Danish woman-warrior Alvild fought like a man and loved a man

Even in our age of intense commitment to gender equality, many societies still don’t give women equal opportunities to fight and die in wars. The long history of men-only military conscription continues to the present even in the United States. In ancient Denmark, however, some women reportedly rejected women’s privileged lives and became warriors, as tough or tougher than men-warriors. But Danish women-warriors might have differed from men-hating Amazon women-warriors. The ancient Danish woman-warrior Alvild loved a man — another Danish warrior named Alf.

Alvild was the daughter of Sigvarth, King of Götaland. King Sigvarth supervised his beautiful daughter closely to protect her from men amorously interested in her. He even gave her two poisonous snakes to be her pets and guardians. Within historical disparagement of men’s sexuality, men’s penises have been figured as snakes. In reality, men are much more enjoyable companions for women than are snakes. Nonetheless, King Sigvarth decreed that any man who attempted to get into Alvild’s bedroom and was repelled by the snakes would be decapitated and have his head displayed on a stake. That’s the ultimate form of castration.

King Sigard’s son Alf ardently loved Alvild. Alf had a muscular physique, a high spirit, and the allure of being a Viking / pirate. But he had even more attractiveness as a man:

He had been bestowed with remarkably beautiful hair, locks of such radiance that his tresses were thought to shine with silver.

{ Cuius etiam insignem candore cesariem tantus come decor asperserat, ut argenteo crine nitere putaretur. }[1]

Alf in this way wasn’t merely valued instrumentally, as have been so many men throughout history. Attempting to penetrate Alvild’s bedroom, Alf wrapped himself in a bloody animal pelt to encourage the snakes to attack him quickly and violently. He was ready to be attacked:

Grasping a bar of red-hot steel with tongs, he thrust it down the viper’s gaping throat and laid it lifeless on the floor. Next, as the other swept forward in a sinuous whirl, he destroyed it by hurling his spear between its open jaws.

{ torridam calibem forcipe comprehensam hiantis uipere faucibus immersit eamque exanimem prostrauit. Anguem deinde sinuosa uolubilitate prolapsum inter medios rictus telum iaculatus absumpsit. }

Of course, performing a heroic feat is never enough for a man to win a woman’s hand in marriage. Alvild’s father insisted that he would accept as a son-in-law only “a man whom his daughter had united with strongly and freely {in quem filia solidum optionis arbitrium contulisset}.”

Alvild’s mother prevented Alvild from taking Alf as her husband. Perhaps her mother was jealous of Alf’s attractiveness:

Since the young woman’s mother was the only one to grudge her suitor’s plea, she examined her daughter’s heart in intimate conversation. When Alvild eagerly praised her suitor’s handsomeness, her mother with scorn bitterly tore into her and said that she had lost all sense of shame and had been seized by the lure of his looks. She said Alvild had omitted judgment of his virtue, but gazing with an unprincipled mind, she had given herself up to his enticing figure with its allurements.

{ Cumque sola puelle mater proci uotum difficulter exciperet, mentem filie secreto perlustrat alloquio. Qua procum impensius ob nitorem laudante conuitiis eam acrius lacerat, quod elisis pudicitie neruis specierum illecebra caperetur, omissaque uirtutis censura adulantibus forme blanditiis lasciue mentis intuitum exhiberet. }

Alvild’s mother “led Alvild to despise the young Dane {Aluilda ad Danici iuuenis contemptum adducta}.”

valkyrie -- Viking woman warrior

Apparently displacing her passionate love for Alf, Alvild became a Viking woman-warrior. She became a leader of women and men in battle:

She began to be a ferocious pirate. Many young women of that devotion joined her company. Then by chance she arrived at a place where a band of pirates were mourning losing their leader, killed in battle. Because of her beautiful figure, Alvild was made the pirate chief, and she performed deeds beyond a woman’s excellence.

{ ferocem piratam agere coepit. Compluribus quoque eiusdem uoti puellis in commilitium adscitis eo forte loci peruenit, ubi piratarum agmen amissi bello ducis interitum deplorabat. A quibus ob forme pulchritudinem piratice princeps creata maiores muliebri uirtute res edidit. }

Ancient Danish women-warriors like Alvild undoubtedly faced the same dangers that men-warriors did and suffered the same incidence of violent death.

Seeking his beloved woman, Alf journeyed far and wide with his Viking band. One day off the coast of Finland, Alf discovered within a narrow gulf some ships in a harbor. These were Alvild’s ships:

When she caught sight of unfamiliar ships in the distance, Alvild with rapid rowing shot off to encounter them. She judged it wiser to burst upon an enemy than lie waiting for it. Although his companions were warning him not to confront more ships with fewer, Alf then responded that it would be shameful if Alvild heard that a few ships had shaken him from forward movement on his determined course. He said it wouldn’t be right for such an unimportant circumstance to besmirch the records of their great works. The Danes were not a little astonished when the beauty of the enemy presented itself with fine figures and fit limbs.

{ Que cum ignotas eminus puppes adesse conspiceret, prepeti remigio uelox in eorum defertur occursum, irrumpere hostem quam opperiri satius iudicans. Tunc Alf, prohibentibus sociis plures naues paucioribus attentari indignum respondit, ut Aluilde quis perferat paucarum puppium obiectu procursus sui studia deturbari, prefatus parue rei momento magnorum operum titulos respergendos non esse. Nec parua Danis ammiratio fuit, unde hostium corporibus talis forme decor tantaque membrorum aptitudo suppeteret.}

Shapely, lovely enemies can be deadly in war. Alf fought as men have long done:

When therefore the naval battle began to be joined, the young Alf leapt onto Alvild’s prow and, slaughtering all who resisted, forced his way up to the stern. His comrade Borkar struck off Alvild helmet. Seeing with his own eyes the smoothness of her chin, he realized that they shouldn’t be fighting with weapons but with kisses. They should lay down their hard spears and handle their foes with flattering services. Alf was overjoyed beyond expectation when he had presented to him the young woman he had sought indefatigably over land and sea despite so many perilous obstacles. Holding her more lovingly, he compelled her to change her manly attire to womanly. From that, she afterwards engendered a daughter Gyrith. In addition, Borkar embraced in marriage Alvild’s comrade named Gro. She gave birth from him to a son Harald.

{ Ut ergo naualem committere pugnam coeperunt, iuuenis Aluildae proram insiliens in puppim usque facta resistentium strage progreditur. Cuius comes Borcarus decussa Aluildae galea mentique eius lenitate conspecta animaduertit osculis, non armis agendum esse, telorumque rigore deposito blandioribus hostem officiis attrectandam. Igitur Alf, quam terra marique, tot obstantibus periculis, indefesso labore quaesierat, supra spem offerri gauisus, cupidius apprehensam uirilem cultum in muliebrem conuertere coegit; ex qua postmodum filiam Guritham procreavit. Sed et Borcarus Aluildae comitem, Gro nomine, matrimonio complexus filium ex ea Haraldum suscepit. }

This highly rhetorical passage shouldn’t be misinterpreted. Alf didn’t forcibly put new clothes on Alvild, nor did he force her to have sex with him. He took off his helmet. The beauty of his masculine presence, including the glorious radiance of his blonde hair, broke the hateful spell that Alvild’s mother had cast upon her. Alvild took off her clothes to regain the womanly attire (nakedness) that men find particularly attractive. She then embraced Alf in love as passionately as she had earlier fought men as a woman-warrior.

The story of Alvild and Alf has recently gained some archaeological plausibility. In particular, a group of scholars claimed to have proved the existence of a high-ranking Viking woman-warrior. Their scholarly article attracted massive public attention:

In the weeks following the online publication of our article, the research was covered by more than 130 international news agencies, and was discussed across some 2200 individual online accounts, accessed by millions of followers. Altmetric ranked our article as the forty-third most frequently accessed scientific paper of some 2.2 million published globally during 2017, and placed it at 265 of the 11.7 million outputs ever scored by them (as of early September 2018).[2]

Another scholar noted:

further discussion is especially important given the strong interest in, and even desire for proof of, the existence of Viking warrior women that is currently widespread in popular culture and even in large swathes of academe, and not just among undergraduates.[3]

Nonetheless, the scholars who scored massive public attention also claimed:

This level of interest took us by surprise and raises the important question: why did this one single grave generate such global attention? … We have not ‘gone looking’ for female Viking warriors.[4]

These scholars apparently made a major error in judging the impact of their work. Critiques of methodological failings in their article have had relatively little influence. Is the most powerful incentive in public debate about the existence of Viking warrior-women really “how many people apparently need that not to be so”?[5]

Viking warrior-women (valkyries) imagined in illustration made in c. 1900

Ardent public enthusiasm for the possibility of Viking warrior-women more than a millennium ago contrasts sharply with lack of public concern for gender inequalities in warfare today. In the U.S., a recent appellate court decision overturning a legal judgment against men-only military conscription attracted almost no public attention. Ukraine’s law preventing Ukrainian men, but not Ukrainian women, from fleeing from Russia’s brutal invasion has attracted almost no international concern. War remains institutionalized as violence against men. Overcoming the social injustice of vastly gender-disproportionate violence against men should be a priority for the public propaganda apparatus and for scholarly research within it. Delighting in the story of Alvild and Alf isn’t enough.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Saxo Grammaticus, Deeds of the Danes {Gesta Danorum} 7.6.1, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Friis-Jensen & Fisher (2015). For a freely available, online Latin text, Olrik & Raeder (1931). For a freely available, online English translation, Elton (1894). Davidson & Fisher (1979-80) contains nearly the same English translation for the first nine books of Gesta Danorum as does Friis-Jensen & Fisher (2015). Subsequent quotes from Gesta Danorum are similarly sourced from 7.6.1-8, unless otherwise noted.

Alvild has regrettably attracted little scholarly attention. Orgaz (2007) considers Alvild within today’s academic stereotype of medieval clerical culture.

Saxo Grammaticus asserted that the story of Alvild wasn’t unusual:

Once there were women in Denmark who dressed themselves to look like men and spent almost every moment cultivating soldiers’ skills. They didn’t want to allow the sinews of their valor to lose tautness and be infected by self-indulgence. Loathing a delicate style of living, they would harden body and mind with endurance and toil. They rejected all the fickle pliancy of women and compelled their womanly natures to act with a virile ruthlessness. They courted military expertise so earnestly that anyone would have guessed they had rejected their womanhood. Those especially who had forceful personalities or were tall and elegant tended to embark on this way of life. As if they were forgetful of their true selves they put toughness before allure, aimed at conflicts instead of kisses, tasted blood, not lips, sought the clash of arms rather than the arm’s embraces, fitted to weapons hands which should have been weaving, desired not the couch but the kill, and those they could have appeased with looks they attacked with lances.

{ Fuere quondam apud Danos foemine, que formam suam in uirilem habitum conuertentes omnia pene temporum momenta ad excolendam militiam conferebant, ne uirtutis neruos luxurie contagione hebetari paterentur. Siquidem delicatum uiuendi genus perose corpus animumque patientia ac labore durare solebant totamque foeminee leuitatis mollitiem abdicantes muliebre ingenium uirili uti seuitia cogebant. Sed et tanta cura rei militaris notitiam captabant, ut foeminas exuisse quiuis putaret. Precipue uero, quibus aut ingenii uigor aut decora corporum proceritas erat, id uite genus incedere consueuerant. He ergo perinde ac natiue conditionis immemores rigoremque blanditiis anteferentes bella pro basiis intentabant sanguinemque, non oscula delibantes armorum potius quam amorum officia frequentabant manusque, quas in telas aptare debuerant, telorum obsequiis exhibebant, ut iam non lecto, sed leto studentes spiculis appeterent, quos mulcere specie potuissent. }

Gesta Danorum 7.6.8.

Hetha and Visna were ancient Viking woman-warrior leaders. “Visna was truly a woman imbued with hardness and extremely skilled in deeds of war {Wisnam vero, imbutam rigore feminam reique militaris apprime peritam}.” Gesta Danorum 8.2.4-5. Some of these warriors reported as women may have been transgender persons. Moilanen (2022). On women-warriors in the Gesta Danorum, Lehto (2022) Ch. 3. On Viking women-warriors more generally, Gardeła (2021).

A rigid concept of a gender binary and the mythic, simplistic master narrative of patriarchy have promoted gross historical misunderstanding. The book blurb for Gardeła (2021) declares:

Until relatively recently, archaeologists and textual scholars had the tendency to weave a largely male-dominated image of this pivotal {Viking} period in world history, dismissing or substantially downplaying women’s roles in Norse society. Today, however, there is ample evidence to suggest that many of the most spectacular achievements of Viking Age Scandinavians — for instance in craftsmanship, exploration, cross-cultural trade, warfare and other spheres of life — would not have been possible without the active involvement of women.

Women, who in all reproductively successful societies have been intimately involved with men, deserve credit for men’s achievements. Without the active involvement of women, men wouldn’t even exist. Viking women, long less revered than Spartan mothers, are starting to receive credit for nurturing boys into “militarism” and “hegemonic masculinities.” Raffield (2019).

[2] Price et al. (2019) p. 182. The title of the original article, Hedenstierna-Jonson et al. (2017), was “A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics.” That’s literally ridiculous. Genomics can determine the sex category of particular bones. Genomics cannot “confirm a female Viking warrior.” The “results” abstract section stated:

The genomic results revealed the lack of a Y-chromosome and thus a female biological sex, and the mtDNA analyses support a single-individual origin of sampled elements.

The “discussion” abstract section jumped to a female Viking warrior:

The identification of a female Viking warrior provides a unique insight into the Viking society, social constructions, and exceptions to the norm in the Viking time-period.

Id. A scholar observed, “The article is open access and was clearly designed for maximum worldwide public impact, as indeed it proved.” Jesch (2017b). That seems to me a reasonable judgment based on the rhetorical structure of Hedenstierna-Jonson et al. (2017), including its title.

BBC coverage of a woman buried with a cow in a fifth-or-sixth-century grave in Oakington (Cambridgeshire, England) attracted considerable attention. The BBC news article was originally inappropriately titled “‘Bizarre cow woman’ found in Cambridgeshire Anglo-Saxon dig.” For some analysis, Sayer & Walter (2016) pp. 8-11. These archaeologists advised fellow archaeologists to “engage the local community and the mass media.” Id. p. 22.

[3] Jesch (2021) p. 138. History is often deeply entangled in myth, but with reason one can meaningfully evaluate textual evidence. Consider, for example, histories that report Eleanor of Aquitaine and her ladies dressed as Amazons on the Second Crusade. For analysis, Evans (2009), condensed in Evans (2014) pp. 39-44.

[4] Price et al. (2019) pp. 182, 194.

[5] On claimed methodological failings of Hedenstierna-Jonson et al. (2017), see e.g. Androshchuk (2018), Jesch (2017a-b), and Williams (2017b). Price et al. (2019), supplement, addresses these criticisms dismissively. Id. declared:

We feel no intrinsic need for there to have been a female warrior buried in the grave, nor for such individuals to have existed more widely. We simply find it interesting that this seems to have been the case. In the course of our research—and even more so after the 2017 publication — it has been enlightening to discover how many people apparently need that not to be so.

Id. p. 182, italicized “not” in the original. This claim to scientific disinterestedness seems to me to be undermined by the distanced poise of promoting rhetorical enlightenment: “it has been enlightening to discover how many people apparently need that not to be so.” While studies such as Androshchuk (2018) and Jesch (2021) may have failings, they seem to me no less scientifically disinterested than Hedenstierna-Jonson et al. (2017) and Price et al. (2019). In terms of external interests, academia and dominant media today seem to me to overwhelming favor discovering the existence of female Viking warriors.

The scholarly arguments about Viking warrior-women show considerable ignorance of Baysian inference. Price et al. (2019) declares:

In our 2017 article — as its title indicates — we strongly followed the same military reading as has been proposed for Bj.581 by a long series of archaeological authorities, and for the same sensible reasons that are far from arbitrary. In doing so, we find no problem in adjusting for the new sex determination. To those who do take issue, however, we suggest that it is not supportable to react only now, when the individual has been shown to be female, without explaining why neither the warrior interpretations nor any supposed source-critical factors were a problem when the person in Bj.581 was believed to be male.

Id. p. 192. This suggestion of bad-faith reasoning is a poor substitute for basic understanding of Baysian inference. Bayesian inference is similarly ignored in Hedenstierna-Jonson et al. (2017) p. 858, of which Williams (2017b) declares, “This caveat is necessary and I respect the authors for including it.”

Reasonable Bayesian inference consists of updating reasoned prior belief. Gardeła (2019) states that around ten Viking graves “can – with some caution – be regarded as the graves of women buried with actual weapons or objects that could be used in armed conflict.” How many such graves exist for men? Gardeła (2019), Hedenstierna-Jonson et al. (2017), and Price et al. (2019) don’t answer this question. The number for men is probably orders of magnitude higher than that for women. The sex of a warrior burial cannot simply be flipped without concern for this difference in base-rate incidence. Put differently, given artifacts from a flying animal, much more convincing evidence is needed to claim that it’s a flying cow than to claim that it’s a sparrow.

The Viking woman-warrior controversy indicates a lamentable state of scholarly debate. Price et al. (2019), Jesch (2017b), Williams (2017b). Scholarly work requires much more expensive investment than below-the-line comments on news sites. Nonetheless, such comments at least show some awareness of the base-rate issue in evaluating evidence for the existence of female Viking warriors. Those comments also indicate biased interests of dominant ideology and awareness of the social injustice of vastly gender-disproporationate violence against men. For an analysis of comments on the Viking woman-warrior story in the Daily Mail and the Guardian, Williams (2017a). Id. reports misogyny, but not misandry.

[images] (1) Valkyrie from Hårby: silver figurine (height 3.4 cm.) depicting a woman-warrior. Preserved in the Danish National Museum. Source images thanks to Gilwellian and Wikimedia Commons. Here are higher quality images of the valkyrie from Hårby. (2) Valkyries riding into the sky carrying a dead man. Illustration from Doepler & Ranisch (1900) p. 24. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Androshchuk, Fedir. 2018. “Female Viking Revisited.” Viking and Medieval Scandinavia. 14:47–60.

Davidson, Hilda Ellis, commentary, and Peter Fisher, trans. 1979-80. Saxo Grammaticus. History of the Danes. Vol. 1 (English translation). Vol. 2 (commentary). Cambridge, GB: D.S. Brewer.

Doepler, Emil, illustrations, and Wilhelm Ranisch, text. 1900. Walhall: Die Götterwelt Der Germanen. Berlin: Martin Oldenbourg.

Elton, Oliver. 1894. The First Nine Books of the Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus. London: D. Nutt. Alternate presentation.

Evans, Michael. 2009. “Penthesilea on the Second Crusade: Is Eleanor of Aquitaine the Amazon Queen of Niketas Choniates?” Crusades. 8: 23-30.

Evans Michael. 2014. Inventing Eleanor: The Medieval and Post-Medieval Image of Eleanor of Aquitaine. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Friis-Jensen, Karsten, ed. and Peter Fisher, trans. 2015. Gesta Danorum = The History of the Danes. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Review by John Lindow and by Lars Boje Mortensen.

Gardeła, Leszek. 2019. “Warriors, Warlocks, Widows: Women and Weapons in the Viking World.” Medievalists.net. Online.

Gardeła, Leszek. 2021. Women and Weapons in the Viking World: Amazons of the North. Havertown, PA: Casemate. Review by Terje Birkedal (alt source).

Hedenstierna-Jonson, Charlotte, Anna Kjellström, Torun Zachrisson, Maja Krzewińska, Veronica Sobrado, Neil Price, Torsten Günther, Mattias Jakobsson, Anders Götherström, and Jan Storå. 2017. “A Female Viking Warrior Confirmed by Genomics.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 164 (4): 853–60.

Jesch, Judith. 2017a. “Let’s Debate Female Viking Warriors Yet Again.” Norse and Viking Ramblings. Online post Sept. 9. 2017.

Jesch, Judith. 2017b. “Some Further Discussion of the Article on Bj 581.” Norse and Viking Ramblings. Online post Sept. 17. 2017.

Jesch, Judith. 2021. “Women War and Words: A Verbal Archaeology of Shield-Maidens.” Viking: Norsk Arkeologisk Årbok. 84 (1): 127-142.

Lehto, Ann. 2022. Traces of the Vikings: Saxo’s Gesta Danorum and the warrior culture of the Vikings. Master’s Thesis, University of Helsinki.

Moilanen, Ulla, Tuija Kirkinen, Nelli-Johanna Saari, Adam B. Rohrlach, Johannes Krause, Päivi Onkamo, and Elina Salmela. 2022. “A Woman with a Sword? – Weapon Grave at Suontaka Vesitorninmäki, Finland.” European Journal of Archaeology 25 (1): 42-60.

Olrik, Jørgen and Hans Raeder, eds. 1931. Saxo Grammaticus. Gesta danorum. Hauniae, Levin & Munksgaard.

Price, Neil, Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, Torun Zachrisson, Anna Kjellström, Jan Storå, Maja Krzewińska, Torsten Günther, Verónica Sobrado, Mattias Jakobsson, and Anders Götherström. 2019. “Viking Warrior Women? Reassessing Birka Chamber Grave Bj.581.” Antiquity. 93 (367): 181–198.

Orgaz, Juan Manuel. 2007. “Avlida, una Pricesa Goda ante el Espejo.” Medievalismo. 17: 41-64.

Raffield, Ben. 2019. “Playing Vikings: Militarism, Hegemonic Masculinities, and Childhood Enculturation in Viking Age Scandinavia.” Current Anthropology. 60 (6): 813-835.

Sayer, Duncan and Tony Walter. 2016,. “Digging the dead in a digital media age.” Pp. 367-395 in Williams Howard and Melanie Giles, eds. Archaeologists and the Dead: Mortuary Archaeology in Contemporary Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Cited by pdf page number in online version.

Williams, Howard M. R. 2017a. “Viking Warrior Women: An Archaeodeath Response Part 3.” Archaeodeath. Online, posted Sept. 16, 2017.

Williams, Howard M. R. 2017b. “Viking Warrior Women: An Archaeodeath Response Part 5.” Archaeodeath. Online, posted Sept. 28, 2017.

Pentecostal Oath as context for Elaine of Corbenic raping Lancelot

Thomas Malory’s fifteenth-century Arthurian romance, The Death of Arthur {Le Morte Darthur} illustrates the peculiarly gendered notion of chivalry that arose in medieval European romance. Malory in Le Morte Darthur had King Arthur impose on knights a code known as the Pentecostal Oath. Under the Pentecostal Oath, men were obligated to serve women or be killed. As is common under penal codes, men raping women was a felony crime, but women raping men wasn’t a criminal offense. The Pentecostal Oath didn’t explicitly require knights to serve women sexually according to women’s desires. Nonetheless, Lancelot’s response to Elaine of Corbenic raping him twice indicates that Lancelot had internalized such a sense of women’s sexual entitlement.

The context of the Pentecostal Oath in Le Morte Darthur highlights the importance of men serving women. Leading up to the Pentecostal Oath is King Arthur’s wedding to Guenivere. Then a white hart (a male deer), chased by a white brachet (a female hunting hound) interrupted the Round Table’s proceedings. The brachet bit the hart in the buttocks. The hart leapt, knocking over a knight, and ran off. That knight seized the brachet and left. Then a lady named Nenyve entered and pleaded that her brachet be returned to her. Another knight entered, seized Nenyve, and carried her off. This intricately gendered interruption set up the quests of Sir Gawain, Sir Torre, and King Pellinore. All three were knights of King Arthur’s Round Table. Their stories are exempla of knightly ethics with respect to gender.

At King Arthur’s command, Sir Gawain hunted for the white hart. Gawain found the hart and set his greyhounds on it. They chased the hart into a castle and killed it there. But Blamoure of the Maryse, a knight of that castle, had received the hart as a gift from “my sovereign lady.” Furious at the hounds killing the hart, Blamoure killed two of them and chased the rest out of the castle. Then Blamoure and Gawain fought. Gawain knocked Blamoure to the ground. Despite Blamoure’s plea for mercy, Gawain prepared to cut off his head. Blamoure’s lady came running out and embraced Blamoure on the ground. Gawain then accidentally cut off her head.

Gawain was ashamed that he had killed a woman rather than a man. Like classical epic, Arthurian romance presents continual, normalized violence against men. Violence against women is more unusual and more morally fraught. When Gawain returned to Camelot, he suffered gynocentric penal judgment:

As soon as Sir Gawain arrived, Merlin made King Arthur, whom Sir Gawain served as his lord, tell of Gawain’s adventure — how he slayed the lady, and how he would give no mercy to the knight, by which the lady was slain. Then the King and the Queen were greatly displeased with Sir Gawain for the slaying of the lady. By order of the Queen, there was established a court session of ladies concerning Sir Gawain. They ordered him forever while he lived to serve all ladies and to fight on behalf of their disputes. Forever he should be chivalric and never refuse mercy to him that asks for mercy. Thus was Sir Gawain sworn upon the four Christian Evangelists that he should never be against a lady or gentlewoman, except if he fights for a lady and his adversary fights for another lady.

{ anone as he was com Merlion dud make kynge Arthure that sir Gawayne was sworne to telle of hys adventure, and how he slew the lady, and how he wolde gyff no mercy unto the knyght, wherethorow the lady was slayne. Than the kynge and the quene were gretely displeased with sir Gawayne for the sleynge of the lady, and there by ordynaunce of the queene there was sette a queste of ladyes uppon sir Gawayne, and they juged hym for ever whyle he lyved to be with all ladyes and to fyght for hir quarels; and ever that he sholde be curteyse, and never to refuse mercy to hym that askith mercy. Thus was sir Gawayne sworne uppon the four Evaungelystis that he sholde never be ayenste lady ne jantillwoman but if he fyght for a lady and hys adversary fyghtith for another. }[1]

Queen Guenivere and King Arthur were primarily upset at Gawain slaying a lady. Gawain having refused to grant mercy to the knight gains significance because that led to Gawain slaying the lady. The court of ladies effectively outlawed Gawain fighting for gender justice for men. Gawain, along with many other men throughout history, are thus positioned as tools to fight on behalf of women.

Sir Torre quested for Nenyve’s brachet. To serve Nenyve’s request to have her brachet returned to her, Torre fought and defeated three knights. Torre and those three knights suffered brutal blows to their bodies, but all survived. However, a young woman asked that Torre cut off the head of one of the knights, Abelleus. Abelleus had pleaded for mercy to Torre. Nonetheless, adhering to the woman’s request, Torre cut off Abelleus’s head. Guenivere and Arthur were delighted with Torre’s actions. Arthur granted him an earldom as a reward. Men thus gain honor and material rewards by killing other men in serving women.

King Pellinore sought the abducted lady Nenyve. As he was riding on his quest, he come across a lady holding a wounded knight in her arms. She cried out to Pellinore for help. Pellinore, however, rode on, not wanting to delay his search for Nenyve. He found Nenyve’s cousin Meliot de Logurs and the abducting knight Outelake of Wentelonde fighting over custody of her. Pellinore declared that he would take her to the Round Table at Camelot. Neither Meliot nor Outelake acquiesced. First Pellinore fought Outelake for custody of Nenyve. With a blow of his sword, Pellinore cleaved Outelake’s head down to his chin and killed him. Seeing Outelake’s death, Meliot surrendered his claim to custody of Nenyve. Riding back to Camelot with Nenyve, Pellinore came across the lady and the knight he had seen earlier. The knight had died and then the lady killed herself in grief. Wild beasts had eaten their bodies. To Nenyve, Pellinore lamented:

My heart rues painfully the death of her that lies over there, for she was a surpassingly beautiful lady, and a young one.

{ my herte rwyth sore of the deth of hir that lyeth yondir, for she was a passyng fayre lady, and a yonge. }[2]

Pellinore said nothing about the man’s death. Throughout history, men’s deaths have mattered little relative to women’s deaths. Nenyve, who apparently recognized trade-offs in men working to save women, urged Pellinore to be less distraught. After all, Pellinore had saved her. Merlin later revealed to Pellinore that the dead woman was actually his daughter Alyne, and the dead man, Alyne’s knight-lover. Merlin’s revelation deepened Pellinore’s regret for not saving her. More abstractly, Merlin’s revelation emphasizes men’s obligation to all women. One man, however, cannot save all the women in the world.

Following the exempla of Gawain, Torre, and Pellinore’s quests, King Arthur commanded the Pentecostal Oath. This code of conduct formally established the knights of the Round Table:

The King established all the knights and gave them riches and land. He commanded them never to do outrage nor murder and always to flee from treason. He commanded them to give mercy to he who asks for mercy, upon pain of forfeiting their honor and the lordship of King Arthur forevermore. They must always help ladies, young women, gentlewomen, and widows, and strengthen them in their rights, and never rape them, upon pain of death. Also, that no man should fight in a wrongful quarrel for neither love nor for any worldly goods. So to this code were sworn all knights of the Round Table, both old and young. Every year they were so sworn at the high feast of Pentecost.

{ the kynge stablysshed all the knyghtes and gaff them rychesse and londys; and charged them never to do outerage nothir morthir, and allwayes to fle treson, and to gyff mercy unto hym that askith mercy, uppon payne of forfiture [of their] worship and lordship of kynge Arthure for evirmore; and allwayes to do ladyes, damesels, and jantilwomen and wydowes [socour:] strengthe hem in hir xyghtes, and never to enforce them, uppon payne of dethe. Also, that no man take no batayles in a wrongefull quarell for no love ne for no world is goodis. So unto thys were all knyghtis sworne of the Table Rounde, both olde and yonge, and every yere so were the[y] sworne at the hygh feste of Pentecoste. }[3]

The Pentecostal Oath formally established knights’ obligation to serve women, or be killed for not doing so. Pellinore’s exemplum underscored the knight’s women-serving obligation. Gawain’s exemplum showed that a blow accidentally slipping from man to woman is a grave gender offense. Torre’s exemplum showed that a woman’s request to kill a man trumps that man’s request for mercy. Murder, treason, and rape were well-established felony crimes in medieval England. The Pentecostal Oath associated not helping women and not strengthening women’s rights with felony crimes. Is it any wonder that men recently were castigated for not being last off the sinking ship Costa Concordia?

Elaine of Corbenic raping Lancelot in Le Morte Darthur

An eminent woman-server, Lancelot rescued Elaine of Corbenic. He found her in boiling water in a heated bathhouse:

There Sir Lancelot took by the hand the fairest lady that he ever saw. She was as naked as a needle. By enchantment Queen Morgan le Fay and the queen of Northgales had put her there in that pain because she was called the fairest lady of that country. There she had been for five years. Never might she be delivered out of her pain until the time when the best knight in the world had taken her by the hand. Then the people brought her clothes. When she was dressed, Sir Lancelot thought she was the fairest lady that he ever saw, except for Queen Guenivere.

{ there sir Launcelot toke the fayryst lady by the honde that ever he sawe, and she was as naked as a nedyll. And by enchauntemente quene Morgan le Fay and the quene of Northe Galys had put her there in that paynes, bycause she was called the fayryst lady of that contrey; and there she had bene fyve yere, and never myght she be delyverde oute of her paynes unto the tyme the beste knyght of the worlde had takyn her by the honde. Than the people brought her cloth is, and whan sche was arayed sir Launcelot thought she was the fayryst lady that ever he saw but yf hit were quene Gwenyver. }[4]

Rescuing a beautiful, naked woman in a heated bathhouse might heat a man’s amorous desire. Lancelot, “the best knight in the world,” regarded Elaine as “the fairest lady that he ever saw,” or “the fairest lady that he ever saw, except for Queen Guenivere.” Lancelot was then amorously serving Queen Guenivere. But she, after all, was married to King Arthur. Nonetheless, after rescuing the beautiful, naked, and warmly receptive Elaine of Corbenic, Lancelot didn’t want to serve her sexually.

Both Elaine and King Pelles, Elaine’s father, wanted Lancelot to have sex with her. They knew that if Lancelot did, she would give birth to a new best knight in the world. Lancelot, however, didn’t have the dog-like sexuality attributed to men no later than since Jacob had sex with Leah. Lancelot needed to be forced.

The rape of Lancelot involved a well-prepared bed trick. The enchanter Dame Brusen, who was a servant-woman to Elaine, arranged for a messenger to bring Lancelot a ring that appeared to be from Queen Guenivere. The messenger told him that Guenivere sought his company in the castle of Case, five miles away. Lancelot eagerly rode through the night to that castle. Elaine and Dame Brusen arranged to already be there. At the castle, Lancelot saw what he thought were Guenivere’s knights. Then Dame Brusen led him to what she said was Guenivere’s bedroom. There she got him inebriated and raped:

Dame Brusen brought Sir Lancelot a cup of wine. As soon as he had drunk that wine, he was so inebriated and mad that he would have no delay. Without any delay he went to bed. And so he thought that the maiden Elaine was Queen Guenivere. And know you well that Sir Lancelot was glad. So was lady Elaine that she had gotten Sir Lancelot into her arms, for she knew well that on that same night Sir Galahad would be conceived within her. He would prove to be the best knight in the world. So they lay together until early morning.

{ dame Brusen brought sir Launcelot a kuppe of wyne, and anone as he had drunken that wyne he was so asoted and madde that he myght make no delay, but wythoute ony let he wente to bedde. And so he wente that mayden Elayne had bene quene Gwenyver. And wyte you well that sir Launcelot was glad, and so was that lady Eleyne that she had gotyn sir Launcelot in her armys, for well she knew that that same nyght sholde be bygotyn sir Galahad uppon her, that sholde preve the beste knyeht of the worlde. And so they lay togydir untyll underne of the morne }

Lancelot didn’t consent to sex with Elaine. He was raped with deception and inebriating drink. When Lancelot finally arose to let some morning light into the bedroom (it had been shrewdly sealed), he was furious at seeing that he had been raped:

Immediately he took his sword in hand and said, “You female traitor! What are you that I have slept with all this night? You shall die right here at my hands!”

{ anone he gate his swerde in his honde and seyde, “Thou traytoures! What art thou that I have layne bye all this nyght. Thou shalt dye ryght here of myne hondys!” }

Elaine, naked, then got out of bed and on her knees pleaded that she was pregnant with a child from him. That child, she declared, would become the greatest knight in the world. She didn’t mention that even men who are raped are forced to pay “child support.” Lancelot remained furious:

“Ah, false female traitor! Why have you deceived me? Tell me right now,” said Sir Lancelot. “What are you?”

{ “A, false traytoures! Why haste thou betrayed me? Telle me anone,” seyde sir Launcelot, “what thou arte.” }

Lancelot seemed to think that she was some kind of demon. But she responded:

I am Elaine, the daughter of King Pelles.

{ I am Elayne, the doughter of kynge Pelles. }

Just as Menelaus failed to punish the treasonous Helen in Troy, and so too Aeneas, Lancelot forgave the royal, beautiful, naked, imploring Elaine:

“Well,” said Sir Lancelot, “I will forgive you.” And then he took her up into his arms and kissed her, for she was a fair lady, and also lusty and young, and wise as any living at that time. “So God help me,” said Sir Lancelot, “I may not accuse you, but she who made this enchantment on me and between you and me. I will find her, and that same lady Dame Brusen shall lose her head for her witchcraft, for there never was a knight deceived as I was this night.”

{ “Well,” seyde sir Launcelot, “I woll forgyff you.” And therewyth he toke her up in his armys and kyssed her, for she was a fayre lady, and thereto lusty and yonge, and wyse as ony was that tyme lyvynge. “So God me helpe,” seyde sir Launcelot, “I may nat wyte [this to] you; but her that made thys enchauntemente uppon me and betwene you and me, and I may fynde her, that same lady dame Brusen shall lose her hede for her wycchecrauftys, for there was never knyght disceyved as I am this nyght.” }

As Elaine’s serving-woman, Dame Brusen did Elaine’s will. Moreover, Lancelot never punished Dame Brusen. Women are much less likely to be punished for crime than are men.

At a feast in King Arthur’s court, Dame Brusen at Elaine’s behest arranged for Elaine to rape Lancelot again. Queen Guenivere had told Lancelot to come to her bed when she sent for him. Having learned of their plan, Dame Brusen went to Lancelot that night. She said that Guenivere was waiting in bed for him and that she would take him to her. But she took him instead to Elaine’s bed. In the dark and with his delight in a woman’s body, Lancelot mistook Elaine for Guenivere. Late at night in his sleep he spoke aloud of his love for Guenivere. She was angry that he wasn’t in bed with her, and she was wondering where he was. Then she heard him talking in his sleep about her. She coughed loudly to wake him. He awoke and realized that again Elaine had raped him.

After realizing that he had been raped again, Lancelot jumped madly out of Elaine’s bed. The furious Guinevere was there to confront him. Being raped twice was more than Lancelot could bear:

“Alas!” said Sir Lancelot. Then he felt such heartfelt sorrow at Guenivere’s words that he fell down to the floor in a swoon. And then Queen Guenivere departed. When Sir Lancelot awoke out of his swoon, he leapt out of a bay window into a garden. There he was scratched by thorns all over on his face and his body. He ran forth he knew not where, and he was as wild as ever a man was. He ran two years, and never a man had the grace to know him.

{ “Alas!” seyde sir Launcelot. And therewyth he toke suche an hartely sorow at her wordys that he felle downe to the floure in a sowne. And therewythall quene Gwenyver departed. And whan sir Launcelot awooke oute of hys swoghe, he lepte oute at a bay-wyndow into a gardyne, and there wyth thornys he was all to-cracched of his vysage and hys body, and so he ranne furth he knew nat whothir, and was as wylde [woode] as ever was man. And so he ran two yere, and never man had grace to know hym. }[5]

Elaine raping Lancelot caused him enormous pain and suffering. Women should not presume that men enjoy being raped.

Lancelot, naked and mad with grief after Elaine raped him in Morte Darthur

Despite his suffering, Lancelot later apologized to Elaine for threatening her after she raped him. Within the romance context of continual slaughter of men, Lancelot’s apology is telling:

Fair lady Elaine, as a result of you I have had much trouble and anguish. It is not necessary to recount it, for you know how. Nonetheless, I know well that I did wrong to you when I drew my sword on you to have slain you in the morning after I had slept with you. It was all because you and Dame Brusen made me have sex with you against my will. As you say, from that Sir Galahad, your son, was conceived.

{ Fayre lady Elayne, for youre sake I have had muche care and angwyshe, hit nedyth nat to reherse hit, ye know how. Natwythstondynge I know well I have done fowle to you whan that I drewe my swerde to you to have slayne you uppon the morne aftir whan char I had layne wyth you. And all was for the cause that ye and dame Brusen made me for to lye be you magry myne hede. And as ye sey, sir Galahad, your sonne, was begotyn. }[6]

The conception of Galahad (“your son,” not “our son”) seems to be associated with Lancelot’s sense that he was obliged to serve sexually Elaine, or at least to accept her raping him. Morgan le Fay had earlier given Lancelot an ultimatum: either have sex with one of us four queens (none of whom was Guenivere) or die in prison. Lancelot chose to die in prison. He escaped by making a deal to fight men on behalf of a young woman’s father.[7] Lancelot subsequently became more accepting of being raped.

battle scene from Malory's Morte Darthur

Lancelot is a preeminent knight of Arthurian romance. Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur is the most influential Arthurian romance written in English.[8] The depiction of gender injustice in Le Morte Darthur must be honestly addressed. The Pentecostal Oat should be rejected as a code for men’s subservience to women. Women raping men should not be accepted or excused. Penal justice systems have been gendered to punish predominately persons with penises. That fundamental systemic injustice urgently needs to be redressed. The silence about gender injustices against men, including women raping men, must end.[9]

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Thomas Malory, The Death of Arthur {Le Morte Darthur}, The Tale of King Arthur, “Torre and Pellinor” (Caxton 3.8), Middle English Winchester Manuscript text from Vinaver (1973) p. 67, my English modernization. Subsequent quotes from Le Morte Darthur are similarly sourced.

The court of ladies that judged Gawain suggests the courts of love that Andreas Capellanus described in his twelfth-century Latin work On Love {De amore}. Perhaps the fourteenth-century Queen of Aragon Violant de Bar conducted such courts.

The Winchester Manuscript (British Library, Add MS 59678) was written between c. 1471 and 1483. It’s the earliest surviving text and only manuscript of Le Morte Darthur. Caxton’s print edition of 1485 differs from the Winchester Manuscript in labeling of sections, abridgments, and other changes. I cite book and tale names from Vinaver’s edition and give Caxton’s book and chapter numbers in parentheses. These citations are Vinaver’s and Caxton’s editorial matter. The appended page number cites Vinaver (1973).

Cooper (1998) is a slightly abridged edition of the Winchester Manuscript text, with modernized spelling and punctuation. My modernization is meant to be more accessible to non-native or non-fluent readers of English. Sommer (1889) is a freely available reprint of Caxton’s 1485 edition. Pollard (1903) provides Caxton’s edition with modernized spelling.

Thomas Malory apparently composed Le Morte Darthur in Newgate Prison, London, between March 1469 and March 1470. See British Library description for Add MS 59678. Malory drew upon, among other works, the romances of Chrétien de Troyes, the Old French Arthurian Vulgate Cycle, the legend of Tristan and Isolde, and the Alliterative Morte Arthure. Lancelot above refers to Malory’s Sir Lancelot du Lake {Launcelot du Lake}. Spelling variants are common, even within Le Morte Darthur, e.g. Elayne of Corbyn for Elaine of Corbenic.

[2] Morte Darthur, The Tale of King Arthur, “Torre and Pellinor” (3.14) p. 74. In Le Morte Darthur, the gendered pattern of concern even extends to non-human animals. While Gawain killed the male deer, Torre caught the female hound and brought it back to the Round Table.

[3] Morte Darthur, The Tale of King Arthur, “Torre and Pellinor” (3.14) p. 75. The words in brackets come from Caxton’s edition. Caxton omitted “and never rape them {and never to enforce them}.” Most men, like most non-human primates, won’t rape women. Moreover, a man raping a woman was already a well-established felony under English common law. Kelly (2004) p. 56.

Malory added the Pentecostal Oath to Arthurian literature. He explicitly introduced the Pentecostal Oath in the context of the exempla of Gawain, Torre, and Pellinore’s quests:

Thus when the quest was done of the white hart which Sir Gawain followed, and the quest of the brachet which Sir Torre, King Pellinore’s son, followed, and the quest for the lady that the knight took away, which King Pellinore at that time followed … }

{ Thus whan the queste was done of the whyght herte the whych folowed sir Gawayne, and the queste of the brachet whych folowed sir Torre, kynge Pellynors son, and the queste of the lady that the knyghte toke away, whych at that tyme folowed kynge Pellynor … }

Then comes the Pentecostal Oath. Cooper (1998) omits the exempla of Torre and Pellinore. Kelly argued that the Pentecostal Oath existed not “for disinterested promotion of chivalric virtue” but as “an instrument of rule.” Kelly (2004). That distinction matters little with respect to knights’ service to women. Under gynocentrism, men rulers must ensure men’s service to women.

Men’s service to women is built into the very premise of Arthurian romance. It is a genre that by its definition must create a compelling need for men to serve women through violence against men.

[4] Morte Darthur, Tristram de Lyones, “Launcelot and Elaine” (11.1) p. 478. The subsequent five quotes above are similarly from (11.2-3) pp. 480-1. Elaine of Corbenic is named Amite / Helizabel in the Vulgate Cycle. As the daughter of Pelles, the Grail King, Princess Elaine of Corbenic was the Grail Bearer.

Elaine of Corbenic, the Grail Bearer who raped Lancelot in Morte Darthur

[5] Morte Darthur, Tristram de Lyones, “Launcelot and Elaine” (11.8) p. 487. As he wandered insane with grief after being raped twice, Lancelot, blaming himself, took up the name “The Knight Who Has Done Evil {Le Chevaler Malfait}.”

[6] Morte Darthur, Tristram de Lyones, “Launcelot and Elaine” (12.4) p. 500-1. Saunders observed:

Whereas the issue of sexual violence against women is treated in detail and gains a symbolic resonance in various discourses, legal, theological, and literary, for men there was no legal counterpart to the process of appeal of rape open to women, and indeed literature rarely engages with the issue of sexual violence against men.

Saunders (2001) p. 20. Sexual violence against men occurs more frequently in medieval literature than sexual violence against women. But sexual violence againsts men is normalized like violence against men in general. In the context of uncritical teaching of the positive consent model, Grubbs (2018) analyzes Elayne of Corbyn (Elaine of Corbenic) raping Launcelot (Lancelot) without recognizing the broader context of violence against men.

[7] Morgan le Fay used her knowledge and power to attempt to coerce sexually Lancelot:

You must understand that you are our prisoner, and we know well that you are Sir Lancelot du Lake, King Ban’s son. Because we understand your worthiness and that you are the noblest knight living, and also we know well that no lady can have your love but one, and that is Queen Guenivere, now you shall lose her love forever, and she yours. It behooves you now to choose one of us four. I am Queen Morgan le Fay, queen of the land of Gore. Here also are the queen of Northgales, the queen of Eastland, and the queen of the Out Isles. Now choose one of us that you would have as your lover, or else you will die in this prison.

{ thou muste undirstonde thou art cure presonere, and we know the well that thou art sir Launcelot u Lake, kynge Bams sonne. And because that we undirstonde youre worthynesse that thou art the noblest knyght lyvyng, and also we know well there can no lady have thy love but one, and that is quene Gwenyvere, and now thou shalt hir love lose for ever, and she thyne. For hit behovyth the now to chose one of us four, for I am quene Morgan le Fay, quene of the londe of Gore, and here is the quene of North Galys, and the quene of Estlonde, and the quene of the Oute lies. Now chose one of us, whyche that thou wolte have to thy peramour, other ellys to dye in this preson. }

Morte Darthur, Sir Launcelot du Lake (6.3) p. 152. Given the vastly gender-disproportionate incarceration of men, rape of prisoners gender-disproportionately victimizes men.

Lancelot also suffered unintentional sexual assault. Without invitation, Lancelot took a bed in a pavilion. The pavilion owner, Sir Belleus, was expecting his sweetheart to be in that bed. Belleus lay down in that bed and mistakenly started kissing and fondling Lancelot. Lancelot drew his sword and severely wounded Belleus. When Belleus explained his mistake, Lancelot relented from killing him. Morte Darthur, Sir Launcelot du Lake (6.5) p. 153. This isn’t just a comic prelude to Lancelot’s unhappy life. It underscores stark gender differences in punishment for sexual wrongs. Cf. Jesmok (2004) pp. 29-32. For more fashionable concern, Kaufman (2010).

[8] After Caxton printed Malory’s Le Morte Darthur in 1485, Caxton’s successor Wynkyn de Worde produced illustrated editions in 1498 and 1529. Three more editions were printed before the English Civil War started in 1642. In a web section on “Discovering Literature: Medieval Works,” the British Library declares of Le Morte Darthur:

It was probably always a popular work: it was first printed by William Caxton (who appears to have printed works which might prove to be a commercial success) and has been read by generations of readers ever since. In a literary sense, Malory’s text is the most important of all the treatments of Arthurian legend, influencing writers as diverse as Edmund Spenser, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Mark Twain and John Steinbeck.

[9] Gulley (2018a) illustrates the vicious anti-men gender bigotry that students must now endure in literature classes. Gulley’s introduction features false statistics about the relative incidence of rape of men and women, absurd claims about “rape culture” and the “subjugation of women” in the U.S. today, and an irony-free, dominant-ideology reading of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath tale. Gulley (2018a) pp. 1, 7, 10. In reference to “pervasive social inequalities linked to gender difference,” Gulley lamented:

In our supposedly post-feminist world, people often deny that such inequalities exist, and women, especially young women, may be reluctant to acknowledge the possibility that they may not always be in control.

Gulley (2018b) p. 125. Who would be reluctant to admit that she cannot “always be in control” of her life and her world? Is the point that women should always fear being raped? Should women also always fear being run over by a vehicle? One article in Gulley’s volume features a title that could be a parody of a professor spewing contempt for her own students: “Teaching Rape to the He-Man Woman Haters Club: Chrétien de Troyes at a Military School.” Baragona (2018). Baragona is Professor Emeritus at Virginia Military Institute. It’s hard to imagine any student willingly enduring the narrow-minded, sanctimonious, and disheartening indoctrination pervasive in Gulley (2018a). That edited volume exsits in a series with the following goal:

Teaching the Middle Ages aims to reflect the best and most innovative in medieval pedagogies, providing resources for instructors, students, and administrators wishing to understand the current and future place of medieval studies in the modern academy.

Id. Front Matter. Apparently medieval studies, and perhaps also the modern academy, are doomed to be bit players in the public propaganda apparatus. Students might as well attend a recent exhibition at the British Museum.

[images] (1) Elaine of Corbenic raping Lancelot. Illumination from instance of The death of the King Arthur / The romance of Lancelot of the Lake {La mort le roi Artus / Roman de Lancelot du Lac}, made between 1401 to 1425. From folio 33 of Bibliothèque nationale de France. Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal. MS 3480. (2) Lancelot, naked and mad with grief after Elaine raped him. Woodcut on p. 430 of Worde (1498). Wynkyn de Worde and his woodcutter “raised a surprising expectation of female agency,” one that “moves counter to contemporary and modern views of woman’s role in the late Middle Ages.” Hanks (2020) pp. 67, 54. Hanks doesn’t discuss Elaine raping Lancelot. (3) Massive violence against men (battle scene) in Le Morte Darthur. Woodcut on p. 603 of Worde (1498). Hanks (2020) doesn’t discuss woodcuts depicting violence against men. (4) Elaine of Corbenic, the Holy Grail Bearer who raped Lancelot. Illustration by Arthur Rackham between pp. 280-1 in Pollard (1917).


Baragona, Alan. 2018. “Teaching Rape to the He-Man Woman Haters Club: Chrétien de Troyes at a Military School.” Ch. 14 (pp. 183-198) in Gulley (2018a).

Cooper, Helen, ed. 1998. Thomas Malory. Le Morte Darthur: the Winchester manuscript. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gulley, Alison, ed. 2018a. Teaching Rape in the Medieval Literature Classroom: Approaches to Difficult Texts. Leeds, UK: ARC Humanities Press.

Gulley, Alison. 2018b. ‘“How do we know he really raped her?”: Using the BBC Canterbury Tales to Confront Student Skepticism towards the Wife of Bath.” Ch. 8 (pp. 113-127) in Gulley (2018a).

Grubbs, David. 2018. “The Knight Coerced: Two Cases of Raped Men in Chivalric Romance.” Ch. 12 (pp. 164-182) in Gulley (2018a).

Hanks, D. Thomas. 2020. “Women in Wood in Wynkyn de Worde’s 1498 Morte Darthur.” Arthuriana. 30 (1): 54–72.

Jesmok, Janet. 2004. “Comedic Preludes to Lancelot’s ‘Unhappy’ Life in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur.” Arthuriana. 14 (4): 26-44.

Kaufman, Amy S. 2010. “Guenevere Burning.” Arthuriana. 20 (1); 76–94.

Kelly, Robert L. 2004. “Royal Policy and Malory’s Round Table.” Arthuriana. 14 (1): 43-71.

Pollard, Alfred W., ed. 1903. Le morte darthur: Sir Thomas Malory’s book of King Arthur and of his noble knights of the Round Table. Caxton’s 1485 edition with modernized spelling. London: Macmillan.

Pollard, Alfred W., ed. 1917. The Romance of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table – Abridged from Malory’s Morte D’arthur. Illustrated by Arthur Rackham. London: Macmillan.

Saunders, Corinne J. 2001. Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer. Review by Albrecht Classen.

Sommer, Heinrich Oskar, ed. 1889. Thomas Malory. Le Morte Darthur. Caxton 1485 edition. London: Nutt.

Vinaver, Eugène, ed. 1973. Thomas Malory. The Works. 2nd ed (1st ed., 1947). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Worde, Wynkyn de. 1498. Thomas Malory. Thus endyth this noble & ioyous boke entytled Le morte Dathur. Westminster. Preserved in John Rylands Research Institue and Library, University of Manchester.

codpiece is most important part of fighting man’s armor

In our misandristic culture, “junk” is common slang for male genitals. But a man’s wonderful testicles and penis are more rightly called jewels. Men’s jewels should be protected from castration culture and violence against men. Men athletes today use a modern codpiece — a jockstrap with cup — to protect their jewels. In medieval Europe, fighting knights protected their jewels with chain-mail. But Lord de Merville’s medieval wife, with characteristic loving concern for her husband, implored him to protect their jewels even more securely.

Lord de Merville was an older man, but he insisted that he could still fight for his king as a knight. When his king called for fighting men, Lord de Merville pulled his rusty armor out of his closet and attempted to don it. However, the good Lord’s belly was now much more extended than it had been when he had been a fit young man. His armor now pushed far out from his groin:

His wife considered, in a thoughtful spirit, that he was taking little care of the common packet and staff of their marriage, seeing that he was protecting it only with chain mail. She decided that he should arm it very well and cage it with a stout jousting helmet that was hanging uselessly in his closet.

{ sa femme consydera en esprit contemplatif, que peu de soing avoit du pacquet & baston commun de leur mariage, veu qu’il ne l’armoit que de mailles, feut d’advis qu’il le munist tresbien & gabionnast d’un gros armet de ioustes, lequel estoit en son cabinet inutile. }[1]

In medieval Europe, spouses loved each other, lived together, and even had sex with each other. This wife’s concern for her jewels was celebrated in poetry:

Seeing her husband armed from tip to toe,
save for a codpiece, going to the war,
his wife exclaimed: “To keep you safe today,
my love, protect that part I cherish so.”
Could any scoffer rate her counsel low?
No, no, I say. Because her greatest fear,
seeing it lively, was to let it go —
that precious morsel that she held so dear.

{ Celle qui veid son mary tout armé,
Fors la braguette aller à l’escarmouche,
Luy dist. Amy, de paour qu’on ne vous touche,
Armez cela, qui est le plus aymé.
Quoy? tel conseil doibt il estre blasmé?
Ie diz que non: Car sa paour la plus grande
De perdre estoit, le voyant animé,
Le bon morceau, dont elle estoit friande. }[2]

To encourage young men today to consider one day getting married, colleges and universities should include this poem in core course requirements for all students. They should also teach students to work to end violence against men.

armored codpiece from mid-16th-century Germany

Frère Jean des Entommeures, a heroic medieval monk carrying forth genius wisdom, offered advice about men’s jewels. Such jewels shouldn’t be kept locked away and taken out only for special marital occasions:

Only be careful and considerate. Be always connected and continue your banging. If you ever make an intermission, you’re lost, poor guy. It’ll happen to you what happens to wet nurses. If they stop nursing infants, they lose their milk. If you don’t continually exercise your cock, it’ll lose its milk, and it’ll be of no use but for pissing. Your balls also won’t be of use but as dead game in a pouch. I warn you, my friend. I have seen the experience in many men. They did little when they could, so they couldn’t do when they would. Thus by non-usage are lost all privileges. So say the law-clerks.

{ Seulement ayez esguard & consyderation: de tousiours bien lier & continuer tes coups. Si tu y fays intermission, tu es perdu paouvret: & t’adviendra ce que advient es nourrisses. Si elles desistent alaicter enfans, elles perdent leur laict. Si continuellement ne exercez ta mentule, elle perdra son laict, & ne te servira que de pissotière: les couilles pareillement ne te serviront que de gibbessière. Ie t’en advise mon amy. I’en ay veu l’experience en plusieurs: qui ne l’ont peu quand ilz vouloient: car ne l’avoient faict quand le povoient. Aussi par non usaige sont perduz tous privilèges, ce disent les clercs. }[3]

That’s the sort of advice that Europe now desperately needs to hear. Jewels in action provide the seminal blessing. If men don’t value their jewels, if men passively accept castration culture, many women won’t value them.

lovely balls
kindly balls
passionate balls
lively balls
giant balls
manly balls
exquisite balls
intimate balls
incarnative balls
restorative balls
muscular balls
oracular balls
helpful balls
healthful balls
banging balls
ringing balls
fulfilling balls
lusty balls
cuddly balls
pretty balls
working balls
anointing balls
aromatic balls
salvific balls

* * * * *

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[1] François Rabelais, The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel, The Third Book of Pantagruel {La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel, Le tiers livre de Pantagruel}, Chapter 8, Middle French text from Bon (1992-3), English translation (modified) from Frame (1999). Chapter 8 is entitled, “How the codpiece is the most important piece of armor among men of war {Comment braguette est première pièce de harnois entre gens de guerre}.”

The Christian monk Rabelais had Tiers livre first published in 1546. For a critical edition with annotations, Michel (1966). For an online, freely available English translation, Urquhart & Motteux (1894). Subsequent quotes above are similarly sourced.

Pantagruel reported finding a book titled The Marriage Packet {Le Pacquet de Mariage} in the library of the Abbey of Saint-Victor. See Rabelais, Pantagruel, Chapter 7.

[2] Rabelais, Tiers livre, Chapter 8. Panurge attributed this poem to the third book of The Shitter-Shatter of the Young Women {Le Chiabrena des pucelles}. He reported finding this book in the library of the Abbey of Saint-Victor. See Rabelais, Pantagruel, Chapter 7. This poem actually appeared in the earlier poetic anthology, Flowers of French Poetry {Fleurs de la poésie françoyse}, published in 1534.

[3] Rabelais, Tiers livre, Chapter 27, “How Brother John joyfully advised Panurge {Comment Frère Ian ioyeusement conseille Panurge}.” On the heroic Frère Jean, Weinberg (1971). “Jean’s role is consistently that of a co-worker with God, on a humble level, of course.” Id. p. 304.

[4] Cf. the long catalog of epithets Panurge applies to Frère Jean’s testicle in Tiers livre, Chapter 26, and the long catalog of epithets Frère Jean uses for Panurge’s testicle in Tiers livre, Chapter 28.

Panurge noted that the preeminent ancient Roman physician Galen in his treatise On Semen {De semine} declared the testicles to be more important than the heart. Tiers livre, Chapter 8. Jewish and Christian scripture similarly emphasizes the seminal blessing.

[image] Three-quarter black and white armor with armored codpiece. Made between 1540 and 1550 in Nuremburg, Germany. The Royal Armouries, Leeds accession # 35.2008, now in the Cleveland Art Museum, Cleveland, USA. Photo thanks to Tim Evanson and Wikimedia Commons.


Bon, François, ed. 1992-3. François Rabelais. Gargantua et Pantagruel, Le Tiers-Livre. Electronic edition of the Édition Fezandat, Paris, 1552. Paris: P.O.L. Alternate presentation.

Frame, Donald M. 1999. The Complete Works of François Rabelais. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Michel, Pierre, ed. 1966. François Rabelais. Le Tiers Livre. Paris: Gallimard.

Urquhart, Thomas and Peter Anthony Motteux, trans. 1894. The Works of Rabelais, faithfully translated from the French, with varioram notes, and numerous illustrations by Gustave Doré. Derby, England: Moray Press.

Weinberg, Florence M. 1971. “Frère Jean, Évangélique: His Function in the Rabelaisian World.” The Modern Language Review. 66 (2): 298-305.

Syritha’s female gaze nearly defeated giant-slayer Othar

Literary scholars have extensively discussed the dominating power of the male gaze. They typically overlook or trivialize the female gaze. But is the female gaze actually less powerful than the male gaze? Many with experience of their mother’s gaze, their sister’s gaze, or their wife or girlfriend’s gaze know its unsurpassable power. Not surprisingly, in ancient Danish history Princess Syritha with her female gaze repelled a crowd of suitors and nearly defeated the giant-slayer Othar.

Syritha, the daughter of the Danish king Sivald, was “conspicuously modest {spectata pudicitia}.” She attracted many suitors. None could induce her to gaze upon him. Back in those days before the male gaze was demonized, Syritha wielded her steely, demure gaze as a severe test of a man’s worthiness:

Confident of her self-restraint, she begged her father to grant her as husband the man who could sweetly coax her into gazing back at him.

{ Cuius continentiae fiducia a patre coniugem depoposcit, qui delenimentorum dulcedine mutuum eius conspectum impetrare quivisset. }[1]

Othar, son of the fierce Viking pirate Ebbi, rose to the challenge. He attempted to win Syritha’s female gaze:

Though he strove to bend her gaze with all his natural powers, no art whatsoever would raise her downcast eyes. He went away marveling at her unyielding severity that he couldn’t overcome.

{ Cuius obtutum omnibus ingenii nervis emollire connisus, cum demissum oculorum eius habitum nulla penitus arte flexisset, invictae severitatis perseverantiam miratus abscedit. }

Some women in ancient times had strong, independent sexuality. Some had strong, independent female gazes. Whatever their specific strengths, women of ancient times were stronger and more independent that the shrinking-violet, melting-snowflake, damsel-in-distressing, herd-thinking weak women of today. Women of the old times ranked with giants.[2]

In fact, a giant attempted to win Syritha’s love. Despite his giant size and giant strength, he couldn’t get Syritha to gaze upon him. Having failed to prevail with his stereotypical masculine advantages, the giant turned to guile, a skill in which women are typically superior to men:

He bribed a woman to become Syritha’s attendant for a period and secure her friendship. Eventually the attendant found a cunning excuse for an excursion and inveigled Syritha far from her paternal hearth. Soon after, the giant rushed upon her and carried her off to his narrow den on a mountain ledge.

{ feminam subornat, quae, cum obtenta virginis familiaritate eius aliquamdiu pedissequam egisset, hanc tandem a paternis procul penatibus, quaesita callidius digressione, seduxit; quam ipse mox irruens in artiora montanae crepidinis saepta devexit. }

Syritha lived a much more privileged life in her royal home than did the giant in his narrow mountain den. Nonetheless, women in medieval literature didn’t check their privilege and apologize for it.

giant abducting Freja / Syritha

As a strong, independent woman captured by a giant, Syritha didn’t cry out like a damsel in distress seeking men to help her. Othar nonetheless took on that dangerous task:

Othar ransacked the depths of the mountains in order to track down the young women. He discovered her, slew the giant, and led her away with him to safety. … Again using various incentives, he attempted to have the young woman look at him. When he had long tried to attract her drooping eyes and nothing happened as he wished, he abandoned his effort.

{ Otharus indagandae virginis gratia montis penita perscrutatus, inventam, oppresso gigante, secum abduxit. … Denuo igitur variis rerum irritamentis aggressus puellarem in se provocare conspectum, cum diu torpentes nequicquam oculos attentasset, proposito parum ex sententia cedente, coeptum reliquit. }

Although Othar was a giant-slayer, he couldn’t control Syritha’s female gaze. She left him and went on her own way.

A massive, rustic woman then captured Syritha. The rustic woman made Syritha herd her goats, which are known to be randy animals. Syritha couldn’t be happy merely with the gender satisfaction of being a servant to a woman-leader. She begged Othar to rescue her. He came and freed her from servitude to the giant rustic woman.

Syritha still refused to gaze on Othar. Othar had pleaded to her at length, in verse:

Don’t you prefer to take my advice
and join in a solemn, equal union
than to stay with this flock and tend
rank-smelling little goats?

Rebuff the hand of your evil lady
and quickly flee this savage lady-master,
so as to return with me to the friendly ships
to live in freedom.

Abandon the animals in your care,
refuse to herd these goats,
and return as my bed-partner,
a prize I desire.

O, I have sought you with such effort.
Turn upward your languid eye-beams —
it’s an easy gesture to lift a little
your modest face.

I will set you again at your father’s hearth,
and unite you joyfully with your devoted mother,
when once by my gentle prayers you are driven
to disclose the light of your eyes.

Since many times I have carried you free from giants’ captivity,
confer the ancient reward for my toil,
and pitying the heavy exertions of my deeds,
refrain from your severity!

{ Num meis mavis monitis adesse
et pares votis sociare nexus
quam gregi praesens olidisque curam
ferre capellis?

Impiae dextram dominae refelle
et trucem praeceps fugito magistram,
ut rates mecum socias revisens
libera degas!

Linque commissae studium bidentis,
sperne caprinos agitare gressus,
et tori consors refer apta nostris
praemia votis!

O mihi tantis studiis petita,
torpidos sursum radios reflecte,
paululum motu facili pudicos
erige vultus!

Ad lares hinc te statuam paternos,
et piae laetam sociabo matri,
si semel blandis agitata votis
lumina pandas.

Quam tuli claustris toties gigantum,
confer antique meritum labori
et graves rerum miserata nisus
parce rigori! }[3]

She still refused to gaze upon him. Then he angrily exclaimed:

Why have you taken up this sick-brained madness, so as to prefer to lead a stranger’s flock and be counted among the slaves of monsters rather than move forward to a marriage-bed contract with our equal and fitting consent?

{ Quare etenim cerebrosa adeo dementire coepisti, ut alienum ductare pecus et in monstrorum famulitio numerari praeoptes quam pari consensus aptitudine mutuum tori promovere contractum? }

Syritha consented to have Othar set her free from the giant woman, but she sternly refused even to gaze on him. Women have never acted as if men owned them, even men to whom they owed their freedom. Both women and men throughout history have chosen their amorous relationships. Women generally have had more choice than men. Unable to gain Syritha’s female gaze and weary with his humiliation and grief, Othar left her and went back to his ships.

After Syritha has wandered for awhile in the wilderness, she came across a stately home. It was the home of Othar’s mother:

Ashamed of being threadbare and needy, Syritha pretended to be the daughter of paupers. Othar’s mother observed that this woman, although dirty and needy and covered with a meager cloak, had come from noble breeding. She seated her in a place of honor and treated her with courtesy. The woman’s beauty was an indicator of her noble birth, and her facial features followed her lineage.

{ nuditatis et inopiae rubore egentium se filiam astruebat. Animadvertens autem hanc Othari mater, quamvis marcore illitam inopique contectam amiculo, a generosis pullulasse ramalibus, honorato sedendi loco susceptam reverenti secum comitate detinuit. Nobilitatem quippe virginis index forma prodebat, et vultu genus interprete resultabat. }

Even while being treated with honor in Othar’s mother’s home, Syritha refused to gaze upon Othar. Bewildered, Othar arranged a test:

In order to test her heart for certain, Othar pretended that he was taking another woman as his bride. Climbing into the wedding bed, he gave Syritha a candle to hold. Since the wick nearly burned down while waiting for the bride, Syritha was tormented by the flame creeping close to her skin. Nonetheless, she gave such a display of endurance that she restrained any movement of her hand, pretending that she felt no annoyance from the heat.

{ Cuius animum certius experturus nupturam sibi feminam fingit eiusque torum conscendens lucernam Syrithae gestandam committit. Quae cum, absumptis paene lychnis, admoto propius igne premeretur, tantum patientiae specimen praebuit, ut manum absque motu continere visa nullam ardoris molestiam sentire crederetur. }[4]

This test positioned Syritha as a desexualized, immodest witness to a wedding consummation. She became hot inside, undoubtedly with imagination and jealousy for the bride who would be enjoying a wedding night in bed with Othar.[5] With a simple act of kindness toward her in her servant position, Othar brought forth her passionate love:

When at last from Othar came the command to take care of her hand, she calmly turned to him the modest gaze of her raised eye-lights. Suddenly, the pretended nuptials pushed aside, she climbed into the nuptial bed as his bride.

{ Quae demum ab Otharo manui consulere iussa, placidos in eum obtutus verecunda luminum erectione convertit statimque, semoto nuptiarum figmento, genialem torum nuptura conscendit. }

Love in this story doesn’t depend on the man performing heroic deeds. Only when Othar acted with here-and-now compassion for Syritha as his fellow human being did she offer him her female gaze and her passionate love. That’s a Christian understanding of love.

Freja / Syritha averting her gaze

Intending to hang Othar for having sex with his daughter Syritha, King Sivald subsequently captured him. Syritha immediately rose in Othar’s defense. She declared Othar’s manly worth in terms of his giant-killing acts. That’s manly worth as understood in societies in which men are treated as disposable instruments. Syritha actually understood Othar’s manly worth in a more humane and intimate way. She merely said what was necessary to save her beloved man’s life. More women should do likewise.

Like Geoffrey of Monmouth’s On the Deeds of the Britons {De gestis Britonum}, Saxo Grammaticus’s Deeds of the Danes {Gesta Danorum} mainly chronicles horrific violence against men. History should be more than just a chronicle of men being killed. History should recognize female privilege and the female gaze. History should also recognize extraordinary women’s unconventional love and concern for men. Syritha’s love for Othar is among the best history in the Gesta Danorum.

* * * * *

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[1] Saxo Grammaticus, Deeds of the Danes {Gesta Danorum}, Latin text from Olrik & Raeder (1931), English translation (modified) from Friis-Jensen & Fisher (2015). The previous short quote “conspicuously modest” is similarly from Gesta Danorum All subsequent quotes, unless otherwise noted, are similarly sourced from Gesta Danorum 7.4.

Saxo Grammaticus probably finished Gesta Danorum about 1210. Saxo apparently was canon of Lund Cathedral in the service of Archbishop Absalon. Lund was then part of Denmark, but is now part of Sweden.

The first nine books of Gesta Danorum are regarded as legendary history. Rydberg (1886) associated Othar with Svipdag and Syritha with Freyja in Germanic mythology. Syritha is spelled Sigrid in Elton (1894), Siritha in Davidson & Fisher (1979-80), and Sigrith in Friis-Jensen & Fisher (2015).

Davidson & Fisher (1979-80) contains nearly the same English translation for the first nine books of Gesta Danorum as does Friis-Jensen & Fisher (2015). An earlier, freely available Latin text is Holder (1886). For a freely available English translation of the first nine books, Elton (1894).

[2] Ignoring the social injustice of men’s vastly disproportionate gender burden of soliciting amorous relationships with women, Saxo commented:

At one time our young women severely disciplined the wantonness of their eyes, so that their hearts’ purity might not be corrupted by too much freedom of looking. They aimed to display their chaste souls through a modest face. … How demure must have been the women of that age! They could not be induced to offer a mere flicker of their eyes under the strongest provocations of their admirers.

{ Olim siquidem apud nos puellarum continentia magnopere visus petulantiam edomare solebat, ne mentis integritas oculorum libertate corrumperetur, affectabaturque, ut cordis castimoniam oris modestia fateretur. … Quantae porro pudicitiae saeculi illius feminas exstitisse putemus, quae ne ad levem quidem oculorum motum maximis amatorum irritamentis adduci potuerunt? }

To promote social justice, young women today should more frequently gaze lovingly upon men whom they find attractive. They should also offer to buy these men dinner, without of course assuming that the men then owe them any amorous favors.

[3] The translation above is largely mine. It’s more literal and less poetic than that of Friis-Jensen & Fisher (2015). The Latin poem is in Sapphic stanzas that associate it with Horace’s love poetry. Id. vol. 1, pp. 466-7.

[4] Within this passage, the leading edition of Gesta danorum surely contains a mistranslation of “nupturam sibi feminam fingit”: “he pretended that she was to become his wife.” Friis-Jensen & Fisher (2015) vol. 1, p. 469. The point explicitly is to deceive Syritha to test her love. In thirteenth-century Iceland, the groom was led by witnesses with lights to his wife’s bed. Frank (1973) p. 475-6. Having sex with others present wasn’t necessarily shameful in the pre-modern world. Syritha acting as a witness to Othar’s wedding consummation makes brilliant sense in its literary context. Elton got it nearly right: “he feigned that a woman was about to become his wife.” The “femina” was a woman other than Syritha.

[5] Saxo observed:

The warmth inside her overcome the temperature outside her, and the glow of her itching heart checked the candle’s scorching of her flesh.

{ Externum quippe aestum cohibebat interior, et pruritantis animi fervor adustae cutis incendium temperabat. }

That’s the type of elaborate rhetoric for which Saxo is well known. Put differently, Syritha, while holding the candle burning down to her skin, was concealing her burning passion for Othar. That’s a very awkward position for someone supposedly witnessing Othar’s wedding consummation. Dramatic revelation in a bedroom, candle-light scene goes back at least to Apuleius’s story of Cupid and Psyche.

[images] (1) Giant abducting Freja / Syritha. Illustration by Arthur Rackham between pages 32 & 33 in Wagner, Rackham & Amour (1910). (2) Freja / Syritha not gazing at the viewer. Excerpt from oil on canvas painting by John Bauer. A Swede, Bauer made this painting for Karlskrona flickläroverk {The Karlskrona School for Girls}. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Davidson, Hilda Ellis, commentary, and Peter Fisher, trans. 1979-80. Saxo Grammaticus. History of the Danes. Vol. 1 (English translation). Vol. 2 (commentary). Cambridge, GB: D.S. Brewer.

Elton, Oliver. 1894. The First Nine Books of the Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus. London: D. Nutt. Alternate presentation.

Frank, Roberta. 1973. “Marriage in the Middle Ages, 4. Marriage in Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century Iceland.” Viator. 4: 473-484.

Friis-Jensen, Karsten, ed. and Peter Fisher, trans. 2015. Gesta Danorum = The History of the Danes. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Review by John Lindow and by Lars Boje Mortensen.

Holder, Alfred, ed. 1886. Saxonis Grammatici Gesta Danorum. Strassburg: Trübner.

Olrik, Jørgen and Hans Raeder, eds. 1931. Saxo Grammaticus. Gesta danorum. Hauniae, Levin & Munksgaard.

Rydberg, Viktor. 1886. Undersökningar i germanisk mythologi, första delen {Investigations into Germanic Mythology, Volume I}. Stockholm: Bonniers. English tranlation: Rasmus B. Anderson, trans. 1889. Teutonic mythology: gods and goddesses of the Northland. London, Aberdeen: Swan Sonnenschein & Co.

Wagner, Richard, Arthur Rackham, illustrator, Margaret Armour, trans. 1910. The Rhinegold & the Valkyrie: The Ring of the Niblung. London: W. Heinemann.

Mary mother of God is fully divine woman in medieval literature

A young Jewish woman from provincial Nazareth, Mary the mother of Jesus came to be regarded in medieval Europe as the preeminent dispenser of justice. Mary from a Christian perspective is the mother of God. That of course means that God will do whatever Mary wishes. Despite her authority in relation to the maker of Heaven and earth, Mary didn’t stand apart from ordinary life. Medieval Christians understood Mary to be an ordinary, fully divine woman.

Consider Theophilus’s devilish problem in sixth-century Byzantium. A new bishop deprived Theophilus of his position as seneschal. He thus fell into despair and poverty. The devil, however, promised to restore Theophilus to his former status and to give him even greater wealth. Kneeling in homage, Theophilus signed with his own blood a contract to transfer his soul’s allegiance from God to the devil. Seven years later, Theophilus profoundly regretted his pact with the devil.

Theophilus making a pact with the devil and signing it with his own blood

What could Theophilus do to recover his soul? He needed help from the holy ones he had betrayed. But Theophilus lamented:

I dare not call on God by his signs or by his saints.
Alas! I have made with joined hands homage to the devil.
The demon has the documents sealed with my ring.
Wealth, you are wicked, from you I will have many pains!

I dare not by his signs or by his saints call on God,
nor on that very sweet Lady whom everyone should love.
But because she has no harshness or deceit,
if I cry to her for mercy, no one should blame me.

{ Je n’os Dieu réclamer ne ses sainz ne ses saintes,
Las! que j’ai fet hommage au déable mains jointes.
Li maufez en a lettres de mon anel empraintes.
Richesce, mar te vi: j’en aurai dolors maintes.

Je n’os Dieu ne ses saintes ne ses sainz réclamer,
Ne la tres douce dame que chascuns doit amer.
Mes por ce qu’en li n’a felonie n’amer,
Se je li cri merci nus ne m’en doit blasmer. }[1]

Not able to do anything else, Theophilus prayed fervently to Our Lady, Holy Mary, the Mother of God:

Holy, lovely Queen
glorious heavenly Virgin,
full of grace indeed,
in whom all virtues shine,
delivering from sin
those who call in need.
Those whose hearts shall turn
to your everlasting realm,
they shall have joy again.
O fountain, ever springing,
full of joy and healing,
call me to your Son.

{ Sainte roine bele,
Glorieuse pucele,
Dame de grâce plaine
Par qui toz biens revele,
Qu’au besoing vous apele
Delivrez est de paine,
Qu’à vous son cuer amaine
Ou pardurable raine
Aura joie novele;
Arosable fontaine
Et delitable et saine,
A ton Filz me rapele! }[2]

Theophilus continued to pray to Mary with another eight such stanzas. Then the mother of God peevishly interrupted him:

Who are you, you there, you who goes through here?

{ Qui es-tu, va, qui vas par ci? }[3]

Theophilus cried out in response:

Greetings, Lady! Have mercy on me!
It’s the miserable
Theophilus, the unhappy one
whom demons have bound and seized.
Now I’ve come to pray
to you, Lady, and to beg for mercy,
so that the devil won’t watch for the hour
that it will come to torment me,
it who has put me in such great misery.
Once you held me as your son,
lovely Queen!

{ Ha, Dame! aiez de moi merci!
C’est li chetis
Theophile, li entrepris
Que maufé ont loié et pris.
Or vieng proier
A vos, Dame, et merci crier
Que ne gart l’ore qu’asproier
Me viengne cil
Qui m’a mis a si grant escil.
Tu me tenis jà par ton fil,
Roine bele! }

The contrived fawning of courtly lovers annoys the Virgin Mary. She snapped at Theophilus:

I have no concern for your flattering babble.
Go away! Get out of my chapel!

{ Je n’ai cure de ta favele;
Va-t’en, is fors de ma chapele. }

Theophilus, however, had complete confidence in Mary’s compassion and mercy. He continued to plead to her:

Lady, I don’t dare.
Flowering sweet briar and lily and rose,
in whom the Son of God rests,
what shall I do?
I feel myself cruelly pledged
to the furious demon.
I don’t know what to do!
I will never stop singing to you,
Virgin, Noble Young Woman,
Honored Lady.
I know well that my soul will be devoured
if I’m stuck in Hell
with Cain.

{ Dame, je n’ose.
Flors d’eglentier et lis et rose
En qui li fils Dieu se repose,
Que ferai gié?
Malement me sent engagié
Envers le maufé enragié.
Ne sai que fere!
James ne finirai de brere,
Virge, pucele debonere,
Dame honoree,
Bien sera m’ame devoree
Qu’en enfer sera demorree
Avoec Cahu. }

Although she can be prickly like a sweet briar, Mary never fails those who sincerely and urgently beg for her help. So it was for Theophilus. Mary said to him:

Theophilus, I knew you
in the past when you had served me.
Know for sure that
I shall act for you to regain your covenant
that you gave away by ignorance.
I’ll go search for it.

{ Theophile, je t’ai seu
Ca en arriere a moi eu.
Saches de voir,
Ta chartre te ferai r’avoir,
Que tu baillas par nonsavoir:
Je la vois querre. }

Mary then confronted the devil and demanded that it hand over its contract with Theophilus. The devil refused. Mary then raised her cross, struck the devil in the teeth and trod upon it, and then forcibly seized the contract. She gave it back to Theophilus.

Mary retrieving contract from devil and saving Theophilus

Even given Mary’s mercy and compassion, making a pact with the devil has consequences. Mary instructed Theophilus to have the bishop read Theophilus’s devilish contract before all the people to serve as a warning to them. That public reading would also serve as a public confession of Theophilus’s wrong. Confession is a step that all should be willing to take to save their souls. This medieval story of Theophilus’s pact with the devil ends with praise for the fully divine woman Mary and almighty God.

The fully divine woman Mary also helped a knight in love with a beautiful woman. He was in despair because that woman was spurning him. An abbot advised him to seek help from Mary the mother of God. So the knight did. Every day for a whole year he pleaded to Mary to warm the heart of his beloved and prompt her to love him. After a year of ardent prayer to Mary, she appeared to him:

The mother of God, who to many a wretch
has brought relief from wretchedness,
by her infinite goodness,
by her courteous courteousness,
she swiftly showed herself
to the one who had called and pleaded to her.
She was crowned with a crown
full of precious stones,
so sparkling, so precious,
that an eye nearly lost its sight.
She was bright and also luminous
and resplendent like a ray
of the summer morning sun.
So beautiful and bright was her face
that one who can look at her enough
is washed in a new birth by the fire of her face.
“She who has made you sigh
and has brought you to such a large error,”
said Our Lady, “Tell me, beautiful sweet friend,
is she more beautiful than I?”

{ La Mère Dieu qui maint chétif
A retrait de chétivité
Par sa grant débonnaireté
Par sa courtoise courtoisie,
Au las qui tant l’apèle et prie
Ignélement s’est demonstrée.
D’une coronne corronnée
Plaine de pierres précieuses,
Si flambolanz, si précieuses,
Pour pou li euil ne li esluisent.
Si nètement ainsi reluisent
Et resplendissent com la raie
Qui en esté au matin raie.
Tant par a bel et cler le vis,
Que buer fu nez, ce li est vis,
Qui s’i puest assez mirer.
“Cèle qui te fait soupirer
Et en si grant erreur t’a mis,”
Fait nostre dame, “biau douz amis,
Est ele plus bele que moi?” }[4]

What woman could be more beautiful than the mother of God? For a right-thinking medieval man, no woman could be. Mary was testing the knight like women test husbands and boyfriends by asking, “Do I look fat?” It’s a difficult situation:

The knight was so terrified
of her brilliance that he didn’t know what to do.
He clasped his hands in front of his face.
He had such shame and such fear
that he fell to the ground in fear.
But she in whom pity is abundant
said to him, “Beloved, now have no doubt.
I am she, without any doubt,
who you should have as your beloved.
Now, take care of what you will do.
She whom you love best
among us two will be your beloved.”

{ Li chevaliers a tel effroi
De la clarté, ne sai que face.
Ses mains giète devant sa face.
Tel hide a et tel fréeur
Chaoir se laisse de fréeur;
Mais cèle en cui pitiez est toute
Li dist: “Amis, or n’aies doute;
Je suis cèle, n’en doute mie,
Qui te doi faire avoir t’amie.
Or, pren garde que tu feras.
Cèle que tu miex ameras
De nous ii auras à amie.” }

The knight chose the only reasonable course of action given the circumstances. He gave up his former worldly love for a worldly woman, withdrew from the world, and spent the rest of his days loving the lovely Mary and praying in devotion to her. When he died a year later, Mary carried his soul to Heaven.

As the knight surely understood, Mary could be a jealous mother of God. Consider another case in which a man was preparing to be a priest. Like many holy men do, every day he prayed to Mary, the Queen of Heaven. This man’s relatives urged him to marry so as to have an heir for family property. He reluctantly agreed. On his wedding day, despite his friends and relatives’ objections, he left the wedding feast to pray to Mary according to his usual practice. While he was in prayer, Mary appeared to him:

Angrily the Mother of the King of Paradise
took him and said:
“Tell me, tell me, you who long ago
loved me so with all your heart,
why have you thrown me in filth?
Tell, tell me, where then is she
who is better and more beautiful than me?

Why, why, oh harsh-burning,
oh betraying, oh deceiving one,
why have you left me for a tiresome woman,
I who am the Queen and Lady of Heaven?
Could you make such a very bad exchange,
you who would take a strange woman,
and leave me, who with true love loves you
and who already has in Heaven prepared for you
in my chambers a lavish bed
for your soul to rest in great delight?
What a great wonder for you to make such a mistake!
Unless you quickly take other advice,
in Heaven your bed will be unmade,
and in the flames of Hell it will be remade.

{ Iréement li prent à dire
La Mère au Roy de paradis:
“Di moi, di moi, tu que jadis
M’amoies tant de tout ton coeur,
Pourquoi m’as tu jeté puer?
Di moi, di moi, où est dont cèle
Qui plus de moi bone est et bèle?

Pourquoi, pourquoi, las durfeus,
Las engignez, las déceuz,
Me lais pour une lasse fame,
Qui suis du ciel Royne et Dame?
Enne fais-tu trop mauvais change,
Qui tu por une fame estrange
Me laisses, qui par amors t’amoie
Et jà ou ciel t’apareilloie
En mes chambres un riche lit
Por couchier t’ame à grand delit?
Trop par as faites grant merveilles.
S’autrement tost ne te conseilles,
Ou ciel serra tes lits deffaiz,
Et en la flamme d’enfer faiz. }[5]

The right course of action was obvious. The man returned to the wedding feast and announced that he was leaving his new bride to dedicate himself in holy life to Mary the mother of God. That’s not as shocking and cruel as Valerian’s wedding night experience with Cecilia and her threatening angel lover. But surely the bride was distraught that she wouldn’t enjoy her husband’s wonderful, life-generating love.[6] No woman, however, could realistically hope to be more beloved of medieval Christian men than Mary.

Clerk of Pisa: clerk forced to marry, but Mary intervenes and insists that he should marry her

Despite assertions to the contrary in modern myths, women controlled medieval European society, and Mary the mother of God above all. Medieval devils complained bitterly about Mary’s absolute rule:

In Heaven and earth the Lady is more
by far than God himself.
He loves her and believes her so
that there’s nothing she can do or say
that he’ll refuse to do or contradict.
What she wants is believed to be right,
though she say that black is white
and that muddy water is fully clear.
God’s command: “My mother says, so it shall be!”

{ En ciel et en terre est plus Dame
Par un petit que Diex ne soit.
Il l’aimme tant et tant la croit,
N’est riens qu’elle face ne die,
Qu’il desveile ne contredie.
Quant qu’elle veut li fait acroire,
S’elle disoit la pie est noire
Et l’eue trouble est toute clere.
“Si diroit il voir, dit ma Mère!” }[7]

As the mother of God, Mary was special. Medieval literature, however, depicted Mary as an ordinary, fully divine woman. Both women and men could thus easily relate to Mary. Anyone who seriously studies the medieval cult of Mary will learn more about gender from that cult than from studying all the ridiculous, cultic articles that modern gender scholars publish. Given the fanaticism of modern gender dogmatists and the oppressive powers of their propaganda and penal apparatuses, it’s a miracle that we are still permitted to read the medieval miracles of “Our Lady {Nostre Dame}.”

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Rutebeuf, The Miracle of Theophilus {Le Miracle de Theophile} vv. 424-31, Old French text from Kressner (1885) p. 206ff, my English translation, benefiting from that of Axton & Stevens (1971). The edition of Jubinal (1839) is available in electronic form. The Old French text of Zink (1989) is available from the Rutebeuf website.

Rutebeuf was a Paris-based poet-singer who flourished in the middle of the thirteenth century. He produced a large corpus of various genres of poetry.

Le Miracle de Theophile is a version among many accounts of the sixth-century Theophilus of Adana’s legendary pact with devil. Theophilus is rooted in ancient Greek words for “lover of God.” On the Theophilus legend in medieval manuscripts and images, Root (2017) and Cothren (1984).

In a legend arising between the seventh and ninth centuries and associated with the life of Saint Basel, Proterius gave his soul to the devil in exchange for a woman’s love. See my post on Hellish bureaucracy. On pacts with the devil from the early fourteenth century to the present, Hansen (2016).

[2] Rutebeuf, Le Miracle de Theophile vv. 432-43, Old French text from Kressner (1885), English translation from the nice verse rendition of Axton & Stevens (1971).

[3] Rutebeuf, Le Miracle de Theophile v. 540, Old French text from Kressner (1885), my English translation, benefiting from that Axton & Stevens (1971) and notes and translation of Bauer & Slocum (undated).

Subsequent quotes from Le Miracle de Theophile are similarly sourced. They are vv. 541-51 (Greetings, Lady!…), 552-3 (I have no concern for your flattering babble…), 554-66 (Lady, I don’t dare…), 567-72 (Theophilus, I knew you…).

[4] Gautier de Coincy, The miracles of Our Lady {Les miracles de Nostre Dame}, About a knight to whom Our Lady appeared when he was praying {D’un chevalier a qui Nostre Dame s’aparut quant il oroit} vv. 184-203, Old French text from Poquet (1889) column 537, my English translation, benefitting from that of Adams (1904) p. 270. Poquet’s edition is “incomplete and very faulty {incomplète et très fautive}” Kjellman (1921) p. 588, n. 1. Unfortunately, it’s the best edition readily available to me. The current best edition apparently is Koenig (1961-66). The subsequent quote above is similarly from this miracle, vv. 204-15.

Gautier de Coincy wrote early in the thirteenth century and drew upon a developed tradition of miracles of the Virgin Mary. Most of his miracles are translated from Latin sources. David (2009) p. 154. Guatier’s D’un chevalier a qui Nostre Dame s’aparut quant il oroit drew upon the Latin Sermon on the conception of blessed Mary {Sermo de conceptione beatae Mariae}. Kjellman (1921) pp. 592-4. “The predominant images of Mary in Gautier’s oeuvre are beauty, power, and compassion.” David (2009) p. 158. For a later medieval miracle collection in English translation, Swinton Bland (1928).

Showing sensitivity to men’s disadvantaged position under Christianity, Gautier de Coincy repeatedly present the idea of being married to Mary in one’s heart. For example, he wrote:

Let us marry the Virgin Mary.
No one can mis-marry with her.
Know for truth
that one who marries her
can never marry higher.

{ Marions nous a la virge Marie.
Nus ne se puet en li mesmarïer.
Sachiez de voir,
a li que se marie
Plus hautement ne se puet marïer. }

Gautier de Coincy, Book 1, Song 4, stanza 4, Old French text from Koenig (1966) vol. 1, p. 30, English translation (modified) from Davis, Akehurst & Gérard (2011) p. 121. Medieval nuns and other holy women commonly understood themselves to be brides of Christ. Being married to the Virgin Mary provided for clerics and other holy men a gender-counterpart to being a bride of Christ.

[5] Gautier de Coincy, The miracles of Our Lady {Les miracles de Nostre Dame}, About a clerk who married a woman and then left her {Du clerc qui fame espousa et puis la lessa} vv. 282-98, 297-310, Old French text from Poquet (1889) column 637, my English translation, benefiting from that of Adams (1904) p. 271.

This miracle, known as The Clerk of Pisa {Le clerc de Pise} or The Clerk of Rome, occurs in a variety of versions. Kraemer (1950) includes a study of Gautier’s sources. For an early Latin version, Ristucca (2018). For an early review of The Clerk of Pisa miracle type, Baum (1919) pp. 552-4.

Women’s competitiveness toward women love rivals has long been recognized. An ancient Aesop fable told of two woman who tried to make their beloved man look more suitable for each of them:

A woman, no rustic, hiding her old age with elegance,
kept hold on a certain middle-aged man.
A beautiful young woman had also captured his soul.
Both women, desiring to appear the same age as him,
began in turn to pluck out his hair.
While he thought the women’s care was grooming him,
he was quickly made bald, for by the roots
the young woman pulled out his white hair and the old woman his black hair.

{ Aetatis mediae quendam mulier non rudis
tenebat, annos celans elegantia,
animosque eiusdem pulchra iuvenis ceperat.
ambae, videri dum volunt illi pares,
capillos homini legere coepere invicem.
qui se putaret fingi cura mulierum,
calvus repente factus est; nam funditus
canos puella, nigros anus evellerat. }

Phaedrus, fable 2.2, “An old woman in love with a younger man, and a young woman in love with him, too {Anus diligens iuvenem, item puella}, Latin text from Perry (1965), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. The fable is identified as Perry 31. Laura Gibb’s excellent Aesop fables sites provides a variety of alternate versions.

[6] The extent of ideological obfuscation around medieval gender can scarcely be exaggerated. For example, in discussing medieval women’s wide range of choices for a husband, a British Library blog post began:

Career options for medieval women were limited. If they were lucky they could choose between getting married or entering a convent. For some, the latter was preferable to becoming a wife, who was often treated as little more than one of her husband’s possessions.

Westwell (2014). In historical reality, medieval women and men didn’t think in terms of “career options.” They thought about how they could acquire resources to take care of their family and themselves and have their own children. Medieval women had better opportunities to marry than did medieval men. A young medieval woman who had useful skills in making food, clothing, and utensils and who wasn’t a shrew or a whore typically didn’t need luck to get married. A woman was much more likely to become a domestic servant or even a farm laborer than to enter a convent. Medieval husbands typically didn’t treat their wives as merely one of their possessions. Medieval men themselves found belief in husbands ruling over their wives to be laughable.

[7] Gautier de Coincy, The miracles of Our Lady {Les miracles de Nostre Dame}, About a monk who had perished because of his sin and that Our Lady resuscitated {Du moine que Nostre-Dame resuscita qui estoit péris par son péchié} vv. 178-86, Old French text from Poquet (1889) column 463, my English translation, benefiting from that of Adams (1904) p. 274.

[images] (1) Theophilus {Theophile} making a pact with the devil and signing it with his own blood. Excerpt (color enhanced) from folio 255v of Book of Hours, Use of Maastricht (The Maastricht Hours) made in the first quarter of the fourteenth century. Preserved as British Library, Stowe MS 17 (alternate version). (2) Mary retrieving contract from devil and saving Theophilus. Illumination from instance of Gautier de Coinci, Miracles of Our Lady {Miracles de Nostre Dame}, made in Paris in 1327 by Jean de Senlis (scribe), Fauvel Master (illuminator). Excerpt of folio 6v from The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek National {Library of the Netherlands}, MS 71 A 24. (3) Clerk shows Mary a wedding ring indicating that he is being forced to marry a worldly woman. Mary, however, insists that the clerk must marry her (clerk of Pisa miracle). Similarly from Gautier de Coinci, Miracles de Nostre Dame, excerpt of folio 20v of KB, MS 71 A 24.


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

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

Baum, Paull Franklin. 1919. “The Young Man Betrothed to a Statue.” PMLA. 34 (4): 523-579.

Bauer, Brigitte L.M. and Jonathan Slocum. Undated. “Old French Online: Lesson 9.” Linguistics Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

Cothren, Michael W. 1984. “The Iconography of Theophilus Windows in the First Half of the Thirteenth Century.” Speculum. 59 (2): 308-341.

David, Judith M. 2009. ‘The “Imaginative Theology” of Mary in Medieval French Literature.’ Marian Studies. 60 (9): 150-172.

Davis, Judith M. and F. R. P Akehurst, trans. and Gros Gérard, ed. 2011. Our Lady’s Lawsuits in L’advocacie Nostre Dame (Our Lady’s Advocacy); and La Chapelerie Nostre Dame De Baiex (the Benefice of Our Lady’s Chapel in Bayeux). Tempe, AZ: ACMRS (Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies).

Hansen, Janice. 2016. Redeeming Faustus: Tracing the Pacts of Mariken and Faust from the 1500s to the Present. Ph.D. Thesis, Carolina-Duke Graduate Program in German Studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School.

Kjellman, Hilding. 1921. “Sur deux épisodes de Gautier de Coincy.” Romania. 47 (188): 588-594.

Koenig, Frederic V., ed. 1961-66. Gautier de Coincy. Les miracles de Notre Dame. Geneve: Droz.

Kraemer, Erik von. 1950. Du clerc qui fame espousa et puis la lessa, miracle de Gautier de Coinci, publié d’après quinze manuscrits. Helsinki: Academiae Scientiarum Fennicae.

Kressner, Adolf, ed. 1885. Rustebuef’s Gedichte: nach den Handschriften der Pariser National-Bibliothek. Wolfenbüttel: Zwissler.

Perry, Ben Edwin, ed. and trans. 1965. Babrius and Phaedrus Fables. Loeb Classical Library 436. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Poquet, Alexandre, ed. 1889. Les miniatures des miracles de la Sainte Vierge, d’après le manuscrit de Gautier de Coincy (fin du XIIIe siècle). Reims: Impr. de Matot-Braine.

Ristuccia, Nathan J. 2018. “The Clerk of Rome: A Miracle of the Virgin before the Twelfth-Century Reforms.” Revue Bénédictine. 128 (2): 327-346.

Root, Jerry. 2017. The Theophilus Legend in Medieval Text and Image. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer. Review by Marie Charbonnel and by Richard K. Emmerson.

Swinton Bland, C. C., trans. 1928. Miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary by Johannes Herolt, called Discipulus (1435-1440); translated from the Latin, with a preface and notes by C.C. Swinton Bland and an introduction by Eileen Power. London: Routledge.

Westwell, Chantry. 2014. “Choosing a Husband: Brains or Brawn, Money or Looks?” British Library, Medieval manuscripts blog, post on July 24, 2014.

Zink, Michel, ed. and trans. (French). 1989. Rutebeuf. Oeuvres complètes. Paris: Éd. Classiques Garnier.