Ovid & Jerome vs. courtly love letters by formulae template

While men tend to be romantically simple, some men who consider themselves educated and sophisticated write flowery, courtly love letters to women. More than 1600 years ago, both the Master Teacher of Love Ovid and the Doctor of the Christian Church Saint Jerome taught men not to write contrived love letters. Nonetheless, courtly love letters became so popular that medieval scribes included templates for them in their reference books of form letters, called formulae. Now more than ever, men must learn well the classical love-letter teachings of Ovid and Jerome.

With his gender-subtlety and ironic brilliance, Ovid could easily be misunderstood. In ancient Rome, letters were commonly written on wax tablets. Ovid ostensibly advised young men to write fawning love-letters to women:

Try wax on well-scraped tablets to smooth the way.
Let wax go first as your heart’s privy-counselor.
Let it bear your fawning words, and imitate a lover’s
words. Without exception, whoever you are, add in begging.

{ Cera vadum temptet, rasis infusa tabellis:
Cera tuae primum conscia mentis eat.
Blanditias ferat illa tuas imitataque amantem
Verba; nec exiguas, quisquis es, adde preces. }[1]

Why would a man in love have to imitate a lover’s words? One might think that Ovid was advising men to act like Propertius did toward his beloved Cynthia. But, as great teachers do, Ovid elaborated his teaching in a way that should prompt thought:

Young Roman men, study the good arts, I tell you,
but not only to support trembling defendants.
Like the people, like the solemn judge, like the chosen Senate,
defeated by your eloquence, a young woman will give herself into your hands.
But hide your manliness. Don’t be forward with your speaking skill.
Your remarks should avoid tiresome words.
Who, other than the weak-minded, would speechify to a tender girlfriend?
Often a letter has been a strong cause of hatred.
Let your speech be credible by using words customary,
though fawning. Speak as if you were there in person.

{ Disce bonas artes, moneo, Romana iuventus,
Non tantum trepidos ut tueare reos;
Quam populus iudexque gravis lectusque senatus,
Tam dabit eloquio victa puella manus.
Sed lateant vires, nec sis in fronte disertus;
Effugiant voces verba molesta tuae.
Quis, nisi mentis inops, tenerae declamat amicae?
Saepe valens odii littera causa fuit.
Sit tibi credibilis sermo consuetaque verba,
Blanda tamen, praesens ut videare loqui. }

Ovid’s advice on speaking is actually advice on writing a love letter. Moreover, that advice contradicts itself. Formal speaking skill is associated with tiresome words. A man’s words should be “customary, though fawning.” Most men don’t typically use fawning words other than to women that they desperately want to have as their lovers. Ovid teaches men that words are slippery tools. Letters meant to prompt love can cause hate. Ovid’s subtle lesson: don’t write love letters. Speak to a woman in person and use ordinary language.

Saint Jerome, not surprisingly since he was a saint, was much more charitable toward love-lorn men. He bluntly told them what they needed to know:

A holy love has nothing to do with frequent little gifts of cloth bands, pressing one’s mouth to clothes, tasting each other’s food, and fawning and sweet letters. “My honey, my light, my desire,” and such other follies of lovers, all delights and charms and ridiculous proper courtesies — we blush at such things in stage comedies and we detest them in men of the world.

{ crebra munuscula et orariola et fasciolas. et vestes ori adplicatas et degustatos cibos blandasque et dulces litterulas sanctus amor non habet. “mel meum, lumen meum meumque desiderium” et ceteras ineptias amatorum, omnes delicias et lepores et risu dignas urbanitates in comoediis erubescimus, in saeculi hominibus detestamur }[2]

Courtly love letters are not only foolish and ineffective, but also unholy. So saith Saint Jerome. A more truly Christian model of worldly love is Walter and Hildegund’s love in the tenth-century Waltharius.

Despite the love-letter teachings of Ovid and Jerome, medieval men wrote courtly love letters to women. In fact, writing courtly love letters to women was such a common practice that by early in the ninth century at least one formulae contained a standard-form love letter:

Lovingly loving and insatiably desiring her, whom I much desire, my honey-sweetest and most beloved of all girlfriend (insert her name), I in God’s name, I (insert your name) send you greetings through this letter and as much joy as is contained in the fullness of our hearts. And these greetings walk though the clouds, and the sun and moon bring them to you.

When I lie down,
you are in my heart.
And when I sleep,
I dream always of you.

Be well by day and traverse pleasant nights and always have your boyfriend in mind. Do not forget him, and I will not do so to you.

You devise one strategy,
and I’ll devise another
by which with guile
we’ll fulfill our desire.

May He who reigns in Heaven and provides for all lead you into my arms before I die.

{ Amabiliter amando et insaciabiliter desiderando dulcissima atque in omnibus amatissima, multum mihi desiderabilem melliflua amica mea illa, ego in Dei nomine, ego mando tibi salutes usque ad gaudium per
has apices, quantum cordis nostrae continet plenitudo. Et ipsi salutes inter nubes ambulant, sol et luna ejus deducant ad te.

Ego quando jaceo,
tu mihi es in animo.
Et quando dormio,
semper de te somnio.

Bene habeas in die et noctes suavis transeas et amico tuo semper in mente habeas nec ponas illum in oblivione, quia ego tibi non facio.

Tu pensas unum consilium,
et ego penso alterum,
per qualem ingenio
implemus desiderium

Qui regnat in celo et providet omnia, tradat te in manibus meis, antequam moriar. }[3]

This love letter is a mixture of prose and poetry (prosimetrum). It’s written in an urbane literary tradition running through Petronius’s Satyricon (c. 65 GC), Botheus’s Consolation of Philosophy {De consolatione philosophiae} (c. 524 GC), Bernard Silvestris’s Cosmographia (c. 1147), and Aucassin et Nicolette (c. 1200). Its existence as a form letter emphasizes its contrived elegance. A form love letter, even a elaborately courtly one, is not romantic in the sense of a spontaneous outpouring of personal feelings. Jerome ridiculed this sort of love letter.

form-letter love letter in medieval Formulae Salicae Merkelianae

Working at the Abbey of Clairvaux in 1471, the young monk Johannes de Vepria added a large set of courtly love letters to his formulae. Here’s one of his letter templates for a man to use in writing to a beloved woman:

To the greatest comfort of weary spirits, to complete joy, solid hope, and abode of all that is joyful, from him for whom your breath is honeyed breeze, for whom your gaze is clearest light:

What else but the longest life would suffice for your great attractiveness? That you, sweetest one, establish my love as the necessary cause for your writing, I accept just as I gladly hold you firmly clasped in the tightest chain of true love. Your actions, which overflow with so frequent benefits, prove that it is easy to trust in your words, for your actions make obvious that your love is not cold. Even with a silent tongue, through deeds you speak sufficiently about him whom you claim to love.

{ Summo lassorum animorum solamini, gaudio integro, spei solide, omnium demum que locunda sunt domicilio, ille cui tuus spiritus mellis est haustus, cui tuus intuitus clarissimum lumen est:

quid aliud nisi ut magne suavitati tue longissima vita sufficiat? Quod amorem meum dulcissima scribendi necessarium tibi causam constituis, ita gratanter accipio, sicut artissima vere dilectionis cathena te firmiter astrictam teneo. Verbis eciam tuis ut facillima fides sit, opera tua probant, que ita frequentibus beneficiis redundant, ut apertum sit amorem tuum frigidum non esse, et eum quem te amare testaris, lingua eciam tacente, factis sufficienter loqueris. }[4]

The salutation of this love-letter template is a concatenation of conventional love expressions. Its body expresses men’s typical interest in the bodily aspects of love. Many men throughout the medieval period probably used this and similar love-letter templates. Perhaps even Peter Abelard early in the twelfth century sent a version of this form letter to his beloved Heloise of the Paraclete.[5]

Love letter 105 from man to woman in medieval Epistolae duorum amantium

The Master Teacher of Love Ovid and Doctor of the Christian Church Saint Jerome didn’t teach men to write form-letter courtly love letters. Ovid satirized the learned love conventions of Roman elegy. He would have winced at the plain banality of form love letters. Perhaps he would have grimaced in thinking that such letters might lead to castration. Jerome, moreover, was a caring and devoted teacher. He taught women in outrageous ways what he thought was best for them as beloved children of God. Jerome probably regarded love letters in formulae as serving mass-produced idols far inferior to the intensely personal passion of Jesus Christ. With respect to Ovid and Jerome’s teachings on love letters, the subsequent history of love letters indicates that classics has failed in teaching men.

medieval knight knocked off horse

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[1] Ovid, Art of Love {Ars Amatoria} 1.437-40, Latin text from Ehwald’s Teubner edition (1907) via Perseus, my English translation. The subsequent quote above is similarly sourced from Ars Amatoria 1.459-68. A. S. Kline’s translation is freely available online.

Ovid, who with his practical help for men in love promoted gender equality, offered similar letter-writing advice to women in love:

Young women, write clean, but middling, customary
words. The public manner of speech pleases.
Ah! How often a letter has ignited an uncertain lover,
and a barbaric tongue hurt a lovely shape!

{ Munda, sed e medio consuetaque verba, puellae,
Scribite: sermonis publica forma placet;
A! quotiens dubius scriptis exarsit amator,
Et nocuit formae barbara lingua bonae! }

Ars Amatoria 3.479-82, similarly sourced. Here the adjectives mundus, medius, and publica hint ironically at Ovid’s recognition that some women have strong, independent sexuality. Ovid also wrote the fictional love letters of the Heroides.

Medieval European writers regarded Ovid as a master teacher of love. But many medieval writers misunderstood Ovid to support courtly love. For example, a thirteenth-century Old French adaptation of Ovid’s Ars amatoria straightforwardly emphasized courtliness in love letters:

Now write therefore in such a way
at first to your dear lady
so that there isn’t a word of baseness
but those of honor and courtesy.
By your letters you will ask
to have her love and her heart.

{ Or escri donc en tel maniere
au premier a ta dame chiere
qu’il n’i ait mot de vilanie,
mes d’enor et de cortoisie.
Par tes letres porras aquerre
s’amour et son courage enquerre. }

The Key to Love {La clef d’amors} vv. 689-94, Old French text from Doutrepont (1890), my English translation. For a loose English verse translation of La clef d’amors, vv. 169-1296 (with small omissions), Shapiro (1997) pp. 12-42.

Verses from a motet probably composed in Paris in the second half of the thirteenth century offers better wisdom:

Love that comes by letter
will not last long.

{ Amours qui vient par mesage
Ne pourroit longues durer }

Old French text from the Bamberg manuscript via Uulders (2010) p. 7, my English translation.

For an example of a classic, contrived love letter, see Pliny the Younger’s love letter to his wife Calpurnia. Aristaenetus’s letters are more earthy and realistic.

[2] Jerome, Letters 52 (To Nepotian) 5.7, Latin text from Cain (2013), my English translation benefiting from those of id., Carroll (1956), Wright (1933) and Freemantle (1892). My translation is more literal than Cain’s, but consistent with its meaning. Cain’s Latin text is that of Hilberg (1910), with eighteen changes other than punctuation and orthography. Wright’s Latin text is also from Hilberg and identical to Cain’s for the above quote.

Nepotian left civil service to become a Christian priest. He then became a presbyter at Altinum, near Venice in northern Italy. Nepotian’s uncle Heliodurus was bishop of Altinum and Jerome’s friend. Jerome wrote this letter to Nepotian in mid-393 GC. Cain (2013) p. 2. Jerome evidently intended a wider readership than Nepotian for this long, erudite letter. In the medieval period it was widely read. It survives in nearly 300 manuscripts. Id. p. 22.

Regarding Jerome’s reference to comedies, Cain commented:

Jer. means primarily the comedies of Plautus and Terence — as literary artifacts, that is, not as theatrical productions, for by his time these ‘classics’ were not longer performed on stage

Id. p. 152.

[3] Formulae Salicae Merkelianae, “Form to a betrothed woman {Indiculum ad sponsam},” Latin text of MS. Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Reg. lat. 612 (written in ninth century), folios 29r-v, as printed in Zeumer (1882) p. 258 (formula 47), my English translation, benefiting from the English translation of Torta (2017) and the French translation of Bourgain (2005) p. 161-3, adapted slightly in Uulders (2010) pp. 35-6. This form love letter apparently dates to 790-810 GC.

This form love letter would apply equally well to any girlfriend. A compiler probably indicated “ad sponsam” for the sake of propriety. Perhaps another compiler earlier appended the comment:

This is an excellent greeting between two young persons. The one sends it to the other and neither is satisfied with only this.

{ Haec est magna salutatio inter duos juvenis; alter alterius transmittit et neminem sufficit. }

Sourced as previously. That compiler apparently imagined this form letter to be propitious for amorous seduction.

About forty manuscripts of form letters / formularies {formulae} survive, most from the late eighth and ninth centuries. Brown (2017) pp. 98-9. The type of forms included in formulae vary widely. The forms were intended to be useful models:

the formulas are characterized by a clear intent to reuse or learn from the text included in them, either as frameworks for producing new documents, as sources of formulaic language, as teaching texts, or simply as records of really interesting kinds of transactions.

Id. p. 99. For more on formulae manuscripts and their historical value, Rio (2009).

[4] Letters of Two Lovers {Epistolae duorum amantium} 105, Latin text from Mews & Chiavaroli (2001) pp. 280-2, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. and Newman (2016) p. 220. The first publication of Epistolae duorum amantium was Könsgen (1974).

On loving not in word or speech but in deed and in truth, 1 John 3:18, as noted by Könsgen (1974) p. 58. Regarding “the chain of true love {vere dilectionis cathena},” Newman commented:

The “chain of love,” a metaphor often used by the Woman {nos. 55, 71, 76, 84), would soon take visual form in the motif of a woman leading a man by a tether wound tightly about his neck.

Newman (2016) p. 220. Women should not treat men as their dogs or as their prisoners.

Epistolae duorum amantium survives in only one manuscript: France, Troyes, Médiathèque municipale MS. 1452. For its formulae, the compiler / scribe Johannes de Vepria drew upon authors ranging from Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258) to the dictores “Transmundus of Clairvaux (d. after 1216), Jean de Limoges (d. mid-thirteenth century), and a contemporary rhetorician, Carolus Virulus (d. 1493).” Newman (2016) p. 53. De Vepria’s omission of Ovid, Augustine, Jerome, Anselm, Bernard, and others suggests that his concern wasn’t stylistic elegance but everyday usefulness. Cf. id. Ordinary usefulness is a central characteristic of formulae. Rio (2009), Brown (2017). Moreover, de Vepria’s omission of the pioneering dictore Boncompagno of Signa suggests that he had a conventional view of courtly love.

[5] Whether Epistolae duorum amantium is properly ascribed to Heloise and Abelard has been a matter of considerable scholarly controversy. Dronke observed, “it is often impossible to demarcate the ‘artificial’ from the natural in medieval letters.” Dronke (1965) vol. 1, p. 482. Yet expressive quality can be judged. In the Epistolae duorum amantium, the man’s Latin is “barely competent.” Ziolkowski (2004) p. 186. The man’s poetry within Epistolae duorum amantium is like “yeomanly products of verse making,” “the work of a schoolboy or apprentice poet.” Jaeger (2005) p. 136. Abelard was recognized as a brilliant poet. To the question “Do the man’s letters resemble the known works of Abelard?”, Newman conceded, “Very little.” Newman (2016) p. 65. Ziolkowski struggled to imagine Abelard writing such love letters:

I find it hard to accept that his love letters would diverge so starkly in thought and expression from his other writings. Could Abelard have revealed his hidden pedestrian side, an inner poetaster that he kept hidden from the world at large, only on the wax tablets he dispatched to his paramour?

Ziolkowski (2004) p. 188. Detailed philological analysis indicates that Epistolae duorum amantium were meant as a parody, perhaps of the famous couple Heloise and Abelard. Schnell (2022).

Medieval formulae include documents of widely varying literary qualities. That’s consistent with the higher literary quality of the woman’s love letters compared to the man’s in the formulae love letters of Epistolae duorum amantium. Jerome criticized men for sending contrived courtly love letters like Epistolae duorum amantium 105. Yet men evidently continued to do so.

Why would any man use a contrived courtly love letter like the form letter Epistolae duorum amantium 105? Given men’s gender burden of soliciting and performing in amorous relationships, love letters apparently haven’t been a means for men to express their personal, complex, and authentic feelings. Medieval men’s actual social position in relation to women has been ignored in the authorship controversy about Epistolae duorum amantium. See, e.g., Marenbon (2008). Epistolae duorum amantium is most valuable in testifying to social constraints on men’s amatory expression.

[images] (1) Form-letter love letter in ninth-century Formulae Salicae Merkelianae. From folio 29r of MS. Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Reg. lat. 612. (2) Love letter 105 from man to woman in Epistolae duorum amantium. From folio 167r of Médiathèque de Troyes Champagne Métropole. Ms. 1452. (3) Knight knocked off his horse. From Kottenkamp, Franz, and Friedrich Martin von Reibisch. 1842. Der Rittersaal, eine Geschichte des Ritterthums, seines Enstehens und Fortgangs, seiner Gebräuche und Sitten. Stuttgart: Carl Hoffmann. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Bourgain, Pascale. 2005. Le Latin Médiéval. Turnhout: Brepols.

Brown, Warren. 2017. “Old Media Put to New Uses: Legal Form Books in Carolingian Europe.” The Medieval Globe. 3 (1): 93-128.

Cain, Andrew. 2013. Jerome and the Monastic Clergy: a commentary on letter 52 to Nepotian, with introduction, text, and translation. Leiden: Brill.

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

Doutrepont, August. 1890. La clef d’amors: texte critique avec introduction et glossaire. Halle: M. Niemeyer.

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

Freemantle, William Henry, trans. 1892.  The Principal Works of St. Jerome.  Philip Schaff, ed. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, vol. 6. Oxford: Parker.

Hilberg, Isidorus, ed. 1910-1918. Sancti Eusebii Hieronymi Epistulae {Letters of Saint Eusebius Hieronymus (Jerome)}. Vindobonae: Tempsky. Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum (CSEL) 54 (Epistulae 1-70), 55 (Epistulae 71-120), and 56 (Epistulae 120-154).

Jaeger, C. Stephen. 2005. “Epistolae duorum amantium and the Ascription to Abelard and Heloise.” Pp. 125-66 in Olson, Linda, and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, eds. Voices in Dialogue: reading women in the Middle Ages. Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press.

Könsgen, Ewald. 1974. Epistolae duorum amantium: Briefe Abaelards und Heloises? Leiden: Brill.

Marenbon, John. 2008. “Lost Love Letters? A Controversy in Retrospect.” International Journal of the Classical Tradition. 15 (2): 267-280.

Mews, C. J., and Neville Chiavaroli. 2001. The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard: perceptions of dialogue in twelfth-century France. 2nd editions (1st edition 1999). New York: Palgrave. Review by Barbara Newman.

Newman, Barbara. 2016. Making Love in the Twelfth Century: Letters of two lovers in context. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Reviews by Constant Mews and by Alex J Novikoff.

Rio, Alice. 2009. Legal Practice and the Written Word in the Early Middle Ages: Frankish formulae, c. 500-1000. Table of Contents. Introduction. Review by Roger Wright.

Shapiro, Norman R. trans, witrh James B. Wadsworth, and Betsy Bowdenn notes and commentary. 1997. The Comedy of Eros: medieval French guides to the art of love. 2nd edition (1st edition, 1971). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Schnell, Rüdiger. 2022. Epistolae Duorum Amantium: Parodien – Auf Ein Berühmtes Liebespaar? Leiden: Brill.

Torta, Ralph. 2017. “Source Translation: An Early Medieval Love Letter.” Posted July 8, 2017. The Historian’s Sketchpad. Online.

Uulders, Hedzer. 2010. Autour des saluts et complaintes d’amour du manuscrit BnF f. fr. 837. Recherches sur deux genres mineurs de la poésie française du XIIIe siècle. Doctoral Thesis, Settore L-FIL-LET/09 – Filologia e Linguistica Romanza. Università degli studi di Padova.

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

Zeumer, Karl. 1882. Formulae Merowingici et Karolini aevi. Hannoverae: Impensis Bibliopolii Hahniani.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2004. “Lost and Not Yet Found: Heloise, Abelard, and the Epistolae duorum amantium.” The Journal of Medieval Latin. 14 (1): 171-202.

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