wine song and peace in Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas

About the year 1200, shortly before the Fourth Crusade, Jean Bodel’s Play of Saint Nicolas {Jeu de Saint Nicolas} highlighted violence against men and possibilities for peace. Fairly arbitrated settlements and miraculous conversions explicitly produce peace in this play. More subtly, wine song and wine drinking unify men across religions and cultures.

Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas doesn’t establish a moral binary of good Christians and bad non-Christians. The prologue describes non-Christians attacking Christians:

There used to be a pagan king
whose country bordered on Christendom.
War raged all the time between them.
One day this pagan attacked
the Christians at the very moment
when they were least expecting it.
They were caught completely unaware,
and many of them were killed or captured.

{ Que jadis fu uns rois paiiens
Qui marchissoit as crestïens.
Chascun jour ert entr’eus la guerre;
Un jour fist li paiens requerre
Les crestïens en itel point
Que il ne se gaitoient point;
Decheü furent et souspris;
Mout en i ot et mors et pris. }[1]

Yet less than twenty-five verses after the end of this prologue, the Christians are described as attacking the non-Christians. A messenger informs the pagan king:

King, never since Noah built the ark
was such an army, such a force
known as the one which has invaded us.
Their foragers run all over the place.
Whores and scoundrels and lecherous brutes
go burning your kingdom to ashes.
King, unless you plan a defense,
the land will go to ruin and loss.

{ Rois, tes empires ne teuls os
Ne fu puis que Noeus fist l’arche,
Con est entree en ceste marche.
Par tout keuxent ja li fourrier,
Putain et ribaut et houlier
Vont le pais ardant a pourre.
Roys, s’or ne penses de rescourre,
Mis est a perte et a lagan. }

A Christian army of “whores and scoundrels and lecherous brutes {putain et ribaut et houlier}” isn’t holy. That description draws in part on historically entrenched disparagement of men’s sexuality. But here it’s more than merely a gender convention. In the context of explicitly contradictory identifications of the attacker, it also undermines a moral binary of good Christians and bad non-Christians.

In Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas, Christians and non-Christians similarly relate to sacred images. A wooden statue of Saint Nicolas has a central role. The non-Christian king, however, has his own sacred image called Tervagan. The king castigates Tervagan for the Christians’ invasion of his land:

Ah! You son of a whore, Tervagan,
have you permitted this to happen?
How I regret the gold with which
I cover your filthy face and body!
I swear, if my oracle doesn’t tell me immediately
how to destroy all the Christians,
I’ll have you burned and melted down
and handed out among my men,
since you are worth more than silver —
you’re made of the finest gold of Arabia.

{ A! fiex a putain, Tervagan,
Avés vous dont souffert tel oeuvre?
Com je plaing l’or dont je vous cuevre
Che lait visage et che lait cors!
Certes, s’or ne m’aprent mes sors
Les crestïens tous a confondre,
Je vous ferai ardoir et fondre
Et départir entre me gent.
Car vous avés passé argent:
S’estes du plus fin or d’Arrabe. }

The king treats Tervagan as some Christians treated their own holy images. Muslims typically were much more averse to sacred personal representations than were medieval Christians. Tervagan is a wholly imaginative construct that makes the African pagan king’s piety similar to Christian piety.[2]

Fighting between two non-Christian officials ends in an arbitrated peace and a wine song. In the king’s land, city magistrates appointed Connart as an official crier — a voice broadcaster of royal proclamations. Town businesspersons hired Raoul as a commercial crier — a voice advertiser. The two get into a physical fight over the boundaries of their respective jobs. A tavern-owner intervenes and establishes an occupational separation. Raoul then honors this peace by crying a sophisticated, ironically humorous wine song:

Wine newly tapped
from a full gallon and a full barrel,
smooth, tasty, full-bodied and fat,
leaps like a squirrel in the woods,
without any bite of rot or mold,
short of dregs and dry and thin,
as clear as a sinner’s tears.
It lingers on the lecher’s tongue —
other men shouldn’t taste it.

{ Le vin aforé de nouvel,
A plain lot et a plain tonnel,
Sade, bevant, et plain et gros,
Rampant comme escuireus en bos,
Sans nul mors de pourri ne d’aigre.
Seur lie court et sec et maigre,
Cler con larme de pecheour;
Croupant seur langue a lecheour;
Autre gent n’en doivent gouster. }[3]

To the tavern-patron / thieve Pincedé, Raoul continued his praise of the wine:

See how it swallows its foam,
and leaps and sparkles and cools!
Hold it on the tongue a little,
so soon you’ll sense wine beyond wine.

{ Vois con il mengüe s’escume,
Et saut et estinchele et frit!
Tien le seur le langue un petit,
Si sentiras ja outrevin. }[4]

Scholars have failed to sense anything in this beyond literal praise of wine. An editor of a scholarly edition of Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas wrote about this cry for wine:

Through the years this cry gave me many difficulties, and after having in my imagination tasted and analyzed many wines, I tried to render it in modern French:

The wine is freshly tapped, a full batch and a full barrel, tasty, supple, solid and fleshy, rising like a squirrel in the woods, without any trace of mold or sourness, nourished from its dregs, full-bodied, firm and nervous, clear as a sinner’s tear, lingering on the tongue of gourmets: others must not touch it!

What oenologist could say it better than Jean Bodel?

{ Ce cri m’a donné, pendant des années, beaucoup de fil à retordre, et, après avoir, en imagination, dégusté et analysé beaucoup de vins, j’ai essayé de le rendre en français moderne:

Le vin mis en perce tout fraîchement, à plein lot et à plein tonneau, sapide, souple, solide et charnu, montant comme écureuil au bois, sans nulle trace de moisi ni d’aigre, nourri de sa lie, corsé, ferme et nerveux, limpide comme larme de pécheur, s’attardant sur la langue des gourmets: les autres ne doivent pas y toucher!

Quel œnologue dira mieux que Jehan Bodel? }[5]

Jean Bodel wrote as a witty poet, not as an oenologist. In Raoul’s wine song, Bodel used the following rhetorical devices:

  • ambiguous characterizations that could be interpreted badly: “wine newly tapped {le vin aforé de nouvel}” could mean already opened wine tapped again or more simply, stale wine
  • contradictory descriptions: “fat {gros}” versus “thin {maigre}”
  • deliberately bad promotional claims: “without any bite of rot or mold {sans nul mors de pourri ne d’aigre}” (negative imagery) and “other men shouldn’t taste it {autre gent n’en doivent gouster}” (reverse selling)
  • obscure similes: “leaps like a squirrel in the woods {rampant comme escuireus en bos}” and “as clear as a sinner’s tears {Cler con larme de pecheour}”
  • negative characterizations of customers: “lecher {lecheour}”

This wine song uses playful rhetoric similar to that of classical Arabic wine songs. Its contradictory rhetoric is similar to al-Jahiz’s essay on “Drink & Drinkers.” No evidence exists that Jean Bodel, born in the commercial city Arras in northern France, knew Arabic wine songs. Yet an Arabic scholar about the year 1200 who knew French would probably call Raoul’s poetic touting of wine a wine song.[6] Bodel’s wine song brings together in common appreciation Arabic and Christian culture at the lowest level of society. Wine songs are associated with loving, not fighting.

In the tavern, a physical fight between thieves is settled with impartial arbitration and wine. Pincedé and Cliquet fight over stakes in a dice game. They knock over tables and tear each other’s clothes. The tavern-keeper tells them to stop and establishes an arbitrator by mutual agreement. The arbitrator orders a fair division of the stakes. Then he says:

And you, Cliquet, now pour some wine
and offer Pincedé a drink.
I want you two to be in accord,
since the matter is at my judgment.

{ Et tu, Cliquet, verse vin ens.
Si donne a boire Pinchedé.
Jel voeil que soiés acordé,
Puisqu’il est en men jugement. }

Cliquet in response declares:

Pincedé, I apologize to you for it.
I give you this wine to indicate our accord.

{ Pinchedé, je le vous ament:
Par acorde le vin vous doins. }

Cliquet and Pincedé then drink in turn from the same cup. In an ironic conclusion to their fight, Pincedé says:

And I pardon you, Cliquet, for it.
I know that it was the wine that made you do it.

{ Cliquet, et je le vous pardoins;
Bien sai que vins le vous fist faire. }

These passages should be read with respect to the wine-sharing of the Christian Eucharist and with appreciation for liturgical parody. Love of Christ at least nominally inspired Crusaders to try to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim rule. Wine here is also a sign of peace among quarreling non-Christian thieves. Recognized for witty wordplay, Jean Bodel also wove allusions with great sophistication.

The statue of Saint Nicolas miraculously saved the non-Christian king’s treasure from thieves. In response to that miracle, the king converted from worshiping a medley of gods to worshiping Saint Nicolas:

Saint Nicholas, I give myself
to your protection and ask for your mercy
without deceit and without treachery.
Sir, I swear that I’m your man.
I renounce Apollo and Mahomet
and that scoundrel Tervagan.

{ Sains Nicolais, je me rent chi
En te garde et en te merchi
Sans fausseté et sans engan:
Sire, chi devieng jou vostre hom.
Si lais Apolin et Mahom
Et che pautonnier Tervagan. }

The king’s conversion isn’t actually Christian and appears to be behaviorally insignificant. Christians relate to the statue of Saint Nicolas like the king relates to Tervagan. Moreover, an emir supporting the king refers to the statue of Saint Nicolas as a “a horned Mahomet {un mahommet cornu},” where “horned” apparently refers merely to the mitre on Saint Nicolas’s head. Underscoring the behavioral commonality between Christians and non-Christians, the non-Christian thieves swear by Saint William, Saint Leonard, and even Saint Nicholas.[7]

petitioning Saint Nicolas in the medieval manuscript of Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas

Jean Bodel’s Jeu de Saint Nicholas isn’t a morality play. It subtly questions men killing fellow men in religiously motivated war.[8] Jean Bodel added to the literary tradition of Saint Nicolas’s icon miracle the tavern scene and the thieves, and the wine song and the wine-sealed peace. These brilliant literary innovations place Jean Bodel in league with the Archpoet in expressing humane concern for men’s lives.

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Notes:

[1] Jean Bodel, The Play of Saint Nicholas {Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas}, vv. 9-16, Old French text from Warne (1951), English translation (modified) from Axton & Stevens (1971). Subsequent quotes from this play are similarly sourced, unless otherwise noted.

Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas is the earliest surviving non-liturgical play in the French language. It has survived in one manuscript: Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Français 25566. That manuscript was written about 1300 in Arras, France. Jean Bodel was born in Arras and is closely associated with Arras. On Jean Bodel and his context, Frank (1972) Ch. 10 and Symes (2007).

The Saint Nicolas in Bodel’s play is the fourth-century Saint Nicholas of Myra. Nicholas served as Bishop of Myra, which today is in Turkey. The first written life of Saint Nicholas is a Greek text from the sixth century. The life and miracles of Saint Nicholas / Nicolas subsequently became widely distributed. The Fleury Playbook / Book of the Plays of Fleury {Livre de Jeux de Fleury}, written about 1200 in the Loire Valley of France, includes four Latin plays about miracles of Saint Nicolas. They are Three Daughters {Tres Filiae} (Saint Nicolas gives the three daughters money for dowries), Three Clerks {Tres Clerici} (Saint Nicolas resurrects three pickled clerks), The Image of Saint Nicolas {Iconia Sancti Nicholai} (an statue of Saint Nicolas guards a man’s treasure and saves it from thieves), and The Son of Getron {Filius Getronis} (Saint Nicolas helps to rescue a boy that a king kidnapped). Bodel’s play drew most directly upon Iconia Sancti Nicholai.

Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas is thought to date to about 1200, but whether the prologue was part of the original play is a matter of dispute. Some scholars believe that the prologue was added for a performance in 1288. On scholarly debate about this issue, Ramey (2002) pp. 4-6. Ramey’s suggestion seems to me worthy:

I would suggest that the prologue is authentic, and the omissions and revisions are deliberate, not to prepare the audience, but to intentionally put the audience off-guard.

Id. p. 5.

Subsequent quotes above from Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas are vv. 126-33 (King, never since Noah built the ark…), 134-43 (Ah! You son of a whore, Tervagan…), 645-52 (Wine newly tapped…), 658-61 (See how it swallows its foam…), 948-51 (And you, Cliquet, now pour some wine…), 952-3 (Pincedé, I apologize to you for it…), 958-9 (And I pardon you, Cliquet, for it…), 1461-6 (Saint Nicholas, I give myself…).

[2] Lambert (2014) makes this point strongly:

The role of Tervagant is, it seems, to be exactly mirrored by the role attributed to the figure of St Nicolas.

Id. p. 371.

[3] In the above English translation, I’ve followed the Old French as closely as possible while also trying to bring out what I perceive to be Jean Bodel’s playful rhetoric. Here’s the translation of Axton & Stevens (1971):

New wine, just freshly broached,
Wine in gallons, wine in barrels,
Smooth and tasty, pure, full-bodied,
Leaps to the head like a squirrel up a tree.
No tang of must in it, or mould —
Fresh and strong, full, rich-flavoured,
As limpid as a sinner’s tears;
It lingers on a gourmet’s tongue —
Other folk ought not to touch it!

Id. p. 99.

[4] The word mengüe is a form of the Old French verb mengier / mangier, which means “to eat.” Hence v. 658 could be translated more jarringly as “See how it eats its foam”. Here’s the translation of Axton & Stevens (1971):

Look how it swallows up its froth!
And leaps and sparkles, bubbles too!
Just hold it on the tongue a minute,
I tell you, you’ll taste a super-wine.

Id. p. 99.

[5] Henry (1986) p. 29, original in French, my English translation. Others have also interpreted Jean Bodel’s wine song as straightforward crying of wine. Translations of “lecheour” suggest how it has been interpreted. The translations are “gourmet” and “connoisseurs” in Axton & Stevens (1971), p. 99, and Mandel (1982) p. 56. The Old French word “lecheour” comes from words meaning “lick” and has as primary meanings in medieval Anglo-Norman “lecher, lecherous lover, scoundrel, and glutton.” It’s a word associated with low culture, not high culture.

A simpler wine cry occurs in the Courtois d’Arras, vv. 102-13. One of Jean Bodel’s contemporaries apparently composed Courtois d’Arras in Arras in the first quarter of the thirteenth century

[6] On the classical Arabic wine song, Kennedy (1997). I’ve suggested that Moriuht, which Warner wrote in Rouen early in the eleventh century, is similar to eminent classical Arabic literature. Troubadour song shows influence of Arabic literature. See, e.g. Alfonso X’s song about the dean of Cádiz. On medieval Europeans understanding of the Islamic world, Ninitte (2016). On other ludic elements of Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas, Dinshaw (1980).

[7] This reference to Saint Nicholas as a horned Mohamet (v. 458) has been suppressed in translation. Lambeth (2014) p. 372. For a medieval reference to a mitre as horned, see my post on Burnel and seminal action in the Mirror of Fools {Speculum stultorum}.

The thieves swear by Saint William, Saint Leonard, and Saint Nicholas in vv. 1115, 1134, and 1135. Lambeth observed of this cultural mixing:

This distinguishes Bodel’s work from other semi-fictionalised works in which the Saracens are more commonly depicted swearing by Apollon, Tervagant and Mahomet. There is nothing in these scenes, apart from the Emir’s initial summoning by Auberon, which identifies the pub crawlers as anything other than local Arrasians.

Id. The non-Christian king surely doesn’t reside in Arras. Describing the tavern scenes simply as set in Arras seems to me to flatten Jean Bodel’s deliberate, sophisticated cultural mixing. Symes (2007) interprets the tavern scenes as being in Arras. Overall, Lambeth (2014) shows important limitations of that interpretation. The wine song itself seems to me to belong more to the classical Arabic world than to urban Arras about the year 1200.

[8] Declaring that “critics have tended to read the Jeu as a crusade cheerleading piece,” Ramey sought to “challenge the univocal reading of the Jeu as exhortation to crusade.” Ramey (2002) pp. 10, 1. Symes (2007) and Lambeth (2014) contribute further to appreciating the cultural complexity of Bodel’s play.

[image] A man petitioning Saint Nicolas. Illumination from the first page of the manuscript of Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas. On folio 68r of Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS français 25566. Image via BnF Gallica.

References:

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

Dinshaw, Carolyn L. 1980. “Dice Games and Other Games in Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas.” PMLA / Publications of the Modern Language Association of America. 95 (5): 802-811.

Frank, Grace. 1972. The Medieval French Drama. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Henry, Albert. 1986. “A propos d’un texte œnologique en ancien français.” Bulletin de la Classe des Lettres et des Sciences Morales et Politiques. 72 (1): 16-29.

Jeanroy, Alfred, ed. 1925. Jean Bodel. Le jeu de Saint Nicolas. Paris: É. Champion.

Kennedy, Philip F. 1997. The Wine Song in Classical Arabic Poetry: Abū Nuwās and the literary tradition. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Lambert, Sarah. 2014. “Playing at crusading: cultural memory and its (re)creation in Jean Bodel’s Jeu de St Nicolas.” Journal of Medieval History. 40 (3): 361-380. Reprinted in Cassidy-Welch, Megan & Anne Lester, ed. 2015. Crusades and Memory: rethinking past and present. London: Routledge.

Mandel, Oscar, trans. 1982. Five Comedies of Medieval France. Washington D.C.: University Press of America.

Ninitte, Florence. 2016. La tradition arabo-musulmane dans le Speculum historiale et dans sa traduction française par Jean de Vignay: Enjeux d’un transfert culturel. Doctoral Dissertation. Université Catholique de Louvain.

Ramey, Lynn Tarte. 2002. “Jean Bodel’s Jeu de Saint Nicolas: A Call for Non-Violent Crusade.” French Forum. 27 (3): 1-14.

Symes, Carol. 2007. A Common Stage: theater and public life in medieval Arras. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Warne, Frank Julian, ed. 1951. Jean Bodel. Le jeu de Saint Nicolas. Oxford: Blackwell.

natural and mechanical figures against gyno-idolatry

From the perspective of monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, idolatry is a terrible failing. Men nonetheless are prone to gyno-idolatry. The great classical Roman dispeller of delusions Lucretius vigorously satirized gyno-idolatry. Medieval authors more humanely used figures of natural scenery and nature-driven machines to emphasize the bodily humanity that unites women and men.

Boccaccio’s Corbaccio, an outrageous medieval work of men’s sexed protest, challenged gyno-idolatrous belief that women don’t fart. A specter recounted metaphorically his experience of sleeping with his wife:

What shall I say further to you therefore about the village of Evilhole, placed between two lofty mountains? From here sometimes just as from Mount Etna, first with great thunderclaps and then silently, issues forth a sulfurous smoke. It’s so fetid and repulsive that it pollutes the whole surrounding countryside. I do not know what to say to you about it except that, when I lived near it (for I remained there longer than I would have liked), I was offended many times by such blasts that I thought to die there something other than a Christian death.

{ Che ti dirò adunque più avanti del borgo di Malpertugio, posto tra due rilevati monti, del quale alcuna volta, quando con tuoni grandissimi e quando senza, non altrimenti che di Mongibello, spira un fummo sulfureo sì fetido e sì spiacevole che tutta la contrada atorno apuzola? Io non so che dirmiti, se non che, quando io vicino v’abitai (ché vi stetti più che voluto non arei), assai volte, da così fatto fiato offeso, mi credetti altra morte fare che di cristiano. }[1]

The two lofty mountains are his wife’s buttocks. Men historically have been attracted to women with large buttocks. Evilhole {Malpertugio} was the name of the gate in Bologna through which criminals passed on their way to execution. Evilhole here figures the wife’s anus. Her farting is like volcanic eruptions from Mount Etna {Mongibello} in Sicily. The ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles reportedly committed suicide by jumping into a volcanic crater of Mount Etna.[2] Imaginatively realizing his metaphor, the narrator admits to thoughts of unchristian death: suicide by sodomy in attempting to plug Evilhole. Boccaccio’s Corbaccio was appreciated in medieval Europe as a morally instructive work. Yet some might perceive in it a comic sense.

medieval windmill

John Heywood’s The Play of the Weather, which he composed about 1530 within the circle of the learned and devout Thomas More, similarly treats corporal reality. In this play, persons with different interests petition the god Jupiter for favorable weather. A water-miller seeks more rain and less wind. A wind-miller asks for more wind and less rain. The two millers viciously and ridiculously argue with each other about the relative merits of wind and water. The wise fool Merry-Report interrupts their bickering:

Stop, foolish knaves, for your reasoning is such
that you have reasoned even enough and too much.
I heard all the words that you both have had,
so help me God, the knaves be more than mad!
Neither of them two has wit nor grace
to perceive that both mills may serve in their place.
Between water and wind there is no such discord,
but each mill may have time for use in accord.
This matter I can tell by experience,
for I have my own not far hence,
in a corner together — a couple of mills
standing in a marsh between two hills.
They’re not from inheritance, but by my wife.
She is endowed in the tail for the term of her life
with one for wind and the other for water.
And between them both, I thank God, there stands another.
And, let this be solemnly spoken,
the water gate is no sooner open
then boom goes the windmill even straight behind,
there God help the devil and all they grind.

{ Stop folyshe knaue, for your reasonynge is suche
That ye haue reasoned euen ynonght and to muche
I harde all the wordes that ye bothe haue hadde
So helpe me god the knaues be more then madde
Nother of them bothe that hath wit nor grace
To perceyue that bothe mylles may serue in place
Betwene water and wynde there is no suche set
But eche myll may haue tyme to vse his fet
Whiche thynge I can tell by experiens
For I haue of myne owne not farre from hens
In corner togyther a couple of mylles
Standynge in a marres betwene two hylles
Nat of wherytaunce but by my wyfe
She is feofed in the tayle for terme of her lyfe
The one for wynde the other for water
And of them bothe I thanke god there standeth nother
For in a good houre be it spoken
The water gate is no soner open
But clap sathe the wyndemyll euyn streight behynde
There is good spedde, the deuyll and all they grynde }[3]

Just as in Boccaccio’s Corbaccio, the two hills represent the wife’s buttocks, and the wife farts. This important medieval understanding has now been largely lost, as least in literary works and public discourse.

Merry-Report frankly acknowledges his own bodily limitations. He reports that his wife often has sex with other men: “my water-mill many times is clogged {my water myll many tymes is choked}.” The water miller counsels:

So will she be, though you in working burst your bones,
except that you be perfect in setting your stones.
Don’t worry about the balls — beware your boner.
Yet as to the balls, before you have worked her,
consider if the balls lack good grinding.

{ So wyll she be thought ye shulde bruste your bones
Excepte ye be perfyte in settynge of stones
Fere nat the lydger beware your conner
Yet this for the lydger or ye haue wonne her
Perchaunce your lydger dothe lacke good peckynge }

Merry-Report responds:

So says my wife, and that causes all our quarreling.
She would have the mill grinding, grinding, grinding every day!
But, by God, millers must grind when they may.
So often have I ground that my stones have become very thin,
and all my other gear isn’t worth a pin,
because with grinding and grinding I have been so working
that I have ground a good grinding-rod to nothing.
However, if I stick no better with her,
my wife says she will have a new miller.

{ So sayth my wyfe and that maketh all our checkynge
She wolde haue the myll peckt, peckt peckt euery daye
But by god myllers must pecke when they maye
So ofte haue we peckt that our stones wax ryght thynne
And all our other gere nat worth a pynne
For with peckynge and peckynge I haue so wrought
That I haue pecke a good peckynge yron to nought
Howe be it yf I stycke no better tyll her
My wyfe saythe she wyll haue a newe myller }

Classical Latin literature recognized the epic disaster of men’s impotence. But bodily life is as it is.

Imaginative literature allows persons to perceive what they couldn’t otherwise perceive. That isn’t necessarily fantasies. In fact, even without imaginative literature, humans are fully capable of creating their own nonsense such as gyno-idolatry or belief in misogyny and patriarchy. Imaginative literature like Boccaccio’s Corbaccio and John Heywood’s Play of the Weather helps persons to perceive nothing more than human existential reality.

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Notes:

[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Il Corbaccio, section 295, Italian text from Padoan (1994) via the Decameron Web, English translation (modified slightly) from Cassell (1993). The subsequent localization of Evilhole {Malpertugio} in Bologna is from Cassell (1993) p. 138, n. 255.

Boccaccio is thought to have written the Corbaccio about 1355, although Padoan dates it about 1365. Cassell (1993) p. xxvi. Boccaccio wasn’t shunned for having written the Corbaccio. Showing the extent of medieval interest in the Corbaccio, the Florentine notary Ser Lodovico Bartoli translated it into ottava rima about 1387. The Corbaccio was regarded as a “moral tract” for nearly three centuries following its composition. After the fall of the Middle Ages and the long slide to ignorance, repression, and bigotry, the Spanish Church in 1631 placed Boccaccio’s Corbaccio on the index of prohibited books. Id. pp. xxi-ii. Here’s some discussion of modern literary criticism of the Corbaccio.

[2] On Empedocles committing suicide by jumping into a volcanic crater of Mount Etna, Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers 8.69, 8.74. Different stories exist about how Empedocles died.

[3] John Heywood, The Play of the Weather, A new and very merry interlude of all manners of weather {The Play of the Wether, A new and a very mery enterlude of all maner wethers} vv. 710-29, Middle English text from Heywood (1544?), my English modernization. Axton & Happé (1991) is the best current critical edition. It uses the original Tudor spelling. For editions with modernized spelling, Bevington (1975) and Staging the Henrician Court. The subsequent three quotes above are similarly from The Play of the Weather, vv. 739, 740-44, and 745-53.

The Play of the Weather, called an “interlude,” encompasses aspects of morality plays, debate poems, and Shakespearean comedy. Bevington characterized this play as “essentially courtly.” Bevington (1975) p. 990. For context and review of interpretations of this play, Ailles (2013), Mullini (2017), and Staging the Henrician Court.

Merry-Report is the first character called a Vice in an English play. But Merry-Report has characteristics of a Shakespearean fool:

Mery Reporte has not the sinister and mischievous traits of later Vices, nevertheless he already impersonates a Vice’s ability in wordplay, bawdy language, and performance, and such a character’s skill in manoeuvring the plot, albeit a thin one like this.

Mullini (2017) p. 33. On the differences between Vices and Fools, Rycroft (2009).

[image] Medieval windmill: countships grainmill of Zeddam {Grafelijke Korenmolen van Zeddam}, Netherlands. This windmill was built early in the fifteenth century. Source image via Rasbak and Wikimedia Commons.

References:

Ailles, Jennifer L. 2013. “Ecocritical Heywood and The Play of the Weather.” Early Theatre. 16 (2): 185-196.

Axton, Richard and Peter Happé, eds. 1991. The Plays of John Heywood. Suffolk: D.S Brewer.

Bevington, David M. 1975. Medieval Drama. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Cassell, Anthony K. trans. 1993. Giovanni Boccaccio. The Corbaccio, or, The Labyrinth of Love. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies.

Heywood, John. 1544?. The play of the wether. A newe and very mery enterlude of all maner wethers made by Iohn Heywood. The players names. Iupiter a god. Mery reporte the vyce. The gentylman. The marchant. The ranger. The water myller. The wynde myller. The gentylwoman. The launder. A boy the left that can play. London: W. Middleton. Via Early English Books.

Mullini, Roberta. 2017. “The Play [not only] of the Wether: Gender, Genre, and Wordplay in a Very Early Modern Comedy.” British Institute of Florence. Online.

Padoan, Giorgio, ed. 1994. Giovanni Boccacio. “Il Corbaccio.” In Carlo Delcorno, ed. Tutte le opere di Giovanni Boccaccio. Volume 5, Book 2. Milano: Mondadori.

Rycroft, Eleanor. 2009. “The Vice and the Fool.” Staging the Henrician Court. Online.

great Saint Alexander Akimetes’s wicked rationalizing

According to a story that Goscelin of Saint-Bertin heard in the middle of the eleventh century, the anchorite Alexander was highly virtuous. Humble persons understand the risk of temptations and pray not to be led into them. The devil shrewdly seeks great persons like the anchorite Alexander, who became Saint Alexander Akimetes.

monk who had sex with an anchoress and killed a man becomes hairy anchorite in solitude and penance

After stealing a squalling baby girl from her cradle, the devil disguised as a monk brought her to the anchorite Alexander. The devil-monk said:

This baby girl is my sister’s daughter, deprived of both her parents. In pity I took her because she was facing death. From this I have anguish in my soul. It is unlawful to keep her in the cloister under my abbot and entirely impious to abandon her. You with your fraternal holiness and famous solitude are her sole refuge. With mercy as a foster-father you should thus take her and nourish her until she has strength to provide for herself.

{ Hanc sororis mee natam, utroque parente orbatam, collegi miseratus perituram. Hinc angor animi, quia et in cenobio sub abbate meo hanc tenere est inordinatum, et abicere prorsus impium. Tua fraterna sanctitas et famosa solitudo unicum est refugium, ut hanc misercordie alumnus suscipias, et, dum sibi preuidere valeat, enutrias. }[1]

No solitary monk with Christian love could reject a needy baby girl. Alexander the anchorite accepted her and raised her into a beautiful young woman. Then he had sex with her. She became pregnant.

nun shows hairy anchorite their baby

The devil disguised as a monk re-appeared to Alexander and asked about the girl. The hermit, “groaning deeply from the suffering of his conscience {conscientie dolore altius ingemiscens},” confessed his sin. The devil then urged him to commit a terrible crime with elaborate rationalizing:

He was famous for sanctity and advanced in age. Nothing is worse than an elderly apostate. If from the former odor of sanctity were to burst among the people such fetid disgrace, immediately everything would be mixed with uproar and scandal. The whole world, not so much against him as against all holy men, would be armed with hatreds, slanders, curses, mockeries, and reproaches. Everything holy would be cursed by all. He would be more guilty of the ruin of many than of his own crime. There remained for him one remedy, such that by one evil he might extinguish so many evils. Let him slit the throat of the unfortunate woman and bury her along with that crime in the earth, away from the sight of Heaven and all human notice. He could thus more easily be penitent and satisfy divine mercy rather than human madness.

{ illum esse preclarum sanctimonia, prouectum etate, nil turpius sene apostato, si in populum eruperit de priori odore tam feda infamia; protinus omnia turbis et scandalis misceri, totum mundum, non tam in eum quam in omnes sanctos uiros, odiis, detractionibus, maledictis, subsannationibus, conuitiis armari, omne sacrum ab omnibus execrari, illum perditionis multorum magis quam proprii criminis esse reum, unum sibi, ut uno malo tam multa mala extingueret, restare remedium, infelicem mulierem iugularet, et a conspectu celi omnique humana notitia cum scelere terra obrueret, eum facilius penitere et satisfacere posse apud diuinam clementiam, quam apud humanam uesaniam. }

The hermit Alexander, “relying on that good master of perdition {bono magistro perditionis fretus},” killed his “spouse {coniunx}” and buried her body.

The devil then appeared to Alexander and sought to claim him. Doing evil puts one in league with the devil. So the devil said to Alexander:

Ah, most evil of men, now you have become entirely mine. No one has obeyed my suggestions more cruelly than you. Well, lost one, was it not sufficient for you to have debauched without also staining your brothel with blood?

{ Eia, sceleratissime hominum, iam totus meus effectus es; nemo credulius meis suggestionibus paruit. Hem, perdite, non satis erat constuprasse, nisi et lupanar maculasses sanguine? }

In despair Alexander called on Christ. The devil fled in terror. God can overcome any demon. Moreover, Christian tradition offers much compassion toward holy harlots. Shouldn’t men truly sorrowful for their evil acts be offered mercy?

hairy anchorite with chain around his neck led to punishment

Alexander wasn’t redeemed instantaneously. He suffered a long, punishing Ovidian transformation:

Casting himself on the ground, he for three days continuously overflowed with such tears that blood flowed out from his weeping. At last standing up, he had before his eyes an open oak-tree, shining from within as if from golden metal. He approached and attempted to examine it. When he put both hands into it, the tree closed itself and detained the sinner against God. So that I don’t linger too much, there for fifteen years he is said to have stood, content with no other food than falling nuts and leaves, and no other drink than that which the dew and rain gave.

{ Hic triduo continuo affusus humi tantis lacrimis inundauit, ut cruor a fletibus excurrerit. Tandem erectus, quercum patentem, et quasi fuluo metallo deintus relucentem, pre oculis habuit. Accesssit experiendi studio, utque utrasque manus iniecit, arbor se occlusit et Dei preuaricatorem alligatum tenuit. Ibi, ne multum morer, quindecim annos stetisse perhibetur, cibo uel potu non alio contentus quam glandes et folium cadens, quam ros et pluuia dabat. }[2]

Alexander stood with the wood of the tree for fifteen austere years. Christ didn’t offer him cheap mercy.

One day King Gundofor was hunting in the woods. He came upon an old man encased in the tree. That old man was Alexander, who explained his crime and pointed to the woman’s grave nearby. Given the dates and circumstances, the King realized that the girl had been his own baby daughter. When he dug up her grave, he found her body uncorrupted and shining as if she were alive. She had received the bodily honor of a holy martyr. The murderer Alexander sought forgiveness from this holy martyr. Forgiveness involved the specific ritual of her foregoing capability to punish him:

Praying, the father placed the rod of forgiveness into the uncorrupted fingers of his daughter. Having taken it, she cast it from her in the manner of indulgence. At that same moment, the oak-tree, parting, set the captive free. Released from guilt and from long being bound, Saint Alexander sprang forth at liberty.

{ Pater orans festucam remissoriam incorruptis digitis nate imponit, illa susceptam more indulgentis proicit. Eodem momento quercus dehyscens captiuum relaxat, solutusque reatu et diutino nexu sanctus Alexander liber emicat. }[3]

As a martyr, the woman could bless Alexander from Heaven. At her grave site, King Gundofor built a huge monastery, lavished upon it royal wealth, and distinguished it by establishing within it a college of three hundred monks. The King then gave up his throne and himself became a monk there. Penance and forgiveness produced abundant holy fruits.

The monk Goscelin of Saint-Bertin recorded this story of illicit marriage and vicious murder within a long, ardent letter to his beloved nun Eve. She was about twenty years younger than he. Some today would say that’s creepy.[4] It was not so for loved-filled medieval women and men. Goscelin told this story to Eve to show the supernatural goodness and marvelous mercy of God. Medieval Christians believed that “from our evil God remakes his goods {de malis nostris sua bona reformat}.” Even those of us who aren’t medieval Christians might hope that to be true!

* * * * *

Read more:

Notes:

[1] Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, Comforting Book {Liber confortatorius}, Latin text from Talbot (1955) pp. 104-5, English translation (modified) from Barnes & Hayward (2004) pp. 191-2. All subsequent quotes are similarly sourced from this story of Alexander in Liber confortatorius.

This story of Alexander is “a previously unnoticed example of the ‘hairy anchorite’ story.” Barnes & Hayward (2004) p. 190, ft. 49. On the “hairy anchorite” story type, Williams (1935) and Matheson (2019) pp. 218-24.

This story seems to be more specifically about Saint Alexander Akimetes (died 430 GC). He spent time in solitude in the desert near Antioch. He was also associated with founding of monasteries of Acoemetae {ἀκοίμηται} monks, including a monastery in the Byzantine capital Constantinople. Acoemetae monks celebrated the divine service perpetually through relays of monks. The practice of perpetual adoration continues that tradition.

[2] Ovid tells of Daphne being assimilated into a laurel tree and Myrrha transformed into a myrrh tree. Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.525-52 (Daphne) and 10.431-502 (Myrrha). Lucian’s True History tells of men having their bodies joined inseparably to grape trees.

[3] Cf. 1 Corinthians 4:21, Luke 5:17-26. A “festuca {rod}” is possibly a “praetor’s rod (vindicta) laid upon the slave’s head in manumission (Plaut. Mil. Glor. iv. 1, 15; Pers.v. 175).” Peck (1898) via Perseus or Logeion. Using a “rod of forgiveness {festuca remissoria}” isn’t a well-attested medieval practice of forgiveness. On the origins of the idea of forgiveness, Konstan (2010). Jesus associated forgiveness with bodily self-mutilation.

[4] O’Brien O’Keeffe offered an intellectually elaborate interpretation of Goscelin as creepy through the story of Alexander:

I am arguing that the fantasy of Alexander {the devil’s depiction of spiritual disaster should Alexander’s crime be known} shows us that Goscelin’s desire for Eve, here as an obscene filling, requires her death. It is a death he has imagined before in the LC {Liber confortatorius} by ventriloquizing her burial in her cell. Such a death fends off the wicked eye and sly finger and, in ensuring her silence, guarantees Goscelin’s continuing desire for Eve.

O’Brien O’Keeffe (2012) p. 237. That interpretation seems to me to reflect the anti-meninism now pervasive in medieval literary scholarship. Goscelin profoundly loved Eve and surely did want her to have her throat slit. The story of Alexander occurs in Liber confortatorius, Book IV, as part of Goscelin’s extensive exhortation to humility and his descriptions of reversal of fortune and the world turned upside down in Christ.

Hayward and Hollis offered a much more provisional biographic interpretation of Goscelin’s story about Alexander:

If we wish to argue that there is an element of sexual anxiety in Goscelin’s admission of sin in his appeals for the intercession of Eve in Book I, here {the story of Alexander}, if at all, is the narrative reflex of a guilty conscience.

Hayward & Hollis (2004) p. 397. Medieval Christians understood all persons, even women, to be guilty of sin. Men commonly feel sexual desire toward young, beautiful, warmly receptive women. Goscelin may have felt sexual desire toward Eve. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he indulged in lust in his heart or other activities that medieval Christian authorities would regard as sinful. It also doesn’t mean that he felt sexual anxiety or had a guilty conscience. He may have felt instead that he was a healthy heterosexual man.

[images] (1) Hairy anchorite enters seclusion. The devil enticed a monk to have sex with a nun. The monk then killed a miller who witnessed the monk and nun embracing. Feeling guilty, the monk confessed to a bishop. He then became a hairy anchorite and entered seclusion. Illumination in an instance of the Decretals of Gregory IX, edited by Raymund of Penyafort (or Peñafort), with the glossa ordinaria of Bernard of Parma in the margin. This manuscript, commonly known as the Smithfield Decretals, was made between about 1300 and 1340. Detail from folio 117v of British Library, MS Royal 10 E IV. The story of this monk / hermit is painted on the lower margins of folios 113v-118v. (2) Nun shows hairy anchorite their baby. Similarly a detail from folio 133r of the Smithfield Decretals. This image is from the story of a hairy anchorite who had a sexual affair with a nun. It plays across the bottom margins of folios 125v-136v. (3) A hairy anchorite with a chain around his neck is led away to punishment. Similarly a detail from folio 134r of the Smithfield Decretals. The official apparently is holding a rod indicating punishment. Men continue to suffer harsh punishment from unplanned parenthood.

References:

Barnes, W. R. and Rebecca Hayward, trans. 2004. “Goscelin’s Liber confortatorius.” Part 2 (pp. 97-216) in Hollis (2004).

Hayward, Rebecca, and Stephanie Hollis. 2004. “The Female Reader in the Liber confortatorius.” Pp. 385-399 in Hollis (2004).

Hollis, Stephanie, ed. 2004. Writing the Wilton Women: Goscelin’s Legend of Edith and Liber confortatorius. Turnhout: Brepols.

Konstan, David. 2010. Before Forgiveness: The Origins of a Moral Idea. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Matheson, Anna. 2019. “New Developments in the Study of the Wild Man in Medieval Irish Literature.” Pp. 203-226 in Bouget, Hélène, and Magali Coumert, eds. Quel Moyen Âge?: La recherche en question. Histoires Des Bretagnes. Brest: Éditions du CRBC, Université de Bretagne occidentale.

O’Brien O’Keeffe, Katherine. 2012. Stealing Obedience: Narratives of Agency and Identity in Later Anglo-Saxon England. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Peck, Harry Thurston. 1898. Harper’s Dictionary of Classical Antiquities. New York: Cooper Square Publishers.

Talbot, C. H, ed. 1955. “The Liber Confortatorius of Goscelin of Saint Bertin.” Pp. 1-117 in M. M. Lebreton, J. Leclercq, C. H. Talbot, eds. Analecta Monastica: Textes et études sur la vie des moines au moyen age. 3rd series. Studia Anselmiana, 37. Rome: Herder.

Williams, Charles Allyn. 1935. The German Legends of the Hairy Anchorite: with two old French texts of La vie de Saint Jean Paulus. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois.

vision in Clouds: Socratic method doesn’t burn

Strepsiades: Holy Amazon … what a night, Dr. Fauci! Two Ambien, three Tylenol, and only a splitting headache. The cock crow was hours ago. I never got up. The morning wood is gone. Must be the Ambien. If the MiraLAX doesn’t work, I’ll die full of crap.

And there’s my son, a pasty young fellow, farting peacefully, asleep in his silk onesie. He never has to get up to piss, not a prostate problem in the world. He was once a bed-wetting baby. He just grew out of it. Well, I’ll try to sleep like a baby.

Can’t do it. My mind’s racing even with the Prozac. My mother-in-law is going to move in with us and bring along the wife’s three-year-old “consolation” baby. No consolation to me. The kid’s not my son.

The wife says she’s lonely because of the covid lockdowns. The mother-in-law, too. The three-year-old isn’t allowed to get a covid vaccine. Science says. The kid’s going to give me covid. Three-year-old Aristotle is going to kill me. I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!

Phidippides, waking up: Dad, are you alright?

Strepsiades: I’m not alright. You know that!

Phidippides: I thought I heard you say you couldn’t breathe.

Strepsiades: I can’t breathe just thinking of your mother’s three-year-old moving in with us, along with your grandmother. Can’t you teach that old lady to keep herself company with video games like you do? I’m going to die of covid from Ari. The kid’s not vaccinated!

Phidippides: You’re vaccinated.

Strepsiades: But the kid’s not vaccinated!

Phidippides: Don’t worry about it.

Strepsiades: And what about the kid? Do you want your little baby half-brother to die of covid? You know nothing about science. All you do is play video games. Life isn’t a video game. This is serious!

Phidippides: Just let me sleep.

Strepsiades: By Dr. Fauci, I wish I had never married your mother. I was just a farmer, happy with my honeybees, sheep, and pressed olives. Elderberry syrup kept away all illnesses. Nobody could believe how healthy I was. I came to this city to sell some honey. Then your wealthy, haughty, pampered mother gazed on me. The rest is herstory. I’ve felt sick ever since!

Phidippides has fallen asleep while Strepsiades was talking.

Strepsiades: What a calamity! What am I to do? … That’s it! That’s the problem. That’s the solution! Questions aren’t allowed during a public health emergency!

Think of the children. They are particularly vulnerable with their soft minds. A three-year-old must be isolated as much as possible from hearing persons talking. It’s bad enough that I might accidentally ask a question and threaten the safety of my wife’s child. But it’s far, far worse. That scoundrel Socrates is operating a Thinkery right next door to me!

A student calls from outside the Thinkery next door: Teacher! Socrates! Please!

Socrates: Who do you say that I am?

Strepsiades shouts out his window: Stop asking questions! We’re in a public health emergency! Have faith in science!

He rushes out to confront Socrates.

Student to Socrates: You’re a teacher who still teaches.

Socrates: I ask questions. You teach yourself.

Student: I have no one else. The corona virus is killing us.

Socrates: You have the whole world.

Student:

Sunshine, blue skies, please go away.
My school is closed, and my friends have gone away.
With that went my future, my life is filled with gloom,
and day after day I stay locked up in my room.
I know to you, it might sound strange,

but I wish it would rain,
oh how I wish it would rain.

‘Cause so badly I wanna go outside,
but everyone knows that a boy ain’t supposed to cry.
Listen, I gotta cry ’cause crying eases the pain, oh yeah.
People, this hurt I feel inside, words could never explain.

I just wish it would rain,
oh, let it rain, rain, rain, rain,
ooh baby, let it rain,
oh yeah, let it rain.

Socrates:

Come, you gorgeous Clouds, appear.
Show yourselves to this fellow here.
Whether you’re lolling on Olympus now
on pinnacles in drifts of snow,
or whether you set the nymphs in motion,
among the flowers of father Ocean,
or whether the waters of the Nile are sucked
by you in vessels golden-cupped,
or if by Lake Maeotis you
dwell above in steeps of snow,
accept this offering of mine
and let these rituals be benign.

{ ἔλθετε δῆτ᾿, ὦ πολυτίμητοι Νεφέλαι, τῷδ᾿ εἰς ἐπίδειξιν·
εἴτ᾿ ἐπ᾿ Ὀλύμπου κορυφαῖς ἱεραῖς χιονοβλήτοισι κάθησθε,
εἴτ᾿ Ὠκεανοῦ πατρὸς ἐν κήποις ἱερὸν χορὸν ἵστατε Νύμφαις,
εἴτ᾿ ἄρα Νείλου προχοαῖς ὑδάτων χρυσέαις ἀρύτεσθε πρόχοισιν,
ἢ Μαιῶτιν λίμνην ἔχετ᾿ ἢ σκόπελον νιφόεντα Μίμαντος·
ὑπακούσατε δεξάμεναι θυσίαν καὶ τοῖς ἱεροῖσι χαρεῖσαι. }

Clouds enter and sing:

Clouds everlasting,
let us arise,
revealing our dewy bright form,
from deep roaring father Ocean
onto high mountain peaks
with tresses of trees, whence
to behold heights of distant vantage,
and holy earth whose crops we water,
and divine rivers’ rushing,
and the sea crashing with deep thunder.
For heaven’s tireless eye is ablaze
with gleaming rays.
So let us shake off the rainy haze
from our deathless shape and survey
the land, with telescopic eye.

{ ἀέναοι Νεφέλαι,
ἀρθῶμεν φανεραὶ δροσερὰν φύσιν εὐάγητον
πατρὸς ἀπ᾿ Ὠκεανοῦ βαρυαχέος
ὑψηλῶν ὀρέων κορυφὰς ἔπι
δενδροκόμους, ἵνα
τηλεφανεῖς σκοπιὰς ἀφορώμεθα
καρπούς τ᾿ ἀρδομέναν ἱερὰν χθόνα
καὶ ποταμῶν ζαθέων κελαδήματα
καὶ πόντον κελάδοντα βαρύβρομον·
ὄμμα γὰρ αἰθέρος ἀκάματον σελαγεῖται
μαρμαρέαισιν αὐγαῖς.
ἀλλ᾿ ἀποσεισάμεναι νέφος ὄμβριον
ἀθανάτας ἰδέας ἐπιδώμεθα
τηλεσκόπῳ ὄμματι γαῖαν. }

Socrates: Oh elegant Supremes, you have heard my cry and answered me. Now back in my arms again!

He turns to Strepsiades: Did you hear their voices and in concert the bellowing thunder of holy awe?

Strepsiades turns to address the clouds:

O most honored sacred goddesses, to your thunderous claps
I respond with farts, that’s how much I fear.
And right now, if allowed or not, I need to piss!

{ καὶ σέβομαί γ᾿, ὦ πολυτίμητοι, καὶ βούλομαι ἀνταποπαρδεῖν
πρὸς τὰς βροντάς· οὕτως αὐτὰς τετραμαίνω καὶ πεφόβημαι.
καἰ θέμις ἐστίν, νυνί γ᾿ ἤδη, καἰ μὴ θέμις ἐστί, χεσείω }

Socrates:

Don’t be scurrilous like those mediocre comic playwrights.
Quiet! The great swarm of goddesses is moving in song.

{ οὐ μὴ σκώψει μηδὲ ποιήσεις ἅπερ οἱ τρυγοδαίμονες οὗτοι,
ἀλλ᾿ εὐφήμει· μέγα γάρ τι θεῶν κινεῖται σμῆνος ἀοιδαῖς. }

Chorus:

When the moon is in the seventh house,
and Jupiter aligns with Mars,
then peace will guide the planets
and love will steer the stars!

This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius,
the age of Aquarius,
Aquarius,
Aquarius!

Harmony and understanding,
sympathy and trust abounding,
no more falsehoods or derisions,
golden living dreams of visions,
mystic crystal revelation
and the mind’s true liberation,
Aquarius,
Aquarius!

Student:

By Zeus, Socrates, I beg you, tell me who they are,
these women who sing so solemnly. Are they mortal heroes?

{ πρὸς τοῦ Διός, ἀντιβολῶ σε, φράσον, τίνες εἴσ᾿, ὦ Σώκρατες, αὗται
αἱ φθεγξάμεναι τοῦτο τὸ σεμνόν; μῶν ἡρῷναί τινές εἰσιν }

Socrates:

Not at all. They are heavenly Clouds, great goddesses for idle persons.
From them we receive judgment and dialectic and intellect,
and fantasy, endless talk, and power of verbal thrust and parry.

{ ἥκιστ᾿, ἀλλ᾿ οὐράνιαι Νεφέλαι, μεγάλαι θεαὶ ἀνδράσιν ἀργοῖς,
αἵπερ γνώμην καὶ διάλεξιν καὶ νοῦν ἡμῖν παρέχουσιν
καὶ τερατείαν καὶ περίλεξιν καὶ κροῦσιν καὶ κατάληψιν. }

Leader of the chorus:

Friend, either you’re closing your eyes
to a situation you do not wish to acknowledge
or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated
by the presence of a Thinkery in your community.
Well, ya got trouble, my friend, right here
I say, trouble right here in Athens City.
Why sure I’m a certified doctor,
certainly mighty proud I say,
I’m always mighty proud to say it.
I consider that the hours I spend
with a book in my hand are golden –
helps you cultivate horse sense
and a cool head and a keen eye.
Ever take and try to find
an iron-clad thought for yourself
on a four-part vaccine shot?
But just as I say,
it takes judgment, brains, and maturity to score
in the learning game.
I say that any boob can take
and shove a thought in a body
and I call that sloth
the first big step on the road
to the depths of deg-ra-day–
I say, first, Socratic talk with a great aunt,
then books from a library!
An’ the next thing ya know
your son is questionin’ too freely
in philosopher’s clothes
and list’nin to a big out-a-town thinker
asking questions about opioid treatin’,
not wholesome science respectin’, no!
but a case where they think things out for themselves!
Like to see some stuck-up thinkin’ boy
questioning Dr. Fauci? Make your blood boil?
Well, I should say.
Now, friends, lemme tell you what I mean.
Ya got one, two, three, four, five, six levels of true science.
Levels that mark the diff’rence
between a scientist and a bum
with a capital “B,”
and that rhymes with “T” and that stands for think!
And all week long your Athens City
youth’ll be fritterin’ away,
I say your young men’ll be fritterin’
fritterin’ away their noontime, suppertime, choretime too!
Get the thought out for questionin’,
never mind doin’ what science be saying,
or the store-door notice or the newest mandate.
Never mind pumpin’ any water
’til your parents are caught with the cistern empty
on a Saturday night and that’s trouble.
Yes, you got lots and lots of trouble.
I’m thinkin’ of the kids with curiosity,
Greekless young ones, peekin’ in the think
hall window after school, ya got trouble, folks!
Right here in Athens City.
Trouble with a capital “T”
and that rhymes with “P” which leads to Q for questioning!

Now, I know all you folks are the right kind of parents.
I’m gonna be perfectly frank.
Would ya like to know what kinda conversation goes
on while they’re loafin’ around thinkin’?
They be tryin’ out Plato, tryin’ out Horace,
tryin’ out Latin lit like cigarette fiends!
And braggin’ all about
how they’re gonna cover up Socrates with jive talk.
One fine night, they leave the Thinkery
headin’ for the dance at the Arm’ry!
Cynic men and Latin-speaking women!
And Roman elegy, scienceless music
that’ll grab your son, your daughter,
with the arms of Ovid’s animal instinct!
Mass-staria!
Friends, the active brain is the devil’s playground!
Trouble!

Chorus:
Oh, we got trouble.

Chorus leader:
Right here in Athens City!

Chorus:
Right here in Athens City!

Chorus leader:
With a capital “T”
And that rhymes with “P”
which leads to Q for questioning!

Chorus:
Which leads to Q for questioning!

Chorus leader:
We’ve surely got trouble.

Chorus:
We’ve surely got trouble!

Chorus leader:
Right here in Athens City.

Chorus:
Right here!

Chorus leader:
Gotta figure out a way
to keep the young ones in science after school.

Chorus:
Trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble…

Chorus leader:
Mothers of Athens City!
Heed that warning before it’s too late!
Watch for the tell-tale signs of corruption.
The moment your son leaves the house
does he take with ’em his dog-eared ancient Greek dictionary?
Is there a hexameter lilt in his dinner prayer?
A Greek novel hidden in the corn crib?
Is he starting to memorize lines from Virgil’s Aeneid?
Are certain words creeping into his conversation?
Words like, like “epic”?

Chorus:
Trouble, trouble, trouble!

Chorus leader:
Aha! And “the tears of things”?

Chorus:
Trouble, trouble, trouble!

Chorus leader:
Well, if so my friends,
ya got trouble.

Chorus:
Oh, we got trouble

Chorus leader:
Right here in Athens City!

Chorus:
Right here in Athens City!

Chorus leader:
With a capital “T”
And that rhymes with “P”
which leads to Q for questioning!

Chorus:
Which leads to Q for questioning!

Chorus leader:
We’ve surely got trouble!

Chorus:
We’ve surely got trouble!

Chorus leader:
Right here in Athens City!

Chorus:
Right here!

Chorus leader:
They be readin’ Oedipus, Socrates, and Diogenes.
Oh, we got trouble.
We’re in terrible, terrible trouble.
That study with the ancient, odd-shaped letters is the devil’s tool!

Chorus:
Devil’s tool!

Chorus leader:
Oh yes we got trouble, trouble, trouble!

Chorus:
Oh yes we got trouble here! We’ve got big, big trouble!

Chorus leader:
With a “T”!

Chorus:
With a capital “T”!

Chorus leader:
Gotta rhyme it with “P”!

Chorus:
Gotta rhyme with “P”!

Chorus leader:
Which leads to Q for questioning!

Chorus:
Which leads to Q for questioning!

Strepsiades:

So that’s why they compose verses like
“dire downdraft of humid clouds zigzaggedly braceleted,”
and “locks of hundred-headed Typhus,” and “blasting squalls,”
and “airy scudders crooked of talon, birds swimming on high,”
and “rain of waters from dewy clouds.” Then, as their reward,
they stuff themselves with huge fish fillets and thrush cutlets!

{ ταῦτ᾿ ἄρ᾿ ἐποίουν “ὑγρᾶν Νεφελᾶν στρεπταίγλαν δάϊον ὁρμάν”,
“πλοκάμους θ᾿ ἑκατογκεφάλα Τυφῶ”, “πρημαινούσας τε θυέλλας”,
εἶτ᾿ “ἀερίας διεράς”, “γαμψούς τ᾿ οἰωνοὺς ἀερονηχεῖς”,
“ὄμβρους θ᾿ ὑδάτων δροσερᾶν νεφελᾶν”· εἶτ᾿ ἀντ᾿ αὐτῶν κατέπινον
κεστρᾶν τεμάχη μεγαλᾶν ἀγαθᾶν κρέα τ᾿ ὀρνίθεια κιχηλᾶν. }

Student: Are these really clouds? I see some ordinary women wearing sheep-fleece dresses. Do clouds have noses that look like human noses?

Socrates:

Have you ever looked up and seen a cloud resembling a centaur,
or a leopard, or a wolf, or a bull?

{ ἤδη ποτ᾿ ἀναβλέψας εἶδες νεφέλην κενταύρῳ ὁμοίαν
ἢ παρδάλει ἢ λύκῳ ἢ ταύρῳ }

Student: Yes, yes I have. So what?

Socrates:

Clouds turn into anything they want. Thus, if they see a long-haired doctor,
one of these furry types like Rachel Levine, they mock her obsession
by making themselves look like centaurs.

{ γίγνονται πάνθ᾿ ὅτι βούλονται· κᾆτ᾿ ἢν μὲν ἴδωσι κομήτην
ἄγριόν τινα τῶν λασίων τούτων, οἷόνπερ τὸν Ξενοφάντου,
σκώπτουσαι τὴν μανίαν αὐτοῦ κενταύροις ᾔκασαν αὑτάς. }

Socrates continues:

Now think. Men’s risk of dying from covid is about twice that of women. Is Rachel Levine’s risk from covid like that of a woman or a man?

Student: Abstract gender category doesn’t control risk particularity.

Strepsiades: Stop your hateful thinking before you’re beaten or imprisoned. Thinkers like Socrates asking questions is why my wife’s three-year-old can’t move in with us. If it weren’t for questions, that kid would already be vaccinated.

Socrates:

Learn from your own experience.
Have you ever gorged yourself with soup at the Panathenaea
and then had an upset stomach, and a sudden turmoil sets it arumble?

{ ἀπὸ σαυτοῦ ᾿γώ σε διδάξω.
ἤδη ζωμοῦ Παναθηναίοις ἐμπλησθεὶς εἶτ᾿ ἐταράχθης
τὴν γαστέρα καὶ κλόνος ἐξαίφνης αὐτὴν διεκορκορύγησεν }

Student:

By Apollo I have! It does carry on terribly and shake me up,
and like thunder that bit of soup crashes and roars terribly,
gently at first, pappax pappax, and then stepping up the pace, papapappax,
and when I shit it absolutely thunders, papapappax, just like those clouds!

{ νὴ τὸν Ἀπόλλω, καὶ δεινὰ ποιεῖ γ᾿ εὐθύς μοι καὶ τετάρακται,
χὤσπερ βροντὴ τὸ ζωμίδιον παταγεῖ καὶ δεινὰ κέκραγεν,
ἀτρέμας πρῶτον, παππὰξ παππάξ, κἄπειτ᾿ ἐπάγει παπαπαππάξ·
χὤταν χέζω, κομιδῇ βροντᾷ, παπαπαππάξ, ὥσπερ ἐκεῖναι. }

Strepsiades: I’m going back into my house to get more social distance from you two. You should keep quiet and stay safe.

Going back into his house, Strepsiades sees his mother-in-law talking with her grandson Phidippides.

Grandmother singing:

I can turn the gray sky blue,
I can make it rain whenever I want it to,
oh, I can build a castle from a single grain of sand,
I can make a ship sail, huh, on dry land,
but my life is incomplete and I’m so blue,
’cause I can’t get next to you.

I can fly like a bird in the sky,
hey, and I can buy anything that money can buy,
oh, I can turn a river into a raging fire,
I can live forever if I so desire,
unimportant are all the things I can do,
’cause I can’t get next to you.

I can turn back the hands of time,
you better believe I can,
I can make the seasons change just by waving my hand,
oh, I can change anything from old to new,
the things I want to do the most, I’m unable to do,
unhappy am I with all the powers I possess,
’cause boy you’re the key to my happiness,
and I can’t get next to you.

Grandson, you’re blowing my mind,
’cause I can’t get next to you.
Can’t you see these tears I’m crying?
I can’t get next to you.
Grandson, it’s you that I need,
I gotta get next to you.
Can’t you see these tears I’m crying?
I can’t get next to you.
I, I, I, I
I can’t get next to you.

Phidippides: Don’t worry about social distancing, grandma. I will die from you, if you cause me to.

Grandmother: You’re a princely sweetie. Oh, I wish little Aristotolly wasn’t at such grave risk from hearing questions. Such a cute little boy. I don’t want him to die from covid! At least my grandson is safe isolated in his sound-proof room in my house.

Phidippides: When will I be able to talk with my half-brother?

Grandmother: When science says it’s safe. That’s when.

Phidippides: When’s that?

Grandmother: I don’t know. When the public health emergency ends, I guess.

Phidippides: There’s no covid in Elden Ring, no public health emergency there, and players can ask each other questions about where to go and how to get new powers and be as awesome as you, grandma. Why can’t Ari come here and just play in Elden Ring with me?

Grandmother: Are you sure that there’s no corona virus there, and that questions in that place aren’t unsafe?

Phidippides: I’m sure. I play games like that all the time.

Grandmother: Wonderful. We’ll move in here tonight. Your mother has been pleading with me to move in with her for months. I’ll make special meals for you and give you lots of presents!

As grandmother is leaving, she calls out to Phidippides: Thanks so much for asking me if Ari could play with you in Elden Ring. That question pointed to the answer to so many problems!

Strepsiades to Phidippides: You know it’s a public health emergency, and you know that you’re not allowed to ask questions. But you behaved irresponsibly right here in my own house. Irresponsibly!

Phidippides: Calm down, dad. Calm down. It’s only your mother-in-law and your wife’s little kid.

Strepsiades: It’s questioning. It’s the principle of asking questions. You got that, I’m sure, from that scoundrel Socrates living next door.

Phidippides: Hey, if you’re so afraid of dying of covid, why don’t you just hang yourself? Then you won’t die of covid!

Strepsiades: There you go again. You disgraceful, disrespectful, reprobate social isolate! Are you trying to kill me, your own father?

Phidippides: No cause to report me to the authorities. I support Electra, a woman hero of gender equality. I’ll kill mother just as I kill you {τὴν μητέρ᾿ ὥσπερ καὶ σὲ τυπτήσω}!

Strepsiades:

What’s that? What did you say?
That’s different, a far greater crime!

{ τί φῄς, τί φῂς σύ;
τοῦθ᾿ ἕτερον αὖ μεῖζον κακόν. }

Phidippides: Why? What do you know? Look outside.

Strepsiades opens the front door and seeing the house across the street, he exclaims: “There’s a Y painted on the front door of that house!”

He runs outside and screams: “There’s an iron Y erected above the front door of the Thinkery! There’s a Y painted on the street! There’s a Y hanging from the back of that chariot!”

He groans and raises his eyes to the sky. He ponders the clouds for a moment, then screams: “The clouds form a Y in the sky! Y! Y! Y?”

He falls to the ground sobbing. A minute later he stands up, enraged. He howls: “The Thinkery must burn! Burn! Slaves, come here and bring torches and hatches, right now!”

The blond-haired slave Xanthias comes out from the house carrying two torches and two hatchets.

Xanthias: “Sir, the rest of the slaves ask that you ensure that everyone in the Thinkery is evacuated before you burn it down. They won’t come out until you swear a solemn oath to have it evacuated before it’s destroyed.”

Strepsiades: “More questions? Those traitor scum slaves aren’t even capable of being slaves. We’ll clean our own house of questioners later. Right now, let’s make that cockroach Socrates choke to death in his own house if he doesn’t roast first.”

Strepsiades and Xanthias climb onto the roof of the Thinkery. They cut open holes in the roof, ignite broken-off roof staves, and start hurling them down on the straw mats inside. The students within start screaming.

Socrates desperately asks: “Is the tongue spitting fire from the Clouds into the void?”

Anguished student: “Do something, Socrates!”

Socrates: “How am I to know what to do?”

A stiff wind suddenly blows down upon the Thinkery. Stresiades and Xanthias, attempting to cling to the roof, get blown off. Then clouds, forming what some saw as an Α and others saw as an Ω, release a torrential downpour. Rainwaters flow down through the holes in the Thinkery’s roof and extinguish the fires within. Socrates and all his pupils emerge alive, looking as if they had just been dunked into a river.

The chorus of Clouds dances and sings as they leave the stage:

People movin’ out, people movin’ in.
Why? From the counting of shots in their skin.
Run, run, run, but you sure can’t hide,
an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,
vote for me, and I’ll set you free.
Rap on, sister, rap on!
Well, the only person talkin’ ’bout “Love thy father”
is the preacher,
and it seems nobody’s interested in learnin’
but the teacher.
Segregation, vaccination, demonstration, disintegration,
aggravation, humiliation, obligation to our nation.

Ball of confusion,
oh, yeah,
that’s what the world is today.
Woho, hey, hey!

The sale of pills is at an all-time high,
young folks walkin’ ’round with their heads in the sky,
cities aflame in the summertime.
And oh, the beat goes on.
Evolution, revolution, gun control, the loss of soul.
Shooting rockets at Ukraine, kids’ lives lost in vain.
Politicians say more taxes will solve everything.
And the band played on.

So ’round and around and around we go.
Where the world’s headed, nobody knows.

Oh, Great Googa Mooga
can’t you hear me talking to you?

Just a ball of confusion,
oh yeah, that’s what the world is today.
Woho, hey, hey!

Fear in the air, tension everywhere,
big inflation rising fast,
purple motes new post’s a gas.
And the only safe place to live is on a Trappist reservation.
And the band played on.

Eve of destruction, tax deduction,
covid inspectors, bill collectors.
face masks in demand, population out of hand,
suicide, too many bills,
rich folks moving to the hills.
People all over the world are shouting, “End the war!”
And the band played on.

* * * * *

Read more:

Notes:

The above play is a modernization of Aristophanes’s comedy Clouds {Νεφέλαι}. Clouds was originally presented in comedic competition in Athens in 423 BGC. It came in third, meaning last. The surviving text of Clouds represents a revision Aristophanes made between 419 and 416 BGC.

Socrates’s Thinkery {Phrontisterion / ϕροντιστήριον} is Aristophanes’s satirical construction. Socrates didn’t charge for teaching and didn’t run a formal school. While in many ways Aristophanes presents Socrates as ridiculous, Aristophanes also presented important aspects of ancient intellectual thought. Questioning is central to what has come to be known as the Socratic method. “Aristophanes’ Clouds treats Socrates as distinctly interested in promoting self-knowledge of the sort related to self-improvement.” Moore (2015) p. 534.

The destructive ending of Clouds isn’t typical of Aristophanean comedy. Interpretations of the extent of the violence have varied considerably. Some think Phidippides exited into the Thinkery and that Strepsiades killed his own son along with Socrates and students in the Thinkery. Another view is that Strepsiades didn’t kill anyone in destroying the Thinkery. His destructive action functioned as “legal self-help” rather than a lynching. Davis (1990) and Johnston (1998) pp. xxvii-xxix.

Rain quenching the fire in the Thinkery is my extension. Cf. Elijah calling down fire from God to consume a sacrificial offering in 1 Kings 18:36-8; rain saving Croesus from burning on a pyre at the hands of King Cyrus in Herodotus, Histories 1.87.

In his Apology, Plato indicated that Aristophanes’s depiction of Socrates motivated the Athenians’ subsequent decision to execute Socrates. But the depiction of Socrates in Clouds is conventional comedic mockery of intellectuals. “Clouds did not kill Socrates.” Andújar (2014). For contrasting interpretations of the significance of Clouds, Morris (1937) and Fisher (1988).

The Greek texts above are from Clouds, with preceding texts the corresponding English translations, with some small but significant changes. The Greek texts and English translations (modified) are from Henderson (1998), except for the first corresponding English translation, which is from Rocke (2005) p. 146. Freely available online is the Greek text of Hall & Geldart (Oxford, 1907). For a dual-language edition with Ian Johnston’s English translation, Hayes & Nimis (2017). English translations by George Theodoridis (2007) and by an unnamed translator are also freely available online. Here’s an overview of Clouds.

The Greek quotes above are Clouds, vv 269-74 (Come, you gorgeous Clouds…), 275-90 (Clouds everlasting…), 293-5 (O most honored sacred goddesses…), 296-7 (Don’t be scurrilous…), 314-5 (By Zeus, Socrates, I beg you…), 316-8 (Not at all. They are heavenly Clouds…), 335-9 (So that’s why they compose verses like…) , 346-7 (Have you ever looked up and seen a cloud…), 348-50 (Clouds turn into anything they want…), 385-7 (Learn from your own experience…), 388-91 (By Apollo I have!…), 1443-4 (What’s that?…).

The above text includes transformed lyrics and embedded videos performing the original songs. These songs are:

  1. The Temptations, “I Wish It Would Rain,” released as a single on Dec. 21, 1967. Via YouTube.
  2. “Aquarius” as performed in the 1979 film Hair, adapted from the 1968 Broadway musical Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. Via YouTube.
  3. “Ya Got Trouble” from the 1962 film The Music Man, adapted from the 1957 Broadway musical The Music Man. Via YouTube.
  4. The Temptations, “I Can’t Get Next to You,” released as a single on July 30, 1969. Via YouTube.
  5. The Temptations, “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today),” released as a single on May 7, 1970. Via YouTube.

References:

Andújar, Rosa. 2014. “Aristophanes’ Socrates in Context.” Aristophanes’ Clouds Study Guide, University College London. Online.

Davies, Malcolm. 1990. “‘Popular Justice’ and the End of Aristophanes’ Clouds.” Hermes. 118 (2): 237-242.

Fisher, Raymond K. 1988. “The Relevance of Aristophanes: a New Look at Clouds.” Greece and Rome. 35 (1): 23-28.

Hayes, Evan and Stephen Nimis, eds. 2017. Aristophanes’ Clouds: A Dual Language Edition. Greek Text Edited (1907) by F.W. Hall and W.M. Geldart, English Translation and Notes by Ian Johnston. Oxford, OH: Faenum Publishing.

Henderson, Jeffrey, ed. and trans. 1998. Aristophanes. Clouds. Wasps. Peace. Loeb Classical Library 488. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Johnston, Ian. 1998. “On Satire in Aristophanes’ Clouds.” Lecture, November 1998. Pp. ix-xxxi in Hayes & Nimis (2017).

Moore, Christopher. 2015. “Socrates and Self-Knowledge in Aristophanes’ Clouds.” The Classical Quarterly. 65 (2): 534-551.

Morris, Bertram. 1937. “Totalitarian Clouds: Human versus Dictatorial Values.” The Sewanee Review. 45 (2): 150-165.

Roche, Paul, trans. 2005. Aristophanes. The Complete Plays. New York, N.Y.: New American Library.

Jerome to Eustochium on shameful and ashamed women

In 384 GC, the learned Christian scholar and teacher Jerome wrote a letter to the fifteen-year-old Eustochium. She was the daughter of his dear friend Paula, a wealthy, high-born Roman widow. Shunning her life of privilege, Eustochium sought to become a Christian nun living vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Jerome addressed Eustochium as “my Eustochium, my daughter, lady-lord, fellow-servant, and sister {mi Eustochia, filia, domina, conserua, germana}.”[1] With loving concern and great wisdom, Jerome taught Eustochium about shameful and ashamed women.

Jerome didn’t shirk from presenting shocking images to Eustochium. He quoted to her a biblical verse describing a fallen, rejected spouse:

“At your right hand stood the queen wrapped in embroidered clothes of gold.” She shall be made naked, and her skirt thrown over her face. She shall sit by the waters of loneliness with her pitcher put down. She shall spread her legs to all who pass by and be polluted to the top of her head.

{ adstitit regina a dextris tuis in uestitu deaurato, circumdata uarietate. nudabitur et posteriora eius ponentur in facie ipsius; sedebit ad aquas solitudinis et posita base diuaricabit pedes suos omni transeunti et usque ad uerticem polluetur. }[2]

Covering one’s face typically indicates modesty or a sense of shame. But a woman whose face is covered by her lifted skirt is shamefully exposed, at least from a traditional Roman perspective. Jerome urged Eustochium not to be like that woman.

While most Roman men were poor laborers or soldiers enduring brutal violence against men, some women were vastly more privileged. Jerome described to Eustochium such widows:

Look at them in their sedan-chairs with a row of eunuchs preceding them, and their rouged cheeks and their plump, sleek skin. You wouldn’t think that they had lost a husband, but were seeking one. Their houses are full of flatterers, full of banquets. The very clerics whose teaching authority ought to call forth awe, kiss these lady-patrons on the head and extend their hands. You would think, if you didn’t know, that they wanted to bless. In fact they extend their hands to receive a fee for their visit. Meanwhile these ladies, seeing that priests need their help, are lifted up in pride.

{ praecedit caueas basternarum ordo semiuir et rubentibus buccia cutis farsa distenditur, ut eas putes maritos non amisisse, sed quaerere. plena adulatoribus domus, plena conuiuia. clerici ipsi, quos et magisterio esse oportuerat et timori, osculantur capita patronarum et extenta manu, ut benedicere eos putes uelle, si nescias, pretium accipiunt salutandi. illae interim, quae sacerdotes suo uident indigere praesidio, eriguntur in superbiam }

Before recent decades, Christian priests had been exclusively men since the birth of Christ. But that doesn’t mean that men historically have been privileged relative to women, or even that priests have had higher status than wealthy women. The rows of eunuchs carrying women in sedan-chairs aptly represent men’s social position under castration culture and gynocentrism.

eunuchs carry Empress Dowager Cixi in sedan-chair

Although equally deserving of compassion as fully human beings, men tend to receive less compassion than do women. Headlines often efface men, like “missile strike kills 20 civilians, including 2 women.” Jerome described to Eustochium similarly emotive circumstances:

Recently I saw the noblest Roman woman — I keep silent about her name, for I am not a satirist — in the Basilica of Saint Peter. Her eunuchs were in front of her. With her own hand so as to increase her reputation for religiosity she was disbursing single coins to paupers. One moment, such as you might readily know by experience, an old woman of years and rags ran forward to receive another coin. When her turn came, in the place of money she received an extended fist. Thus she, guilty of a crime, had an outflow of blood.

{ uidi nuper — nomina taceo, ne saturam putes — nobilissimam mulierum Romanarum in basilica beati Petri semiuiris antecedentibus propria manu, quo religiosior putaretur, singulos nummos dispertire pauperibus. interea — ut usu nosse perfacile est — anus quaedam annis pannisque obsita praecurrit, ut alterum nummum acciperet; ad quam cum ordine peruenisset, pugnus porrigitur pro denario et tanti criminis reus sanguis effunditur. }

The old, poor dear is of course a woman. The vicious rich Roman whom eunuchs attend is also a woman. Her castrated men attract little concern and compassion.

Jerome understood that human life centers on women. He advised Eustochium:

Let your voice always resonate in your mouth with these words: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return” and “We brought nothing into this world, and we can carry out nothing.”

{ illa tibi semper in ore uox resonet: nudus exiui de utero matris meae, nudus et redeam et: nihil intulimus in hunc mundum nec auferre quid possumus. }[3]

In these key words, “my mother’s womb” is a metonym for “mother earth,” or more generally, the whole world of lived life. Mother earth isn’t a recent sexist social construction. Even apart from the ancient earth goddess Gaia, humans have long regarded the earth as their mother.

Despite her female privilege, Jerome didn’t want Eustochium to be ashamed to be a woman. He observed:

Other women dress as men, changing their clothes as if they are ashamed to be the females that they were born. They cut off their hair and impudently hold up their faces like eunuchs.

{ aliae uirili habitu, ueste mutata, erubescunt feminae esse, quod natae sunt, crinem amputant et inpudenter erigunt facies eunuchinas. }[4]

From Jerome’s Christian perspective, women shouldn’t be ashamed of being women. In contrast, women pretending to be eunuchs belittle women and trivialize castration culture. Such women should be ashamed of their ignorance and heartlessness.

Today no forty-year-old man would write to a fifteen-year-old woman like Jerome wrote to Eustochium more than 1600 years ago. Nonetheless, young women today would benefit significantly from thinking carefully about the issues that Jerome raised to Eustochium. Christians rightly revere Jerome as a great saint. Everyone should honor Jerome as a wise and courageous ally of women.

* * * * *

Read more:

Notes:

[1] Jerome, Letters 22, Jerome to Eustochium, section 26, Latin text from Hilberg (1910-18), my English translation, benefiting from those of Carroll (1956), Wright (1933), and Freemantle (1892). All quotes from Jerome are similarly sourced from his letter to Eustochium.

Jerome was about forty years old when he wrote this letter to Eustochium. With respect to “daughter, lady-lord, fellow-servant, sister,” Jerome explained:

one specifies your age, another your merit, yet another your religious vocation, and that one our love

{ aliud enim aetatis, aliud meriti, illud religionis, hoc caritatis est nomen }

Id, section 26. Jerome described Eustochium as “reared among a noble lineage and always in luxury, always in soft pillows {nobili stirpe generatam, et semper in deliciis, semper in plumis}.” Id, section 11. Jerome and Eustochium were fellow religious servants of God. Medieval men referred to their beloved women as “sister.”

[2] Jerome to Eustochium, section 6. Cf. Psalms 44:9, Jeremiah 13:26, Ezekiel 16:25. This quote is colored with historical disparagement of men’s sexuality. From a Jewish and Christian perspective, men do not pollute women through men’s sexuality itself. To the contrary, men offer to women through their sexuality the gift of God’s seminal blessing. Medieval hymns such as “Hail, mother of our Savior {Salve, mater Salvatoris}” dealt with this discursive legacy in a sophisticated way.

Jerome spoke frankly with Eustochium. He wasn’t ashamed to specify directly genitals:

Hear what God says about the devil: “Its strength is in the loins and its power in the navel.” For decency the genitals of man and woman are altered to be called with those names. Thus from the loins of David is said to come the descendant promised to sit on the throne. The seventy-five souls who entered into Egypt similarly came from Jacob’s thigh. When after wrestling with God the girth of his thigh shrank, Jacob ceased to produce children. … To Jerusalem, who was found splattered with blood in the wandering plain, Ezekiel said: “Your navel has not been penetrated.” Therefore, in all attacks against men, the devil’s strength is in the loins. Against women, all its force is in the navel.

{ audi, quid de diabolo suspicetur: uirtus eius in lumbis et potestas eius in umbilico. honeste uiri mulierisque genitalia inmutatis sunt appellata nominibus, unde et de lumbis Dauid super is sedem eius promittitur esse sessurus; et septuaginta et quinque animae introierunt Aegyptum, quae exierunt de femore Iacob, et postquam conluctante deo latitudo femoris eius emarcuit, a liberorum opere cessauit … ad Hierusalem uero, quae respersa sanguine in campo inuenitur erroris, in Ezechiel dicitur: non est praecisus umbilicus tuus. omnis igitur aduersus uiros diaboli uirtus in lumbis est, omnis in umbilico contra feminas fortitudo.}

Jerome to Eustochim, section 11. Cf. Job 40:16, 2 Samuel 7:12, Genesis 46:26, Genesis 32:24-5, Ezekiel 16:4-6. Modern philology, unlike Jerome, has a penis problem.

The subsequent two quotes above are from Jerome to Eustochium, sections 15 (Look at them in their sedan-chairs…) and 32 (Recently I saw the noblest Roman woman…).

[3] Jerome to Eustochium, section 31. Cf. Job 1:21, Genesis 3:19, Sirach 40:1. On Biblical gynocentrism, Song of Songs 5:2-6, Genesis 2:24, and Ephesians 5:31.

[4] Jerome to Eustochium, section 27. Transmen have been readily accepted historically, while transwomen have faced hostility and rejection from women and men aggressively defending women’s privileged social position.

[image] Chinese eunuchs carry Empress Dowager Cixi in a sedan-chair in front of the Summer Palace in Beijing sometime from 1903 to 1905. Photo by Xunling. Preserved with identifier FSA A.13 SC-GR-261 in the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

References:

Carroll, Paul, trans. 1956. The Satirical letters of St. Jerome. Chicago: Gateway Editions, distributed by H. Regnery Co.

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).

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