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!” 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.

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