitur consilium salutis perfecte.” }

Desperate persons will pay anything for needed healthcare:

“Here is my purse, full of coins,” I said.
“I’ll give you all of it, holy Venus.
If you give me counsel that will put me at ease,
I’ll venerate your group forever!”

{ “Ecce,” dixi, “loculus extat nummis plenus.
totum quippe tribuam tibi, sacra Venus.
si tu das consilium, ut sat sim serenus,
tuum in perpetuum venerabor genus.” }

According to the patient, before the actual treatment began, “we had a sophisticated discussion of many topics {plura pertractavimus sermone polito}.” The treatment itself was lengthy:

The mother of love took off her clothes
so as to display flesh of snow-white beauty.
Laying her on the little bed, for almost ten hours
I relieved the frenzy of my feverish pain.

{ Exuit se vestibus genitrix Amoris,
carnes ut ostenderet nivei decoris.
sternens eam lectulo fere decem horis
mitigavi rabiem febrici doloris. }

Afterwards they had a bath, and the man felt fully cured. He now felt enormously hungry. He therefore purchased a lavish meal.

One doctor’s visit often leads to another, and one treatment to more treatments. So it was for this young man:

For three months, I think, I remained with her.
I went there with a full purse, a rich man.
Now as I leave Venus, I have been relieved
of my money and clothes. Hence I’m impoverished.

{ Tribus, reor, mensibus secum sum moratus.
Plenum ferens loculum ivi vir ornatus,
recedens a Venere sum nunc allevatus
nummis atque vestibus sic sum pauperatus. }

Poverty is significantly correlated with health problems. Healthcare that makes a man impoverished is poor healthcare.

An older medieval cleric regretted frequenting healthcare workers as a young university professor. Rather than seeking medicine, he resolved to lead a healthful life:

Not beyond merit
will I consign myself
to a violent death,
if to the vomit
I’ve thrown up
I return.
Nor from harsh words
have I freed myself,
if like a slave I serve
the cesspool of vice.

From my former way
I’m changing
my track.
I refuse
to travel Venus’s
The royal road
speeds one in safety.
He who takes a different path
always finds himself in filth.

{ Praeter meritum
me neci
non dedero,
si ad vomitum,
quem ieci,
Nec a verbo aspero
liberum me feci,
servus si serviero
vitiorum faeci.

Viae veteris
Ire Veneris
per devia.
Via namque regia
curritur in tuto;
si quis cedit alia,
semper est in luto. }[5]

This poem isn’t literally medieval anti-medical satire. It’s a man’s confession, a declaration of his intention to lead a better life, and a plea for God’s mercy. Jesus, who wasn’t afraid to be associated with Mary Magdalene, has long been regarded as a good physician. Men suffering from lovesickness might seek Jesus to make them well.

Medieval Christians regarded lovesickness as a real disease. They appreciated love in the flesh. Without embarrassment or shame they could mix poetry about men paying for prostitutes with poems declaring God’s love for humanity.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Carmina Burana 52: “Held tight by an oppressive love {Captus amore gravi},” stanza 1, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018). Subsequent quotes from the Carmina Burana are similarly sourced. The subsequent one above is “Captus amore gravi,” stanzas 8a-8b.

[2] “Captus amore gravi,” 4.1. Angry at the price she demanded to cure him, he declared:

Prostitution has rightly
been punished with the gallows!

{ Prostibulum patibulo
iam meruit piari. }

Id. 10.3-4. The man petitioned Venus for justice:

Remove this vampire
and end the strife she causes.

{ Tu lamiam intercipe
eiusque rixas opprime. }

Id. 16.5-6.

[3] Carmina Burana 164, “Because of love’s stress {Ob amoris pressuram},” stanzas 1-2. The subsequent quote above is id., stanzas 4-5 (of 5).

[4] Carmina Burana 76, “As I turned away from the inn, after overindulging in wine {Dum caupona verterem vino debachatus},” stanzas 6-8. The subsequent five quotes above are id., stanzas 12, 13, 16.4 (single verse), 17, and 21 (of 22).

[5] Carmina Burana 31, probably by Philip the Chancellor, “Of a decadent life {Vitae perditae / Vite perdite},” stanzas 6-7. For a dog returning to its vomit, Proverbs 26:11. For keeping to the royal road, Numbers 21:22. This poem engages in sophisticated biblical exegesis. Traill (2007) pp. 335-41, as well using an allusion to Cato set forth in Horace’s Satires 1.2.

An influential medieval scholar declared:

some women and queers become ethically heroic by staying true to their desire, traversing the fantasy, triumphantly challenging the symbolic order by refusing to give up on their desire, however inappropriate this may seem.

Gaunt (2006) p. 210. While not generally regarded as ethically heroic, some medieval men stayed true to their desire by patronizing prostitutes. The medieval knight Ignaure remained true to his desire by simultaneously committing adultery with twelve high-born ladies. Ignaure was killed and castrated for being true to his desire. That’s ethically despicable. Nonetheless, medieval scholars, like modern lawmakers, show no concern about sexual constraints on heterosexual men.

[image] Oni Wytars Ensemble performing Carmina Burana 31, “Vite perdite,” from 2002 album, Carmina Burana (Medieval Poems and Songs). Via YouTube.


Gaunt, Simon. 2006. Love and Death in Medieval French and Occitan Courtly Literature: martyrs to love. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Traill, David A. 2007. “Biblical Exegesis and Medieval Latin Lyric: Interpretational Problems in Nutante mundi cardine, Relegentur ab area and Vite Perdite.” The Journal of Medieval Latin. 17: 329-341.

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

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