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.

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