learn from Clinschor & Anfortas: ask the Holy Grail question

In ancient times, Ibert, the King of Sicily, had a lovely wife named Iblis. She had a sexual affair with Duke Clinschor of Capua. King Ibert caught the couple:

By a single cut Clinschor
was made into a capon.

{ zeim kapûn mit eime snite
wart Clinschor gemachet. }[1]

Upon hearing this story from King Arthur’s mother Arnive, Gawan responded immediately:

At these words Lord Gawan
burst out laughing.

{ des wart aldâ gelachet
von Gâwâne sêre. }

Gawan responded heartlessly. Laughing at castration, especially given entrenched anti-men gender-bias in punishment for adultery, shows no compassion for men.[2] Gawan masochistically courted the vicious Orgeluse, Duchess of Logroys. By courting her Gawan showed that he had no compassion for himself. Gawan, not surprisingly, was unable to find and honor the Holy Grail.

Parzival sees the genital wound of Grail King Anfortas

At first Parzival similarly lacked compassion for the suffering of Anfortas, the King of the Holy Grail. Violence against men often targets men’s testicles and penises. Anfortas’s brother the hermit Trevrizent explained to Parzival:

By a poisonous spear
Anfortas was wounded in a joust
so that he never regained his health.
That was your noble uncle —
pierced through his testicles.

{ mit einem gelupten sper
wart er ze tjostieren wunt,
sô daz er nimmer mêr gesunt
wart, der süeze œheim dîn,
durch die heidruose sîn. }[3]

A doctor removed the iron spearhead and a splinter of cane from Anfortas’s genital wound. Nonetheless, Anfortas remained in great pain. His wound festered like that of a college student falsely accused of raping a woman. Many herbs and ointments applied to the wound failed to ease Anfortas’s distress.[4]

A Holy Grain inscription told that if a certain man asked a question, Anfortas would be cured. All that was needed to heal the Grail King’s genital wound was for Parzival to ask, “Uncle, what afflicts you {œheim, waz wirret dier}?”[5] Despite seeing Anfortas’s great suffering, Parzival initially failed to ask such a question. Lack of compassion for men perpetuates men’s suffering under castration culture. Simply asking a question about a man’s suffering can have great effects.

Realizing the Holy Grail of a bountiful, healthful human society requires appreciating men’s penises and having compassion for men. Parzival, who became the next King of the Holy Grail, entered the world with a broad understanding of men’s gender:

Once the Queen was herself again
and took the babe, she saw plain
the dear penis between his legs and
admired him, as did every lady,
on seeing his members formed like a man.
In time he’d wield with his hand,
as a blacksmith, many a blade,
for his heart too was bravely made.
From many a helm sparks soon flew.
The Queen would kiss him tenderly,
saying, “bon fîz, cher fîz, bêâ fîz,”
“dear, fine, lovely boy,” and then
would take one red nipple again
and into his little mouth place it.
She had borne him. It was most fit
that she herself should nurse him now.
Her sex’s failings she’d disavow
and rear her child at the breast,
and this she did. As for the rest,
it was as though her prayer was met
and in her arms lay her Gahmuret.

{ dô diu küngîn sich versan
und ir kindel wider zir gewan,
si und ander frouwen
begunde betalle schouwen
zwischen beinn sîn visellîn.
er muose vil getriutet sîn,
do er hete manlîchiu lit.
er wart mit swerten sît ein smit,
vil fiwers er von helmen sluoc:
sîn herze manlîch ellen truoc.
die küngîn des geluste
daz sin vil dicke kuste.
si sprach hinz im in allen flîz
«bon fîz, scher fîz, bêâ fîz.»
Diu küngîn nam dô sunder twâl
diu rôten välwelohten mâl:
ich meine ir tüttels gränsel:
daz schoup sim in sîn vlänsel.
selbe was sîn amme
diu in truoc in ir wamme:
an ir brüste si in zôch,
die wîbes missewende vlôch.
si dûht, si hete Gahmureten
wider an ir arm erbeten. }[6]

Queen Herzeloyde longingly remembered intimate embraces with her dead husband Gahmuret, Parzival’s father. She held in her arms a child resulting from that intimate relationship. He was literally dear to her, for she had nearly died in birthing him, “who had such large limbs {der sölher lide was}.”

The description of the baby Parzival subtly emphasizes his penis. While it couldn’t be elsewhere, his penis is explicitly specified as being between his “legs {bein}.” After just one more verse, Parzival is described as having manly “limbs {lit}.” In medieval Latin, membra means limbs, including a penis. The baby Parzival is explicitly described as having large “limbs {lide}.” The word for his penis is visellîn, a diminutive of visel. That diminutive has been translated as “little penis.”[7] But Parzival has large, manly limbs. The diminutive visellîn is better translated in context as an endearing diminutive, with a bawdy allusion to penis size. This description of the baby Parzival almost surely was intended to have an erotic subtext.[8] Women delight in a man’s penis, both for the pleasure it provides and its essential role in creating children.

Long before this description of the baby Parzival, the penis commonly figured as a sword. Brutalizing representations of the penis as a weapon are deeply entrenched in literary history. Such representations have an objective correlate. In all of world literary history, the vast majority of persons killed have been persons with penises. In the medieval romance of Parzival, all the persons killed are persons with penises. Parzival, the future King of the Holy Grail, was destined to strike many blows on men’s helmeted heads. Brutalizing men’s sexuality is a symbolic counterpart to castrating men. Caring persons must ask the question: “How can we end violence against men?”

Don’t be afraid. Don’t be shamed into silence. Ask this new Holy Grail question with compassion for men.

young Parzival leaves him mother Herzeloyde

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival 657.8-9 (Bk. 13), Middle High German text from Lachmann (1833 / 1891), English translation (modified) from Edwards (2004). Subsequent quotes from Parzival are similarly sourced, unless otherwise noted. Lachmann organized Parzival into 827 sections of 30 verses, as well as into sixteen books. I specify passages as section.verse (book). The subsequent quote above is Parzival 657.10-11 (Bk. 13)

King Arthur’s mother Arnive emphasized the castration of Clinschor by describing it three times. Here are the subsequent two descriptions:

By the King’s hand Clinschor
was trimmed between his legs.
To the host it seemed that was right.
He cut him about his person
such that he was without use
in giving any woman pleasure.

{ er wart mit küneges henden
zwischenn beinn gemachet sleht.
des dûhte den wirt, ez wær sîn reht.
der besneit in an dem lîbe,
daz er decheinem wîbe
mac ze schimpfe niht gefrumn. }

Parzival 657.20-5 (Bk. 13).

For Parzival English translations freely available online, Kline (2020), Zeydel & Morgan (1951) (some passages omitted), and Weston (1894). Laura Freeburn provided a comparative Parzival translation review for Mustard & Passage (1961), Hatto (1980), and Edwards (2004), and then Kline (2020) and Weston (1894). Freely available are also a comprehensive Middle High German dictionary and a Middle High German to English dictionary.

Wolfram von Eschenbach probably wrote Parzival in the first decade of the thirteenth century. He drew extensively on Chrétien de Troyes’s late twelfth-century Old French verse romance Perceval or the Story of the Grail {Perceval ou le Conte du Graal}. Parzival became a widely known and influential work. At least eighty manuscripts of it have survived. Frescoes illustrating scenes from Parzival were made between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries in the Distaff-House {Haus zur Kunkel} in Constance {Konstanz} on the western end of Lake Constance in southern Germany.

[2] Wynn referred to the castration of Clinschor as a “phallic joke” and declared:

He {Wolfram} breaks into the gloom with the one type of joke that virtually never fails to raise a laugh, with a phallic joke. Young and old, male and female, the primitive and the sophisticated will laugh at it.

Wynn (1980) p. 64. Superbowl commercials have featured violence directed at men’s genitals. Violence against men’s genitals shouldn’t be socially constructed as a joke.

[3] Parzival 479.8-12 (Bk. 9). Anfortas, the Grail King, is a character type known more generally as the Fisher King.

[4] When his father Frimutel died, Anfortas at a young age became the Grail King. When he entered puberty, he foolishly began serving in love an unnamed lady by engaging in violence against men: “Love was his battle cry {Amor was sîn krîe}.” Parzival 478.30.

Anfortas suffered his genital wound before he married or had children. The unsuccessful treatments of his genital wound drew upon extensive knowledge of medieval medicine. Groos (1995), Ch. 6.

[5] Parzival 795.29 (Bk. 16).

[6] Parzival 112.21 – 113.14 (Bk. 2), with English translation (modified) from Kline (2020). The subsequent short quote above (“who had such large limbs”) is 112.7 (Bk. 2). This baby scene has no precedent in Chrétien de Troyes’s Perceval. It’s apparently Wolfram’s creation.

[7] The Middle High German word visel means “fiber, thin thread” in addition to “penis.” English translations of the diminutive visellîn, as Wolfram used it, are “thing,” “little penis”, “little penis,” “pizzle,” “little piddler,” and “tiny pizzle” in respectively Kline (2020) p. 105, p. Malczyk (2013) p. 138, Schultz (2006) p. 4, Edwards (2006) p. 48, Hatto (1980) p. 66, and Mustard & Passage (1961) p. 63.

Zeydel & Morgan avoided specifying the penis via periphrasis:

She and other women there
Surveyed his body everywhere
To see he really was a boy.
They fondled him with double joy
Because a little man was he.

Zeydel & Morgan (1951) p. 55.

Weston avoided specifying the penis with a general reference to “limbs”:

When the queen found sight and hearing she was fain on her child to look,
And her maidens they bore him to her and the babe in her arms she took;
And she saw his limbs soft rounded, and she knew she had born a son,
And her maidens with her were joyful that the earth had a man-child won.

Weston (1894) p. 62.

[8] On Wolfram’s bawdy scenes, Marchand (1977). Schultz truncated the context of Herzeloyde and other ladies fondly gazing upon Parzival’s penis. He tendentiously declared that Parzival’s penis lacks erotic significance in that scene:

a careful reading of Wolfram’s text shows that the penis elicits no reaction from those present at Parzival’s birth, that the caresses are unrelated to the penis, and that the “manly limbs” are part of a carefully staged argument that links the infant’s size at birth to his heroic prowess as an adult.
Parzival’s penis is not an erotic object but a rhetorical flourish. … Just a few lines after he mentions the penis, he tells us that Parzival’s mother nursed her child herself.

Schultz (2006) p. 5. Schultz, like many other scholars today, seems oblivious to the biological reality of how children are made. When Parzival’s mother Herzeloyde holds Parzival in her arms, she imagines that she has called back her husband Gahmuret into her arms. The wordplay with limbs and the explicit representations of naked female breasts underscore the erotic context.

While not criticizing Schultz’s misinterpretation, Malczyk footnoted a contrasting, much better interpretation of the scene:

This birth and breastfeeding scene, Wolfram’s own invention, proves that Herzeloyde considers Parzival to be much more than a son. Parzival is not responsible for the fact that his departure devastates her to the point of death, a reaction that suggests an abandoned lover much more than a mother.

Malczyk (2013) p. 140, n. 11.

Perhaps Schultz had imbibed too much of the nonsensical gender ideology that has plagued intellectual life in recent decades. He declared:

One hundred years after Freud we know {emphasis in original} what the penis means. But it is precisely this sort of knowingness that will get us into trouble. It causes us to eroticize the scene of Parzival’s birth because we know {emphasize in original} penises mean sex. It causes otherwise scrupulous scholars to mistranslate lines because they know {emphasize in original} that penises provoke caresses.

Schultz (2006) p. 8. In academia today, penises typically provoke hostile, pompous rhetoric such as “rule of the phallus” or “phallic hegemony.” Not to know the “rule of the phallus” or “patriarchy” is to be unclubbably ignorant. In reality, those innocent of Freud’s thinking are capable of knowing what a penis means. It’s scarcely possible, however, to utter what most persons know: penises provide pleasure and also have had an essential role in creating new human beings.

Schultz’s book testifies to Montaigne’s observation that human reason is “a vacant and rambling instrument {un instrument libre et vague}.” Only in an imaginary world could thinkers reason in the way that Schultz did:

the idea that men and women are two mutually exclusive categories is not a fact of nature. It is a cultural artifact. There is no reason, logical or evidentiary, why our sexually dimorphic bodies need to be taken as the standard against which we judge the Middle Ages. And there are good reasons to believe that the Middle Ages considered male and female bodies essentially the same.

Schultz (2006) p. 45. One might argue that these words are merely rhetorical flourishes to prompt academic amen choruses. But as rhetoric, Schultz is crudely word-working with a nature / culture ideological binary. In reality, if the Middle Ages considered male and female bodies essentially the same, why did almost all the bodies killed in battle have penises? Why was fundamental gender inequality in paternal knowledge commonly communicated in medieval stories of cuckolding? Why did elite medieval men have expected lifespans nearly ten years shorter than medieval women?

[images] (1) Parzival looking upon Anfortas’s genital wound. Illustration (detail, color modified) by Willy Pogány from Rolleston & Pogány (1912), p. 10. Alternate image. (2) Parzival leaving his mother Herzeloyde in the forest of Soltane. Image made in 1443-1446 in Diebold Lauber’s workshop in Hagenau near the German border of present-day France. Detail from folio 87r in Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 339 (part 1, part 2).


Edwards, Cyril W., trans. 2004. Wolfram von Eschenbach. Parzival and Titurel. Oxford World’s Classics (2006 edition). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Groos, Arthur. 1995. Romancing the Grail: genre, science, and quest in Wolfram’s Parzival. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Hatto, A. T., trans. 1980. Wolfram von Eschenbach. Parzival. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books.

Kline, A. S., trans. 2020. Wolfram von Eschenbach. Parzival. Poetry in Translation. Online.

Lachmann, Karl, ed. 1833. Wolfram von Eschenbach. Lieder, Parzival, Titurel, Willehalm. Berlin: G. Reimer. 5th edition (1891); alternate presentation.

Malczyk, Kathryn Ann. 2013. “A Lock upon All Conduct:” Modesty in German Courtly Literature (c. 1175-1220). Ph.D. Thesis, Germanic Languages and Literature, University of Pennsylvania. Paper 667 on the University of Pennsylvania ScholarlyCommon.

Marchand, James W. 1977. “Wolfram’s bawdy.” Monatshefte Für Deutschen Unterricht, Deutsche Sprache Und Literatur. 69 (2): 131-149.

Mustard, Helen M. and Charles E. Passage, trans. 1961. Wolfram von Eschenbach. Parzival: A Romance of the Middle Ages. New York: Vintage Books.

Rolleston, T.W., and Willy Pogány. 1912. Parsifal: or the legend of the holy grail retold from ancient sources: with acknowledgement to the “Parsifal” of Richard Wagner. London: Harrap.

Schultz, James A. 2006. Courtly Love, the Love of Courtliness, and the History of Sexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Reviews by William C. Crossgrove, by Alison More, and by Jan-Dirk Müller.

Weston, Jessie L., trans. 1894. Wolfram von Eschenbach. Parzival: A Knightly Epic. 2 vol. London: D. Nutt. Vol. 1. Vol. 2.

Wynn, Marianne. 1980. “Book 1 Of Wolfram Von Eschenbach’s Willehalm And Its Conclusion.” Medium Ævum. 49 (1): 57-65.

Zeydel, Edwin H., with Bayard Quincy Morgan, trans. 1951. The Parzival of Wolfram von Eschenbach: Translated into English Verse with Introduction, Notes, Connecting Summaries. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Alternate online presentation.

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