medieval men’s sensitivity to sensuous impressions

A medieval man was walking while engaged in deep thought, as men often do. Men tend to think more than they talk. But medieval men kept their eyes open and gazed about them. That’s prudent. Otherwise a man could bump into a tree or fall into a hole. Yet being aware of the physical forms of trees and holes can trouble men. For example, Serlo of Wilton in twelfth-century Europe noted:

While I’m thinking, while I’m going alone, I perceive three young women.
I marvel and receive new matter for my thinking.

{ Dum studeo, dum solus eo, tres cerno puellas.
Opstupeo, studioque meo res addo novellas. }[1]

About the sixth century, another man had a similar experience:

While I was walking
and thinking deeply,
I heard a bird chattering,
and at once all my grief
and sighing ceased.

{ Dum ivi ambolare
et bene cogetare
audivi avem adcladtire,
et cessed myhy inde
dolere, suspirare. }[2]

Medieval men did not walk around staring into their mobile phones. Medieval men were sensuously alive.

Medieval men ardently loved the real presence of flesh-and-blood women. Early in the thirteenth century, a young man contrasted himself with old men and declared:

While I’m this age,
while I have a fervent heart,
while fire burns in my
body, I will always love!
When I congeal with natural
coldness, then I’ll cease.

{ Dum sum in hoc tempore,
dum fervesco pectore,
dum ignis in corpore
calet, semper amabo!
naturali frigore
congelatus, cessabo. }[3]

This young man might call out, “Hey good-looking, what’s cooking?” That’s crude. Today such doggerel would be considered sexual harassment. Men must be more poetically sophisticated.

Older men tend to rely more on thought and hope against experience. As the male body weakens, the male gaze intensifies:

My eyes delight in her upon whom they look.
I desire with my mind what I see with my eyes.
My eyes holding onto you guide you in every street.
Whatever places hold you, my eyes behold you.
Constantly seeing you, my eyes will lead you to me.

{ In qua delectant illam mea lumina spectant,
Mente quod affecto mentis quoque lumine specto.
Qui tenet omni te vico ducunt oculi te,
Lumina spectant te quiccumque loci teneant te;
In me ducent te que lumina fixa vident te. }[4]

Poetry of love persuasion was pushed to an astonishing height in medieval Europe. Then and there, a man sought to entice a young woman to love. He said to her:

I want you, you alone. I would want that you want what I want.
In you there is no fault, except that you don’t love.
I believe that she who knows nothing of love is worth nothing.
I beg you, perceive who I am, who you are, what is right for both of us,
what love itself demands in a place without witnesses.
Why is uprightness given to men and beauty to young women?
It’s such that courage would be given to women, and charm to men.
Whoever doesn’t know how honey tastes cannot judge honey, yet
she who has seized it once would always want to seize it.
Do you know what love is? If so, you’d never cease loving.
You don’t know? So it’s bitter. Begin, it will be sweet!
That which Nature has commanded is a crime to refuse.
Whatever you do with your life is either a crime or love.

{ Te volo, te solam, quam volo velle velim.
In te turpe nichil, nisi quod nil diligis. Illam
Credo valere nichil que scit amare nichil.
Cerne, precor, quis sim, quid sis, quid utrumque deceret,
Quid sibi poscit Amor, quod sine teste locus.
Cur probitas maribus, cur virginibus data forma? —
Ut valor [h]os illis, ut decor has det eis.
Qui nescit quid mel sapiat, non mel probat, imo
Qui semel hoc tetigit tangere sepe velit.
Nosti quid sit amor? — sic non desistis amare.
Nescis? — sic acidus. Incipe, dulcis erit!
Quod Natura iubet fieri, scelus hoc renuisse;
Quicquid agis vite vel scelus est vel amor. }[5]

That loving speech wasn’t persuasive enough. Many medieval women heard speeches such as this many times. They become strong, independent women. Some became celibate religious women and even leaders of convents of religious women like the very learned Hildegard of Bingen.

Sensitive to the world about them, medieval men lacking spiritual strength suffered inner turmoil. They constantly endured sexually harassment from seeing beauties in the world about them. In response, some medieval men surrendered their minds to their desires as if to the Lord, the God of all:

Spare me, love-desire!
I give you the reins.
Burn me less!

O gods, where I am led?
That which I earlier hated
is now my intense concern.

What I approved, I now spurn.
What to me I discern as
harmful, I now seek.

This is my way of life.
I fear the action
that I hope will occur.

{ Parce, Cupido!
lora tibi do,
me minus ure!

Quo feror, o di? —
que prius odi
sunt mihi cure.

Que probo, sperno,
que mihi cerno
noxia, quero:

Hunc gero morem,
qui timeo rem
quam fore spero. }[6]

Such a surrender seems to be looming for those humans who remain alive to external reality. Love-desire might triumph in glitter and gold:

All will fear you. Stretching their arms towards you,
the crowd will cry “hurrah for the triumph”!
You’ll have your flattering followers Delusion and Passion,
the continual crew that follows at your side.
With these troops you overcome men and gods.
Take away their advantage and you’re barren.
Proudly your mother will applaud your triumph
from high Olympus and scatter roses over your head.
You, with jeweled wings, jewels spangling your hair,
will ride in a golden chariot, yourself all golden.

{ Omnia te metuent; ad te sua bracchia tendens
Vulgus ‘io’ magna voce ‘triumphe!’ canet.
Blanditiae comites tibi erunt Errorque Furorque,
Adsidue partes turba secuta tuas.
His tu militibus superas hominesque deosque;
Haec tibi si demas commoda, nudus eris.
Laeta triumphanti de summo mater Olympo
Plaudet et adpositas sparget in ora rosas.
Tu pinnas gemma, gemma variante capillos
Ibis in auratis aureus ipse rotis. }[7]

However, about two millennia ago, the renegade Paul of Tarsus perceived a different way in response to similar inner turmoil:

I do not understand my own actions. I don’t do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate. Now if I do what I don’t want, I with my mind agree with divine law. That is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good begins within me, that is, within my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.

{ ὃ γὰρ κατεργάζομαι οὐ γινώσκω οὐ γὰρ ὃ θέλω τοῦτο πράσσω ἀλλ᾽ ὃ μισῶ τοῦτο ποιῶ εἰ δὲ ὃ οὐ θέλω τοῦτο ποιῶ σύμφημι τῷ νόμῳ ὅτι καλός νυνὶ δὲ οὐκέτι ἐγὼ κατεργάζομαι αὐτὸ ἀλλὰ ἡ οἰκοῦσα ἐν ἐμοὶ ἁμαρτία οἶδα γὰρ ὅτι οὐκ οἰκεῖ ἐν ἐμοί τοῦτ᾽ ἔστιν ἐν τῇ σαρκί μου ἀγαθόν τὸ γὰρ θέλειν παράκειταί μοι τὸ δὲ κατεργάζεσθαι τὸ καλὸν οὔ οὐ γὰρ ὃ θέλω ποιῶ ἀγαθόν ἀλλὰ ὃ οὐ θέλω κακὸν τοῦτο πράσσω }[8]

Even as he did evil, Paul miraculously remained able to distinguish between good and evil. He wasn’t merely a rationalizing animal. A new understanding of forgiveness was available to those with Christian self-consciousness like Paul. Men sensuously alive have an alternative to surrendering to love-desire. They can strive to become spiritually stronger.

Men sensitive to the flesh-and-blood beauty of human beings deserve women’s help in becoming spiritually strong. Caring women might arrange their appearance so as not to lead men into temptation. Other caring women might create spiritual exercises for men by wearing see-through silk clothes like women in ancient Rome did, or by wearing yoga tights or short-shorts and tops that reveal belly buttons. Intellectually oriented women might reason about love and sex with men who are romantically simple. Concerned women could strive to improve healthcare for men. Warm-hearted women might act directly to prevent men from dying of lovesickness. Women can help ardently women-loving men in many ways. It all starts with asking: “What have I done today to help men who cannot help themselves in their love for women?”

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[1] Serlo of Wilton, Epigram, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Dronke (1965) vol. 2, p. 507. This poem is from folio 63r of the twelfth-century manuscript Paris, BnF lat. 6765. Here’s an alternate English translation.

Dante’s poem “Three women have come around my heart {Tre donne intorno al cor mi son venute}” concerns female personifications of divine, natural, and civic justice. “Dum studeo, dum solus eo, tres cerno puellas” seems to me about the sensuous impression that a man receives from three flesh-and-blood women.

[2] Poem written in a Merovingian hand in the bottom margin of folio 71v in the Lyon Psalter: Lyon, Bibliothèque de la Ville 425 (351), also denoted VL 421. Latin text and English translation (modified) from Dronke (1965) vol. 1, p. 220. The Lyon Psalter was written in the fifth or sixth century GC.

[3] “First I choose my women {Primo quasdam eligo},” vv. 19-24 (of 24), Latin text from Dronke (1965) vol. 2, pp. 366-7, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. This poem is from folio 131v of Firenze, Laurenziana Edil. 197, written in the beginning of the thirteenth century.

[4] Poem on folio 15v of Oxford, Digby 53, written toward the end of the twelfth century. Latin text and English translation (modified) from Dronke (1965) vol. 2, pp. 511-2. Dronke included this poem among Serlonian verse. It’s not included in Öberg (1965).

[5] Serlo of Wilton, “A certain night, in a certain place, I was with a certain young woman {Quadam nocte, loco quodam, cum virgine quadam},” vv. 8-20, Latin text from Dronke (1965) vol. 2, pp. 505-6, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. This poem plays upon Ovid, Loves {Amores} 1.5.

[6] Serlo of Wilton, complete poem, Latin text from Dronke (1965) vol. 2, p. 509, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. Surrendering to love can become surrendering to being subordinate to a woman:

Who made you, love, so fierce and bold?
Who gave you power so immense
that you should conquer young and old,
and wisdom offers no defense?
Well, I thank God because, at last,
your chains (which I have known so well) now bind me fast
to one whom I adore and praise.
I’ll never more be free, so grant me, queen, this favor,
that I may serve you all my days.

{ Wer gab dir, Minne, die Gewalt,
Daß du so allgewaltig bist?
Du zwingest beide, Jung und Alt,
Dagegen gibt es keine List.
Ich lobe Gott, seit deine Band’
Mich sollen fesseln, seit so recht ich hab’ erkannt,
Wo treuer Dienst sei an der Zeit.
Da weich’ ich niemals ab: o Gnade, Königinne,
laß sein mein Leben dir geweiht! }

Walther von der Vogelweide, writing probably between 1205 and 1220, complete poem, Middle High German text from Pannier (1876) p. 43, English translation (one punctuation point modified) from Thomas (1963) p. 16. Ulrich von Liechtenstein shows an endpoint of such gender subservience. Here are alternate Middle High German versions of this song, and Emily Ezust’s alternate English translation of the above Middle High German version.

[7] Ovid, Loves {Amores} 1.2, Latin text of Ehwald (1907) Teubner edition, English translation (modified) by A. S. Kline. Here’s an alternate literal English translation.

[8] Romans 7:15-20, Greek text via BlueLetterBible, English text ESV (modified insubstantially).

[images] (1) Medieval man in thought. Illustration from Codex Manesse, made between 1305 and 1315. Manuscript preserved as UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, folio 76v. Thanks to University of Hiedelberg and Wikimedia Commons. (2) Poem “Dum myhy ambolare …” written on the bottom margin of folio 71v in the Lyon Psalter: Lyon, Bibliothèque de la Ville 425 (351), also denoted VL 421. Vollman and Dronke emend “myhy” to “ivi.” Everyone should be grateful for all the work that has brought this ancient poem to us and that enables us to read it in English translation.


Dronke, Peter. 1965. Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric. 2 vols. Vol. 1Vol. 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Öberg, Jan, ed. 1965. Serlon de Wilton: Poèmes Latins. Stockholm: Almqvist och Wiksell. Table of poems.

Pannier, Karl, ed. 1876. Sämmtliche Gedichte: aus dem Mittelhochdeutschen übertragen, mit Einleitung und Anmerkungen versehen. Leipzig: Philipp Reclam.

Thomas, John Wesley. 1963. German Verse from the 12th to the 20th Century in English Translation. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

wizard Merlin’s virgin conception in literary history

Women have long dreamed of beloved men. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain {Historia regum Britanniae}, which he wrote about 1138, the wizard Merlin was born of a woman who never had sex with a flesh-and-blood man. The sage Maugantius suggested to the British king Vortigern that Merlin’s mother had coupled with a daemon. Fear of such couplings subsequently contributed to burning men as witches across medieval and early-modern Europe. The rich literary history of poignantly dreaming of a beloved became a nightmare.

In a poem written about 2,500 years ago, a young woman dreamed of her beloved man. She longed for his left hand to cradle her head and his right hand to embrace her waist. She yearned to drink his kisses and taste his fruit:

I slept, but my heart was awake. A sound! My beloved is knocking. “Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one, for my head is wet with dew, my hair with the drops of the night.” I had put off my garment. How could I put it on? I had bathed my feet. How could I soil them? My beloved put his hand to the door-latch, and my heart thrilled within me. I arose to open to my beloved. My hands with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, dripped on the handles of the bolt. I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and left. My soul failed me when he spoke. I sought him, but I didn’t find him. I called to him, but he gave no answer. [1]

{ אני ישנה ולבי ער קול דודי דופק פתחי־לי אחתי רעיתי יונתי תמתי שראשי נמלא־טל קוצותי רסיסי לילה׃
פשטתי את־כתנתי איככה אלבשנה רחצתי את־רגלי איככה אטנפם׃
דודי שלח ידו מן־החר ומעי המו עליו׃
קמתי אני לפתח לדודי וידי נטפו־מור ואצבעתי מור עבר על כפות המנעול׃
פתחתי אני לדודי ודודי חמק עבר נפשי יצאה בדברו בקשתיהו ולא מצאתיהו קראתיו ולא ענני׃ }

The woman not wanting to put her garment back on and not wanting to place her clean feet on the dirty floor are realistic details. She arose from bed nonetheless when she heard her beloved’s hand on the door-latch. Perhaps without putting her garment on, she went to the door to greet him. Her dream didn’t end, but her beloved vanished. Her dream apparently became contaminated with reality. Her beloved actually was not of this world.

Another dream drama occurs in a poem from late in the tenth century. This dream has less realistically described circumstances, but reality similarly contaminates the dream:

The sun departed with his voyage done.
His sister the moon rode her chariots freely,
shedding her beams in woodland springs,
stirring wild beasts to fill their gaping mouths.
Mortal humans yielded their limbs to sleep.

The time was April, which just passed.
An image of my faithful love stood before me,
calling softly, he touched me gently.
His voice, weighed down with tears, failed.
Through his sighing he was unable to speak.

At his touch I trembled too much,
I leaped from the earth as if in fright,
I extended my arms and pressed his body to mine.
Wholly drained of blood I inwardly froze —
he had vanished! I had retained nothing!

Fully free of sleep I cried out loudly:
“Please, tell me, where are you fleeing? Why so swiftly?
Halt your step! If you wish, I’ll enter by your side,
since I want to live with you forever!”
Soon it grieved me that I had spoken this way.

The windows above were open.
The moon’s rays glistened in their beauty.
Ah me. Ah made wretched. I grieved so long.
Down my cheeks flowed streams of tears
never ceasing until the next day.

{ Foebus abierat subtractis cursibus:
equitabat soror effrenis curribus,
radios inferens silvanis fontibus,
agitando feras pro suis rictibus.
Mortales dederant menbra soporibus.

Aprilis tempore quod nuper transiit
fidelis imago coram me adstitit,
me vocans dulciter pauxillum tetigit:
oppresa lacrimis vox eius deficit,
suspirans etenim loqui non valuit.

Illius a tactu nimis intremui,
velud exterrita sursum insilui,
extensis brachiis corpus applicui,
exsanguis penitus tota derigui —
evanuit enim! nichil retinui!

Sopore libera exclamo fortiter;
“quo fugis, amabo? Cur tam celeriter?
Siste gradum, si vis inibo pariter,
nam tecum vivere volo perhenniter!”
Mox me penituit dixisse taliter.

Aperte fuerant fenestre solii,
fulgebant pulcriter Diane radii —
heu me, heu miseram! Tam diu dolui,
fluxerunt per genas ploratus rivuli;
donec in crastinum nunquam abstinui. }[2]

A new morning dried the tears from this woman’s dream encounter with her beloved. He was in the celestial realm. She grieved that she had wanted to go to that world with him. No one with Christian appreciation for the fullness of life should forsake in a dream the gift of a forthcoming new day here on earth.

A man in a thirteenth-century poem peevishly declared that the woman he loved used secret magic to control his dreams. He knew that his dreams weren’t real, but false images nonetheless troubled him:

She knows secret magic
and is before my eyes day and night
just as if I saw her.
She’s close to me when I sleep.
But if I were to put my arms around her
in the manner of love,
it would all turn out to be a fraud
that deceives me while I’m sleeping
and lies to me in my hope for love.
This has given me gray hair.

{ Si chan zouberliste tougen,
si ist mir tag und naht vor minen ougen,
dem gelich sam ich si seh.
si ist mir in dem slaffe nahen.
sold ich si mit armen umbevahen
und daz minnechlich geschech,
daz ist allez ein getroch,
daz mich in dem slaffe triuget
und mir in dem lieben wane liuget,
da von han ich grawen loch. }[3]

His dreams have real effect in giving him grey hair. That’s worse than a dream revealing the actual absence of a beloved.

Merlin's virgin mother gets pregnant by a daemon-incubus

Through a dream encounter made fruitful in Historia regum Britanniae, a virgin gave birth to the human-like wizard Merlin. Merlin’s mother was the daughter of the King of Demetia. She lived as a nun in a city church of Saint Peter. She thus wasn’t a woman of low estate. She also wasn’t innocent of fleshly desire. She explained to King Vortigern:

By your living soul and my living soul, my lord king, I knew no man who fathered this child of mine. One thing, however, I do know. When my convent sisters and I were in our bedrooms, someone resembling a handsome young man used to appear to me very often. He would hold me tightly in his arms and kiss me. After remaining with me for a while, he would suddenly disappear from my sight. Often while I sat alone he would talk to me without appearing. He visited me in this way for a long time. He often in the form of a man had sex with me, and he left me full in my womb. You should know in your wisdom, my lord, that in no other way have I known a man who could have been this young man’s father.

{ Vivit anima tua et anima mea, domine mi rex, quia neminem agnovi qui illum in me generaverit. Unum autem scio, quod cum essem inter consocias meas in thalamis nostris apparebat michi quidam in specie pulcherrimi juvenis et saepissime amplectens me strictis brachiis deosculabatur. Et cum aliquantulum mecum moram fecisset, subito evanescebat ita ut nihil ex eo viderem. Multociens quoque me alloquebatur dum secreto sederem nec usquam comparebat. Cumque diu me in hunc modum frequentasset, coivit mecum in specie hominis saepius atque gravidam in alvo deseruit. Sciat prudentia tua, domine mi, quod aliter virum non agnovi qui juvenem istum generavit. }[4]

Vortigern asked his sage Maugantius if such fathering could occur. Maugantius responded:

In the books of our philosophers and in very many histories I have found that many persons have been born in this way. As Apuleius records in About the god of Socrates {De deo Socratis}, between the moon and the earth live spirits whom we call daemons-incubi. They are part human and part angel. They take on human form at will and sleep with women. Perhaps it was one of them who appeared to this woman and himself fathered this youth.

{ In libris philosophorum nostrorum, et in plurimis historiis reperi multos homines hujusmodi procreationem habuisse. Nam ut Apulegius de deo Socratis perhibet, inter lunam et terram habitant spiritus quos incubos daemones appellamus. Hii partim habent naturam hominum, partim vero angelorum, et cum volunt assumunt sibi humanas figuras et cum mulieribus coeunt. Forsitan unus ex eis huic mulieri apparuit et juvenem istum in ipsa generavit. }[5]

In De deo Socratis, Apuleius characterized daemons as benign, emotional beings. Hence they plausibly would love women. Apuleius, however, said nothing about daemons having sex with women and fathering children with them.[6] Unlike the Holy Spirit who fathered Jesus, Merlin’s spirit-father had no recognized, enduring identity. Merlin’s conception in Historia regum Britanniae differs from the Virgin Mary’s conception of Jesus in poetically regular ways. In depicting Merlin’s virgin conception, Geoffrey of Monmouth made historically eventful earlier poetic dream encounters with a vanishing beloved.

Neither Merlin’s mother nor Maugantius nor King Vortigern maligned the man-spirit who had sex with her. Not tainted by his conception, Merlin was merely disadvantaged in not having a worldly father to care for him. He nonetheless became a powerful wizard. He uttered all-encompassing prophecies, transported Stonehenge from Ireland to Britain, and facilitated the conception of the great British king Arthur. A woman’s dream of a man loving her produced a wizard who did extraordinary deeds in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history.

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history didn’t form the main stream of European history. Apuleius’s daemons became demons. The incubus became an agent of evil. With the same mentality that prompted the Mann Act in early twentieth-century America, medieval European leaders stoked fear of demonic men seducing women. In early modern Europe, about 25% of persons charged as witches were men. Embracing in a dream a vanishing beloved man, a drama poignantly expressed in pre-modern poetry, became a real nightmare like a wife fearing her husband as a rapist.

Council of the demons of Hell decide to create Merlin via intercourse with a virgin

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[1] Song of Solomon / Song of Songs 5:2-6, Hebrew text via BlueLetterBible, ESV translation (modified insubstantially). See also Song of Solomon 2:5-6. The woman wants to bring her beloved to her mother’s house. That reflects the gynocentrism of ancient Hebrew culture. See also Genesis 2:24 and Ephesians 5:31.

[2] “The sun departed with his voyage done {Foebus abierat subtractis cursibus},” anonymous Latin poem from northern Italy late in the tenth century. Latin text from Dronke (1965) vol. 2, pp. 334-6, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. and Eavan Boland’s translation. While the speaking voice is that of a woman, the author perfectly well could have been a man, since men and women typically knew well each other’s voices then.

This poem has survived in Oxford, Bodley 38, folios 56v-57r (from late in the tenth century) and in Roma, Vatican lat. 3251, folio 178v (from the first half of the twelfth century). The poem is only partially legible in the latter manuscript. The poem is written in the Latin language of its time. It has thematic similarities with other medieval Latin poetic dream visions, including those of men.

For the “swiftness and passionateness of its narration,” Dronke calls this poem “one of the most remarkable poems in Medieval Latin.” It is “an archaic ballad of the demon lover.” Dronke (1965) vol. 2, pp. 337, 340. That’s how Percy Bysshe Shelley would have read it early in nineteenth-century England. That’s probably not how the poem was read in northern Italy early in the tenth century. For Dronke’s similar misinterpretation of “Surgens Manerius summo diluculo {Arising in the early dawn, Manerius},” Bate (1974). For literary context of “Surgens Manerius,” see note 3 in my post on the dangers of gyno-idolatry.

Here are Boland’s interpretive translation notes. They seem to me parochial in a modern way. For a fawning review of Boland’s translation, Murray (2017).

Here’s an Italian translation of “Foebus abierat.” A recording of this song is included on Sequentia’s album Lost Songs of the Rhineland Harper (2006).

[3] Neidhart, Riedegg Manuscript 46 (R46), “Alas winter, what dark days {Owe winder, waz du bringest},” stanza 2, Middle High German text and English translation (modified slightly) from Starkey & Wenzel (2016). For a freely available online edition of Neidhart’s songs, Keinz (1889).

[4] Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain {Historia regum Britanniae}, 6.531-40 (sec. 107), Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Reeve & Wright (2009). The subsequent quote above is from Historia regum Britanniae 6.544-50 (sec. 107) and is similarly sourced. For a freely available Latin text of Historia regum Britanniae, Giles & Virunio (1844). For freely available English translations, Evans (1904) and Giles (1848). Thorpe (1966) is a relatively low-cost English translation with text-section numbering and an excellent index.

Geoffrey states that Merlin is also called Ambrosius. Ambrosius was the name of the Merlin figure in Nennius’s History of the Britons {Historia Brittonum}, written about 829. In Historia Brittonum, the mother of Merlin / Ambrosius is similarly a virgin. But in the earlier account, she says only that she “didn’t know a man {virum non cognovi}.” Vortigern corresponds to Guorthigirn in Historia Brittonum. Of Geoffrey’s elaboration of Nennius’s account of Merlin’s virgin conception, Curley (2015).

Curley noted:

Although Geoffrey’s new hybrid creation, Merlin-Ambrosius, has been the subject of intense scrutiny for many years, the encounter of the young nun with a mysterious handsome young man, and the lecture by the wise man Maugantius on this encounter, although they function as inaugural episodes in Geoffrey’s account of Merlin’s life and career, have received relatively little scholarly attention.

Id. p. 220. Merlin’s conception in Historia regum Britanniae isn’t even mentioned in Henley & Smith (2020).

[5] Curley stated:

Maugantius’s discourse on the incubus, one of Geoffrey’s boldest strokes in his revision of Nennius’s Historia Britonum, is highly selective and runs directly counter to what was generally believed of the incubus by Geoffrey’s contemporaries in one important respect: the incubus was a malevolent, libidinous creature, an agent of pollution, and a woman who had sex with an incubus was committing sin.

Curley (2015) p. 233. Curley credits Geoffrey with a “novel imaginative construct of the genesis of Merlin at the intersection of the realms of flesh and spirit, free from taint of shame and scandal.” Id. p. 238. Geoffrey’s construct of Merlin’s virgin conception is less novel when understood within the context of the Song of Solomon and medieval Latin poetry about dreaming of one’s beloved.

[6] Apuleius described daemons as having human-like emotionality. He gave examples that didn’t include love:

For just as they are placed between us and the gods in their physical location, so they are in their mental nature, having immortality in common with those above, but emotionality with those below. For just as we are, they are capable of experiencing everything that calms or irritates the mind. Thus anger rouses them, pity moves them, gifts attract them, prayers mollify them, abuse infuriates them, and honors appease them. They change with every other such stimulus just as we do.

{ Sunt enim inter nos ac deos ut loco regionis ita ingenio mentis intersiti, habentes communem cum superis immortalitatem, cum inferis passionem. Nam proinde ut nos, pati possunt omnia animorum placamenta vel incitamenta, ut et ira incitentur et misericordia flectantur et donis inuitentur et precibus leniantur et contumeliis exasperentur et honoribus mulceantur, aliisque omnibus ad similem nobis modum varient. }

Apuleius, About the god of Socrates {De deo Socratis} 13, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Jones (2017). Although not enumerated, love seems to be implied. De deo Socratis is freely available online in the translation of Taylor (1822).

[images] (1) Merlin’s virgin mother gets pregnant by a daemon-incubus. Illumination in a prose version of Lancelot. First printed in 1494. The rubric associated with this image states, “How Merlin was conceived by a devil. And how he was in love with the Lady of the Lake {Comment Merlin fut engendre du diable. Et comment il fut amoureux de la dame du lac}.” Excerpt from folio 8v of Paris, Bibl. Mazarine, inc. 1286. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Council of demons plan and enact Merlin’s conception via a virgin woman. From an instance of the thirteenth-century romance History of Merlin {Histoire de Merlin}, copied in Bourges about 1480-1485. Excerpt from folio 1r of BnF Français 91. Via Wikimedia Commons. A BnF exposition notes that this illumination encompasses a tableau of events: “Council of Devils; Devils Slaying the Beasts of Merlin the Elder; Merlin the Elder mourning his own; Blaise and Daughters of Merlin the Elder; Blaise and Merlin’s future mother; conception of Merlin by a devil; confession of Merlin’s mother.” The beginning red rubric on this folio states: “Here begins the story of Merlin with how the council of the demons of hell decided, with their damned master Lucifer, to engender through the body of a virgin girl {Ici commence l’histoire de Merlin et comment, le conseil des diables de l’enfer décidèrent, avec leur damné maître Lucifer, d’engendrer par le corps d’une fille vierge}.”


Bate, A. Keith. 1974. “The Manerius Poem: A Demythification and a Demystification.” Latomus. 33 (3): 688-690.

Curley, Michael J. 2015. “Conjuring History: Mother, Nun, and Incubus in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology. 114 (2): 219-239.

Dronke, Peter. 1965. Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric. 2 vols. Vol. 1Vol. 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Evans, Sebastian, trans. 1904. Geoffrey of Monmouth. Histories of the Kings of Britain. London: J.M. Dent.

Giles, John Allen and Ludovico Pontico Virunio, ed. 1844. Galfredi Monumetensis Historia Britonum: nunc primum in Anglia novem codd. msstis. collatis. 1967 reprint. New York: Burt Franklin.

Giles, John Allen, trans. 1848. Six Old English chronicles, of which two are now first translated from the monkish Latin originals. London: Bohn. Alternate, annotated presentation, including Geoffrey of Monmouth’s British History.

Henley, Georgia, and Joshua Byron Smith, eds. 2020. A Companion to Geoffrey of Monmouth. Leiden: Brill.

Jones, Christopher P., ed. and trans. 2017. Apuleius. Apologia. Florida. De Deo Socratis. Loeb Classical Library 534. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Keinz, Friedrich, ed. 1889. Die Lieder Neidharts von Reuenthal auf Grund von M. Haupts Herstellung zeitlich gruppirt. Leipzig.

Murray, Christine. 2017. “Modern Encounter with ‘Foebus abierat’: On Eavan Boland’s ‘Phoebus Was Gone, all Gone, His Journey Over.’” In Campbell, Siobhán, and Nessa O’Mahony, eds. Eavan Boland: Inside History. Dublin, Ireland: Arlen House.

Reeve, Michael D., ed. and Neil Wright, trans. 2009. Geoffrey of Monmouth: The History of the Kings of Britain: an edition and translation of De gestis Britonum (Historia regum Britanniae). Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press.

Starkey, Kathryn and Edith Wenzel. 2016. Neidhart: selected songs from the Riedegg Manuscript (Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin, mgf 1062). Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University.

Taylor, Thomas, trans. 1822. The Metamorphosis, or, Golden ass, and other philosophical writings: viz. On the god of Socrates & On the philosophy of Plato. London:London: Sold by R. Triphook and T. Rodd. Alternate presentation.

Thorpe, Lewis, trans. 1966. Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain. London: Penguin Books.

women’s joy in loving men in medieval lyrics

Not concerned about the details of renovating her kitchen, a woman in Germanic lands early in the thirteenth century was delighted to recline with her beloved man under a linden tree. She and he reveled in the reality of nature:

Under the linden
on the heath
where a bed for two was massed,
there you could see
piled up neat
pluckings of flowers and grass.
At the edge of the copse within a vale —
tandaradei! —
sweetly sang the nightingale.

I went secretly
to a meadow shady
where my sweetheart had gone before.
He did greet me:
“Pretty lady!” —
then made me happy forevermore.
Did he kiss? Ach, a thousandfold
tandaradei! —
see, my mouth still holds the mold!

Heaped up there
with royal pride
was a bedstead he formed of flowers.
A laugh you’d hear
from deep inside
if a stranger ventured into our bower.
From the roses one could tell —
tarndaradei! —
exactly where my head fell.

{ Under der linden
an der heide,
dâ unser zweier bette was,
dâ muget ir vinden
schône beide
gebrochen bluomen unde gras.
vor dem walde in einem tal,
schône sanc diu nahtegal.

Ich kam gegangen
zuo der ouwe:
dô was mîn friedel komen ê.
dâ wart ich empfangen
hêre frouwe
daz ich bin sælic iemer mê.
kust er mich? wol tûsentstunt:
seht wie rôt mir ist der munt.

Dô hete er gemachet
alsô rîche
von bluomen eine bettestat.
des wirt noch gelachet
kumt iemen an daz selbe pfat.
bî den rôsen er wol mac
merken wâ mirz houbet lac. }[1]

Such a rendezvous is now scarcely known. It’s nearly inconceivable. Did he rape her?

Not able to lie down with her beloved man under the heart-shaped leaves of a linden tree, a medieval woman despondently declared that she would lie under a hazelnut tree. At least then she wouldn’t be deprived of nuts:

What a great pain I must suffer:
to love a man and not be able to see him;
and I’ll lie down under the hazelnut tree.

What a great pain I must endure:
to love a man and not be able to talk with him;
and I’ll lie down under the hazelnut tree.

To love a man and not be able to see him
nor dare to show him the pain I feel;
and I’ll lie down under the hazelnut tree.

To love a man and not be able to talk with him,
nor dare to tell him the pain I feel;
and I’ll lie down under the hazelnut tree.

Nor dare to show him the pain I feel,
and yet his love gives me no rest;
and I’ll lie down under the hazelnut tree.

{ Que coita tamanha ei a sofrer
por amar amig’ e non o veer
e pousarei so lo avelanal

Que coita tamanha ei endurar
por amar amig’ e non lhi falar
e pousarei so lo avelanal

Por amar amig’ e non lhi falar
nen lh’ ousar a coita que ei mostrar
e pousarei so lo avelanal

Por amar amig’ e o non veer
nen lh’ ousar a coita que ei dizer
e pousarei so lo avelanal

Non lhe ousar a coita que ei dizer
e non mi dan seus amores lezer
e pousarei so lo avelanal

Non lhe ousar a coita que ei mostrar
e non mi dan seus amores vagar
e pousarei so lo avelanal }[2]

It didn’t matter if her beloved man had as many women as the hard-working medieval knight Ignaure. She would be happy just to have her turn with him:

I, lovely girl, wasn’t sleeping
(it’s my turn)
and my boyfriend was coming
(and today it’s my turn).

I wasn’t sleeping and was longing
(it’s my turn)
and my boyfriend was arriving
(and today it’s my turn).

My boyfriend was coming
(it’s my turn)
and singing so well of love
(and today it’s my turn).

My boyfriend was arriving
(it’s my turn)
and chanting so well of love
(and today it’s my turn).

I really wanted, boyfriend,
(it’s my turn)
to have you here with me
(and today it’s my turn).

I really wanted, beloved,
(it’s my turn)
to have you at my side
(and today it’s my turn).

{ Eu velida non dormia
lelia doura
e meu amigo venia
ed oi lelia doura

Non dormia e cuidava
lelia doura
e meu amigo chegava
ed oi lelia doura

O meu amigo venia
lelia doura
e d’ amor tan ben dizia
ed oi lelia doura

O meu amigo chegava
lelia doura
e d’ amor tan ben cantava
ed oi lelia doura

Muito desejei, amigo,
lelia doura
que vos tevesse comigo
ed oi lelia doura

Muito desejei, amado,
lelia doura
que vos tevess’ a meu lado
ed oi lelia doura }[3]

Many women today feel entitled to tinder love, right here and now. It wasn’t so with tender medieval love.

Imagine, if you can, a medieval woman’s joy when her beloved man came. It was the Song of Songs played all over again:

Bounding over mountains and leaping over hills
he comes, my chosen one, desiring to speak to me.
Through windows and lattices he has wished to see me.
My womb trembled at the touch of his hand.
The voice of my lover rang out, sweeter than honey,
he whose face is brighter than the bright sun.

{ En per montes saliens et colles transiliens
venit quem optaveram, michi loque cupiens.
Per fenestras et cancellos me videre voluit;
ad contactum manus sue venter meus tremuit.
Vox dilecti sonuit, favo michi dulcior,
cuius sole facies est claro preclaroir }[4]

We live in a dark age of castration culture and love called hate. No one needs a soapstone countertop. All we need is true love.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Walther von der Vogelweide, “Under the linden tree {Under der linden}” (L39,11), stanzas 1-3 (of 4), Middle High German text and English translation (modified slightly) from Wilhelm (1990) pp. 211-2. The repeated nonsense word tarndaradei is an onomatopoeic representation of singing nightingales. Here’s the text of the whole poem with English translation by Raymond Oliver (1970). For another English translation, Thomas (1963) p. 14.

[2] Nuno Fernandez Torneol 4, “What a great pain I must suffer” {Que coita tamanha hei a sofrer}” (B 644, V 245), Galician-Portuguese text (editorial marks eliminated) from Cohen (2003), English translation (modified slightly) from Cohen (2010). Here’s this song at the Universo Cantigas site and at the Galician-Portuguese Medieval Songs site. Here’s an English translation by James H. Donalson (2003).

[3] Pedr’ Eanes Solaz 2, “I, lovely girl, wasn’t sleeping {Eu velida non dormia}” (B 829, V 415), stanzas 1-6 (of 8), Galician-Portuguese text from Cohen (2003), English translation (modified slightly) from Cohen (2010). Here’s this song at the Galician-Portuguese Medieval Songs site, which includes an English translation by Richard Zenith.

This song incorporates Arabic. Cohen noted:

ed oi lelia doura is a bilingual verse with a code shift: ed oi /CODE SHIFT/ líya ddáwra = “And today /CODE SHIFT/ it’s my turn”. ed oi from et hodie is archaic Iberian Romance. leli = layli in Andalusi Arabic, “what kind of night I had!”

Cohen (2010) p. 99. For detailed philological and interpretative analysis of this song, Cohen & Corriente (2002). For further examples of Arabic influence, see my post on Alfonso X’s thirteenth-century song on the dean of Cádiz & his books, “I noticed a man carrying books {Ao daian de Calez eu achei}.”

[4] “Sweetly singing a wedding song {Epitalamia decantans dulcia},” vv. 9a-11b, Latin text from Dronke (1965) vol. 2, p. 516, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. This song survives on folio 2r of the twelfth-century manuscript Cambridge, Trinity B.I. 16. Id. p. 515.

[images] (1) Spielleyt, a Swiss medieval music ensemble, performing Walther von der Vogelweide, “Under the linden tree {Under der linden}” from its album O Fortuna (1996). Via YouTube. Alternate recordings: Sabine Lutzenberger/ Per-Sonat from Walther von der Vogelweide: Lieder von Macht & Liebe (2015), and Augsburg Early Music Ensemble on its album Minnesang, Die Blütezeit (2001). (2) Pedr’ Eanes Solaz, “I, lovely girl, wasn’t sleeping {Eu velida non dormia}” / “Lelia doura,” performed by Socorro Libra from her album Cores do Atlântico (2010). Via YouTube. Alternate recording by Amancio Prada from his album Trovadores, Místicos y Románticos (1990).


Cohen, Rip and Federico Corriente. 2002 “Lelia Doura revisited.” La Corónica: a Journal of Medieval Hispanic Languages, Literatures and Cultures. 31 (1): 19-40.

Cohen, Rip. 2003. 500 Cantigas d’Amigo. Porto: Campo das Letras.

Cohen, Rip. 2010. The Cantigas d’Amigo: An English Translation. Online. 2016 edition.

Dronke, Peter. 1965. Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric. 2 vols. Vol. 1Vol. 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Thomas, John Wesley. 1963. German Verse from the 12th to the 20th Century in English Translation. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Wilhelm, James J., ed. 1990. Lyrics of the Middle Ages: An Anthology. New York: Garland Publishing.

faithful, enduring love of Condwiramurs and Parzival

In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s early thirteenth-century romance Parzival, both Condwiramurs and Parzival have troubled love histories. Condwiramurs had urged her beloved Schenteflurs to fight Clamide, who wanted to marry her. Clamide killed Schenteflurs. Condwiramurs later lamented:

What reason have I to be merry, woeful me?
Now it has come to the point
that I will kill myself
rather than give up my virginity and person
and become Clamide’s wife.
It was his hand that slew
Schenteflurs, whose heart carried
great knightly fame.
He was a blossoming branch of manly beauty.
He knew how to rein in falsity,
Liaze’s brother Schenteflurs.

{ wes möht ich armiu wesen geil?
nu ist ez mir komen an daz zil,
daz ich mich selben tœten wil,
ê daz ich magetuom unde lîp
gebe und Clâmidês wîp
werde; wan sîn hant mir sluoc
Schenteflûrn, des herze truoc
manegen rîterlîchen prîs.
er mannes schœne ein blüende rîs,
er kunde valscheit mâzen,
der bruoder Lîâzen. }[1]

Even merely for their own love interests, women must do more to prevent violence against men.

Parzival, on the other hand, was a late-bloomer in love. His mother had taught him to be a groveling woman-pleaser. That’s a wet-rag way to put out love’s passion. As his mother instructed him, the foolish young man Parzival sought advice from a wise old man, Gurnemanz of Graharz. In Gurnemanz’s castle, a knight observed that Parzival was wounded. Gurnemanz speculated that Parzival had been fighting at a woman’s bidding. The knight was wiser:

No, Lord. The way he behaves,
he couldn’t ever persuade a woman
to accept his love-service.
But his complexion would favor love.

{ nein, hêrre: erst mit sölhen siten,
ern kunde nimer wîp gebiten
daz si sîn dienst næme.
sîn varwe der minne zæme. }

Gurnemanz taught Parzival worldly wisdom and knightly fighting techniques. Gurnemanz also introduced his beautiful daughter Liaze to Parzival:

You must let him kiss you,
this knight, and you must offer him honor.
He travels with Fortune as his guide.

{ du solt di’n küssen lâzen,
disen ritter, biut im êre:
er vert mit sælden lêre. }

Parzival felt awkward and ashamed. Nonetheless, he kissed the lovely Liaze on her lips.

At dinner, Gurnemanz sat Parzival next to Liaze. He asked her to cut and serve food to Parzival. Liaze and Parzival could have engaged in intimate conversation. But Parzival said nothing to her. Such non-intercourse went on for two weeks. Then Parzival asked to leave. Gurnemanz, who had lost three sons in knightly violence, sorrowfully called Parzival his fourth lost son. Gurnemanz lamented:

Now you are riding away from me all too soon,
inconsolable man that I am.
Alas that I cannot die,
since neither Liaze, the beautiful maiden,
nor my land is to your liking.

{ nu sît ir alze fruo geriten
von mir trôstelôsen man.
ôwê daz ich niht sterben kan,
sît Lîâz diu schœne magt
und ouch mîn lant iu niht behagt. }

Parzival foolishly felt that he had to win fame to be worthy of a woman’s love. He declared to Gurnemanz:

Lord, I am not wise.
Yet if I ever win knight’s fame,
so that I might be able to desire love,
then you shall give me Liaze,
your daughter, that beautiful maiden.

{ hêrre, in bin niht wîs:
bezal abr i’emer ritters prîs,
sô daz ich wol mac minne gern,
ir sult mich Lîâzen wern,
iwerr tohter, der schœnen magt. }

Parzival wasn’t wise in understanding of love. Liaze must have been disappointed with him.

In his subsequent fast riding, Parzival came to Condwiramurs’s castle at Pelrapeire. The people there were starving under Clamide’s love-siege. An emaciated duke brought Parzival to the distressed Queen Condwiramurs. She kissed this strong young knight, offered him her hand, and seated him next to her:

Liaze’s beauty was but a breath of air
compared with the maiden who sat here.
God forgot no perfection in creating her
— she was the land’s lady —
as when from sweet dew
the rose peeps out of its bud
showing new, noble radiance,
which is both white and red.
Her beauty brought great love-pain to her guest.
His manly good breeding was complete,
since that noble Gurnemanz
had parted him from his folly
and advised him against asking questions,
unless it were discretely.
Next to the mighty queen
he sat with his mouth entirely wordless.
He was close by her there, not far apart.

{ Lîâzen schœne was ein wint
gein der meide diu hie saz,
an der got wunsches niht vergaz
(diu was des landes frouwe),
als von dem süezen touwe
diu rôse ûz ir bälgelîn
blecket niwen werden schîn,
der beidiu wîz ist unde rôt.
daz fuogte ir gaste grôze nôt.
sîn manlîch zuht was im sô ganz,
sît in der werde Gurnamanz
von sîner tumpheit geschiet
unde im vrâgen widerriet,
ez enwære bescheidenlîche,
bî der küneginne rîche
saz sîn munt gar âne wort,
nâhe aldâ, niht verre dort. }

Of course such behavior troubled Condwiramurs:

The queen’s first thoughts were,
“I think that this man despises me
because my body is wasted away.
No, it’s a ruse on his part.
He’s a guest, I’m the hostess,
the first speech ought to be mine.
He must have looked kindly upon me,
because we have come to be sitting together.
He has shown courtesy to me.
My words have been all too long spared.
Let there be no more silence here.”

{ Diu küneginne gedâhte sân
“ich wæn, mich smæhet dirre man
durch daz mîn lîp vertwâlet ist.
nein, er tuotz durch einen list:
er ist gast, ich pin wirtîn:
diu êrste rede wære mîn.
dar nâch er güetlîch an mich sach,
sît uns ze sitzen hie geschach:
er hât sich zuht gein mir enbart.
mîn rede ist alze vil gespart:
hie sol niht mêr geswigen sîn.” }

The queen asked where he was from. He replied Graharz. She said that he had traveled an amazingly long way to Pelrapeire in only a short time. She said that she knew Gurnemanz of Graharz and that he was her uncle and that she was good friends with his daughter Liaze. She spoke many words. Then she invited him to lodge there and have dinner from the best of the scant fare they had.

Condwiramurs visits Parzival in bed

When night came, Parzival was led to a luxurious bed. He fell asleep quickly. Then Condwiramurs came to his bedroom:

Her path led toward his bed.
On the carpet she knelt down before him.
Neither he nor the queen
had much idea of love
as involves lying together.
Such wooing ensued as this:
the maiden’s joy was ruined, shame oppressed her.
Did he clasp her to him?
Sadly he knew nothing of such an affair.
Yet despite his lack of skill,
it did happen,
yet with such conditions of truce
that they didn’t mingle their conciliatory limbs.
They gave little thought to that.
The maiden’s grief was so great
that tears flowed from her eyes
down upon the young Parzival.
He heard such loud weeping
that he awoke and stared at her.

{ ûffen teppech kniete si für in.
si heten beidiu kranken sin,
Er unt diu küneginne,
an bî ligender minne.
hie wart alsus geworben:
an freuden verdorben
was diu magt: des twanc si schem:
ober si hin an iht nem?
leider des enkan er niht.
âne kunst ez doch geschiht,
mit eime alsô bewanden vride,
daz si diu süenebæren lide
niht zein ander brâhten.
wênc si des gedâhten.
der magede jâmer was sô grôz,
vil zäher von ir ougen vlôz
ûf den jungen Parzivâl.
der rehôrte ir weinens sölhen schal,
daz er si wachende an gesach. }

Parzival was astonished at Condwiramurs’s behavior:

The young man rose to his feet
and said to the queen,
“Lady, are you mocking me?
Before God you should thus kneel.
Be so kind as to sit down beside me,”
(that was his request and his desire)
“or lie down right here where I’ve been lying.
Let me lie where I can.”

{ ûf rihte sich der junge man,
zer küneginne sprach er sân
“frouwe, bin ich iwer spot?
ir soldet knien alsus für got.
geruochet sitzen zuo mir her”
(daz was sîn bete und sîn ger):
“oder leit iuch hie aldâ ich lac.
lât mich belîben swâ ich mac.” }

Condwiramurs wanted to lie next to Parzival:

She said, “Provided you behave honorably,
showing such restraint toward me
that you do not wrestle with me,
then my lying by you will happen.”
He agreed to a love-truce on those terms.
She snuggled into bed with him at once.

{ si sprach “welt ir iuch êren,
sölhe mâze gein mir kêren
daz ir mit mir ringet niht,
mîn ligen aldâ bî iu geschiht.”
des wart ein vride von im getân:
si smouc sich an daz bette sân. }

Did Condwiramurs sexually harass Parzival by coming into his bedroom uninvited in the middle of the night and crying on him? Such a question would have been inconceivable in medieval Europe, just as today many refuse to recognize women raping men.

In bed with Condwiramurs, Parzival asked if she needed any solace. Solace was a medieval term for sex. Condwiramurs expressed her interest:

Yes, lord, if I were free
from Kingrun the Seneschal.
In formal jousts his hand
has felled many of my knights.
He will come back here tomorrow,
and he believes that his lord
will be able to lie in my arms.
You saw, I suppose, my great hall.
However high its elevation,
I’d rather fall from it into the moat below
than have Clamide take
by force my virginity.
By such a fall I would fend off his fame!

{ jâ, hêrre, ob ich wurde erlôst
von Kingrûne scheneschlant.
ze rehter tjost hât mir sîn hant
gevellet manegen ritter nidr.
der kumt morgen dâ her widr,
und wænet daz ter hêrre sîn
süle ligen an dem arme mîn.
ir sâht wol mînen palas,
der ninder sô gehœhet was,
ine viel ê nider in den grabn,
ê Clâmidê solde habn
mit gewalt mîn magetuom.
sus wolt ich wenden sînen ruom. }

Parzival promised to fight Kingrun. Then they went to sleep without engaging in any wrestling, meaning sex. Just before dawn, Condwiramurs crept back into her bed. No one noticed what she had done that night.

Parzival defeats Kingrun

The next morning, Parzival donned his armor, mounted his charger, and rode out to fight Kingrun. The two met in a high-speed joust. The force of their spears’ impacts threw them both off their horses. On the ground they drew swords. With a hard sword-blow to Kingrun’s helmet, Parzival knocked him to the ground and forced him to surrender.[2]

Parzival became a hero. Nobles of Condwiramurs’s castle suggested that she and Parzival get married with the simplest and most traditional of marriage ceremonies:

They were asked if they would lie together.
He and the queen said yes.
He lay with such skills
as will not suffice nowadays
for many women, if a man treats them so.
Oh how women stain their manners
in tormenting moods,
putting on airs!
With strangers they behave chastely,
but the desires of their hearts
undermine all this behavior.

{ Bî ligens wart gevrâget dâ.
er unt diu küngîn sprâchen jâ.
er lac mit sölhen fuogen,
des nu niht wil genuogen
mangiu wîp, der in sô tuot.
daz si durch arbeitlîchen muot
ir zuht sus parrierent
und sich dergegen zierent!
vor gesten sint se an kiuschen siten:
ir herzen wille hât versniten
swaz mac an den gebærden sîn. }

Parzival thus slept with Condwiramurs, but again didn’t have sex with her. Nonetheless, Condwiramurs now regarded herself as his wife. She put up her hair so that others would think she had consummated a marriage to him. She loved Parzival for his whole person, not just his masculine sexual capability:

They passed time together in this way,
joyful in their love,
for two days and the third night.
Often it occurred to him to
embrace her, as his mother had advised.
Gurnemanz too had explained to him
that man and woman are one.
They intertwined arms and legs.
If I may be so bold as to tell you,
he found that which is close and sweet.
That way both ancient and new
joined them there.
They were happy, far from sad.

{ si wâren mit ein ander sô,
daz si durch liebe wâren vrô,
zwên tage unt die dritten naht.
von im dicke wart gedâht
umbevâhens, daz sîn muoter riet:
Gurnemanz im ouch underschiet,
man und wîp wærn al ein.
si vlâhten arm unde bein.
ob ichz iu sagen müeze,
er vant daz nâhe süeze:
der alte und der niwe site
wonte aldâ in beiden mite.
in was wol und niht ze wê. }

From a Christian perspective, the third day is associated with resurrection. Parzival was far from dead, but he rose to new life with Condwiramurs. Augustine of Hippo proclaimed in relation to God, “Late have I loved you, beauty ever ancient and ever new, late have I loved you {sero te amavi, pulchritudo tam antiqua et tam nova, sero te amavi}!”[3] Condwiramurs and Parzival loved each other that way, too.

While they differed as persons, Condwiramurs and Parzival had a faithful, mutual love. Condwiramurs wasn’t the sort of woman who would cuckold her husband:

Her love was so great in strength
that it was entirely free of wavering.
She knew her husband’s worth,
each found the same in each other.
He was dear to her, as she was to him.

{ ir minne stuont mit sölher kraft,
gar âne wankes anehaft.
si het ir man dâ für erkant,
iewederz an dem andern vant,
er was ir liep, als was si im. }

One day Parzival asked Condwiramurs if he could go visit his mother for a short time and also search for adventure. Internalizing the men-oppressing gender ideology of courtly love, Parzival like his father Gahmuret wanted to perform great feats. Parzival said that such acts would bring fame to Condwiramurs’s noble love for him. Condwiramurs had no wish to refuse anything for Parzival. With both loving each other ardently, Parzival left her.

Parzival was gone from Condwiramurs for five years. During that time she gave birth to twin boys. When Parzival returned, she was in bed with their twins. She leaped out of bed and kissed and embraced him. She praised the good fortune that her heart’s joy was now with her:

Now I ought to be angry, but I can’t.
Honored be this day and hour
that has brought me this embrace
by which my sadness is crippled.
I have now what my heart desires.
Sorrow gains little favor from me!

{ nu solt ich zürnen: ine mac.
gêrt sî diu wîle unt dirre tac,
der mir brâht disen umbevanc,
dâ von mîn trûren wirdet kranc.
ich hân nu des mîn herze gert:
sorge ist an mir vil ungewert. }

She didn’t angrily castigate her husband for being gone for five years. She reveled in the joy of now having him with her. Parzival, not doubting that the twins were actually his, kissed them lovingly. He was aching for love:

His body never received elsewhere
love’s help against love’s distress,
although many a noble woman offered him love.
I believe that they practised pleasure
until that day’s mid-morning.

{ sîn lîp enpfienc nie anderswâ
minne helfe für der minne nôt:
manc wert wîp im doch minne bôt.
ich wæne er kurzwîle pflac
unz an den mitten morgens tac. }[4]

Condwiramurs name in Old French means “to guide love {conduire amours}.” Like Dante’s Beatrice, that she did indeed with her faithfulness.

Parzival learned that the Holy Grail unifies worldly and divine love. Striving to obtain the Holy Grail, he lamented to himself:

Since I lack
what those whom Fortune blesses have
(I mean the love
which cheers men’s sad minds
with joy’s help),
since this isn’t available to me,
I don’t care what happens to me now.
God doesn’t want me to have joy.
She who compels me to love’s desire is far away.
If our love were such, mine and hers,
that severance belonged to it,
such that doubt troubled us,
I might have found another woman for love.
Yet now love of her has deprived me
of other love and joy-bearing solace.
I find no release from my sadness.
May Fortune grant joy
to those who desire true joy!
May God grant joy to all these persons.
I ride away from these joys.

{ sît ich mangel hân
daz den sældehaften undertân
ist (ich mein die minne,
diu manges trûrgen sinne
mit freuden helfe ergeilet),
sît ich des pin verteilet,
ich enruoche nu waz mir geschiht.
got wil mîner freude niht.
diu mich twinget minnen gir,
stüend unser minne, mîn unt ir,
daz scheiden dar zuo hôrte
sô daz uns zwîvel stôrte,
ich möht wol zanderr minne komn:
nu hât ir minne mir benomn
ander minne und freudebæren trôst.
ich pin trûrens unerlôst.
gelücke müeze freude wern
die endehafter freude gern:
got gebe freude al disen scharn:
ich wil ûz disen freuden varn. }

Parzival armed himself and rode off recklessly and unwittingly to battle his half-brother Feirefiz. Parzival thought that his quest for the Holy Grail would forever deprive him of Condwiramurs’s love. The Holy Grail in truth had written on it the names of Parzival and Condwiramurs as husband and wife.

Parvizal found the Holy Grail. He compassionately asked the Grail King Anfortas about his suffering. Then Parzival and Condwiramurs became, respectively, the new King and Queen of the Holy Grail. Worldly and divine love became one for them in loyally serving the Holy Grain. Their joy was complete.

Parzival becomes King of the Holy Grail and is reunited with Condwiramurs

* * * * *

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[1] Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival 194.26-195.6 (Bk. 4), Middle High German text from Lachmann (1833 / 1891), English translation (modified) from Edwards (2004). For Parzival English translations freely available online, Kline (2020), Zeydel & Morgan (1951) (some passages omitted), and Weston (1894). Condwiramurs is the same character as Blancheflor in Chrétien de Troyes’s earlier Perceval, but Wolfram makes her a much different person. Gibbs (1999) pp. 31-2.

Gurnemanz sent an army including his son Schenteflurs to help Condwiramurs fight off Clamide’s besieging army. Schenteflurs thus at least originally came to Condwiramurs to provide military assistance, not love service. Clamide stated:

Because of Condwiramurs
Schenteflurs fought with me.

{ durch Condwîr âmûrs
vaht ouch mit mir Schenteflûrs }

Parzival 214.11-12 (Bk. 4). According to Ghosh (2008), “no blame can attach to Condwiramurs for the death of Schenteflurs.” Ghosh (2008) pp. 6-7. Schenteflurs was the brother of Condwiramurs’s friend Liaze. Medieval readers of Wolfram probably and plausibly thought that Schenteflurs and Condwiramurs were in love and that Schenteflurs fought Clamide because of that love. Moreover, Condwiramurs could have refused the military assistance that Gurnemanz sent. She could have done more to convince Clamide that she was a shrewish, abusive woman whom no man in his right mind would want to marry. Women must do more to end violence against men.

The subsequent quotes above from Parzival are by section.verse 164.29-165.2 (No, Lord. The way he behaves…), 175.26-8 (You must let him kiss you…), 178.6-10 (Now you are riding away…), 178.29-179.2 (Lord, I am not wise…), 188.6-22 (Liaze’s beauty was but a breath of air…), 188.6-22 (The queen’s first thoughts were…), 193.1-19 (Her path led toward his bed…), 193.21-8 (The young man rose to his feet…), 193.29-194.4 (She said, “Provided you behave honorably…), 195.14-26 (Yes, lord, if I were free…), 201.19-29 (They were asked if they would lie together…), 202.29-203.11 (They passed time together in this way…), 223.3-7 (Her love was so great in strength…), 801.9-14 (Now I ought to be angry…), 801.9-14 (His body never received elsewhere…), 733.1-20 (Since I lack…).

[2] Parzival subsequently won Clamide’s surrender in personal battle. Clamide poignantly explained the extent of his love for Condwiramurs:

Pontius Pilate
and the wretched Judas,
who kept kissing company
on that faithless road
where Jesus was betrayed,
no matter how their Creator might avenge it,
I would not renounce similar punishment,
if only Brobarz’s lady Condwiramurs were my wife
and her favor mine,
so that I might take her into my arms,
whatever might become of me thereafter.

{ Pilâtus von Poncîâ,
und der arme Jûdas,
der bî eime kusse was
an der triwenlôsen vart
dâ Jêsus verrâten wart,
swie daz ir schepfær ræche,
die nôt ich niht verspræche,
daz Brôbarzære frouwen lîp
mit ir hulden wær mîn wîp,
sô daz ich se umbevienge,
swiez mir dar nâch ergienge. }

Parzival 219.24-220.4 (Bk. 4). Clamide thus explicitly expressed his gyno-idolatry. But gyno-idolatry was by no means a medieval development. Lucretius mocked the gyno-idolatry of Roman men in the first century BGC. Cf. Hasty (2016) pp. 165-6.

[3] Augustine, Confessions 10.27.38, Latin text from O’Donnell (1992), my English translation, benefiting from that of Outler (1955).

[4] The vicious and beautiful Duchess Orgeluse of Logroys, with whom Gawan became infatuated, sought Parzival’s love. He told her that he had a wife more beautiful and dearer to him than she, and that he wanted nothing of her love. Parzival 619.3-10 (Bk. 12). According to Wolfram the narrator, no woman was more beautiful than Orgeluse, other than Condwiramurs. Parzival 508.22-3 (Bk. 10).

[images] (1) Queen Condwiramurs comes to Parzival in bed. Manuscript illumination for Parzival. Painting made in 1443-1446 in Diebold Lauber’s workshop in Hagenau near the German border of present-day France. Detail from folio 147r in Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 339 (part 1part 2). (2) Parzival defeats Kingrun the Seneschal in a joust. Manuscript illumination for Parzival made in 1467. Detail from folio 38r in Bern, Burgerbibliothek Bern, Codex AA 91. (3) Parzival becomes King of the Holy Grail and is re-united with Condwiramurs. Manuscript illumination for Parzival made about 1240. Detail (color enhanced) from scan 102 of MS. Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 19.


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

Ghosh, Shami. 2008. “Condwiramurs.” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft Und Geistesgeschichte. 82 (1): 3-25.

Gibbs, Marion E. 1999. “Ideals of Flesh and Blood: Women Characters in Parzival.” Pp. 12-36 in Hasty (1999).

Hasty, Will, ed. 1999. A Companion to Wolfram’s Parzival. Columbia, SC: Camden House.

Hasty, Will. 2016. The Medieval Risk-Reward Society: Courts, Adventure, and Love in the European Middle Ages. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press. Review by Wojtek Jezierski.

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.

O’Donnell, James J., ed. and comm. 1992. Augustine of Hippo. Confessions. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Outler, Albert C., trans. 1955. Augustine: Confessions and Enchiridion. London: SCM Press.

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

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.

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s horrific history of violence against men

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain {Historia regum Britanniae} begins with Brutus, the first king of Britain and the great-grandson of the eminent Trojan Aeneas. Brutus caused the deaths of his mother and father. Brutus’s mother died giving birth to him. Like today’s anti-meninists, Brutus was thus cut off from personally appreciating his mother as a living human being. Brutus accidentally killed his father while hunting a stag. A similar stag-hunting scene in the Aeneid led to war between the Trojans and the Italians. Brutus killing his father roots Historia regum Britanniae in violence against men.

Consider King Arthur’s pivotal battle against the Roman army at Saussy in France. With the battle going against the Britons, King Arthur responded dramatically:

Hearing of the losses that the Britons had just suffered, Arthur rushed up with his legion and, drawing his mighty sword Excalibur, urged on his fellow soldiers, shouting:

“Men, what are you doing? Why are you letting these womanly men get away unharmed? Let none of them escape with their lives. Think of your sword-hands, which have endured so many battles and subjected thirty kingdoms to my power. Think of your forefathers forced to pay tribute by the Romans, when they were mightier. Think of your freedom, which these half-men, weaker than yourselves, wish to take away. Let not one escape alive, not one. What are you doing?”

With cries such as these, he charged the enemy, bowling them over, cutting down any man who got in his way and killing him, or his horse, with a single blow.

{ Ipse etenim, audita suorum strage, quae paulo ante eisdem dabatur, cum legione irruerat, et abstracto Caliburno gladio optimo, excelsa voce atque verbis commilitones suos inanimabat, inquiens:

“Quid facitis viri? Ut quid muliebres permittitis illaesos abire? Ne abscedat ullus vivus. Mementote dexterarum vestrarum, quae tot praeliis exercitatae terdena regna potestati meae subdiderunt. Mementote avorum vestrorum, quos Romani, dum fortiores erant, tributarios fecerunt. Mementote libertatis vestrae, quam semiviri isti et vobis debiliores, demere affectant. Ne abeat ullus vivus, ne abeat. Quid facitis?”

Haec et plura alia vociferando irruebat in hostes, prosternebat, caedebat, et cuicumque obviabat aut ipsum aut ipsius equum uno ictu interficiebat. }[1]

Historia regum Britanniae emphasizes fully masculine men fighting for liberty. Neither masculinity nor liberty necessarily requires the massive slaughter of men that occurs throughout Historia regum Britanniae.

Geoffrey of Monmouth scarcely showed concern for violence against men. Narrating the battle between King Arthur’s Britons and those of the traitor Mordred, Geoffrey allowed a glint of grief:

As the commanders on either side were addressing their troops, the two armies suddenly charged and collided, eager to exchange blows. It is a sad and difficult task to describe the slaughter that soon ensued among both parties, the groans of the dying men, and the fury of the assailants. On both sides men dealt wounds or were wounded, killed or were killed.

{ Ipsis itaque commilitones suos hinc et inde cohortantibus, subito impetu concurrunt acies et commisso proelio crebros ictus innectere elaborant. Fiunt ilico in utrisque partibus tantae strages, tanti morientium gemitus, tanti invadentium furores, quantos et dolorosum et laboriosum est describere. Undique etenim vulnerabunt et vulnerabuntur, perimebant et perimebantur. }

Describing an earlier battle between Britons and Romans, Geoffrey deployed one of the few figures of speech in Historia regum Britanniae:

When the opposing forces were drawn up, they fought there, matching spear for spear and blow for blow. Immediately men fell on this side and that, having received spears into their vitals. The earth was as wet with the blood of the dying men as if a south wind was raining down the sea water it had soaked up.

{ Ibi, dispositis in utraque parte catervis, dextras cum hostibus commiscuerunt: pila pilis et ictus ictibus obicientes. Nec mora, hinc et inde corruunt vulnerati, telis infra vitalia receptis. Manat tellus cruore morientium ac si repentinus auster absorptum mare revomuisset. }

Another figure of speech similarly drew upon nature:

On both sides the wounded men fell as thick as leaves from the trees in autumn.

{ Concidunt in utraque parte vulnerati, quemadmodum in autumno arborum folia. }

Geoffrey seems to have regarded as natural the gendering of men as disposable in institutionalized violence. Just as today military conscription continues to be applied only to men despite women being encouraged to serve voluntarily in armed forces, Geoffrey, with no concern for depriving men of liberty in this way, reported:

He also conscripted all the island’s young men. Next to the coast he stationed them, awaiting the enemy’s arrival.

{ Collecta etiam tota juventute insulae, mansionem juxta maritima fecit, adventum hostium expectans. }

According to Geoffrey, the Britons under Maximianus engaged in gendercide in France:

Wherever they gained entry, the Britons killed all the males and spared only the women. Finally, when they had left all the provinces completely destroyed, they placed British knights in the cities, towns, and castles in their various locations. News of Maximianus’s savagery spread throughout the remaining provinces of France.

{ Qui quocunque intrabant, interficiebant quicquid erat masculini sexus, solis mulieribus parcentes. Postremo cum universas provincias penitus ab omni incola delevissent, munierunt civitates et oppida militibus Britanniae et promontoria in diversis locis statuta. Saevitia igitur Maximiani per ceteras Galliarum provincias divulgata }

The people of France recognized the savagery of killing all males. Nonetheless, treating men’s lives as more disposable than women’s lives occurs throughout Historia regum Britanniae.[2]

Battle of Doncaster: medieval violence against men

Men as a gender were burdened with fighting wars. The individual characteristics of particular men didn’t matter. After Roman soldiers withdrew from protecting Britain, the Archbishop of London called upon all British men to serve as soldiers:

Will your hope always depend on others, and will you not take up shields, swords, and spears against robbers who would be no braver than you, were it not for your slothful laziness? … Before your soldiers left, were you not commoners? Do you think that made you less than men? Surely generations change so that a farming man can father a soldiering man, and vice versa, and a soldiering man can be born to a trading man, just as a trading man to a soldiering man. Although the one can produce the other, I do not think that either lose their manhood. Since you are men, conduct yourselves like men, beg Christ to make you brave, and defend your liberty.

{ Eritne ergo spes vestra semper in alieno tutamine, et non instruetis manus vestras peltis, ensibus, hastis in latrones nequaquam vobis fortiores, si segnitia et torpor adesset? … Quod si tempore militum vestrorum fueratis vulgus? Putatis iccirco a vobis humanitatem diffugisse? Nonne homines transverso ordine nascuntur ita ut ex rustico generetur miles et ex milite rusticus? Miles etiam de mangone venit et mango de milite. Hac ergo consuetudine quamvis unus ab altero procedat, non existimo eos esse quod est hominis amittere. Cum igitur sitis homines, habetote vos ut homines et invocate Christum ut audaciam adhibeat et libertatem vestram defendite. }

The idea of women shouldering an equal role in defending liberty apparently was inconceivable. Under the ideology of courtly love, women used their love to manipulate and inspire men to engage in violence against men. According to Geoffrey, Britain under King Arthur surpassed all other kingdoms:

To such a noble state was Britain then restored that in abundance of wealth, luxury of dress, and elegance of its inhabitants, it surpassed all other kingdoms. Any knight truly famed for his virtue in that country wore clothes and armor of a single color. Elegant women, having dressed themselves similarly, spurned the love of any man who had not proved himself three times in battle. The women thus became more chaste and honorable, and for their love knights conducted themselves more virtuously.

{ Ad tantum etenim statum dignitatis Britannia tunc reducta erat, quod copia divitiarum, luxu ornamentorum, facetia incolaram, cetera regna excellebat. Quicumque vero famosus probitate miles in eadem erat unius coloris vestibus atque armis utebatur. Facete etiam mulieres, consimilia indumenta habentes, nullius amorem habere dignabantur nisi tertio in milicia probatus esset. Efficiebantur ergo castae et meliores et milites pro amore illarum probiores. }

In reality, men are intrinsically manly and intrinsically worthy of women’s love. That reality has been socially effaced to encourage men to engage in violence against men.

Effective violence doesn’t necessarily depend on physical strength. Situational and relational positions can compensate for relative weakness in physical strength. Today, nuclear bombing and drone warfare could readily be female-enacted violence. In ancient Britain, when Porrex killed killed his brother Ferreux in a battle for succession to their father’s throne, their mother Iudon was furious:

She burned with such fury over Ferreux’s death that she strove to take revenge on his brother. Waiting until he was asleep, she and her serving women attacked him and tore him to pieces.

{ Unde tanta ira ob mortem ipsius ignescebat ut ipsum in fratrem vindicare affectaret. Nacta ergo tempus quo ille sopitus fuerat, aggreditur eum cum ancillis suis et in plurimas sectiones dilaceravit. }

Superior guile can easily overcome superior strength.

Most large-scale violence involves leaders directing masses of followers. Women can direct men to commit violence on their behalf. That occurs not just personally, but also socially. For example, King Locrinus was forced to marry Guendoloena, the daughter of his strongest warrior-man Corineus. For seven years Locrinus carried on a secret sexual relationship with his beloved Estrildis. When Corineus died, Locrinus divorced Guendoloena and established Estrildis as his queen. Guendoloena was furious at Locrinus divorcing her. She went to her father’s kingdom of Cornwall and gathered an army of men. Guendoloena’s army killed Locrinus and conquered his kingdom. Then Guendoloena took charge:

Guendoloena began to run the government of the kingdom with the raging fury of her father. She ordered Estrildis and Estrildis’s daughter Habren to be hurled to death in the river now called the Severn.

{ cepit Guendoloena regni gubernaculum, paterna insania furens. Iubet enim Estrildidem et filiam eius Habren praecipitari in fluvium qui nunc Sabrina dicitur }[4]

Without men serving her in committing violence against men, Guedoloena wouldn’t have been able to seize Locrinus’s kingdom and have his wife and daughter killed. Of course, many more unnamed and unnoted men undoubtedly died from Guedoloena’s insurrection.

When will violence against men end? Alas for violence against men, for the end of men-only conscription isn’t near. Women and men around the world will read of the Byzantine wife who save her husband from castration. They will understand why Aeneas left treacherous, complaining Trojan women in Sicily. Reproductive choice for men will be legalized so as to free women from abortion coercion. All the earth will be fruitful beyond human need, and human beings will fornicate unceasingly. Then the red rose and the white lily will make peace. Delight in the simple joy of gardening will bring tranquility to all.[5]

* * * * *

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[1] Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain {Historia regum Britanniae}, 10.419-30 (sec. 174), Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Reeve & Wright (2009). Subsequent quotes from Historia regum Britanniae are similarly sourced unless otherwise noted.

The Historia regum Britanniae, which Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote about 1138, became widely distributed and enormously influential. It survives in at least 217 manuscripts, a third of which were written before the end of the twelfth century. Reeve & Wright (2009) p. vii. Here’s an online manuscript dating probably to the end of the twelfth century.

Historia regum Britanniae prompted many subsequent medieval works about King Arthur and his court. Here are overviews of Historia regum Britanniae in relation to Arthur’s court and the crusades. On the reception of Historia regum Britanniae, Henley & Smith (2020), Part 4.

Geoffrey referred to this work as The Deeds of the Britons {De gestis Britonum}. That title also occurs in early manuscripts. Reeve & Wright (2009) p. lix. Titles weren’t an authorially fixed, enduring meta-attribute of written works in medieval Europe. Above I have used the title more commonly recognized today, Historia regum Britanniae.

The complex manuscript corpus of Historia regum Britanniae includes variant versions. Their relation to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work isn’t clear. The First Variant version may have been a source for Geoffrey, or a revision of Geoffrey’s work. On the First Variant, Burchmore (2019) and Hammer (1951).

Within Historia regum Britanniae, disparaging the enemy’s manliness occurs in other contexts of urging men into violence against men. Earlier King Arthur promised victory “if with equal determination we would endeavor to crust these half-men {si pari affectu semiviros illos elaboraverimus opprimere}.”Historia regum Britanniae 10.284-5 (sec. 169). In this context, the First Variant version refers to “half-men and effeminate men-prostitutes {semviri et effeminati}.” First Variant 10.238-9 in Hammer (1951). In response to a threatening letter from Rome, Auguselus, King of Scotland, urged King Arthur’s court, “Let us attack these half-men {Aggrediamur igitur semiviros illos}.” Historia regum Britanniae 9.515 (sec. 161).

Historia regum Britanniae is freely available online in Latin editions and English translations. For Latin editions, Ellis & Black (1830), Giles & Virunio (1844), and Schulz (1854). The best of these is Giles & Virunio (1844), which is reproduced in Schulz (1854). This unattributed online Latin text is quite close to Reeve & Wright (2009). For freely available English translations, Evans (1904) and Giles (1848). Thorpe (1966) is a relatively low-cost English translation with text-section numbering and an excellent index.

Subsequent quotes above from Historia regum Britanniae are 9.63-8 (sec. 178) (As the commanders on either side…), 4.48-52 (sec. 56) (When the opposing forces were drawn up…), 4.211-2 (sec. 62) (On both sides the wounded fell…), 4.105-6 (sec. 59) (He also conscripted…), 5.335-39 (sec. 85) (Wherever they gained entry…), 6.37-9, 42-9 (sec. 90) (Will your hope always depend on others…), 9.385-91 (sec. 157) (To such a noble state was Britain then restored…), 2.300-2 (sec. 33) (She burned with such fury…), 2.58-60 (sec. 25) (Guendoloena began to run the government…).

[2] Tolhurst superficially interpreted gender in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s works. She focused on valorized female figures:

In Geoffrey’s PM, DGB, and VM, female figures not only play pivotal roles but also perform actions that do the “feminist” work of providing implicit critiques of the brutality, warmongering, moral weakness, and immorality that tend to characterize powerful males in the Galridian world.

Tolhurst (2020) p. 343. Females in Geoffrey’s works don’t lessen violence against men. They encourage it. Tolhurst’s interpretation of Geoffrey’s works apparently hinges on men being regarded as essentially inferior to women:

Within Geoffrey’s metanarrative of kingship, female rule becomes an attractive alternative to male rule because some male monarchs are weak and foolish while others commit crimes of tyranny, warmongering, sexual misconduct, and/or murder.

Id. p. 352. Geoffrey probably wasn’t so weak-minded or gender-bigoted to think that the existence of some bad male rulers implies that any female ruler (“female rule”) is necessarily better.

Geoffrey’s Historia regum Britanniae is a horrific history of violence against men. As meninist literary criticism emphasizes, systemic violence against men should be recognized as a gender injustice. Rulers of any gender should be held accountable for lessening it. Instead, readers typically ignore the most pervasive gender injustice in Historia regum Britanniae: massive violence against men.

[3] Prior to modern women-are-wonderful ideology, women’s potential for violence was occasionally recognized. For example, in ancient Athens, the Athenian councilor Lycidas proposed putting before the Athenian assembly a proposal to capitulate to an invading force. Other Athenian councilors stoned Lydias to death for his perceived betrayal of Athens. Athenian women added additional, cruel punishment:

When the Athenian women learned what was going on, with one calling to another and bidding her to follow, they went on their own motion to the house of Lycidas and stoned to death his wife and children.

{ πυνθάνονται τὸ γινόμενον αἱ γυναῖκες τῶν Ἀθηναίων, διακελευσαμένη δὲ γυνὴ γυναικὶ καὶ παραλαβοῦσα ἐπὶ τὴν Λυκίδεω οἰκίην ἤισαν αὐτοκελέες, καὶ κατὰ μὲν ἔλευσαν αὐτοῦ τὴν γυναῖκα κατὰ δὲ τὰ τέκνα. }

Herodotus, Histories 9.5, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Godley (1920).

[4] Guendoloena was “enraged / full of righteous anger {indignans}” that Locrinus had divorced her and made Estrildis his queen. Historia regum Britanniae 2.54 (sec. 25). Locrinus’s action violated his previous agreement with Corineus. Moreover, Christian teaching strongly opposed divorce. See Matthew 19:3-12. Tolhurst claims that Geoffrey chose “not to villainize this female regent even when she displays extreme anger and orders two killings.” Tolhurst (2020) p. 350. Under gynocentrism, women’s crimes tend to be excused.

[5] Book 7 of Historia regum Britanniae is Prophecies of Merlin {Prophetiae Merlini}. One of Merlin’s prophecies:

All the soil will be overflowingly fruitful, and humanity will not cease fornicating.

{ Omnis humus luxuriabit, et humanitas fornicari non desinet. }

Historia regum Britanniae 7.125-6 (sec. 115). McInerney (2020) perceptively emphasizes the literary character of Prophetiae Merlini, particularly in relation to the Aeneid.

[images] (1) Medieval men fighting on horseback. Illumination from a fourteenth-century instance of La Quête du Saint Graal et la Mort d’Arthus attributed to Gautier Map. Excerpt (color enhanced) from folio 25v of Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Français 343. (2) Knights battle on foot at the Battle of Doncaster. Excerpt from folio 81v of the fifteenth-century St. Alban’s Chronicle, Lambeth Palace Library MS. 6. (3) Men joust while a king and others watch. Illumination from a fourteenth-century instance of La Quête du Saint Graal et la Mort d’Arthus attributed to Gautier Map. Excerpt (color enhanced) from folio 86v of Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Français 343.


Burchmore, David W., ed. and trans. 2019. The History of the Kings of Britain: The First Variant Version. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 57. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ellis, George, and William Henry Black, ed. 1830. Gaufridi Arthurii monemuthensis archidiaconi: postea vero episcopi asaphensis, De vita et vaticiniis Merlini Calidonii; carmen heroicum. Londini: Nicol.

Evans, Sebastian, trans. 1904. Geoffrey of Monmouth. Histories of the Kings of Britain. London: J.M. Dent.

Giles, John Allen and Ludovico Pontico Virunio, ed. 1844. Galfredi Monumetensis Historia Britonum: nunc primum in Anglia novem codd. msstis. collatis. 1967 reprint. New York: Burt Franklin.

Giles, John Allen, trans. 1848. Six Old English chronicles, of which two are now first translated from the monkish Latin originals. London: Bohn. Alternate, annotated presentation, including Geoffrey of Monmouth’s British History.

Godley, A. D., ed and trans. 1920. Herodotus. The Persian Wars {The Histories}. Loeb Classical Library 119. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hammer, Jacob, ed. 1951. Geoffrey of Monmouth: Historia regum Britanniae: a variant version edited from manuscripts. Cambridge, Mass: Mediaeval Academy of America.

Henley, Georgia, and Joshua Byron Smith, eds. 2020. A Companion to Geoffrey of Monmounth. Leiden: Brill.

McInerney, Maud Burnett. 2020. “Riddling Words: the Prophetiae Merlini.” Ch. 4 (pp. 129-152) in Henley & Smith (2020).

Reeve, Michael D., ed. and Neil Wright, trans. 2009. Geoffrey of Monmouth: The History of the Kings of Britain: an edition and translation of De gestis Britonum (Historia regum Britanniae). Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press.

Schulz, Albert. 1854, ed. Gottfried’s von Monmouth Historia Regum Britannie: mit literar-historischer Einleitung und ausführlichen Anmerkungen, und Brut Tysylio, altwälsche Chronik in deutscher Uebersetzung. Halle: E. Anton.

Thorpe, Lewis, trans. 1966. Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain. London: Penguin Books.

Tolhurst, Fiona. 2020. ‘Geoffrey and Gender: the Works of Geoffrey of Monmouth as Medieval “Feminism.”‘ Ch. 12 (pp. 341-368) in Henley and Smith (2020).