lovesick medieval man would rise like a cedar of Lebanon

In medieval Europe, men suffered terribly from lovesickness. Lovesickness was like a plague that never ended. Men’s deaths from lovesickness weren’t continually aggregated and reported, but few would doubt that men were dying from lovesickness. Medical knowledge from the relatively advanced Muslim world offered detailed prescriptions for treating lovesickness. However, medieval healthcare for men could be unobtainably expensive. Desperately working their minds, some medieval men turned to poetry in the hope of soliciting a cure.

One spring, a medieval man became lovesick for a lovely, sophisticated blond woman named Phyllis. He explained:

A fiery spark
flew down from her,
whom I love more
that all others known.
It inflamed my heart,
a heart that is becoming ash!
If Venus’s servant-woman
doesn’t care for me,
the fire will endure,
and I, one who lives, will die.
Thus make it so, kindly Phyllis,
that I would enjoy quiet time
with you, lip joined to lip and chest to breasts.

{ Ardoris scintilla
devolans ab illa,
quam prae totis
amo notis,
cor meum ignivit,
quod cor fit favilla.
Veneris ancilla
si non curat,
ardor durat,
moritur qui vivit.
Ergo fac, benigna Phyllis,
ut iocunder in tranquillis,
dum os ori iungitur et pectora mamillis! }[1]

A warm-hearted medieval woman saved a dying, lovesick man. Phyllis might have likewise rescued this man from death. Medieval women loved men. Men’s lives mattered then.

Love relationships are complicated and can cause their own wounds. One has to choose the best among less than ideal options. Another medieval man declared:

I ask from one, whose kiss
can save me from death, that she grant me only this:
I long to be bound to her by a bond of love.
Sweet is my desire to wounded by this spear!

I make one judgment about myself that I hold to be true:
unless she that I choose is granted to me, I will die.

{ Unam quidem postulo tantum michi dari,
cuius quidem osculo potest mors vitari:
huic amoris vinculo cupio ligari.
Dulce est hoc iaculo velle vulnerari.

Unum de me iudico, quod verum habetur:
morior, quam eligo nisi michi detur. }[2]

Surely it’s better to be imprisoned than to die. However, men are vastly disproportionately imprisoned relative to women. Men also have a shorter expected lifespan than women. As a matter of gender justice, women should have compassion for men.

In medieval Europe, men languishing in lovesickness sought understanding and comfort from God. The God of the Bible, after all, had a rather tumultuous love affair with his people. In the medieval poem “If I were to speak in the tongues of men and angels {Si linguis angelicis loquar et humanis},” a Christian man cried out:

I have always carried love’s arrow buried in my heart.
Thousands and thousands of times so I sigh,
saying, “Creator of all, how have I sinned against you?”
I have borne the burdens of all lovers.

Drink, food, and sleep escape from me.
I can find no medicine for my misfortunes.
Christ, do no allow me to perish like this,
but fittingly provide a wretch the help he deserves.

These privations and many more have I endured.
No consolation fortifies me against my cares,
except repeatedly in the darkness of night
I am with you in forms shaped by dreaming imagination.

{ Telum semper pectore clausum portitavi,
milies et milies inde suspiravi,
dicens: “rerum conditor, quid in te peccavi?”
Omnium amantium pondera portavi.

Fugit a me bibere, cibus et dormire,
medicinam nequeo malis invenire.
Christe, non me desinas taliter perire,
sed dignare misero digne subvenire!

Has et plures numero pertuli iacturas,
nec ullum solacium munit meas curas,
ni quod sepe sepius per noctes obscuras
per imaginarias tecum sum figuras. }[3]

This man’s dreams seem to have been not of God, but of his beloved woman. Gyno-idolatry is a grave risk for men. This man addressed his beloved woman:

My rose, seeing how I have been wounded,
the number and magnitude of torments I have endured for you,
now, if you will, make me such that I would be healed,
unharmed, and restored to life through you.

If you do this, I will rejoice in you,
I will flourish and rise up like a cedar of Lebanon.
But if, though I do not fear it, I am deceived in you,
I will suffer shipwreck and mortal peril.

{ Rosa, videns igitur, quam sim vulneratus,
quot et quantos tulerim per te cruciatus,
nunc, si placet, itaque fac, ut sim sanatus,
per te sim incolumis et vivificatus.

Quod quidem si feceris, in te gloriabor,
tamquam cedrus Libani florens exaltabor.
Sed si, quod non vereor, in te defraudabor,
patiar naufragium et periclitabor. }

Rose was a term of praise for the Virgin Mary. The man’s reference to “torments {cruciatus}” and being restored to life allude to Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. In Romans, Paul declared that Christ died for the ungodly, and we will “rejoice in God {gloriamur in Deo}.”[4] This medieval man hoped to rejoice in his beloved woman.

Insistently connecting Heaven and earth in godly appreciation for men’s sexuality, the medieval man of “Si linguis angelicis loquar et humanis” declared that if his beloved woman would be receptive to healing his lovesickness, he would rise like a cedar of Lebanon. In Sirach / Ecclesiasticus, wisdom proclaims:

I grew tall like a cedar of Lebanon,
and like a cypress on the heights of Hermon.

{ Quasi cedrus exaltata sum in Libano,
et quasi cypressus in monte Sion. }[5]

This figure of the cedar of Lebanon was applied to the Virgin Mary in the Christian liturgy. Moreover, early Christian church leaders (the church fathers) regularly used the lofty, strong cedars of Lebanon as a figure for outstanding manliness (virtue).[6] However, the psalmist more moralistically declared:

I have seen a wicked man overbearing
and towering like a cedar of Lebanon.
Then he passed away, and behold, he was no more.
I searched for him, but he could not be found.

{ εἶδον ἀσεβῆ ὑπερυψούμενον
καὶ ἐπαιρόμενον ὡς τὰς κέδρους τοῦ Λιβάνου
καὶ παρῆλθον καὶ ἰδοὺ οὐκ ἦν
καὶ ἐζήτησα αὐτόν καὶ οὐχ εὑρέθη ὁ τόπος αὐτοῦ

רָאִיתִי רָשָׁע עָרִיץ וּמִתְעָרֶה כְּאֶזְרָח רַעֲנָן׃
וַיַּעֲבֹר וְהִנֵּה אֵינֶנּוּ וָאֲבַקְשֵׁהוּ וְלֹא נִמְצָא׃ }

In “Si linguis angelicis loquar et humanis,” rising like a cedar of Lebanon figures the man’s erection labor. The context in the psalm underscores that life is transient. So too is a man’s sexual effort if it doesn’t contribute to a chain of fruitful human beings. In a detailed analysis of “Si linguis angelicis loquar et humanis,” a learned literary scholar archly remarked:

Needless to say, the remedy our lover desires will not make him either wise or in any way like the Virgin. [7]

Trees are an ancient symbol of men’s sexuality. The poet of “Si linguis angelicis loquar et humanis” was wise and like God in envisioning a fleshly cure for the man’s lovesickness.

tree trunk: strong wood

Respecting lovesick men’s potential to rise like cedars of Lebanon respects God’s creation and men’s nature. A medieval proverb declared:

Even if a dog were to go to church
a thousand times a day, it would still be a dog.

{ Gienge ein hunt des tages tûsent stunt
ze kirchen, er ist doch ein hunt. }[8]

Men have long been disparaged as dogs. Men in fact are fully human beings. In medieval Christian understanding, going to church wasn’t meant to make men into something less than fully human beings. The medieval Christian church was able to imagine healing of a lovesick man such that he virtuously rose like a cedar of Lebanon. That’s godly poetry.

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[1]  Carmina Burana 156, “Greetings, long-desired spring {Salve, ver optatum},” stanza 5 (of 5), Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018). Phyllis and Flora weighed the relative merits of clerics and knights as lovers.

[2] Carmina Burana 139, “The awful time of winter’s cold has passed {Tempus transit horridum, frigus hiemale},” stanzas 4, 6.1-2. Here’s Maximilian Nicolai’s instrumental rendition of this song.

The lovesick man warns her beloved woman about regrets in old age:

If I laugh after being wounded, the injury is sweet.
If I weep after the laughter, such is nature’s course.
But when the harsh time of her old age comes,
let her lament what she did in that future punishment.

{ Si post vulnus risero, dulcis est laesura.
Si post risum flevero, talis est natura.
Sed cum aetas venerit senectutis dura,
lugeat quod fecerit pro poena futura. }

“Tempus transit horridum, frigus hiemale,” stanza 5 (of 6), sourced as previously.

[3] Carmina Burana 77, “If I were to speak in the tongues of men and angels {Si linguis angelicis loquar et humanis},” stanzas 19-21, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018). The subsequent quote above is similarly from this song, stanzas 22-3 (of 33). The title of the poem echoes 1 Corinthians 13:1, a verse that begins a passage praising love.

[4] The rosary, which involves repetitions of “Hail Mary” prayers, in name comes from rosarium, a Latin term for rose-garden. In Dante’s Commedia, Beatrice invites Dante to gaze upon the Virgin Mary in a heavenly garden that Christ’s radiance lights:

There is the rose in which the Word of God
was turned to flesh. There are the lilies
for whose fragrance the right way was chosen.

{ Quivi è la rosa in che ‘l verbo divino
carne si fece; quivi son li gigli
al cui odor si prese il buon cammino. }

Paradiso 23:73-5, Italian text and English translation from the Princeton Dante Project. The thirteenth-century Romance of the Rose outrageously represented a sense of an incarnate rose. On rejoicing in God, Romans 5:11.

[5] Sirach / Ecclesiasticus 23:13 (23:17 in the Vulgate verse numbering). Sirach was originally written in Hebrew, but only about two-thirds of the Hebrew text survives. Jewish and most Protestant Christian authorities do not regard Sirach as part of the Bible of divine teachings.

The subsequent quote above is Psalms 37:35-6. The Hebrew text of Psalms 37:35 is difficult to understand. The Vulgate version of this verse (numbered as Psalms 36:35) attempted to translate the Hebrew. The King James Version followed the Vulgate:

I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay tree.

{ res vidi impium robustum et fortissimum sicut indigenam virentem }

Biblical texts via Blue Letter Bible.

[6] Robertson (1976) p. 148, Walsh (1993) p. 71.

[7] Robertson (1976) p. 148. Medieval literature dared to parody divine liturgy and even women. For further commentary on this poem, see my post on courtly love ideology, notes 2-6 and associated text.

Horace, who was well-known in medieval Europe, used extensively the tree as a symbol of the sexual active penis. A scholar expounding sexual symbolism in Horace’s love odes observed:

The chief symbols are three: tree, water, and wind. Tree and water are at once the more important and complex of the three, the former showing numerous extensions and analogues, while water as a symbol is perhaps more accurately subordinated to the liquid principal in general. The tree, of course, signifies the phallus, water the female genitalia and wind sexual passion. None of this is Horace’s invention. Doubtless all three are immemorially ancient religious-fertility symbols; as literary symbols, perhaps all, and certainly tree and water, trace back to Homer himself.

Minadeo (1975) p. 392. The tree as a symbol of the freely active penis occurs in Homer with Odysseus riding a log after a destructive storm shipwrecked him in sailing away from Calypso.

[8] Carmina Burana, Add. 17, “The gnat has to make a mighty effort {Diu mucke muoz sich sêre müejen / Diu mukke můz sich sere muen},” vv. 3-4, Middle High German text and English translation from Traill (2018). This text comes from Freidank’s early thirteenth-century collection of short proverbial sayings written in Middle High German verse and called Discernment {Bescheidenheit}.

[image] Photo of a tree trunk. By Douglas Galbi.


Minadeo, Richard. 1975. “Sexual Symbolism in Horace’s Love Odes.” Latomus. 34 (2): 392-424.

Robertson, D. W. 1976/1980. “Two Poems from the Carmina Burana.” American Benedictine Review 27 (1): 36-59, reprinted pp. 131-50 in Robertson, D. W. 1980. Essays in medieval culture. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press (cited to  pages in 1980 reprint).

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

Walsh, Patrick Gerard. 1993. Love lyrics from the Carmina Burana. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Review by Richard Whitaker.

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