women-fairies in the madness of Le Jeu de la feuillée

Reading through Adam de la Halle’s Le Jeu de la feuillée, Douglas was appalled at this medieval play. All the men are mean and foolish. He felt that he must be mean and foolish too, since he’s a man. But he pondered the cantankerous fairy Maglore in the fairy banquet of Le Jeu de la feuillée. She was a person like Matheolus, that outrageous voice of medieval men’s sexed protest. Douglas then realized that, even as a man, he is woman’s equal as a fully human being.

According to Le Jeu de la feuillée, Adam planned to leave his wife Moroie and his hometown of Arras to study in Paris. He intended to leave Moroie in Arras with his father Henri. But because Moroie loved her husband dearly, that plan seemed unlikely to work:

Master, that will never be,
as long as she is able to travel.
Sure as I know that wife of yours,
if she heard that you were there today,
she would be there tomorrow without delay.

{ Maistres, il n’ira mie ensi,
S’ele se puet mètre a le voie.
Car bien sai, s’onques le connui,
ki, s’ele vous i savoit hui,
ki demain iroit sans respit. }[1]

Moroie enjoyed having sex with her husband and apparently wanted to get pregnant. The wicked man Adam thought to make bitter his wife’s love for him:

And you know what I’m going to do?
To wean her from it I’ll put
some mustard on my cock.

{ Et savés vous ke je ferai?
Pour li espanir meterai
De le moustarde seur men vit. }

What a horrible man! And no one in the play said, “Not all men are like that.”

Adam regarded himself as having become enlightened and self-aware with respect to men-abasing courtly love. He recounted:

Oh, I was taken on the boil,
flush in the greenest month of spring
and in the passion of my youth,
when the thing had much better flavor.
No man hunts for what’s good for him,
but only for what enlivens his desire.
The summer was then lovely and languid,
sweet and green and clear and fine,
ringing with singing of birds.
High in the forest, close to a spring
running down on sparkling pebbles
there came to me once a vision
of her who is now my wife.
She seems so sallow and dull.
Once she was all white and rosy,
laughing, loving, and slim.
Now I see her fat and misshapen,
sullen and quarrelsome.

{ Car pris fui ou premier boullon
Tout droit en le verde saison
Et en l’aspreche de jouvent.
Ou li cose a plus grant saveur,
Ne nus ne cache sen meilleur,
Fors chou ki li vient a talent.
Esté faisoit bel et seri,
Douc et vert et cler et joli,
Delitavle en cans d’oiseillons;
En haut bos, près de fontenele
Courant seur maillie gravele,
Adont me vint avisions
De cheli ke j’ai a feme ore,
Ki or me sanle pale et sore;
Adont estoit blanke et vermeille,
Rians, amoureuse et deugie,
Or le voi crasse et mautaillie.
Triste et tenchant. }[2]

What a shallow, disloyal husband! And no one in the play said, “Not all men are like that.”

Adam thought carefully about unplanned parenthood and its consequences for men. Moroie and Adam hadn’t yet had any children. Adam declared:

Good people, I was seized
by love that caught me unaware.
No woman’s features were so fine
as love made hers to me appear.
But desire made me taste her goods
in the great flavor of her little valleys.
I must come to my senses
before my wife becomes pregnant
and the thing causes much expenses.
My hunger for it is lacking.

{ Boines gens, ensi fui jou pris
Par Amours, ki si m’ot souspris;
Car faitures n’ot pas si beles
Comme Amours les me fist sanler;
Mais Desire les me fist gouster
A le grant saveur de Vaucheles.
S’est drois ke je me reconnoisse
Tout avant ke me feme engroisse
Et ke li cose plus me coust,
Car mes fains en est apaiés. }[3]

What a sickly and ungenerous man! He’s a fool, too. If his wife got pregnant by another man, he would then have the expenses of supporting another man’s child. Adam wasn’t like Saint Joseph. And no one in the play said, “Not all men are like that.”

The fairy Morgan le Fay led two other women-fairies, Arsile and Maglore, to a lavish banquet prepared for them in Arras. Maglore complained that her table-setting lacked a knife:

And what does it mean
that I have no knife? Am I the worst?
So help me God, little they valued me,
whoever it was that planned
that I alone wouldn’t have a knife!

{ Et k’est che a dire
Ke nul n’en ai? Sui je li pire?
Si m’aït Dieus, peu me prisa
Ki estavli ne avisa
Ke toute seule a coutel faille. }

Maglore seemed to interpret the table-setting like some literary scholars today interpret medieval literature. Arsile consoled her:

Don’t be angry, lady. Such happens.
I doubt if anyone gave it a thought.

{ Ne vous caut, dame; ensi avient.
Je cuit c’on ne s’en donna warde. }

Arsile undoubtedly was right. That surely didn’t matter to Maglore.

These were privileged women-fairies. Morgan le Fay exclaimed:

Lovely, sweet friends, look
how all here has been made lovely and pure and clean.

{ Bele douche compaigne, eswarde
Ke chi fait bel et cler et net. }

Arsile proposed to reward Adam and the rich merchant Rikier for having prepared this lavish banquet. Morgan le Fay agreed. She charmed Rikier with a pile of money. Then she turned to Adam:

As for the other, I wish for him
that he be the most perfect lover
that was ever found in any country.

{ Et de l’autre, voeil k’il soit teus
Ke che soit li plus amoureus
Ki soit trouvés en nul païs. }

Arsile made Rikier even richer and Adam an even more attractive lover:

In addition, I wish that he be handsome
and a fine maker of songs.

{ Aussi voeil je k’il soit jolis
Et boins faiseres de canchons }

Maglore, however, was still angry that her table-setting lacked a knife. She cursed Rikier to become bald. Her spell on Adam turned his world upside-down:

For the other, Adam, who has been bragging
about going to school in Paris —
I wish that he becomes disgraced
among the group in Arras,
and that he forgets himself in the arms
of his wife, who is soft and tender,
such that he ruins and hates his studies
and puts off his planned departure.

{ De l’autre, ki se va vantant
D’aler a l’escole a Paris,
Voeil k’il soit si atruandis
En le compaignie d’Arras
Et k’il s’ouvlit entre les bras
Se feme, ki est mole e tenre,
Si k’il perge et hache l’apenre
Et meche se voie en respit. }

Students in Paris were wretched like courtly lovers. Maglore, in spite of herself, actually wished good for Adam. Oh happy fault that brought Adam such a great redeemer!

Adam de la Halle’s play ends with men in a tavern. An idiot-son feels that he’s being drenched with piss. Then he farts. His father beats him with a stick. After the idiot-son implies that the father beats his wife, they depart together from the tavern. At the end of the play, a monk remains in the tavern with a chest of relics that he uses to earn money. Are all men idiots, brutes, and frauds, and thus inferior to women?

making Christine de Pizan's City of Ladies

No, men need not feel ashamed about written characterizations of men. As long as men know of the fairy-women Maglore and her charms, they can respect themselves as fully human beings who are women’s equals. Adam de la Halle with his Le Jeu de la feuillée depicted a true city of men and women.[4]

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[1] Adam de la Halle’s Le Jeu de la feuillée, vv. 37-41, Old French text from Langlois (1923), English translation (modified) from Axton & Stevens (1971). All subsequent quotes from Le Jeu de la feuillée are similarly sourced. For a somewhat looser English translation with a parallel, slightly more regularized Old French text, Mermier (1997).

Adam de la Halle is thought to have composed Le Jeu de la feuillée about 1275 in Arras. The title comes from the ending line, “Explicit du li jeus de le fueillie,” of the play in MS P: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, français, 25566. The meaning of the title isn’t totally clear, but it probably means “The Play of the Bower.” The play in MS P begins with the title “The Play of Adam {Li jus Adan}. A title used in modern French is Play of Madness {Jeu de la folie}.

Characters in the play have names and statuses that correspond to persons in thirteenth-century Arras. Adam’s wife was named Moroie and his father’s name was Henri. “Adam’s play appears to be an ‘inside joke’ between friends or enemies.” Mermier (1997) p. xix. For a discussion of self-portraiture in the play, Scolnicov (1999). Cf. Laurent (2014). Arras is an important place in the development of European vernacular theater. Koopmans (2017).

Subsequent quotes above are from Le Jeu de la feuillée vv. 42-4 (And you know what…), 57-74 (Oh, I was taken on the boil…), 165-74 (Good people, I was seized…), 631-5 (And what does it mean…), 640-1 (Don’t be angry…), 642-3 (Lovely, sweet friends…), 661-3 (As for the other…), 664-5 (In addition, I wish that…), 684-91 (For the other, Adam, who has been bragging…).

[2] On the relation between courtly love ideology and disenchantment in Le Jeu de la feuillée, Laurent (2014).

[3] Dame Douce, who apparently was pregnant, blamed for her pregnancy the rich merchant Rikier. A married man, he denied it. Such paternity attribution would be lucrative for her and expensive for Rikier. Although she probably didn’t know for certain what man contributed sperm to the pregnancy, Dame Douce angrily sought to punish Rikier:

Just let me get my hands on that man!
And if I do, he’ll soon be buried,
or turned inside out and backside up
with his fingers where his feet should be!
I’ll soon have him where I want him —
stretched on his bed — just as I did
last year with Jakemon Pilepois
and with Gillon Lavier the other night.

{ Uns hom ke je voeil maniier;
Mais, se je puis, il iert en biere,
Ou tournés chou devant derriere
Devers les piés ou vers les dois.
Je l’arai bien tost a point mis
En sen lit, ensi ke je fis
L’autre an Jakemon Pilepois
Et l’autre nuit Gillon Lavier. }

Le Jeu de la feuillée, vv. 860-7.

[4] Cf. Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies {Le Livre de la Cité des Dames}.

[image] Ladies building Christine de Pizan’s imaginary City of Ladies. Illumination by Maître de la Cité des Dames. From a luxurious instance of Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies {Le Livre de la Cité des Dames}. Excerpt from folio 2v of Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. Français 607.


Axton, Richard, and John E. Stevens, trans. 1971. Medieval French Plays. New York: Barnes & Noble.

Koopmans, Jelle. 2017. “Arras, where burghers and jongleurs meet, play, and develop forms – afterwards seen as theatre.” Chapter 2 (pp. 30-41) in King, Pamela, ed. The Routledge Research Companion to Early Drama and Performance. Routledge.

Langlois, Ernest, ed. 1923. Adam de la Halle. Le jeu de la feuillée. Paris: Honoré. Alternate presentation.

Laurent, Françoise. 2014. “‘Car mes fains en est apaiés.’ Le Jeu de la Feuillée d’Adam de la Halle ou comment dire la fin du désir et le désenchantement.” Revue des Langues Romanes. 118 (2). Online.

Mermier, Guy, trans. 1997. Adam de la Halle. The Play of Madness: a translation of Jeu de la feuillée. New York, NY: Lang.

Scolnicov, Hanna. 1999. “Exploring the Limits of Self-Portraiture in Le Jeu de la feuillée.” Theatre Research International. 24 (2): 125-130.

Le Jeu de Robin et Marion shows enduring gender norms

In service to the Count of Artois, Adam de la Halle about the year 1283 wrote The Play of Robin and Marion {Le Jeu de Robin et Marion}. This play is the first surviving secular musical drama in a European vernacular. Adam de la Halle composed this play within the medieval European elite, but it shows enduring, pervasive gender norms.

Consider games that Marion, Robin, and their friends play in Le Jeu de Robin et Marion. First they play “Saint Coisne.” In that game, one person pretends to make solemn offerings to Saint Coisne while the others try to make the offerer laugh.[1] Marion eventually called this game a bore. Her friend Peronnelle thought it boring, too. Peronnelle teasingly said:

It’s worth nothing,
and I think it would be much nicer
that we play some other little game.
We here are two serving-girls
and you boys among yourselves are four.

{ Il ne vaut nient
Et sachiés que bien apartient
Que fachons autres festeletes
Nous sommes chi ·ii· baisseletes
Et vous estes entre vous ·iiii· }[2]

She apparently was thinking of some sort of boys-girl game such as girl chooses favorite between two supplicating courtly lover-boys. Gautier, however, offered the sort of suggestion that boys throughout the ages have appreciated:

Why don’t we fart to amuse ourselves?
I can’t think of anything more fun!

{ Faisons ·I· pet pour nous esbatre
Je n’i voi si bon }[3]

In response to that innocent suggestion, Robin, imagining himself to be defending Marion, attacked Gautier:

Outrageous, Gautier!
A fine idea of fun you have.
In front of Marion my sweetheart
you’ve spoken so very basely.
You must have a dirty sense of smell
if you really think that’s funny.
Never let it happen again!

{ fi gautier
Savés si bel esbanoiier
Que devant marote m’amie
Avés dit si grant vilenie
Dehait ait par mi le musel
A cui il plaist ne il est bel
Or ne vous aviegne jamais }

Farting is a natural bodily function that both women and men have. As a gender, men have been much more willing to talk about farting than women have. That has contributed to the social construction of men as uncivilized and dirty. Moreover, despite the now loudly trumpeted feats of Amazon women-warriors, men historically have been socially constructed as responsible for protecting and defending women, even as men themselves suffer violence and have gender-protruding mortality. These gender norms are readily evident in Le Jeu de Robin et Marion.

Discussion of gender that excludes sympathetically considering men’s gender-distinctiveness silences men. For example, in a “king or queen asks questions” game, Baudon asked Robin:

Robin, when an animal is born,
how do you tell that it’s a female?

{ Robin quant une beste naist
A coi sés tu qu’ele est femele }[4]

That’s a malicious question. The answer isn’t just a matter of grammar. With all the sophistication of a court official facing questioning, Robin responded evasively:

Let’s not see.
But if you really want to know,
Your Majesty, look at the tail.
You’ll get no details from me.
Are you trying to make me ashamed?

{ Non ferai voir
Mais se vous le volez savoir
Sire rois au cul li wardés
El de mi vous n’en porterés
Me cuidiés vous chi faire honte }

Men should not be ashamed of their sexual difference. “Dicks out for Harambe” activists resolutely reject castration culture. You should, too. Teach it to adults, teach it to children: men’s penises matter!

Men suffer under the gender norm that they must fight for women. A knight amorously propositioned Marion. She firmly rejected him. Robin, apparently imagining that she had embraced the knight, declared:

Marion, you would have killed me.
But if I had come along just then,
and with me had been Gautier the Hothead
and my cousin Baudon too,
the very devil would have been in our hands.
I wouldn’t have let him leave without a fight.

{ Marote tu m’aroies mort
Mais se g’i fusse a tans venus
Ne jou ne gautiers li testus
Ne baudons mes cousins germains
Diable i eüssent mis les mains
Ja n’en fust partis sans bataille }[5]

That’s the gender norm that prompted the terrible Trojan War. If men understood that everyone, including them, is entitled to love, men wouldn’t feel compelled to fight for women’s love. The knight ultimately understood men’s gender position and appropriately withdrew:

Shepherdess, may God console you.
Certainly I’m making myself an animal
when this animal stops me here.
Goodbye, shepherdess!

{ Bergiere et diex vous consaut
Certes voirement sui je beste
Quant a ceste beste m’areste
A dieu bergiere }

Men who have confidence in their value as men aren’t afraid to say goodbye forever to a woman.

Men striving to impress women not only commit violence against men, but also attempt heroic quests and even confront wolves. When Marion saw that a wolf was stealing one of her sheep, she cried out to Robin:

Robin, run quickly, my sweet lover,
before the wolf has gulped her down!

{ Robin ceur i tost dous amis
Anchois que li leus le menguë }

Why didn’t Marion chase the wolf herself, or form an equal partnership with Robin to chase the wolf? Even worse, Marion showed no concern for Robin’s safety. Underscoring the gender injustice, Robin delightedly seized this opportunity to “prove that he’s a man”:

Gautier, lend me your heavy stick
and you’ll see that I’m a valiant young man.
Hey, wolf, wolf, wolf!
(he returns with the lamb that the wolf carried off)
Am I not more impressive than any man alive?

{ Gautier prestés moi vo machue
Si verrés ja bacheler preu
Hareu le leu le leu le leu
Sui je li plus caitis qui vive }

Men must be bold enough to value their lives even when women urge them to risk their lives. Men’s lives are equally as valuable as women’s lives.

Men must understand that their very being is a gift to women. No further gift is necessary. Nonetheless, when Robin met Marion in the meadow, he said:

I’ll sit right here by your side,
but I haven’t brought anything for you,
so I have indeed committed a grave offense.

{ Je serai chi lés ton costé
Mais je ne t’ai riens aporté
Si ai fait certes grant outrage }

Men providing goods to women has been a socially constructed gender norm right down to the present day. How many women today have asked a man out on a date and bought him dinner? Marion opens Le Jeu de Robin et Marion with her song:

Robin loves me, Robin has me,
Robin asked me, if he can have me.

Robin bought me a little jacket
made of scarlet, fine and fancy,
a blouse and a belt too —
I go for that!

{ Robins m’aime, Robins m’a,
Robins m’a demandee, si m’ara.

Robins m’acata cotele
D’escarlate bonne et bele,
Souskanie et chainturele.
A leur i va. }[6]

It’s me, me, me, me, and the stuff he gives me. Women should encourage, promote, nurture, and appreciate meninist literature criticism so as to understand how to love men more generously.

medieval manuscript, with musical notation and illuminations, for "Robins m'aime, Robins m'a"

Apart from marginalized and disparaged medieval literature of men’s sexed protest, the oppressive gender norms that men endure have scarcely ever received critical scrutiny. In a book he published in 1904, Henry Adams, descendant of two U.S. presidents and a retired professor from Harvard University, offered his analysis of Adam de la Halle’s Le Jeu de Robin et Marion:

“Li Gieus de Robin et de Marion” had little or no plot. Adam strung together, on a thread of dialogue and by a group of suitable figures, a number of the favourite songs of his time, followed by the favourite games, and ending with a favourite dance, the “tresca.” Underneath it all a tone of satire made itself felt, good-natured enough, but directed wholly against the men. … The dialogue shows Marion trying constantly to control her clowns and make them decent, as Blanche of Castile had been all her life trying to control her princes, and Mary of Chartres her kings. … Marion is in her way as charming as Nicolette, but we are less interested in her charm than in her power. Always the woman appears as the practical guide; the one who keeps her head, even in love … The woman might be the good or the evil spirit, but she was always the stronger force. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were a period when men were at their strongest; never before or since have they shown equal energy in such varied directions, or such intelligence in the direction of their energy; yet these marvels of history, — these Plantagenets; these scholastic philosophers; these architects of Rheims and Amiens; these Innocents, and Robin Hoods and Marco Polos; these crusaders, who planted their enormous fortresses all over the Levant; these monks who made the wastes and barrens yield harvests; — all, without apparent exception, bowed down before the woman. [7]

Henry Adams had unequaled personal knowledge about gender power in the U.S. from its founding to the twentieth century. He dared to describe the real history of gender power. But he did so neither with compassion for men nor with interest in progressive change. Adams’s interpretation of Le Jeu de Robin et Marion is grossly colored with contempt for men. In his view, the men of that play are “clowns” that Marion must civilize so that they become “decent.” Those truly concerned about gender equality and social justice should read Le Jeu de Robin et Marion with more appreciation for men.

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[1] On the cultural history of the “Saint Coisne” game, Hård af Segerstad (1909). Making material offerings at shrines of saints was a common medieval practice. Saint Edith troubled the bowels of a woman who stole from her altar.

[2] Adam de la Halle (Adam le Bossu), The Play of Robin and Marion {Le Jeu de Robin et Marion / Li gieus de Robin et de Marion} vv. 463-7, Old French text from Bettens (1998), English translation (modified) from Axton & Stevens (1971). Hurlbut (2000) provides an alternate Old French edition. Langlois’s edition less faithfully represents the manuscripts. On editions of the Old French text, Bettens (1998) pp. 1-2. For a musical adaptation with score, Gibbon (1928). For a review of a modern performance, Pavlovic (1986).

Subsequent quotes above from Le Jeu de Robin et Marion are similarly sourced. Those quotes are vv. 468-9 (Why don’t we fart…), 469-75 (Outrageous, Gautier…), 516-7 (Robin, when an animal is born…), 519-23 (Let’s not see…), 128-33 (Marion, you would have killed me…), 377-80 (Shepherdess, may God console you…), 582-3 (Robin, run quickly, my sweet lover…), 584-7 (Gautier, lend me your heavy stick…), 139-41 (I’ll sit right here by your side…), 1-6 (Robin loves me, Robin has me…).

[3] Farting figures in medieval challenges to gyno-idolatry. Pensom recognized that farting was part of a gender divide in Le Jeu de Robin et Marion:

women are contentedly vegetarian while the men constantly long for animal protein. The other major characteristic which marks men off from women is the preoccupation of the former with sex and bodily functions. The role of the women includes the responsibility for suppressing any mention of sex or the lower body.

Pensom (1994) p. 49. Women’s suppressive role doesn’t serve social justice.

[4] The proposal “to play as kings and queens {Jouer as rois et as roïnes}” (v. 479) refers to a game that goes back to the ancient Greek game basilinda {Βασιλινδα}. A similar game was a common amusement in France in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Langlois (1907). A “questions and commands” game existed in late-eighteenth-century England (depiction in 1788). A modern version of the game is “Truth or Dare.”

[5] Le Jeu de Robin et Marion is thought to have been written in 1283, shortly after the Sicilian Verspers rebellion of 1282. The Sicilian Verspers rebellion shows a man’s sense of another man’s offense against a woman generating violence against men and then violence generally:

The city {Palermo} was then under the rule of Charles, King of Sicily, who had embarked upon an aggressive campaign of cultural assimilation among the populace. On March 30, 1282, some drunken French soldiers began molesting young Sicilian women in a crowd. One woman’s husband took revenge, killing a soldier in a knife fight; when the other soldiers attempted to revenge that death, they were slaughtered. Unstoppable, the mob then moved through the city, attacking every French man and woman. In the end, all French inhabitants of Palermo were massacred, leading to the collapse of French control in Naples and Sicily.

Lundeen (2006) p. 73.

[6] The song “Robins m’aime, Robins m’a” pre-dates Le Jeu de Robin et Marion. It’s earliest surviving instance is as a refrain in Perrin d’Angecourt’s pastourelle, “Au tens nouvel.” Saltzstein (2013) p. 124. “Robins m’aime, Robins m’a” is included in the Bamberg Codex (Staatsbibliothek Bamberg Msc.Lit.115). Here’s Carol Anne Perry Lagemann’s translation and score. For another score, Gennrich (1951) p. 38. Adam de la Halle had an “illustrious posthumous reputation” as a “master of love {magister amoris}.” Saltzstein (2013) p. 147.

[7] Adams (1904) pp. 242, 245, 246. Scholars have ignored the gender reality that Adams identified. Instead, with cant claims about the feminine body, objectification, colonization, resistance, and subversion, literature teachers program students to support dominate gynocentric ideology:

Although framed by a feminine body that is strongly coded for physicality and sexuality, and ultimately delivered by a masculine speaker, the traditional shepherdess’s voice can nonetheless be seen to resist absolute “colonization” by the masculine poet. Her voice is a hint at her subjectivity, or at least its potential, within her objectified body. It is possible, therefore, to see her speech as subtly subversive of masculine discursive codes, and therefore a place of potential power. … Marion’s resistance at the level of the story and of genre hints at a scheme of resistance against traditional social order and in favor of the new world view emerging in 13th-century Arras.

Smith (2000) pp. 18, 27. Smith taught at the West Point Military Academy. One might hope that some professor at West Point teaches Du Fu’s poem, “Song of the War Carts.”

Le Jeu de Robin et Marion is more plausibly interpreted as “a desperate attempt to keep the world right-side up”:

In giving us happy, well-fed, and sexually playful shepherds, Adam shows us what his aristocratic patrons themselves most wanted to be.

Lundeen (2006) pp. 67, 73. Men should not complacently accept the men-oppressing gender norms evident in Le Jeu de Robin et Marion.

[images] (1) “Robins m’aime, Robins m’a,” with musical notation and illuminations. Excerpt from folio 1 of Le Jeu de Robin et Marion in instance Bibliothèque Méjanes Ms. 166 (Rés Ms 14). (2) Performance of “Robin m’aime” from Pedro Martínez. Via YouTube. Underscoring the continuing influence of this song, here’s Laura Garzón singing this song.


Adams, Henry. 1904. Mont Saint Michel and Chartres. Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press.

Axton, Richard, and John E. Stevens, trans. 1971. Medieval French Plays. New York: Barnes & Noble.

Bettens, Olivier. 1998. Adam de la Halle. Li gieus de Robin et de Marion: Edité d’après le manuscrit de la Vallière (Paris BN fr. 25566). Online at virga.org.

Gennrich, Friedrich. 1951. Troubadours, Trouvères, Minne- und Meistergesang. Köln: A. Volk Verlag.

Gibbon, John Murray, trans. 1928. Adam de la Halle. The Play of Robin and Marion = Le jeu de Robin et Marion, mediaeval folk comedy opera in one act. Boston: C.C. Birchard.

Hård af Segerstad, Kerstin. 1909. ‘“Julebispen” och “Saint Coisne”.‘ Pp. 54-9 in Fataburen: Kulturhistorisk tidskrift. Stockholm: Nordiska museets förlag.

Hurlbut, Jesse D. 2000. Le Jeu de Robin et Marion: Bibliothèque Méjanes Ms. 166 (Rés Ms 14). Online.

Langlois, Ernest. 1907. “Le jeu du Roi qui ne ment et le jeu du Roi et de la Reine.” Romanische Forschungen. 23 (1): 163-173.

Langlois, Ernest, ed. 1924. Adam le Bossu, trouvère artésien du XIIIe siècle: Le Jeu de Robin et Marion; suivi du Jeu du Pèlerin. Paris: H. Champion. Alternate source of Langlois’s edition of Le Jeu de Robin et Marion.

Lundeen, Stephanie Thompson. 2006. “Dressing Down: Aristocratic Identity in Le Jeu de Robin et Marion.” Essays in Medieval Studies. 22 (1): 67-74.

Pavlovic, Diane. 1986. “Par amour, un jeu: Li Jus de Robin & Marion.” Jeu. (41): 101-114.

Pensom, Roger. 1994. “From Lyric to Play: Thematic Structure and Social Structure in Le Jeu de Robin et Marion.” Pp. 37-52 in Pratt, Karen, ed. Shifts and Transpositions in Medieval Narrative: A Festschrift for Dr Elspeth Kennedy. Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer.

Saltzstein, Jennifer. 2013. The Refrain and the Rise of the Vernacular in Medieval French Music and Poetry. Woodbridge, Suffolk; Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer.

Smith, Geri L. 2000. “Marion’s Merry Resistance: Implications of Theatralization in Adam de la Halle’s Le Jeu de Robin et Marion.” Women in French Studies. 8: 16-30.

men will love: Jerome desired chorus girls in the desert

Saint Jerome is a revered early church father. His translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin has shaped biblical understanding right up to the present day. When he was about thirty years old, Jerome spent time living as solitary ascetic in the Chalcis desert in present-day northern Syria. Jerome there experienced men’s natural will to love even under oppressive circumstances:

Oh, how often, while I was living in the desert, in that lonely vastness, scorched by the burning sun, in a hermit’s savage dwelling-place, how often did I imagine myself surrounded by the pleasures of Rome! I used to sit alone, filled with bitterness. Horrible sackcloth covered my deformed limbs. … In my fear of Hell I had condemned myself to this prison, where my only companions were scorpions and wild beasts. Nonetheless, I often found myself surrounded by choruses of girls. Though my face was pale with fasting and my limbs were as cold as ice, my mind was burning with desire. The fires of lust kept bubbling up before me even when my flesh alone had been put to death.

{ o quotiens in heremo constitutus et in illa vasta solitudine, quae exusta solis ardoribus horridum monachis praestat habitaculum, putaui me Romanis interesse deliciis! sedebam solus, quia amaritudine repletus eram. horrebam sacco membra deformis … ille igitur ego, qui ob gehennae metum tali me carcere ipse damnaveram, scorpionum tantum socius et ferarum, saepe choris intereram puellarum. pallebant ora ieiuniis io et mens desideriis aestuabat in frigido corpore et ante hominem suum iam carne praemortua sola libidinum incendia bulliebant. }[1]

Medieval Latin poetry abundantly testifies to the commonality of Jerome’s insight into himself as a man. Medieval men ardently loved women. Men’s will to love readily leads them into gyno-idolatry. But a well-developed self-consciousness and higher aspirations can save men from gyno-idolatry.

Jerome imagining Roman chorus girls in the desert

Medieval men made themselves totally dependent on women in love. His beloved woman controlled his existence and determined whether he sorrowed or rejoiced. A medieval poet writing before 1210 thus declared:

An anxious thing indeed is
love, full of misery.
At one time it gives me joy
when I have my heart’s wish,
yet it offers me sighs
when I don’t hold the desired woman.

Nothing is heavier than love,
nothing is lighter than love,
for nothing do I go more happily.
It engraves a stony heart,
transformed from lust —
I am happy when I possess it!

As many as are sands on the seashore,
as leaves on a tree,
as branches in the forest,
so many sorrows do I endure,
infirm in this body,
because I cannot hold her.

Again, as many as are stars
in Heaven, as many men
as I think live under the sky,
so many times I rejoice
when with my hand I can touch her
whom I see forever in my mind.

No wonder is it
that a woman’s love can make
me not lack calumny,
for beneath Heaven’s throne
there is no one who in beauty
can conquer her, to whom I owe myself.

{ Est equidem res anxia
amor, plenus miseria:
nam tunc dat mihi gaudia
cum velle mentis abeo,
item prebet suspiria
cum cupitam non teneo.

Amore nichil gravius,
nichil amore levius,
nichil eo felicius;
gravat corde lapideo,
mutatur ex lascivia —
en felix cum possideo!

Quod sunt arene littore,
quod folia in arbore,
quod rami sunt in nemore,
tot dolores sustineo:
ob oc infirmus corpore,
quod anc tenere nequeo.

Rursus, quot sunt in etere
astra, vel quod sub aere
omines credo vivere,
tot vicibus congaudeo
cum possum manu tangere
quam semper mente video.

Nulli fit ammirabile
quod facit amor femine
me non carere crimine —
nam sub trono etereo
non est que pulcritudine
anc vincat, cui me debeo! }[2]

Just as Dis ardently sought his promised bride Proserpina and Orpheus yearned to be again with his beloved Eurydice, a twelfth-century student was less interested in his classical studies than being with his beloved Lycoris:

When you unveil your golden head’s crowning
hair and bind it into a simple knot,
you are giving back to Orpheus his lamented Eurydice.

But with fingers wandering
about the place of pleasure,
freely running around,
when I bring my hand
under your tender thighs,
I rule the mighty Medes and Persians!

When the flank’s movement feels
the ultimate of love’s work and it becomes sweet,
I sink back amid my lover’s arms,
until I revive for another act of love.

When I see you with your starry
face, I fall to pieces.
But when you laugh
with joy, I’m enticed
and easily captured by means
of love’s allurements.

{ Cum flavi capitis develas verticem
comamque colligis in nodum simplicem
ploratam Orpheo reddis Euridicem.

Sed digitis evagatis
circa locum voluptatis
discursu libero,
sub crure manum
tenero dum perfero,
Medis et Persis impero!

Cum motu lateris sentitur Veneris
illud et ultimum dulcescit operis,
amice mediis relabor brachiis —
dum respiraverim rebus Venereis.

Te quando vultu video
sidereo, depereo;
sed quando rides
lecior, illicior
et levi causa capior
illecebris amoris. }[3]

Such memories of the medieval joy of sex can easily lead men into gyno-idolatry. No later than the twelfth century, a man worshiped as a goddess his beloved Flora. He sang a singsong poem of Flora’s delights:

Virgin Flora,
so distinguished,
so beautiful of face,
her laughter,
her presence,
she blessed me today!

Her appearance
makes a goddess,
her mind’s more than human,
forehead fully
without blemish,
such a lovely virgin girl.

All her attire,
all her features,
are fresh from day to day —
worthy of worship
while not surpassed
even by the noon sun.

{ Virgo Flora,
tam decora,
tam venusta facie,
suo risu,
suo visu
me beavit hodie.

Visus eam
facit deam;
mens excedit hominem.
Frons est tota
sine nota,
sicut decet virginem.

Eius cultus,
eius vultus
recens est cottidie;
digna coli
cum nec soli
cedit in meridie.}[4]

From a medieval Christian perspective, worshiping a woman as a goddess is morally wrong. It’s also factually incorrect. Women are not goddess but fully human beings, just as men are.

By aspiring to higher love, men can overcome gyno-idolatry. Saint Jerome explained:

It is difficult for the human soul not to love, and it is necessary that our minds be drawn to some affection. Love of the flesh is overcome by love of the spirit. Desire is quenched by desire. What is taken from one is added to the other. Yes, therefore, always repeat as you lie in bed: “By night have I sought him who my soul adores.”

{ difficile est humanam animam non amare et necesse est, ut in quoscumque mens nostra trahatur affectus. carnis amor spiritus amore superatur; desiderium desiderio restinguitur. quidquid inde minuitur, hinc crescit. quin potius semper ingemina; super lectum meum in noctibus quaesivi, quem dilexit anima mea. }[5]

Many different social constructions disadvantage men. Yet from a Christian perspective, fundamental reality is what it is: God took flesh as a fully masculine human being. Was that part of a divine plan to turn men from gyno-idolatry? No human can circumscribe the mind of God. In any case, God being incarnate as a man challenges men to enlarge their understanding of love. Men, when you are in bed alone at night, longing for a beloved woman, find the strength to pray: “By night I have sought him who my soul adores.” If you can do that, you’re safe, at least temporarily, from gyno-idolatry.

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[1] Jerome, Letters 22 (To Eustochium) section 7, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Wright (1933) pp. 90, 92. For an alternate translation, Freemantle (1892). Jerome, who was born about 345, wrote this letter in 383-4. He lived in the Chalcis desert about 375, when he wrote The Life of Paul the First Hermit. Young women prostitutes in the ancient world commonly sang, played instruments, and danced.

As a young man in Rome, Jerome apparently committed sexual sin. He acknowledged:

You know yourselves how treacherous is the path of youth, a path where I fell.

{ Scitis ipsi lubricum adolescentiae iter, in quo et ego lapsus sum }

Jerome, Letters 7 (To Chromatius, Jovinus, and Eusebius), section 4, Latin text and English translation from Wright (1933). Jerome, who never married, indicated more specifically his sexual failing from a Christian perspective:

I extol virginity to Heaven, not because I myself have it, but because, not having it, I admire it all the more. Surely it is a modest and innocent confession to praise in others that which you yourself lack.

{ virginitatem autem in caelum fero, non quia habeo, sed quia miror, quod non habeo. ingenua et verecunda confessio est, quo ipse careas, id in aliis praedicare. }

Jerome, Letters 48 (To Pammachius), section 20, Latin text from Hilberg (1910), English translation (modified) from Freemantle (1892). For an alternate translation, Mierow & Lawler (1963). On Jerome’s experiences as a young man in Rome, Kelly (1975) pp. 20-2.

[2] “Behold, all are gladdened {Ecce letantur omnia}!”, stanzas 3-7 (vv. 13-42), Latin text from Dronke (1965) vol. 2, pp. 380-2, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. The Latin text is from Paris, BnF MS. lat. 3719, folio 40r-v, written before 1210. This manuscript, as Dronke transcribed it, omits some initial h’s in words: (oc, anc, ominies) represent (hoc, hanc, homines), respectively.

[3] “When spring is almost in flower, golden Lycoris {Ver prope florigerum, flava Licori},” stanzas 5-8 (vv. 20-38), Latin text from Dronke (1965) vol. 2, p. 375, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. This poem survives in Oxford, Bodley MS. Add. A. 44, folio 70v, which was written in the beginning of the thirteenth century.

[4] “Virgin Flora {Virgo Flora},” stanzas 1-3 (vv. 1-18), Latin text from Donke (1965) vol. 2, p. 362, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. This poem survives in Munich, MS Clm 14834, folio 26v, written in the twelfth century.

[5] Jerome, Letters 22 (To Eustochium) section 17, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Wright (1933). For an alternate translation, Freemantle (1892).

[image] Temptations of Saint Jerome (Jerome imagining Roman chorus girls in the desert). Painting by Francisco de Zurbarán in 1639. Preserved in the Royal Monastery of Saint Mary of Guadalupe (Extremadura, Spain). Via Wikimedia Commons. Jerome was about 30 years old when he lived as a hermit in the desert. However, in this painting he’s depicted as an old man in the desert. Sexual temptation tends to be a less pressing problem for old men.


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

Kelly, John N. D. 1975. Jerome: His Life, Writings, and Controversies. London: Duckworth Gerald.

Mierow, Charles Christopher, trans. and Thomas Comerford Lawler, notes, etc. 1963. The Letters of St. Jerome. London: Longmans, Green. Vol. 1, Letters 1-22.

Wright, F. A., ed. and trans. 1933. Select Letters of St. Jerome. Loeb Classical Library, no. 262. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

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.

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.