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?”

* * * * *

Read more:


[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.

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