the male gaze desires to see a woman’s face

When men gaze upon an attractive woman, they aren’t just looking at her body as a sexual object. Men want to see a woman’s face. A man gazes upon a beautiful woman’s face with a sense for her personal, human uniqueness. He imagines her relating to him personally with warm receptivity and generous appreciation. Consider, for example, a medieval Latin poet reveling in a woman’s beauty:

O my sweetness, totally full of sweetness,
O how beautiful and dignified you appear in my eyes!
Your head seems to be crowned with gold,
your eyes shine like a golden beam.
Golden hair, a milk-white neck leading away,
a charming throat you have, all full of sweetness.
The lyre of your hands is wrought such as a gold instrument.
You alone I indeed call elegant, more than all others.
I judge you beautiful, marked in that blemishes you have none.

{ O dulcedo mea, tota dulcedine plena,
O quam pulchra meis oculis et honesta videris!
In cono capitis auro tu consimilaris,
Effulgent oculi tibi sicut radius auri,
Aurea cesaries, dimissaque lactea cervix,
Guttur habes lepidum, cuncta dulcedine plenum,
Testudo manuum, tornatilis, talis ut aurum.
Immo te solam plus cunctis dico decoram —
Censeo te pulchram maculam quia non habes ullam. }[1]

The male gaze is associated with the moral risk of dehumanization. Medieval men loved women so ardently that some veered into gyno-idolatry. No matter how beautiful a woman appears, she isn’t a goddess. She’s a fully human being, just as every man is.

Isleworth Mona Lisa, excerpt of face

A medieval literary motif of voyeurism highlights that a woman’s face is vital to a man’s personal appreciation of her. In a fabliau from the first half of the thirteenth century, a money-changer was having a sexual affair with his fellow money-changer’s wife. One day when he was in bed with his friend’s wife, he invited his friend over to the bedroom. He proclaimed:

I have the most beautiful lover
that ever was. She lies next to me.

{ que j’ai la plus tres bele amie
qui onques fust, qui lez moi gist. }[2]

With men’s natural curiosity, the friend asked to see her. Recognizing her husband’s voice, she hid her face. The man, however, uncovered her beautiful hair. Then he showed off her feet and legs and thighs and breasts and neck. That display, proceeding mainly from the feet upward, reverses the top-down direction of the typical medieval “description of a young woman {descriptio puellae}.” He refused to show her face. The husband admired the woman’s wonderful loveliness. But without seeing her face, he didn’t recognize that the woman was actually his wife.

In Straparola’s mid-sixteenth-century The Pleasant Nights {Le Piacevoli Notti}, the importance to a husband of seeing his wife’s face is affirmed in triplicate. According to Straparola, three eminent married women of Bologna cruelly abused a scholar after he sought their love simultaneously. In revenge, the scholar forced the three ladies to get naked in bed together. Then he invited their husbands into the room:

He said to them, “My Lords, I have brought you here for a little solace through a diversion. I intend to show you the prettiest sight you’ve ever seen.” Having then led the husbands to the bed with a torch in his hand, gently he began to life up the covering at the ladies’ feet. He turned it back far enough to reveal the pretty limbs beneath it as far as the knees. Their husbands were now gazing upon their wives’ white limbs and petite feet. When he had done this, he then uncovered them to the middle and displayed their legs whiter than alabaster. Their legs seemed like columns of polished marble, and their bellies were rounded in so shapely a fashion that nothing could be finer. Next uncovering their fair bodies yet a little more, he showed their gently swelling bosoms with the two round breasts so delicate and tender that they might have compelled the great god Jove to kiss and fondle them.

{ disseli: Signori miei, io vi ho quivi condotti per darvi un poco di solacio e per mostrarvi la più bella cosa, che a’ tempi vostri vedeste giamai; — e, approssimatosi al letto con un torchietto in mano, leggermente cominciò levar il linzuolo da’ piedi e invilupparlo, e discoperse le donne sino alle ginocchia; ed ivi li mariti videro le tondette e bianche gambe con i loro isnelli piedi, maravigliosa cosa a riguardare. Indi discopersele sino al petto, e mostrolli le candidissime coscie che parevano due colonne di puro marmo, col rotondo corpo al finissimo alabastro somigliante. Dopo, scoprendole più in su, li mostrò il teneretto e poco rilevato petto con le due popoline sode, delicate e tonde, che arebbeno costretto il sommo Giove ad abbracciarle e basciarle. }[3]

This descriptio puellae again proceeds unconventionally from feet upwards. Like most men, the husbands wanted to see not just these beautiful women’s bodies, but also their faces:

The wives lay quite still, not daring so much as to cough in order that they not be recognized. The husbands kept urging the scholar to uncover the ladies’ faces. But more careful in other men’s wrongs than in his own, he would not agree to that.

{ Elle stavano chete e non osavano zittire, acciò che conosciute non fussero. I mariti tentavano il scolare che le discoprisse il volto; ma egli, più prudente nell’altrui male che nel suo, consentire non volse. }

Although these women’s stripped clothes looked suspiciously similar to their wives’ clothes, the husbands left the room without recognizing that the three beautiful women were in fact their wives. Back at home, they questioned their wives. Their wives denied everything. These good men listened to the women and believed.

The male gaze desires to see a woman’s face. Medieval Christians appreciated the biblical unity of women and men. Men’s and women’s desires for each other were regarded as so vitally important that married persons were required under canon law to have sex with each other if either lovingly sought so. Medieval European authorities sought to dissuade men from gyno-idolatry by emphasizing women’s bodily reality:

If her guts showed, and the rest of her meat showed,
you would perceive what filth her white skin hides.
If gleaming purple cloth covers vile excrement,
by this who, except the insane, would love the excrement?

{ Viscera si pateant, pateant et caetera carnis,
Cernes quas sordes contegat alba cutis.
Si fimum vilem praefulgens purpura velet,
Ecquis ob hos fimum vel male sanus amet? }[4]

Such poetry has been largely ineffectual. When men see a beautiful woman’s face, they don’t think of her as excrement, guts, and meat. They see her as a marvelous human being, and sometimes even a goddess. The most significant problem historically hasn’t been men objectifying or dehumanizing women. It’s been men deifying women.

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[1] “In the fullness of your many allurements, dearest one {Ubere multarum, carissima, deliciarum}, ” vv. 3-11 (of 11), Latin text of Munich, Clm 19411, folio 70v, from Dronke (1965) vol. 2, p. 463, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. p. 464. The source manuscript was written in the twelfth or thirteenth century. Donke noted that v. 8 quotes Maximianus, Elegies 1.93.

The phrase “totally full of sweetness {tota dulcedine plena}” was used in the liturgy for translating the relics of Vitalis of Savigny in 1243. Auvry (1898) vol.3, p. 339-40. Cf. “full of grace {gratia plena}” in Luke 1:28 and the “Hail, Mary {Ave, Maria}” prayer.

[2] About two money-changers {Des deus changeors}, incipit “Whoever makes a rhyme or story {Qui que face rime ne fable},” vv. 74-5, Old French text and English translation (modified) from Dubin (2013) pp. 248-9 (fabliau 21). For a freely available Old French text, Montaiglon & Raynaud (1872) vol. 1, pp. 245-54. For a later version of this fabliau, Antoine de la Sale, The Hundred New Novels {Les Cent nouvelles nouvelles}, nouvelle 1, The reversed medal {La medaille a revers}, Middle French text in Lacroix (1884), English translation in Douglas (1899).

[3] Giovanni (Zoan) Francesco Straparola, The Pleasant Nights {Le Piacevoli Notti}, Night 2, Story 2, Italian text from Rua (1899), English translation (modified) from Beecher (2012) vol. 1, p. 306. The subsequent quote above is similarly from this story. The English translation of Waters (1894) is freely available online.

The Book of the knight of the Landry Tower {Livre du chevalier de la Tour-Landry}, Ch. 22, tells of the knight Boucicaut offending three ladies by simultaneous seeking their love. This book dates to 1381. From about the same time, a story similar to that of Des deus changeors is in Ser Giovanni Fiorentiono’s The gullible man {Il pecorone} as story 2.2. Beecher (2012) p. 311. In the Old French lay Ignaure, the knight Ignaure simultaneously loves twelve ladies. He thus far outdoes Boucicaut while suffering similar persecution from the women.

[4] Anselm of Canterbury, “Song about Contempt for the World {Carmen de contemptu mundi},” Latin text from Patrologia Latinae 155.697, my English translation. These verses are also cited in Roger de Caen / Alexander Neckam, “About the life of a monk {De vita monachorum},” vv. 401-4. For the latter poem, Wright (1872) vol. 2, pp. 175ff. Matheolus, a vigorous thirteenth-century voice of men’s sexed protest, similarly emphasized women’s non-divine corporeality: “A woman adorned with clothing is manure covered with snow {Vestibus ornata mulier nive stercus copertum est}.” Matheolus, Lamentations of Little, Little Matheus {Lamentationes Matheoluli} vv. 1973-4, Latin text from Van Hamel (1892), my English translation. Given the historical prevalence of violence against men, men’s mortal ugliness was much more readily apparent than women’s.

[image] Isleworth Mona Lisa (excerpt). Early sixteenth-century oil on canvas portrait of Lisa Gherardini, probably by Leonardo da Vinci. Source image via Wikimedia Commons.


Auvry, Dom Claude. 1898. Histoire de la congregation de savigny. Rouen: A. Lestringant.

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

Douglas, Robert B., trans. 1899. Antoine de la Sale. One hundred merrie and delightsome stories: right pleasaunte to relate in all goodly companie by joyance and jollity: les cent nouvelles nouvelles. Paris: Charles Carrington.

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

Dubin, Nathaniel. 2013. The Fabliaux. New York: Liveright.

Lacroix, Paul, ed. 1884. Les Cent nouvelles nouvelles: dites les Cent nouvelles du roi Louis XI; éd. rev. sur l’édition originale, avec des notes et une introduction. Paris: Charpentier.

Montaiglon, Anatole de, and Gaston Raynaud. 1872. Recueil général et complet des fabliaux des XIIIe et XIVe siècles. Paris: Libr. des Bibliophiles.

Van Hamel, Anton Gerard, ed. 1892. Mathéolus, Jean Le Fèvre. Les lamentations de Mathéolus et le livre de leesce de Jehan Le Fèvre, de Ressons: poèmes français du XIVe siècle. Paris: Bouillon.

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.

Wright, Thomas, ed. 1872. The Anglo-Latin satirical poets and epigrammatists of the twelfth century. London: Longman.

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