why the world is sinking: a medieval view

In Europe in the twelfth century, an author lamented the state of the world. His particular concern was “the narrow paths of generosity {largitatis semitas}”:

The old ways have passed, traditional values are perishing.
Values more wretched and wicked have grown.
No one is my friend, everyone is her own friend.
Not Saturn rules now, but Louis VII.

Thus the world is sinking. No one sustains it.
It runs, it falls, it collapses. Who defends it?
No one now frequents the narrow paths of generosity.
No one represents the demanding role of a generous man.

I see, however, one form of generosity
that you clerics especially pour out in sacrifice.
I will proclaim it candidly, if you remain silent,
if with patience you will sustain my speech.

{ Transierunt vetera, perit mos antiquus;
inolevit nequior mos et plus iniquus.
Nemo meus, quilibet suus est amicus;
non Saturnus regnat nunc, immo Ludowicus.

Mundus ergo labitur, nullus hunc sustentat.
Currit, cadit, corruit, quis eum retentat?
Largitatis semitas nemo iam frequentat.
Actus largi strenuos nemo representat.

Unam tamen video formam largitatis,
quam vos specialiter, clerici, libatis.
Hanc edicam nudius, si vos sileatis,
si cum patientia me sustineatis. }[1]

Back in medieval times, everyone didn’t cower in fear of offensive speech. Candid words were often eagerly sought. Someone wanted to hear why the world is sinking:

Someone will say: “Tell all! What is it that you are saying?”
I will say: “Your Thais receives your generous gifts,
the Thais famous at the baths at Cumae and at Baiae,
the plague of Troy and the bane of the Greeks.

When naked, coupling with a naked partner for a gift,
with hand, tongue, and lips she strokes, licks, and anoints,
so that Venus rubs, tickles, and nips him all over.
Thais so drains her Pamphilus twice.

There is, however, a man who hates Thais like a corpse,
who warily shields himself from her as from a wild beast,
but while this Ganymede-lover plows his boy,
his penis with equal prong gnaws at his purse.”

{ Dicet quis: “Enuclea! Quid est hoc, quod ais?”
Dicam: “Larga munera vestra sentit Thais,
Thais illa celebris thermis, Cumis, Baiis,
illa Troiae pestilens et damnosa Grais.

Haec dum nudo nudam se propter hoc iniungit,
manu, lingua, labiis palpat, lingit, ungit;
at Venus medullitus scalpit, prurit, pungit:
Pamphilum dupliciter sic Thais emungit.

Tamen est, qui Thaidem ut cadaver odit,
ab hac ut a bestia cavens se custodit;
sed dum Ganymedicus pusionem fodit,
inguen ei loculos pari dente rodit.” }

In short, the world is sinking because sex is being commercialized. Jews, Christians, and Muslims traditionally have understood God’s blessing to be seminal generosity and fruitfulness in a relationship of love.[2] That’s not like sex with a prostitute.

In the mundane world, economics affects everything. An unmarried American man confronted with unplanned parenthood potentially faces at least eighteen years of giving up about one-third of his pre-tax income in “child support” payments. Some men in such circumstances urgently seek to persuade their girlfriends to have abortions. That’s horrible, but economically understandable.

Consider another case of sex economics. A medieval woman accused her boyfriend of dishonoring her. He vehemently asserted a limit to what he would do for money:

Why does my mistress hold me as suspect?
Why are the looks she directs at me so grim?
I testify before heaven and its heavenly beings
that of the crimes she fears I have no knowledge.
My lady is wrong toward me!

Sooner will the sky gleam white with crops,
the air bear elms loaded with vines,
the sea provide wild animals for the hunt,
than will I join the citizens of Sodom.
My lady is wrong toward me!

Though a tyrant may make me many promises,
and grave poverty oppress me,
I am nonetheless not the kind to prefer
what is profitable to what is right.
My lady is wrong toward me!

Happy with natural sex,
I didn’t learn the passive role, but the active one.
I prefer to live clean and poor
than to exist defiled and rich.
My lady is wrong toward me!

{ Cur suspectum me tenet domina?
Cur tam torva sunt in me lumina?
Testor caelum caelique numina:
quae veretur, non novi crimina.
Tort a vers mei ma dama!

Caelum prius candebit messibus,
feret aer ulmos cum vitibus,
dabit mare feras venantibus,
quam Sodomae me iungam civibus.
Tort a vers mei ma dama!

Licet multa tyrannus spondeat
et me gravis paupertas urgeat,
non sum tamen, cui plus placeat
id, quod prosit, quam quod conveniat.
Tort a vers mei ma dama!

Naturali contentus Venere
non didici pati, sed agere.
Malo mundus et pauper vivere
quam pollutus dives existere.
Tort a vers mei ma dama! }[3]

In short, the boyfriend declared that he wouldn’t work as a male prostitute serving men. Not all persons have the all-encompassing sex-work ethic of Empress Theodora. Nonetheless, economic incentives for men to have sex with men rightly raise women’s suspicions.

world sinking into darkness

Today, some think that the world is sinking because of intensifying, elite status competition and ordinary persons’ demoralization and declining willingness to work. Suppose that everyone — from a religiously New Yorker reading elite Iowa woman to a Hispanic trash-collecting man in Manhattan — most fundamentally seek to love and be loved through the specific circumstances of their mundane lives. Under that assumption, propitious circumstances for meaningful sacrifice and loving generosity keep the world afloat.

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[1] Carmina Burana 226, “The world has often undergone various changes {Mundus est in varium saepe variatus / Mundus est in varium sepe variatus},” stanzas 2, 5, and 6, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018). Immediately preceding this poem is the rubric: “The state of the world {De mundi statu}.” The subsequent quote above is similarly stanzas 7-9.

Louis VII was King of the Franks from 1138 to 1180. Traill suggests that Louis VII is the ruler referenced only as “Louis {Ludowicus}” in stanza 2. Id. vol. 2, p. 711, note to 2.4. I’ve included the specification “VII” to make clearer the specificity of the reference.

[2] See, e.g. Genesis 22:15-8, Isaiah 54:5, Ezekiel 16:8-14.

[3] Carmina Burana 95, “Why does my mistress hold me as suspect {Cur suspectum me tenet domina}?” stanzas 1-4, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018).

[image] Earth sinking into darkness. Detail of photo called Earthrise. Source photo taken on December 24, 1968 by William Anders from lunar orbit during the NASA Apollo 8 mission. Via Wikimedia Commons.


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

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