Serlo of Wilton shows medieval men’s love ambition

Scholars in medieval Europe knew well Latin classics, especially Virgil, Horace, and Ovid. By the twelfth century, the leading medieval master-teacher of love was Ovid. Just like Jesus, Ovid taught love for all:

A shining-white woman captures me, the golden-haired girl captures me,
and love is also pleasing with a dusky-colored woman.
Does dark-darling hair hang down on a snow-white neck?
Leda was famous for her black hair.
If it’s golden, Aurora pleased with her yellow hair.
My love conforms itself to all those tales.
The young woman entices me, an older woman enchants me —
the one pleases with her body’s looks, the other with greater worth.
All in all, whichever young woman one might praise in the city,
my love aspires to them all.

{ candida me capiet, capiet me flava puella,
est etiam in fusco grata colore Venus.
seu pendent nivea pulli cervice capilli,
Leda fuit nigra conspicienda coma;
seu flavent, placuit croceis Aurora capillis.
omnibus historiis se meus aptat amor.
me nova sollicitat, me tangit serior aetas;
haec melior, specie corporis illa placet.
Denique quas tota quisquam probet urbe puellas,
noster in has omnis ambitiosus amor. }[1]

With broader self-consciousness and with a sense of his flawed biological being, the twelfth-century cleric Serlo of Wilton aspired to know more than Ovid:

Ovid was inclined to love, but I am more inclined.
Gallus was inclined to love, but even more inclined am I.
Corinna charmed Ovid, Lycoris charmed Gallus,
every woman charms me. Not that I think I’d satisfy each.
One sexual action conquers me, while young women can do a thousand.
I can scarcely do one completely, so how could I do a thousand?
I long to please her, while a young woman pleases me.
But I long for one untouched. Once touched she fails to please.
I love only in hope of first intercourse. That hope satisfied,
what’s more to hope? Nothing is beyond that hope.

{ Pronus erat Veneri Naso, sed ego mage pronus,
Pronus erat Gallus, sed mage pronus ego.
Nasoni, Gallo placuere Corinna, Lycoris —
Queque mihi; nec me cuique placere putem:
Unus me coitus vincit, non mille puellas —
Unum qui vix do, quomodo mille dabo?
Opto placere tamen, mihi dum placet ulla, sed a me
Nondum tacta placet — tacta placere sinit.
Spe tantum primi coitus amo; spe satiatus
Ultra quid sperum? Spe nichil ulterius. }[2]

Medieval Christians were taught to incarnate love — to make love in the flesh. The learned Serlo of Wilton recognized the difficulty of doing that with even just two women:

I am placed at a juncture. I love two women. I’d try to pull
either, or neither, but I cannot decide upon which.
One satisfies, the other satisfies, both are noted for extremely lovely
faces. For her I burn, for her I rave in my heart.
She is Venus, the other Thetis. She excels in courtesy, the other in wit,
She cries, “Be mine!” The other fondly loves me.
The fond one deceives me, the crying one so much spurns me.
The crying one will be spurned, the loving one will be deceived!
Her I love more, the other I love more, neither more. So for me double
is love. I am a man with a sort of a double-beseeching heart.
So I desire both, but not that both be given to me.
What, not? Indeed, I do so desire. This love is free of deceit.
I’d prefer to be without my beloved than to win a cheating triumph.
Fraud in a lover is the gravest and greatest of all frauds.
Who is certain and doubts? Only I. Who avoids his
joy? I alone. I rule myself mindlessly.
When oppressed by both, an even more oppressive demon vexes me,
and I fear more a lonely end. Let it not end like this!

{ In bivio ponor: binas amo, ducere conor
unam vel neutram nec mihi constat utram.
Hec satis, illa satis, nimis utraque pulcra notatis
vultibus. Hac uror, hac mihi corde furor.
Hec Venus, illa Thetis; hec comibus, illa facetis
prevalet. Hec clamat: “Sis meus”; hec sat amat.
Fallit que sat amat, spernit que talia clamat:
spernetur clamans, decipietur amans!
Hanc plus, hanc amo plus: neutram plus. Sic mihi duplus
est amor: his suplex sum quasi corde duplex.
Sic utramque volo, quod utramque dari mihi nolo.
Nolo, quid? imo volo: spes vacat ista dolo.
Malo carere mea quam ferre dolosa trophea:
fraude magis quavis fraus in amante gravis.
Quis certus dubitat? ego solus. Quis sua vitat
gaudia? solus ego. Me sine mente rego.
Dum gravor a binis, gravior me vexat Herinis;
plus vereor finis quod mihi non sit in his. }[3]

Although learned in scholastic reasoning, Serlo proposed a simple solution:

I am sort of surviving, when I love so, yet I am about to perish
when I hope in vain. So I am, so I am not.
May every goddess, may every god, allow that I join with both
in having sex! What is better? What further should I ask?

{ Sum quasi mansurus, dum sic amo; sum periturus,
dum frustra spero: sic ero, sic nec ero.
Queque dee, quique dent dii, coiturus utrique
iungar! Quid pocius? Quid precer ulterius? }

Today most persons living in high-income secular societies would find Serlo’s reasoning and request irrefutable. They should appreciate more medieval literature, which includes reason to question Serlo’s desire.

Serlo was a very clever poet. In a poem of 106 verses about love, he formed an internal rhyme in each verse by having two words become one word. One of those verses was this:

I don’t love anything chaste. What I love is nothing but love.

{ Castam non amo rem, quia nil amo preter amorem. }[4]

Through to the Middle Ages, Jewish and Christian teachers emphasized the biblical unity of women and men — the two becoming one flesh. Serlo’s poem about love poetically emphasized two becoming one, and one becoming two.

Serlo ultimately sought the Christian understanding of love in the rigor and simplicity of life as an early Cistercian monk. About 1155, Serlo saw a vision of one of his disciples in a gown of parchment covered with written arguments from the seven arts of scholastic study. That disciple was suffering terribly in purgatory. He explained that his cloak of worldly knowledge was heavily weighing him down. The disciple warned Serlo that he would soon die and suffer a similar fate. Serlo then decided to give up his position as a teacher at the nascent university of Paris and become a monk. Serlo explained his new direction in a couplet:

I leave croaking to frogs, crowing to crows, and vanity to the vain.
I now go to the logic that does not fear the natural coming of death.

{ Linquo coax ranis, cra corvis, vanaque vanis;
Ad logicam pergo que mortis non timet ergo. }[5]

Lady Philosophy in her tattered dress knowingly tried to guide Boethius to marital joy with his wife Rusticiana. An unmarried cleric about fifty years old, Serlo turned to monastic communal life oriented simply toward love of God and neighbor. He eventually became the abbot of the Cistercian abbey at L’Aumône in central France.

The fleshly love ambition of the younger Serlo of Wilton exemplifies medieval men’s passion for women. In late fourteenth-century Catalonia, a secular leader imposed a limit on marital sexual intercourse. In a love case brought before her, the Queen of Aragon, probably Violant de Bar, ruled against a husband for requiring too much sexual intercourse with his wife:

After mature deliberation in her counsel, that good Queen, in order to give for all times a rule and example of the moderation and modesty required in a proper marriage, ordained for the limits of legitimacy and necessity the number six times per day. She thus sacrificed and surrendered much of the need and desire of her sex in order to establish, she said, an undemanding standard and consequently one permanent and immutable.

{ apres meure deliberation de conseil, cette bonne Royne, pour donner reigle et exemple à tout temps de la moderation et modestie requise en un juste mariage, ordonna pour bornes legitimes et necessaires le nombre de six par jour ; relachant et quitant beaucoup du besoing et desir de son sexe, pour establir, disoit elle, une forme aysée et par consequent permanante et immuable }[6]

That standard is undemanding relative to the heroic sexual performance of Charlemagne’s peer Oliver. However, the sixteenth-century legal official and philosopher Michel de Montaigne doubted his own ability to satisfy that medieval legal standard. With the growth of ignorance and bigotry since Montaigne explored himself, many minds now believe that almost everybody shunned pleasure and love in medieval Europe. That’s a more apt description of the barren lifestyle of the fervently busy intellectual-apparatchiks of our time.

Ponder, for example, a witty anecdote from the learned and influential medieval church official Poggio Bracciolini. Poggio recounted:

At Tivoli, an insufficiently thoughtful friar was preaching to the people. He was piling up many words and cursing adultery, saying among other things, that adultery was such a grave sin that he would rather carnally know ten virgins than one married woman. Many men who were present would choose the same.

{ Praedicabat Tibure Frater parum consideratus ad populum, aggravans multis verbis ac detestans adulterium, dixitque inter caetera, adeo esse grave peccatum, ut mallet decem virgines cognoscere quam unicam mulierem nuptam. Hoc et multi, qui aderant, elegissent. }[7]

Many medieval men knew that the Kingdom of Heaven is like ten virgins. Learned medieval authors parodied sacred liturgy and even women. In our sternly moralistic age, prudent persons must now choose their words fearfully. Serlo of Wilton wouldn’t be tolerated as a holy man in the dominant orthodoxy of today.

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[1] Ovid, Loves {Amores} 2.4.39-48, Latin text from the Teubner edition of Ehwald (1907) via Perseus, my English translation. For online, freely available English translations of Amores, Drake (2005), Kline (2001), Showerman (1914), and Marlowe (1580s).

[2] Serlo of Wilton, “Ovid was inclined to love, but I am more inclined {Pronus erat Veneri Naso, sed ego mage pronus},” vv. 1-10, Latin text from Dronke (1965), vol. 2, p. 504, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. Serlo taught as a grammarian {grammaticus} in Paris. He wrote his love poems before he became a monk about 1155.

This and other of Serlo’s love poems follow Ovidian models. Serlo’s “Pronus erat Veneri Naso, sed ego mage pronus” apparently extends Ovid, Amores 2.4 (excerpted above). Serlo’s “I am placed at a juncture. I love two women. I’d try to pull {In bivio ponor: binas amo, ducere conor}” builds upon Ovid, Amores 2.10. Serlo’s “A certain night, in a certain place, I was with a certain young woman {Quadam nocte, loco quodam, cum virgine quadam}” is “a brilliant attempt to out-Ovid Ovid, to surpass even Amores, I.5, in graphic detail.” Dronke (1965) vol. 1, p. 241. This poem and an English translation are in id., vol. 2, pp. 505-7. Serlo displays “effortless mastery of rhythm and rhyme.” Dronke (1965) vol. 1, p. 241.

The current best edition of Serlo’s poetry is Öberg (1965). Dronke (1965) vol. 2, pp. 493-512, provides Serlonian verse, mainly concerning love. For four previously unpublished religious works of Serlo, Braceland (1988). Serlo also collected proverbs in Latin and in vernacular languages. For these, Friend (1954) and Solan (1973) for English translations of the Latin proverbs. On Serlo’s poems in BnF Latin 6765, Hauréau (1890) pp. 302-24. For a summary of Serlo’s writings, Rigg (1992) pp. 70-2. Solan (1973) reviews Serlo’s life and provides an English translation and literary analysis for all the poems in Öberg (1965).

[3] Serlo of Wilton, “I am placed at a juncture. I love two women. I’d try to pull {In bivio ponor: binas amo, ducere conor},” vv. 1-18, Latin text from Dronke (1965), vol. 2, p. 493, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. The subsequent quote above is similarly from “In bivio ponor” vv. 29-32 (of 32).

Dronke and Rigg argue that Serlo’s love poems are playful, intellectual exercises that are far from the poet’s personal experience. Rigg (1992) p. 71; Dronke (1965) vol. 1, p. 241. According to Dronke, Serlo was unquestionably the most brilliant “among the authors of amatory essais de style.” Id. p. 239. Primates, including men, very rarely rape females, so Serlo’s “Quadam nocte, loco quodam, cum virgine quadam” should be regarded as unrealistic. Other of Serlo’s love poems seem to me likely to reflect his personal experience.

[4] Serlo of Wilton, “Cypris Aphrodite, the gods fear you: you are mightier than wealthy Jove {Cipre, timent dii te: tu fortior es Iove dite},” v. 6, Latin text from Dronke (1965), vol. 2, p. 497, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. Dronke supplies the whole poem, with an English translation.

Dronke called “Cipre, timent dii te: tu fortior es Iove dite” Serlo’s “greatest tour de force.” Its punning leonine verse “Serlo either invented or made distinctively his own.” More generally:

Serlo is a virtuoso delighting in language for its own sake, delighting in finding new similarities of sound, making many-sidedness of thought simply an extension of the many-sidedness of language.

Dronke (1965) vol. 1, p. 239, 240-41 (including two previous short quotes).

[5] Jacques de Vitry, Common Sermons {Sermones vulgares}, verse cited in exemplum 31, Latin text from Crane (1890) p. 12, English translation (modified slightly) from id. p. 146. This exemplum tells the story of Serlo’s conversion from clerical teaching to monastic life.

manuscript from Serlo of Wilton's life: Troyes, Bibliothèque municipale, MS. 0946, folio 5v, excerpt

A slightly different version of Serlo’s conversion story survives in Troyes, Médiathèque du Grand Troyes, Ms. 946 (Troyes, Bibliothèque municipale, 946). This version, the earliest version, was available to Serlo himself. A marginal note in red ink explains:

This vision, as described here, had been received by a monk as certain from Abbot Serlo himself. Nevertheless, we later came to be less sure about it, not surprisingly given what we heard. When a brother asked him about it informally, at Clairvaux in the presence of others of our Order, the Abbot would neither confirm nor deny it. On the contrary, he left us uncertain, for he did not even want to set eyes on the account of it in this book when it was offered to him. He expressed his regret that he had given rise to it by his words. He added, however, in support of some certainty, that the story of his conversion was not to be dismissed lightly. It was that of a man both inflated by much education and enmeshed in carnal desires and the chains of the present life, as he admitted had been the case with him.

{ Licet hanc visionem ut scribitur quidam monachus a domno abbate Serlone pro certo accepisset, tamen postea eam incertam, nec inmerito, tenemus, quoniam super hujus visionis certitudine a quodam fratre apud Claram Vallem familiariter inquisitus coram quibusdam ex nostris, idem abbas nec confessus est, nec negavit, sed incertos nos reliquit, quia nec eam videre in hoc libro sic scriptam cum ad videndum obtulissemus voluit, penitentiam agens quod umquam eam oretenus depronsit; subjungens tamen, ad argumentum alicujus certitudinis, quod non pro minimo ducenda est sue causa conversionis, utpote viri tam multis inflati litteris quam carnalibus desideriis irretiti et vite presentis vinculis, sicut ipse de se testatus. }

Troyes, Ms. 946, folio 166r, Latin transcription from Legendre (2000) p. 67 n. 94 & pp. 420-1, English translation (modified) from Thomson (1999) p. 4. On this text, Schwob (1899), and on Schwob’s study of it, Stead (2007). On the various accounts of Serlo’s conversion, Hauréau (1876), pp. 242-6, Crane (1890), pp. 145-6, and Solan (1973), pp. 18-33.

Serlo initially became a Cluniac monk at Charité-sur-Loire. But the laxity of the discipline there displeased him. He subsequently switched to the newly formed Cistercian order that emphasized Saint Benedict’s original monastic ideals of communal work, austerity, fellowship, and prayer. He become a Cistercian monk at L’Aumône Abbey in the 1160s and become abbot there about 1173. Serlo died in 1181. On Serlo’s biography, Rigg (1996), Raby (1953) pp. 340-2.

Jacopo Passavanti in his Mirror of True Penitence {Specchio di vera penitenza}, a collection of Lenten sermons preached about Florence in 1354, included a translated and slightly elaborated version of Serlo’s couplet:

I leave croaking to the frogs and crowing to the crows and vain things of the world to the vain men, and I go to such logic that does not fear the finality of death, namely to the Holy Religion.

{ Io lascio alle rane il graccidare e a’ corvi il crocitare, e le cose vane del mondo agli uomini vani; e io me ne vado a tale loica, che non teme le conclusione della morte: cioè alla santa Religione. }

Italian text (early Florentine dialect) and English translation (modified) from Houston (2010) p. 110. Passavanti’s translation underscores the religious orientation of the couplet.

[6] Michel de Montaigne, Essays {Essais} 3.5 (389v), “On some lines of Virgil {Sur des vers de Virgile},” French text from the Villey & Saulnier (1965) version of the 1595 edition of Essais, English translation (modified) from Screech (1993) p. 965. Screech cites this love-court ruling to André Tiraqueau {Andreas Tiraquellus}, About marital laws {De legibus connubialibus} 15.1. Tiraquellus’s De legibus connubialibus was first published in Lyon in 1513 and then revised and expanded through to 1546.

Tiraquellus doesn’t specify who is the Queen of Aragon, but indicates that the case was in Catalonia. Courts of love are discussed in Andreas Capellanus’s late-twelfth-century treatise, On Love {De amore}. Capellanus doesn’t refer to a Queen of Aragon. The ruling that Tiraquellus cites seems to have come from a subsequent love court:

In Spain the work of Andreas served as a textbook for those courts of love that were established in Barcelona by King Juan of Aragon (1350-1396) and his wife Violant de Bar. These courts were supposed to be a revival of those that had formerly been conducted by Queen Eleanor and Countess Marie, but the spirit of the Catalan courts was quite different from that which had animated the earlier ones, for here it was the rule that no gentleman could pay court to a lady without first obtaining the permission of her husband, and most of the affairs seem to have consisted only of lengthy discussions of elaborate problems of love casuistry. These courts reached their height during the years 1387-1389, when King Juan fell under the influence of Na Carrosa de Vilaragut, and it appears that the Catalan translation of Andreas’s book was made at this time.

Parry (1941) p. 23.

The great ancient Greek lawmaker Solon required marital sex no less than three times a month:

It also proves that Solon was a very experienced legislator of marriage laws. He prescribed that a man should consort with his wife not less than three times a month — not for pleasure surely, but as cities renew their mutual agreements from time to time, just so he must have wished this to be a renewal of marriage and with such an act of tenderness to wipe out the complaints that accumulate from everyday living.

{ τόν τε Σόλωνα μαρτυρεῖ γεγονέναι τῶν γαμικῶν ἐμπειρότατον νομοθέτην, κελεύσαντα μὴ ἔλαττον ἢ τρὶς κατὰ μῆνα τῇ γαμετῇ πλησιάζειν, οὐχ ἡδονῆς ἕνεκα δήπουθεν, ἀλλ᾿ ὥσπερ αἱ πόλεις Bδιὰ χρόνου σπονδὰς ἀνανεοῦνται πρὸς ἀλλήλας, οὕτως ἄρα βουλόμενον ἀνανεοῦσθαι τὸν γάμον ἐκ τῶν ἑκάστοτε συλλεγομένων ἐγκλημάτων ἐν τῇ τοιαύτῃ φιλοφροσύνῃ. }

Plutarch, Moralia, The Dialogue on Love 769, Greek text and English translation from Minar, Sandbach & Helmbold (1961). Similarly, Plutarch, Life of Solon 20.

[7]  PoggioFacetiae 44, “About a preacher who preferred to choose ten virgins rather than one married woman {De praedicatore qui potius decem virgines quam nuptam unam eligebat},” Latin text from Poggio (1879) vol. 1, p. 79, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. On the Kingdom of Heaven being like ten virgins, Matthew 25:1.

[images] (1) A medieval teacher instructing students in an edition of Guyart des Moulins’s Historical Bible or History for Students {La Bible historiaux ou les histoires escolastres}. Guyart’s Bible Historiale, which he completed about 1294, was the first and most important medieval Bible written in French. This illumination comes from a manuscript made in the first quarter of the fifteenth century. Excerpt (color adjusted) from folio 1 of Paris, Bibliothèque Mazarine, ms. 0313. (2) Decorated initial and text made from folio 5v of Troyes, Bibliothèque municipale, MS. 0946. Serlo of Wilton apparently saw this manuscript. It thus must have been made between 1174 and 1181. See note 5 above and Thomson (1999) p. 4.


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