unpleasant truth: some persons prefer jerks in love

The authoritative ruling of the medieval council at Remiremont established that clerics are better lovers than knights. Nonetheless, a poor medieval merchant protested knights’ success with women. He complained in a mid-thirteenth-century text:

A woman is better acquainted than any blacksmith
with all those knights who go wandering about the world.
Praise, honor, and renown they go seeking and questing
wherever in the world they know a place of combat.

They talk like them: “This one’s good, this one’s handsome,
that one’s shield is painted, that one’s shield is banded,
this one jousts better than anyone, that one seizes boroughs and castles,
this one is best in fighting, that one is a good jouster.”

Similarly they say about women, straight and to the point,
by castles, cities, towns, and boroughs,
“This one’s name is Jeannette, that one’s name is Eranbourg,
this one has blond hair hanging down, that one has it pulled back.

This one is born in Paris, that one is born in Vernon,
that other one now lives in Chartres, that one in Épernon,
that one was born in Rouen, the other in Gallardon.”
All they do with women, I think, is entice them.

{ Feme a plus d’acointance que mareschal qui ferre
A toz ces chevaliers qui vont errant par terre:
Pris, hennor et renom vont porchaçant et querre
Par toz les leus du mont ou sevent point de guerre.

Ausi conme l’en dit: “Cist est bon, cist est beax,
Cil porte l’escu point, cil le porte à labeax,
Cist joste mielz que nus, cist prent bors et chasteax,
Cist est li plus proisiez, cist fait les bons cenbeax.”

Ausi dit l’on de femes orendroit tout a cors,
Par chasteax, par citez, par viles et par bors:
Ceste a nom Joenneste, ceste a nom Eranbors;
Ceste a blonz crins pendanz, ceste les a rebors ;

Ceste est de Paris nee, ceste est de Vernon,
Cel’autre maint a Chartres et cele a Esparnon,
Cel’est de Roam nee, cel’est de Galardon.”
L’en ne fait mais de femes, ce truis, se gaber non. }[1]

Historically in the literary brutalization of men’s sexuality, the hammering of blacksmiths, sword-fighting, and jousting have been used as metaphors for masculine sexual effort. This merchant imagines women talking with the combat sense of knights. The knights, in contrast, discuss women in terms of appearance and social place (birthplace) from Rouen to Paris on the Seine River and the nearby places of Vernon, Épernon, Gallardon, and Chartres. These common topics of conversation bring knights and women together as narrow-hearted, promiscuous lovers from the merchant’s perspective.

The merchant-narrator bitterly protested women preferring jerks. He declared:

A woman will never love and marry, so help me God,
the man who laments and sighs and weeps for her love.
But the man who batters her and who devours her wealth,
him she loves and values, him she holds dear and honors.

A woman has a bad character and a bad nature
when she has no thought and no care for the man who loves her,
but the man who treats her with crudeness and foulness,
in him she places her heart and effort and care.

{ Feme n’amera ia si m’aist Diex et sequeure,
Celui qui por s’amor plaint et soupire et pleure,
Mais cil qui bien la bat et qui en li deveure,
Celui aime ele et prise et tient chier et honneure.

Feme est de mal atret et de male nature,
Quant a celui qui l’aime ne pensse ne n’a cure,
Mais celui qui li fait vilennie et laidure,
En celui met son cuer et sa peine et sa cure. }[2]

Women singers in northern France in the twelfth and thirteenth century poignantly lamented their love for jerks. Digenis in the twelfth-century Byzantine epic Digenis Akritis regretted being a bigger jerk in response to a beautiful woman loving a jerk. Some medieval men dying in lovesickness loved women who urged them to die more quickly. Those men loved jerks. As bizarre as it seems, some persons prefer to love jerks.

woman flaying the skin off a man's back

The twelfth-century poet Serlo of Wilton recognized with acute self-consciousness the problem of loving jerks. He summarized his own love masochism:

When I’m spurned, I love. Being loved, I spurn. Women that court me
I hate. Nonetheless, I desire to court every one of them.

{ Diligo dum spernor, dilectus sperno; faventes
Odi dum cupiam quamque favere tamen. }[3]

Serlo associated Fortune, personified as a woman, with the well-known prostitute Thais:

If anyone doesn’t know Fortune, let him know Thais.
Like her, she comes when spurned and being sought, flees.
Therefore if you are wise, then when to you it’s bliss to have her,
pretend to be less interested, and she’ll give more.

{ Quisquis Fortunam non novit, Thaida noscat:
Eius more venit spreta, rogata fugit.
Si satis ergo sapis, cum te delectet habere.
Parcius affecta, largius illa dabit. }

The central tenet of the martial art of jujitsu is to use an opponent’s force against her or him. That principle can also be applied to win with Fortune and Love.

Medieval literature of men’s sexed protest provides insight into gender injustices. Laws and norms that magnify gender inequality in parental knowledge and devalue men’s lives represent gender injustices. Yet not all the hurt that men feel in relation to women comes from gender injustice. More tortuous than anything is the human heart, beyond remedy. Both men and women have such human hearts.[4] Men complaining about wounds that they and their fellow men have suffered deserve a compassionate hearing. But no amount of protesting can change human nature or the vicissitudes of life.

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[1] Guide for fools {Chastie musart / Chastiemusart} from BnF Fr. 19152, stanzas 43-46 (vv. 169-184), Old French text and English translation (modified) from Psaki (2016). For a freely accessible edition of the Chastie musart from BnF Fr. 19152, Jubinal (1839) vol. 2, pp. 478-89.

[2] Chastie musart from BnF Fr. 19152, stanzas 16-17 (vv. 61-68), Old French text and English translation (modified) from Psaki (2016). Another thirteenth-century poem of men’s sexed protest makes a similar point:

The attractive and beautiful woman acts similarly,
she who many noble men ask to serve in love.
She could, at her command, have whichever one she wished.
Instead a mangy man comes and mounts her saddle.

{ Lo simele fài la femena q’è avinent e bela,
ke molti nobeli omini de drueria l’apela,
e poria al so comando aver qual voles’ ella:
avanti un fel rognoso se mete sula sela. }

Proverbs that speak about the nature of women {Proverbia que dicuntur super natura feminarum}, stanza 189 (vv. 753-756),  Old Italian text from Meneghetti & Tagliani (2019) pp. 125-6, my English translation, benefiting from the Italian translation of Bonghi & Mangieri (2003). Proverbia que dicuntur super natura feminarum drew upon the Chastie musart. Psaki (2019).

[3] Serlo of Wilton, “Ovid was inclined to love, but I am more inclined {Pronus erat Veneri Naso, sed ego mage pronus}, vv. 17-8, Latin text from Dronke (1965), vol. 2, p. 504, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. The subsequent quote is from Serlo of Wilton, “If you would rather be lost by wealth than lose it {Si mavis perdi lucro quam perdere lucrum},” vv. 9-12, sourced similarly from id. p. 497. Men who act like feudal serfs in seeking women’s love or who subserviently lick women’s feet are more accurately regarded as fools than jerks.

[4] The learned in medieval Europe recognized human perversity (e.g. Jeremiah 17:9) as well as human gender similarity. Psaki recognized in Proverbia que dicuntur super natura feminarum the peculiar theme “women are alien to men in their nature”:

God, what a strange nature I find in women!

Women’s wisdom is very different from ours.

Oh God, what bizarre minds women have!

{ Deu, con’ strania natura en le femene truovo!

Lo seno de le femene da lo nostro è deviso

Eh Dieu, como le femene porta strania rasone }

Proverbia que dicuntur super natura feminarum, vv. 577, 701, 713, Old Italian text from Meneghetti & Tagliani (2019), English translation from Psaki (2019) pp. 131-2. Psaki perceptively noted:

The irony that the Narrator misses is that he has portrayed women’s thinking as identical to that of men, even in the lamentable scenarios that he stages: if women despise and abuse the men who love them, then their abusive men also scorn and abuse the women who love them; if women love those men who despise and abuse them, then so do lovesick men love those women who despise and abuse them. In other words, there is nothing specifically female about this perverse behaviour at all. All the alleged irrationality of women (‘fole’) is balanced by the demonstrated irrationality of the men who pursue them, both groups marked insistently by the same term, ‘fol’.

Id. p. 132. Throughout history, neither misogyny nor misandry is truly relevant for understanding almost all literature concerning gender relations.

[image] Woman flaying the skin off a man’s back. Illumination for stanza 10 from folio 98v (stanzas 7-11) of Proverbia que dicuntur super natura feminarum in MS. Berlin, Staatsbibliothek und Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Saibante-Hamilton 390


Bonghi, Giuseppe, and Cono A. Mangieri, trans. (Italian) with notes. 2003. Proverbia que dicuntur super natura feminarum. Biblioteca dei Classici Italiani. Online. Alternate source.

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

Jubinal, Achille. 1839. Oeuvres complètes de Rutebeuf, trouvère du XIII siècle. Vol. 1Vol. 2. Paris: Pannier.

Meneghetti, Maria Luisa and Roberto Tagliani. 2019. Il Manoscritto Saibante-Hamilton 390: Edizione CriticaImages. Roma: Salerno Editrice.

Psaki, F. Regina. 2016. “The Guide for Fools: The Chastiemusart in BnF Fr. 19152.” Pp. 231-263 in Philip E. Bennett, Leslie Zarker Morgan, and F. Regina Psaki, eds. 2016. The Epic Imagination in Medieval Literature: Essays in Honor of Alice M. Colby-Hall. Romance Monographs S-5. University of Mississippi.

Psaki, F. Regina. 2019. “Medieval misogyny and the French of Italy: the Chastiemusart and the Proverbia que dicuntur super natura feminarum.” Pp. 101-140 in Nicola Morato et Dirk Schoenaers, eds. Medieval Francophone Literary Culture Outside France: Studies in the Moving Word. Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe, 28. Turnhout: Brepols.

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.