“O admirabile Veneris idolum”: on losing beloved to love rival

Women tend to regard men instrumentally, e.g. what will he give me or what will he do for me. Men’s intrinsic virtue and beauty tends to be socially devalued. But consider “O admirabile Veneris idolum,” a poem from tenth-century Verona. It addresses a young man:

O marvelous idol of love,
in whose substance there is no defect,
may the prime-mover, who created stars and sky,
founded seas and land, protect you.
May you not sense deception through the guile of a thief.
May Clotho, who bears the distaff, delight in you.

{ O admirabile Veneris idolum,
cuius materie nihil est frivolum,
archos te protegat, qui stellas et polum
fecit et maria condidit et solum.
Furis ingenio non sentias dolum,
Cloto te diligat, que baiolat colum. }[1]

In medieval Christian understanding, idolatry is a sin. Moreover, the prime-mover to medieval Christians wasn’t an impersonal abstraction, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Composing a contrafactum to a Christian chant honoring the Roman tombs of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, the poet of “O admirabile Veneris idolum” posed on the poem’s surface as a tenth-century adherent to traditional Greco-Roman religion.

This poet apparently appreciated women. Clotho was a female figure who spun the fabric of human lives in traditional Greco-Roman religion. The guile of a thief might be interpreted as the action of a woman-rival competing for the beautiful young man’s love. Women understand their own gender’s strength in guile. Ostentatiously displaying classical learning was perhaps a clever love distinction:

“Keep this young man safe!” not by supposition,
but with resolute heart I implore Lachesis,
sister of Atropos, that she not seize the thread.
May you have Neptune and Thetis as companions
when you are carried over the river Adige.

{ “Salvato puerum” non per ipotesim,
sed firmo pectore deprecor Lachesim,
sororem Atropos, ne curet heresim.
Neptunum comitem habeas et Tetim,
cum vectus fueris per fluvium Tesim. }[2]

Not a cleric engaged in learned suppositions, this poet spoke from the heart. Most classically learned persons in medieval Europe were men. The classical learning displayed in this poem would impress a medieval young man much more if it came from a woman than from a man.

"O admirabile Veneris idolum" in Cambridge Songs manuscript

While women in general are amorously privileged relative to men, women compete intensely for men that they love. This poet suffered amorous loss:

Please tell: why do you flee, even though I love you?
What shall I do, wretched one, since I cannot see you?
Hard material from the bones of mother-earth
created humans when stones were cast.
Of these, this dear young man is one,
one who shows no compassion for my tearful moans.
While I am sad, my rival will rejoice.
I roar like a female deer when her fawn takes flight.

{ Quo fugis, amabo, cum te dilexerim?
Miser, quid faciam, cum te non viderim?
Dura materies ex matris ossibus
creavit homines iactis lapidibus,
ex quibus unus est iste puerulus,
qui lacrimabiles non curat gemitus.
Cum tristis fuero, gaudebit emulus.
Ut cerva rugio, cum fugit hinnulus. }

The wretched one could be the poet, or her epithet for the beautiful, hard-hearted young man who left her. The final verse, with its figure of a female deer roaring for its lost fawn, encapsulates the poem’s heart. Nothing is more profoundly Christian than the wounded praying for the good of the harm-perpetrating other.[3] This poem’s Christian macro-structure encompasses its traditional Greco-Roman ornament. Its unfamiliar surface makes more poignant its Christian moral orientation. As a woman’s poem, this poem is as ordinary as a female deer loving her fawn, and as extraordinary as a female deer roaring.

Medieval Galician-Portuguese “songs about a beloved man {cantigas d’amigo}” provide examples of a woman addressing a beloved man about a woman-rival. Like in “O admirabile Veneris idolum,” but in a much narrower poetic field, a woman in a cantiga d’amigo expressed her love for her boyfriend who left her for a rival:

It’s been a long time, my boyfriend,
since you went away from me
in Valongo and didn’t see me again.
Nor did I ever again have
pleasure in anything,
for never was a boyfriend
so desired by a girlfriend.

Nor will any woman
who speaks truly ever tell you,
nor can you ever find out
from somebody else, if it please God,
or if I have any truth in me,
that you ever saw a boyfriend
so desired by a woman.

Although you had a girlfriend
whom you really loved,
still, come back to me
if you find anyone who says
anything other than I say:
that they never saw a boyfriend
so desired by a girlfriend.

{ Gran sazon á, meu amigo,
que vos vós de mi partistes
en Valong’ e non m’ ar vistes
nen ar ouv’ eu depois migo
de nulha ren gasalhado,
mais nunca tan desejado
d’ amiga fostes amigo

Nen vos dirá nunca molher
que verdade queira dizer
nen vós non podedes saber
nunca per outren, se Deus quer,
ou se eu verdad’ ei migo,
que nunca vistes amigo
tan desejado de molher

Pero ouvestes amiga
a que quisestes mui gran ben,
a min vos tornade por en,
se achardes quen vos diga
se non assi com’ eu digo:
que nunca vissen amigo
tan desejado d’ amiga }[4]

This woman insists that she loves her man more than any other woman ever has. The first-verse phrase “my boyfriend {meu amigo}” contrasts with subsequent, less personally assertive relations between a boyfriend and a girlfriend, or a boyfriend and a woman. Just as God for medieval Christians is a prime-mover within a unique personal covenant, this woman insisted that she was personally unique to her boyfriend.

Another cantiga d’amigo shows a woman struggling to take revenge on the boyfriend who left her. The song is self-consciously ironic:

Listen, boyfriend, to what I heard today
said about you, so help me God:
that you love another and not me.
And if it’s true, I’ll get revenge this way:
I’ll try not to love you, beginning now,
and it’ll hurt me more than anything.

I heard it said that, just to cause me pain,
you love another, my treacherous one,
and if it’s true, by Our Lord,
I’ll tell you how I think to take revenge:
I’ll try not to love you, beginning now,
and it’ll hurt me more than anything.

And if I find out that this is true
what they’re telling me, my boyfriend, by God,
I’ll cry out these eyes of mine,
and I’ll tell you how I’ll take my revenge:
I’ll try not to love you, beginning now,
and it’ll hurt me more than anything.

{ Vedes, amigo, o que oj’ oí
dizer de vós, assi Deus mi perdon,
que amades ja outra e mi non,
mais, se verdad’ é, vingar m’ ei assi:
punharei ja de vos non querer ben;
e pesar mh á én mais que outra ren

Oí dizer por me fazer pesar
amades vós outra, meu traedor,
e, se verdad’ é, par Nostro Senhor,
direi vos como me cuid’ a vingar:
punharei ja de vos non querer ben;
e pesar mh á én mais que outra ren

E, se eu esto por verdade sei
que mi dizen, meu amigo, par Deus,
chorarei muito destes olhos meus,
e direi vos como me vingarei:
punharei ja de vos non querer ben;
e pesar mh á én mais que outra ren }[5]

God is invoked in each stanza, but only in a formulaic way. This woman will try not to love her enemy ex-boyfriend. She knows that not loving that enemy will hurt her more than anything. That’s a mistake that the poet of “O admirabile Veneris idolum” didn’t make.

Life is complicated, and so too is not loving. A woman in another cantiga d’amigo vehemently rejected her ex-boyfriend:

What eyes are those that have no shame?
Tell me, boyfriend of another girl, not mine!
And tell me now, so help you God,
since they say that now you are another’s,
how do you dare to come before
my eyes, boyfriend, for the love of God?

Because you really should have remembered
how sad I saw you for my sake,
liar, and how I went to you then.
But since now you’ve taken up with another,
how do you dare to come before
my eyes, boyfriend, for the love of God?

By God, liar, what little thanks I got
when you were about to die
if I hadn’t visited, and I went to see you.
But since now another has won you from me,
how do you dare to come before
my eyes, boyfriend, for the love of God?

I don’t want your pledges any more.
Just go away right now, by Our Lord!
And wherever I am, never come there again!
Since you’ve taken up with another woman,
how do you dare to come before
my eyes, boyfriend, for the love of God?

{ Que olhos son que vergonha non an,
dized’, amigo d’ outra, ca meu non,
e dized’ ora, se Deus vos pardon,
pois que vos ja con outra preço dan,
com ousastes viir ant’ os meus
olhos, amigo, por amor de Deus?

Ca vós ben vos deviades nembrar
en qual coita vos eu ja por mi vi,
fals’, e nembrar vos qual vos fui eu i;
mais, pois con outra fostes começar,
como ousastes viir ant’ os meus
olhos, amigo, por amor de Deus?

Par Deus, falso, mal se mi gradeceu,
quando vós ouverades de morrer
se eu non fosse, que vos fui veer;
mais, pois vos outra ja de min venceu,
como ousastes viir ant’ os meus
olhos, amigo, por amor de Deus?

Non mi á mais vosso preito mester,
e ide vos ja, por Nostro Senhor,
e non venhades nunca u eu for;
pois começastes con outra molher,
como ousastes viir ant’ os meus
olhos, amigo, por amor de Deus? }[6]

This woman apparently rescued her boyfriend from dying of lovesickness. He subsequently sought healthcare with another woman. In ancient Greece and in many cultures throughout history, honor and shame are moral fundamentals, and hurting those who help you is morally wrong. “What eyes are those that have no shame?” Those eyes might be understood as the emphatically repeated “my eyes” — the woman’s eyes that see her ex-boyfriend. She could be an ancient Greek woman speaking to herself in exasperation about still loving her lying ex-boyfriend.

Noble, dancer with castanets, and musician with concave-sided psaltery from medieval Cancioneiro da Ajuda

Privileged, middle-aged women occasionally love much less privileged, young, beautiful men. That power imbalance allows the woman to make the man successful, but it can also threaten him:

They told me a thing about you now,
my boyfriend, which upsets me very much,
but I’m thinking to better that thing,
if I can do it, and I can very well,
because I have the power I always had,
and I made you, and now I will unmake you.

They tell me you went and chose a lady
for whom you thought that you would leave me,
and that’s just fine, if it turns out well,
but I will turn that ‘well’ of yours into ill,
because I have the power I always had,
and I made you, and now I will unmake you.

You chose a lady, I heard it said,
to my distress, and you’ll lose out there,
if I can do it, and do it I can,
as I always could, and I have the power,
because I have the power I always had,
and I made you, and now I will unmake you.

And once I turn you back into what you were,
that’ll upset me, but I’ll get back at you.

{ Disseron mh ora de vós ũa ren,
meu amigo, de que ei gran pesar,
mais eu mho cuido mui ben melhorar,
se eu poder, e poderei mui ben,
ca o poder, que eu sempre ouvi, m’ ei,
e eu vos fiz e eu vos desfarei

Dizen mi que filhastes senhor tal
per que vos cuidastes de min partir,
e ben vos é, se vos a ben sair,
mais deste ben farei vos end’ eu mal,
ca o poder, que eu sempre ouvi, m’ ei,
e eu vos fiz e eu vos desfarei

Senhor filhastes, com’ oí dizer
a meu pesar, e perderedes i,
se eu poder, e poderei assi
como fiz sempr’ e posso me poder,
ca o poder, que eu sempre ouvi, m’ ei,
e eu vos fiz e eu vos desfarei

E, pois vos eu tornar qual vos achei,
pesar mh á en, mais pero vingar m’ ei }[7]

This woman, very upset at her ex-boyfriend moving on to a rival woman, wants to hurt him. That’s probably common for status-disparate love relationships that go bad. Jealousy, after all, is a powerful motivation, and the capability to harm is heightened with a large power differential. Nonetheless, that’s not the only possible outcome in such a situation. Despite being older and undoubtedly more learned that the lost beloved young man, the speaker of “O admirabile Veneris idolum” wants to protect him from harm.

“O admirabile Veneris idolum” is “among the pearls of medieval poetry” within the rich treasure of medieval literature generally. Yet it has been under-interpreted:

It has been understood most often as a love poem composed by a male teacher for a boy — a medieval version of the genre of homoerotic poems known in antiquity as paidikon.[8]

Rather than looking back to antiquity and traditional Greco-Roman values, readers can more fully appreciate “O admirabile Veneris idolum” by appreciating its Christian context and looking forward to the Galician-Portuguese cantigas d’amigo of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In medieval Europe, Christian holy love and incarnate love in ordinary life could readily be regarded as essentially the same form. Learned medieval women teachers — Hildegard of Bingen, Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, Heloise of the Paraclete, and undoubtedly others — in various ways loved men. As medieval Christians understood, the Christian imperative to love one’s enemies applies even within the specific circumstances of personal betrayal in love. “O admirabile Veneris idolum” should prompt readers today to ponder how they can love men well.

* * * * *

Read more:

Notes:

[1] Cambridge Songs {Carmina cantabrigiensia} 48, “O marvelous idol of love {O admirabile Veneris idolum / O admirabile Veneris ydolum},” stanza 1, Latin text (editorial marks elided; v used for ease in recognizing sounds) and English translation (modified) from Ziolkowski (1994). Subsequent quotes from this poem are similarly sourced and comprise sequentially the whole poem. Here’s an alternate translation of the poem.

This poem has survived in the mid-eleventh-century C = Carmina cantabrigiensia (University of Cambridge, MS Gg.5.35, folio 441v) and in the late-eleventh-century V = Biblioteca apostolica vaticana, MS Vaticanus latinus 3227, folio 80v. The composition of the poem dates to the ninth or tenth century. Giovini (1999) (tenth); Curius (1953) p. 114 (ninth).

“O admirabile Veneris idolum” in manuscript  in Ms Vaticanus latinus 3227, folio 80v

Music for a Christian pilgrimage song fits this poem. In C, stanzas 1-2 are neumed. In V, “O admirabile Veneris ydolum” is followed by the metrically and rhythmically identical poem, “O noble Rome, lady-lord of the world {O Roma nobilis orbis et domina}.” The latter poem survives in another manuscript with musically interpretable notation. Ziolkowski (1994) p. 307; Nardini (2021) p. 147.

[2] The words “archos {prime-mover},” “ipothesis {supposition},” and “haeresis {a taking}” are learned words with Greek origin. Ziolkowski (1994) p. 307. “Amabo,” meaning “please” is an unusual word that occurs in the early Latin playwrights Plautus and Terence. Id. p. 308. The poem also includes allusions to Juvenal, Virgil, and Ovid. Giovini (1999).

[3] From a Christian perspective, Christ’s incarnation and crucifixion to redeem sinful humanity is a preeminent expression of divine love. As specific Christian teachings, Matthew 5:44, Luke 6:27-38 (love your enemies); Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31 (do to others as you would have them do to you).

[4] Martin Padrozelos 2, song about a beloved man {cantiga de amigo}, “It’s been a long time, my boyfriend {Gran sazon á, meu amigo}” (B 1239, V 844), 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. Martin / Martim Padrozelos apparently flourished in the middle and late thirteenth century.

For an analysis and complete enumeration of cantigas d’amigo concerning a rival woman, Cohen (2011) 67-83 (“The Other Girl: Outra”) and pp. 85-6 (Appendix: Other Lovers in the Cantigas d’Amigo). Rip Cohen should be honored for his enormous sacrifice in working on cantigas de amigo and making much of his work freely available worldwide on the Internet.

[5] Fernan Velho 1, song about a beloved man {cantiga de amigo}, “Listen, boyfriend, to what I heard today {Vedes, amigo, o que oj’ oí}” (B 819, V 403, C 819), 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. The electro-medieval band Qntal recorded an adaptation of this song on its 2004 album Illuminate (Noir Records).

[6] Juião Bolseiro 6, song about a beloved man {cantiga de amigo}, “What eyes are those that have no shame? {Que olhos son que vergonha non an}” (B 1170, V 776), 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.

[7] Johan Perez d’Avoin 7, song about a beloved man {cantiga de amigo}, “They told me a thing about you now {Disseron mh ora de vós ũa ren}” (B 670, V 273), 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.

[8] Ziolkoski (1994). The previous short quote (“among the pearls of medieval poetry”) is from Curtius 1953) p. 114. For an argument that the poetic voice is a woman’s, Vollmann (1988). Jaeger perceived in this poem “the lack of any Christian coloring.” Jaeger (1999) p. 56. The music of the poem surely provided Christian coloring in its time. More importantly, its emotional macro-structure is also Christian. Nardini, who examines its music in detail, calls it a “secular parody.” Nardini (2021) p. 147. The poem seems to me a secular parody in the sense of parodying a paidikon.

A reviewer of Stephen Gaselee’s An Anthology of Medieval Latin (1925) stated:

A classical student, for example, might welcome the suggestion that the accentual dactylic tetrameter of O admirabile Veneris ydolum was ultimately derived from the classical Lesser Asclepiadic.

Merrill (1926) p. 308. Classical students would be better directed to think comparatively about the Christian understanding of love and ponder classical philology’s gender problem.

Medieval love poetry encompasses an astonishing range of possibilities. Baudri (Badric), who became Abbot of Bourgueil (c. 1080) and archbishop of Dol (1107) in Brittany, lightly observed:

They reproach me even with this: speaking in the way of young men,
I wrote to young women and no less to adolescent boys.
Some of what I wrote indeed concerned love,
and my songs have pleased both sexes.

{ Obiciunt etiam, iuvenum cur more loquutus
Virginibus scripsi nec minus et pueris.
Nam scripsi quedam, que complectuntur amorem,
Carminibusque meis sexus uterque placet. }

Baudri to Godfrey of Reims, written between 1081 and 1089, poem 161, vv. 183-6, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Bond (1986) p. 183. Baudri’s male addressee had to be at least old enough to read learned Latin poetry. Here are some related verses from Curtius (1953) pp. 115-6. What Baudri actually did sexually and with whom in late eleventh-century France isn’t clear. That matters less than what you are doing and thinking now about how to love men well.

[images] (1) “O admirabile Veneris idolum” in manuscript from Cambridge Songs, University of Cambridge, MS Gg.5.35, folio 441v. (2) Musical version of “O admirabile Veneris idolum” by Ensemble Sequentia from its album Lost Songs of the Rhineland Harper (2004). Via YouTube. Here are versions by Ensemble Renaissance (1984), Nuns and Roses (2013), and Trouvere Medieval Minstrels (2018). (3) Noble, dancer with castanets, and musician playing psaltery. Illumination from folio 59r in the late-thirteenth-century Cancioneiro da Ajuda (Ajuda National Palace, Lisbon, Portugal). Also available on Wikimedia Commons. (4) “O admirabile Veneris idolum” in manuscript in Vatican, MS Vaticanus latinus 3227, folio 80v.

References:

Bond, Gerald A. 1986. “‘Iocus amoris’: the Poetry of Baudri of Bourgueil and the Formation of the Ovidian Subculture.” Traditio. 42: 143-193.

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.

Cohen, Rip. 2011. Erotic angles on the cantigas d’amigo. Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar, 68. London: Department of Iberian and Latin American Studies, Queen Mary, University of London.

Curtius, Ernst Robert. 1953. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Translated from the Germany by Willard R. Trask. New York: Pantheon Books.

Giovini, Marco. 1999. “O admirabile Veneris ydolum: un carme d’amore paidico del X secolo e il mito di Deucalione.” Studi Medievali. 40 (1): 261-278.

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

Merrill, Elmer Truesdell. 1926. “Book Review: An Anthology of Medieval Latin.” The Classical Journal. 21 (4): 307-309.

Nardini, Luisa. 2021. Chants, hypertext, and prosulas: re-texting the proper of the mass in Beneventan manuscripts. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Vollmann, Benedikt K. 1988. “O admirabile Veneris idolum (Carmina Cantabrigiensia 48) – ein Mädchenlied?” Pp. 532-543 in Udo Kindermann, Wolfgang Maaz, and Fritz Wagner, eds. Festschrift für Paul Klopsch. Göppinger Arbeiten zur Germanistik 492. Göppingen: Kümmerle.

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

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