mother-daughter domestic violence in medieval Europe

Policies and institutions addressing domestic violence are typically cesspools of anti-men gender bigotry. Portraying men as violent brutes beating their wives and children is popular, particularly among academics. Documenting women’s violence against men and children tends to be regarded today as hateful, or even worse, anti-feminist. Medieval European literature, however, didn’t harshly prohibit disfavored representations of social reality. Medieval poetry includes poignant, troubling sketches of mother-daughter conflict and mother-daughter violence.

Just as for fathers, most mothers throughout history have dearly loved their children. Despite being a virgin, Mary, the mother of Jesus, was regarded as a model Jewish-Christian mother. Jesus caused his mother heartache and said some cold words about her.[1] Nonetheless, Mary loved her child with all her heart and soul and strength. A twelfth-century poem imagined, during Jesus’s crucifixion, Mary crying out:

Spare my son, I beg you!
Crucify his mother
or nail both of us
to the cross together!
For him to die alone is wrong.

Return to the most sorrowful woman
his body, even lifeless,
so that he so humiliated,
crucified, may grow
with my kisses and embraces.

If only my grief were such
that I died in grieving!
For it is more grievous
to die without dying
than to perish quickly.

{ Nato, quaeso, parcite!
Matrem crucifigite
aut in crucis stipite
nos simul affigite!
Male solus moritur.

Reddite maestissimae
corpus vel exanime
ut sic minoratus
crescat cruciatus
osculis, amplexibus!

Utinam sic doleam,
ut dolore peream!
Nam plus est dolori
sine morte mori
quam perire citius. }[2]

Mary undoubtedly would have lamented likewise if her only daughter was being crucified.

Nonetheless, painful mother-daughter conflicts do occur. These conflicts commonly concern the daughter’s amorous affairs. Galician-Portuguese “songs about a beloved man {cantigas de amigo},” composed between 1200 and 1350, show enduring patterns of mother-daughter conflict. As a matter of family interests, mothers want to know about their daughters’ amorous affairs:

“Daughter, I’d really like to know
something about your boyfriend and you:
how it’s going, or how it’s turning out.”
“Mother, I want to tell you that
I love him and he loves me
and there’s nothing else, I’m telling you.”

{ “Filha, de grado queria saber
de voss’ amig’ e de vós ũa ren:
como vos vai ou como vos aven”
“Eu volo quero, mha madre, dizer:
quero lh’ eu ben e que-lo el a mi
e ben vos digo que non á mais i” }[3]

Mothers tend to suspect that there’s more than what their daughters are telling them. Moreover, some mothers are jealous of their daughters’ affections:

“Tell me, mother, why did you put me
in such a prison, and why did you deprive me
of being able to see my boyfriend?”
“Because, daughter, since you met him
he’s done nothing but try to steal you from me.”

{ “Dizede, madre, por que me metestes
en tal prison, e por que mi tolhestes
que non possa meu amigo veer?”
“Por que, filha, des que o vós conhocestes,
nunca punhou erg’ en mi vos tolher” }[4]

Daughters tend to respond defiantly to restrictions on them seeing their boyfriends:

By God, I beg you, mother, to tell me
what I did to you, that you should guard me
from going to San Leuter to talk with my boyfriend.

Do the worst that you can to me now,
because you won’t guard me, even though you’d like,
from going to San Leuter to talk with my boyfriend.

{ Por Deus vos rogo, madre, que mi digades
que vos mereci que mi tanto guardades
d’ ir a San Leuter falar con meu amigo

Fazede mh ora quanto mal vós poderdes,
ca non me guardaredes, pero quiserdes,
d’ ir a San Leuter falar con meu amigo }[5]

Boyfriends inevitably get embroiled in mother-daughter conflict. Putting their boyfriends at risk of grave criminal punishment, daughters sometimes urge their boyfriends to “abduct” them:

It’s been a long time, my boyfriend, that God didn’t want
me to be able to see you with my eyes,
and yet, for all that, my mother doesn’t keep
her eyes on mine, boyfriend, and since this is so,
arrange for us to leave here, by God,
and then let my mother do whatever she can!

I haven’t seen you for so long, nor could it be,
because my mother prevented it, since she was upset
by this whole thing, and still is, and has kept me
from seeing you, boyfriend, and since this is so,
arrange for us to leave here, by God,
and then let my mother do whatever she can!

Because I haven’t seen you for so long
and haven’t seen any joy since then,
because my mother prevented it, and so made sure
I wouldn’t see you, boyfriend, and since this is so,
arrange for us to leave here, by God,
and then let my mother do whatever she can!

And if you don’t arrange it very soon,
you’ll be killing yourself, boyfriend, and killing me.

{ Gran temp’ á, meu amigo, que non quis Deus
que vos veer podesse dos olhos meus,
e non pon, con tod’ esto, en mi os seus
olhos mha madr’, amig’, e, pois ést’ assi,
guisade de nos irmos, por Deus, daqui,
e faça mha madr’ o que poder des i

Non vos vi á gran tempo nen se guisou,
ca o partiu mha madre, a que pesou
daqueste preit’, e pesa, e min guardou
que vos non viss’, amig’, e, pois ést’ assi,
guisade de nos irmos, por Deus, daqui,
e faça mha madr’ o que poder des i

Que vos non vi á muito, e nulha ren
non vi des aquel tempo de nen un ben,
ca o partiu mha madre, e fez por en
que vos non viss’, amig’, e, pois ést’ assi,
guisade de nos irmos, por Deus, daqui,
e faça mha madr’ o que poder des i

E, se o non guisardes mui ced’ assi,
matades vos, amig’, e matades min }[6]

Criminal law commonly includes the serious crime of “abduction with intent to defile.” That crime is deeply rooted in anti-men gender bias in defining and punishing sexual offenses. Mother-daughter conflict thus can create grave risk of penal harm to men.

Queen Amata scolds Lavinia in Heinrich von Veldeke's Eneasroman

Mother-daughter conflict can more directly lead to domestic violence. Early in the thirteenth century, the minnesinger Neidhart sang about mother-daughter conflict over the daughter Jeute attending a dance:

“Mother dear, if you let me go there,
then I’ll dance proudly in the group
in front of all the guys, so that they’ll have to admit,
and you yourself will see,
that I don’t drag my toes on the ground.”

“Little daughter, if you go to
the one who sang the gympen gæmpel,
— he has been bragging — and if he catches sight of you,
then he’ll set his trap for you.
If you don’t stay home, then I’ll pinch you.”

“You’ll waste your pinches and beatings.
You want to make me angry today
by forbidding me to do what he’s asked of me.
I’ll help him to dance.
Today you’ll weed your garden without Jeute.”

“Get away from me now and be silent!
You tramp, if I catch you,
you’ll do a dance that you’ll regret,
and your back will be sore from it.
I’ll make sure that you give up your tramping around, you toad!”

{ “Muter min, læstu mich dar,
stolzlichen springe ich an der schar
vor den chnappen allen, daz si mir muzzen jehen,
selbe soltu sehen
daz ich uf der erde niht siffel mit der zehen.”

“Tohterlin, tustů den ganch,
du daz gympen gæmpel sanch,
der hat sich vermezzen, und werd im din ein blich,
er lege dir sinen strich.
bistu niht hie helme, dir wirt von mir ein zwich.”

“Zwiche und sleg hastu verlorn.
du wild hiwer ræiczen den zorn,
daz du mir verbiutest des er mich hat gebeten.
ich gehilf im treten,
du must hiwer ane Jeuten dinen garten ieten.”

“Strich von mir balde unde sweich.
hey strouche, und vergen ich dir den steich,
du getust ein springen daz dir ze leide wirt
und dinen rucke swirt.
ich geschaffe daz dich chrot diu ræise gar verbiert.” }[7]

Mothers shouldn’t beat their daughters. Mothers shouldn’t call their daughters tramps, whores, or toads. This vicious mother not surprisingly also demonizes the man who sings the gympen gæmpel, an erotic dance. Demonization of men’s sexuality contributes to the penal justice system vastly gender-proportionately incarcerating persons with penises.

Young women typically seek to wear clothing that attracts the male gaze. In an early thirteenth-century minnesong, Neidhart sang about one young woman who wanted to wear her fine clothes to a feast that a knight she fancied was attending. Her mother forbid her daughter to do so. The daughter responded rebelliously:

“Mother, who gave you such authority
that I must ask your permission to wear my fine clothing?
You didn’t spin a single thread of it.
Stop your fussing.
Where is the key? Open the closet at once.”

The clothing was locked in a chest
that was forced open with a stick.
Nothing worse had ever happened to the old mother.
When her daughter broke her trunk,
she held her tongue and didn’t say anything.

From there the daughter quickly took the little skirt
that was folded in many narrow pleats.
Her belt was a fine band.
The proud young woman threw her colorful ball
into Reuental’s hand.

The old woman took a big stick.
She began to beat and shove her daughter.
“That’s what you’ll get from Reuental.
His coat is ragged.
Now get out, let the devil take you today!”

{ “Muter min, wer gap dir daz ze lêhen,
daz ich iuch mîner wæte solde vlegen?
dern gespunt ir nie vadem.
læzzet ruwen solhen chradem.
Wa nu sluzzel? sliuzz ůf balde mir das gadem.”

Diu wat diu was in einem schrine versperret,
daz wart bi einem staffel ůf zezerret.
diu alte ir leider nie gesah.
do daz chint ir chisten brach,
do gesweig ir zunge, daz si niht ensprach.

Dar uz nam sî daz rochel also balde,
daz was gelegen in maniger chleinen valde.
ir gurtel was ein rime smal.
in des hant von Riwental.
warf diu stolcze maget ir gykelvehen pal.

Diu alte diu begreif einen rochen grozzen.
si begunde ir tohter bliwen unde stozzen.
“daz habe dir des von Riwental.
ruch ist im sîn uberval.
Nu var hin, daz hiut der tivel uz dir chal.” }[8]

Despite this mother projecting her domestic violence onto her daughter’s lover Reuental, the conflict isn’t fundamentally about Reuental. Their conflict is about challenging her authority. In another poem attributed to Neidhart, the mother relents and beats her daughter as she sends her off to meet Reuental:

The mother grabbed a heavy stick.
“All right, then, push off! I’m sick of you.”
She knocked her so hard that the whole house rang.
she gave her many swift blows
and packed her off toward Reuental.

{ Diu muoter diu krift eine kunkel swære.
“nû var hin! dû bist mir gar unmære.”
si gap ir einz, daz in dem hûse erschal;
über al
gap si ir vil starke slege schiere
und schihte sî gein Riuwental. }[9]

Mothers’ authority under gynocentrism is obfuscated. Challenging a mother’s authority makes its existence obvious. That transgression alone can be enough to prompt a violent response.

daughter shows her mature (hirsute) genitals to her medieval mother

Study of mothers and daughters in medieval German literature has put forward intricate intellectual constructions to efface these and other realistic accounts of mothers’ domestic violence against daughters. Effacing mothers’ domestic violence against daughters begins with a wholly imaginary construct: “social contexts that frequently place all women at a disadvantage.”[10] Although now authoritatively revered, no such social context has ever existed. Elite women have led lives of extraordinary privilege. Their privileged lives have depended on the vast majority of men doing dirty, strenuous, dangerous work.

Neidhart’s poems deflate men-abasing courtly love with the undeniable reality of ordinary social life. A highly influential study of mothers and daughters in medieval German literature concluding with a question:

What kinds of reading strategies has the mother-daughter relationship made meaningful for medieval German literature? [11]

If you think that the mother-daughter relationship is about making reading strategies meaningful, you should not have children.

For a realistic appreciation of gender in social history, persons should ask themselves difficult questions. What makes for a long, humane, fulfilling life? Did my father have a longer, more humane, more fulfilling life than my mother? Did my grandfather have a longer, more humane, more fulfilling life than my grandmother? To answer these questions well, it’s best to get to know well your mother and father and grandmother and grandfather. You also have to be capable of empathizing with a gender other than your own. Truthful, informed thoughts about these questions can guide changing your life and changing society.

Apparently lacking the benefit of serious thought about such questions, medieval scholarship has developed an acute gender problem. Study of mothers and daughters in medieval German literature has found “profound ambivalence” and “complex ambiguity.” A peculiar sense of profound ambivalence and complex ambiguity is evident in the overall orientation of a leading study:

the dominant medieval social order, which asserted in multiple ways the dominance of men and the subordination of women, was in fact a diffuse, contradictory, and flexible set of institutionalized power relations. What matters for my way of reading are the contradictions, the ways in which different medieval power relations and different medieval discourse amend and dispute one other. [12]

In such accounts, all is complex, ambiguous, and contradictory except “the dominance of men and the subordination of women.” Unquestioned assertion of “the dominance of men and the subordination of women” (“patriarchy”) is a precondition for participation in this discursive clique. Anti-men gender bias in penal punishment, men’s lifespan shortfall, deeply rooted violence against men and violence against men’s genitals, fundamental gender inequality in parental knowledge, men’s lack of reproductive rights, socially constructed shame in criticizing women — mere mention of such issues makes a person unclubbable in medieval scholarship and academia in general. Medieval scholarship that continues to repress and exclude meninist perspectives exemplifies a grossly hypocritical, substantively incoherent exercise of gender power. It doesn’t deserve to be studied seriously in its complex, tendentious tedium.[13]

Medieval scholarship urgently needs meninist literary criticism. Coercive control in gendered study of domestic violence shouldn’t be reproduced across medieval scholarship on mothers and daughters and other gender topics. Wise, self-respecting men students will prevent such violence against their minds and lives by not studying gender in medieval literature, or by not studying medieval literature at all. That’s a serious loss to men and women. Alienating women and men from their shared, gendered past makes them less humane.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Luke 2:41-51 (the boy Jesus, teaching in the Jerusalem temple, didn’t depart with his parents, causing them to search for him anxiously) and Matthew 12:46 (when told that his mother and brethren were outside the house waiting for him, Jesus declared that his mother and brethren are whoever does the will of God).

[2] Carmina Burana, 14 additional, “Earlier not knowing lamentation {Planctus ante nescia},” stanzas 8b-9b, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Traill (2018). Mary similarly cried out:

Spare my child,
Death, don’t spare me!
So you would heal me
as only you can do.

My blessed one, by death
may I be parted from you,
while only, son,
you not be crucified.

{ Parcito proli,
mors, mihi noli!
Tunc mihi soli
sola mederis.

Morte, beate,
separer a te,
dummodo, nate,
non crucieris. }

“Panctus ante nescia,” stanzas 7a-7b, sourced as previously. Mary lamenting at the cross is a central figure in Byzantine laments for Jesus’s crucifixion.

[3] Johan Baveca 6, song about a beloved man {cantiga de amigo}, “Daughter, I’d really like to know {Filha, de grado queria saber}” (B 1227, V 832), stanza 1 (of 3), Galician-Portuguese text (editorial marks eliminated) from Cohen (2003), English translation (modified slightly) from Cohen (2010). Here’s this song at Galician-Portuguese Medieval Songs.

[4] Pedr’ Amigo de Sevilha 11, song about a beloved man {cantiga de amigo}, “Tell me, mother, why did you put me {Dizede, madre, por que me metestes}” (B 1218, V 823), stanza 1 (of 6), Galician-Portuguese text (editorial marks eliminated) from Cohen (2003), English translation (modified slightly) from Cohen (2010). Here’s this song at Galician-Portuguese Medieval Songs.

[5] Lopo 6, song about a beloved man {cantiga de amigo}, “By God, I beg you, mother, to tell me {Por Deus vos rogo, madre, que mi digades}” (B 1253, V 858), stanza 1-2 (of 3), Galician-Portuguese text (editorial marks eliminated) from Cohen (2003), English translation (modified slightly) from Cohen (2010). Here’s this song at Galician-Portuguese Medieval Songs.

[6] Dinis 35, song about a beloved man {cantiga de amigo}, “It’s been a long time, my boyfriend, that God didn’t want {Gran temp’ á, meu amigo, que non quis Deus}” (B 587, V 190), complete song, Galician-Portuguese text (editorial marks eliminated) from Cohen (2003), English translation (modified slightly) from Cohen (2010). Here’s this song at Galician-Portuguese Medieval Songs and at Universo Cantigas.

[7] Neidhart von Reuental, Riedegg Manuscript 23 (R23), “The hedge grows green and is as beautiful as gold {Schon als ein golt grunet der hagen},” stanzas 4-7, Middle High German text and English translation (modified slightly) from Starkey & Wenzel (2016). For an enumeration of all the late medieval Neidhart mother-daughter songs in relation to the manuscript corpus, Bennewitz (2021).

[8] Neidhart von Reuental, Riedegg Manuscript 51 (R51), “Now the frosty winter is finally over {Nu ist der chule winder gar zergangen},” stanzas 5-8, Middle High German text and English translation (modified slightly) from Starkey & Wenzel (2016).

[9] Neidhart von Reuental, Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848 (Codex Manesse), “Listen, how the birds all sing {Losa wie die vogel aber doͤnen},” stanza 9, Middle High German text from Wikisource (alternate version) English translation (modified slightly) from Rasmussen (1997) p. 169. Riedegg Manuscript 53 (R53), which is included in Starkey & Wenzel (2016), is nearly the same poem, but lacks this concluding stanza. Note that scholarly practices in transcribing and regularizing Middle High German poems vary considerably.

[10] Rasmussen (1997) p. 222.

[11] Rasmussen (1997) p. 222. With respect to Neidhart’s poems, Rasmussen opines:

Their emphasis on peasant women’s aggression and active sexuality must be viewed not as a reflection of medieval German peasant life but as a parody of medieval aristocratic self-fashioning.

Id. p. 171. That claim seems necessary for Rasmussen’s academic self-fashioning. Persons with appreciation for women’s aggression and women’s active sexuality might well question Rasmussen’s aggressive claim about how representations of women’s aggression and women’s active sexuality “must be viewed.”

[12] Rasmussen (1997) p. 224. On “profound ambivalence” and “complex ambiguity” in Neidhart’s poems, id. p. 172. For “deep and dark ambivalence about the notion of romantic love,” id. p. 77. Romantic love is here associated with “erotic love and marriage.” Whatever romantic love actually is, Rasmussen perceives it as functioning to “reinscribe patriarchal authority by means of a new ideology of power that is founded on a hierarchy of gender and sexuality.” Id. p. 33. That’s tiresome, tendentious academic cant.

With respect to women whoring, Rasmussen described a supposed “literary convention”:

The older woman socializes the younger one by first showing her how she is sexualized (i.e., reduced to a sexual function) and then showing her how to use this cultural assumption to her material advantage.

Id. p. 189 (from chapter headed, “How a Mother Teachers Her Daughter Whoring”). This claim parallels Sanger’s nineteenth-century social science concerning women prostitutes. In this view, the poor dear has no agency as principalities, powers, world rulers, and spiritual hosts of wickedness determine “how she is sexualized (i.e., reduced to a sexual function).” Only in a wholly ideological environment could a young, aspiring whore believe an old whore teaching her such totalitarian doctrine. Woman and men’s sexuality is rooted in more than a billion years of biological evolution. Human sexuality is a central component of human personality and vitally important for creating new human beings. Nonetheless, feeling, thinking human beings cannot actually be “reduced to a sexual function.” If that reality seems common-sensical and uninteresting, scholars might discuss castration culture.

[13] Poor, Beringer & Trokhimenko (2021a) offers a sycophantic panegyric for Ramussen (1997). Lauding “Rasmussen’s path-breaking study,” it declares:

One would be hard pressed to find a person today, in 2021, particularly a scholar, who has not heard of gender and feminist studies. Its methodology and vocabulary are so familiar, so widely applied in, and so deeply interwoven with numerous disciplines from literary criticism to history, cultural studies, and art history (to say nothing of social sciences like anthropology and sociology) that it is hard to imagine a time when terms such as “gender,” “femininity,” or “masculinity” sounded innovative or even radical. This collection of essays, Gender Bonds, Gender Binds, honors Ann Marie Rasmussen, a scholar whose book, Mothers and Daughters in Medieval German Literature (1997), appeared at a time when using this vocabulary to frame the argument of a study of medieval German literature was in fact a courageous act.

Poor, Beringer & Trokhimenko (2021a) p. 1. After being a Professor of German at Duke University from 1988 and chairing the Executive Committee of the Graduate Faculty from 2010 to 2013, Rasmussen in 2015 became Professor and Diefenbacker Memorial Chair in German Literary Studies at the University of Waterloo. Whether her 1997 book was “in fact a courageous act” matters relatively little. What is unquestionably true is this: doing meninist literary criticism today is a very courageous act. More academics should strive to be courageous today.

More academics should also strive to read carefully and think critically. Consider this claim:

Mothers and Daughters did more than simply draw the reader’s attention to the plight of female characters in premodern literary texts as the victims of patriarchal society. Its innovation lay rather in the author’s willingness to examine the complexity of the workings of gender in these medieval texts.

Id. p. 1. Assuming that women characters are “victims of patriarchal society” isn’t consistent with taking seriously “the complexity of the workings of gender.” Certainly such work wasn’t the beginning of the failure of universities. But it probably contributed to lack of diversity and inclusiveness in medieval study of gender:

Rasmussen’s new approach had the effect of opening doors for many to follow in her footsteps. One cannot therefore overestimate the impact of Rasmussen’s Mothers and Daughters on medieval German studies specifically and on medieval studies generally.

Id. p. 2. All the contributors to Poor, Beringer & Trokhimeno (2021) except one apparently are women. That volume wholly excludes insights from meninist literary criticism. It exemplifies the historical development of a serious gender problem in medieval studies today.

[images] (1) Queen Amata scolds Lavinia in Heinrich von Veldeke’s Eneasroman. Detail from folio 69r of Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin, Germany, Ms. germ. fol. 282. The text scoll for Queen Amata reads, “Tell me quickly and loudly what has happened to you, you nasty piece of work {Sag mir drat uber lut waz ist dir geschehen du ubel hut}.” Lavinia’s scroll shows her response, “Lady, I am confused. I don’t know what is wrong with me {Frowe ih bin verirret ih ne waiz was mir wirret}.” Text transcription and English translation from Rasmussen (1997) p. 55. (2) Daughter shows her mature (hirsute) genitals to her mother. Detail of woodblock print from page 43/40 of Neithart Fuchs (Augsburg: Johann Schaur, about 1495), Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Digitale Bibliothek, Inc. 8° 100996. The daughter’s gesture toward her mother is similar to Carfania, a Roman senator’s well-educated wife, mooning a judge.


Bennewitz, Ingrid. 2021. “Mothers and Daughters Revisited: The Mother-Daughter Songs in the Context of the Later Neidhart Tradition.” Ch. 6 (pp. 137-159) in Poor, Berninger & Trokhimenko (2021b).

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

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

Poor, Sara S., Alison L. Beringer, and Olga V. Trokhimenko. 2021a. “Introduction.” Pp. 1-23 in Poor, Berninger & Trokhimenko (2021b).

Poor, Sara S., Alison L. Beringer, and Olga V. Trokhimenko, eds. 2021b. Gender Bonds, Gender Binds: Women, Men, and Family in Middle High German Literature. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter.

Rasmussen, Ann Marie. 1997. Mothers and Daughters in Medieval German literature. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University 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.

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

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