Fortunatus’s De virginitate incoherently disparages men’s sexuality

Disparaging references to men’s sexuality are readily apparent in Venantius Fortunatus’s sixth-century poem About Virginity {De virginitate}. Fortunatus in this poem also depicted a woman’s ardent, heartfelt love for her husband, including her appreciation for their physical intimacy. To foster social justice, women’s personal appreciation for men’s sexuality should be expressed more publically.

Fortunatus apparently wrote De virginitate to celebrate his friend Agnes becoming the abbess of the Abbey of the Holy Cross in Poitiers. As a nun, Agnes vowed celibacy. Fortunatus praised virginity with disparaging references to effects of sexual relations:

Most importantly, without stain virginity shines, revered by the world,
not allowing to be corrupted its good inherent by nature.
Precious, it preserves unharmed the body’s wealth,
retains forever those riches unknown to a thief.

{ quod prius est, sine sorde nitet venerabilis orbi,
naturae proprium non vitiando bonum,
corporis inlaesum servans pretiosa talentum,
perpetuas retinens nescia furis opes. }[1]

In these verses, a man’s penis figures as a thief and as a staining, corrupting, and harming instrument. Fortunatus lauded an “untouched womb {intacta alvus}” as “undefiled {intemerata}.” A woman virgin is “unviolated {inviolata}.” That’s as if a woman having sex with a man implies that he violates her. According to De virginitate, a virgin woman has a body that “no injury darkens {nulla iniuria fuscat}.” In contrast, according to Luke’s gospel, the Holy Spirit “will overshadow {obumbrabit}” Mary not to harm her, but to exalt her.[2] De virginitate describes the effects of pregnancy on the womb: “the sick dropsy of pleasure swells it {vuluptatis morbida crescit hydrus}.” That’s a disparaging recasting of a fundamental Jewish and Christian theme of the seminal blessing.

Mary enthroned and holding Jesus: mosaic in Ravenna

In De virginitate, Fortunatus sensationally depicted the sadness of a married woman. De virginitate first describes the sadness of a woman whose child is born dead or subsequently dies. Then De virginitate describes a misfortune worse than the death of a child:

What if something even worse should happen: the death of her spouse himself?
She who was a newlywed now lies as a widow.
From bridal bed to earthen grave, her white clothes so quickly change to black.
She holds the cold limbs that before gave her warmth,
arranges a funeral, and celebrates overthrowing her wedding vows.
She adorns an earthen grave, alas, stripping her marriage bed.
She often returns with laments to her husband’s tomb,
and disregarding her home, she lovingly honors the dead.
She falls upon his earthen grave seeking an empty consolation.
In the past she clung to his limbs. Now she clings to his bones.

{ quid si aliud gravius, moriatur ut ipse iugalis?
quae nova nupta fuit iam viduata iacet.
de thalamo ad tumulum, modo candida, tam cito nigra,
ante quibus caluit frigida membra tenet,
construit exequias perversaque vota celebrans
exornat tumulum, heu, spoliando torum.
saepe maritalem repetit miserando sepulchrum
contemptaque domo funus amata colit.
incumbit tumulo solacia cassa requirens;
cuius membra prius, nunc super ossa premit. }

This representation of a wife’s sadness after her husband’s death abounds in sensual references: a wedding, bridal clothes, the newlywed, and the marriage bed. As Ausonius’s parodic representation of a wedding night indicates, a wedding night typically produces great sensual joy for the bride. De virginitate refers to the wife’s memory of feeling the warmth of her husband’s limbs and to the wife lying down and clinging to her husband’s limbs. In Latin the singular for “limbs {membra}” is a word used for “penis {membrum}.” Moreover, Fortunatus’s description of the widow’s actions evokes the classical story of the widow of Ephesus. In contrasting the wife’s joy from her husband’s body with her sadness at his (inevitable) death, Fortunatus sets up another sense. The wife’s joy with her husband could well inspire a woman to seek marriage with a man.

Marriage to God is a recognized Christian alternative to marriage to a flesh-and-blood human. Fortunatus in De virginitate depicted God as loving a virgin woman passionately and sensitively:

Gently in devotion he embraces her breast,
quick in lovingly cultivating where another lover is absent.

He runs to your embrace in triumph after the acts of battle,
pressing chaste kisses to your holy lips.
He soothes, revives, venerates, honors, and overshadows you,
and places your modest body into his own wedding bed.

{ mitis in affectu pectus complectitar illud,
promptus amore colens quo alter amator abest.

currit ad amplexus post proelia gesta triumphans,
infigens labiis oscula casta sacris.
blanditur, refovet, veneratur, honorat obumbrat,
et locat in thalamo membra pudica suo. }

Fortunatus urged young women “to be not a man’s bride, but God’s beloved {non nuptura homini, sed sis amata Dei}.”[3] For more than a millennium, some woman have lived holy and happy lives as God’s beloved bride.

Despite today’s doubts and denials, God loves men just as much as women. Gender makes it difficult for men to think of themselves as the bride of God. A man might regard himself as God’s beloved son. That figure, however, lacks the erotic warmth of being God’s bride. Men and women need to accept that human language is inescapably limited.

The limits of human language don’t justify pervasive, historically entrenched disparagement of men’s sexuality. Many women personally appreciate their husbands’ or boyfriends’ sexuality, yet such appreciation lacks sufficient public representations. Men’s sexuality matters. It’s a matter not of junk but of jewels. Publicly appreciate men’s sexuality, today and every day of your life!

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Notes:

[1] Venantius Fortunatus, Carmina 8.3, “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and the lady Mary his mother, about virginity {In nomine domini nostri Iesu Christi et domnae Mariae matris eius de virginitate},” incipit “Many great figures fill the heavens with brilliant light {Culmina multa polos radianti lumine complent},” (De virginitate) vv. 321-4, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Roberts (2017). Leo (1881) provides a freely available Latin edition differing little from Roberts’s Latin edition.

Fortunatus probably composed De virginitate in the 570s in honor of Agnes becoming abbess of the Abbey of the Holy Cross. He apparently published it as part of his Book 8 of poems to enhance Radegund’s reputation after scandal and turmoil at the Abbey in 589. Brennan (1996) pp. 95-7.

Subsequent quotes, unless otherwise noted, are similarly from Fortunatus’s De virginitate. They are vv. 87 (untouched womb), 103 (undefiled), 192 (unviolated), 109 (no injury darkens), 330 (the sick dropsy of pleasure swells it), 371-80 (What if something even worse…), 111-2, 125-8 (Gently in devotion he embraces her breast…).

[2] Luke 1:35. The quoted Latin text is from the Vulgate. Fortunatus was a sophisticated writer deeply engaged with Christian theological doctrine. See, e.g. Wheaton (2018).

[3] Fortunatus, Carmina 8.4, “To young women {Ad virgines},” incipit “According to the ranks of the apostles and the holy prophets {Inter apostolicas acies sacrosque prophetas},” v. 36, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Roberts (2017). Similarly Fortunatus, Carmina Appendix 23, vv. 15-26.

De virginitate, vv. 117-24, depicts God as doing battle against men seeking to love sexually a virgin woman. That passage draws upon the classical elegiac figure of a man-soldier fighting in the “army of love {militia amoris}.” See, e.g. Ovid, Art of Love {Ars amatoria} 2.233-6. This gendered figure supports sexist military conscription and laws criminalizing men “seducing” women. Cf. Brennan’s description of the “virile warrior Christ who protects the nuns of Agnes’s convent … subject to enemy attack.” Brennan (1996) p. 80.

According to Gregory of Tours, Radegund, the founder of the Abbey of the Holy Cross in Poitiers, spoke of Christ as the “spouse of virgins {sponsus virginum}.” Brennan (1996) p. 80. Such bridal imagery has an important source in the biblical Song of Solomon.

Men’s penises historically have been disparagingly figured as thorns and snakes. De virginitate describes virgin women as avoiding harm from “thorns {spinae}” and “viper, serpent, and tree snake {vipera, serps, iaculus}.” De virginitate, vv. 193, 195.

[image] Mary the mother of God mosaic made c. 560 in the New Basilica of Saint Apollinaris {Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo} in Ravenna, Italy. Image thanks to Michel Bakni and Wikimedia Commons. Fortunatus was classically educated in Ravenna in the 550s or 560s. He thus may have seen this mosaic.

References:

Brennan, Brian. 1996. “Deathless Marriage and Spiritual Fecundity in Venantius Fortunatus’s De Virginitate.” Traditio 51: 73–97.

Leo, Friedrich, ed. 1881. Venanti Fortunati Opera Poetica (Pars Prior), Venanti Fortunati Opera Pedestria (Pars Posterior). Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Auctores Antiquissimi IV. Berlin: Weidmann. Another copy.

Roberts, Michael, ed and trans. 2017. Venantius Fortunatus. Poems. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 46. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Reviews by Hope Williard and by Lionel Yaceczko.

Wheaton, Benjamin. 2018. Venantius Fortunatus and Christian Theology at the End of the Sixth Century in Gaul. Ph.D. Thesis, Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto.

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