medieval control of the male gaze and impending triumph of love

Men have long experienced attempts to control the male gaze. Even in the relatively liberal and tolerant medieval period, the male gaze was manipulated and regulated. For example, in a late-thirteenth-century Galician-Portuguese “song about a beloved man {cantiga d’amigo},” a mother guided her daughter in manipulating the male gaze:

Oh my daughter, by God, work out a way
for your boyfriend to see you wearing that
skirt, and do everything you can
so he’ll see you near to him, closely clad,
because if he sees you, I know he’ll die
for you
, daughter, it fits you so well.

If that skirt fit you badly,
I wouldn’t tell you to go before
his eyes, but for God’s sake work it out quickly
for him to see you, just do that,
because if he sees you, I know he’ll die
for you, daughter, it fits you so well.

And though he may be angry with you now,
once he sees you with that skirt on,
he’ll be very glad to look you over,
and work it out that he can see you,
because if he sees you, I know he’ll die
for you, daughter, it fits you so well.

{ Ai mha filha, por Deus, guisade vós
que vos veja esse fustan trager
voss’ amig’ e tod’ a vosso poder
veja vos ben con el estar en cos,
ca, se vos vir, sei eu ca morrerá
por vós, filha, ca mui ben vos está

Se vo-lo fustan estevesse mal,
non vos mandaria ir ant’ os seus
olhos, mais guisade cedo, por Deus,
que vos veja, non façades end’ al,
ca, se vos vir, sei eu ca morrerá
por vós, filha, ca mui ben vos está

E como quer que vos ele seja
sanhudo, pois que vo-lo fustan vir,
averá gran sabor de vos cousir,
e guisade vós como vos veja,
ca, se vos vir, sei eu ca morrerá
por vós, filha, ca mui ben vos está }[1]

Men tend to enjoy gazing upon nicely shaped women in tight skirts. That makes men vulnerable to being sexually harassed.

The early Christian church leader Saint Basil the Great reportedly attempted to protect men from being sexually harassed in church. One day in celebrating mass, Basil elevated the consecrated body and blood of Christ. Then he noticed that the golden dove hanging above the altar didn’t move three times as usual. Something was wrong:

Wondering how this could be, he saw one of the deacons with fans, while bending backwards, nodding to a woman.

{ cogitante eo quod hoc esset uidit unum uentilantium diaconem innuentem mulieri inclinante deorsum. }[2]

Following the counsel of the Holy Spirit, Basil took action to prevent the male gaze in church:

He subjected indeed the deacon to fasting and vigils … In addition, he immediately ordered curtains to be hung in the aisles. He directed that any woman who would show herself outside the curtains by leaning forward while he was celebrating the divine liturgy should be sent away from the Mass and be permanently without Communion.

{ Diaconem autem ieiuniis et uigiliis submisit … Vela etiam statim iussit appendi instructoriis, praecipiens de mulieribus quae foris uelorum apparuerit inclinans se, diuinum ministerium peragente, foris poni mysterio et incommunicatam permanere. }

In retrospect, Basil’s regulation of the male and female gaze was quite mild. Basil sought to prevent women and men from gazing on each other during a religious service.[3] Many women and men today don’t even attend religious services. Moreover, Basil’s regulation did nothing to impede men and women from gazing upon each other any time other than during the religious service. Today’s literary critics and sex police issue much more severe and all-encompassing edicts against the male gaze.

dove-shaped hanging tabernacle

With astonishing foresight, medieval poets recognized the future implications of moral doctrines and preceptorial fulminations against the male gaze. According to a mid-thirteenth-century Galician-Portuguese singer associated with Alfonso X “the Learned {el Sabio},” a woman lamented:

By God, ladies, what will be?
Since now this world is nothing,
nor does a boyfriend love his lady.
And this world — what is it now?
Since love has no power here,
what good are her good looks or figure
to a girl who has them both?

You see why I’m saying this:
because there’s not a king in the world
who could see the figure I have
and then not just die for me.
Why, my eyes are even green!
And my boyfriend didn’t even
see me, and he passed by here.

But the lady who has a boyfriend
from now on (believe me, by God!)
shouldn’t rely on her pretty eyes,
because from now on there is no point.
Because just now someone saw my eyes
and my lovely figure and yet he comes
and goes as soon as he wants to go.

And since good looks and a fine figure
just aren’t worth anything,
it doesn’t matter how we appear!

{ Por Deus, amigas, que será?
pois ja o mundo non é ren
nen quer amig’ a senhor ben,
e este mundo que é ja?
pois i amor non á poder,
que presta seu bon parecer
nen seu bon talh’ a quen o á?

Vedes por que o dig’ assi:
por que non á no mundo rei
que viss’ o talho que eu ei
que xe non morresse por min;
si quer meus olhos verdes son,
e meu amig’ agora non
me viu, e passou per aqui

Mais dona que amig’ ouver
des oje mais (crea per Deus)
non s’ esforç’ enos olhos seus,
ca des oi mais non lh’ é mester,
ca ja meus olhos viu alguen
e meu bon talh’, e ora ven
e vai se tanto que s’ ir quer

E, pois que non á de valer
bon talho nen bon parecer,
parescamos ja como quer }[4]

With stern repression of the male gaze, men poet-singers (troubadours) stopped composing and singing love songs. Women then lashed out at men with hateful death-wishes:

Oh friends, all the men troubadours
in the kingdom of Portugal
have lost their skill. They don’t want
to speak well of us, as they used to do.
And they don’t even speak of love,
And they do something else that’s even worse —
they no longer want to praise good looks.

They, friends, have lost the desire
to see you, and I’ll tell you something else.
These troubadours just go from bad to worse.
There isn’t one that can serve a lady,
nor even one that composes for a woman.
Cursed be she who would ever say
of someone who can’t compose, “He’s a troubadour.”

But, friends, there must be some remedy
for a lady that loves her good name and looks.
Bide the time, and not complain,
and let this awful time just pass away,
because I really think that someone will come soon
who likes a girl that’s beautiful,
and you’ll see that love will triumph then.

And those of them who have stopped
serving you, we know who they are.
May God let them die an awful death!

{ Ai amigas, perdud’ an conhocer
quantos trobadores no reino son
de Portugal, ja non an coraçon
de dizer ben que soían dizer
de vós, e sol non falan en amor
e al fazen de que m’ ar é peor:
non queren ja loar bon parecer

Eles, amigas, perderon sabor
de vos veeren; ar direi vos al:
os trobadores ja van pera mal;
non á i tal que ja servha senhor
nen sol que trobe por ũa molher;
maldita sej’ a que nunca disser
a quen non troba que é trobador

Mais, amigas, conselho á d’ aver
dona que prez e parecer amar:
atender tempo e non se queixar
e leixar ja avol tempo perder,
ca ben cuid’ eu que cedo verrá alguen
que se paga da que parece ben
e veeredes ced’ amor valer

E os que ja desemparados son
de vos servir, sabud’ é quaes son:
leixe os Deus maa morte prender }[5]

Women and men rightly feel entitled to each other’s love. Without resentment, hate, or death-wishes, the human entitlement to love will be vindicated when a sufficient number of persons read and appreciate medieval literature. Act now to promote love’s triumph!

Of course love in its fullness presents dangers. Addressing fundamental gender inequality in parental knowledge can lessen love’s danger to men. So too can reproductive choice for men and eliminating grotesque anti-men gender discrimination in child custody and child support rulings. Moreover, penal justice shouldn’t vastly gender-disproportionately incarcerate persons with penises, and the propaganda apparatus shouldn’t stereotype men as violent criminals. Act now to defund unjust penal policing!

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Johan Airas (João Airas de Santiago) 6, song about a beloved man {cantiga de amigo}, “Oh my daughter, by God, work out a way {Ai mha filha, por Deus, guisade vós}” (V 599), 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.

In verse 1.4 of this song, “en cos” means literally “on the body.” It means wearing the skirt without any underclothes or overclothes. A well-fitting skirt worn “en cos” would reveal well the woman’s figure. For discussion of women’s clothing in cantigas d’amigo as well as an example of clothes worn “en cos” to a dance, Corral Diaz (2002) pp. 86-8.

While literary critics have castigated the male gaze much more than the female gaze, the female gaze is quite important in practice. For example, a Galician-Portuguese song from the first half of the thirteenth century provides a woman’s poignant lament:

When, my boyfriend and my light, I can’t
see you, look what happens to me:
I have eyes and look and yet can’t see,
my boyfriend, anything that could please me.

When I can’t see you with these
eyes of mine, so help me God,
I have eyes and look and yet can’t see,
my boyfriend, anything that could please me.

And I don’t sleep, there’s no chance of that,
when I don’t see you, and, in good faith,
I have eyes and look and yet can’t see,
my boyfriend, anything that could please me.

Without you, what good are my eyes to me?
Since they don’t let me sleep, and certainly
I have eyes and look and yet can’t see,
my boyfriend, anything that could please me.

{ Quando vos eu, meu amig’ e meu ben,
non posso veer, vedes que mh aven:
tenh’ olh’ e vej’ e non posso veer,
meu amig’, o que mi possa prazer

Quando vos eu con estes olhos meus
non posso veer, se mi valha Deus,
tenh’ olh’ e vej’ e non posso veer,
meu amig’, o que mi possa prazer

E non dorm’ eu, nen en preito non é,
u vos eu non vejo, e, per bõa fe,
tenh’ olh’ e vej’ e non posso veer,
meu amig’, o que mi possa prazer

E os meus olhos sen vós que prol mh an?
pois non dorm’ eu con eles, e de pran
tenh’ olh’ e vej’ e non posso veer,
meu amig’, o que mi possa prazer }

Vaasco Praga de Sandin (Vasco Praga de Sandim) 4, 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.

[2] BHL 1023 (earliest known Latin translation of the pseudo-Amphilochian Life of Basil), chapter 8, “How he understood the Holy Spirit coming and about a certain deacon and about Libanio the sophist {Quomodo sancti spiritus adventum vidit et de quodam diacone et de Libanio sophista},” Latin (modified slightly) text from Corona (2006) p. 232, English translation (modified slightly) from id. p. 89, n. 53. The subsequent quote above is sourced similarly, with the English translation from id. p. 31, n. 8.

Corona’s Latin text is “uidit unum uentilantium diaconem innuentem mulieri inclinatae deorsum,” She translated that text as: “he saw one of the deacons with fans nodding to a woman while bending backwards.” Since inclinatae is the feminative genitive form, the woman is bending backwards. But in Corona’s English translation, “while bending backwards” is more naturally read as an adverbial phrase than an adjectival phrase.

The priest celebrates Mass with the deacon in front of the congregation. In this Mass, the priest and the deacon have their backs to the congregation, which faces forward. So why would the woman-congregant lean backwards? Manuscripts in the Cotton-Corpus tradition have the reading inclinante / inclinantem. Corona (2006) p. 149. Those readings seem to me better in context. I use inclinante in the Latin text above.

The pseudo-Amphilochian Life of Basil was composed in Greek sometime from the seventh to the ninth century, probably about 800. BHL 1023, the first known Latin translation of the pseudo-Amphilochian Life of Basil, was first written in the ninth century before 843. BHL 1024, which is Ursus’s translation of the pseudo-Amphilochian Life of Basil and is included in Heribert Rosweyde’s Lives of the Fathers {Vitae Patrum} (1628) (Patrologia Latina 73.293-312A) doesn’t include the story of the deacon and the woman congregant eyeing each other.

The golden dove above the altar arose from Basil’s inspiration. After God allowed Basil to celebrate the divine liturgy in his own words, Basil handled the consecrated host in a special way:

He divided the bread into three parts. One part he partook with much awe. Another part he reserved to be buried with him. The third part he placed upon the golden dove that he suspended above the altar.

{ dividens panem in tres partes unam quidem communicavit cum timore multo, alteram autem reservavit consepelire sibi, tertiam vero inponens columbae aureae quae pependit super altare. }

BHL 2013, ch. 4, Latin text from Corona (2006), my English translation. The dove-tabernacle was made from pure gold according to Basil’s instructions. Id. BHL 1024 has similar text in ch. 6.

[3] Christian churches have long been places for earthy amorous encounters. Writing about 400 GC, Jerome castigated the Deacon Sabinianus for seducing a nun in the church at Bethelehem:

The whole church was keeping vigil by night and proclaiming Christ as Lord. While praises of God were being sung in the nations’ diverse tongues but in one spirit, you were squeezing love letters into the openings of what is now the altar of the Lord as once it was his crib. You choose this place above all so that she, your miserable victim, might find and read them when she came to kneel and worship there. Then, taking your place standing among the choir of psalmsingers, with impudent nods, winks, and gestures you communicated with her.

{ tota ecclesia nocturnis uigiliis Christum dominum personabat et in diuersarum gentium linguis unus in laudem dei spiritus concinebat; tu inter ostia quondam praesepis domini, nunc altaris amatorias epistulas fulcicbas, quas postea illa miserabilis quasi flexo adoratura genu inueniret et legeret; stabas deinceps in choro psallentium et inpudicis nutibus loquebaris. }

Jerome, Letter 147, “To Deacon Sabinianus exhorting him to penance {Ad Sabinianum Diaconum cohortatoria de paenitentia},” section 4.4, Latin text from Hilberg (1910-1918) p. 319, my English translation. Freemantle (1892) has an English translation of Jerome’s letter to Sabinianus. Underscoring the historical criminalization of men seducing women, Jerome declared to Sabinius, “you enter church to arrange rape {de stupro condicturus ingrederis}.” Jerome, “Ad Sabinianum Diaconum cohortatoria de paenitentia” 4.3, sourced as previously.

The thirteenth-century Old Occitan Romance of Flamenca depicts Guillem amorously imploring Flamenca in church. This romance, however, supports gender equality with uncanny support for gender reversal.

[4] Johan Garcia de Guilhade (João Garcia de Guilhade / Joan Garcia de Guilhade) 2, song about a beloved man {cantiga de amigo}, “By God, ladies, what will be {Por Deus, amigas, que será}?” (B 742, V 344), Galician-Portuguese text (editorial marks eliminated) from Cohen (2003), English translation (modified slightly) from Cohen (2010). Here’s this song at Universo Cantigas and at Galician-Portuguese Medieval Songs.

[5] Johan Garcia de Guilhade 21, song about a beloved man {cantiga de amigo}, “Oh friends, all the men troubadours {Ai amigas, perdud’ an conhocer}” (B 786, V 370), Galician-Portuguese text (editorial marks eliminated) from Cohen (2003), English translation (modified slightly) from Cohen (2010). Here’s this song at Universo Cantigas and at Galician-Portuguese Medieval Songs.

[image] Dove-shaped hanging tabernacle made of silver. Item in the Attarouthi Treasure. Made 500-650 in Attarouthi, Syria. Preserved as accession # 1986.3.15 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City, USA). Credit Line: Purchase, Rogers Fund and Henry J. and Drue E. Heinz Foundation, Norbert Schimmel, and Lila Acheson Wallace Gifts, 1986. Source image thanks to The Metropolitan Museum’s public-spirited Open Access Policy. In Christianity, the dove is associated with the Holy Spirit. John 1:32. On the history of ciboria and tabernacles, Rievallensis (2019).


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

Cohen, Rip. 2010. The Cantigas d’Amigo: An English Translation. Online. Quotes are based on the 2016 edition.

Corona, Gabriella. 2006. Aelfric’s Life of Saint Basil the Great: Background and Context. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer.

Corral Diaz, Esther. 2002. “Feminine Voices in the Galician-Portuguese cantigas de amigo.” Ch. 5 (pp. 81-98) in Klinck, Anne L., and Ann Marie Rasmussen, eds. Medieval Woman’s Song: cross-cultural approaches. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Freemantle, William Henry, trans. 1892.  The Principal Works of St. Jerome.  Philip Schaff, ed. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, vol. 6. Oxford: Parker.

Hilberg, Isidorus, ed. 1910-1918. Sancti Eusebii Hieronymi Epistulae {Letters of Saint Eusebius Hieronymus (Jerome)}. Vindobonae: Tempsky. Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum (CSEL) 54 (Epistulae 1-70), 55 (Epistulae 71-120), and 56 (Epistulae 120-154).

Rievallensis, Aelredus. 2019. “Ciboria and Tabernacles: A Short History.” Canticum Salomonis. Online. Posted May 13, 2019.

loss of faith: fairy-tale ending to attack on ass

A Latin poem from no later than the mid-eleventh century tells of a wolf killing the nun Alfrad’s she-ass. The wolf oddly attacked the she-ass’s ass:

As the she-ass went out into a spacious field,
she saw a ravenous wolf running towards her.
She hid her head and showed her tail.

The wolf ran up and bit her tail.
The she-ass then raised two legs
and waged a long war with the wolf.

When she felt that her strength had failed,
she brought forth a loud voice of lamentation
and as she died called to her lady.

{ Que dum in amplum exiret campum,
vidit currentem lupum voracem,
caput abscondit, caudam ostendit.

Lupus accurrit, caudam momordit;
asina bina levavit crura
fecitque longum cum lupo bellum.

Cum defecisse vires sensisset,
protulit grandem plangendo vocem
vocansque suam moritur domnam. }[1]

Men historically have been disparaged as being sexually voracious like wolves. Asses are associated with well-developed, vigorous sexuality.[2] The wolf and the ass were in that sense well-matched to wage a long battle. The poet’s sense of gender equality appears again with women mobilizing to fight alongside of men:

Hearing the great voice of the she-ass,
Alfrad ran. “Sisters,” she said,
“come quickly, help me!

I sent to pasture my dear ass.
Her loud lament I hear.
I hope she’s fighting off the savage wolf!”

The clamor of the sisters reaches the cloister.
Crowds of men and women
are present so as to capture the bloodthirsty wolf.

Now Adela, Alfrad’s sister,
looks for Rikila and finds Agatha.
They go so as to lay low the bold enemy.

{ Audiens grandem asine vocem
Alfrad cucurrit. “Sorores,” dixit,
“cito venite, me adiuvate!

Asinam caram misi ad erbam;
illius magnum audio planctum;
spero, cum sevo ut pugnet lupo.”

Clamor sororum venit in claustrum,
turbe virorum ac mulierum
assunt, cruentum ut captent lupum.

Adela namque, soror Alfrade,
Rikilam querit, Agatham invenit,
ibant, ut fortem sternerent hostem. }

This gender-integrated fighting force was too late. The wolf had already devoured the ass, which had been pregnant. The sisters mourned classically:

Seeing that, all the sisters
tore their hair and beat their breasts,
mourning the innocent death of the she-ass.

{ Illud videntes cuncte sorores
crines scindebant, pectus tundebant,
flentes insontem asine mortem. }

This is a Christian poem embracing troubling aspects of life. It ends with hope in God:

Gentle Adela and sweet Fritherun
both came to comfort
and restore Alfrad’s heart:

“Leave off sad complaints, sister!
The wolf pays no attention to bitter weeping.
The Lord will give you another ass.”

{ Adela mitis, Fritherunque dulcis
venerunt ambe, ut Alfrade
cor confirmarent atque sanarent:

“Delinque mestas, soror, querelas!
Lupus amarum non curat fletum.
Dominus aliam dabit tibi asinam.” }[3]

The attack on the ass doesn’t end with everyone living happily ever after. Hints of concern for gender equality aren’t realized in a broad initiative for societal transformation. Not a fairy tale, this story’s ultimate ending depends on the Lord.

Across the subsequent half-millennium, attacking the ass was transformed into a fairy-tale. It concerned not religious sisters, but the poor old woman Bagolana of Savona and her two daughters, Cassandra and Adamantina. Those names suggest this fairy-tale’s deep literary roots: Bagolana evokes “bathing room” from the ancient Greek βαλανεῖον, Cassandra is the ancient Greek prophet who courageously opposed the horrific violence against men of the Trojan War, and Adamantina is the feminine counterpart to the orthodox Christian champion of the fourth-century treatise On orthodox faith in God {De recta in Deum fide}. Just before the poor old woman Bagolana died, she urged her daughters to live together peacefully. She left them a small coffer of tow. Scholars working within today’s dominant ideology would tend to interpret Bagolana’s legacy as an expression of female solidarity despite being marginalized and impoverished.

This story is actually a fairy tale encompassing gender reality. Showing women’s capacity for active labor to support themselves independently of men, Cassandra spun the tow into thread. Then she directed her younger sister Adamantina to sell that thread in the marketplace to buy bread. Benevolent fortune, however, interrupted their desperate attempt to integrate themselves into capitalistic relations of meager sustenance:

As she was walking in the square, she encountered an old woman who had on her lap the most beautiful and most perfectly formed doll that anyone had ever seen. Adamantina’s fancy, having seen and thought about the doll, became more absorbed with how she might obtain it than how she might dispose of her thread. Her thoughts led her on such that, not knowing what to do or say to acquire it, by pondering about trying her fortune, she understood that bartering was the only means. She approached the old woman saying, “Good mother, if you are in agreement, I’ll give you my thread in exchange for your doll.” The old woman, seeing such a fine, lovely girl, so eager to have the doll for her own, could not disappoint her. Taking the thread, she presented the doll to her. Adamantina with the doll appeared not less than perfectly happy. Fully joyful and gay, she returned home.

{ perciò che s’abbattè in piazza in una vecchiarella che aveva in grembo una poavola, la più bella e la più ben formata che mai per l’adietro veduta si avesse. Laonde Adamantina, avendola veduta e considerata, di lei tanto se n’invaghì, che più di averla, che di vendere il filo pensava. Considerando adunque Adamantina sopra di ciò, e non sapendo che fare nè che dire per averla, pur deliberò di tentare sua fortuna, si a baratto la potesse avere. Ed accostatasi alla vecchia, disse: Madre mia, quando vi fusse in piacere, io baratterei volontieri con la poavola vostra il filo mio. La vecchiarella, vedendo la fanciulla bella, piacevole e tanto desiderosa della poavola, non volse contradirle; ma preso il filo, la poavola le appresentò. Adamantina, avuta la poavola, non si vide mai la più contenta; e tutta lieta e gioconda a casa se ne tornò. }[4]

baby doll from about 1950, with custom knit clothes

The hungry cannot eat a doll. While domestic violence is now typically presented to stereotype men as brutish criminals, this story boldly presented female-perpetrated domestic violence:

When she saw the doll, Cassandra, who felt hungry enough to die, was filled with such violent anger that she seized Adamantina by the hair and beat her so grievously that the wretched girl could hardly move. Receiving the beating with patience and without making any defense, Adamantina knew better and managed to go with her doll to another room.

{ Cassandra, che di fame si sentiva morire, veduta la poavola, di sì fatta ira e sdegno s’accese, che, presa Adamantina per le treccie, le diede tante busse, che appena la meschina si poteva movere. Adamantina, pazientemente ricevute le busse, senza far difesa alcuna, meglio che seppe e puote con la sua poavola in una camera se n’andò. }

Women should not commit domestic violence. What Adamantina knew better was the importance of love, if even just for a doll:

When evening came, Adamantina cradled the doll in her arms, as children might do. Sitting down by the fire, she took some oil from the lamp and rubbed it on the doll’s stomach and legs. Then she wrapped the doll carefully in a tattered cloth and placed it in her own bed. A little while later she went to bed and lay beside the doll. Scarcely had Adamantina taken her first sleep when she heard the doll cry out, “Mamma, mamma, I have to poop!”

{ Venuta la sera, Adamantina, come le fanciullette fanno, tolse la poavola in braccio, ed andossene al fuoco; e preso de l’oglio della lucerna, le unse lo stomaco e le rene: indi, rivoltata in certi stracci che ella aveva, in letto la mise, ed indi a poco, andatasene a letto, appreso la poavola si coricò. Nè appena Adamantina aveva fatto il primo sonno, che la poavola cominciò chiamare! Mamma, mamma, caca. }

What a nightmare! Adamantina didn’t believe what she heard:

Wakening from her sleep, Adamantina said, “What’s the matter, my little child?” At which the doll responded: “I would like to do poop, my mamma.”

{ E Adamantina destata, disse! Che hai, figliuola mia? A cui rispose la poavola: Io vorrei far caca, mamma mia. }

A woman with this sort of pain-in-the-ass doll might want to spank it. But Adamantina was a loving mother to her doll:

Adamantina said, “Wait a moment, my little child.” And getting up from bed, she took the apron that she had worn the day before and placed it under the doll. Then she said, “Make poop, my little child.” And to her complete amazement, the doll filled her apron with a great quantity of coins.

{ Ed Adamantina: Aspetta, figliuola mia, disse. E levatasi di letto, prese il grembiale, che ’l giorno dinanzi portava, e glielo pose sotto dicendo: Fa caca, figliuola; e la poavola, tuttavia premendo, empì il grembiale di gran quantità di danari. }

Love wins! For the older sister Cassandra, money seems to have won her affections:

As soon as she saw it, Adamantina woke her sister Cassandra and showed her the coins that the doll had pooped. Cassandra, seeing the great number of coins, was wonder-struck. To God she rendered hearty thanks for such good help and for not having abandoned them in their misery. Turning to her sister, Cassandra asked pardon for having beaten her, which was a great wrong that she had received from her. Then she gave to the doll many caresses, sweetly kissing it and tenderly holding it closely in her arms.

{ Il che vedendo, Adamantina destò la sorella Cassandra, e le mostrò i danari che aveva cacati la poavola. Cassandra, vedendo il gran numero de’ danari, stupefatta rimase: Iddio ringraziando che per sua bontà nelle lor miserie abbandonate non aveva; e voltatasi alla sorella, le chiese perdono delle busse che da lei a gran torto ricevute aveva: e fece molte carezze alla poavola, dolcemente basciandola e nelle braccia strettamente tenendola. }

The doll pooped similarly every night. With the resulting coins, the two sisters were able to buy bread, wine, oil, wood and everything they needed to have a well-provisioned home.

A woman-neighbor noticed that the two sisters, who had been miserably poor, were now prospering. She visited them and asked in the manner of friendly, female solidarity:

My dear daughters, you really must tell me how you managed to furnish your home so plentifully, seeing how just a few days ago you were in such poverty.

{ Figliuole mie, come avete fatto voi a fornire sì pienamente la casa vostra, conciosiacosachè per lo adietro voi eravate sì poverelle }

Cassandra, the older sister, reductively explained:

We have bartered one pound of flaxen thread for a doll that gives us money without any limit.

{ Una libra di filo di stoppa con una poavola barattata abbiamo, la quale senza misura alcuna danari ci rende. }

That’s not the true story of how the sisters came to enjoy life in material fullness. Cassandra, who beat her sister, didn’t understand love even after she sought forgiveness. Human beings, even women, are not angels.

The woman-neighbor became determined to steal the sisters’ doll. She formulated a plan and instructed her husband about his subordinate role:

One evening you must pretend to be drunk. You will take your sword and run after me and threaten to kill me. But you only strike the wall. Then I, pretending to be in great terror, will run into the street. And the two women, who are very compassionate, will open their house to me and take me inside for protection. I’ll stay there for the night and work that opportunity as much as I can.

{ Tu fingerai una sera d’esser ebbriaco e prenderai la tua spada, e correrammi dietro per uccidermi percotendo la spada nelle mura: ed io, fingendo d’aver di ciò paura, fuggirò su la strada: ed elle, che sono compassionevoli molto, mi apriranno: ed io chiuderommi dentro la loro casa, e resterò presso loro quella notte, ed io opererò quanto che io potrò. }

The woman-neighbor thus framed her husband as a perpetrator of domestic violence. With that deception, she spent the night at the sisters’ house and stole their doll.

When she returned home, the woman-neighbor sought to exploit the stolen doll. She gave it the night-time care that she saw Adamantina provide:

When the darkness of night finally arrived, the lady took the doll and made a good fire. She rubbed oil on the doll’s stomach and loins, wrapped it in white swaddling clothes, and placed it in the bed. Undressing herself, she got into bed at the doll’s side. After the first sleep of the night, the doll woke and said, “My lady, I have to poop!,” and didn’t say, “Mamma, I have to poop!” because she didn’t know the lady. The good lady, who was anxiously awaiting the fruits of what should follow, arose from the bed and took a very white linen cloth and put it under the doll. Then she said, “Poop, my little child, poop!” Strongly pushing, the doll, in the place of coins, filled the cloth with such foul-smelling feces that it was nearly impossible to go near.

{ Sopragiunta la buia notte, la donna prese la poavola; e fatto un buon fuogo, le unse lo stomaco e le rene: ed infasciata in bianchi pannicelli, nel letto la pose, e spogliatasi ancora ella, appresso la poavola si coricò. Fatto il primo sonno, la poavola si destò, e disse! Madonna, caca! — e non disse: Mamma, caca! — perciò che non la conosceva; e la buona donna, che vigilante stava aspettando il frutto che seguirne doveva, levatasi di letto, e preso un panno di lino bianchissimo, glie lo puose sotto, dicendo: Caca, figliuola mia, caca! La poavola, fortemente premendo, invece di danari, empì il panno di tanta puzzolente feccia, che appena se le poteva avicinare. }

This natural but unintended production prompted a shitstorm between husband and wife:

“For God’s sake,” said the husband, “look! Oh what a madwoman you are, what a fine trick it has played on you. And I was foolish to have believed such madness.” But the wife, contradicting her huband, with oaths affirmed that she had seen with her own eyes the great sum of coins the doll made in pooping. And seeing that his wife was determined to reserve the subsequent night for a new attempt, the husband, whose nose couldn’t suffer again such a stench as it had smelled, said the most crude words to his wife as has ever been said to any woman in the world. Taking the doll, he hurled it out a window onto some sweeping that were in front of their house.

{ Allora disse il marito: Vedi, o pazza che tu sei, come ella ti ha ben trattata; e sciocco sono stato io a crederti tale pazzia. Ma la moglie, contrastando col marito, con giuramento affermava, sè aver veduto con gli occhi propi gran somma di danari per lei cacata. E volendo la moglie riservarsi alla notte seguente a far nuova isperienza, il marito, che non poteva col naso sofferire il tanto puzzore che egli sentiva, disse la maggior villania alla moglie, che mai si dicesse a rea femina del mondo; e presa la poavola, la gittò fuori della finestra sopra alcune scopazze che erano a rimpetto della casa loro. }

Peasants subsequently came and scoped up the sweepings, along with the doll, to use as fertilizer. Persons who steal dolls deserve crap.

A few days later, King Drusiano, out hunting, took an urgent bowel movement in the woods. Perhaps not willing to settle for leaves, he called to his servants to get him something with which to wipe his ass. A servant saw the cloth doll on a heap of sweepings and brought it to the king. The king immediately wiped it against his ass. That was a mistake:

Then that doll with its fingers grabbed his buttocks and squeezed so tightly that he bellowed in his loudest voice. Having heard his extreme bellow, all his followers came to the King. They saw him on the ground more dead than alive. They all remained stupefied and saw that his torment was from a doll. Together they attempted to pull it off his buttocks, but their efforts were in vain. However much they tugged to pull it away, so much the more it gave him suffering and torment. No one could break its hold, nor make it let go. Now and then it would grab his bells and squeeze them so hard that he saw all the stars in the sky even though it was the middle of day.

{ Imperciocchè la poavola con i diti gli aveva presa una natica; e sì strettamente la teneva, che gridare ad alta voce lo faceva. Sentito da’ suoi il smisurato grido, subito tutti corsero al Re; e vedutolo che in terra come morto giaceva, tutti stupefatti restarono: e vedendolo tormentare dalla poavola, si posero unitamente per levargliela dalle natiche; ma si affaticavano in vano, e quanto più si sforzavano di rimovergliela, tanto ella gli dava maggior passione e tormento: nè fu mai veruno che pur crollare la potesse, non che indi ritrarla. Ed alle volte con le mani gli apprendeva i sonagli, e sì fatta stretta gli dava, che gli faceva veder quante stelle erano in cielo a mezzo il giorno. }

The King returned to his palace still suffering from the doll’s continuing attack on his ass.[5]

Desperately seeking relief, the King proclaimed that he would give one-third of his kingdom to anyone who could stop the doll’s attack on his ass. If the hero defeating that attack was a woman, the King pledged to marry her. Just as many doctors have attempted to cure hemorrhoids, many aspirants sought to ease the King’s pain in the ass. All failed. Finally Adamantina stepped forward:

She said, “Your Sacred Majesty, allow that even I may try my luck.” And approaching the doll, she said, “Ah, my little child, let my lord be in peace, no longer give him such torment.” She took hold of it by its swaddling clothes, caressing it extensively. The doll, who knew is mamma who had tended it and cared for it, immediately let go of the King’s buttocks, and abandoning the King, leaped into her arms.

{ disse: Sacra Maestà, lasciate che ancora io tenti la ventura mia; ed appresentatasi alla poavola, disse: Deh, figliuola mia, lascia omai cheto il mio Signore, nè gli dar più tormento; — e presala per i pannicelli, accarezzala molto. La poavola, che conosciuta aveva la sua mamma, la quale era solita a governarla e maneggiarla, subito dalle natiche si staccò; ed abbandonato il Re, saltolle nelle braccia. }[6]

After King Drusiano’s wounded ass healed, Adamantina was called into his presence. In addition to giving her one-third of this kingdom, he married her. She thus effectively owned all of his kingdom. Moreover, he arranged a favorable marriage for Cassandra. This was a fairy-tale ending to an attack on an ass:

All lived in joy and tranquil peace for a long time. The doll, having seen the superb wedding of one and then the other sister and that all had come to a beneficial end, suddenly disappeared. No one ever knew what become of the doll. In my judgment, it evanesced, like such fantasies have always done.

{ tutti in allegrezza e tranquilla pace lungo tempo vissero. La poavola, vedute le superbe nozze dell’una e l’altra sorella, ed il tutto aver sortito salutifero fine, subito disparve. E che di lei n’avenisse, mai non si seppe novella alcuna. Ma giudico io che si disfantasse, come nelle fantasme sempre avenir suole. }

The poor sisters thus became wealthy, part of a royal family, and happy. Medieval literature realistically discussed the difficulties of marriage for men. Women have much more successfully preserved the fairy-tale dream of extreme hypergamy.

The story of Alfrad and that of Adamantina both include an attack on an ass, strong women, and realistic appreciation for women’s potential for violence. Both stories mix lofty sentiment with recalcitrant realism in bizarre plots. Medieval Latin literature has been recognized as a conduit of fairy-tales.[7] Yet medieval Latin literature differs significantly from modern fairy-tales. King Drusiano wouldn’t have been comforted with his servants merely affirming, “The Lord will give you another ass {Dominus aliam dabit tibi asinam}.” That’s a loss of faith.

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[1] Cambridge Songs {Carmina cantabrigiensia} 20, “There is one place called Homburg {Est unus locus Homburh dictus},” stanzas 2-4, Latin text (consonantal u written as v for ease in recognizing sounds) and English translation (modified slightly) from Ziolkowski (1994). This poem survives only in the Carmina cantabrigiensia. “Homburh probably indicates Homburg on the Unstrut, near the town of Langensalza” in present-day central Germany. Id p. 235.

When a wolf attacks, a donkey would not typically hide its head and displaying its ass. Nor do donkeys typically raise two legs. Dronke grouped “Est unus locus Homburh dictus” with fabliaux. He interpreted it possibly ‘as alluding satirically, by way of an amusing “cover”, to a particular nun’s loss of her maidenhead.’ Dronke (1973) p. 286.

Ziolkowski noted in this poem clear touches of mock epic in verses 3.3 and 8.3. In addition verses 4.2-3 and 5.1 “perhaps contribute to a mock-epic flavor.” The phrases “turba virorum {crowd of men}” and “sanguinis unda {torrent of blood}” in verses 7.2 and 9.2, respectively, are stock phrases in hexameter poetry. Ziolkowski (1994) p. 236. The poem also uses Leonine (mid-line) rhyme.

The subsequent three quotes above are similarly sourced from “Est unus locus Homburh dictus,” stanzas 5-8 (Hearing the great voice of the she-ass…), 10 (Seeing that, all the sisters…), and 12-13 (of 13) (Gentle Adela and sweet Fritherun…).

[2] In his encyclopedic On the natures of things {De rerum naturis}, also called On the universe {De universo}, Hrabanus Mauru stated, “asses and she-asses sometimes signify the wantonness of self-indulgent persons {asinorum quoque vel asinarum nomine aliquando luxuriosorum petulantia}.” Latin text from Patrologia Latina, vol. 111, p. 112, cited by Dronke (1973) p. 286. Hrabanus wrote this work about 845.

[3] Dronke offered an abstract interpretation of the final verse:

the consolation offered by the other nuns, “gentle Adela and sweet Fritherun”, could also be an unseemly jest: “The Lord will give you another ass” — “the convent will renew your sensual impulses, will give you other opportunities”.

Dronke (1973) p. 286. That verse seems to me better interpreted from a medieval Christian perspective as implying that the Lord will restore your righteousness, in the sense of wiping away any sin / pain associated with the ass.

[4] Giovanni (Zoan) Francesco Straparola, The Pleasant Nights {Le Piacevoli Notti}, Night 5, Story 2, Italian text from Rua (1899) vol. 2, pp. 15-21, English translation (modified) from Beecher (2012) vol. 1, p. p. 689. Subsequent quotes above are similarly from this story. The English translation of Waters (1894) is freely available online.

Beecher called this story “a singular and grotesque variation on the rags to riches romance.” Beecher (2012) vol. 1, p. 695. Many medieval stories seem singular and grotesque from a modern perspective.

[5] Beecher asked, “Is this doll the enactment of a castration complex?” Beecher (2012) vol. 1, p. 696. The “castration complex” is merely an elite folktale. Too many scholars have abstracted away men’s real suffering under castration culture:

On finds here the fixation with childhood, with the doll, which here plays the role of the symptom, and the sadistic drive with the threat of castration, in the episode where the doll bites the king’s buttocks and cruelly pinches his testicles.

{ On y trouve la fixation à l’enfance, avec la poupée, qui joue ici le rôle du symptôme, et la pulsion sadique avec menace de castration, dans l’épisode où la poupée mord les fesses du roi et lui pincer cruellement les testicules. }

Gayraud (1999) p. 624, as cited in Beecher (2012) vol. 1, p. 696, n. 32, my English translation. While marriage can provide a man with some protection against castration culture, it can also function as an agency of castration.

[6] Cassandra had earlier caressed the doll but failed to get it to relent in its attack on the King’s ass. Beecher pondered:

the image of Cassandra, the elder sister, stroking and caressing the poupée while it is still attached to the royal fundament — a propinquity that taunts the imagination. Does the mind make pictures of such things, and if so, are we invited to think of the doll’s condition as it leaps willingly into the arms of its loving ‘mother’ when she tells it to desist?

Beecher (2012) vol. 1, p. 697. Such scenes are now confined to hospitals and within homes. Bodily aberrations and filth weren’t inconsistent with care and love in the medieval period.

[7] On medieval Latin as a conduit for fairy-tales, Ziolkowski (2007). On the literary history of the doll story, Beecher (2012) pp. 698-704. Neither of these authorities discussed the connections to Carmina cantabrigiensia’s “Est unus locus Homburh dictus.”

[image] Toy baby doll from about 1950 with hand-knit woolen dress. Source photo by Hamish Darby and generously shared on flickr under a Creative Commons By 2.0 license.


Beecher, Donald. 2012. Giovanni Francesco Straparola. The Pleasant Nights. 2 vols. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Dronke, Peter. 1973. “The Rise of the Medieval Fabliau: Latin and Vernacular Evidence.” Romanische Forschungen. 85 (3): 275-297. Reprinted in Dronke, Peter. 1984. The Medieval Poet and His World. Roma: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura.

Gayraud, Joël, trans. 1999. Giovanni Francesco Straparola. Les nuits facétieuses. Paris: Corti.

Rua, Giuseppe. 1899. Le piacevoli notti di M. Giovanfrancesco Straparola da Caravaggio nelle quali si contengono le favole con i loro enimmi da dieci donne e duo giovani raccontate. 2 vols. Bologna: Romagnoli-Dall’ Acqua. Alternate presentation of 1927 edition.

Waters, W.G., trans. 1894. Giovanni Francesco Straparola. The Nights. Vol. 1. Vol. 2. London: Lawrence and Bullen. Alternate presentation: vol. 1, vol. 2.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1994. The Cambridge Songs (Carmina Cantabrigiensia). New York: Garland. Introduction.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2007. Fairy Tales from before Fairy Tales: The Medieval Latin Past of Wonderful Lies. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

husbands pandering to wives more likely to become cuckolds

Under gender-inequality in parental knowledge, men typically exhibit gender-distinctive concern about being cuckolded. Among the early-thirteenth-century proverbial sayings of Freidank are these:

No man has so faithful a lover
that he doesn’t fear that she may go astray.

The man who has a lover is hardly ever free
from worry that she might be unfaithful.

{ Sô stæte friundin nieman hât,
er vürhte doch ir missetât.

Swer liep hât, der wirt selten vrî
vor sorgen, daz ez unstæte sî. }[1]

Like women, men can be unfaithful to a lover. But a man cannot dupe a woman into believing that she’s the mother of a child when she actually isn’t. Women who love men should understand men’s difficult gender position and act with compassion. They should also support and promote modern DNA paternity testing. The folk wisdom of Freidank has an apt modern complement in Soviet wisdom: “trust, but verify {Доверяй, но проверяй}.”

Even in the relatively enlightened medieval period, some men responded foolishly to women’s gender privilege in parental knowledge. Just as men’s groveling self-abasement in courtly love typically doesn’t arouse women sexually, pandering materially to a wife isn’t a propitious way for a husband to lessen his risk of being cuckolded. The late-twelfth-century German poet Spervogel explained:

He who asks the wolf to dine
is asking for a cause to whine.
No wise man ever overloads his trawler.
This is my wisdom. I am the scholar.
A husband who spends his every thaler
to buy rich clothes throughout the year
will soon have mighty cause to fear.
Her arrogance will grow and grow
till he gets a bastard quid pro quo.

{ Swer den wolf ze hirten nimt,
der vât sîn schaden.
ein wîser man der sol sîn schif niht überladen.
daz ich iu sage, daz ist wâr:
swer sînem wîbe dur daz jâr
volget und er ir richiu kleit  
über réhte mâze koufet,
dâ mac ein hôchvart von geschehen,  
daz sîm ein stiefkint toufet. }[2]

A wife might reason that if her husband is willing to spend all his money on buying rich clothes for her, he wouldn’t mind spending a lot of money on raising another man’s child.

minnesinger Spervogel in the medieval Codex Manesse

Medieval literature frankly described the pathetic stupidity of cuckolds. In our more repressive age, discussing men being cuckolded tends to be repressed harshly through calling such discussion “anti-feminism.” Who would want to be called an anti-feminist, a literal enemy of the colossal gynocentric state? Such persons risk bodily liquidation, or at least imprisonment. Anti-feminists are wildly imprudent. Today wise persons merely read medieval literature, learn what they are otherwise not permitted to learn, and act knowingly.

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Read more:


[1] Carmina Burana, Add. 17, vv. 49-50, 53-4, 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}.

[2] Spervogel, Middle High German text from Lachmann & Haupt (1875 / 1959) VI.I.XVI via Bibliotheca Augustana, English translation from Wilhelm (1990) p. 205. The Latin phrase quid pro quo means “what for what,” or less literally, “this for that” / “a favor for a favor.” Spervogel’s poem is within the Spruch genre of Middle High German verse.

[image] Minnesinger Spervogel, whose name means sparrow, displays a pole of sparrows to queen and king. Illustration for Spervogel in folio 415v of the Codex Manesse, made between 1305 and 1315. Manuscript preserved as UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848. Thanks to University of Hiedelberg and Wikimedia Commons.


Lachmann, Karl, and Moriz Haupt, eds. 1875. Des Minnesangs Fruhling. Leipzig: S. Hirzel.

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

Wilhelm, James J., ed. 1990. Lyrics of the Middle Ages: An Anthology. New York: Garland Publishing.

Goscelin and Eve’s love was filled with Christian understanding

While serving as chaplain at Wilton Abbey in England late in the eleventh century, the learned monk Goscelin of Saint-Bertin formed a love relationship with Eve, a woman in her early teens. He was about twenty years older than she.[1] Even if old and young, male and female, two can be united in Christ. In Goscelin’s view, he and Eve were one in Christian love.

After Eve left Wilton without saying good-bye to him, Goscelin wrote a Comforting Book {Liber confortatorius}. It was as much for her as for him. He began:

O soul dearer than light, your Goscelin is with you in inseparable presence of soul. He is with you in that better part of himself with which he could love you to be one with you, such that no distance may separate you from him. He greets you in Christ with eternal greetings.

{ O luce dilectior anima, adest tibi Goscelinus tuus inseparabili anime praesentia; adest meliori parte, ea qua te diligere potuit individua, qua nulla excludant terrarum interstitia; salutat te in Christo salute sempiterna. }[2]

Goscelin ardently sought to be with Eve:

The provident mercy of God has made this consolation for us, that although far distant in place, we can be present to one another in our faith and our writings. The letter that runs between us can bind up even these torments of separation, which were owing to my crimes, and heal us. And the page, which retains words, will speak with more edification than the tongue, whose words flow away. And your love will be able to see by reading the one whom it has left in the body, and you will be able to drink in my voice and my sighing words with your eyes instead of your ears. … Consider that I am seated with you at Wilton in the presence of our lady Saint Edith or even in her chaste order, and that I speak to you, that I exhort you, that I console you, and that I pour Christ into your heart with sighs from feelings of wounded love.

{ Parauit nobis hanc consolationem prouida miseratio Domini, ut, locis elongati, fide et scriptis possimus representari. Et que meis debebantur sceleribus, hec separationis tormenta, alligare et refouere nos poterit intercurrens epistola. Loquetur etiam edificatius tenax pagina quam fluxa lingua; poterit et tua dilectio uidere lectione quem reliquit facie, et uocem et uerba nostra suspiriosa oculis pro auribus haurire. … estimato me tecum Wiltonie coram sancta domina nostra Eadgyda aut etiam in hac pudica serie residere, te alloqui, te exhortari, te consolari, anhelantibus uulnerose caritatis affectibus Christum tuo infundere pectori. }

He despaired that he would never see her again in person:

But behold, even as I was writing, my suffering, running wild, could not be concealed. My hands have fallen and my writing skills have failed. I have been overcome by wailing and lamenting.

{ Sed ecce, dum scribo, grassans dolor non potuit dissimulari; cecidere manus et usus scriptorii; rugitus et eiulatus inuasit me }

Goscelin addressed Eve as “soul sweetest to me {amina mi dulcissima}” or just “my soul {anima mi}” or “sweetest one {dulcissima}.” Goscelin didn’t love his soul Eve independently of her body. He delighted to be with her in person.

The “birth of love {partus dilectionis}” between Eve and Goscelin occurred with specific acts and material circumstances. Goscelin recounted to Eve:

I won you over with talk, but you conquered me with kindness. You gave me books that I sought, you praised my patron saint Bertin with the greatest eagerness, and you hastened to perform all the duties of love. … Frequent sheets and pages from me brought Christ to you, nor did I lack chaste letters from you. By the impatience of your love as much as my own, I used to come often for conversations with you.

{ Ego te alloquiis, tu me uicisti, beneficiis. Libros optatos dedisti, Bertinum nostrum affectuosissime extulisti, omnia caritatis officia excurristi. … Afferebant tibi Christum frequentes membrane et scedule nostre, nec tue uacabant castissime littere. Adibam creberrimus tua colloquia, tam tue quam proprie dilectionis impatientia. }

Goscelin didn’t fall in love with Eve at first sight. He knew her as just another person for some time before he loved her personally. This change occurred during Eve’s consecration at Wilton Abbey:

I was fond of you moderately and only outwardly in the good hope of Christ. When among fourteen young women, with candles shining like stars and heavenly torches, you truly approached your marriage with God nervously and second to last, and with the thronging crowd waiting with solemn expectancy, you then put on the pledge of divine faith with your holy clothes. I was struck more deeply in my heart by your humble habit, your trembling approach, and your face, blushing as if from the fiery throne of God sitting above the cherubim, wisely anxious. This act occurred along with its wedding song of admirable grace, “I am betrothed to the one whom angels serve, and he has taken me as a bride with his ring,” I was touched with heavenly dew, and I wept with an overflowing fervor.

{ te tolerabiliter forinsecus tantum in spe bona Christi dilexi. Vbi uero inter quattuordecim uirgines, coruscantibus cereis tanquam syderibus et lampadibus supernis, ad dominicas nuptias trepida et penultima accessisti ac, populosa caterua sollemniter expectante, pignus fidei diuine cum sacrata ueste induisti, ille humilis habitus, ille tremebundus accessus, ille suffusus uultus, tanquam ab igneo throno Dei sedentis super cherubim, sapienter metuentis, altius uiscera me percussere cum hoc epithalamico carmine admirabilis gratie: “Ipsi sum desponsata, cui angeli seruiunt, et annulo suo subarrauit me.” Tactus sum rore celesti et feruore irriguo fleui. }[3]

Shown in her act of consecration, Eve’s love for God apparently inspired Goscelin. He sought to love her as God loves her.

nun confessing to a monk

Goscelin didn’t regard himself as spiritually superior to Eve. He regarded her as a living saint. He sought to be with her in spirit:

I entreat you, bring it about that although I now lament having lost someone, as if she were the delight of life, I shall rejoice at some time to have found her again, as one who intervenes for me, since the Lord is able to make out of our losses a profit of greater value. May I now have a patron in place of a daughter, a patron of whose prior claim I am as unworthy as I am unequal to her in life. Therefore, by this faith, this hope, this love, let me be commended to your love after my complaint of your departure. Let me be admitted and received. Look upon me sitting with you and hear me talking with you.

{ Age, obsecro, ut quam nunc plango quasi uite iocunditatem purdidisse, aliquando gaudeam interuentricem reperisse, ualente Domino de damnis nostris melius fructificare. Sit mihi iam patrona pro filia, cuius tam indignus sum prerogatiua, quam impar uita. Hac ergo fide, hac spe, hac caritate, dilectioni tue post querelam discessionis commendatum, admissum, susceptum, respice tecum assidentem, ausculta tecum sermocinantem. }

With realistic understanding of human temptation to sin, Goscelin imagined what it would be like to be with Eve in Heaven:

The gathering together of young men and virgins, men and women, the married and the celibate, will be as perfect and inoffensive as it is holy and blessed in their celibacy. It will be exempt from all desire for corruption, free from all contagion of sin. The Lord says through the prophet, “the young man shall dwell with the virgin.” Young men and virgins, and old men with younger ones, will praise the name of the Lord alone, for the Lord alone will be exalted on that day. He will be the sole king of all. The thoughts and hearts of all will be clear to all. Then everyone will speak their secret thoughts, and God will unlock hearts to the light, and they will speak and answer very sweet pledges of affection to one another. No cloud of wicked thought will come between them, because all temptations to stumble and offend will have been submerged in Hell. So it is necessary for us to live now with the sort of purity in which we wish to appear there before the whole majesty of Heaven and earth.

{ Magna angelorum et uirginum concinnitas, inseparabilis societas, inestimabilis caritas, inenarrabilis amplexuum et osculorum sanctorum sanctitas. Iuuenum et uirginum, uirorum et uiraginum, nuptorum et celibum, tam perfecta et inoffensa copula, quam sancta celebs et beata, quam omni corruptionis appetitu exempta, omni contagione peccati libera. Habitabit iuuenis cum uirgine, dicit Dominus per prophetam, et iuuenes et uirgines, senes cum iunioribus laudabunt nomen Domini solius, quia exaltabitur Dominus solus in die illa, et unicus rex erit uniuersorum. Clara omnibus erunt omnium cogitationes et zorda. Tunc quisque loquetur secreta, atque Deus reserabit pectora luci, et inuicem loquentur ac respondebunt dulcissima affectuum pignora, nec ullius inique cogitationis, omnibus scandalis et offendiculis stygyo demersis, intercurret nebula. Vnde tali sinceritate nos oportet modo uiuere, quales ibi coram uniuersa maiestate celi et terre uolumus apparere. }

Goscelin’s lengthy letter to Eve, his Liber confortatorius, materially represents his wish to be with her. He explained:

Now if by chance you ask anything about one who is so devoted, he is the same absent as he was present. His mind and face are the same, so too his vigor and bodily constitution, his purity of faith and devotion, the force and fervor of his love are all the same, but his pain is sharper for being more lonely, and the sighs of his longings are heavier for being more distant. If he lasts until he has gray hair and into old age and feebleness, he will then persevere in the same integrity with the assistance of the Lord. But if ever a thought returns to you and it asks thus, “What is he, who was once dear to me, doing now?” this page will always respond with this one verb in the active rather than the passive voice: he sighs. And whenever you seek him, you will find him here. You will either see him or hear him whispering with you here in this book.

{ Iam si quid forte, si quid de tam deuoto requires, idem est absens quod erat presens, mens et facies, uigor et habitude eadem, ea puritas fidei et deuotionis, ea uis et feruor dilectionis, dolor uero eo acrior quo destitutior ac desideriorum suspiria eo grauiora quo delatiora. Tum si ad canos et in senectam et senium durauerit, elusdem sinceritatis Domino aspirante perseuerabit. Si quando autem reuersa ad te congitatio ita interrogauerit, “ille quondam carus quid nunc facit?” hec semper pagina hoc uno uerbo actiuo pro passiuo respondebit: Suspirat. Ubicumque illum queres, hic inuenies, hic tecum susurrantem uel uidebis uel audies. }[4]

Christian love rejects vengeance for being wounded in love. Eve wounded Goscelin by, without telling him, leaving England to become an anchoress at Saint-Laurent du Tertre in Angers in present-day western France. The wounded Goscelin ended his Liber confortatorius with an expression of his Christian love for Eve:

So may you have all the desires of your soul.

{ Sic habeas anime cuncta cupita tue. }

This prayer for Eve’s desires to be fulfilled shouldn’t be seen as a problem to be explained, or a suspicious indicator of sexual desire.[5] Medieval Christian love was passionate. Goscelin passionately desired to be with Eve in person. The frigidity of modern Western Christianity, as well as modern sexual relations, would probably seem strange to medieval Christians.

Glimmers of modern “sex without sex” in earthly human relations, or put differently, the work of love in the age of mechanical reproduction, appear as early as the fourteenth century. Consider this poem from no later than the second half of the twelfth century:

Greetings, image of the sun and of all light!
Like a flower amid laurel, like crystal in gold,
so you alone cast bright light in a crowd of women.
Sun surpasses moon, and you surpass woman’s form.
Indeed your appearance inflames my heart
so in love for you, that I care to attend to nothing
beyond you alone, (missing hemistich)
In body now I’m not with you, yet with my senses I ardently am.
Even in the hour of eating I often don’t turn from remembering you.
When I contemplate life I shall silently say this:
“Ah! If only this moment we had a place for love!”
Desiring I will rejoice. For what cannot be, I grieve.

{ Instar solis, ave! tocius luminis atque
Ut flos cum lauro, sicut christallus in auro,
Sic luces forte mulierum sola cohorte.
Sol superat lunam, mulierum tuque figuram.
Hinc tuus aspectus succendit denique pectus
Sic in amore tuo, quod nil intendere curo
Preter te solam, (missing hemistich)
Corpore nunc absum, tibi sensu sedulus assum;
Non vetat hora cibi me sepe tui reminisci.
Hoc tacitus dicam quando considero vitam:
“Eia! si nobis iam iam locus esset amoris!”
Optans gaudebo, per quod nequit esse dolebo. }[6]

In medieval thought, eating was understood as a pleasure like having sex. The reference to sensual presence, in conjunction with yearning for a specific place for love, indicates that this is a love poem centrally concerned with sexual desire.

In the fourteenth century, the sexual desire expressed in this poem was moved to Heaven. A fourteenth-century hand added to the manuscript the title “To Mary the mother of God {Ad dei genitricem Mariam}.” This hand effaced the second hemistich of verse 7 and added there, “you after Christ the father’s wisdom {post Christum patris Sophiam}.” Re-characterizing the bodily sense and place for love in verses 8 and 11, the hand added next to these verses identical marginal notes: “namely, in Heaven {scilicet in celo}.”[7] This crude re-writer thus deferred sensuality to Heaven. That was one step toward the modern tendency to eliminate the male gaze, the female gaze, and passionate sexual desire.

In medieval Christian understanding, Jesus was almighty God incarnate as an ordinary, fully masculine man. His mother Mary gave birth to him in the same way that any woman would give birth to a child. While Mary was merely a human being, not a goddess like tradition Greco-Roman goddesses, Christians hyper-venerated Mary in lavish, sensuous shrines all across medieval Europe. Love for God and love for a human being like oneself were one in Christ in medieval Christianity, just as they are one in Goscelin’s Liber confortatorius.[8]

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, a prolific writer of Anglo-Saxon saints’ lives, was born about 1035 or 1040, probably in Flanders. Rossum (1999) p. 8 (c. 1035); Bugyis (2019) p. 3 (c. 1040). He was an oblate at the monastery of Saint-Bertin at Saint-Omer in Flanders. That monastery had cultural links with England. Goscelin came to England c. 1059 to join the household of Bishop Hereman / Herman at the Sherborne Abbey in Dorset, about 35 miles from Wilton. About 1071, Bishop Herman and Goscelin moved to Old Sarum, about 3 miles from Wilton. Stroud (2006) pp. 205-6. When Bishop Herman died in 1078, Osmund became the new bishop. Conflict between Bishop Osmund and Goscelin led to Osmund expelling Goscelin from Old Sarum about 1079. Goscelin probably completely his Liber confortatorius about 1081. On Goscelin’s biography, Rossum (1999) pp. 8-12, and Rand (2013) pp. 14-20.

Since the Benedictine Wilton Abbey was a royal favorite and the wealthiest convent in England, Eve evidently came from a privileged family. O’Keeffe (2006) p. 251. With respect to Eve, Goscelin stated, “from a Danish father and a Lotharingian mother an English daughter grew of that noble birth {patre Dano et matre Lotariniga a claris natalibus filiam emersisse Anglicam}.” Liber confortatorius, Latin text from Talbot (1955) p. 41, English translation (modified) from Barnes & Hayward (2004) p. 117. Eve was born about 1060. Goscelin probably got to know Eve at Wilton Abbey in the early 1070s. Stroud (2006). Recent work convincingly argues that Goscelin described Eve’s consecration, not her oblation. O’Keeffe (2006). That perhaps occurred about 1075. Eve probably left for Angers about 1080. Stroud (2006) p. 211.

[2] Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, Comforting Book {Liber confortatorius}, Latin text from Talbot (1955) p. 27, English translation (modified slightly) from Barnes & Hayward (2004) p. 101. All subsequent quotes from Liber confortatorius are similarly sourced. Since Talbot’s text is the only printed text, citations will be identified with a number specifying the page in Talbot’s text. That’s the established citation form in scholarship on Liber confortatorius.

Liber confortatorius, which Goscelin wrote about 1081, survives in only one manuscript: British Library, MS Sloane 3103, folios 1-114. The British Library dates this manuscript to the first half of the twelfth century. Sloane 3103 apparently was written in northwestern France, probably Normandy. In the thirteenth century it belonged to the Abbey of Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte in the Coutances diocese of Normandy. It’s not known whether Eve received the Liber confortatorius. Goscelin’s contemporaries and later generations make no reference to it. Hollis (2004) pp. 236-7.

Barnes & Hayward (2004) includes in an appendix about 100 corrections to Talbot’s edition and 38 emendations to the text of Talbot / Sloane 3103. Id. is thus important in providing the best Latin text of Liber confortatorius.

Here’s a mean-spirited review of Liber confortatorius. Here’s textual evidence of continued interest in Liber confortatorius among current men and women religious.

Subsequent quotes above from Liber confortatorius are, specified by page number in Talbot (1955), 27 (The provident mercy of God has made this consolation for us…), 27 (But behold, even as I was writing…), 28 (I won you over with talk…), 28 (I was fond of you moderately …), 34 (I entreat you, bring it about…), 115-6 (The gathering together of young men and virgins…), 45 (Now if by chance you ask anything…), 117 (So may you have all the desires of your soul.).

[3] Scholarship on Liber confortatorius, following André Wilmart’s pioneering studies in the 1930s, has assumed that this ritual was Eve’s oblation. O’Keeffe (2006) and Stroud (2006) argue convincingly that this ritual was actually Eve’s consecration as a nun. This better understanding implies that Eve was about ten years older in the relational chronology with Goscelin than has been commonly thought.

[4] Goscelin’s passionate expression of love for Eve isn’t unusual within the medieval tradition of letters among close friends. Anselm of Canterbury (lived c. 1033 to 1109) was similarly passionate in expression:

as a monk, he wrote to his fellow Bec students in the passionate rhetoric of physical, sexual love, speaking of kissing and embracing his friends, holding them, longing for their physical presence in their absence, and indeed often as soul mates united into one soul. … Anselm wrote passionate letters also to his lay friends, suggesting that this passionate language of love was not exclusive to the Bec community. … he also enjoyed close friendships with women, to whom he also wrote in emotionally intense and sometimes physical language. …. Anselm enjoyed almost parallel spiritual friendships with his closest monastic and episcopal friend, Gundulf of Rochester, and his neighbor and close spiritual friend, Countess Ida of Boulogne, whom he addressed with equal emotionally intense and loving language.

Vaughn (2010) pp. 56, 58. On the relationship between medieval spiritual directors and anchoresses, Erkoç (2010).

[5] Sex is fundamentally important to women and men. As a healthy man, Goscelin probably had feelings of sexual desire for Eve. Men and women throughout the ages have felt sexual desires. Such desires don’t necessarily control their actions. Of course, persons might find themselves led into temptation, and they sometimes engage in illicit sexual activity. Goscelin himself cautioned readers:

Let far from our pure whispering be hissing calumny, the wicked eye, the sly finger, the impure gossip-monger and cackler. … But whatever happens, I have preferred to be made an object of mockery by the superciliousness of strangers than to neglect what is owed to dearness.

{ Absint a puro susurrio sibilantes insidiae, nequam oculus, uafer digitus, uentilator et cachinnator impurus. … Quicquid tamen euenerit, maluimus alieno supercilio infatuari quam non satis facere caritati. }

Liber confortatorius 26.

Modern scholars have speculated about whether Eve and Goscelin ever had a sexual relationship. Liber confortatorius isn’t well-characterized in the language of modern romance novels: “an account of a deep, desperate, only half sublimated love between a man and a woman in religious orders.” Otter (2004) p. 1. Otter subsequent reported that Liber confortatorius provides “sometimes disconcerting glimpses of more than just spiritual attachment.” Otter (2008) p. 283. An alternate view is that Eve and Goscelin’s relationship was “spiritual, not romantic.” It was “not sexual,” taken to mean it didn’t involve “sinister activity.” Canatella (2010) pp. 37, 36. For a review of earlier literature on the nature of the relationship between Eve and Goscelin, Hayward (2004). One scholar aptly observed:

Modern sensibilities cannot easily deal with literature such as the Liber Confortatorius of Goscelin de St. Bertin. When we read it at all, we often read it anachronistically, importing into its pages notions of romantic entanglements between men and women, teachers and pupils, or (most deliciously for contemporary sensibilities) between monks and nuns. In Goscelin’s case, however, our problem is intensified by the somewhat embarrassing spectacle of a learned and respected monk, an esteemed hagiographer, and a well-known prose stylist apparently falling to pieces over an English nun whom he had known since she was a child oblate and who had fled to the continent to live as a recluse — probably (we want to believe) to get away from Goscelin. It all seems worthy of a television soap opera.

Williams (2000) p. 1. Recent scholarship has shown that Goscelin probably didn’t know Eve “since she was a child oblate.” O’Keeffe (2006), Stroud (2006). The claim that “we want to believe” that Eve sought to get away from Goscelin testifies to anti-meninism among medieval scholars.

After leaving Wilton Abbey, Eve eventually became an anchorite at the church of Saint-Eutrope in present-day southwestern France. There she became the living companion of the anchorite Hervé of Vendôme (Herveus). In a poem honoring Eve, Hilary of Orléans wrote about her at Saint-Eutrope:

Eve had lived there for a long time with Hervé her companion —
anyone who hears these things that I say should not feel disturbed.
Brother, do not be mistrustful or shun this:
not in the word, but in Christ was their love.

{ Ibi vixit Eve diu cum Herveo socio —
Qui hec audis, ad hanc vocum te turbari sencio.
Fuge, frater, suspicari nec sit hic suspicio:
Non in mundo, sed in Christo fuit hec dilectio. }

Latin text and English translation from Canatella (2010) p. 43. Eve apparently enjoyed companionship with men. Moreover, Eve inspired men to do the work of writing about her, even though she apparently didn’t make the effort to write about them. Meninist scholars are only beginning to explore medieval men’s consciousness of their gender burden of writing about women. On Eve’s relationship with Hervé of Vendôme, Maude (2015).

[6] Poem from München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 19411 (description), folio 70v, written in the second half of the twelfth century, Latin text from Dronke (1965) vol. 2, p. 518, English translation (modified) from id. This manuscript also includes love letters from the Benedictine abbey at Tegernsee. Verses 1-4 and 8 of this poem survive in another manuscript written c. 1200: Zürich, Zentralbibliothek, MS C 58/275. Id. p. 519.

The January 2010 (vol. 19, no. 1) special issue of the Journal of the History of Sexuality is entitled “Desire and Eroticism in Medieval Europe, Eleventh to Fifteenth Centuries: Sex Without Sex.” Sex without sex apparently includes the “real sexuality” of “imagined sexual relationships.” Scholarly articles in this special issue:

explore a middle ground in which some bishops and monks skirted the religious laws to experience real sexuality — often through imagined sexual relationships, friendships, and theoretical meditions — and how some women expressed their sexuality even in nunneries, hermitages, and other religious institutions. What is striking — indeed paradoxical — about all these expressions of sexuality by pious women is that for the most part the eroticism inherent in all of these erotic expressions consisted of forms of “sex without sex.”

Vaughn & Christoforatou (2010) p. 1. The concept “sex without sex” is inconceivable to the more clear-thinking medieval mind. In medieval thinking, sex was the culmination a set of specific stages of physical intimacy. On medieval stages of love, see note [1] in my post on Baucis et Traso. Medieval persons experienced joy in sex. Sex to them was behavior that God intended from the creation of humans. In medieval thinking, love, unlike sex, encompasses all aspects of life, and love is far more important than sex.

[7] These textual notes are from Dronke (1965) vol. 2, p. 519, with my translation of the Latin phrases. Dronke commented:

By adding a pious title, deleting and rewriting only one half-line, and supplying two crude marginal glosses, the censor has ‘spiritualized’ the poem. Sacred or profane, the language of love can at times remain virtually a constant.

Id. Medieval “secular {saecularis}” understanding didn’t fundamentally categorize expression as “sacred or profane.” Blasphemy (profanity), which was the medieval scope of the profane, was a narrow, not sternly policed type of expression in medieval understanding.

[8] Modern scholarship has constructed elaborate schemes to explain the medieval relation between sacred and “profane” love. Commenting on Guido Guinizelli’s laughable love poem, “Love always repairs to the noble heart {Al cor gentil rempaira sempre amore},” Dronke put forth mystical, noetic, and sapiential scholarly intricacies. For example:

Implicitly then, through the very need of communication, human and divine love are here in a sense reconciled. Yet this kind of reconciliation of course entails its own opposite: for here the perception and affirmation in each metaphor of an analogy between the two experiences is continually completed by an awareness of their difference. Each reconciliation in a likeness must entail a complementary unlikeness — otherwise we should be dealing not with likeness but with identities. The orthodox Christian scheme of values could not envisage such an identity between divine and human love: the one was an absolute value, the other a relative one, at best imperfect, at worst evil.

Dronke (1965) vol. 1, pp. 58-9. To such scholastic reasoning, a fool might cry out, “the love of Jesus Christ, God incarnate as a male human being.” The priestly Dronke, a proponent of men-abasing courtly love, declared, “the more deeply religious the language, the closer it is to the language of courtoisie.” Id. p. 62. The fool responds, “Humans are made of mud. You are dust!”

While claiming women’s natural moral superiority to men, Jaeger constructed a literary history transforming “ennobling love” into men-abasing courtly love. Jaeger pondered a puzzle he created about love:

How can it claim virtue, while admitting virtue’s old enemy, the sexual act, as the natural end of love and full partner in the exalting process?

Jaeger (1999) p. 159. That puzzle isn’t worth pondering. In fact, men are intrinsically virtuous, properly understood as manly. The sexual act isn’t “virtue’s old enemy.” The sexual act can be vitally important healthcare for men. A man’s penis is a the center of his earthly being. Consider instead: how does the generation of vipers end?

[image] Nun confessing to a monk. Illumination from a treatise about the love of God. Folio 29r (excerpt) from British Library, Yates Thompson MS 11.


Barnes, W. R. and Rebecca Hayward, trans. 2004. “Goscelin’s Liber confortatorius.” Part 2 (pp. 97-216) in Hollis (2004).

Bugyis, Katie Ann-Marie. 2019. The Care of Nuns: The Ministries of Benedictine Women in England during the Central Middle Ages. New York, NY : Oxford University Press.

Canatella, H. M. 2010. “Long-Distance Love: The Ideology of Male-Female Spiritual Friendship in Goscelin of Saint Bertin’s Liber confortatorius.” Journal of the History of Sexuality. 19 (1): 35-53.

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

Erkoç, Seda. 2010. “‘To one shut in from one shut out’: An Evaluation of the Spiritual Friendship between Anchoresses and their Spiritual Directors.” Studies in Spirituality. 20: 161-189.

Hayward, Rebecca. 2004. “Spiritual Friendship and Gender Difference in the Liber confortatorius.” Pp. 341-353 in Hollis (2004).

Hollis, Stephanie, ed. 2004. Writing the Wilton Women: Goscelin’s Legend of Edith and Liber confortatorius. Turnhout: Brepols.

Jaeger, C. Stephen. 1999. Ennobling Love: in search of a lost sensibility. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Maude, Kathryn. 2015. ‘“She fled from the uproar of the world”: Eve of Wilton and the Rhetorics of Solitude.’ Magistra. 21(1): 36-50.

O’Keeffe, Katherine O’Brien. 2006. “Goscelin and the consecration of Eve.” Anglo-Saxon England. 35: 251-270.

Otter, Monika, trans. 2004. Goscelin of St. Bertin: the Book of encouragement and consolation (Liber confortatorius): the letter of Goscelin to the recluse Eva. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

Otter, Monika. 2008. “Entrances and Exits: Performing the Psalms in Goscelin’s Liber confortatorius.” Speculum. 83 (2): 283-302.

Rand, Tamara S. 2013. “And if Men Might also Imitate her Virtues” An Examination of Goscelin of Saint-Bertin’s Hagiographies of the Female Saints of Ely and Their Role in the Creation of Historic Memory. Doctoral dissertation, University of Akron, OH. OhioLINK Electronic Theses and Dissertations Center.

Rossum, Irene van. 1999. Adest meliori parte: a portrait of monastic friendship in exile in Goscelin’s Liber confortatorius. PhD thesis, University of York, UK.

Stroud, Daphne. 2006. “Eve of Wilton and Goscelin of St Bertin at Old Sarum c. 1070–1078.” Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine. 99: 204–12.

Talbot, C. H, ed. 1955. “The Liber Confortatorius of Goscelin of Saint Bertin.” Pp. 1-117 in M. M. Lebreton, J. Leclercq, C. H. Talbot, eds. Analecta Monastica: Textes et études sur la vie des moines au moyen age. 3rd series. Studia Anselmiana, 37. Rome: Herder.

Vaughn, Sally N. 2010. “Saint Anselm and His Students Writing about Love: A Theological Foundation for the Rise of Romantic Love in Europe.” Journal of the History of Sexuality. 19 (1): 54-73.

Vaughn, Sally N. and Christina Christoforatou. 2010. “Introduction to Special Issue: Desire and Eroticism in Medieval Europe, Eleventh to Fifteenth Centuries: Sex Without Sex.” Journal of the History of Sexuality. 19(1): 1-16.

Williams, Mark F. 2000. “Monastery Love or Just a Friendship? Reading the Liber Confortatorius of Goscelin of St. Bertin.” Lecture at the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library, Saint John’s University and Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota.

virgin in brothel won double crown with transvestite martyr

When the Romans were persecuting Christians, a young virgin woman was cast into a brothel as punishment for her Christian faith. A strong, independent woman, she remained defiant:

The enemy denies me martyrdom and prefers to destroy me by dishonor rather than by the sword — prefers that I live as a harlot rather than die as a martyr. But it is for you, O Lord, both to preserve virginity and to give martyrdom. And if I am not worthy to be either your spouse or your martyr, I will remain even as your harlot professing your creed.

{ hostis negat martirium, et mauult perdere stupro quam gladio, mauult uiuere scortum quam mori martyrem. Sed tuum est, Domine, et uirginitatem seruare et martyrium dare. Quod si nec sponsa nec martir tua esse merear, uel scortum tuum in tua confessione permanens ero. }

Men’s sexuality has historically suffered symbolic brutalization. So it was with the description of men eager to pay for sex with this woman:

A piggish crowd of men-debauchers grunted for her all around. The victim of the Lord stands inside, like a dove besieged by ravens, like a lamb besieged by wolves.

{ Obgrunnit in circuitu suilla corruptorum caterua, stat intus Domini uictima, ut coruis columba, ut agna lupis obsessa }

two gray wolves

This woman’s first customer at the brothel was distinctive:

An adolescent, still beardless, was in his girlish beauty and reputation preeminent among the others. No one seemed more lustful than he. He entered first as if to abuse her.

{ Adolescentulus adhuc imberbis, puellari decore et auctoritate ceteris prestantior, quo nemo uidebatur petulantior, ut insultaturus primus ingreditur. }

In classical literature, a lustful boy with “girlish beauty {puellaris decorus}” would typically be a boy who enjoys having men sexually penetrate him. But this girlish boy didn’t have sex with the young Christian woman in the brothel. The Lord had a different plan for him:

The Lord was looking upon this man in his wolf’s form as a lamb, by which he might preserve his lamb. Now he said, “Do not fear, my lady, I have come to save you, not to destroy you. Just obey my advice. We are of the same age, stature, and appearance. Just let us exchange clothes and be dressed you as a man and I as a woman. So go out as me and escape. I will remain as you and deceive the whore-seeking men. You will not be detected easily, since from such a place you will go out ashamed, with your head covered.

{ Verum hunc in lupino schemate Dominus agnum intuebatur, quo agnam suam tueretur. Hic ille: “Ne timeas,” inquit, “domina mi, seruare te, non perdere, ueni; tantum consiliis meis obaudi. Etas, status et facies eadem est nobis; tantum uestes mutemus, et tu uiriles, et ego uirgineas induamus; sic pro me egredere et euade, me pro te remanente et scortatores fallente. Nec deprehenderis iacile, quia, de tali loco egredieris pudibunde, operto capite. }

What wonderful love this young man enacted! He became a transvestite sex-worker to save the chastity of a Christian virgin condemned to a brothel. She dressed as he and escaped through the crowd of men surrounding the brothel.

The young man suffered for his love. This was a time when even adults were readily able to distinguish between men and women:

And so when that deception, which was so holy, was discovered by the next fornicator, a clamor rang out. The adolescent in the virgin’s clothes was dragged off to slaughter.

{ Vtque successore mecho tam sanctus dolus deprehensus est, clamor tollitur, adolescens cum uirginea ueste ad iugulum rapitur. }

The global propaganda apparatus recently waged a factually preposterous and grammatically monstrous “HeforShe” campaign. That propaganda campaign exploits preferential concern for women’s lives. Faithful Christians under Roman persecution, in contrast, promoted gender equality in good faith. She acted for him:

The young woman, dressed in a manly manner and spirit, ran out to meet them in their rage and proclaimed, “Me, kill me. I am the one who is guilty of this deed. The innocent ought not to be punished for the guilty.”

{ Puella uiriles habitus et animos induta, furentibus occursat et: “Me, me percute,” proclamat, “Ego rea sum huius facti; non debet innocens pro rea puniri.” }

The young woman and the young man wrestled in love for each other:

On the other side, protesting that he himself was the deviser of this plan, the adolescent contended to be slaughtered for the virgin.

{ Econtra adolescens concertabat pro uirgine iugulari, protestatus se machinatorem huius consilii. }

Not bothering to adjudicate this “good-willing struggle {benigna contentio},” the Romans slaughtered both of them. The medieval monk Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, narrating this story for his beloved nun Eve, praised the Lord:

O, in what inseparable love, in what blessed embraces they were then going to cling to one another perpetually in Heaven! Who, O gracious Jesus, glorious in your saints, will sing your praises worthily? She had feared being shipwrecked by wickedness. You not only have caused her to triumph gloriously without corruption, but also have given her forever a companion of the same age and worth. Hence, as mediator of the two, you bind each of them together, joined most closely in your love, on your right and left hand. Blessed be your mercy forever.

{ O quam inseparabili caritate, quam beatis amplexibus inde sibi perpetuo celo inhesuri! Quis tua, Ihesu benigne, in sanctis tuis gloriose, digne canet preconia? Que a turpitudine timuerat naufragari, non solum incorruptam gloriose triumphare fecisti, uerum etiam comitem illi coeuum et condignum sempiterne donasti. Hinc in tua iunctissimos dilectione, dextra leuaque, mediator duorum constringis utrumque. Benedicta misericordia tua in saecula. }

This story of the virgin in the brothel and the transvestite martyr is scarcely conceivable today. Modern narrow-mindedness impoverishes ideals of social justice and love.

Morally troubling aspects of this story should be critically contextualized. In medieval Christian understanding, the virgin gained the double crown of preserving her virginity and being a martyr for Christ. The adolescent who lustfully entered the brothel probably wasn’t a virgin. He gained only martyrdom. That inequality in crowns might trouble devout proponents of gender equality. Women are no more intrinsically worthy of receiving crowns than are men.

Even if one manages to overlook gender inequality in crowns, more morally troubling aspects of this story remain. Contrasting women as (white) doves with men as (black) ravens is both sexist and racist. More generally, representing the men around the brothel as pigs, wolves, and ravens is dehumanizing and morally offensive. Christianity understood men to bear a seminal blessing. Classical society, however, was deeply enmeshed in castration culture. Goscelin elsewhere approvingly cited classical asceticism and disdain for the fleshly body:

One, when he saw another drink water with cupped hands, broke the cup that he was carrying, saying: “For one hole in my stomach shall I carry three flasks, when I have two with my hands?” Others, hating servitude to lust, have amputated their very tools of wickedness. Having progressed into insanity, some have even cut out their own eyes, believing that the sight of the heart, not wandering outside but secluded within, would direct its force more purely to philosophy.

{ Quidam, cum uidisset aliquem concauis manibus aquam potare, iregit sciphum quem portabat dicens: “Egone ad unam uentris lacunam tre lagenas feram, qui duas in manibus habeam?” Alii seruire libidini execrantes, ipsa sibi arma nequitie amputauere. Nonnulli insanius progressi, etiam oculos sibi eiecerunt, credentes aciem cordis ab exteriori euagatione seclusam intus se intendere posse purius ad philosophiam. }

The phrase “tools of wickedness {arma nequitie}” refers to men’s penises. That phrase points to the terrible legacy of castration culture. In describing men as pigs, wolves, and ravens, Goscelin failed to extricate himself from deeply rooted sexism and anti-meninism.

Despite its moral shortcomings, the story of the virgin in the brothel and the transvestite martyr should be celebrated today as an example of heroic love. A girlish young man was willing to sacrifice himself sexually by dressing as the young woman and taking her place in the brothel. She, a strong, independent woman, vigorously attempted to save his life. Like these two heroes, women and men should be for each other.

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The above story is from Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, Comforting Book {Liber confortatorius}, Latin text from Talbot (1955) pp. 98-9, English translation (modified slightly) from Barnes & Hayward (2004) pp. 184-5. All quotes are sourced similarly, unless otherwise notes.

Liber confortatorius, which Goscelin wrote about 1081, survives in only one manuscript: British Library, MS Sloane 3103, folios 1-114. The British Library dates this manuscript to the first half of the twelfth century.

Goscelin refers this story to Saint Ambrose (Ambrose of Milan):

Here also it seems pious to remind you of what Saint Ambrose attests in Concerning the Glory of Virginity. But as I am without that book and such worthy eloquence, I touch on such a worthy subject with an unpolished narrative.

{ Hic etiam pium uidetur memorare tibi, quod sanctus Ambrosius testatur in De laude virginali. Verum exsors eius libri et tam digne eloquentie, tam dignam rem elingui palpito serie. }

Goscelin apparently is referring to Ambrose, Concerning virgins, to Marcellina his sister {De virginibus ad Marcellinam sororem suam} Bk. 2, para. 22-33 (chapter 4), Latin text from Patrologia Latinae 16.212C-216B, . For an English translation, De Romestin, de Romestin & Duckworth (1896) in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. 10 (alt. presentation). In Liber confortatorius, Goscelin sets an extensive scholarly reading program for Eve. Hollis (2004a) pp. 312-8.

Goscelin’s story differs significantly from Ambrose’s story. The man who enters the brothel and seeks to save the virgin (specified in Ambrose’s story as a virgin of Antioch) is a Christian virgin soldier. In Goscelin’s story, the first male into the brothel is a lustful, girlish adolescent who isn’t explicitly called a Christian. Goscelin’s claim that he lacked Ambrose’s book perhaps provided a pretext for adding the additional element of same-sex sexuality.

Being a harlot wasn’t an obstacle to becoming a holy Christian women. Ancient Christian saintly lives include a variety of holy harlots. Ambrose’s story of the virgin of Antioch was widely retold. Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend {Legenda aurea}, probably compiled in the mid-thirteenth century, includes a version of this story. Here’s an account of a recent retelling.

Immediately before telling the story of the virgin in the brothel, Goscelin summarized the story of Potamiana:

As the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius shows, after all types of tortures, Potamiana was put into a brothel. Adolescent men, the devil’s bird-catchers, gathered quickly for the prey. Basilides, who was in charge of the torturers, drove them back. He was zealous for the dignity of the virgin.

{ ut Ecclesiastica Eusebii probat Historia, post uniuersa tormentorum genera lupanari est addicta. Concurrunt ad predam diaboli aucupes adolescentes. Reppulit eos Basilides prelatus tortoribus, dignitatem uirginis zelatus }

Liber confortatorius 98. Goscelin apparently was referring to Ecclesiastical History 6.5. Eusebius’s story, which became well-know, doesn’t include Potamiana being put into a brothel.

While distancing Christian behavior from traditional Greco-Roman self-mutilation, Goscelin referred to castration within a more spiritualized response to temptation:

Indeed the law of Christ is not so terrible such that we should tear out our eyes, but avert them so as not to see vanity. Nor does it order that we mutilate our penises, but that we amputate vices, and from vices and lusts be castrated, circumscribed, and crucified.

{ Nec uero lex Christi tam dira est, ut oculos nostros eruamus, sed ne uideant uanitatem auertamus. Nec iubet membra nostra mutilari, sed uitia amputari, et a uitiis et concupiscentiis castrari, circumcidi, crucifigi. }

Liber confortatorius 74, with Latin textual corrections of Barnes & Haywood (2004) p. 211. Circumcision, a form of a genital cutting, is required under Jewish law. Genesis 17:10-13. Jesus rhetorically commanded self-mutilation. Matthew 18:6, 8-9. Here’s more on the history of bodily mutilation and forgiveness.

[image] Gray wolves at Wolf Park, Battleground, Indiana, USA. Photo thanks to Raed Mansour on Wikimedia Commons.


Barnes, W. R. and Rebecca Hayward, trans. 2004. “Goscelin’s Liber confortatorius.” Part 2 (pp. 97-216) in Hollis (2004b).

Hollis, Stephanie. 2004a. “Wilton as a Centre of Learning.” Pp. 307-338 in Hollis (2004b).

Hollis, Stephanie, ed. 2004b. Writing the Wilton Women: Goscelin’s Legend of Edith and Liber confortatorius. Turnhout: Brepols.

Talbot, C. H, ed. 1955. “The Liber Confortatorius of Goscelin of Saint Bertin.” Pp. 1-117 in M. M. Lebreton, J. Leclercq, C. H. Talbot, eds. Analecta Monastica: Textes et études sur la vie des moines au moyen age. 3rd series. Studia Anselmiana, 37. Rome: Herder.