Psychomachia gender-transformed epic into fight for new life

The Iliad and the Aeneid, the most influential epics in western Eurasian literature, ring with horrific violence against men. Violence against men has been normalized as simply violence. It’s seldom understood to be oppressively gendered, as if men’s lives intrinsically have less value than women’s. In his early fifth-century Battle for the Soul {Psychomachia}, the classically learned Christian poet Prudentius recast epic violence against men into violence between female personifications of virtues and vices. In Prudentius’s radically new epic, women fight to show men and women the way to create new life.

Psychomachia begins with the old man Abram and his difficulties in realizing God’s seminal blessing. Abram fought to rescue his nephew Lot from enemy tribes that had captured him. Until then childless, Abram and his wife Sarah with laughter of amazement subsequently had a son named Isaac. Focusing on childlessness rather than violence, Prudentius perceived a hidden meaning in these events:

You will engender within marriage no children
pleasing to God, none brought forth with virtue as mother,
until with slaughter your fighting spirit will vanquish
many monsters in your enslaved heart.

{ nec ante prolem coniugalem gignere
Deo placentem, matre virtute editam,
quam strage multa bellicosus spiritus
portenta cordis servientis vicerit. }[1]

Prudentius in these verses transforms gender in three significant ways. First, virtue, which is etymologically associated with men and manliness, figures as mother. Understood rightly, the fruitfulness of bearing new life isn’t just a female privilege.[2] Second, Prudentius recognizes the monstrosity of men’s hearts enslaved to women in classical Roman elegy. This slavery of gyno-idolatry is life-destroying. Third, Prudentius refers to slaughter. The reader, however, soon discovers that slaughter in this poem isn’t epic violence against men, but slaughter of female personifications of vices.[3] Gender-transformed epic is necessary for women and men to produce a lineage please to God.

Gender-transformed epic is oriented toward new life. In faithful relation to God, both men and women give birth to new life:

The Holy Spirit, thus embracing in faithful marriage
the soul that has long lacked children,
will make her fertile by eternal semen.
Then the old woman in labor, having a dowry,
will birth an heir worthy of God the Father’s house.

{ animam deinde Spiritus conplexibus
pie maritam, prolis expertem diu,
faciet perenni fertilem de semine,
tunc sera dotem possidens puerpera
herede digno Patris inplebit domum. }[4]

A woman literally can give birth to new life. All Christians, however, are like an old woman in labor. They are groaning to bring forth themselves as new creations in Christ, new creations worthy of God the Father’s house. The Psychomachia leads readers to participate in a gender-transformed epic that creates not the men’s deaths of traditional epic, but new life for men and women.[5]

The Christian church, the body of God’s disciples on earth, is fundamentally gyno-centric. The Holy Spirit created the child Jesus in relationship with Mary. She is the first Christian and a figure of the Christian church. More generally, women are the dominant agents in social life. Women establish norms of respecting and appreciating men’s lives, or norms treating men as defective, disposable sub-humans. Battles among women determine the norms that govern men’s lives. Prudentius skillfully penetrated the epiphenomenon of epic violence against men to seed the imagination with vision of fundamental battles among women:

The way of victory is apparent, if it is permitted for you
to note closely the very features of the virtues and the monsters
struggling against them with threatening powers.

{ vincendi praesens ratio est, si comminus ipsas
Virtutum facies et conluctantia contra
viribus infestis liceat portenta notare. }

The genders of personifications in the Psychomachia aren’t meaningless implications of Latin grammar. Prudentius wants readers to note closely the gender of the fighting virtues and monster-vices. They are women.

The battles begin with the first woman, Faith {Fides}. In the ancient Greek epic of the Trojan War, the eminent Greek warrior Ajax Telamon went into battle without wearing armor.[6] In furious fighting he killed many men, and he himself was killed. Fides, an ancient Roman cultic goddess transformed into a cardinal Christian virtue incarnate, is a new female Ajax:

The first woman Fides seeks the field in precarious chance
of battle. She’s disheveled with a wild appearance,
her shoulders bare, her hair untrimmed, her arms exposed,
for indeed glory’s sudden heat, burning towards new
battles, does not think of girding itself with weapons or armor,
but trusting in a strong heart and uncovered limbs,
she challenges to be crushed the hazards of insane war.

{ prima petit campum dubia sub sorte duelli
pugnatura Fides agresti turbida cultu,
nuda umeros intonsa comas exerta lacertos.
namque repentinus laudis calor ad nova fervens
proelia nec telis meminit nec tegmine cingi;
pectore sed fidens valido membrisque retectis
provocat insani frangenda pericula belli }

The foe-woman Cult of the Ancient Gods {Veterum Cultura Deorum} attacks Fides. In men’s lives, Veterum Cultura Deorum most realistically means the gyno-idolatry that the Roman dispeller of delusions Lucretius satirized. The new female Ajax brutally destroys the face of idolatry:

Her enemy’s head has its brow decorated with ribbons.
Fides, rising higher, overthrows it, and her foe’s mouth sated
with beasts’ blood is joined to the dust. Fides treads out
her enemy’s eyes in death under her feet. The foe’s wicked breath
stops as her throat’s transport is choked and broken.
Long gasps torment her to an agonizing death.

{ illa hostile caput falerataque tempora vittis
altior insurgens labefactat et ora cruore
de pecudum satiata solo adplicat et pede calcat
elisos in morte oculos; animamque malignam
fracta intercepti commercia gutturis artant
difficilemque obitum suspiria longa fatigant. }

A thousand martyrs, best interpreted as men, exult at Fides’s triumph. She crowns the martyrs with flowers. She clothes them in the purple of triumphant Roman generals. The new female Ajax shows the way to new life as she crushes gyno-idolatry and all other ancient idols.[7] Crushing gyno-idolatry frees men’s enslaved hearts. Women and men must emulate the woman-hero Fides.

Fides killing idolatry in Psychomachia

Another epic story of the Trojan War tells of Ajax Telamon’s rage at not being awarded the armor of the great Greek warrior Achilles. After Achilles had been slain, his prized armor was awarded to Odysseus rather than Ajax. Infuriated, Ajax in his mad rage slaughtered cattle that he thought to be the Greek leaders. Ajax eventually regained his normal sense. Then he was filled with shame and killed himself with his own sword.[8] Ajax’s anger, delusion, and suicide represent the senselessness of epic violence against men.

In Prudentius’s Psychomachia, the traditional Ajax is the woman Anger {Ira}. She furiously attacks the woman Patience {Patientia}:

From afar, swelling Ira, seething with foaming, gaping mouth,
turns upon Patientia eyes suffused with blood and bitterness.
She challenges her with weapon and voice for being apart from the battle.
Not tolerating delay, she hurls a pike at her and exhorts the throw
with her helmeted head agitating its hairy plumes.

{ hanc procul Ira tumens, spumanti fervida rictu,
sanguinea intorquens subfuso lumina felle,
ut belli exsortem teloque et voce lacessit,
inpatiensque morae conto petit, increpat ore,
hirsutas quatiens galeato in vertice cristas. }

Staying apart from deadly battle as much as possible shows respect for one’s own life. Ira urges Patientia to enter into fighting and to take wounds silently, as men are socialized to do:

“Hey you woman-spectator, exempt from our fighting,” Ira said,
“receive this deadly iron weapon in your calm chest.
Don’t express pain, since it’s shameful for you to groan in pain.”

{ “en tibi, Martis” ait, “spectatrix libera nostri,
excipe mortiferum securo pectore ferrum;
nec doleas quia turpe tibi gemuisse dolorem.” }

Women historically have been exempt from conscription into war, which is institutionally structured as violence against men. Patientia, however, wears armor that Fides didn’t need. Following Fides in battle, Patientia’s armor repels all the weapons that Ira hurls at her. When Ira with her sword strikes Patientia on the helmet, the sword breaks:

Ira, when she saw fragments of her broken blade
and her shattered sword in parts rattling far away, and
the hilt that she retained in her hand now without the weight of iron,
the luckless ivory of shameful glory, deprived of purpose,
she casts it far away. That sad token and perfidious memories
she spurns, and she wildly burns to kill herself.
Among the many spears she had ineffectually scattered, one
from the dust of the field she picks up for perverse use.
The smooth shaft she sticks in the earth and with the upturned point
stabs herself and pierces her lung with a burning wound.

{ Ira, ubi truncati mucronis fragmina vidit
et procul in partes ensem crepuisse minutas,
iam capulum retinente manu sine pondere ferri
mentis inops ebur infelix decorisque pudendi
perfida signa abicit monumentaque tristia longe
spernit et ad proprium succenditur effera letum.
missile de multis quae frustra sparserat unum
pulvere de campi perversos sumit in usus.
rasile figit humi lignum ac se cuspide versa
perfodit et calido pulmonem vulnere transit. }

Ira dies of her own hand like the mad Ajax did. Patientia then boasts in her passive strength:

Standing over Ira, Patientia declares, “We have overcome
a boasting vice with our usual virtue, without any
bloodshed or danger to life. This type of battle is
our law. Fury is every evil army, and by endurance wrath exhausts its force.
Madness itself is its own enemy in raging,
and death destroys fiery Ira on her own spear.

{ quam super adsistens Patientia “vicimus,” inquit
“exultans vitium solita virtute sine ullo
sanguinis ac vitae discrimine. lex habet istud
nostra genus belli, furias omnemque malorum
militiam et rabidas tolerando extinguere vires.
ipsa sibi est hostis vaesania seque furendo
interimit moriturque suis Ira ignea telis.” }

The true hero Job had been silently and passively at Patientia’s side, doing nothing for the damsel in distress as she endured Ira’s violent attacks. Men need the patience, endurance, and faith of Job, not the madness of the warrior Ajax, to overcome systemic devaluation of men’s lives.

Ira attacks Patientia and then commits suicide in Prudentius's Psychomachia

Defeated women, like those who don’t prevail against castration culture, become men. Women indulging themselves while men endure crushing gender injustices is well-known in the West. Prudentius’s Psychomachia shows this degradation through Indulgence {Luxuria}:

From the ends of the Western world comes the enemy
Luxuria, long ago having lavishly destroyed her reputation.
Hair perfumed, eyes wandering, languid in voice,
lost in sensuality, to her pleasure is the reason of life.
She seeks to soften her debilitated spirit, to draw impudently
delightful enticements, and to dissolve broken feelings.
Thus she is then languidly belching after a night-long dinner.
Reclining at dawn, by chance she hears
military trumpets in raucous servings, and so from there leaving
lukewarm cups and with her steps slipping on wines and perfumes,
she drunkenly tramples flowers in going to war.

{ venerat occiduis mundi de finibus hostis
Luxuria extinctae iam dudum prodiga famae,
delibuta comas, oculis vaga, languida voce,
perdita deliciis, vitae cui causa voluptas,
elumbem mollire animum petulanter amoenas
haurire inlecebras et fractos solvere sensus.
ac tunc pervigilem ructabat marcida cenam,
sub lucem quia forte iacens ad fercula raucos
audierat lituos, atque inde tepentia linquens
pocula lapsanti per vina et balsama gressu
ebria calcatis ad bellum floribus ibat. }

Although dissolute and drunk, Luxuria knows how to conquer women fighting for men. Although wearing no armor, she doesn’t act like the raging warrior Ajax:

Not however as a foot soldier, but carried by an elegant chariot
she ensnares the wounded hearts of the admiring warrior-men.
Oh, a new type of fighting! No winged shaft,
expelled, flies from the bow, nor does a rattling spear leap
from a twisted strap. Her right hand wields no menacing sword,
but she playfully throws violets and attacks with rose-leaves
and scatters baskets of flowers on the enemy troops.

{ non tamen illa pedes, sed curru invecta venusto
saucia mirantum capiebat corda virorum.
o nova pugnandi species! non ales harundo
nervum pulsa fugit nec stridula lancea torto
emicat amento frameam nec dextra minatur,
sed violas lasciva iacit foliisque rosarum
dimicat et calathos inimica per agmina fundit. }

That’s a new type of fighting only relative to war historically institutionalized as violence against men. The alluring woman Luxuria instantly transforms hostile, fighting women into fawning warrior-men. Those soulless men desire luxury cars and other shows of wealth common in men’s status-battles for beautiful, young women:

So the virtues are enticed. The seductive breath
inspires them with a subtle poison that weakens their bones,
and the wickedly sweet odor subdues their mouths and hearts and weapons.
It softens their iron-clad muscles and crushes their strength.
Spirits droop like those of the vanquished, and spears are set aside
shamefully. Alas, their strong hands languish. They are stupefied,
marveling. Her chariot sparkling with varying light of gems,
her reins with their tinkling gold-foil,
and her chariot’s expensive, heavy axle of solid gold —
they gape upon those with fixed gaze. The chariot’s spokes are
an array of white silver. The wheel’s rim
with a circle of pale silver-gold alloy holds them together.
Now all the battle lines surrender to love and
on their own initiative treacherously reverse their flags.
They wish to serve Luxuria as their lady-lord and suffer
being soaked in her rights and hold to the lax law of the tavern.

{ inde eblanditis Virtutibus halitus inlex
inspirat tenerum labefacta per ossa venenum
et male dulcis odor domat ora et pectora et arma
ferratosque toros obliso robore mulcet.
deiciunt animos ceu victi et spicula ponunt
turpiter heu dextris languentibus obstupefacti,
dum currum varia gemmarum luce micantem
mirantur, dum bratteolis crepitantia lora
et solido ex auro pretiosi ponderis axem
defixis inhiant obtutibus et radiorum
argento albentem seriem quam summa rotarum
flexura electri pallentis continet orbe.
et iam cuncta acies in deditionis amorem
sponte sua versis transibat perfida signis
Luxuriae servire volens dominaeque fluentis
iura pati et laxa ganearum lege teneri. }

Most men will surrender themselves completely to beautiful women. Men are incapable of fighting them.

Luxuria and friends feasting in Prudentius's Psychomachia

The heroic woman virtue Sobriety {Sobrietas} emerges to save the women fighters transformed into fawning men. She exhorts them to self-consciousness:

What befogging fury agitates your insane minds?
Where are you hurrying? To whom are you surrendering your necks? Finally, what bonds,
for shame, do you desire to bear with your war-ready arms,
what lilies, entwined with yellowish garlands,
what wreaths of blooming purple flowers?
Hands trained by war you are now pleased to give up
to these chains, to have strap-knots tie up your stout elbows,
so that your manly hair is confined by a golden turban
that absorbs the infused, perfumed oil with its yellow band?
After having inscribed on your forehead the signs by which
is given the king’s anointing and the eternal chrism?
For a delicate walk with a long dress sweeping behind you
and flowing robes of silk on your softened limbs?
After nourishing Faith with trained thumb
wove for you an immortal tunic, giving an impenetrable covering
to your baptized heart, you to whom she herself granted rebirth?

{ quis furor insanas agitat caligine mentes?
quo ruitis? cui colla datis? quae vincula tandem
(pro pudor!) armigeris amor est perferre lacertis,
lilia luteolis interlucentia sertis
et ferrugineo vernantes flore coronas?
his placet adsuetas bello iam tradere palmas
nexibus, his rigidas nodis innectier ulnas,
ut mitra caesariem cohibens aurata virilem
conbibat infusum croceo religamine nardum
post inscripta oleo frontis signacula per quae
unguentum regale datum est et chrisma perenne,
ut tener incessus vestigia syrmate verrat,
sericaque infractis fluitent ut pallia membris
post inmortalem tunicam quam pollice docto
texuit alma Fides dans inpenetrabile tegmen
pectoribus lotis, dederat quibus ipsa renasci }

Christians must remember their need to be born again. Nothing more than a beautiful “drunken female dancer {saltatrix ebria}” had defeated them. Sobrietas exhorts them to be who they truly are:

Stand, I pray. Remember yourselves. Remember Christ also.
What would be your tribe, what fame, who God and King,
who Lord — it is fitting to be mindful of these. You are noble children
of Judah from whom came the mother of God, by whom God himself
became man. From on high you have come with a long lineage.

{ state, precor, vestri memores, memores quoque Christi.
quae sit vestra tribus, quae gloria, quis Deus et rex,
quis Dominus meminisse decet. vos nobile Iudae
germen ad usque Dei genetricem qua Deus ipse
esset homo, procerum venistis sanguine longo. }

She recalled the great King David, who retained his human dignity in bed with Abishag. They should also remember Valerius’s heartfelt concern for his friend Rufinus, and Matheolus’s vibrant protest against his wife Petra crushing him. They should take to heart Walafrid’s stand against Gallus’s insane love and the sobering example of Propertius. Those who truly understand love can refigure the tragic death of Hippolytus. That’s what Sobrietas did to Luxuria riding in her luxurious chariot:

So having spoken, Sobrietas holds the Lord’s cross against the way
of the raging four-horse chariot. The venerable wood she thrusts
against their very bridles, such that the bold horses become frightened
at its outstretched arms and its sparkling front summit.
The horses turn in headlong flight, in blind fear the chariot wheels
over the broken ground. Dragged backwards on her back,
in vain the charioteer pulls the reins while her flowing hair
is befouled with dust. Then the whirling of the wheels
entangles the tossed lady, so that prone under the axle
her sliding and lacerated body is the brake that slows the chariot.

{ sic effata crucem Domini ferventibus offert
obvia quadriiugis lignum venerabile in ipsos
intentans frenos. quod ut expavere feroces
cornibus obpansis et summa fronte coruscum,
vertunt praecipitem caeca formidine fusi
per praerupta fugam. fertur resupina reductis
nequiquam loris auriga comamque madentem
pulvere foedatur, tunc et vertigo rotarum
inplicat excussam dominam; nam prona sub axem
labitur et lacero tardat sufflamine currum. }

Sobrietas celebrates the ultimate triumph of a virtuous woman fighting for men against a villanous woman:

Adding a death blow upon the prostrate woman, Sobrietas
hurls at her a large flint rock from a cliff,
Fortune had thus offered to the standard-bearer Sobrietas this weapon,
for she carries no spears in her hand, but only the insignia of war, the cross.
The falling stone shatters the breath-way amid Luxuria’s face
and mashes her lips into her open mouth.
Her teeth break inward, and her severed, shredded
tongue fills her throat with bloody fragments.
Her throat is irritated by these unusual meals. After the pulped
bones are gulped down, she vomits up the chunks that she devoured.

{ addit Sobrietas vulnus letale iacenti
coniciens silicem rupis de parte molarem,
hunc vexilliferae quoniam fors obtulit ictum
spicula nulla manu sed belli insigne gerenti.
casus agit saxum, medii spiramen ut oris
frangeret, et recavo misceret labra palato.
dentibus introrsum resolutis lingua resectam
dilaniata gulam frustis cum sanguinis inplet.
insolitis dapibus crudescit guttur et ossa
conliquefacta vorans revomit quas hauserat offas. }[9]

Even the women warrior-heroes that dominate action films today seldom act so powerfully and so independently! Sobrietas vaunts over the fallen vice Luxuria:

“Drink now your own blood, after your many little cups of wine,”
say the maiden Sobrietas, chiding her. “Let these at last be for you little, sad
servings missed for too much sweet food in times past.
The taste of bitter death makes harsh the lascivious allurements
of your life, and the final flavor makes them harsh with horrific swallowing.”

{ “ebibe iam proprium post pocula multa cruorem”
virgo ait increpitans. “sint haec tibi fercula tandem
tristia praeteriti nimiis pro dulcibus aevi.
lascivas vitae inlecebras gustatus amarae
mortis et horrifico sapor ultimus asperat haustus!” }

The vice-leader Luxuria and her “women-triflers {nugatrices}” are no match for a woman with firm womanly identity and compassion for men. Without doubt, men need women like fish need water.

Sobrietas routs Luxuria in Prudentius's Psychomachia

A worthy temple of wisdom includes among its jewels wisdom about gender. Battles between good and evil women determine the creative potential of men and women. Those battles continue in every person’s heart:

We know that in our cloudy heart, ambiguous senses
sweat in successive conflicts, and the fights
vary in their outcomes. Now our character is increasing in fitness.
Now by bent virtues we are dragged to worse
life-yokes and enslave ourselves with ugly
offenses and throw away the making of our salvation.

{ novimus ancipites nebuloso in pectore sensus
sudare alternis conflictibus, et variato
pugnarum eventu nunc indole crescere dextra,
nunc inclinatis virtutibus ad iuga vitae
deteriora trahi seseque addicere noxis
turpibus et propriae iacturam ferre salutis. }

The world cannot compensate for the loss of one’s soul. The reign of the Iliad and Aeneid in heroic imagination brings death to men’s bodies and souls. The Psychomachia shows the possibility of gender-transformed epic. With the help of meninist literary criticism, we can realize its promise: “we are not now what we were — we are enlarged by being born into better {nos quod fuimus iam non sumus, aucti / nascendo in melius}.”[10]

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Prudentius, Battle for the Soul {Psychomachia}, Preface {Praefatio} vv. 11-4, Latin text from Pelttari (2019) (modified slightly, including showing consonantal u as v), my English translation, benefiting from the commentary of id. as well as the English translations of Snider (1938), Lynch (1953), Thomson (1949) vol. 1, and Eagan (1965) vol. 2. Mastrangelo (2022), undoubtedly the best translation but one for which I didn’t have reasonable access, shows the tragedy of modern scholarship with its price of $135. In a humane and sane world, it would be freely available to all on the Internet. Ayer (2014) provides general Latin grammatical assistance. Pelttari’s Latin edition, apart from editorial matters, is nearly identical to Thomson’s Latin edition. On Abram rescuing the captured Lot, Genesis 14.

Prudentius probably wrote his Psychomachia in 408 or 409. Pelttari (2019) p. 24. The Psychomachia was widely circulated and highly influential throughout medieval Europe. More than three hundred surviving manuscripts include the Psychomachia. One of them, BnF Latinus 8084, dates from the first half of the sixth century. For a review of manuscripts and transmission of the Psychomachia, Pelttari (2019) pp. 29-34. Illustrations associated with the poem exist in twenty manuscripts and apparently go back to a fifth-century archetype. Id p. 24, Woodruff (1930). Medieval scholars wrote glosses and commentaries for the Psychomachia. For the Weitz / German glosses of the ninth through eleventh centuries, O’Sullivan & McCarty (2004).

Prudentius’s Psychomachia is an ambitious work, but its ambition has yet to be widely realized. The Psychomachia is “commonly regarded as the earliest and simplest allegory.” Van Dyke (1985) p. 20. Conventionally interpreted as representing an “internal battle {bellum intestinum}” between personifications of virtues and vices, it becomes a mediocre work. “If Prudentius had not written it, another would.” Lewis (1938) pp. 63-4, 67. On faulty, simplistic receptions of the Psychomachia, Van Dyke (1985) pp. 29-37 and Breen (2021) p. 70. “Prudentius has never been given his due.” Mastrangelo (2008) p. 3.

The subsequent quotes above are similarly sourced from the Psychomachia. Those quotes are vv. pf. 64-7 (The Holy Spirit, thus embracing…), 18-20 (The way of victory is apparent…), 21-7 (The first woman Fides …), 30-5 (Her enemy’s head…), 113-7 (From afar, swelling Ira…), 118-20 (Hey you woman-spectator…), 145-54 (Ira, when she saw fragments…), 155-61 (Standing over Ira, Patientia declares…), 310-20 (From the ends of the Western world …), 321-7 (Not however as a foot soldier…), 328-43 (So the virtues are enticed…), 351-66 (What befogging fury…), 380 (drunken female dancer), 381-5 (Stand, I pray…), 407-16 (So having spoken, she holds the Lord’s cross…), 417-25 (Adding a death blow…), 425-31 (Drink now your own blood…), 433 (women-triflers), 893-8 (We know that in our cloudy heart…), 83-4 (we are not now what we were…).

[2] Jerome of Stridon recognized that despite women’s bodily privilege in giving birth to natural children, women are equal to men in capabilities of the soul:

As long as a woman is devoted to childbirth and children, she differs from a man as body from soul. If, however, she wishes to be devoted to Christ more than to the world, she ceases to be a woman and will be called a man.

{ Quamdiu mulier partui servit et liberis, hanc habet ad virum differentiam, quam corpus ad animam. Sin autem Christo magis voluerit servire quam saeculo mulier esse cessabit et dicetur vir. }

Jerome, Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians {Commentaria in epistolam ad Ephesios}, Latin text from Patrologia Latina 26:533, my English translation. For a modern Latin edition with English translation, Heine (2002). Jerome wrote this commentary about 387. Jerome’s view does not justify massive sex discrimination against men in child custody and “child support” judgments, nor sexist conscription laws.

[3] Many readers have failed to take seriously the Psychomachia’s personification of virtues and vices as women. Regarding “the reason Prudentius present the Vices in anthropomorphic shape,” Kirsch observed:

This feature has often been taken for granted, but it is by no means predetermined or unproblematic.

Kirsch (2009), abstract. For a poet as sophisticated as Prudentius, the grammatical gender of words didn’t determine his use of personification. Note, for example, that “virtue {virtus}” is feminine and “vice {vitium}” is masculine. These grammatical facts parallel moral valences under gynocentrism. Nonetheless, they don’t wholly explain gender figuration in ideological works such as Paxson (1998).

In recent years, contemporary orthodox dogma seems to have governed interpretation of gender in the Psychomachia. With respect to late Anglo-Saxon Psychomachia illustrations, McGucken declared:

Male transforms into female. Feminine becomes masculine. Ultimately the audience is left questioning what is male and what is female and whether such categories are appropriate in understanding these illustrations.

McGucken (2019) p. 42. Nonetheless, “The dominant modes of gender are upheld and highlighted.” Id. p 63. Under the dominant modes of gender, men must become women so as to be regarded as virtuous:

I argue that the Psychomachia encourages its male readers to transform themselves into Virtue by divesting themselves of their assigned gender. … For the poem’s male readers, virtue becomes a specifically transgender act of self-allegoresis — one in which, as we will see, the Virtues revert to their natural male bodies as soon as they slacken in their fight against Vice. … The Psychomachia’s succession of personified Virtues, therefore, becomes a kind of syllabus, a series of opportunities for male readers to test and refine their renunciation of masculine sexuality by reforming themselves as feminine personifications of Virtue.

Breen (2021) pp. 27, 73, 91. That analysis wholly ignores the literary history of epic violence against men, including violence against men’s testicles and penises. Today, transwomen aren’t being allowed to leave Ukraine with women because Ukrainian persons assigned to the male sex at birth are being forced to stay and fight in horrifically brutal battles for Ukraine. Nonetheless, literary scholars appear generally unconcerned about violence against men. See, e.g. Reid (2022), the discussion of Prudentius’s works in Benjamin Saltzman’s course “Witnessing Medieval Evil: Literature, Art, and the Politics of Observation” (University of Chicago, 2022), and Horn (2021).

[4] This passage is within the Christian tradition of eroticism. Moreno Soldevila observed:

Religious concepts are, thus, strikingly and overtly described as sexual encounters, but this imagery, puzzling as it may seem, is not exclusive to Prudentius, for it can also be encountered in the works of other Christian authors.

Moreno Soldevila (2021) p. 308. Mastangelo exclusively associated penetration with vice in the Psychomachia. Mastrangelo (2008) pp. 145-55. Penetration, however, is necessary for sex to engender a new person. Prudentius recognized and affirmed penetration in realizing the seminal blessing.

[5] On Christians groaning in labor for the birth of new creations, Romans 8:18-24, 2 Corinthians 5:17, Revelation 21:1-8. Mastrangelo interpreted the Psychomachia more abstractly:

In the Psychomachia, Prudentius deconstructs the Roman epic hero into each reader, who is part of a political purpose. Rather than founding the empire and unifying Rome through personal greatness, the reader is part of a reconstruction of Rome, one citizen at a time. The reader is not engaged in founding an empire through conquest and the imposition of political and cultural identity on a population but rather is a singular example of many, whose recognition of a Christian identity through a conversion of the soul is necessary for the construction of Rome as a Christian world nation. The conversion to Christianity represents a harmonious union between the religious and the political realms. Each person must choose to know and to live by what is truly Christian in order to be truly Roman. Thus, collectivity through a private conversion experience is a goal of the new Christian epic.

Mastrangelo (2008) p. 39.

[6] Dares of Phygia {Dares Phrygius}, The History of Troy’s Fall {De excidio Troiae historia} 35. For Latin text and English translation, Cornil (2011). Not wearing armor as reckless entry into battle differs significantly from keeping one’s breast or arms bare for advantage in fighting or hunting. On the well-attested literary tradition of the later, Bernstein (2016).

Prudentius signaled his revision of epic tradition in the first line (excluding the preface) of the Psychomachia. He tellingly revised a verse from Virgil’s Aeneid:

Phoebus, you always pitied Trojans’ heavy burdens

{ Phoebe, gravis Troiae semper miserate labores }

Aeneid 6.56, my English translation. In the Psychomachia, that verse became:

Christ, you always pitied men’s heavy burdens

{ Christe, graves hominum semper miserate labores }

Psychomachia 1, my English translation. Cf. Matthew 11:29-30. On the close relationship between the Aeneid and the Psychomachia, Hardie (2017).

Prudentius surely was aware of the Greek epic tradition. But that Greek tradition scarcely figures in interpretations of Prudentius. See, e.g. Mastrangelo (2008), which considers classical Greek philosophy and Greek texts of Christian theology, but not the Greek epic tradition.

[7] Given gender norms supporting violence against men, a woman’s violence against another women tends to shock readers. Van Dyke noted about the personification Faith in the Psychomachia:

She is all the more startling because she is female: like Lavarenne, we do not expect such obviously womanly creatures to fight. Our surprise that this one does, and does so with great abandon, is surely part of Prudentius’ intent. We are meant to be exhilarated by the blatant courage and power of an entity normally credited only with quiet moral strength.

Van Dyke (1985) p. 47.

[8] See. e.g. Dictys of Crete {Dictys Cretensis}, Chronicle of the Trojan War {Ephemeris belli Troiani} 5.15, Little Iliad, Fragment 1 (Proclus, Chrestomathia 2), cf. Fragment 3; Sophocles, Ajax; Ovid, Metamorphoses 13.382-98.

[9] As if ignorant of the literary tradition of epic violence against men, Carruthers quoted the Psychomachia’s violence against women and declared:

Prudentius’ Psychomachia is designedly disgusting and morbid because it is those qualities that make it memorable, particularly for the novice, schoolboy minds for which it was written. That, at least, was the assumption in ancient pedagogy. When the novice John Cassian, you recall, had trouble forgetting the epic stories which his pedagogus instilled in him as a child, he remembered most powerfully exactly the disgusting and bloody parts — the “images of warring heroes” that turned unbidden before his mental eye as he prayed the liturgy or tried to meditate on his psalms.

Carruthers (2003) p. 144. Prudentius’s Psychomachia is a highly sophisticated work that surely wasn’t written for “novice, schoolboy minds.” See, e.g. Van Dyke (1985) Ch. 1, Mastrangelo (2008), and Breen (2021). Cf. the much less sophisticated reading of Nuttall (1967) pp. 37-40. In recalling horrific violence against men, John Cassian almost surely recognized that the victims and he are men. Modern scholars, in contrast, almost never describe violence against men in the Iliad or the Aeneid as “disgusting and morbid.” Seeking to re-orient the epic tradition, Prudentius imitated the violence against men of the Iliad and Aeneid, but with transformed gender.

[10] On gaining the whole world and losing one’s soul, Matthew 16:26, Mark 8:36, Luke 9:25. The terrible violence against men of the Iliad and Aeneid too often has been like pages of dead flesh torn in unfeeling interpretation. Cf. Karkov (2001) p. 136.

[images] (1) Fides stepping on the head of Veterum Cultura Deorum (Idolatry {idolatria}). Illumination from a manuscript of Prudentius’s Psychomachia. Manuscript produced in the fourth quarter of the ninth century in France, perhaps in Reims. Detail from folio 57r of Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Latin 8085. (2) Ira’s sword shatters on Patienta’s helmet, then the enraged Ira commits suicide. Illumination from a manuscript of Prudentius’s Psychomachia. Manuscript produced about the year 900 in the area of Lake Constance (Reichenau / St. Gallen / Constance). Detail from page 79 in Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Codex 264. (3) Luxuria feasting with others. Illumination from a manuscript of Prudentius’s Psychomachia. Manuscript produced in northern France about 890, perhaps at the Abbey of Saint-Amand. Detail from folio 112r (image 229) in Brussels, Koninklijke Bibliotheek van België / Bibliothèque royale de Belgique {Royal Library of Belgium}, MS. 9987-91. (4) Sobrietas routs Luxuria. From folio 114v (image 234) from Brussels, Royal Library of Belgium, MS 9987-91. On illustrations in manuscripts of Prudentius’s Psychomachia, Solivan (2017), Karkov (2001), and Woodruff (1930).


Ayer, Meagan, 2014. Allen and Greenough’s New Latin Grammar for Schools and Colleges. Carlisle, PA: Dickinson College Commentaries. Online.

Bernstein, Neil W. 2016. “Rome’s Arms and Breast: Claudian, Panegyricvs dictvs Olybrio et Probino consvlibvs 83-90 and its Tradition.” The Classical Quarterly. 66 (1): 417-419.

Breen, Katharine. 2021. Machines of the Mind: Personification in Medieval Literature. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press.

Carruthers, Mary. 2003. The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Cornil, Jonathan. 2011. Dares Phrygius’ de excidio Trojae historia: philological commentary and translation. Thesis for Masters Degree in Linguistics and Literature. Ghent University, The Netherlands.

Eagan, M. Clement, trans. 1965. The Poems of Prudentius. Fathers of the Church, v. 43, 52. Washington, DC: Catholic University of American Press.

Hardie, Philip. 2017. “How Prudentian is the Aeneid?Dictynna. 14.

Horn, William. 2021. Women in (and) between men in fourteenth-century English dream allegories. Ph.D. Thesis. Birkbeck, University of London.

Heine, Ronald E. 2002. The Commentaries of Origen and Jerome on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Karkov, Catherine E. 2001. “Broken bodies and singing tongues: gender and voice in the Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 23 Psychomachia.” Anglo-Saxon England. 30 (1): 115-136.

Kirsch, Kathleen M. 2009. “The Face of Vice: The Monsters of the Psychomachia.” Paper presented at the 150th Annual Meeting of the Society for Classical Studies on January 3-6 in San Diego, CA.

Lewis, C. S. 1938. The Allegory of Love: a study in medieval tradition. London: Milford.

Lynch, Cornelia Joseph. 1953. Psychomachia of Prudentius: Text, translation, and commentary. Master’s Thesis. University of Southern California.

Mastrangelo, Marc. 2008. The Roman Self in Late Antiquity: Prudentius and the Poetics of the Soul. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press. Review by E. J. Hutchinson.

Mastrangelo, Marc, trans. 2022. Prudentius’ Psychomachia. London: Routledge Taylor et Francis Group.

McGucken, Stephenie. 2019. “Vice & Virtue As Woman? The Iconography of Gender Identity in the Late Anglo-Saxon Psychomachia Illustrations.” Medieval Feminist Forum. 55 (1): 42-63.

Moreno Soldevila, Rosario. 2021. “Love Motifs in Prudentius.” Philologus. 165 (2): 295-312.

Nuttall, A. D. 1967. Two Concepts of Allegory: a study of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the logic of allegorical expression. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

O’Sullivan, Sinéad and Willard McCarty, eds. 2004. Prudentius Project: Glosses on the Psychomachia. Online.

Paxson, James J. 1998. “Personification’s Gender.” Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric. 16 (2): 149-179.

Pelttari, Aaron. 2019. The Psychomachia of Prudentius: Text, Commentary, and Glossary. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. Review by Joseph Pucci.

Reid, Elizabeth. 2022. “Female Representation, Gender, and Violence and in the Ceremonial Entries of the Italian Wars.” Renaissance Studies. Online.

Snider, Louis B. 1938. The Psychomachia of Prudentius. Master’s Theses. 372. Loyola University Chicago.

Solivan, Jennifer. 2017. “Depictions of virtues and vices as mnemonic devices.” Imago Temporis – Medium Aevum. 11: 159-192.

Thomson, Henry John, ed. and trans. 1949. Prudentius. Loeb Classical Library 387, 398. Vol. 1, Vol. 2. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Van Dyke, Carolynn. 1985. Fiction of Truth: structures of meaning in narrative and dramatic allegory. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press

Woodruff, Helen. 1930. The Illustrated Manuscripts of Prudentius. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Saint Jerome’s sophisticated communication

Massive investments in public education haven’t produced masses of sophisticated readers. Instead many persons now understand words like simpletons. It’s not just that they believe in “bad” words having incredible evil force built into their very letters. They more generally expect texts to be clear, brief, and sincere in the contrived style of the vapid faces that look you earnestly in the eye and speak words read from a teleprompter positioned in the news studio at the virtual site of your head.[1] Writing in the fourth century, Jerome of Stridon communicated in a more sophisticated way.

Words and acts can be other than what they seem. In a letter to the aristocratic, adolescent woman Eustochium, Jerome advised her to be pious and modest. He also warned against a common but sophisticated deception:

Do not wish to appear very religious or more humble than is necessary. One can seek glory by fleeing from it. Turning onlookers away from seeing their poverty, charity, and fasting, many in this itself are pleased to desire what they are pleased to scorn. In this way they amazingly seek praise while shunning it.

{ ne satis religiosa uelis uideri nec plus humilis, quam necesse est. ne gloriam fugiendo quaeras. plures enim paupertatis, misericordiae atque ieiunii arbitros declinantes in hoc ipso placere cupiunt, quod placere contemnunt; et mirum in modum laus, dum uitatur, adpetitur. }[2]

In modern terms, Jerome warned about humble-acting in ostentatiously shunning praise for praiseworthy acts. More generally, putting on an act can provide to others harmless entertainment. But suspicion that someone is only pretending can also be deeply troubling. Disjunction between appearance and reality has to be considered and handled, at least by anyone who isn’t fully indoctrinated.

Different persons might have radically different views of a fundamental matter. Christians in Jerome’s time believed in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Others regarded such beliefs as madness. In conversation with a person of the latter belief, Jerome observed:

You be nicely fat. A lean body and pale skin pleases me. You think such witnesses are miserable. We consider you as more miserable. We to you, each to the other, seems insane.

{ Bono tuo crassus sis, me macies delectat et pallor; tu tales miseros arbitraris, nos te miseriorem putamus: invicem nobis videmur insani. }[3]

Considering others to be insane differs from seek seeking to beat them up, expel them from society, or kill them. Civilized persons in the fourth century were willing to live among others that they regarded as insane.

Everyone faces the temptation of proclaiming to know what one doesn’t know. Jerome complained about teachers of the Bible:

This garrulous old woman, that senile old man, this verbose sophist — they take scripture for granted, shred it, and teach it before understanding it. … And they charm the public’s ear with the rhetorical sermons that they utter. They think their sermons to be the law of God. They know not the dignity to consider what the Prophets and Apostles meant. But instead, they adapt incongruous passages to their own meaning. How great it is! Is it not the finest type of teaching, to corrupt meaning and coerce resisting scripture to their own will? … This is puerile and similar to the game of itinerant performers. They teach what they don’t know. And so, if I may speak with guts, that is worse: not to know what one doesn’t know.

{ Hanc garrula anus, hanc delirus senex, hanc sophista verbosus, hanc universi praesumunt, lacerant, docent, antequam discant. … et sermone composito aurem populi mulserint, quidquid dixerint, hoc legem Dei putant: nec scire dignantur, quid Prophetae, quid Apostoli senserint; sed ad sensum suum incongrua aptant testimonia; quasi grande sit, et non vitiosissimum docendi genus, depravare sententias, et ad voluntatem suam Scripturam trahere repugnantem. … Puerilia sunt haec, et circulatorum ludo similia, docere quod ignores: imo, ut cum stomacho loquar, ne hoc quidem scire quod nescias. }[4]

Unfortunately, one can never be completely certain about what one knows. Moreover, professing knowledge of one’s own ignorance is a conceptual regression going all the way back to Socrates. Jerome advocated and practiced faithful translation of the Bible. Like a faithful translator, a good teacher recognizes and communicates knowledge or expertise not confined to her own preferences.

Saint Jerome the scholar

Sophisticated communication involves conscious shaping of form and substance. Jerome chided his friend the monk Chrysogonus for not writing to him:

Yet perhaps negligence is always with a related excuse. You might claim that you had nothing to write. If it was this, you should have written that you have nothing to write.

{ Nisi forte negligentiae semper excusatione socia, asseras te non habuisse quod scriberes: cum hoc ipsum debueris scribere, te non habuisse quod scriberes. }[5]

Telling someone that one has nothing to say to her could harshly terminate a relationship. But a letter of that form is different. It would show that a person was in one’s mind and that one sought to remain in communication with him. That surely was the sense in which Jerome sought at least a letter of no substance from his friend Chrysogonus.

Within the highly sophisticated culture of the late Roman Empire, Jerome recognized an extraordinary act of communication: the word of God made flesh in Jesus Christ. From a Christian perspective, God became a human being to be with his people face to face and to redeem them from their sins. The Biblical context, the real form, and the divine ideal are all significant in Christian understanding of Jesus Christ. All that was folly to many in Jerome’s time. Jerome had to be sophisticated to communicate what he believed and understood.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] On limitations of the C-B-S (clear, brief, sincere) style, Lanham (2003) pp. 1-10.

[2] Jerome, Letters 22, Jerome to Eustochium, section 27, Latin text from Hilberg (1910-18), my English translation, benefiting from those of Carroll (1956), Wright (1933), and Freemantle (1892). Jerome wrote this letter in Rome in 384 GC. Here’s an appreciation of Jerome.

[3] Jerome, Letters 45, Jerome to Asella, section 5, Latin text from Hilberg (1910-18), my English translation, benefiting from those of Carroll (1956), Wright (1933), and Freemantle (1892). Jerome wrote this letter in 385 GC.

[4] Jerome, Letters 53, Jerome to Paulinus, section 7, Latin text from Hilberg (1910-18), my English translation, benefiting from those of Carroll (1956) and Freemantle (1892). Jerome wrote this letter in 394 GC to Paulinus, who was Bishop of Nola. Hilberg emended stomacho to Clitomacho. Clitomachus was a philosopher in Athens in the second century BGC.

Jerome was keenly aware of deception, including self-deception. Recognized a merit of Prudentius, Lewis declared:

we must remember how rarely we find in classical literature any adequate recognition of the great fact of self-deception.

Lewis (1938) p. 71. Jerome, like Prudentius, deeply understood human psychology and human relations.

[5] Jerome, Letters 9, Jerome to Chrysogonus, Latin text from Hilberg (1910-18), my English translation, benefiting from those of Carroll (1956) and Freemantle (1892). Jerome wrote this letter in 374 GC.

[image] Saint Jerome. Painting by El Greco about 1610. Preserved as accession # 1975.1.148 in the Metropolitan Museum (New York, USA). Credit Line: Robert Lehman Collection, 1975.


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).

Lanham, Richard A. 2003. Analyzing prose. London: Continuum.

Lewis, C. S. 1938. The Allegory of Love: a study in medieval tradition. London: Milford.

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

medieval men’s ardent, unlimited love for women

Authoritative rhetoric experts now preach wordy social constructions of the human body, sex, sexuality, romantic love, and all of reality. Such social constructions are socially constructed in line with these professors’ career interests. To get a fresh sense of reality, one best turns to medieval culture. Medieval men really, passionately loved women beyond any imaginable limit.

Love for a woman could be real to a medieval man. Love could be as real as the scent of flowers and pressing his body to hers:

Immortal flowers — violets, fresh crocuses,
lilies of spring and tender roses joined —
all their beauty and all their scent cannot thrill me
as you thrill me, Flora, in the kisses you give.
Of course the flowers help the outward senses,
but you kindle both my senses and my heart.
To me, Flora, your scent is not the light scent of mere flowers.
You have the fragrance of sweet love’s blossoms.
Happy the man who embraces you and in a sigh drains
such perfume from your half-parted lips!
When his chest presses close to your young chest, when
he culls the honey hidden in your golden cells,
harsh cares can devour his heart no longer,
and sickness and pain can bring no anxiety.
Though winter with its cold halts coursing rivers,
here the delights of spring flow all around.
What more could he desire? Nothing now will be found more worthy.
Fortune can add nothing to the good he has.

{ Ambrosie flores, violeque crocique recentes,
Vernaque cum teneris lilia mixta rosis,
Non tantum forma nec odere placere videntur,
Quantum, Flora, michi suavia dando places.
Nempe iuvant flores hos sensus exteriores,
Tu vero sensus cordaque nostra foves.
Nec tu, Flora, levem spiras michi floris odorem,
Ipsius at flores dulcis amoris oles.
Felix qui talem, qui te complexus odorem
Sugit ab ore gemens semipatente tuo.
Quid? cum virgineo cum pectore pectora iungit,
Et libat flavis condita mellia favis,
Non illum dure mordentes pectora cure,
Non labor aut morbus sollicitare queunt.
Quamvis bruma gelu labentia flumina sistat,
Affluit hic vernis undique deliciis.
Ultra quid cupiat? nil iam reperire valebit,
Hiis fortuna bonis addere nulla potest. }[1]

This poem is sensual and concrete. In not being able to imagine any good beyond pressing his body to hers, it hints at gyno-idolatry. Medieval men easily slid into gyno-idolatry:

All else I renounce. You I love with all my heart,
you living fount of the world’s delight.
I worship you, desire you, seek you, breathlessly follow you,
sigh for you to death, and miss you.
Come help one who is broken and say: “Arise,
I shall now heal your illness and lighten your grief,
such that you would recover unhurt and live in joy!”
I judge you sweeter than honey’s true nectar.
There is no drink so sweetly strengthening.
Let it not spoil for him whom it sustains forever!
O you, all of Christ’s creation — sun, stars, moon,
hills and mountains, valleys, sea, rivers, fountains,
tempest, showers, clouds, winds and storms,
heat, hoarfrost, cold, ice, snow, lightning, rocks,
meadow, grove, foliage, forest, grasses, flowers
exclaim “Hail!” and with me greet her tenderly.
I beg not for love’s limit, but that love endure eternally.
Do not show others what I have sent to you alone!

{ Omnia postpono, te pectore diligo toto,
Tu mundanarum fons vivus deliciarum.
Te colo, te cupio, peto te, lassatus anhelo,
Ad te suspiro moribundus, teque requiro.
Concite succurre ruituro, dicque: “resurge,
Nunc ego sanabo morbum, mestumque levabo,
Tantum convaleas sospes, letus quoque vivas!”
Verum precellis nectar me iudice mellis,
Est potus nullus tanta dulcedine fultus —
Qui non vilescat illi quem semper inescat!
Omnis factura Christi — sol, sydera, luna,
Colles et montes, valles, mare, flumina, fontes,
Tempestas, pluvie, nubes, ventique, procelle,
Cauma, pruina, gelu, glacies, nix, fulgura, rupes,
Prata, nemus, frondes, arbustum, gramina, flores —
Exclamando: vale! mecum predulce sonate.
Non precor extremum, sed quod perduret in evum.
Missa tibi soli multis ostendere noli! }[2]

The closing, personal demand underscores the authenticity of this man’s fall into gyno-idolatry. Medieval women denounced men’s suffering under sexual feudalism. They sought to lead men away from gyno-idolatry. Medieval men’s sexed protest voiced injustices that men face in relation to women. Yet medieval men still engaged in gyno-idolatry, just as modern scholars write incessantly about medieval misogyny. It’s madness!

Venus goddess rising from the sea

What could a woman do to help a man suffering from insane love for her? While medieval women offered balms and compresses, the long-term cure isn’t obvious. One medieval woman at least sought to promote gender equality:

Joy of my life, give yourself to me, for I give myself to you!
Let me be a goddess, you a god — let me be yours, you mine.

{ Vite dulcedo, mihi te da, nam tibi me do!
Sim dea tuque deus: sim tua tuque meus. }[3]

Unfortunately, more idolatry isn’t a good cure for idolatry. A woman offering to make a gyno-idolatrous lover into her god merits respect for her compassion and commitment to equality. But a mutual death-pact isn’t a true expression of love.

Gyno-idolatry is real and pernicious. The many recent initiatives to destroy love relations between women and men aren’t sufficient. While men’s love for women is now much less than in medieval Europe, gyno-idolatry persists. Meninism is the radical notion that men are human beings. Until everyone is a meninist, men lacking proper self-esteem will continue to fall into gyno-idolatry.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Full anonymous poem, Latin text from Dronke (1965) vol. 1, p. 248, English translation (modified) from id. This poem probably was composed in the eleventh century:

The song is found in two MSS, one of the twelfth, the other of the thirteenth century. But its surroundings, in which are many eleventh-century pieces; its verbiage, which is still largely that of poems written by known eleventh-century authors; the very poverty and leanness of its whole manner and guise; its hesitant and unimaginative art — these seem to speak, in almost every line, of poetry written before the light and graceful schemes of rhyming which the twelfth and thirteenth centuries knew.

Allen (1912) p. 2. The authenticity of the poem’s feeling perhaps obscured for Allen the subtlety that Dronke perceived:

The subtlety lies in the ways in which the images of spring and love are linked. The delights of spring and those of the beloved are alike and yet unlike; it is only through her, and through being in love with her, that the lover is able to see nature’s beauty as beautiful. By being herself more beautiful, the beloved makes other beauty meaningful for him; in this Flora, as her name implies, embodies the Korê who in spring gives nature its beauty and joy.

Dronke (1965) vol. 1, p. 249. Here’s more on medieval poems of Flora and flowers.

“Ambrosie flores, violeque crocique recentes” survives in two manuscripts: Phillips 1694, folio 176r, written at the end of the twelfth century, probably at the monastery of St. Arnulph at Metz in present-day Germany; and Reims 1275, written in the thirteenth century. Dronke (1965) vol. 2, p. 549. On the manuscript context, Wattenbach (1892).

[2] Full anonymous poem, Latin text from Dronke (1965) vol. 1, pp. 249-50, English translation (modified) from id. This poem survives in MS. Zurich, C 58/275, folio 12v, written in the twelfth century, probable at Schaffhausen. Dronke (1965) vol. 2, p. 582. For the manuscript context, Warner (1904) p. 48 (poem 120), Mews (1999) pp. 104-7.

Dronke observed:

These lines show a remarkable use of ‘divine’ language. The beloved is given words which echo the miracles of Christ; the drink which she can give, which ‘sustains for ever’, suggests almost the calix salutis {Eucharistic chalice of good-health / salvation}; and the call to all creation is that of the three children in the furnace (Dan. III 57-88) — but not to proclaim ‘Benedicite Domino’ {Blessed be the Lord} — it is to greet a woman who is loved.

Dronke (1965) vol. 1, p. 250. Mews calls “Omnia postpono, te pectore diligo toto” and four other associated verse epistles “of interest for their immediacy rather than any literary merit.” Mews (1999) p. 107. This poem’s gyno-idolatrous immediacy points to the importance of meninist literary criticism for understanding literature and life.

[3] Full anonymous Latin poem, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Dronke (1965) vol. 2, p. 490. This lyric, composed in the thirteenth or fourteenth century, survives in MS. Munchen, Clm 6911, fol. 128r. Id.

[image] Goddess Venus rising from the sea. Painted by Gustave Moreau in 1866. Preserved as accession # B92.0333 at the Israel Museum (Jerusalem, Israel). Via Israel Museum and Wikimedia Commons. Credit: The Vera and Arturo Schwarz Collection of Dada and Surrealist Art in the Israel Museum. The body position of Venus parallels a long art history of depicting the crucified Christ’s body being removed from the cross.


Allen, Philip Schuyler. 1912. “Notes on Mediaeval Lyrics: Paul von Winterfeld’s Conjectural Emendations to the Text of Hilarii versus et Ludi.” Modern Philology. 9 (3): 427-430.

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

Mews, Constant J. 1999. The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard: perceptions of dialogue in twelfth-century France. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wattenbach, Wilhelm. 1891. “Beschreibung einer Handschrift mittelalterlicher Gedichte.” Neues Archiv der Gesellschaft für altere Deutsche Geschichtskunde. 17 (12): 351-384.

Werner, Jakob. 1904. Über zwei Handschriften der Stadtbibliothek in Zürich [Handschrift C. 58/275 und C. 101/467], Beiträge zur Kunde der lat. Literatur des Mittelalters. Aarau: Druck von H.R. Sauerländer.

parrot promotes incarnate love in medieval lyric

The ancient Sanskrit masterpiece Seventy Tales of the Parrot {Shuka Saptati} features a parrot shrewd enough to deter a passionate wife from pursuing adultery in her husband’s absence. The parrot, who voices experience in human society and tells earthy stories, challenges simplistic love abstractions.[1] Incarnating love in ordinary life requires extraordinary poetic grace.

The thirteenth-century Italian poet Guido Cavalcanti influentially depicted abstract, gyno-idolatrous love. For example. one of Guido’s pastourelles begins with male gaze upon a woman in tune with nature:

Once within a little grove a shepherdess I spied —
more than any star of sky beauteous did she prove.

Ringlets she had, blonde and curly locks,
eyes filled with love, a face of rosy hue,
and with her staff she led her gentle flocks,
barefoot, with her feet bathed in the dew.
She sang, indeed, as if she were enamored,
and had the glamour of every pleasing art.

I greeted her and asked her then at once
if she had any company that day.
She answered sweetly, “Only now
alone throughout this grove I make me way.”
She added, “Listen, but when the gentle bird is heard,
a lover man should have my heart.”

{ In un boschetto trova’ pasturella
più che la stella – bella, al mi’ parere.

Cavelli avea biondetti e ricciutelli,
e gli occhi pien’ d’amor, cera rosata;
con sua verghetta pasturav’ agnelli;
discalza, di rugiada era bagnata;
cantava come fosse ’namorata:
er’ adornata – di tutto piacere.

D’amor la saluta’ imantenente
e domandai s’avesse compagnia;
ed ella mi rispose dolzemente
che sola sola per lo bosco gia,
e disse: “Sacci, quando l’augel pia,
allor disïa – ’l me’ cor drudo avere.” }[2]

Unlearned and lowly, this woman certainly lacks contempt for male worker bees typed as merely drones. She undoubtedly understands that sweetly singing nightingales are actually male. She wouldn’t have sought to be an epic hero by attacking a snail.

In the context of the sordid history of disparaging men’s penises, the gentle bird is an extraordinary figure of nature’s seminal blessing. The man-narrator understands the shepherdess and hears nature’s call:

And when she told me of her state of mind,
suddenly I heard birdsong in the wood.
I said to myself, “This surely would be the time
to have from this shepherdess what joy I could.”
Favor I requested — just to kiss her face —
and then embrace if she should feel like me.

She took my hand, seized with love’s old power,
and said she’d give me her heart, too.
She led me then into a fresh green bower,
and there I saw flowers of every hue.
And I was filled so full of sweetened joy,
the god of love there too I seemed to see.

{ Po’ che mi disse di sua condizione
e per lo bosco augelli audìo cantare,
fra me stesso diss’ i’: “Or è stagione
di questa pasturella gio’ pigliare.”
Merzé le chiesi sol che di basciare
ed abracciar, – se le fosse ’n volere.

Per man mi prese, d’amorosa voglia,
e disse che donato m’avea ’l core;
menòmmi sott’ una freschetta foglia,
là dov’i’ vidi fior’ d’ogni colore;
e tanto vi sentìo gioia e dolzore,
che ’l die d’amore – mi parea vedere. }

The god of love is a classical personification of sexual desire. The concluding epiphany swerves from the naturalness of sexual intercourse. Incarnate love evanesces into classical abstraction. Their dignity as human beings vanishes.

Guido Cavalcanti wrote many bloodless poems of gyno-idolatry. Not surprisingly, his poetry lacks the sense of the real presence of a beloved woman:

When I am in her presence, something happens
that I cannot tell to the intellect.
I seem to see outgoing from her lips
a lady so beautiful that the mind
cannot comprehend her, so that at once
another is born of her, of new beauty,
from whom it seems a star moves out
and says, “Your salvation has appeared.”

{ Cosa m’aven, quand’ i’ le son presente,
ch’i’ no la posso a lo ‘ntelletto dire:
veder mi par de la sua labbia uscire
una sì bella donna, che la mente
comprender no la può, che ‘mmantenente
ne nasce un’altra di bellezza nova,
da la qual par ch’una stella si mova
e dica: “La salute tua è apparita.” }[3]

In Christian understanding, Mary, the most beautiful of all women, gave birth to the fully masculine Jesus. Then a star appeared and guided wise men to Jesus. The narrator replaces his beloved woman with Mary. Mary then implies that his beloved woman, whom he no longer sees, is his salvation. That’s gyno-idolatry. Moreover, it’s gyno-idolatry that effaces the flesh-and-blood woman right there in his presence.

parrot (head photo)

Dinis, who reigned as king of Portugal from 1279 to 1325, wrote a pastourelle that reverses the abstracting of Guido Cavalcanti’s poetry. A shepherdess carries a parrot, but she speaks to her absent boyfriend:

A shapely shepherd girl
was thinking about her boyfriend
and she was, I’m telling you
from what I saw, very sad.
And she said, “From now on
no woman in love
should ever trust her boyfriend
since mine has wronged me.”

She was carrying in her hand
a very lovely parrot,
singing very lushly,
for the spring was coming in.
And she said, “Handsome boyfriend,
what should I do about love,
since you wronged me so senselessly?”
And she fell among some flowers.

{ Ũa pastor ben talhada
cuidava en seu amigo
e estava, ben vos digo,
per quant’ eu vi, mui coitada,
e diss’: “Oi mais non é nada
de fiar per namorado
nunca molher namorada,
pois que mh o meu á errado”

Ela tragia na mão
un papagai mui fremoso,
cantando mui saboroso,
ca entrava o verão,
e diss’: “Amigo loução,
que faria por amores,
pois m’ errastes tan en vão?”
e caeu antr’ ũas flores }[4]

The specifically first-hand report of her emotional state contrasts with her totalizing anti-meninism in categorizing all men as untrustworthy. The lovely parrot singing lushly harmonizes with the flowers of spring. But she senselessly speaks to her absent boyfriend and collapses in grief into the flowers. The parrot insistently inhabits their existential world:

A good part of the day
she lay there, and didn’t speak,
and sometimes she’d awake,
sometimes she’d swoon,
and she said, “Oh holy Mary,
what will become of me now?”
And the parrot said:
“Far as I know, lady, you’ll be fine!”

“If you want to heal me,”
said the shepherd girl, “Tell the truth,
parrot, for goodness’s sake,
for this life of mine is death.”
And he said, “Lady, full
of goodness, don’t complain,
because the one that’s served you —
raise your eyes and you’ll see him now!”

{ Ũa gran peça do dia
jouv’ ali, que non falava,
e a vezes acordava,
e a vezes esmorecia,
e diss’: “Ai Santa Maria,
que será de min agora?”
e o papagai dizia:
“Ben, per quant’ eu sei, senhora”

“Se me queres dar guarida”
diss’ a pastor, “Di verdade,
papagai, por caridade,
ca morte m’ é esta vida”;
diss’ ele: “Senhor comprida
de ben, e non vos queixedes,
ca o que vos á servida,
erged’ olho e vee-lo edes” }

Telling a love-despairing woman lying in flowers that you think she’ll be fine is emotionally incongruous. It’s also a realistic evaluation in her physical circumstances. The parrot speaks puckishly. Editors of this song have declared that in the end the parrot “not only calms her down, but also finally announces, as if by magic, the arrival of her boyfriend {não só a acalma, como anuncia finalmente, e como por magia, a chegada do amigo}.”[5] That seems to me a poor reading. The one that has loyally served her is her parrot. If she raises her eyes, she will see him right there. The parrot reverses the birdsong epiphany of Guido Cavalcante’s pastourelle.

Incarnate love means seeing one’s beloved face to face in the full reality of the beloved’s being. Loving a parrot is better than turning life into death through despair.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] For an English translation, Haksar (2009). For freely available selections from Shuka Saptati in English translation, Wortham (1911).

[2] Guido Cavalcanti, poem 46, “Once within a little grove a shepherdess I spied {In un boschetto trova’ pasturella},” vv. 1-14, Old Italian text from Letteratura italiana, English translation (modified) from Wilhelm (1990) p. 143. The subsequent quote above is similarly sourced. Frank Watson’s translation is freely available. For Pound’s translation, Pound (1912) pp. 114-7. For an English translation of all of Guido’s surviving poems, Mortimer (2010). Here are some of Pound’s and Rossetti’s translations of Guido’s sonnets.

[3] Guido Cavalcanti, poem 26 (25), “I see in the eyes of my lady {Veggio negli occhi de la donna mia},” vv. 5-12 (stanza 2), Old Italian text from Guido Cavalcanti – Opera Omnia, English translation (modified) from Dronke (1965) vol. 1, p. 152. Here’s A. S. Kline’s translation.

[4] D. Dinis 54 (pastorela 2), song about a beloved man {cantiga de amigo}, “A shapely shepherd girl {Ũa pastor ben talhada}” (B 534, V 137), Galician-Portuguese text (editorial marks eliminated) from Cohen (2003), English translation (modified slightly) from Cohen (2010). Here’s this song at Universo Cantigas and at Galician-Portuguese Medieval Songs.

The thirteenth-century Provençal fabliau “Tale of the Parrot {Novas del papagai}” that Arnaut de Carcassé composed features a parrot acting as a go-between for a king’s son and a married lady in arranging an adulterous affair. For an English translation, Arthur (1989). The parrot of “Novas del papagai” has a similar character to the parrot of Shuka Saptati, but fosters adultery rather than prevents it. No direct evidence exists that Dinis knew Shuka Saptati or Guido’s “In un boschetto trova’ pasturella.”

[5] From the general notes for this song in the edition at Galician-Portuguese Medieval Songs.

[image] Parrot (Black-capped Lory) on the Canary Islands in 2019. Source image thanks to H. Zell and Wikimedia Commons.


Arthur, Ross Gilbert, trans. 1989. Two Provençal Fabliaux: Castia gilos and Novas del papagai. Toronto: Alektryaina Press. Here are Arthur’s English translations of “The Chastising of the Jealous Man {Castía Gilos}” and “The Tale of the Parrot {Novas del papagai}.”

Cohen, Rip. 2003. 500 Cantigas d’Amigo. Porto: Campo das Letras.

Cohen, Rip. 2010. The Cantigas d’Amigo: An English Translation. Online. Quotes are based on the 2016 edition.

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

Haksar, A. N. D. 2009. Shuka Saptati: Seventy Tales of the Parrot. New Delhi: Rupa Co.

Mortimer, Anthony, trans. 2010. Guido Cavalcanti: Complete Poems. Richmond: OneWorld Classics. Jon Usher’s excellent review in Translation and Literature 20.2 (2011): 238-243.

Pound, Ezra. 1912. Sonnets and Ballate of Guido Cavalcanti: with translations of them and an introduction. Boston: Small, Maynard and Co.

Wilhelm, James J., ed. 1990. Lyrics of the Middle Ages: An Anthology. New York: Garland Publishing.

Wortham, Biscoe Hale, trans. 1911. The Enchanted Parrot: being a selection from the “Suka Saptati,” or, The Seventy Tales of a Parrot, translated from the Sanskrit text. London: Luzac & Co.