Esmerée courageously offered healing to lovesick Galeran

Like Floire and Blancheflor, Galeran of Brittany and Fresne of Normandy grew up together in a medieval French abbey as if they were brother and sister. They actually were born from different parents. They came to love each other in the way of woman and man who desire to be one. They pledged eternal love to each other and mutually promised to marry when the time was suitable. Fresne and Galeran, however, lost contact as young adults. Compassionately recognizing Galeran lovesickness, the beautiful, noble young woman Esmerée offered to have sex with him.

Esmerée’s healing initiative occurred in the the court of her father, Duke Heliman of Metz. Galeran had become Count of Brittany and a highly respected young man. He went to Metz to earn knighthood from Duke Heliman. Galeran, however, was gravely lovesick for Fresne. Courtiers at Metz speculated that Galeran was in love with Esmerée, the duke’s daughter. Esmerée herself ardently loved Galeran. But she was reluctant to forego traditional female privilege in seeking amorous relationships:

medieval woman rejecting man in love

“In the end it’s necessary for me to reveal,”
said Esmerée to herself,
“to Galeran what I am thinking,
because it’s good to seek to be healthy.
How? Do you therefore want to request
the Breton’s love first of all?
For all my days that would give me in front
of all such unpleasantness and such shame.
Well, so what? It doesn’t matter to anyone
if I should happen to make myself a fool.
And I don’t have control over myself,
for Love so dominates me and judges me,
in the place of me let Love be accused
and let Love be proceeded to rebuke.
If I fail to escape my misery,
abandoned to my wicked pride,
I will keep making a wicked mistake.
So I should tell him, in order to be wise.
But if he would be so outrageous
that he would not want to receive my love,
all the shame will accrue to him.
It wouldn’t be exchanged to me.
Then I would be his lover
and he would love me better than another.
So I leave it to Love and to him.”
The young woman thus analyzed her situation.
Hence she was made to say her desire by the power
of the love that burned her and pricked her.

{ “En la fin m’estuet il ouvrir,”
Fait Esmeree en son pouppens,
“A Galeren ce que je pens,
Car la santé est bonne a querre.
Comment? Veulx tu doncques requerre
Le Breton d’amours tout avant?
Tousjours mes te seroit davant
Mis ytel ledure et tel honte.
Cui chaut, puisqu’a nulli ne monte
Fors a moy si je faz folie?
Et quant je n’ay de moy baillie,
Qu’Amours me mestroie et justise,
En lieu de moy en soit reprise
Et seue en soit la reprouvance.
S’issir hors de ma mesestance
Lessoie par maulvés orgueil,
Gardé avroye en maulvés fueil.
Se li dy, pour ce seray sage.
Mais s’il a en li tant d’oultrage
Que recevoir m’amour ne veille
Toute la honte l’en accueille;
Qu’a moy ne vendra elle mie.
Puis que je seroie s’amie
Et il ameroit mielx autruy:
Si le les Amour et a luy.”
Ainsi devise la pucelle.
Ce li fait dire l’estencelle
De s’amour qui l’eschaufe et point. }[1]

If a man solicits love from a woman who doesn’t welcome his amorous advance, then he’s a shameful sexual harasser. If a woman solicits love from a man, and he rejects her, he acts shamefully. If she then falsely accuses him of attempted rape, who expresses concern within gynocentric society? Esmerée understood these pressing concerns of social justice. She thus resolved to tell Galeran of her love for him.

Esmerée’s mother, the Duchess of Metz, was very fond of Galeran. She called him her son. She also often summoned him to visit her. She would have him sit by Esmerée as she and Esmerée entertained him. The noble and charming Esmerée provided warm and enjoyable company. She would raise Galeran’s spirit and soothe his broken heart.

One day, seeking to lift his depression and divert his heart, Galeran visited Esmerée. The lovesick Galeran was sad and pensive. Esmerée was attentive to him. She took a chaplet off her head and lovingly arranged it on his head. Then she gazed directly into his eyes and said:

Galeran, brother, it is my opinion,
as a young woman secretly makes,
that you have under the armpit
a hidden wound by which you hurt,
where it doesn’t have use of an opening,
that is you have a wound without a hole.
Not known by urine tester or by inquiry,
your illness apart from your complexion is hidden.
If you feel pain in your heart
that is causing you grief by being hidden,
you should very well uncover it
and show it where you believe
that you might find relief for your malady.
Tell me if you see what I am saying to you.

{ Galeren, frere, il m’est avis,
Fait priveement la pucelle,
Que vous estes dessouz l’esselle
D’une plaie bleciez oscure,
Ou il ne pert point d’ouverture;
Ainz avez playe sans pertuis.
Congnoistre n’oriner ne ruis
Voustre mal fors a la couleur.
Se vous sentez au cuer douleur
Qui vous voist grevant par covrir,
Vous la devez moult bien ouvrir
Et moustrer la dont vous cuidiez
De vostre mahaign estre aidiez.
Dictes moy si je vous dy voir. }[2]

An intelligent and active young woman, Esmerée of course didn’t consider herself to be merely a hole. But she understood what men need to be cured of lovesickness.[3]

Galeran understood that Esmerée wanted to be his lover. But Galeran had given his heart to Fresne. Esmerée’s words made him dream of being with Fresne. Esmerée realized that she needed to be more direct. Not asking for his affirmative consent, she embraced Galeran. Then she said:

Galeran, brother,
have toward me a bright face.
If you don’t hold me to be presumptuous,
I am totally at your command
in order to free you of this malady.

{ Galeren, frere,
Aiez vers moy la chiere clere.
Si ne me tenez a estoute,
Si je suis en vo commant toute
Pour vous oster de ce mahaign. }

Galeran courteously responded that no medicine could cure him of his wound. Galeran didn’t believe in universal medicine. Only Fresne could heal his wound.

Esmerée was disappointed with Galeran’s lack of interest in well-established medicine. Nonetheless, she treated him with respect and continuing compassion. She told him:

Then I was foolish to think to heal you.
Doing that was like wanting to drink the sea
— when I took on the suffering of loving you —
and nonetheless I want to love you.
I won’t desist on account of your haughtiness,
because to love well one must be humble.
Since I am beyond my own power,
and I have placed myself entirely in yours,
I will minister to your nobleness
until it accepts and consents
to where I have turned my desire.

{ Donc ay je eü fol cuidier.
Fait celle, et vueil boire la mer,
Quant je met peine a vous amer.
Et ne pourquant amer vous vueil,
Ja ne leray pour voustre orgueil,
Car qui bien ayme il se humilie.
Puis que hors suis de ma baillie,
Et en vous me suis du tout mise,
Je verrai vostre gentillise
Tant qu’elle s’acort et assente
La ou j’ay tournée m’entente. }

In short, she didn’t take no for an answer. No, however, was the enduring answer. Galeran continued to treat Esmerée respectfully, but he never allowed himself to be her lover, no matter how lovesick he felt for the absent Fresne.

medieval woman offering her heart to a man

From their commanding position in medieval society, medieval women had compassion for men. Not only striving to cure men of lovesickness, medieval women slayed monsters for men. Medieval women defended their men from devilish castration. When their beloved men were in love with another woman, medieval women acted with extraordinarily generous love. In medieval society, women and men venerated Mary, the mother of Jesus, as the fully and no more than human brilliant example of merciful and generous love. Modern societies cannot aspire to restore such love instantaneously. A good start, however, would be for more persons to study and appreciate the courage, initiative, and generosity of Esmerée in love for Galeran.

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[1] Jean Renaut, Galeran of Brittany {Galeran de Bretagne} vv. 4498-525, Old French text from Foulet (1925), my English translation, benefiting from that Beston (2008a). For a summary of this romance, Barrow (1924) pp. 131-2 (where it’s titled Galerent), and Beston (2008b).

Nothing is known about Jean Renaut other than what can be inferred from Galeran de Bretagne, his only known work. Jean Renaut is now generally regarded to be a different person than Jean Renart.

Jean Renaut is thought to have composed Galeran de Bretagne at the end of the twelfth century or at the beginning of the thirteenth century. This romance survives in only one manuscript: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, français 24042, written in the fifteenth century.

Jean Renaut’s romance Galeran de Bretagne shares central structures with Marie de France’s lay Le Fresne. Both involve female twins that are separated at at birth and who as young women love the same young man. The discovery of identity and resulting marriage is similarly structured in both works. Jean Renaut, however, emphasizes disparity in rank as an obstacle to marriage and Christian moral teaching much more so than does Marie de France. Beston (2008a) p. 5.

In Galeran de Bretagne, Guinant, the Duke of Austria, ardently loved Esmerée. She, however, wasn’t interested in him. Jealous of Esmerée’s love for Galeran, Guinant instigated horrific violence against men, including against Galeran. A modern scholar declared:

Modern narrative art would either reject the Esmerée-Guynant episode altogether and rely for its contribution to the theme upon the Fleurie episode, or condense it and give it greater dynamic plot value.

Barrow (1924) p. 73. Violence against men is regrettably conventional in epic and medieval romance. In her specific references to Galeran’s wound and its cure, Esmerée’s concern for Galeran’s lovesickness isn’t conventional. Barrow, Beston, and many others haven’t adequately appreciated Esmerée in Galeran de Bretagne.

Another Old French romance from the early 1170s witnesses to men’s gender burden in soliciting amorous relationships. The matter concerns Ille (a man) and Galeron (a woman):

Ille did not know that she loved him,
nor did Galeron know that he loved her,
for she was of so very high rank
that he did not dare reveal his love for her,
and she would not reveal her love to him
first for anything that was,
because it’s not fitting for a woman to say
“I want to be your lover”
if a man has not previously requested her love
and spent a long time in her service.

{ ne Illes nel set de celi,
ne Galerons que cil aint li,
car cele est si tres haute cose
que cil descouvrir ne li ose,
n’ele ne li descoverroit
premierement por rien qui soit,
qu’il n’afiert pas que feme die
“Je voel devenir vostre amie,”
por c’on ne l’ait ançois requise
et mout esté en son service. }

Gautier d’Arras, Ille and Galeron {Ille et Galeron}, vv. 1217-26, Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Eley (1996).

Subsequent quotes from Galeran de Bretagne are similarly sourced. The three subsequent quotes above are from Galeran de Bretagne, vv. 4558-571 (Galeran, brother, it is my opinion…), 4581-85 (Galeran, brother, / have toward me a bright face…), 4598-608 (Then I was foolish to think to heal you…).

[2] Examining a patient’s urine was a common practice in ancient medicine. At the abbey of Beauséjour, where Fresne and Galeran were raised, the chaplain Lohier observed Fresne lovesick and declared:

The heart doesn’t have what it wants.
Your complexion witnesses this to me.
I see your maladies and your pains
like one sees them in the urine.

{ Le cuer n’a mie ce qu’il veult,
Ce me tesmoigne vo couleurs:
Je voy les maulx et les douleurs
Aussi com en voit en l’orine }

Galeran de Bretagne, vv. 1458-61. Fresne confessed to Lohier that she was lovesick for Galeran. She said that he loves her more than Paris loved Helen, and that she loves him more than Yseult ever loved Tristan. Fresne insisted that she hadn’t done any serious wrong. She declared that she hadn’t delivered her body to shame and dishonored herself. She meant that she didn’t have sex with Galeran even though she loved him and they planned to marry.

[3] Beston characterizes Jean Renaut as “conservative and deeply religious in orthodox Christian terms.” Beston (2008c) p. 214. Such persons in westernized countries today wouldn’t speak so frankly about men’s sexual needs. Persons of different viewpoints spoke relatively freely in medieval Europe.

[images] (1) Medieval woman rejecting man’s love offering. Illustration from instance of Richard de Fournival’s thirteenth-century Way of Love {Commens d’amour}. Detail from folio 7r of Bibliothèque municipale de Dijon, MS 526, made early in the fourteenth century. (2) Medieval woman offering her heart to a man. Illumination on folio 59r of the Alexander Romance in Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 264, pt. I. A scribe wrote this leaf in Picardian French, the dialect of Flanders, in 1338. The Tournai illuminator Jehan de Grise and his atelier illustrated it in 1344.


Barrow, Sarah F. 1924. The Medieval Society Romances. New York: Columbia University Press.

Beston, John, trans. 2008a. An English Translation of Jean Renaut’s Galeran de Bretagne, a Thirteenth-Century French Romance. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press.

Beston, John. 2008b. “Une bele conjointure: the structure of Galeran de Bretagne.” Neophilologus. 92 (1): 19-33.

Beston, John. 2008c. “Galeran de Bretagne: Between Romance and Realism.” Neophilologus. 92 (2): 205-215.

Eley, Penny, ed. and trans. 1996. Gautier d’Arras. Ille et Galeron. London: King’s College London Centre for Late Antique & Medieval Studies.

Foulet, Lucien, ed. 1925. Jean Renaut. Galeran de Bretagne: Roman du XIIIe Siècle.. Paris: É. Champion. Alternate source.

invective against men risks supporting castration culture

Invective against men differs categorically from seeking to castrate men. Yet disdaining and disparaging men historically has been associated with castration culture. Invective against men, and even invective against women, must be permitted in societies that aspire to be as liberal and tolerant as the classical Arabic world and medieval Europe. Castration culture, in contrast, should be vigorously resisted. Men’s genitals should be regarded as jewels, not junk. Men deserve to be respected as bearers of seminal blessing.

Disparaging men became a school writing exercise in medieval Europe. In fifth-century Gaul, the elite Roman official Sidonius Apollinaris disparaged a man named as Gnatho in a widely circulated letter. Sidonius’s work authorized lengthy poems disparaging men. About 1175 in Tours, Matthew of Vendôme {Matheus Vindocinensis} in his schoolbook Art of the Verse-Maker {Ars versificatoria} provided ninety-six verses of illustrative invective against a man named Davus. Matthew’s teaching example begins:

Scurrilous vagrant, gnawing parasite, outcast of the people
is Davus, a disgrace to the world, a sickening plague,
an instigator of crime, the world’s dregs, ruin
of justice, assailant of the law, potent in deceit,
seed of lewdness, barren of truth, overflowing
with trifles, deformed in body, harmful in mind.

{ Scurra vagus, parasitus edax, abjectio plebis
Est Davus, rerum dedecus, aegra lues;
Fomentum sceleris, mundi sentina, ruina
Justitiae, legum laesio, fraude potens;
Semen nequitiae, veri jejunus, abundans
Nugis, deformis corpore, mente nocens }[1]

With “seed of lewdness, barren of truth {semen nequitiae, veri jejunus}” Matthew is already demeaning Davus’s seminal blessing. Just after Matthew depicts Davus as frequently farting, Matthew explicitly attacks his sexuality:

He tends toward sexual wantonness. Sick love excites his two-pound
brothers, other members are warm, and his penis stiffens.
The dactyl meter’s first long syllable enters. With repeated
thrust, the short syllables shake the filthy bulwarks.

{ Vergit ad incestum, Venus excitat aegra bilibres
Fratres, membra tepent cetera, cauda riget.
Metri dactilici prior intrat syllaba, crebro
Impulsu quatiunt moenia foeda breves. }[2]

No medieval student could fail to understand this prosodic brutalization of masculine sexuality. Obviously it’s not as lengthy and explicit as Ausonius’s Wedding Cento {Cento nuptialis}. More significantly, it’s not meant to be a parody. It’s medieval education in disparaging men’s sexuality.

Contempt for men’s sexuality exists without regard for men’s essential role in perpetuating humanity. For example, writing late in the eleventh century, Serlo of Bayeux defended priests marrying. Serlo pointed out that men having sex with women creates human history:

If no one would impregnate, history would be at its utmost end.
With what union would the world exist, if no man had impregnated?
Coitus precedes being originated. Because she’s pregnant, that went on.
No woman would have conceived, if a man had not impregnated.

{ Si generet nemo, res in fine supremo.
Quo pacto staret mundus, ni vir generaret?
Ortum precedit coitus, quia feta, quod edit,
non concepisset mulier, nisi vir generasset. }[3]

Humans all too readily ignore these facts of life. Serlo himself urged the young woman Muriel of Wilton to become a nun rather than a wife and mother. He viciously disparaged men as husbands:

A woman submits to iron laws when she marries.
She isn’t free from punishment since an alien law oppresses her.
She doesn’t please her husband unless she takes care with amazing order.

If she puts on clothes, if she takes up suitable coverings,
or looks at combs, when her spouse sees such things
with his credulous mind of the wicked, he wavers with heavy suspicion.

Now he isn’t at ease unless she languishes and is miserable.

{ Ferrea jura subit mulier quo tempore nubit;
Non vacat a poena quia lex premit hanc aliena;
Nec placet illa viro nisi serviat ordine miro.

Si pannos aptet, si congrua tegmina captet,
Sive comas spectat, conjunx ubi talia spectat,
Suspicione gravi titubat mens credula pravi.

Nec jam fert aeque, nisi langueat haec, misereque }[4]

Not all husbands are like that. Serlo even goes as far as to suggest that since human men are sexually inadequate, Muriel should unite herself instead to the eternal God:

O excellent sister, your fire impels many
to unite with you in the contract of the seed’s chosen bed,
but perceiving them frail and from this scorning their contracts,
you enter the contract of the spouse for whom one doesn’t know death’s imprisonment.

{ O soror insignis, multos tuus impulit ignis,
Germinis electi foedus tibi jungere lecti,
Quos fragiles cernens, et ob hoc sua foedera spernens,
Sponsi foedus inis quem nescit claudere finis. }

Men’s impotence is rightly regarded as an epic disaster. But measuring men against a supernatural burden of performance is inhumane. Underscoring the relation between invective against men and castration, Serlo proposed castrating three thousand knights for failing to prevent the army of Henry I from sacking and burning Bayeux in 1105. Serlo declared:

About this troop of condemned ones, what my mind judges, I reveal:
I urge castrating them, so that from them would not be directly begotten
sons justly condemned for their fathers’ crimes.

{ de grege damnando, quod censet mens mea, pando;
laudo castrentur, ne prorsus ab his generentur
iuste damnati patrum pro crimine nati. }[5]

Castration destroys men. Invective that seeks to destroy men naturally leads to advocating for castration. In practice, neither invective against men nor castration contributes to defending a city or a society.

Medieval man being castrated by another man (Cronus castrating Uranus) with woman and man onlookers

Even apparently minor disputes can lead to impugning a holy man’s sexuality and advocating for his castration. For example, in the seventh century, Bishop Chrodobert of Tours complained that Bishop Importunus of Paris had sent him rotten grain. Infuriated at this complaint, Bishop Importunus wrote a letter “To my lord Chrodobert, who is without God {Domno meo Frodeberto, sine Deo}.” That letter begins:

To one neither holy nor bishop,
nor secular cleric,
over whom reigns the ancient
enemy of mankind.
Anyone who doesn’t at all believe me
can observe your deeds.
God necessarily is a wish to you,
since you don’t love God or believe in the Son of God.
You have always done evil.
Against the adversary
you think your counsel is sufficiently wise,
but I believe you are full of lies.

{ Nec sancto nec episcopo,
Nec saeculare clerico,
Ubi regnat antiquus
Hominum inimicus
Qui mihi minime credit
Facta tua vidit.
Illum tibi necesse desiderio,
Quare non amas Deo nec credis Dei Filio.
Semper fecisti malum.
Contra adversarium,
Consilio satis te putas sapiente,
Sed credimus quod mentis. }[6]

Christians regard Satan (the adversary) as the father of lies. Bishop Importunus essentially asserted that Bishop Chrodobert is possessed by Satan. That invective led to Importunus disparaging Chrodobert’s masculine sexuality and urging him to castrate himself:

You love a pretty girl
from whatever land,
not for the sake of goodness,
nor for holy charity.
You will never be righteous
while you hold to such a path.
By your long dick –- is it sufficient or not? –-
by all things, get yourself castrated,
so that you would not perish through such behavior,
because God will judge fornicators.

{ Amas puella bella
De qualibet terra,
Pro nulla bonitate
Nec sancta caritate.
Bonus numquam eris,
Dum tale via tenes
Per tua cauta longa – satis est vel non est?
Per omnia iube te castrare,
Ut non pereas per talis,
Quia fornicatoris Deus iudicabit }

Bishop Chrodobert responded in part with a letter to a group of holy women. He urged them not to believe the “false stories {fabulas falsas}” of “many liars {multi falsatores}” with their “false words {falsi sermones}.”[7] All women today should likewise not believe stories disparaging men’s sexuality. Men for their part should not be like the donkey in the Mirror of Fools {Speculum stultorum}. What God has given each man is sufficient for him.

Men’s genitals should be regarded as jewels and socially protected. Some enlightened poets have recognized that castration culture impairs creativity and human splendor. For example, both the noble Mathias and the philosopher Peter Abelard were castrated in France early in the twelfth century. A poem written soon after lamented that terrible loss:

Two jewels, Gaul, adorned you once:
Mathias the consul and Peter the philosopher,
one the glory of knighthood, the other the light of the clergy.
From you a single cut removed both jewels.
Envious fate deprived both these exalted men of their genitals.
Unlike cause made them alike in wound.

{ Ornavere due te quondam, Gallia, gemme:
Mathias consul philosophusque Petrus.
Milicie decus hic, cleri lux extitit ille.
Plaga tibi gemmas abstulit una duas,
Invida sors summos privat genitalibus ambo,
Dispar causa pares vulnere fecit eos }[8]

Gaul, now known as France, still doesn’t recognize that castration culture kills. Neither do almost all other countries. The multinational community of literary scholars also refuses to acknowledge the threat of castration culture. We must do better.

Those who utter invective against men should swear that they respect men’s testicles. In Latin, the word for “witnesses {testes}” is identical to the world for “testicles {testes}.” Early Latin literature points to that association in the context of castration. In Plautus’s Swaggering Soldier {Miles Gloriosus}, composed about 205 BGC, the swaggering soldier has strong, independent sexuality. After being beaten and restrained for a sexual endeavor, he swears not to harm anyone in retaliation. He promises that if he doesn’t keep that oath, “May I live forever without the power to bear witness {vivam semper intestabilis}!” A cook then demands money from him “so that we let you go away from here today with your testicles unharmed, you little grandson of Venus {salvis testibus ut ted hodie hinc amittamus Venerium nepotulum}.”[9] This pun on “testes” in Miles Gloriosus promotes the threat of castration. It must be reversed in word and deed.

Here’s a specific policy proposal for your consideration: anyone who utters invective against men should conclude that invective by stroking her or his own crotch and declaring, “Nonetheless, I testify with thanksgiving to God for men’s seminal blessing!”

For what I have written, you may sneer at me and malign me all you please. Do you have a better idea for resisting castration culture?

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[1] Matthew of Vendôme {Matheus Vindocinensis}, Art of the Verse-Maker {Ars versificatoria} 1.53.1-6, Latin text from Faral (1924) p. 124, English translation (modified) from Parr (1981) p. 33. Faral’s Latin text is from Glasgow, University Library, MS Hunter 511. At least three other manuscripts of Ars versificatoria survive. Id, preface.

Davus is the name of a bound serving-man in Terence’s plays Phormio and Andria. Matthew’s description of Davus occurs in his section of examples of describing persons based on their attributes. Other persons for whom Matthew provides example descriptions include a pope, Caesar, Ulysses, Helen of Troy, and Beroe (an ugly old woman).

Matthew of Vendôme studied at Tours under the great master Bernardus Silvestris. Matthew himself taught at Tours and at Orléans. Matthew wrote an amplification of the biblical story of Tobias, the comedy Milo, a version of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe {Piramus et Tisbe}, as well at least ten works that have been lost. Matthew’s Ars versificatoria is the first of at least five recastings of Horace’s Art of Poetry {Ars poetica}. On medieval Arts of Poetry {Artes poeticae}, Parr (1981) pp. 6-7.

[2] Ars versificatoria 1.53.77-80, sourced as previously. The “two-pound brothers {bilibrae fratres}” refers to Davus’s testicles. The word for “penis {cauda}” more literally refers to an animal’s tail. A dactyl is a Latin poetic meter typically consisting of one long syllable followed by two short syllables. The passage continues to describe Davus having anal intercourse with a male slave.

[3] Serlo of Bayeux, incipit “We married men were born for ridicule {Nos uxorati sumus ad ludibria nati},” vv. 18-21, Latin text from Lenzen (1990), my English translation, benefiting from that of Boswell (1980) p. 399. Serlo’s “Nos uxorati sumus ad ludibria nati” survives in only one manuscript: Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, clm 17212, folio 27r. The poem dates to circa 1090. van Houts (2019) p. 189.

Boswell’s Latin text, which contains only 37 verses compared to 43 in Lenzen’s, is unreliable. Here’s Boswell’s English translation and Latin text for the above verses:

If no one propagated, if no man procreated,
Everything would come to an end; the world would be finished.
Coitus precedes birth, as the pregnant woman the child she bears.
No woman would conceive if no man impregnated.

{ Si generaret nemo, res in fine supremo
Quo pacto staret mundus, ni vir generaret.
Ortum precedit coitus; que feta quem edit.
Non concepisset mulier ni uir generasset. }

“Nos uxorati sumus ad ludibria nati,” vv. 18-21 (Boswell vv. 16-19), id. pp. 399-400, with Boswell’s emendation of generaret for generet in v. 18. Van Houts provided Lenzen’s Latin text but Boswell’s English translation (modified slightly). Van Houts (2019) p. 189, and associated n. 75. The Latin of v. 20 is difficult. Nonetheless, one can easily observe that the Latin is highly rhetorical, with “to impregnate {genero}” used three time in different tenses across four verses. Impregnating is important labor that men do.

Serlo of Bayeux flourished from about 1080 to 1100. He isn’t the same person as Serlo of Wilton / Serlo of Paris, who flourished about half a century later. Serlo of Bayeux apparently was a priest’s son about Caen. He became a canon at the cathedral of Bayeux and was in the entourage of Bishop Odo of Bayeux. Nine works are now generally attributed to Serlo of Bayeux. On Serlo’s life, van Houts (2013) pp. 66-74. On poems attributed to Serlo of Bayeux, id., Appendix 2, and Lucas-Avenel & D’Angelo (2017).

[4] Serlo of Bayeux, Verses of Serlo of Paris to Muriel the holy one {Versus serlonis parisiacensis ad murielem sanctimonialem}, incipit “Since you ask for our song that you know is useless {Dum nostrum poscis carmen, quod inutile noscis},” vv. 58-60, 71-3, 98, Latin text from Wright (1972) vol. 2, pp.  233-40, English translation (modified slightly) from Epistolae: Medieval Women’s Latin Letters. This poem was wrongly ascribed to Serlo of Paris. The subsequent quote above is similarly from “Dum nostrum poscis carmen, quod inutile noscis,” vv. 13-16.

This letter-poem is known only from London, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A xii, fols 109r-110r. That manuscript is thought to have been written in the fourth quarter of the eleventh century or first quarter of the twelfth. The letter-poem itself dates to before 1113. van Houts (2016) para. 12.

Muriel of Wilton was a nun living in the royal abbey at Wilton in Wiltshire, England. She was famed as a poet and corresponded with the bishop-poet Baudri of Bourgueil. A leading scholar of Serlo of Bayeux described Serlo’s letter-poem to Muriel:

He praised her as a virgin, denouncing in unmistakenly (sic) misogynistic fashion the married state as inferior and less preferable for women.

van Houts (2016) para. 12. This letter-poem “contains a lengthy attack on married women in the learned misogynistic tradition.” Van Houts (2013) p. 67. One might better say that this poem contains a lengthy attack on married men in the largely ignored or trivialized misandristic tradition. Hildebert of Le Mans wrote a lengthy poem in praise of Muriel of Wilton in the tradition of elite men aggrandizing women. On that poem (Hildebert’s Carmen 26), see note [5] in my post on Fortunatus imagining himself helping Radegund in the kitchen.

[5] Serlo of Bayeux, rubric The verses of Serlo about the capture of the city of Bayeux begin {Incipiunt uersus Serlonis de capta Baiocensium ciuitate}, incipit “My heart is made sad because you were captured so quickly {Corde fero tristi quod tam cito capta fuisti},” vv. 151-3, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Moreed Arbabzadah’s Appendix 3, “Serlo of Bayeux, The Capture of Bayeux” in van Houts (2013) pp. 86-105. This poem was written “between April 1105 and September 1106.” Id. p. 67. For critical evaluation of Latin texts of this poem, Arbabzadah (2017).

[6] Letter exchange between Chrodobert of Tours and Importunus of Paris, Letter 3, Importunus of Paris to Chrodobert of Tours, incipit “To one neither holy nor bishop {Nec sancto nec episcopo},” vv. 1-12, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Tyrrell (2012) p. 173. The subsequent quote above is similarly from this letter, vv. 44-53. The Latin word cauta / cauda literally means “tail,” but in v. 49 it signifies Importunus’s penis.

For Latin text with English translation for all five letters, Tyrrell (2012) pp. 171-9. For an earlier edition with English translation, Shanzer (2010) pp. 396-405. Chrodobert is also written in modern English as Frodebertus or Frodebert.

These letters survive in a ninth-century manuscript providing legal form letters (a formulary) for the city of Sens. That manuscript is Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, lat. 4627. The Latin of these letters differs considerably from classical Latin and is difficult to decipher. The texts include some Frankish words. Tyrrell (2012) p. 168. “But while the orthography and much of the syntax looks vulgar, whoever (singular or plural) wrote these letters was familiar with literary registers.” Shanzer (2010) p. 383. Whether the letters were written in verse or prose isn’t clear. Id. pp. 392-3.

Most scholars regard these letters as genuine, meaning they are letters actually exchanged within the context that the letters describe. Tyrrell (2012) p. 166, n. 223. Assuming the letters genuine, Bishops Chrodobert and Importunus exchanged them most probably between 665 and 668. Id. p. 167-8.

For Satan / the serpent / the devil as the enemy and the adversary, Genesis 3, 1 Peter 5:8, Revelation 12:10. For Satan as the father of lies, John 8:44. In this letter, Importunus ironically acts as an adversary of Chrodobert.

[7] Letter 5. Chrodobert of Tours to a group of holy women, incipit “Do not, ladies, do not, holy women {Nolite, domnae, nolite, sanctae},” excerpts from vv. 2-4.

[8] “Two jewels, Gaul, adorned you once {Ornavere due te quondam, Gallia, gemme},” vv 1-6 (of 16), Latin text and English translation (adapted) from Dronke (1992) pp. 281, 263. Full Latin available via Heloïsa und Abaelard. This poem is known only from Orléans, Bibliothèque municipale MS 284 (239) p. 183, written in the late in the twelfth century or early in the thirteenth century.

The two jewels refers both to Mathias and Abelard, both of whom were castrated, and the two testicles of each. Each was castrated by the excision of his testicles. Sexual violence against men has for far too long been trivialized or ignored.

Mathias the consul was probably Mathias, Count of Nantes and son of Duke Hoel. Both Mathias and Abelard were from the same region of Gaul. Duke Hoel was overlord of Abelard’s family. Dronke (1992) p. 264.

[9] Plautus, Swaggering Soldier {Miles Gloriosus}, vv. 1416, 1417 (2nd half), Latin text from De Melo (2011), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. The swaggering soldier Pyrgopolinices speaks both of these phrases. Pyrgopolinices literally means in ancient Greek “conqueror of many castles.”

Here’s a plot summary of Miles Gloriosus. The twelfth-century cleric Arnulf of Orléans transformed Plautus’s play into a medieval Latin comedy also called Miles Gloriosus.

A variety other other evidence shows that testicles and witnesses (testes) came together in Latin through the cultural practice of solemnizing oaths with testicles. See, e.g. Genesis 24:9, 47:29, where the oath-speaker holds the testicles of the one to whom he gives the oath. For detailed analysis, Katz (1998).

[image] Medieval man being castrated by another man (Cronus castrating Uranus) with woman and man onlookers. Illumination (detail) by Robinet Testard for Évrard de Conty’s The book of love moralized as chess {Les livre des échecs amoureux moralisés}. Made between 1496 and 1498. From folio 28r of Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Français 143.


Arbabzadah, Moreed. 2017. “Textual errors in Serlo of Bayeux’s poem about the capture of Bayeux.” Tabularia. Online. Alternate source; another source.

Boswell, John. 1980. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

De Melo, Wolfgang , ed. and trans. 2011. Plautus. The Merchant. The Braggart Soldier. The Ghost. The Persian. Loeb Classical Library 163. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Dronke, Peter. 1992. Intellectuals and Poets in Medieval Europe. Roma: Edizioni di storia e letteratura. Ch. 9 (pp. 247-294) reprints Dronke, Peter. 1976. Abelard and Heloise in Medieval Testimonies: The Twenty-Sixth W.P. Ker Memorial Lecture Delivered in the University of Glasgow, 29th October, 1976. Glasgow: University of Glasgow Press.

Faral, Edmond. 1924. Les Arts Poétiques Du XIIe et du XIIIe Siècle: Recherches et documents sur la technique littéraire du Moyen Âge. Paris: Champion.

Katz, Joshua T. 1998. “Testimonia Ritus Italici: Male Genitalia, Solemn Declarations, and a New Latin Sound Law.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology. 98: 183–217.

Lenzen, Rolf. 1990. “Sodomitenschelte: Eine Invektive des Serlo von Bayeux?” Pp. 188-92 in Ewald Könsgen. ed. Arbor amoena comis. 25 Jahre Mittellateinisches Seminar in Bonn 1965–1990. Stuttgart: Steiner.

Lucas-Avenel, Marie-Agnès, and Edoardo D’Angelo. 2917. “Vers une nouvelle édition des poèmes de Serlon de Bayeux.” Tabularia. Online.

Parr, Roger P., trans. 1981. Matthew of Vendôme. Ars Versificatoria (The Art of the Versemaker). Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press.

Shanzer, Danuta. 2010. “The Tale of Frodebert’s Tail.” Chapter 23 (pp. 377–405) in Eleanor Dickey and Anna Chahoud, eds. 2010. Colloquial and Literary Latin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tyrrell, Vida Alice. 2012. Merovingian Letters and Letter Writers. Ph.D. Thesis, Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto. Review by Ralph W. Mathisen.

Van Houts, Elisabeth. 2013. “The Warren Hollister Memorial Essay: The Fate of the Priests’ Sons in Normandy with Special Reference to Serlo of Bayeux.” Chapter 4 (pp. 57-105) in Laura L. Gathagan and William North, eds. The Haskins Society Journal, 25. Boydell & Brewer; Boydell Press.

Van Houts, Elisabeth. 2016. “Serlo of Bayeux and England.” Tabularia. Online.

Van Houts, Elisabeth. 2019. Married Life in the Middle Ages. 900-1300. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wright, Thomas, ed. 1872. The Anglo-Latin Satirical Poets and Epigrammatists of the Twelfth Century. 2 volumes. Volume 1: The Anglo-Latin satirical poets of the twelfth century. Volume 2: The minor Anglo-Latin satirists and epigrammatists. London: Longman & Trübner.

women in love with men shouldn’t presume exclusivity & commitment

In medieval Europe, women experienced strong, enduring delight with men. Medieval men in turn ardently loved women, sometimes even to the extent of scandalous gyno-idolatry. Love’s passion, however, isn’t the same as an intentional, voluntary pledge to exclusivity and commitment. Medieval literature indicates that at least some women presumed exclusivity and commitment from beloved men. Such love presumptions can easily lead to heartbreak and grief.

The intensity with which women once loved men is scarcely conceivable today. That failure of imagination might be remedied with some appreciation for the great medieval woman scholar and abbess Heloise of the Paraclete. She ardently loved Peter Abelard. Within the oppressive history of penal punishment of men’s sexuality, Abelard was castrated for his love affair with Heloise. Heloise received no violent punishment. She, however, was deprived of sexual intimacy with him. At least fifteen years after they began their sexual affair, she recalled in a letter to him:

Those lovers’ pleasures that we equally enjoyed were truly so sweet to me that they cannot displease me, nor scarcely pass from my memory. In whatever place I turn, they always offer themselves before my eyes with their desires, nor even do they spare me, sleeping, their illusions. Even during the celebrations of the Mass, when prayer ought to be purer, lewd visions of those pleasures so completely take hold of my most wretched soul that I am given over to their vileness rather than to prayer. When I ought to groan over what I have done, I sigh rather over what I have lost. Not only what we did but equally the places and times in which we did them are so impressed upon my heart along with you, that in them I do with you all those things again. Not even sleeping can I have rest from them. … My youthful ardor and my experience of the most delightful pleasures inflame the longings of my body and the urgings of my desire, and their assaults on me are oppressive in such greater magnitude, since my nature is more vulnerable to assault. I am praised as chaste by those who do not perceive the hypocrisy.

{ In tantum vero ille quas pariter exercuimus amantium voluptates dulces michi fuerunt ut nec displicere michi nec vix a memoria labi possint. Quocumque loco me vertam, semper se oculis meis cum suis ingerunt desideriis, nec etiam dormienti suis illusionibus parcunt. Inter ipsa missarum sollempnia, ubi purior esse debet oratio, obscena earum voluptatum phantasmata ita sibi penitus miserrimam captivant animam ut turpitudinibus illis magis quam orationi vacem; que cum ingemiscere debeam de commissis, suspiro potius de amissis. Nec solum que egimus sed loca pariter et tempora in quibus hec egimus ita tecum nostro infixa sunt animo, ut in ipsis omnia tecum agam, nec dormiens etiam ab his quiescam. … Hoc autem in me stimulos carnis haec incentiva libidinis ipse iuvenilis fervor aetatis, et iucundissimarum experientia voluptatum plurimum accendunt, et tanto amplius sua me impugnatione opprimunt, quanto infirmior est natura quam impugnant. Castam me praedicant qui non deprehendunt hypocritam. }[1]

No more than a few years after receiving this letter from Heloise, Abelard included in a poem of wisdom for their son Astralabe a similar account:

Your sins will relinquish you more than you will relinquish your sins,
if you repent when you can no longer do harm with them.
There are those for whom sins they have committed delight so much
that they can never truly repent of them,
or rather the sweetness of the pleasure was such
that no penance for their sins can weigh them down.
Such is the frequent complaint of our Heloise about this,
which often she used to say to me as to herself:
“If I must repent of what I had earlier committed,
I cannot be saved. No hope remains for me.
So sweet are the joys of what we committed,
that, having pleased too much, they bring delight when remembered.”

{ te pecata magis quam tu pecata relinquent
si cum non possis ledere peniteas.
sunt quos oblectant adeo pecata peracta
ut numquam vere peniteant super his,
immo voluptatis dulcedo tanta sit huius,
ne gravet ulla satisfacio propter eam
est nostre super hoc Eloyse crebra querela
que michi que secum dicere sepe solet:
“si ne peniteat me comississe priora
salvari nequeam, spes michi nulla manet:
dulcia sunt adeo comissi gaudia nostri
ut memorata iuvent que placuere nimis.” }[2]

Women today are frequently urged to repent of loving men, who allegedly bear toxic masculinity. Far too many women have done so. In contrast, Heloise, living and working as a revered nun-leader of Christian nuns early in the twelfth century, could not repent of the sexual joy she had with Abelard many years earlier. Even over core personal feelings of sexual desire, ideological control seems to have reached a totalitarian level today that was impossible in medieval Europe.

Some medieval women loved men possessively outside of marriage. In a poem from no later than the thirteenth century, a woman complains that her beloved man wants to have another beloved woman in addition to her:

When there are two whom a single love joins into one,
that one love does not allow them to be two.
In love is faithfulness. There should be two lovers. If a third be present,
nothing would be among the three, since scarcely anything would be among the two.
Love remains secret, calls to itself, and makes lovers one.
Love thus unites two lovers. With a third, love leaves.
Love is nothing other than the joining of two minds.
As long as the lover lives, let not love die.
If any love would be first dear and then debased,
that is not love, but fraud. Not fraud, but suffering.
Therefore let each be the other’s own. But he would never be mine —
this man who merely always begins to be mine!

{ Cum duo sint quos unus amor conformat in unum,
Illos unus amor non sinit esse duos.
Est in amore fides: duo sint — si tercius assit,
Nulla tribus, nam vix ulla duobus erit.
Secreto stat amor, ad se vocat, et facit unum:
Ipse duos unit; tercius, exit amor.
Nil amor est aliud quam mens connexa duorum,
Sed dum vivat amans, non moriatur amor.
Si quis amor carus sit primo, denique vilis,
Non amor, immo dolus; non dolus, immo dolor.
Ergo suo sit uterque suus; sed erit meus ille
Nunquam qui semper incipit esse meus! }[3]

A woman might regard loving more than one man as improper or inauthentic. But her beloved man might have different beliefs or loving capabilities. A man who never promised that he would love only one woman shouldn’t be presumed to love only one. Accusing a man of fraud simply for loving two women simultaneously is unreasonable and unloving. The great medieval lover Ignaure loved twelve women simultaneously. He was murdered for loving women so much. Such injustice should never be repeated, especially against a man who has only one or two additional beloved women. More generally, a woman should not presume to have a man’s love exclusively without him explicitly promising that to her.

sorrowing old man; painting by Vincent van Gogh

Moreover, women should not presume that beloved men are committed to them until death do them part, or alternatively, government authority formally approves their relationship break-up. In particular, a beloved man might not want to be a father. Before the development of extensive police forces and pervasive tracking and surveillance technologies, a man had minimal reproductive rights through the possibility of fleeing from a pregnancy attributed to him. Perhaps that’s more humane than begging, urging, and incentivizing the woman to abort a pregnancy.[4] In either case, a woman might lose a man’s love when she feels that she needs it most — when she’s pregnant. A poem apparently from twelfth-century France expresses such a woman’s grief:

All becomes shabby, and my limbs melt with sorrow.
No need to explain that they endure a tenant-farmer’s harsh labors.
Sensation withers. My voice wastes away, along with my body.
Therefore come back to me, so that you don’t deserve death.
Let death flee from you. As I beg you to return, let it be done.
Only your conversion would be acceptable and would restore my mind.
May the Lord grant this, so that my heart is not sick in laboring.
I pray to the living God that he would restore to me you as my lover.

You have been made harder than stone while you complain away from me.
I am not able to survive stony you, far away.
Come join with me. Let me not make you be with yourself.
I would want to speak about much with you, if I had a time
and place that would be suitable for our tears.

{ Omnia vilescunt, artusque dolore liquescunt,
Non opus exponi, tolerent que dura coloni,
Sensus marcescit, corpus, vox, atque tabescit;
Ergo revertaris, ne mortem promerearis.
Mors a te fugiat, optata reversio fiat,
Que mentem reparet conversio sola placeret;
Hane dominus donet, ne mens egrota laboret.
Oro deum vivum, quod te mihi reddat amicum

Durior es lapide factus, dum quereris a me:
Non te saxosum valeo superare remotum.
Convenias mecum, faciam te non fore tecum;
Multa loqui vellem tecum, si tempus haberem
Et loca, que nostris congruerent lacrimis. }[5]

The man evidently has complaints about the woman and feels that he cannot be with her. She cannot understand that her beloved man wasn’t and isn’t committed to her:

Then I was a gem, then a flower, then a lily of the field,
then no other woman in the world was like me.
I’m the same as I was, except that now I’m not a virgin, nor can
I ever again be one. For that I weep without end.

{ Tunc ego gemma fui, tunc flos, tunc lilia campi;
Tunc quoque nulla fuit orbe mei similis.
Illud idem, quod eram, modo sum, nisi virgo; nec umquam
Id fieri potero: quod sine fine fleo. }

Her beloved man almost surely didn’t leave her because she was no longer a virgin. He may have decided that he wasn’t happy with his relationship with her. That’s a common reason for divorces today. Perhaps he decided that he didn’t want to endure unplanned parenthood with her. Eliminating unplanned parenthood is a common reason for abortion today. The woman regards the man’s lack of commitment in love as deceit:

To triumph by deceit is nothing except to lack praise.
Promising to me good, you often gave me much,
and for that good, I have obtained many evils.

{ Fraude triumphare nichil est nisi laude carere.
Pollicitando mihi bona plurima sepe dedisti,
Proque bonis sumpta sunt mihi multa mala. }[6]

To encourage understanding in love, men might give women less, and require more from women. The poem ends with the woman’s grief:

What before gave delight, now gives me shedding of tears.

{ Quod dedit ante iocum, modo dat mihi fundere fletum. }

Misunderstandings in love are a common source of grief. Such grief is particularly prevalent when women and men love each other ardently, but not necessarily exclusively and with life-long commitment.

dejected old man lying on a street in India

To avoid misunderstandings in love, men must be encouraged to speak about their feelings and concerns. Men are human beings, not merely tools for getting jobs done and providing money and material goods to women and children. Create silence and opportunities for men to speak and be heard. Of course men occasionally utter outrageous and offensive words. Men also fart. But as meninist literary criticism emphasizes, listening to men is necessary to love men truly.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Heloise of the Paraclete to Peter Abelard, Letter {Epistola} 4, section 12, Latin text from Luscombe & Radice (2013), English translation (modified) from Ruys (2008), p. 3, and McLaughlin & Wheeler (2009) via Epistolae: Medieval Women’s Latin Letters.

Peter Abelard began teaching at Notre Dame in Paris about 1115. There he began his affair with Heloise. In 1117 or 1118, Abelard received a letter from Fulk, Prior of Deuil, taunting him about his castration. Abelard thus was castrated between 1115 and 1118. Heloise’s Epistola 4 is dated 1130-1134.

Ruys interpreted Heloise’s sexual passion and imagination according to the teaching of a leading twenty-first-century authority and associated academic discourse:

We need here to understand the distinction articulated by Caroline Walker Bynum between the “discovery of the individual,” which was not a medieval concern, and the “discovery of the self,” which was an important aspect of twelfth-century spirituality and thought. … Heloise’s Ep. IV thus participates in what Caroline Walker Bynum has described as the twelfth-century search for the consonance of the self with a chosen monastic model. Heloise’s “confession” does not constitute a strikingly modern autobiographical moment in which she “lays bare her soul,” seeking to tell the truth of who she fundamentally is through sexual admissions; rather it marks an effort by a medieval woman to articulate an ideal of the female embodied monastic self through the contemporary twelfth-century discourses of ethics, memory, and sexuality.

Ruys (2008) pp. 2, 22. Heloise words to Abelard about her enduring delight in having sex with him surely don’t constitute a “strikingly modern autobiographical moment.” Medieval women generally delighted in having sex with men and told men of their delight. Men themselves have largely not yet experienced the “discoverty of the self” beyond the human-generic “man.”

[2] Peter Abelard, Poem for Astralabe {Carmen ad Astralabium} vv. 373-84, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Ruys (2014). For an earlier edition of these verses with English translation, Dronke (1976) pp. 14-5, 43-5.

Men aren’t inferior to women in sexual vitality and imagination. Saint Augustine himself confessed to God:

Certainly you command me to restrain myself from desires of the flesh, and desires of the eyes, and worldly ambition. You ordered me to give up illicit sex, and as for marriage itself, you promised something better than your concession to us. Because you granted this, it was accomplished, even before I became a minister of your sacrament. But still in my memory there abide the impressions of those carnal experiences of which I have spoken at length. Force of habit fixed them there, and they besiege me in my waking hours — lacking any real force, it is true. In my sleep, though, the act is almost real enough not only to cause pleasure but even to evoke my consent.

{ Iubes certe ut contineam a concupiscentia carnis et concupiscentia oculorum et ambitione saeculi. iussisti a concubitu et de ipso coniugio melius aliquid quam concessisti monuisti. et quoniam dedisti, factum est, et antequam dispensator sacramenti tui fierem. sed adhuc vivunt in memoria mea, de qua multa locutus sum, talium rerum imagines, quas ibi consuetudo mea fixit, et occursantur mihi vigilanti quidem carentes viribus, in somnis autem non solum usque ad delectationem sed etiam usque ad consensionem factumque simillimum. }

Augustine, Confessions 10.30, Latin text and English translation from Hammond (2016). Ruys (2008) provides additional historical examples of men’s sexual imagination.

[3] This anonymous poem is known only from Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 17212, folio 25v, copied in the thirteenth century. This manuscript is a poetic miscellany from Schäftlarn Abbey (Munich, Germany).

[4] Under current, typical paternity law in the U.S., a woman can have large, monthly “child support” payments imposed on a man who involuntarily, unintentionally becomes a biological father. But no court can effectively compel a man to continue to love a woman or lovingly support a child as the child’s willing father.

[5] To the fugitive {Ad fugitivum}, incipit “All becomes shabby, and my limbs melt with sorrow {Omnia vilescunt, artusque dolore liquescunt},” vv. 1-8, 15-19, Latin text from Werner (1904) pp. 45-6 (poem 116), my English translation, benefiting from those of Newman (2016) pp. 280-1 and Mews & Chiavaroli (2001) p. 106.

This poem survives only in Zürich, Zentralbibliothek, C 58, folio 11v, which apparently was written at the end the twelfth century (after 1173). A German cleric probably wrote this manuscript at the Benedictine Imperial Abbey of All Saints {Reichskloster Allerheiligen} in Schaffhausen, Switzerland. That cleric apparently studied at Orléans and Paris. Werner (1904) p. 1.

The context of this poem’s composition isn’t clear. Dronke, who extensively celebrated men’s “love worship” for women, observed:

The lack of circumstantial detail, the exclamations and repetitions throughout, suggest verses written passionately, hastily, compulsively, quite the opposite of a literary exercise.

Dronke (1965) vol. 1, p. 253. Without citing Dronke, Newman stated in contrast:

While this poem could have been written by either a man or a woman, it is an exercise in ethopoeia or impersonation; there is no reason to think it autobiographical. Modeled on Ovid’s Heroïdes, the epistle voices the lament of a seduced, abandoned, and pregnant woman. It is a powerful dissuasio for any girl tempted by a clerical seducer.

Newman (2016) p. 279. Like her translation of this poem, Newman’s description of it is colored with entrenched, dominant ideology. The woman in the poem is not necessarily a “girl.” She could well be an adult nun. The terms “seduced” and “abandoned” are language of criminalizing men. The woman and man in the poem had a sexual relationship. At some point the man broke off his relationship with the woman. He apparently didn’t want to resume that relationship. She laments to him that she is pregnant with his child and attempts to coerce him into resuming their relationship. The poem is a powerful dissuasio for any man or woman tempted to have heterosexual intercourse outside of a serious marital commitment.

Mews’s comments on this poem underscore common prejudice amid interpretative contrasts. Mews declared:

The directness of her complaint makes this poem difficult to imagine as a male invention. Heloise was not the only educated woman in the twelfth century to rebel against the injustice of the way she was treated by the man she loved. Most women who suffer violence do not have their voices heard.

Mews & Chiavaroli (2001) pp. 106-7. Heloise rebelled against the grotesque injustice of Abelard being castrated. Medieval women like Heloise resisted castration culture more than do academics today. Epic literature is filled with massive violence against men. The vast majority of the men killed never have their voices heard. Today about four times more men than women suffer violent death, yet violence against men is much less of a public concern than is violence against women.

Two love poems in Zürich, Zentralbibliothek, C 58 appear to be associated with Peter Abelard. Wollin (2010). Those poems are “Your lover’s muse greets you with happy omen {Omine felici te Musa salutat amici},” Werner (1904) p. 22 (poem 48), Latin text and English translation at Dronke (1965) vol. 1, p. 260; and “My sweet beloved, you are more beautiful than Galatea {Dulcis amica mea, speciosior es Galatea},” Werner (1904) p. 23 (poem 49). Wollin (2010), pp. 369-76, provides an edition and commentary for both poems. Given its manuscript context, Ad fugitivum may have been a poem projected onto Heloise. Its emotional tone is consistent with the reception of Dido’s love for Aeneas.

Subsequent quotes from Ad fugitivum are similarly sourced. Those above are vv. 32-5 (Then I was a gem…), 38-40 (To triumph by deceit…), 45 (What gave before delight…).

[6] The woman complains:

Because of you, I am often given many beatings
and my soft limbs can scarcely endure them.
The reputation of shame hurts more than the beatings of my limbs.
To suffer beatings is lighter for me than the words are.

{ Sepe tui causa mihi sunt data verbera plura
Mollibus et membris vix pacienda meis.
Verbera quam membris nocuit plus fama pudoris,
Verbera sunt levius quam mihi verba pati. }

Ad fugitivum, vv. 41-4. The person beating the woman was most likely her mother or her mother-superior. Blaming her beloved man for those beatings is grotesquely unjust. Some persons might prefer harsh physical beatings to harsh words. Nonetheless, formal governance of common life is much better suited to preventing the objective harm of physical beatings (or castration) than the subjective harm of words and moral judgments.

[images] (1) “At Eternity’s Gate”: sorrowing old man. Painted by Vincent van Gogh at the Saint-Rémy Asylum in May, 1890. Van Gogh committed suicide on July 29, 1890. Painting preserved as accession # KM 111.041 at the Kröller-Müller Museum (Otterlo, Netherlands). Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Dejected old man lying on a street in Varanasi, India, in 2005. Source image thanks to Jorge Royan via Wikimedia Commons.


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

Dronke, Peter. 1976. Abelard and Heloise in Medieval Testimonies: the twenty-sixth W.P. Ker Memorial Lecture delivered in the University of Glasgow 29th October, 1976. Glasgow: University of Glasgow Press. Reprinted as Chapter 9 (pp. 247-294) in Dronke, Peter. 1992. Intellectuals and Poets in Medieval Europe. Roma: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura.

Hammond, Carolyn J. B., ed. and trans. 2016. Augustine. Confessions. Volume II: Books 9–13. Loeb Classical Library 27. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Luscombe, David, and Betty Radice, ed. and trans. 2013. The Letter Collection of Peter Abelard and Heloise. Clarendon Press: Oxford.

McLaughlin, Mary, and Bonnie Wheeler, trans. 2009. The Letters of Heloise and Abelard. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mews, C. J., with Neville Chiavaroli, trans. 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.

Ruys, Juanita Feros. 2008. “Heloise, Monastic Temptation, and Memoria: Rethinking Autobiography, Sexual Experience, and Ethics.” Pp. 383-404 in Classen, Albrecht, ed. Sexuality in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times: New Approaches to a Fundamental Cultural-Historical and Literary-Anthropological Theme. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter.

Ruys, Juanita Feros. 2014. The Repentant Abelard: family, gender and ethics in Peter Abelard’s Carmen ad Astralabium and Planctus. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmsillan.

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

Wollin, Carsten. 2010. “Zwei Metrische Liebesepisteln Aus Dem Kreis Des Petrus Abaelardus.” Sacris Erudiri. 49: 339–377.

Sidonius shows elite men’s gender-disdain for men in 5th-century Gaul

Elite men, big men — men who have prevailed in grappling for status in gynocentric society — serve their personal interests in promoting sexism against men. Men as a gender are almost all non-elite men. Big men typically work to belittle lower-status men and to present themselves as not like those other men. Writings of the eminent fifth-century Gaulish poet and Roman official Sidonius Apollinaris, like those of the eminent twentieth-century French historian Georges Duby, illustrate that elite men’s discourse embraces disdain for men as a gender. Elite men strategically fashion themselves as not like men in the gender of men.

Three days after the widely admired woman Philomathia died, Sidonius wrote to his friend Desideratus. Philomathia died in her early thirties. She left behind a husband and five children, as well as a father, for whom she was the only child. Sidonius, who wrote the epitaph for Philomathia, sought Disideratus’s literary evaluation of that epitaph and urged Desideratus to come to console the grieving families. Sidonius declared to Desideratus:

If the little children had kept their mother and lost their father, who has long been disabled, they would be regarded less as being like orphans.

{ qui parvuli si matre sospite perdidissent iam diu debilem patrem, minus pupilli existimarentur. }[1]

Sidonius said nothing specific about the disability of Philomathia’s husband. Many disabilities don’t imply disability as a parent, particularly in the presence of supportive relatives and friends. Moreover, Philomathia’s mother had died many years earlier. As a single parent, Philomathia’s father apparently raised her to be an admired woman. The claim that fathers matter less to children than mothers endures to this day most egregiously in anti-men sexism in child custody decisions. Fatherhood is a generic aspect of men’s gender. Like Sidonius, elite men are biased toward declaring men disabled as fathers.

Sidonius aggrandized the wife of Chilperic, king of the Germanic Burgundians. Writing to a bishop, Sidonius depicted the king’s wife as being more culturally sophisticated than the king:

It is well-known that the king unceasingly praises your meals, and the queen, your fasts.

{ constet indesinenter regem praesentem prandia tua, reginam laudare ieiunia }[2]

Sidonius feared the talk of evil men surrounding King Chilperic and explained, “these are men whom even those fear who are themselves feared {hi sunt, quos timent etiam qui timentur}.” According to Sidonius, the key person in this dangerous situation is Chilperic’s wife:

Certainly what principally heals us in our afflictions is that his Tanaquil moderates our Lucumo. With the advantage of witty conversation, she clears away the poisonous filth that whisperers have put in her husband’s ears. You should know that so far by her effort the venom of the new Cibyrates around the mind of our mutual patron has not at all injured the tranquility of our mutual brothers. With God favoring, it will not in any way be injuring, if only as long as the current power governs Lyonese Germany, and the current Agrippina moderates our and her Germanicus. Farewell.

{ sane, quod principaliter medetur afflictis, temperat Lucumonem nostrum Tanaquil sua et aures mariti virosa susurronum faece completas opportunitate salsi sermonis eruderat. cuius studio scire vos par est nihil interim quieti fratrum communium apud animum communis patroni iuniorum Cibyratarum venena nocuisse neque quicquam deo propitiante nocitura, si modo, quamdiu praesens potestas Lugdunensem Germaniam regit, nostrum suumque Germanicum praesens Agrippina moderetur. vale. }[3]

King Chilperic is figured as Lucumo, meaning Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, the fifth king of Rome. His wife Tanaquil steered him onto the throne. She did the same for Servius Tullius, whom she raised as her own son. Tanaquil was a strong woman and a revered Roman historical figure. The Cibyrates, in contrast, were two men who betrayed Sicily and helped it to be plundered. The current power governing “Lyonese Germany” and “her Germanicus” are again the Germanic king Chilperic. The one who restrains him from excess is his wife, figured alternately as the revered Roman women Agrippina the Elder. She was the wife of preeminent Roman general Germanicus Julius Caesar. In short, Sidonius was invoking, in a learned and tangential way, the perennial claim that all of a husband’s success he owes to his wife.

Elite men demean other men by devaluing their intrinsic virtue. For example, Sidonius in a letter to a bishop friend recounted some life history of his letter-carrier Amantius. According to Sidonius, that life history is “a tale equal to those of Miletus or Athens {fabula Miletiae vel Atticae par}.” He meant it was a bawdy tale of outrageous deception. Amantius’s story actually was rather different:

By chance it occurred that next to the lodging that Amantius rented lived a certain woman no less attractive in substantial income than in character. She had a daughter who had already passed through her infancy but had not yet approached marriageable age. He, fawning on her (since she was the age of a dear little girl, such was still proper), now gives her certain trinkets, now a girl’s game or discarded junk. For these insufficient reasons, the little girl’s heart was strongly bound to this grown-up. Years passed making her suitable for marriage. Why delay further? The young man was alone, barely solvent, a wanderer, and a minor in his family. He left the land of his father, with his father not merely unwilling but also ignorant of his departure. He then sought, procured, and married a young woman not his inferior in birth and his superior in material means.

{ forte accidit, ut deversorio, cui ipse successerat, quaedam femina non minus censu quam moribus idonea vicinaretur, cuius filia infantiae iam temporibus emensis necdum tamen nubilibus annis appropinquabat, huic hic blandus (siquidem ea aetas infantulae, ut adhuc decenter) nunc quaedam frivola, nunc ludo apta virgineo scruta donabat; quibus isti parum grandibus causis plurimum virgunculae animus copulabatur. anni obiter thalamo pares: quid morer multis? adulescens, solus tenuis peregrinus, filius familias et e patria patre non solum non volente verum et ignorante discedens, puellam non inferiorem natalibus, facultatibus superiorem … uxorem petit, empetrat, ducit. }[4]

That marriage endured and produced numerous children. Amantius thus realized his seminal blessing as a man and made his marriage ultimately satisfactory to his mother-in-law. Amantius’s name literally means “lover.” His name is humorous and his story sensational only for elite men looking down upon the activities of ambitious, low-status men.

Sidonius gratuitously demeaned Amantius and other men like him. Sidonius ironically observed of Amantius:

In the eyes of others he pursued chastity and sobriety, which is so laudable in young men as it is rare.

{ pudicitiam prae ceteris sobrietatemque sectari, quod tam laudandum in iuventute quam rarum }

The young man Amantius spent years in serious, self-disciplined behavior that put him in position to marry a young woman from a wealthy family. Nothing in Sidonius’s story indicates that Amantius had sex with any woman other than his wife. In the eyes of Sidonius, Amantius only appeared to be chaste and sober, but wasn’t, because he successfully worked to marry a young woman from a wealthy family. To improve men’s welfare, men should be encouraged to marry wealthy, young, attractive, warmly receptive women. Low-status men should not be disdained for so marrying.

Amantius reportedly exaggerated his wealth in order to allow him to marry the widow’s young daughter. Sidonius hyperbolically declared:

The mother-in-law didn’t investigate his means, nor did his bride look down on his person. … The marriage agreements were written. Every estate that exists here in the neighborhood of our tiny town was inserted in the matrimonial documents and read aloud with farcical generosity. When this legal deceit and solemn fraud had been completed, the beloved pauper carried off his wealthy wife.

{ socru non inspiciente substantiam, sponsa non despiciente personam … conscribuntur tabulae nuptiales; et si qua est istic municipioli nostri suburbanitas, matrimonialibus illic inserta documentis mimica largitate recitatur. peracta circumscriptione legitima et fraude sollemni levat divitem coniugem pauper adamatus }

Sidonius and Amantius lived in Clermont-Ferrand, one of the oldest cities in present-day France. Not a “tiny town {municipiolum},” Clermont-Ferrand was also one of the largest cities in Roman Gaul. Amantius surely couldn’t have gotten away with claiming to own every estate in and around Clermont-Ferrand. He probably exaggerated his wealth to the extent necessary to marry his beloved, just as many today exaggerate their qualifications to get desired jobs. Elite men too often deceptively depict low-status men as deceivers.[5]

woman prostitute soliciting an ugly, fat man

Anticipating an elite trend of recent decades, Sidonius even gratuitously depicted a low-status man as a rapist. Around 470 GC, Sidonius complained to a neighboring landowner named Pudens:

The son of your nursing woman has abducted / raped the daughter of mine.

{ Nutricis meae filiam filius tuae rapuit }[6]

Latin language and Roman law didn’t clearly distinguished between a woman and man consensually eloping, a man forcibly abducting a woman, and a man raping a woman. Such conceptual confusion has endured in laws such as the U.S. Mann Act and the criminalization of men seducing women. In this case, the man was a servant effectively bound to the land, and the woman was a free woman. They apparently eloped consensually and established a socially recognized domestic partnership. Pudens asked that this man’s offense be forgiven. Sidonius responded:

I consent under this condition: that you release the rapist from his hereditary status of bound landless laborer and become his patron instead of his lord.

{ sub condicione concedo: si stupratorem pro domino iam patronus originali solvas inquilinatu }

Sidonius was offended that a free woman of his household effectively married a lower-status man. That’s no reason, however, to call that man a rapist.[7] Sidonius apparently internalized social contempt for men’s sexuality:

The woman moreover — she is already free. She then will be seen as not handed over for wantonness, but received as a wife, only if our guilty one, on whose behalf you plead, should immediately be made your client instead of a taxpayer and so begin to have the standing of a plebeian rather than that of a tenant farmer.

{ mulier autem illa iam libera est; quae tum demum videbitur non ludibrio addicta sed assumpta coniugio, si reus noster, pro quo precaris, mox cliens factus e tributario plebeiam potius incipiat habere personam quam colonariam. }

The matter to Sidonius was all about personal status. He assumed low-status men in unauthorized relationships with women to be sexually blameworthy irrespective of the actual characteristics of their intimate relationship. That’s everyday sexism against men.

What would be vigorously condemned as misogyny passes with little comment when the subject is a man. In a letter to his son, Sidonius hatefully depicted another man named Gnatho:

His body is fouler and more misshapen than a cadaver on a funeral pile after torches have been applied and it’s half-burned with sitting on the heap of firebrands and has rolled down the pyre, so that now it is nauseating the undertaker’s assistant such that he dreads to replace it.

{ illa sordidior est atque deformior cadavere rogali quod facibus admotis semicombustum moxque sidente strue torrium devolutum reddere pyrae iam fastidiosus pollinctor exhorret. }[8]

That’s an imagined mini-narrative used as a disparaging personal description. As is common, invective against a man explicitly attacks his genitals:

I say nothing about the fetidly goatish, souring caves of his armpits that imprison his sides with their ramparts and with which he sends to their grave the noses of those around him by spreading plague like a double Ampsanctus. I say nothing about his defeated breasts that hang down by their weight of fat, that fall like maternal teats — even for men’s breasts to protrude at all would be disgusting enough. I say nothing of his belly curving in pendulous folds, with its ugly wrinkles offering an uglier cover for his genitals, which by their disability are doubly shameful.

{ taceo quod alarum specubus hircosis atque acescentibus latera captiva vallatus nares circumsedentum ventilata duplicis Ampsancti peste funestat. taceo fractas pondere arvinae iacere mammas quasque foedum esset in pectore virili vel prominere, has ut ubera materna cecidisse, taceo ventris inflexi pendulos casses parti genitalium, quia debili, bis pudendae turpibus rugis turpius praebere velamen. }[9]

Sidonius framed this outrageous letter to his son with praise for his son’s judgment in personal associations:

I feel the utmost satisfaction, joy, and admiration that your fondness for chastity causes you to flee from tenting with lewd men, especially those who have no thought and no reverence as they pursue foul deeds and chatter about them, those who pollute the modest ears of the public with immodest words, and who loftily see themselves as very witty. … Therefore you will fulfill my prayer if you don’t associate with such companions even by infrequent companionship. Most of all, have nothing to do with those for whom shame sends forth no restraint on theatrical, prostituted talk. The tongue of braggarts, since they are apart from the luster of honor, is being defiled by the scum of unbridled, talkative wantonness, like their most foul conscience. After all, one could more easily find a person who talks earnestly and lives obscenely, than to exhibit a person who is at the same time wicked in speaking and upright in manner of living. Farewell.

{ Unice probo gaudeo admiror, quod castitatis adfectu contubernia fugis impudicorum, praesertim quibus nihil pensi, nihil sancti est in appetendis garriendisque turpitudinibus quique, quod verbis inverecundis aurium publicarum reverentiam incestant, granditer sibi videntur facetiari. … igitur ex voto meo feceris si talium sodalitati ne congressu quidem primore sociere, maxume illorum quorum sermonibus prostitutis ac theatralibus nullas habenas, nulla praemittit repagula pudor, nam quibus citra honestatis nitorem iactitabundis loquacis faece petulantiae lingua polluitur infrenis, his conscientia quoque sordidatissima est. denique facilius obtingit ut quispiam seria loquens vivat obscene, quam valeat ostendi qui pariter exsistat improbus dictis et probus moribus, vale. }

By his numerous, viciously unbridled words about Gnatho, Sidonius surely didn’t mean to encourage his son not to associate with his father. Hatefully foul words about men seem not to be in the same category as other hatefully foul words. While that social fact is obvious to perceptive adults today, Sidonius apparently sought to teach it to his son in fifth-century Gaul.

Despite its significance, Sidonius’s invective against Gnatho has received little critical analysis. Sidonius offered close to a “uniformly positive” portrayal of women. In his poems and letters, women are “the idealized, traditional Roman wife.”[10] Gnatho, who is totally unlike an idealized Roman man, has been characterized as a “fictitious stock character.”[11] Gnatho’s name probably comes from a classical Latin comedy. Yet Sidonius is an allusive writer, and the literary name Gnatho doesn’t necessarily imply a fictitious character:

The literary providence of this name and the unlikelihood of any individual exhibiting all of the negative features Sidonius lists has inhibited reading Gnatho as anything other than a fictional construct, but Sidonius could well have substituted in Gnatho for the original name in the letter, or relied on his son Apollinaris, and readers, to know who Gnatho really was.[12]

The repulsive man Gnatho apparently became a stock figure through the influence of Sidonius’s letter. In surviving classical literature, no such lengthy abuse of a man or woman exists. Sidonius’s abuse of Gnatho is far more extensive and vicious than Horace’s generally condemned disparagement of an old widow in Epode 8. Gnatho himself wasn’t even suffering natural indignities of old age. The influence of Gnatho can be seen in Geta in Vitalis of Blois’s Amphitrion, Spurius in William of Blois’s Alda, Davus and Beroe in Matthew of Vendôme’s The Art of Verse-Making {Ars Versificatoria}, and perhaps also Moriuht in Warner’s Moriuht.[13] Sidonius authorized elite men to disseminate openly and at length viciously disparaging portraits of lower-status men.

Status competition among elite men fundamentally concerns winning women’s acclaim. The persons that appear in Sidonius’s letters and poems are overwhelmingly Roman Christians of the Nicene creed, socially privileged, and natives of Gaul. Such written associations help to maintain Sidonius’s elite status. In addition, 87% of persons in Sidonius’s letters and poems are male. A pioneering prosopographic analysis of Sidonius’s written works observed:

The disparity between named and unnamed is particularly egregious with respect to gender. … Whereas 292 of the 386 men (76% of the individual men and 66% of all individuals) are named, only a pathetic 16 of the 59 women (27% of the individual women, 5.5% of the named men, and 3.6% of all individuals) are given names. Sidonius inhabited a homosocial world where women were rarely mentioned, and even more rarely named. At least insofar as his poetry and letters went, women were barely on Sidonius’ radar.[14]

Men don’t need to name women to promote their own elite status. Men don’t need to name women while demeaning lower-status men. As narratives of epic violence against men make clear, honor and shame among men are very much in the eyes of women.

woman stitching standard for men

Elite men gender-disparaging men has effects. Men have long endured brutalization of their sexuality and use of their bodies as disposable instruments in fighting wars. Despite the development of low-cost DNA paternity testing, men today continue to lack parental certainty about biological children — parental certainty that women naturally have. Men have no reproductive rights whatsoever, while reproductive rights for women are a matter of intense public concern. Elite men not only ignore gender injustices against men, they attack any men who would dare mention those injustices. Elite men socially position themselves as good men. Elite men garner acclaim as champions for women and slayers of other, generically “bad” men.

The writings of Sidonius Apollinaris in fifth-century Gaul provides a poignant case study in the behavior of an elite man toward men as a gender. His pattern of behavior remains readily apparent today.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Sidonius Apollinaris, Letter {Epistola} 2.8, “Sidonius to his friend Desideratus, greetings {Sidonius Desiderato suo salutem},” from section 1, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Anderson (1965). All subsequent quotes from Sidonius’s Epistolae are similarly sourced from Anderson (1936 / 1965). Scion of an illustrious family, son-in-law of a Roman Emperor, and himself a Praefect of Rome, Sidonius lived among the elite of fifth-century Gaul.

Sidonius composed his epitaph for Philomathia and his letter to Desideratus only a few days apart. The most thorough review of the dating of Sidonius’s works dates the two as “later 460s, maybe 469 (after Carm. 32).” Kelly (2020) p. 178, Table 3.3.

The gravity and temporal extent of the disability that Philomathia’s husband suffered isn’t clear. Her husband was Eriphius. Sidonius wrote to him to tell him the circumstances in which he composed an epigram on a face-towel for Philomathia’s father, Philomathius. Sidonius noted with respect to Eriphius, “an infirmity being an impediment to you, at that time you weren’t present {tibi infirmitas impedimento, ne tunc adesses}.” But Sidonius also began his letter with words characterizing Eriphius’s abilities:

My dear Eriphius, you are the same as ever, and never does hunting, civic life, or your land so distract you that you don’t occasionally embrace the pleasure of literature.

{ Es, Eriphi meus, ipse qui semper numquamque te tantum venatio civitas ager avocat, ut non obiter litterarum voluptate teneare }

Sidonius, Epistola 5.17, “Sidonius to his friend Eriphius, greetings {Sidonius Eriphio suo salutem},” from section 1. The previous short quote is from Epistola 5.17.4. Given these abilities, Eriphius actually may not have been significantly disabled as a father. At the time of Epistola 5.17, Philomathia’s father was young enough to participate in a physically vigorous sport, although he tired earlier than other participants. Epistola 5.17.6-7.

The date of Epistola 5.17 relative to Epistola 2.8 isn’t convincingly known. The most thorough review dates the epigram on Philomathius’s face-towel as “460s, maybe 469.” Kelly (2020) p. 178, Table 3.3. Sidonius wrote that epigram after celebrating the holy day of Saint Justus at the church of Saint Justus in Lyon. Saint Justus became Bishop of Lyon about 350 GC and died about 390 GC. A large church in Lyon was named to honor him early in the fifth century. Sidonius described participants in the liturgy as afterwards going “to the tomb of Syagrius {ad conditorium Syagrii}.” Epistola 5.17.4. Syagrius has been identified as Flavius Afranius Syagrius. He died some time after 382 GC. Mathisen (2020) p. 122. However, Book 5 of Sidonius’s Epistolae is thought to have been published about 477. Kelly (2020) pp. 185-6, 193-4. Kelly dated Epistola 5.17 to before Epistola 2.8. Id. p. 175, n. 50.

Sidonius effusively praised Philomathia. In her epitaph he declared her to be:

Pride of your family, glory of your husband,
prudent, chaste, worthy, serious, and sweet,
an example even to your seniors.
What persons are accustomed to regard as opposites,
you have united with the advantage of your character.
Thus they have been companions of your good life:
grave light-heartedness and witty propriety.

{ o splendor generis, decus mariti,
prudens casta decens severa dulcis
atque ipsis senioribus sequenda,
discordantia quae solent putari
morum commoditate copulasti:
nam vitae comites bonae fuerunt
libertas gravis et pudor facetus. }

Epistola 2.8.3 (Carmen 26), excerpt.

[2] Sidonius, Epistola 6.12, “Sidonius to the Lord Bishop Patiens, greetings {Sidonius Domino Papae Patienti salutem},” from section 3. Patiens was bishop of Lyons from 449 to 490.

[3] Sidonius, Epistola 5.7, “Sidonius to his friend Thaumastus, greetings {Sidonius Thaumasto suo salutem},” from section 7. Thaumastus, the brother of Simplicius and Apollinaris of Vaison, was Sidonius’s cousin and was closely associated with him. Mathisen (2020) p. 123.

Wives can and sometimes do dominate their husbands. Writing about 495 GC to his friend Volusianus, Bishop of Tours, Ruricius of Limoges referred to a threatening foreign enemy, perhaps Franks, and to Volusianus’s abusive wife:

If I had not taken heed of my personal status and office, I would have sent your letter-carrier back to you as my men were treated not by what would be called your wife, but by an excessively insolent and unbridled lady-lord. Even if you tolerate her manners for so long, either voluntarily or by necessity, to the diminution of your reputation, you should know that others neither wish nor are content to endure them. Since you write that you are stupefied with fear of the enemy, I write that you who are accustomed to sustaining a domestic enemy should not fear a foreign one.

{ nisi existimationem personae meae aut officii cogitassem, portitorem litterarum tuarum talem ad te remiseram, quales homines meos non matrona vestra, sed domina procax nimium et effrenata perduxit, cuius mores, si tu tanto tempore cum famae tuae diminutione aut voluntarie aut necessitate supportas, alios noveris nec velle ferre nec esse contentos. nam quod scribis te metu hostium hebetem factum, timere hostem non debet extraneum, qui consuevit sustinere domesticum. }

Ruricius of Limoges, Epistola 3.27, “Bishop Ruricis to his brother bishop Volusianius {Ruricius episcopus fratri Volusiano episcopo},” Latin text from Mathisen (2003) vol. 2, pp. 120-1, English translation (modified) from id. vol. 1, p. 103. For an edition and English translation of all of Ruricius’s letter collection, Mathisen (1999).

[4] Sidonius, Epistola 7.2, “Sidonius to the Lord Bishop Graecus {Sidonius Domino Papae Graeco salutem},” from section 6-7. Graecus was Bishop of Marseille in the 470s. The previous short quote above, “a tale equal to those of Miletus or Athens,” is from section 9. The subsequent two quotes above are from sections 5 (In the eyes of others…) and 7-8 (The mother-in-law didn’t investigate…). My translation of these quotes from Epistola 7.2 benefited from the commentary of van Waarden (2009). While Epistola 7.2 is the main source on Amantius, he is also mentioned in Epistolae 6.8, 7.7, 7.10, and 9.4.

[5] Mathisen observed of Amantius:

Sidonius treated him indulgently, making him a lector, called him a callidus viator (‘cunning traveller’) and a praestigiator (‘con artist’), and nicknamed him ‘Hippolytus.’

Mathisen (2020) p. 79. Sidonius treated Amantius kindly in deeds but not in words.

In figuring Amantius as Hippolytus, “our Hippolytus {noster Hippolytus},” Sidonius probably was claiming ironically that Amantius by having children with his wife “seduced” his mother-in-law. An alternate interpretation:

Amantius is loosely associated with Hippolytus as a paragon of youthful, injured innocence, again with an unmistakable undertone of irony on the part of Sidonius.

van Waarden (2009) p. 156. That interpretation seems to me less contextually justified and less meaningful.

Mathisen didn’t accurately translate Amantius’s alleged deception. The passage:

conscribuntur tabulae nuptiales; et si qua est istic municipioli nostri suburbanitas, matrimonialibus illic inserta documentis mimica largitate recitatur

Mathisen translated as:

The marriage contract was executed, and some little suburban plot or other at Clermont was put into settlement and read out with much theatrical parade.

Mathisen (2003) vol. 1, p. 51, with foonote 32 at “Clermont”:

This presumable was property that Amantius did not yet own.

Id. Cf van Waarden (2009) p. 150-1. Anderson’s earlier translation is more accurate:

The marriage settlements are written out, and any and every estate in the vicinity of our little town here was entered in the matrimonial documents and read out with theatrical grandeur.

Anderson (1965) p. 299. Id., Mathisen (2003), van Waarden (2009), and Mathisen (2020) didn’t recognize Sidonius’s exaggerations in his story of Amantius in Epistola 7.2.

[6] Sidonius, Epistola 5.19, “Sidonius to his friend Pudens, greetings {Sidonius Pudenti suo salutem},” from section 1. The subsequent two quotes above are similarly from Epistola 5.19.1-2.

[7] On the relevant Roman law, Grey (2008) pp. 288-9, MacDonald (2000) pp. 97-8, and note [2] in my post on the capture of the Sabine women in Rome’s founding. While the term raptus encompasses a wide range of circumstances, Sidonius’s language emphasizes the violence and harm of rape. What’s now commonly called the “rape of the Sabine women” involved the Sabine women becoming gender-privileged wives of Roman men.

[8] Sidonius, Epistola 3.13, “Sidonius to his son Apollinaris, greetings {Sidonius Apollinari suo salutem},” from section 5. The subsequent two quotes above are from sections 8 (I say nothing about the fetidly goatish…) and 1 & 11 (I feel the utmost satisfaction…).

While Gnatho had lower status than Sidonius, Gnatho wasn’t a low-status man. Mathisen ranked Gnatho as a “most notable man {vir clarissimus},” a senatorial title of the third rank. Mathisen (2020) p. 99.

Michael Gilleland, who frankly characterizes himself as a curmudgeon and an antediluvian, quoted some of Sidonius’s harsh disparagement of Gnatho and declared, “The entire letter is amusing.”

[9] Ampsanctus is a lake close to the Via Appia in southern Italy. It was associated with a temple of Mephitis, a goddess of foul-smelling gases, and the gateway to Hell. Virgil, Aeneid 7.563-70.

[10] MacDonald (2000) pp. 102, 107. Cf. Epistola 9.6, where Sidonius disparages a “shameless slave-woman {ancilla propudiosissima}.” MacDonald concluded her gynocentric analysis tendentiously:

Overall, the role of women in the writing of Sidonius is rhetorical rather than descriptive. Women do not have a large role in the published letters and poems. Sidonius does not include letters to women in his published works, except one letter to his wife. Women in his own family are absent from Sidonius’ letters and poems although he does glorify the family connections of his wife. Sidonius’ practice confirms the belief that women belonged in the private, not the public, sphere of Gallo-Roman aristocratic life.

Id. p. 102. Academics today tend to define the “public sphere” in a way that excludes women, e.g. the “public sphere” means the sphere of persons mentioned in Sidonius’s letters. Women are key players in constructing and judging men’s social status. Men’s social status is a central concern in Sidonius’s letters.

[11] Mathisen (2020) p. 99. The name Gnatho probably comes from the dinner-seeking sycophant Gnatho in Terence’s The Eunuch {Eunuchus}. Terence’s Eunuchus was first performed in Rome in 161 BC.

[12] Hanaghan (2019) p. 92. Hanaghan notes the tonal similarity of Sidonius’s invective against Gnatho to his invective against Seronatus in Epistola 2.1. Seronatus was an actual Gallo-Roman official who allegedly betrayed provinces to the Visigoths.

[13] Chronopoulos (2020) p. 645, Ziolkowski (1984) p. 2. Sidonius’s portrait of Theodoric II, King of the Visigoths, was influential as a description of a beautiful man. While Sidonius explicitly disparaged Gnatho’s genitals, he more obliquely praised Theodoric’s virility:

Strength reigns in his well-girt loins. His thigh is hard like a horn.

{ in succinctis regnat vigor ilibus. corneum femur }

Epistola 1.2, “Sidonius to his dear friend Agricola, greetings {Sidonius Agricolae suo salutem}.” Sidonius’s portraits of Gnatho and Theodoric “were ceaselessly imitated in both Latin and vernacular medieval literatures.” Hernández Lobato (2020) p. 669.

[14] Mathisen (2020) pp. 44-5. The previous statistics on prosopography for Sidonius are from id. p. 40.

[images] (1) Woman prostitute soliciting a fat, ugly man. Excerpt from drawing with wash by Francisco de Goya in 1796-97. Preserved as item 1995.15 in the Cleveland Museum of Art (Cleveland, US). Credit: John L. Severance Fund. (2) Woman stitching a standard for men. Painted by Edmund Leighton in 1911. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Anderson, W.B, ed. and trans. 1936 / 1965. Sidonius. Poems and Letters. With an English translation, introduction, and notes. 2 vols. Loeb Classical Library 296 and 420. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Vol. 1, Vol. 2.

Chronopoulos, Tina. 2020. “Glossing Sidonius in the Middle Ages.” Chapter 21 (pp. 643-664) in Kelly & van Waarden (2020).

Grey, Cam. 2008. “Two Young Lovers: An Abduction Marriage and Its Consequences in Fifth-Century Gaul.” The Classical Quarterly. 58 (1): 286–302.

Hanaghan, Michael P. 2019. Reading Sidonius’ Epistles. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Review by Joop van Waarden.

Hernández Lobato, Jesús. 2020. “Sidonius in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.” Chapter 22 (pp. 665-685) in Kelly & van Waarden (2020).

Kelly, Gavin. 2020. “Dating the Works of Sidonius.” Chapter 3 (pp. 166-194) in Kelly & van Waarden (2020).

Kelly, Gavin, and Joop van Waarden. 2020. The Edinburgh Companion to Sidonius Apollinaris. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Reviews by Tabea L. Meurer and by Lena Walhgren-Smith.

MacDonald, Eve. 2000. Representations of Women in Sidonius Apollinaris and Gregory of Tours: Coniuges et Reginae. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Ottawa. Deposited at National Library of Canada / Bibliothèque nationale du Canada.

Mathisen, Ralph W, ed. and trans. 1999. Ruricius of Limoges and Friends: A Collection of Letters from Visigothic Gaul . Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press.

Mathisen, Ralph W. 2003. People, Personal Expression, and Social Relations in Late Antiquity. 2 volumes. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. Volume 1. Reviews by M.A. Claussen and by Guy Halsall.

Mathisen, Ralph. 2020. “Sidonius’ People.” Chapter 2 (pp. 29-165) in Kelly & van Waarden (2020). Alternate source.

Van Waarden, Joop. 2009. Writing to survive: A commentary on Sidonius Apollinaris, Letters Book 7, Volume 1: The episcopal letters 1-11. Ph.D. Thesis, Amsterdam Institute for Humanities Research, Universiteit van Amsterdam. Review by Robin Whelan. Corrections and continuation.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1984. “Avatars of Ugliness in Medieval Literature.” The Modern Language Review. 79 (1): 1-20.

silence in medieval romance about women inheriting property

In the horrific Trojan War, thousands of men were slaughtered for the sake of one woman, Helen of Troy. That massive gender inequality in social value has long been treated with silence. Women’s romantic relationships and women’s rights have been of much more social concern than men’s deaths.[1] The medieval Romance of Silence {Roman de Silence} narrates such gender injustice in a story centered on English women losing the right to inherit property and then regaining it.

King Evans of England and King Begon of Norway were engaged in a terrible war. This war had arisen from a trivial dispute that the Roman de Silence doesn’t specify. A thoughtful person might speculate that King Begon or one of his ministers had said something offensive about English women. King Evans was unmarried. Perhaps someone disparaged English women in taunting King Evans for being unmarried.

Whatever the trivial dispute, it led to terrible violence and destruction. The romance narrator Master Heldris of Cornwall said that this war “had lasted a very long time {dura moult longes}.” He explained:

It began over something trivial.
Then many houses were set on fire,
so many cities were put to the torch,
and so many feet and thighs sliced,
and so many people wretchedly scattered.
At that time the country was devastated such
that I cannot recount to you half of it.

{ Et sorst par petite oquoison.
Puis en arst on mainte maison,
Tante vile en fu mise en flamme,
Et colpé tant pié, tante hance,
Et tante gens caitive esparse
Dont la contreë en est arse
Que nel vos puis demi conter. }[2]

This genderless description obscures the reality that this war, like almost all wars, was institutionally ordered toward violence against men. Moreover, a historically frequent pattern in sacking cities has been to kill the men and take the women and children as captives.[3] Many more men than women almost surely were killed in the war.

One marriage resolved the war. King Begon offered the hand of his beautiful daughter Eufeme to King Evans in exchange for peace and an alliance. King Evans readily agreed:

When he heard this, he was overjoyed.
He replied with refined manners to the messengers:
“Now I have fought very well
and well employed my labor
if I can have her as wife.
There is in the world no more dear one to have.
I so want and so desire
by custom to go from the church to lie down with her.
I have suffered long for love of her.”

{ Quant il l’entent, si est haitiés.
Respont as més com afaitiés:
“Or ai ge moult bien guerriié
Et bien mon traval emploié
Se jo a feme puis avoir;
Il n’a el mont si chier avoir,
Que jo tant aim et tant desir
Par us d’eglise od li gesir.
Piece a l’amors de li me poinst.” }

All of King Evans’s counselors agreed to this peace proposal. None complained that men’s lives had been valued so cheaply relative to the life of this one princess.[4]

Despite the material destruction and deprivation from the war, King Evans spent lavishly on the wedding. Surely many of his men had been wounded in the war and were in need of material assistance. Their wounds must have hurt more when they saw what their wounds had bought:

There was a wedding grand and bountiful,
with all kinds of elegant and dainty dishes.
I don’t know how much it cost —
more than anyone could imagine.
The wedding lasted for twelve months,
because such was then their custom.
Then they had lives of complete joy.

{ Noces i ot grans et plenieres
Od més et daintiés de manieres,
Ne sai que conte la despense,
Car plus i ot que nus ne pense.
Les noces durent .xii. mois,
Car tels estoit adonc lor lois.
Entiere avoit adonques joie }

The men maimed and killed in the war didn’t have lives of complete joy. An extravagantly expensive wedding isn’t a humane ending to a terrible war.

Within the silence of this romance, marriage both ended violence against men and prompted it. After Eufeme and King Evans’s marriage ended the war, two counts married the twin daughters of another count. Both newly married husbands claimed to have married the older twin. The older twin had the right to inherit property from her parents. One husband suggested sharing the inheritance equally. The other husband adamantly refused. He insisted that his wife was the older twin. The two husbands ultimately engaged in a personal duel to determine whose wife had the right to inherit. Both men died in their fight.

This dispute over the two women’s inheritance threatened to cause further violence against men. Grief over the two counts’ deaths made for a dangerous situation among their supporters:

Some wanted to start disputes and kill
out of grief for the counts’ deaths.
Then King Evans became very angry.
“Oh! Oh!” he cried, “Great heavens!
What grief on account of two orphaned girls!
I am certainly very upset
that I have lost my lords.
Henceforth by the faith I owe Saint Peter,
no woman shall ever inherit again
in the kingdom of England
as long as I reign over the land.
Such will be the penalty
for this our suffering.”

{ Alquant se voelent esgrocier
Por duel des contes et ocire.
Or a li rois Ebayns grant ire.
“Ahi! ahi!” fait il. “Chaieles!
Quel duel por .ii. orphenes pucieles!
Que mes barons en ai perdus
J’en sui certes moult esperdus:
Mais, par le foi que doi Saint Pere,
Ja feme n’iert mais iretere
Ens el roiame s’Engletiere,
Por tant com j’aie a tenir tiere.
Et c’en iert ore la venjance
De ceste nostre mesestance.” }

A similar loss could arise from twin sons contesting inheritance. King Evans’s repeal of women’s right to inherit is obviously unreasonable as narrow policy on inheritance. It, however, functions to associate women’s rights with men’s deaths. The ultimate effect is to demonstrate that women’s rights are of more social concern than men’s deaths.

Women’s right to inherit in England was restored after massive violence against men. A woman named Silence, raised as a man so that she would be able to inherit, became a mighty warrior.[5] Then King Evans became embroiled in a ferocious battle to suppress a rebellion:

The hand-to-hand combat was so hot
that even the bravest men were afraid.
The blade of a Poitevin sword
was a bad neighbor to some thousand men
who would never retell in their land
about who was inferior in the war.
But I can well tell you in truth
that I have never heard of a greater martyrdom.
Greater? Bah, by God! How greater?
A thousand men with castles and fiefdoms
were killed, whether they were right or wrong,
about which many other men there also died.

{ La commencierent tel estor
Dont li plus hardis ot paör.
Li brant de l’acier poitevin
Sont a tels .m. si mal voisin,
Ja ne rediront en lor tierre
A cui estait pis de la guerre.
Mais bien vos puis par verté dire
C’aine mais n’oï gregnor martyre.
Gregnor! Ba, Dex! comment gregnor?
.m. per de castials et d’onor
I sont ochis, fust drois u tors,
Dont i a moult des altres mors. }

Silence led thirty French men, all highly skilled knights, in battle on behalf of the king. They killed many rebelling men. When the king was knocked from his horse, Silence helped to rescue him. Then through brutal personal combat, Silence captured the man leading the rebellion. The rebel men subsequently were slaughtered as they fled.

After being feted as a war hero, Silence was revealed to be a woman. In gratitude for her service, King Evans restored women’s right to inherit. He also married Silence. The romance doesn’t indicate that King Evans rewarded any men who served him in the war. King Evans was silent about all the men killed in the war.

Massive violence against men continues without gendered concern. In the U.S., anti-men sexism in military draft registration still exists along with intense, highly selective concern about other issues of gender equality. Neither violence against men nor systemic anti-men sexism have ever been concerns of popular romance within gynocentric society.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Persons have eagerly believed and disseminated the absurd claim that women have long been been treated as men’s property. For some analysis, see my post on primatology and vegetarianism, particularly note [4]. In reality, marriage has required the woman’s consent, and women have owned property throughout history. The story of Roman de Silence depends on social concern about women inheriting property.

[2] Heldris of Cornwall {Heldris de Cornouaille}, The Romance of Silence {Le Roman de Silence} vv. 149-55, Old French text and English translation (modified) from Roche-Mahdi (1992). Subsequent quotes from Roman de Silence are similarly sourced. I’ve modified Roche-Mahdi’s translation to follow more closely the Old French source.

The previous short quote “had lasted a very long time” is from Roman de Silence v. 148. The subsequent quotes above are from Roman de Silence vv. 177-85 (When he heard this…), 249-55 (There was a wedding…), 306-18 (Some wanted to start disputes …), 5463-74 (The hand-to-hand combat was so hot…).

[3] See, e.g. Deuteronomy 20:13-4; Numbers 31:7, 17-8; 1 Kings 11:15.

[4] Women are complicit in compelling men as a gender to fight in wars. In the medieval romance William of Palermo {Guillaume de Palerne}, the ruling Queen Felise told her men of their obligation to fight for her:

You are my men and my lords.
Thus you should always help me.
I am a woman. I do not know how to wage war,
to belt on a sword, to wear a hauberk,
nor how to endure war.
But you who are, beautiful lords,
men raised on such labor,
do it such as you should.

{ Mi home estes et mi baron;
Si me devés toudis aidier.
Feme sui, ne sai guerroier,
Çaindre espee, hauberc vestir,
Estor ne guerre maintenir.
Mais vos qui estes, biau signor,
Gens norrie de tel labor,
Le faites si com vos devés. }

Guillaume de Palerne, vv. 5038-45, Old French text from Michelant (1876), English translation (modified slightly) from Sconduto (2004).

[5] Roman de Silence hints at how boys are taught to tolerate the pain they feel and socialized to engage in violence against men on behalf of gynocentric society:

He led Silence more often outside
in intense heat in order to make him more masculine.

When Silence practiced wrestling,
jousting, or had a skirmish,
he alone made all his peers tremble.

{ Sel mainne plus sovent el halle
Par cho quel violt faire plus malle.

Quant il joent a le palaistre,
A bohorder, n’a l’escremir,
Il seus fait tols ses pers fremir. }

Roman de Silence, vv. 2473-4, 2494-6.

[image] Pours attacks Alexander while women look on from above. Elephants and castles support Alexander’s force. Illumination on folio 58r of the Alexander Romance in Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 264, pt. I. A scribe wrote this leaf in Picardian French, the dialect of Flanders, in 1338. The Tournai illuminator Jehan de Grise and his atelier illustrated it in 1344.


Michelant, Henri Victor, ed. 1876. Guillaume de Palerne: Publié d’après le Manuscrit de la Bibliothèque de L’arsenal à Paris. Paris: Firmin-Didot.

Roche-Mahdi, Sarah, ed. and trans. 1992. Silence: A Thirteenth-Century French Romance. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press.

Sconduto, Leslie A. 2004. Guillaume de Palerne: An English Translation of the 12th Century French Verse Romance. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland.