courtly love learning led to student’s humiliation

For more than a century, students of medieval literature have been studying courtly love. Students have been taught that men-abasing courtly love ennobles men. That’s literally sadistic. Even worse, such teaching contradicts dominant ideals of gender equality, at least superficially. Students of medieval literature deserve a more excellent way.

According to Straparola’s mid-sixteenth-century The Pleasant Nights {Le Piacevoli Notti}, at a feast in Bologna the student Filenio Sisterno attempted to initiate an affair with the married Signora Emerenziana. Dancing with her, he whispered in her ear:

Esteemed lady, so great is your beauty that it surpasses all others my eyes have ever seen. There is not a lady alive who could ensnare my heart as you have done. If only I could hope that you felt the same, I’d be the happiest man in the world. But if you prove to be cruel, you’ll soon see my lying dead at your feet, knowing yourself to the cause of my demise. Because I love you so dearly, for indeed, I couldn’t do otherwise, you should accept me as your servant, disposing of my person and the little I can call mine as if they were your own. I couldn’t win a higher favor from Heaven than to find myself subject to such a mistress, for you’ve captured me in the snare of love as though I were a bird.

{ Valorosa donna, tanta è la bellezza vostra, che senza alcun fallo quella trapassa ogni altra che io vedessi giamai. E non vi è donna veruna a cui cotanto amore io porti, quanto alla vostra altezza; la quale se mi corrisponderà nell’amore, terrommi il più contento e il più felice uomo che si truovi al mondo; ma, altrimenti facendo, tosto vedrammi di vita privo, ed ella ne sarà stata della mia morte cagione. Amandovi adunque io, Signora mia, com’io fo ed è il debito mio, voi mi prenderete per vostro servo, disponendo e di me e delle cose mie, quantunque picciole siano, come delle vostre proprie. E grazia maggiore dal cielo ricevere non potrei, che di venire suggetto a tanta donna, la quale come uccello mi ha preso nell’amorosa pania. }

That’s the typically nonsense of men-abasing courtly love. Not responding to these words, Signora Emerenziana returned to her seat after their dance. Then Filenio danced with the married lady Panthemia. He whispered in her ear:

Certainly there is no need, most gracious lady, for me to be lavish of words in setting forth the depth and ardor of love I have for you and ever will have as long as this soul of mine inhabits and rules my unworthy body. How blessed I would be if I might posses you as the lady of my heart and my very own mistress. Loving you as I do and being wholly yours, as you may easily understand, I beg you to accept me as your most humble servant. My life and all I have to live for depends on you and you alone.

{ Certo non fa mestieri, gentilissima madonna, che io con parole vi dimostri quanto e quale sia il fervido amore che io vi porto e porterò, fin che questo spirito vitale reggerà queste deboli membra e infelici ossa. E felice, anzi beato mi terrei, all’ora quando io vi avessi per mia patrona, anzi singolar signora. Amandovi adunque io sì come io vi amo, ed essendo io vostro, sì come voi agevolmente potete intendere, non arrete a sdegno di ricevermi per vostro umilissimo servitore, perciò che ogni mio bene e ogni mia vita da voi e non altronde dipende. }

That’s more courtly love idiocy. Panthemia didn’t respond to Filenio.

Courtly love ideology encourages men’s suffering in love. Filenio soldiered on. He invited the most beautiful Sinforosia to dance. Then he said to her:

Most honorable lady, perhaps I may seem to you presumptuous beyond all measure to reveal the secret love that I have borne and still bear for you. Please don’t blame this offense on me, but on your beauty, which raises you high above all the others and make me your slave. I’ll say nothing of your delightful manners, nor of your surpassing virtues, which are great enough to bring down the gods from the heavens. So if your loveliness, the work of nature and not of art, can allure the immortal gods, no marvel that it should constrain me to love you and to keep your image in my inmost heart. I beg you then, sweet lady, the only comfort of my life, to reserve some tenderness for the one who dies for you a thousand times a day. If you grant me this grace, I’ll owe my life to you. I can recommend myself only to your kindness alone.

{ Onestissima madonna, forse io parerò non poco prosontuoso scoprendovi ora il celato amore che io vi portai e ora porto; ma non incolpate me, ma la vostra bellezza, la quale a ciascaduna altra donna vi fa superiore, e me come vostro mancipio tene. Taccio ora i vostri laudevoli costumi; taccio le egregie e ammirabili vostre virtù, le quali sono tante e tali, che hanno forza di far discendere giù d’alto cielo i superni Dei. Se adunque la vostra bellezza, accolta per natura e non per arte, aggradisce agli immortali Dei, non è maraviglia se quella mi stringe ad amarvi e tenervi chiusa nelle viscere del mio cuore. Pregovi adunque, gentil Signora mia, unico refrigerio della mia vita, che abbiate caro colui che per voi mille volte al giorno more. Il che facendo, io riputerò aver la vita per voi, alla cui grazia mi raccomando. }

Sinforosia sighed. Mindful of her honor as a married woman, she didn’t reply. Attempting to make up with quantity of attempts what he lacked in seductive skill, Filenio continued to express self-abasing courtly love to more women at the dance. Courtly lovers are slow learners. Filenio had no love success.

Even worse, Emerenziana, Panthemia, and Sinforosia subsequently spoke with each other about their experiences at the dance. They learned that Filenio had attempted to initiate love affairs with all three of them. Men’s sexuality has been relatively harshly controlled throughout history. These women accordingly didn’t celebrate Filenio’s strong, independent sexuality. They sought to punish him for his “fake love {fittizio amore}.”

in a bath tub, a married woman terrorizes another man who aspired to love her

The three women horribly humiliated and abused the foolish courtly lover Filenio. Emerenziana enticed him to her house with the promise of sex in her husband’s absence. Filenio took off his clothes and got in bed with her. As Emerenziana had planned, her husband soon returned. She directed Filenio to hide under the bed, where she had prepositioned thorny branches. Filenio stayed silently naked in his bed of thorns all night long as husband and wife slept together above him. Straparola commented:

I leave to you to think about how that miserable one found himself at the end of the night. He was likely not to retain his penis as he had to remain without the use of his tongue.

{ Io lascio considerare a voi a che termine quella notte si ritrovasse il miserello; il quale poco mancò che senza la coda non restasse, sì come era rimasto senza favella. }

Emerenziana thus acted as a vicious agent of castration culture. After her husband departed the next morning, Filenio, bleeding and fearing that he would soon die, returned home. The diligent care of a physician fortunately returned him to good health.

Then Panthemia feigned interest in sleeping with him. She invited him to her home. When he was undressed and ready to get into bed with her, she sent him into an adjacent room to get some perfume. There, as she had planned, he stepped on a loosened floorboard and fell into a underlying storeroom for cotton and wool. He had to pull out old stones in a wall to escape, naked and exhausted.

Some time later, Sinforosia pretended to want to sleep with him. She enticed him into her house and treated him to cakes and wines before bed. But she had drugged the wine. Once the drug rendered Filenio unconscious, she had a maid drag him out into the street. When he awoke, he was naked, lying on bare ground, and half-frozen. Only by the strength of his youthfulness did he survive.

Filenio’s triple ordeals reversed his three declarations of courtly love. He then acted to demonstrate the goodness of the male gaze and the personal way in which the three women’s husbands loved them. To avoid the crooked path of Filenio, every student should study the troubadour Bernart de Cornilh and his humane defender Arnaut Daniel. All things work together for good for those who understand medieval literature.

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The story above is from Giovanni (Zoan) Francesco Straparola, The Pleasant Nights {Le Piacevoli Notti}, Night 2, Story 2. The quotes use Italian text from Rua (1899) and English translation (modified) from Beecher (2012). The English translation of Waters (1894) is freely available online. Sraparola’s text uses phrases from Boccaccio. Beecher (2012) vol. 1, pp. 312-3. Boccaccio was an incisive critic of court love.

Reflecting a deeply entrenched gender problem in philology, both Waters and Beecher obscured the reference to the student’s penis. The Italian explicitly refers to the scholar’s “coda”:

Io lascio considerare a voi a che termine quella notte si ritrovasse il miserello; il quale poco mancò che senza la coda non restasse, sì come era rimasto senza favella.

Waters translated this passage as:

I leave you to figure in what plight the poor wretch found himself that night, seeing that he dared not call out, though he was like to lose a good part of his breech through the torment he was suffering.

Beecher translated the passage as:

I leave you to imagine further the plight of the poor wretch that night, as likely to end up an amputee as he was speechless.

The Italian word “coda” means most centrally “tail.” In context, it clearly refers to the scholar’s penis. His penis suffered torment from the thorns. Adding piquancy to this passage, medieval literature uses thorn as a figure for the penis. The words “breech” and “amputee” in Waters’s and Beecher’s translations obscure the penis. As meninist literary criticism insists, medieval literary study must become more inclusive and welcoming of penises.

Beecher described the women’s treatment of Filenio as “humiliation of his masculine pretensions.” Beecher (2012) vol. 1, p. 309. A man seeking to love multiple women isn’t “pretentious.” But if he attempts to do so under delusions of courtly love, he’s foolish.

[image] In a bath tub, a married woman manipulates her husband to terrorize another man who aspired to have sex with her. Drawing entitled “The two money-changers {Lex deux changeurs}.” The medieval fabliau “Lex deux changeurs” was a source for Straparola’s story about Filenio Sisterno. This drawing is from between pages 204 and 205 in vol. 4 of Legrand (1829).


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

Legrand d’Aussy, Pierre Jean-Baptiste. 1829. Fabliaux ou contes, fables et romans du XIIe et du XIIIe siècle: traduits ou extraits. Paris: Renouard.

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.

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