ancient Sumerian love poems delight in physical reality

High-definition video, powerful mobile phones, artificial-intelligence-driven chatbots, and virtual reality are changing human understanding of communicating in love. Writing, an enormously important and influential communication technology invented only about five thousand years ago, arguably initiated this cultural change. Ancient Sumerian love poems from about four thousand years ago suggest that women and men once loved each other with great appreciation for physical reality, both human and environmental. As powerful communication technologies have developed, communicating in love has become less physically grounded.

Ancient Sumerian love poems in some ways indicate amazing continuity in expression. These poems use repetition with variation much like thirteenth-century Galician-Portuguese “songs about a beloved man {cantigas d’amigo}.” In the biblical Song of Songs / Song of Solomon, the bridegroom tells his bride that she is sweet and that “honey and milk are under your tongue {דְּבַשׁ וְחָלָב תַּחַת לְשׁוֹנֵךְ}.”[1] In a Sumerian love poem from about 4000 years ago, a woman’s voice implores:

Man, let me do the sweetest things to you.
My precious sweet, let me bring you to the honey.
In the bedchamber made as soft as thick honey,
let us enjoy your allure, the sweet thing.

Oh that we could handle your sweet place,
oh that I could grasp your place that is sweet as honey.

{ mu-ti-in aj2-ze2-ze2-ba du5-mu-u8-ak
ze2-ba kal-la-ju10 lal3-e da-aj2-e-ga
e2! ki-nu2-a lal3 hab2 dug4-ga-ba
hi-li aj2-ze2-ba-zu ga-ba-hul2-hul2-le-en-de3-en

ki ze2-ba-zu nu-uc-mu-e-a-ak-a
ki lal3-gin7 ze2-ba-zu cu nu-uc-mu-e-tag-ge }[2]

Here the man is the woman’s “precious sweet,” his genitals are the “sweet place,” and sexual intercourse is “the sweet thing.” Sweetness is associated specifically with honey. That’s an enduring metaphor. In a recent Arabic novel, a woman encouraged her beloved man to reach out and touch her honey. Terms of endearment such as “sweetie” and “honey-buns” were once explicitly sexual.

Babylonian goddess (Burney Relief)

Women in ancient Sumerian poems figure their vulvas as beautiful and urge men to have sex with them. In doing so, they use figural language with concrete references:

— “This vulva …,
like a horn, …
a great wagon, this moored Boat of Heaven …
clothed in beauty like the new crescent moon,
this waste land abandoned in the desert …
this field of ducks where my ducks sit,
this high, well-watered field of mine,
my own vulva, the maiden’s, a well-watered, opened-up mound:
who will be its plowman?
My vulva, the lady’s, the moist and well-watered ground:
who will put an ox there?”
— “Lady, the king will plow it for you.
Dumuzid the king will plow it for you.”
— “Plow in my vulva, man of my heart!”

{ gal4-la ĝar-ra? ne-en GAG X […]
si-gin7 ĝišmar gal-e /keše2\ […]
ma2 an-na ne-en eš2 la2 […]
ud-sakar gibil-gin7 ḫi-li /gur3\-[ru-ĝu10]
kislaḫ ne-en edin-na šub?-[…]
a-šag4? uzmušen ne-en uzmušen dur2-[ra]-/ĝu10\
a-šag4 an-na ne-en a ma-ra-ĝu10
ma-a gal4-la-ĝu10 du6 du8-du8-a a ma-«a»-ra
ki-sikil-ĝen a-ba-a ur11-ru-a-bi
gal4-la-ĝu10 ki duru5 a ma-ra
ga-ša-an-ĝen gud a-ba-a bi2-ib2-gub-be2
in-nin9 lugal-e ḫa-ra-an-ur11-ru
[gal4-la]-ĝa2 ur11-ru mu-lu ša3-ab-ĝa2-kam }[3]

The speaking woman has a strong sense of physical self. She relates her physical self to the physical world — from the moon in the sky to ducks in water and a field for planting. In another Sumerian love poem, a woman insists on her physical primacy in relation to other places with similar shapes and physical characteristics:

Do not dig a canal. Let me be your canal!
Do not plow a field. Let me be your field!
Farmer, do not search for a wet place, my precious sweet.
Let this be your wet place, …
Let this be your furrow, …,
Let this be your desire!

{ id2 na-an-ba-al-le id2-zu ḫe2-me-en
a-šag4 na-an-ur11-ru a-šag4-zu ḫe2-me-en
mu-un-gar3 ki duru5 na-an-kiĝ2-kiĝ2-e
[ze2]-/ba\ kal-la-ĝu10 ki duru5-zu ḫe2-am3
[X (X)]-e ab-sin2-zu ḫe2-am3
X tur-tur-me aš2-zu ḫe2-am3 }[4]

Integrating herself into her particular circumstances, a barmaid associated her vulva with beer’s sweetness:

The beer of my …, Il-ummiya, the barmaid, is sweet!
And her vulva is sweet like her beer — and her beer is sweet!
And her vulva is sweet like her mouth — and her beer is sweet!

{ AN X X X-ju10 sa3-bi-tum-ma kac-a-ni ze2-ba-am3
kac-a-ni-gin7 gal4-la-ni ze2-ba-am3 kac-a-ni ze2-ba-am3
ka-ga14-a-ni-gin7 gal4-la-ni ze2-ba-am3 kac-a-ni ze2-ba-am3 }[5]

The speaking women in these ancient Sumerian love poems understand their sexuality to be an aspect of their physical selves in the physical world that they inhabit. While they understand their bodies to be things, they are not merely things. They are things filled with desire and delight. They express their feelings in relation to well-recognized reality.[6]

man making offering to Inanna on Warka Vase

Women in ancient Sumerian love poems understand communication in love to be coupling of bodies as well as connecting conceptual persons. In a woman-voiced poem of sexual intercourse, concrete figures for the woman’s body combine closely with concrete figures for the man’s body:

Vigorously it sprouted, vigorously it sprouted — it is well-watered lettuce.
In my shaded desert garden, richly flourishing, my mother’s darling did it,
its barley stalk full of allure in its furrow — it is well-watered lettuce.
He did it, a true apple tree bearing fruit at the top — it is a well-watered lettuce!

The honey man, the honey man, he will make me sweet.
My lord, the sweet man, the godly one, my mother’s darling,
his hands are honey, his feet are honey, he will make me sweet.
All of his limbs are honey, and he will make me sweet.

Inside up to my navel, suddenly altogether sweet, my mother’s darling,
my beautiful thighs with his raised arms — it is well-watered lettuce!

{ ba-lam ba-lam-lam ḫi-izsar-am3 a ba-an-dug4
ĝiškiri6 ĝi6-edin-na gu2 ĝar-ĝar-ra-na sag9-ga ama-na-ĝu10
še ab-sin2-ba ḫi-li-a sag9-ĝu10 ḫi-izsar-am3 a ba-an-dug4
ĝišḫašḫur aĝ2 saĝ-ĝa2 gurun il2-la-ĝu10 ḫi-izsar-am3 a ba-an-dug4

lu2-lal3-e lu2-lal3-e me-e mu-ku7-ku7-de3-en
en-ĝu10 lu2-lal3-e dim3-me-er-ra sag9-ga ama-na-ĝu10
šu-ni lal3-e /me\-ri-ni lal3-e ĝe26-e mu-un-ku7-ku7-de3-[en]
a2-šu-ĝiri3-ni lal3 ku7-ku7-dam ĝe26-e mu-un-ku7-ku7-[de3-en]

en3-dur šu-niĝin2 tukum ku7-ku7-ĝu10 /sag9\-[ga ama-na-ĝu10]
/ḫaš4\ sag9-sag9 a2 buluĝ5 e-ru-ĝu10 ḫi-izsar-am3 [a ba-an-dug4] }[7]

That which sprouted could be a plant metaphor for the man’s penis or for the woman’s swelling vulva. Lettuce refers to the woman’s pubic hair or labia, while the “shaded desert garden” is more generally her vulva. Literary scholars differ about whether the “barley stalk full of allure” refers to the man’s penis or the woman’s clitoris.[8] The “apple tree bearing fruit at the top” is the man’s penis. It has watered well the woman’s lettuce in the sense of ejaculating abundantly. Amid all these highly physical agricultural metaphors is the woman’s praise for the man: “my mother’s darling.” That’s highly complex relational appreciation of her beloved man. So too is “the godly one.” Surely no non-human animal in copulating thinks of its counterpart so complexly.[9]

cuneiform text of A balbale to Inana for Šu-Suen (Šu-Suen B)

Intense competition in modern, high-status communication markets has lead to belief in the social construction of reality. Such belief has now advanced in important ways to the individual construction of reality, with mandated social support.[10] Artists have problematized this development as the “cinema effect.” An alternate development might be called the “gardening effect.” It’s apparent in Sumerian love poetry written about four thousand years — texts that are among the earliest written literary texts. Human bodies are as real as lettuce and apple trees. That sense of reality makes communicating in love as sweet as honey.

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[1] Song of Songs 4:11. The woman says of her beloved man, “his fruit was sweet to my taste {וּפִרְיוֹ מָתוֹק לְחִכִּֽי }.” Song of Songs 2:3. On the cultural context of the Song of Songs, Nissinen (2016) and Gault (2019).

[2] A balbale to Inana for Šu-Suen (Šu-Suen B) (t. vv. 9-12, 26-27, cuneiform transliteration (composite text) of Ni 2461 (Istanbul Archaeological Museum) via the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, second edition (ETCSL), English translation (modified insubstantially) from Reid & Wagensonner (2017) p. 253, Table 2, Manuscript A. Another manuscript of this song exists on BM 103163 (British Museum). For photo, transliteration, and translation, id. These verses are similar in both manuscripts. Here’s Pascal Attinger’s literature review and French translation for Šu-Suen B. Subsequent such documents, if available in Attinger’s corpus, are linked to the “t” identifier, e.g. t.

Šu-Suen was the King of Ur (Third Dynasty of Ur) and King of Sumer and Akkad in ancient Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) from about 2037 BGC to 2028 BGC (middle chronology). Šu-Suen is also written as Shu-Suen and Shu-Sin. Inana / Inanna, later known as Ishtar, was an ancient Mesopotamian goddess. A balbale is a form of ancient Sumerian poetry.

A recently published fragment of Sumerian erotic poetry includes the verse:

May he … honey on your vulva

{ […] gal4 -˹la˺ -za ˹lal3˺ šu ha-ba-ni -[…] }

Peterson (2010), N 2085, v. 14, pp. 254-5, with commentary, id. p. 256. This verse emphasizes that the honey metaphor could be very physically specific.

Difficulty in deciphering the Sumerian language is apparent in translations of the last two verses of Šu-Suen B. ETCSL has:

Touch me like a cover does a measuring cup.
Adorn (?) me like the cover on a cup of wood shavings (?).

{ tug2 ĝišba-an-na-gin7 šu de6-ma-ni
tug2 ĝišba-an sum-ki-na-gin7 šu gun3-gun3-ma-ni }

Šu-Suen B, vv. 28-29, sourced as previously. Jacobsen’s translation seems plausible related, and certainly brings out the physicality of Sumerian love poetry:

O squeeze it in there for me! as one would flour into the measuring cup!
O pound and pound it in there for me! as one would flour into the old dry measuring cup!

Jacobsen (1987) p. 89. For both cuneiform sources, Reid & Wagensonner provides a different reading of the sources and a much different translation:

Carrying to me like an elegant leash,
Adorn (?) me like an elegant . . . leash.

{ ˹eš2˺-g̃ešba an-na-gen7 ˹šu˺ de6 -ma-ni
2g̃ešba°-an° se3°-ki°-na°-gen7° ˹šu˺ }

Šu-Suen B, vv. 28-29, from Reid & Wagensonner (2017) pp. 253-4. What these verses mean is far from clear.

The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (ETCSL) is a magnificent scholarly contribution to learning world-wide. For an associated book providing an informative introduction and selection of the poems in English translation, Black, Cunningham & Robson (2004). For alternate translations of selections of Sumerian love poems, Kramer (1963), Alster (1985), Alster (1993), Jacobsen (1987), and Sefati (1998). Because Sumerian was deciphered only in the twentieth century, understanding of the texts has improved considerably over time.

[3] A balbale (?) to Inana (Dumuzid-Inana P) (t.4.08.16), vv. 18-31, transliteration via ETCSL, English translation (modified slightly) from Sefati (1998), pp. 218-235, via ETCSL. Rubio stated:

Sefati’s choice of words is frequently too tame and delicate, losing most of the erotic flavor of these texts. For instance, gal4 is systematically translated as “nakedness,” instead of “vulva.” The use of an abstract noun (“nakedness”) does not transmit the essential meaning of the word in Sumerian, as one can see in Šu-Sin A 20-21, where a more accurate and evocative translation would read:

Like her beer, her vulva is sweet, how sweet is her beer!
Like her mouth, her vulva is sweet, how sweet is her beer!

Jacobsen’s always beautiful translations exhibit a similar discomfort with anatomy, since he translates here “private parts.”

Rubio (2001) p. 271. I’ve adjusted Sefati’s translation to account for Rubio’s criticism. For Jacobsen’s translation, Jacobsen (1987) p. 96.

In an Old Babylonian poem (dated 2000 to 1600 BCE), a woman praises her vulva with agricultural metaphors and complains about her elderly husband’s impotence:

My lord! Fine is my vegetable bed, my shining horn, my market square, and
multicoloured is my roasted barley. But he has had no luck there.

{ u₃-mu-un-ĝu₁₀ ⸢al-sa₆⸣ [sa]r-ĝu₁₀ si-mul šakanka-ĝu₁₀
al-gunu₃ še ⸢sa⸣-a-ĝu₁₀ diĝir la-ba-ni-in-tuku }

Sumerian tale “The Old Man and the Young Girl,” Sumerian transliteration and English translation (modified slightly) from Matuszak (2022) pp. 200-1. On Sumerian figures for women’s bodies, Couto-Ferreira (2017). In this situation, the elderly husband laments:

My mongoose, which used to eat even malodorous things, now does not even stretch its neck to the jar of clarified butter.

{ dnin-ka₅ niĝ₂ ḫab₂-ba gu₇-gu₇-ĝu₁₀ dug i₃-nun-na-še₃ gu₂ nu-mu-un-ši-ib-⸢la₂⸣-e }

“The Old Man and the Young Girl,” v. 37, sourced as previously. This line refers to erectile dysfunction. Id. p. 209, commentary on v. 37. Men’s impotence has long been recognized as an epic disaster.

[4] A balbale to Inana as Nanaya (Inana H) (t.4.07.8) vv. 21-26, transliteration and English translation (modified insubstantially) from ETCSL.

Women in ancient Sumerian love poems both delighted in their sexual bodies and in pleasing men. Inanna gushed to her sister Bau:

See now, my breasts stand out.
See now, hair has grown on my vulva,
signifying my development to a man’s embrace. Let us be very glad!
Dance, dance!
O Bau, let us be very glad about my vulva!
Dance, dance!
Later on it will delight him, delight him!

{ i-da-lam gaba-ĝu10 ba-gub-gub
i-da-lam gal4-la-ĝa2 siki ba-an-mu2
ur2 mu-tin-na-še3 di-di-de3 ba-ba ga-ba-ḫul2-ḫul2-le-en-de3-en
gu4-ud-an-ze2-en gu4-ud-an-ze2-en
dba-u2 gal4-la-ĝa2-ke4-eš ga-ba-ḫul2-ḫul2-le-en-de3-en
gu4-ud-an-ze2-en gu4-ud-an-ze2-en
eĝer-bi in-na-sag9 in-na-sag9 }

A balbale to Inana (Dumuzid-Inana C) (t.4.08.03), vv. 42-48, transliteration and English translation (modified slightly) from ETCSL. For an alternate translation, Alster (1985) pp. 150-2. Bau / Baba was a goddess who had as her husband the god Ninurta / Ningirsu.

Sumerian men, not surprisingly, worked long and hard for appreciative Sumerian women. One ancient Sumerian love poem records a man’s astonishing sexual feat:

When my sweet and precious, my heart, had lain down too,
each of them in turn kissing with the tongue, each in turn,
then my brother of the beautiful eyes did it fifty times with her.
Such a man became silent. He held himself close to her.
He filled her up, making her whole body shake.
With my brother laying his hands on her hips,
my sweet and precious passed the time.

{ ze2-ba kal-la-ju10 ca3-ab-ju10 a-ba-nu2
dili-dili-ta eme ak dili-dili-ta
cec i-bi2 sag9-sag9-ju10 50-am3 mu-un-ak
lu2 sig9-ga-gin7 mu-na-de3-gub
ki-ta tuku4-e-da si-a mu-na-ni-in-jar
cec-ju10 ib2-ba-na cu gub-bu-de3
ze2-ba kal-la-ju10 ud mu-un-di-ni-ib-zal-e }

A balbale to Inana (Dumuzid-Inana D) (c.4.08.04) vv. 12-18, transliteration from ETCSL, English translation from ETCSL, with changes based on Pascal Attinger’s French translation. For a similar translation, Alster (1993) p. 23. In eighth-century Europe, Roland’s peer Oliver sexually served a woman only a reported thirty times in one night.

[5] A balbale to Bau for Šu-Suen (Šu-Suen A) (t. vv. 19-21, transliteration from ETCSL, English translation (modified slightly) from Jacobsen (1987) p. 96. The surprising appearance of a barmaid in this poem has generated considerable scholarly discussion. For recent analysis, Widell (2011) pp. 292-4.

In a dramatic dialogue nominally between Inanna and Dumuzid, a woman who is perhaps a barmaid urges her beloved man to swear an oath:

You are to place your right hand on my vulva
while your left hand rests on my head.
Bringing your mouth close to my mouth
and taking my lips in your mouth,
thus you shall take an oath for me.
My brother of the beautiful eyes, this is the oath of women.

{ cu zid-da-zu gal4-la-ja2 de3-em-mar
gab2-bu-zu saj-ju10-uc im-ci-ri
ka-zu ka-ja2 um-me-te
cu-um-du-um-ju10 ka-za u3-ba-e-ni-dab5
za-e ur5-ta na-aj2-erim2 ma-kud-de3-en
ur5-ra-am3 mu? munus-e-ne-kam cec i-bi2 sag9-sag9-ju10 }

A balbale to Inana (Dumuzid-Inana B) (t.4.08.02), vv. 21-26, transliteration and English translation (modified slightly) from ETCSL. For an alternate English translation, Jacobsen (1987) pp. 97-8, which entitles this poem “Tavern Sketch.”

[6] Poem titles of the form “balbale to Inana” are from modern editors. Typically the cuneiform text merely indicates at its end: “balbale of Inanna {bal-bal-e dinana-/kam\}.” That description could be a formal classification not necessarily implying that the woman speaking or addressed in the poem is Inanna.

Alster has identified secular Sumerian love songs. Alster (1985). The distinction between poetry of sacred marriage ritual and other love songs is far from clear:

Although a king’s name is mentioned in some love songs, his name may stand for any lover, and although the girl is called Inanna in most of the poems, one cannot automatically sum up the evidence and draw a picture of a deity on the basis of the texts, because in a given song her name may simply stand for any beloved girl.

Alster (1993) p. 16. Moreover, cultic love songs could easily have drawn upon non-cultic love songs. Id. The idea of sacred marriage ritual has functioned as a way to exoticize these texts within scholarly competition that favors claims such as historically identifying “the invention of romantic love.”

[7] The song of the lettuce: a balbale to Inana (Dumuzid-Inana E) (t.4.08.05), transliteration from ETCSL, English translation (modified slightly) from Jacobsen (1987) p. 94. For another poem in which Inanna rejoices in her well-watered lettuce, A balbale to Inana for Šu-Suen (Šu-Suen C) (t., transliteration and English translation at ETCSL. For an alternate English translation, Jacobsen (1987) p. 93.

On an apple tree bearing fruit as a metaphor for a sexually appealing man, Song of Songs 2:3. For comparative analysis noting similar references in Sumerian and Akkadian love poems, Gault (2019) pp. 89-97.

Philology’s penis problem is evident in translations of ancient Sumerian poetry. Consider these verses:

All alone the wise one, toward Nintur, the country’s mother,
Enki, the wise one, toward Nintur, the country’s mother,
was digging his phallus into the dykes,
plunging his phallus into the reedbeds.
The august one pulled his phallus aside
and cried out: “No man take me in the marsh.”

{ dili-ni ( TAR) jectug2-ge tuku-a dnin-tur5 ama kalam-ma-ce3
den-ki-ke4 jectug2-ge tuku-a dnin-tur5 <ama kalam-ma-ce3>
jic3-a-ni eg2-a ba-an-ci-in-dun-e
jic3-a-ni gi-a gir5-gir5-e ba-an-ci-gir5-gir5-e
jic3-a-ni bar-ce3 mah-he ca-ba-ra-an-zi-zi
gu3 bi2-in-de2 ambar-ra lu2 nu-mu-un-dab-be2 }

Enki and Ninḫursaĝa (t.1.1.1), vv. 63-68, transliteration and English translation from ETCSL. Similarly Jacobsen (1987) p. 191. Under the terminological influence of psychoanalysis, “phallus” is an abstract term associated with ideological disparagement of men, e.g. “rule of the phallus.” The world “penis” factually describes the relevant male organ. A good translation would have Enki engaging in the specific physical action of digging with his “penis,” not with his “phallus.” For an example of ignoring this issue, Leick (1994) pp. 31-2.

Inapposite use of the term “phallus” is an indicator of anti-men gender bias. Consider, for example, this analysis:

Just as the cuneiform sign for ‘vulva’ could stand for ‘woman’, the vulva is the epitome of a woman’s sexual identity. It seems to have predominantly positive associations; it is not feared or spoken of as shameful or contaminating. … While the phallus represented fertility, the vulva represented sexual potency and became the primary focus of Mesopotamian eroticism.

Leick (1994) p. 96. “Penis,” not the ideologically loaded term “phallus,” is coordinate to “vulva” as anatomical descriptions. Throughout history, women’s sexual organs have been more socially appreciated than men’s sexual organs. However, general disparagement of men through ideological constructions of patriarchy or “rule of the phallus” is a distinctively modern phenomenon.

[8] Clitoris: Leick (1994) pp. 122-3; Lowe (2015) p. 15 (“clear description of the clitoris”). Penis: Jacobsen (1987) p. 94, note referring to the “male member.”

[9] Cf. Lowe (2015), which interprets Inanna’s sexuality narrowly. Recent studies of sexuality in ancient Sumerian literature tend to marginalize concern about men through mythic views of men’s sexuality and profound misunderstanding of men’s gender position. See, e.g. id. and Asher-Greve (1997).

Ancient Sumerian literature includes a sense of men’s sexuality as passionate, fruitful, and caring. Water and semen are identical words in ancient Sumerian. Enki, the god of wisdom and water / semen, acted in this way:

After he had turned his gaze from there,
after Father Enki had lifted his eyes across the Euphrates,
he stood up full of lust like a rampant bull,
lifted his penis and ejaculated,
and filled the Tigris with flowing water.
He was like a wild cow mooing for its young in the wild grass, its scorpion-infested cow-pen.
The Tigris …… at his side like a rampant bull.
By lifting his penis, he brought a bridal gift.

{ ki-bi-ta igi-ni jar-ra-[ta]
gud du7-du7-gin7 u3-na mu-un-na-gub
jic3 im-zi-zi dub3 im-nir-/re\
id2idigna a zal-le im-ma-/an\-[si]
cilam u2-numun-na amac jiri2-tab-ba amar-bi gu3 di-/dam\
id2/idigna\ gud du7-gin7 a2-na mu-na-/ab\-[…]
jic3 im-zig3 nij2-mussa nam-de6 }

Enki and the world order (t.1.1.3), vv. 250-7, transliteration and English translation (modified insubstantially) from ETCSL. Enki cares for his wife through the bridal gift of his sexuality. Sensing the danger of scorpions, he cares for his young “like a wild cow mooing for its young in the wild grass.” Dumuzid, Enki’s son, was associated with good health in young animals. Jacobsen (1987) p. 5, n. 6.

[10] This is now dominant ideology within elite culture of European heritage. Lowe (2105) and Al-Aati (2023) exemplify young scholars indoctrinated to write in support of this dominant ideology.

[images] (1) Babylonian goddess (Burney Relief). Dated between 1800 and 1700 BGC. Preserved in the British Museum. Image via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Inanna receiving offering from a man. Carving on Warka Vase, made in Uruk (present-day Iraq) c. 3200-3000 BGC. Image thanks to Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) and Wikimedia Commons. (3) Cuneiform text of A balbale to Inana for Šu-Suen (Šu-Suen B), Ni 2461 (Istanbul Archaeological Museum). Source image via Wikimedia Commons.


Al-Aati, Nora Salem. 2023. Putting on a Show: A Re-Analysis of Gender and Performativity at the Royal Cemetery of Ur. Master of Arts Thesis, North Carolina State University.

Alster, Bendt. 1985. “Sumerian Love Songs.” Revue d’Assyriologie et d’Archéologie Orientale. 79(2): 127–59.

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Kramer, Samuel Noah. 1963. “Cuneiform Studies and the History of Literature: The Sumerian Sacred Marriage Texts.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 107(6): 485-527.

Leick, Gwendolyn. 1994. Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature. London: Routledge.

Lowe, Alexandra Louise. 2015. Let’s talk about sex: a study into the sexual nature of the goddess Inanna. Master by Research Thesis, University of Birmingham, UK.

Matuszak, Jana. 2022. “A Complete Reconstruction, New Edition and Interpretation of the Sumerian Morality Tale ‘The Old Man and the Young Girl.’Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und vorderasiatische Archäologie. 112(2): 184-218.

Nissinen, Martti. 2016. “Akkadian Love Poetry and the Song of Songs: A Case of Cultural Interaction.” Pp. 145-170 in Hiepel Ludger and Marie-Theres Wacker, eds. Zwischen Zion Und Zaphon: Studien Im Gedenken an Den Theologen Oswald Loretz (14.01.1928-12.04.2014). Münster: Ugarit-Verlag.

Peterson, Jeremiah. 2010. “A Fragmentary Erotic Sumerian Context Featuring Inana.” Aula Orientalis. 28: 253-257.

Reid, John Nicholas and Klaus Wagensonner. 2017. “Let the Alg̃ar Be Played: A New Manuscript of Šū-Suen B.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 76 (2): 249–264.

Rubio, Gonzalo. 2001. “Inanna and Dumuzi: A Sumerian Love Story. Review of Love Songs in Sumerian Literature by Yitschak Sefati.” Journal of the American Oriental Society. 121 (2): 268-274.

Sefati, Yitschak, ed. and trans. 1998. Love Songs in Sumerian Literature: critical edition of the Dumuzi-Inanna songs. Bar-Ilan University Press: Ramat-Gan.

Widell, Magnus. 2011. ‘Who’s Who in “A balbale to Bau for Šu-Suen” (Šu-Suen A).’ Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 70 (2): 289-302.

William of Orange castigated his privileged sister Queen Blancheflor

Many men have known the feeling. Dirty, tired, and beaten, you appeal to your family and friends for help. Your powerful friend refuses to help you. Your mother courageously supports you. Your brothers are silent, and your highly privileged sister speaks against you. You’re furious and fed up. So it was for William of Orange in the court of King Louis in a twelfth-century Old French epic song.

William walked into the royal court, glared at his queen sister, and denounced the king. King Louis was refusing to help William despite all William had done for him:

Louis, lord, you pay your debts badly.
When at Paris the court was assembled,
just after Charlemagne had left this life,
all the men of the country held you in disdain,
all of yours in France would have been lost,
and the crown would never have been given to you,
when I endured for you such enormous fighting
that in spite of them, the crown was placed on your head,
the great crown that is of pure gold.
They feared me so that they dared not oppose.
Bad love for this you have returned to me today.

{ Loeï, sire, chi a male saudee.
Quant a Paris fu la coiirs asamblee,
Ke Charlemaine ot vie trespassee,
Vil te tenoient tuit eil de la contree.
De toi fust France toute desiretee,
Ja la corone ne fust a toi donee,
Quant je soffri por toi si grant mellee,
Ke maugré aus fu en ton cief posee
La grans corone, ki d’or est esmeree.
Tant me douterent, n’osa estre veee.
Mauvaise amor m’en avés hui raostree! }

In response to William’s blunt words, King Louis recognized his wrong and promised to help William. Queen Blancheflor interjected that helping William would lead to a bad end. William turned to his privileged sister and assailed her with bitter words:

“Shut up,” he said, “you well-proven whore!
Tiebaut of Arabia had you as a concubine
and many times banged you like a whore.
Your words should not be heard.
When you eat your meat and your pepper
and drink your wine from a golden goblet,
honeyed wine, wine mixed with spices,
and eat hearth-cakes kneaded four times over —
when you hold your covered goblet
near the fire, alongside the chimney,
such that you are warmed and roasted
and set on fire and ablaze with lust
by the gluttony that has fully nourished you,
when lechery has so inflamed you
and Louis has turned you over well,
two or three times banged you under him,
when you have been well satisfied of your lust
and sated with eating and drinking,
then you don’t remember the snow and the ice,
the great battles and the privation
that in an outside country we suffer
within Orange from an infidel people.
Little it matters to you that the wheat is ruined!
Evil woman, you well-proven whore,
much have you spoken against my words,
and you have dishonored me in front of the king.
Living devils have set that crown on you!”

{ “Tas toi,” dist il, “pute lise provee!
Tiebaus d’Arrabe vos a asoignantee
Et maintes fois com putain defolee:
Ne doit pas estre ta parole escotee.
Quant tu mangus ta char et ta pevree
Et bois ton vin a ta coupe doree,
Claré, piment a espisses coulees,
Mangus fouace .iiii. fois buletee;
Quant vos tenés la coupe coverclee
Joste le fu, dalés la ceminee,
Tant que vos estes rostie et escaufee,
Et de luxure esprise et enbrasee,
La glotornie vos a tost alumee;
Quant lecherie vos a si enflamee,
Et Loeis vos a bien retornee,
.ii. fois ou .iii. desous lui defolee;
Quant de luxure estes bien soolee
Et de mangier et de boire asasee,
Dont ne vos membre de noif ne de gelee,
Des grans batailles ne de la consieuree,
Ke nous souffrons en estrange contree,
Dedens Orenge, vers la gent desfaee?
Petit vos chaut, que on vaude la blee.
Mavaise fame, pute lise provee,
Molt avés hui ma parole blasmee,
Et vers le roi m’aïe desloee.
Li vif diable vos ont or corounee!” }

William rushed forward, lifted the golden crown off his sister’s head, and threw it to the ground. Then he grabbed his sword and prepared to decapitate her. William would have overturned his sister’s privileged status in the most extreme way.

Queen Elizabeth I in her coronation robes

The siblings’ mother, the courageous Ermengard, intervened to save Queen Blancheflor’s life. No one dared to confront William other than his mother. She hugged him and took the sword from his hand. No man could have attempted that and lived. Blancheflor then ran from her infuriated brother.

Blancheflor’s daughter Aelis approached her uncle William. She knelt down in front of him and begged him for forgiveness for her mother’s behavior. She offered herself as a hostage to ensure that her mother never again betrayed him. Men will do anything for a beautiful, young, importuning woman. William forgave his privileged sister Blancheflor.

After William reconciled with Queen Blancheflor, his father and brothers spoke in support of him. King Louis then pledged 100,000 men to fight for Guiborc and William. William thus finally received the fighting men he needed to defend Orange from the attacking infidels.

Men’s welfare depends on women’s actions. Mothers and wives are vitally important to men. Sisters also matter. While no one should threaten to kill a sibling, sometimes brothers need to castigate sisters who are so privileged that they aren’t even aware of their privileged status. Fortunately, invective against women has the advantage that it doesn’t entail the risk of encouraging castration culture.

* * * * *

Read more:


The above story of the furious William of Orange castigating his privileged sister Queen Blancheflor is from Aliscans, a twelfth-century “song of deeds {chanson de geste}.” It’s part of the Old French epic cycle known as the Deeds of Garin de Monglane {Geste de Garin de Monglane} or the Cycle of William of Orange {Cycle de Guillaume d’Orange}. King Louis loosely corresponds to King Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor.

Medieval Europe had a vigorous tradition of invective. The European tradition of invective, however, is less well-developed than that of classical Arabic literature. Invective shouldn’t obscure the reality that medieval men typically would do anything to please women.

The above quotes from Aliscans use Old French text from Wienbeck, Hartnacke & Rasch (1903) and English translation (modified) from Ferrante (1974). Those quotes are Aliscans vv. 2754-64 (Louis, lord, you pay your debts badly…) and 2772-98 (“Shut up,” he said…).

[image] Queen Elizabeth I of England in her coronation robes. Painting by unknown artist about the year 1600, after a lost original painted about 1559. Preserved as accession # NPG 5175 in the National Portrait Gallery (London). Via Wikimedia Commons.


Ferrante, Joan M., trans. 1974. Guillaume d’Orange: Four Twelfth-Century Epics. New York: Columbia University Press. Review by Diana Teresa Mériz.

Wienbeck, Erich, Wilhelm Hartnacke, and Paul Rasch, eds. 1903. Aliscans. Kritischer Text. Halle A.D.S: Verlag Von Max Niemeyer.

medieval women Rigmel & Lenburc strong, active leaders in love

The world needs more strong, active women leaders in love with men. As always, men are to blame. Men have been socially constructed as tools to protect women by engaging in violence against men and to provide material goods for women and children. Marginalizing and obscuring men’s intrinsic beauty contributes to the lack of strong, active women leaders. Nonetheless, progress toward gender equality and social justice can be imagined. The twelfth-century Old French Romance of Horn {Roman de Horn} shows how appreciating Horn’s masculine physical beauty stimulated Rigmel and Lenburc to become strong, active women leaders in love with men.

The Romance of Horn describes Horn’s masculine physical beauty in a way scarcely imaginable today. This young man wasn’t merely dreamy. He seemed more than divine:

God! How they noted his beauty throughout the hall!
And all said that he must be some enchanted being
and that such could never have been made by God.

{ Deu taunt fu sa beaute par la sale notéé
E si dient par tut ke cest chose facéé
E ke onc mes de deu ne fu tiel figuréé. }[1]

In the eyes of the young countess Herselot, Horn’s masculine beauty was ineffable:

She saw an angelic young gentleman,
who was noble and graceful and had beauty so fine
that no clerk nor sage divine could describe it.

{ … vev le danzel angelin
Cum est gent e molle e en beaute si fin
K e descrire nel pot nul clerc sage devin }

At the great annual royal feast for Pentecost, Horn served noble ladies wine. They yearned for him to serve them more intimately:

God! How was heard praise of his bearing and his complexion.
No lady-lord at the sight of him didn’t love him,
and didn’t want to hold him under her ermine coverlet,
embracing him lovingly without her husband knowing.

{ Deu cum orent loe sa facun sa colur.
Dame nel ad vev ki vers li nait amur
E nel vousist tenir suz hermin couertur
Embracie belement sanz sev de seignur. }

Medieval literature frankly acknowledged the risks of husbands being cuckolded, even though the four-seas paternity doctrine and the massive state “child support” monetary tribute system hadn’t yet been developed. However, not just for husbands did Horn’s masculine beauty create risk. When Horn entered into knightly service to Egfer, son of the Irish king Gudreche, the king warned his son:

But one thing I say to you — that you should be careful,
if you go courting, that you don’t bring him there with you,
because he is of such radiant beauty
that you compared to him will be little praised,
you who previously surpassed all men in beauty.

{ Mes une rien vus di ioe dont seiez purgardez.
Si alez donneier ke oue vus nel menez,
Kar il est de beaute issi enluminez
Ke vus la v’il iert petit serrez preisez.
Ki tuz homes aunceis de beaute passiez. }

The king’s comparison underscores that women in medieval France greatly appreciated men’s physical beauty.[2]

Mary, Duchess of Burgundy, 1477-1482

Princess Rigmel, the beautiful young daughter of King Hunlaf of Brittany, heard about Horn’s beauty. She sought to meet him. Not content to wait passively for him to text her first, she arranged for Horn to be brought to her. With lavish gifts she bribed the royal seneschal Herland to bring him. Herland promised to do so, but later feared because Horn personally served the king. Herland therefore brought Rigmel another handsome young man named Haderof.

Men should not be treated merely as objects of exchange in women’s amorous intrigues. Rigmel fully understood that seminal insight from meninist literary criticism. When she learned that Herland brought her Haderof, not Horn, Rigmel was furious. Acting as a powerful woman leader, she castigated and threatened the royal seneschal. Not even deigning to address Herland directly, she spoke about him to his face:

Oh! See how I am shamed with the presumption of Herland, son of Toral!
By the saints whom God has made, he wasn’t loyal
who mockingly brought here a commoner,
so as to test me fully as if I were a whore.
If this is known to King Hunlaf, he’ll badly regard this day.
I shall be well avenged, or I’ve never been angry at anything.
He’ll be dragged fully into pieces by a horse’s tail.
No royal young woman was ever made so disgraced
as I am by this insolent wretch who has made himself a seneschal.
By God, I have few friend if they don’t avenge this evil,
if they don’t seek his disgraceful humiliation.

{ A voi cum sui hunie quidez le fiz Toral
Pur les seinz que deus fist ke ne seie leal
K ici mas amene par gabeis un vassal
Tut pur mei essaier cum fusse cummunal.
Si est vif rei Hunlaf mar vint cest áiornal
I oe men vengerai bien ia nen irra par al.
Tut len ferai detraire a coes de cheval
Ne fu mes si honie pucele enperial.
Cum cist surquide mad ki se fet seneschal.
Par deu poi ai amis s’il nevengent cest mal.
S’il ne quierent de lui hunissement vergundal. }

Herland actually was treating the young man Haderof as a whore and Rigmel as a “Jane.” Such a gender configuration of prostitution is scarcely ever acknowledged. Herland merely apologized to Princess Rigmel and promised to bring Horn to her, no matter what the king would do to him.

Medieval culture, drawing upon classical Virgilian tradition, credited women with being dynamic and adaptable, as well as having strong, independent desires. Herland, the seneschal subservient to Rigmel, recognized women’s strengths:

Because a woman’s heart changes very often,
when she sees a beautiful young man, she soon falls in love
and very soon, however one might object, madly loves him.
She will leave him for no one, neither friend nor parent,
and for nothing would a person chastise her about it.
Because if you chastise her for it and beat her harshly,
you will lose all, for she will love him then more strongly.

{ Kar corage remue a feme mut sovent
Quant veit bel bacheler de samur tost ses prent
E bien tost ki ken peist si leime folement.
Nel larreit pur nuli pur ami ne parent
I a pur nient len fereit nuls hom chastiement.
Kar si lenchastiez e batez durement
Tut auerez coe perdu taunt lamera plus forment. }

Herland himself was more sluggish in perception and in thought. Only after many gifts from Rigmel did he realize what she wanted from him. He disastrously misjudged in bringing her Haderof in place of Horn. He served her as she desired only after she became furious at him.

Women and men support women much more than men. So it was with Herselot, a count’s daughter. She served Rigmel, supported her, and assured her:

“Lady-lord,” said Herselot, “you will have him. I foretell it.
I saw in a dream, by which I know for certain,
that he made to you a noble gift of a peregine falcon.
You put it in your bosom under your silk dress,
and would not give it away for Pepin’s kingdom.
I know well that you will have a son from that young man.”

{ Dame dist Herselot vus lauerez iol devin.
Un a visiun vi par quei sai kert issin
Quil vus fist un gent dun dun faukun muntarsin.
El sein le metiez de desuz losterin
Sinel donissez pas pur le regne Pepin.
Bien sai ke eiert un fiz ke auerez del meschin. }

In Marie de France’s lai Laustic,a wife longs for her lover as for a nightingale. Medieval women imagined men giving them the bird to be not a hostile gesture, but a delightful encounter. After seeing Horn at a royal dinner, Herselot gushed about him to Rigmel:

Lady-lord, God ordains for you
one I have seen who is truly an angel!
For the sickness you have, he has the cure.
Neither a countess nor a queen can gaze upon him
who is not at the sight of him very inclined to know him.
He is dressed in a tunic of crimson color.
It’s greatly tight about his flanks and trails on the ground.
I believe that this one is Horn, who rules over everyone.
If he’s this one, there is no such other from here to Palestine,
not among Christians nor among the Saracen people.
Henceforth I would like that you would be at his order,
to do his command under an ermine coverlet.

{ … dame deu vus destine.
D’une rien quai veu ki bien est angeline.
Del mal quauez év il en ad la mescine.
Nel poet pas esgarder cuntesse ne reine.
Ke tresque lad veu ne seit vers lui acline
Vestu ad un bliaut la colur ad purprine
Estreit est mut es flancs e par terre traine
Ioe crei que coe est Horn ke tute gent destine.
S’il est coe tiel nen ad de ci quen palestine
Ne entre crestiens ne en gent sarazine
Desor vuil ke seiez de sa diseipline.
A faire sun comand suz cuvertur hermine. }[3]

Herselot wasn’t just mouthing a conventional expression. She shockingly wished that she herself had sex with Horn:

Please God, I wish he had raped me
and had me to himself in a chamber or forest.
I would do his will by Saint Catherine!
I wouldn’t make that known to my parents or cousins.

{ Plust adeu ke de mei oust faite ravine
E mei oust sul a sul en chambre v’en gaudine.
Ioe fereie sun boen par sainte katherine
Ia nel savereit par mei parente ne cosine. }

Women shouldn’t publicly express desire to have men rape them. Rape is a grave crime. Penal systems vastly gender-disproportionately punish persons with penises. While freedom of erotic imagination might be acceptable, and in any case is difficult to police, men should not be set up as rapists in words uttered or written.

When Herland brought Horn to her, Rigmel took charge of the meeting. She acted courteously, but assertively:

Welcome, seneschal! From me you have warm thanks
when you are so loyal. There will be for you a reward
since you have brought to me Aalof’s son Horn.
And welcome, Lord Horn! Much have I desired
to see you — know that much a long time has passed.
Sit here towards me so that we may get acquainted.
Lord Herland, who has been here earlier, will go to be
with the young women there who will fully grant his requests.

{ Bien viengez seneschal de mei aiez bon gre
Quant estes si leal vus iert guerredone
Ke le fiz Aaluf ca mavez amene.
E bien viengez sire Horn mut vus ai desire
A veeir coe sacez mut ad grant tens passe
Ca serez de vers mei ke seions acointe.
Danz Herland sen irra ki ad ci ainz este
As puceles de la dunt iad grant plente. }

Rigmel apparently offered her serving-maidens to Herland as some mothers offered their daughters to men. Rigmel drew Horn toward her and immediately took the initiative in love:

Of you very well is true what all say —
that you are the most beautiful man living in this age.
I offer you my love, if you would assent to it.
By this ring that I hold, I would have possession of you.
Never have I said this before to any man in the world,
nor will I say it to any other by my knowledge,
but I would rather be burned in a blazing fire.

{ De vus est mut bien veir coe que tuit sunt cuntant
Ke taunt bel home nad en cest siecle vivant.
Ioe vus otrei mamur si lestes otreiant
Par cest anel que tienc vus en sui seisissant
Unkes mes a nul hom del mund ne dis taunt
Ne ia autre nel dirrai par le mien esciant
Mez vodreie estre arse en un feu ardant. }

Rigmel made clear that she, although strong and active, wasn’t promiscuous. Not all strong, independent women leaders are like Empress Theodora.

Princess Augusta of Bavaria, reigned as Viceine of Italy from 1805-1814.

Rigmel didn’t seek to dominate Horn. Instead, she confidently declared herself warmly receptive to him:

You could love me, if that were your pleasure.
You would find me neither false nor deceitful toward you,
for I would do nothing but all that you request.

{ Amer me purriez si vostre pleisir ere.
Ne me truverez vers vus fausse ne losengiere.
Ke ne face de quoer tute vostre preiere }

Women historically have been regarded as more socially sophisticated than men. That makes women better at lying and deceiving, as well as in web thinking. Rigmel renounced that female advantage. In her astonishing rejection of men’s traditional gender burden in love, she not only took the initiative in asking Horn to love her, but also offered him an expensive ring. Compared to this medieval woman, modern women tend to be much more passive in love.

As a result of historical gender injustice, men tend to lack appropriate self-esteem. So it was with Horn. He refused Rigmel’s love and her ring because he felt that he hadn’t yet proved himself worthy:

Lovely lady, by Saint Marcel!
I would rather be completely burned in a furnace
than such be given to me to use while I am a young man
who has not yet carried arms before the tower of a castle,
nor yet engaged iron in a tournament or joust.
That isn’t considered a custom of persons of my lineage.
But when I have struck a knight from his horse
or pieced a shield in its center or in the rim,
then I can wear a ring engraved with a chisel.

{ … bele par saint marcel
Meuz voldreie estre ars tut vis en un furnel
Ke en mun dei lousse taunt cum sui iouencel.
Ainz ke armes porte devant tur de chastel
E ke usse en turnei feru u encembel.
N’est pas us a la gent aki lignage apel
Mes quant auerai vassal abatu de putrel
U estroe escu en bucle u’en chauntel.
Dunc pus porter anel entaille á cisel. }[4]

Men must understand that they are intrinsically worthy of women’s love. Engaging in violence against men shouldn’t be regarded as making men more worthy of women’s love. Horn didn’t understand that Rigmel knew him better than he knew himself. Horn ignorantly refused her ring:

So do not give it to me because you don’t know me.
I don’t know myself, nor have I yet been tested,
so I don’t want to conclude with you a love-contract.

{ Pur coe nel me donez kar ne me conoissiez.
Ioe ne sai ki ioe sui ne fui onc espruvez
Pur coe ne vuil del vostre ne fermer amistez. }

Men leaders have failed men. Most men don’t know themselves and their intrinsic worth. Strong, active women leaders in love with men can help to promote gender justice for men.

When the perfidious courtier Wikele accused Horn of a serious sexual offense, Rigmel showed social strength that Horn lacked. Compared to women, men have always been more vulnerable to accusations of sexual offenses. Wikele told the king that Horn had sex with the king’s daughter Rigmel. Moreover, Wikele claimed that Horn said to others:

I won’t marry her,
but as long as it pleases me, I’ll warm her in bed.

{ .. ia nel espuserai.
Mes taunt cum me plarra si la soignanterai. }

With the gender bias prevalent throughout history, the king judged that his adult daughter allegedly having consensual sex with Horn implied that Horn had betrayed him. Women can do no wrong. Men with their penises are intrinsically prone to evil, or so penal systems of punishment affirm.

Horn sought to disprove through judicial combat the nonsensical sexual allegation agains him. The king, however, wanted him to swear an oath in denial. Horn regarded swearing an oath to be beneath his dignity as a man. Rigmel self-confidentially offered a humane way forward. She declared that she and Horn should ignore allegations that they had consensual sex:

If that were true, so Saint Richer help me,
it wouldn’t do anything to me, because so much can I love you
that the pain would be sweet for me to endure for you.

{ Si coe fust verite si mait saint Richer
Ne me fust dunc a nient kar mut vus pus amer.
Si me fust duz le mal pur vus endurer. }

In fact, she wanted to have sex with Horn. It was sweet for her to imagine having sex with him. Nonetheless, Horn left the realm because he was falsely accused of having consensual sex with the eagerly amorous princess.

Fleeing from gender injustice, Horn went to live in Ireland. Irish women, like English women, greatly admired Horn’s masculine physical beauty:

His face by its beautiful casting
was much noted and made delight for the lady-lords
who among themselves said that he was a divine being
and many said that she would be born lucky
who there made her pleasure and with him became intimate.
Such pleasure she would long remember, so evil sufferings would be smooth sailing.

{ … face out bien moulléé
Mut fu diversement par ces dames notéé
Kar entreles dient ke cest chose faéé
E si dient plusur ke bor fust cele néé
Kin oust fait sun pleisir e de lui fust privéé.
Taunt cum len sovendreit de mal navereit haschéé. }

Horn took up knightly service with Egfer, son of the Irish king Gudreche. When King Gudreche’s daughter Lenburc saw Horn, she gazed upon him at length. Then, as a strong, active woman leader in love with a man, she drank half the wine that filled a golden goblet. She commanded a boy to take to Horn that half-emptied golden cup and the following message:

Lenburc, the king’s daughter with a lovely body,
sends you a hundred greetings of the great, highest god.
By me she has sent you this shining golden vessel.
She drank half from it. You drink the remainder,
sir, by such covenant as I will now say to you.
For love of her, she requests that you drink the wine.
Keep for youself the vessel of fine gold.
Then drink from it, if you please, mornings and evenings.
By this you will love her, and your loving her will be more fine.
Remember her when you go on the road.
Tell her your name, and what is your lineage,
and for what you came to this side of the sea.

{ Lenburc fille le rei od le cors avenaunt
Vus maunde cent saluz del deu hautisme grant.
Par mei vus enveie cest vessel dor luisant.
Ele enbut la meitie bevez le remanaunt
Par tiel covent sire cum ioe vus ere disaunt
Pur samur vus requiert ke vus bevez le vin
A vostre oes retendrez le vessel dor fin.
Dunt beverez si vus plest al seir v’ al matin
Par itaunt lamerez si iert lamur plus fin.
Sovendra vus de li quant irrez le chemin
Maundez li vostre num e quel est vostre lin
E pur quei venistes en cest utre marin. }

Lenburc’s message might be interpreted as sexual harassment today, if anyone cared about men being sexually harassed. Horn, however, was more concerned about Lenburc’s hasty and superficial judgment of him. In a message to her, he declared that she needed to get to know him better:

I don’t take fire from straw that soon makes failure.
Very quickly it lights, and it goes out quickly.
Such love is foolish when it doesn’t come reasonably.

{ Ne pris pas feu d’estreim tost fet defectiun
Mut tost est alume e tost fet orbeisun
Si est de fol amur quant ne vient par raisun. }

Like many men, Horn was less concerned about being sexually harassed than with a woman’s loyalty and steadfastness in love.

Strong, active women leaders in love with men are subservient to neither fathers nor mothers. Lenburc’s mother urged her not to be foolish in loving Horn. Mothers were the ultimate authority in medieval life. Nonetheless, for Lenburc in love with Horn, mother didn’t matter:

And her mother gently told her to desist from her folly,
but she loved him more, without regard for her mother’s authority.

{ Si li dit soavet quele laist sa folie
Mes ele len aime plus ne dute sa mestrie. }

In fact, Lenburc made a further initiative in love with Horn. She sent to him the following message:

My young lady says she will give you her possessions.
Nothing that you wish of hers will ever be denied to you —
palfreys and warhorses and weapons that she has.
Refined gold and coins will enrich you well,
because if you love her, she will love you.

{ Ma daunzele vus dit ses aveirs vus donra
Rien que voldrez del soen ia mes ne vus faudra.
Palefreiz e destriers e armes ke ele a
Dor quit e de deniers bien vus enrichera.
Pur coe ke vus lamez ele vus amera. }

That’s how a strong, independent woman acts in love with a man. Of course not all women are wealthy princesses. Nonetheless, all women can be strong, active women leaders in love with men.

Study of medieval literature offers the best hope for true progress towards gender equality and social justice. Without strong, active women leaders in love with men, such progress will never be realized.[5] Nurturing, encouraging, and supporting strong, active women leaders in love with men is far more important than encouraging women to become computer programmers, engineers, and physicists. STEM workers matter less to civilization’s future than does women’s love for men.

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[1] Thomas, Romance of Horn {Roman de Horn} vv. 452-4, Old French (Anglo-Norman) text of manuscript C (MS. Cambridge, University Library, Ff.6.17, folios 1ra-94rb) (normalized slightly) from Brede & Stengel (1883), my English translation, benefiting from that of Weiss (2009). Subsequent quotes from Roman de Horn are similarly sourced.

Brede & Stengel (1883) is a semi-diplomatic edition of Roman de Horn, hence it’s quite difficult to read. Michel (1845) provides a simpler but much less reliable edition. Comparing these editions shows the enormous expertise and labor of textual scholarship. Pope (1955) provides a more accessible edition of manuscript C. Weiss (2009) translates Pope’s edition, with some deviations. In addition to minor normalizations and simplifications of Brede & Stengel, I’ve incorporated some reading from manuscript O, usually consistent with Weiss’s English translation. The freely available, online Anglo-Norman Dictionary is helpful for reading the Anglo-Norman editions.

The cleric Thomas identifies himself as the author of Roman de Horn in its first laisse and its final laisse (laisse 245). Nothing is known about Thomas other than what he wrote in the Roman de Horn. In the first laisse, Thomas indicates that he’s old. In the final laisse, Thomas describes his son Wilmot as a good poet. Thomas probably wrote Roman de Horn about 1170 in England. This romance apparently reflects Viking raids into Britain in the eight through tenth centuries. Weiss (2009) p. 3,

Romances concerning Horn, or similar stories, occurs in a variety of languages and versions. Schofield (1903). One related story is the Anglo-Norman lai Haveloc, written about 1200. A shorter, simpler romance of Horn exists as the late-thirteenth-century English romance King Horn. For a Middle English edition, Herzman, Drake & Salisbury (1999). For English modernizations of King Horn, Eckert (2015) and Scott-Robinson (2019). The extent of the influence of the Anglo-Norman Roman de Horn on the Middle English King Horn is a matter of considerable scholarly controversy. In any case, Anglo-Norman romance had considerable influence on Middle English romance. Wadsworth (1972).

Subsequent quotes above from Roman de Horn are from vv. 946-8 (She saw an angelic young gentleman…), 475-8 (God! How was heard praise…), 2323-27 (But one thing I say to you…), 876-86 (Oh! See how I am shamed…), 683-9 (Because a woman’s heart…), 729-34 (“Lady-lord,” said Herselot…), 953-64 (Lady-lord, God ordains for you..), 966-9 (Please God, I wish he had raped me…), 1060-7 (Welcome, seneschal!…), 1102-8 (Of you very well is true…), 1127-9 (You could love me…), 1149-57 (Lovely lady, by Saint Marcel…), 1166-8 (So do not give it to me…), 1891-2 (I won’t marry her…), 2027-9 (If that were true, so Saint Richer help me…), 2186-91 (His face by its beautiful casting…), 2413-24 (Lenburc, the king’s daughter…), 2445-7 (I don’t take fire from straw…), 2469-70 (And her mother gently told her…), 2496-2500 (My young lady says…).

[2] Gos interpreted medieval women’s desiring gaze according to her ideological fictions: “her desiring gaze can be seen as a fiction designed to justify and naturalize the exchange of women along the lines of patriarchal priorities.” Gos (2012) p. 41. The male gaze, in contrast, really desires to see a woman’s face, as long as her face isn’t the face of a Medusa.

[3] Weiss (2009) doesn’t translate Roman de Horn vv. 956-7.

[4] Modern literary scholars have treated uncritically men’s lack of self-esteem and their striving to establish their “worth.” Burnley perceived Horn as “an ideal for his age.” Burnley (1967) p. 86. Worth perceived Horn as “a figure of truth, action and divine favour.” Worth (2015) p. 59. Horn is “a perfect, multifaceted Insular hero, whose worth and singular identity can be inevitably recognised and celebrated universally.” Id. p. 61. Horn’s unnecessary quest for self-worth is littered with bodies of men he has violently killed.

[5] According to Weiss, strong, active women leaders in love with men “usurp the male role.” Weiss (1991) p. 160. To promote gender equality, more women should take up men’s gender burdens. The contrast between medieval literature of men’s sex protest and the great women leaders of medieval romance indicates that those leaders failed to overcome oppressive gender injustices. Cf. id. pp. 151-2. Cooper interpreted strong, active women leaders in love with men as “wishful thinking of male readers.” Cooper (2004) p. 225. Men readers rightly wish for gender justice. So too should critically thinking literary scholars.

Weiss (1991), Cooper (2004), and Gos (2012) are based upon dominant gender myths. Those works, like much other medieval scholarship, fundamentally misunderstands gender in medieval European society and in western culture today. Consider, for example, Cooper’s summary of part of the Middle English King Horn. After Horn left Rimenhild (the princess corresponding to the Anglo-Norman Rigmel) because of the false sexual accusation against him:

Both lovers then undergo parallel processes of testing and trial: she by resisting rival suitors; he by demonstrating his merit through a succession of combats that finally win him back his own kingdom.

Cooper (2004) p. 228. Having to endure deadly violence is hardly a parallel process to resisting person seeking to love you.

[images] (1) Mary, Duchess of Burgundy, 1477-1782. Fifteenth-century painting attributed to Master of the Legend of the Magdalene. Preserved in the Castle of Gaasbeek. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Princess Augusta of Bavaria, reigned as Viceine of Italy from 1805-1814. Painted by Karl Joseph Stieler about 1825. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Brede, Rudolf, and Edmund Stengel, eds. 1883. Das anglonormannische Lied von wackern Ritter Horn. Genauer Abdruck der Cambridger, Oxforder und Londoner Handschrift. Ausgaben und Abhandlungen aus dem Gebiete der romanischen Philologie, 8. Marburg: Elwert.

Burnley, J. E. 1967. An Investigation of the differences in ideas and emphases in five middle English romances (Floris and Blauncheflour; King Horn; Havelok the Dane; Amis and Amiloun; Ipomadon) and the old French versions of the same subjects, with special reference to narrative technique, characterisation, tone and background. Masters thesis, Durham University, UK.

Cooper, Helen. 2004. The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Review by Richard Moll and by Jordi Sánchez-Martí.

Eckert, Kenneth. 2015. Middle English Romances in Translation: Amis and Amiloun | Athelston | Floris and Blancheflor | Havelok the Dane | King Horn | Sir Degare. Havertown: Sidestone Press.

Gos, Giselle. 2012. Constructing the Female Subject in Anglo-Norman, Middle English and Medieval Irish Romance. D. Phil. Thesis, Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto, Canada.

Herzman, Ronald B., Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury. 1999. Four Romances of England: King Horn, Havelok the Dane, Bevis of Hampton, Athelston. Kalamazoo, Mich: Published for TEAMS (the Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages) in association with the University of Rochester by Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University.

Michel, Francisque Xavier, ed. 1845. Horn et Rimenhild. Recueil de ce qui reste des poëmes relatifs à leurs aventures composés en françois, en anglois et en écossois dans les treizième, quatorzième, quinzième et seizième siècles publié d’après les manuscrits de Londres, de Cambridge, d’Oxford et d’Edinburgh. Paris: Maulde et Renou pour le Bannatyne Club.

Pope, Mildred K. 1955. The Romance of Horn by Thomas. Volume I: Text, Critical Introduction and Notes. Anglo-Norman Texts, 9-10. Oxford: Blackwell.

Pope, Mildred K., revised and completed by T. B. W. Reid. 1964. The Romance of Horn by Thomas. Volume II: Descriptive Introduction, Explicative Notes and Glossary. Anglo-Norman Texts, 12-13. Oxford: Blackwell.

Schofield, William Henry. 1903. “The Story of Horn and Rimenhild.” PMLA. 18 (1): 1–83.

Scott-Robinson, Richard, trans. 2019. King Horn. Eleusinianm. Online.

Wadsworth, Rosalind. 1972. Historical Romance in England: Studies in Anglo-Norman and Middle English Romance. D. Phil., Department of English, University of York.

Weiss, Judith. 1991. “The Wooing Woman in Anglo-Norman Romance.” Pp. 149-161 in Maldwyn Mills, Jennifer Fellows, and Carol M. Meale, eds. Romance in Medieval England. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Weiss, Judith. 2009. The Birth of Romance in England: The Romance of Horn, The Folie Tristan, The Lai of Haveloc, and Amis and Amilun; Four Twelfth-Century Romances in the French of England. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (ACMRS).

Worth, Liliana. 2015. ‘Exile-and-Return’ in Medieval Vernacular Texts of England and Spain 1170-1250. Ph.D. Thesis, Oxford University, UK.

medieval warning to men about sexual effects of cold baths

Men in medieval Europe loved women even more than did the classical lover Ovid. They especially delighted in the lovely, warmly receptive women of the Italian city Pavia. The early church father Jerome understood well men’s ardent desire for women. He and other Christian leaders recognized dangers of gyno-idolatry. To avoid terrible hardships like the Archpoet endured, medieval men needed inspiring examples of heroic chastity. Apparently attempting to meet that need, the twelfth-century cleric Jocelin of Furness described how cold baths affected Saint Kentigern’s sexual desire for women.

By Jocelin’s time, the seventh-century abbot and bishop Aldhelm of Malmesbury was renowned for his feats of chastity. Gerald of Wales, who was a near-contemporary of Jocelin, counseled men against trying to imitate the example of Saint Aldhelm:

He spent every night between two young women, one on his one side, the other on his other side, and so was slandered by men. But he is described as lying prostrate to God, by whom the conscience of this very man was truly recognized, and his continence would be more abundantly rewarded in the future.

{ qui inter duas puellas, unam ab uno latere alteram ab altero, singulis noctibus, ut ab hominibus diffamaretur, a Deo vero cui nota fuerat conscientia ipsius et continentia copiosius in futurum remuneraretur, jacuisse describitur }[1]

Suspicious of Aldhelm’s practice of sleeping with young women, some slandered him for it.[2] Gerald and others, however, insisted on Aldhelm’s continence. The classical philosopher Xenocrates stolidly slept with the lovely courtesan Phryne. King David chastely warmed himself in bed with the beautiful Abishag the Shunammite. Why couldn’t Aldhelm behave similarly?

Aldhelm reportedly developed his strong sexual restraint with a rigorous practice of bathing. The twelfth-century historian William of Malmesbury described Aldhelm’s practice:

So as to overcome the force of bodily rebellion, he immersed himself up to his shoulders in the spring that was next to his monastery. There, not caring for the icy rigor in winter, nor for the fragrant mists running from marshy places in summer, he lasted nights unharmed. The limit of his Psalter, having been sung through, simply established the end of his labor.

{ ut vim rebelli corpori concisceret, fonti qui proximus monasterio se humerotenus immergebat. Ibi nec glatialem in hieme rigorem, nec aestate nebulas ex locis palustribus halantes curans, noctes durabat inoffensus. Finis duntaxat percantati Psalterii terminum imponebat labori. }[3]

Aldhelm understood that men who don’t take such cold baths readily fall into fornication. He warned one of his students to stay away from prostitutes and brothels. He also advised against leading oneself into temptation:

He admonished a student not to read the lascivious poems of the classical poets, nor to spend time in the company of courtesans, nor to emasculate his mind’s vigor with the allurement of voluptuous clothing.

{ discipulum monuerit ne lasciva poetarum carmina legat, ne meretricularum consortio inhereat, ne delicatarum lenocinio vestium vigorem mentis effeminet. }[4]

Aldhelm didn’t advise men students to take cold baths to quell their sexual urges. Was Aldhelm keeping from his students how they could sleep chastely with two young women simultaneously? A good teacher shouldn’t deprive students of useful knowledge.

Saint Aldhelm of Malmesbury in stained glass

In his life of Saint Kentigern, Jocelin of Furness depicted Kentigern as having realized Aldhelm’s method of heroic chastity. The early church father Jerome urged Christians to “nakedly follow the naked Christ {nudus nudum Christum sequi}.”[5] According to Jocelin, Kentigern did so while imitating Aldhelm’s bathing practice:

He customarily stripped off his clothing and nakedly following the naked Christ, yielded himself himself naked and uncovered, and immersed himself in rapidly flowing cold water. Then surely as the stag desires springs of water, so too his spirit longed for God, the living fountain. There in cold and nakedness, with his eyes and hands fixed on Heaven, with a devout heart and voice he would sing the entire Psalter.

{ expoliare se vestimentis suis solebat et nudus, nudum Christum sequens, nudum et exertum se reddens, aquis vehementibus et frigidis se inmergebat. Tunc plane quemadmodum desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum, ita anima ejus desiderabat, ad Deum fontem vivum; ibique in frigore et nuditate oculis ac manibus celo infixus, corde et ore devoto, totum ex integro decantabat psalterium. }[6]

Like Aldhelm, Kentigern reportedly became heroically chaste:

Therefore by the daily use of this beneficial bath, as if in a new Jordan, his flesh was restored to the flesh of a little boy. Because sin’s rule that wars in the genitals was in him so weakened and the fire of lust so deadened and extinguished, no corruption of his tingling flesh, neither awake nor even sleeping, polluted or discolored the lily of his snow-white chastity. He did not directly sense his flesh’s movement to sow and thrive. So cooperating with Christ’s grace in this innocence of childlike purity, his flesh blossomed with its pricks sleeping. And indeed this just man, like an unwithering lily, germinated in the Lord’s sight. Concerning that, he also professed frankly to his followers on a certain occasion that he was no more pricked at the sight or touch of a most beautiful young woman than at that of the hardest flint.

{ Ex diutino ergo usu hujus salutaris lavacri, quasi Jordanis novi, restituta est caro ejus quasi caro pueri parvuli; quia lex peccati que in membris pudendis militat, ita in ipso debilitata est, et ignis libidinis emortuus, et extinctus, ut nulla carnis prurientis putredo in vigilando, vel etiam dormiendo, lilium sui nivei pudoris pollueret, vel decoloraret. Nec etiam simplicem motum in se sevire, vel vigere sentiret. Cooperante namque gratia Christi in cujusdam puerilis puritatis innocentiam, sopitis stimulis caro ejus effloruit. Et imo justus iste, sicut inmarcessibile lilium, ante Dominum germinavit. Unde etiam quadam vice discipulis suis simpliciter profitebatur, quod non magis ad speciosissime puelle visum, aut tactum, quam ad durissimi scilicis, stimularetur. }

Men have always striven to serve women. If women, even beautiful, young, warmly receptive women, were to need comfort and company in bed, Saint Kentigern was prepared to serve them chastely. Saintly men serve God and neighbor in ways that other men can’t.

Just as some had suspicions about Aldhelm sleeping with women, Jocelin’s text provides reason to doubt the claimed sexual effects of cold baths. Consider closely the peculiar claim that Kentigern was “no more pricked at the sight or touch of a most beautiful young woman than at that of the hardest flint {non magis ad speciosissime puelle visum, aut tactum, quam ad durissimi scilicis, stimularetur}.” Medieval men tended to imagine beautiful women as being soft and warm. The hardest flint, in contrast, is explicitly hard. Moreover, stone lacks the warmth of living flesh. The sight or touch of a hard, cold woman, to say nothing of an obtusely anti-meninist woman, wouldn’t arouse most men. In that sense, the most beautiful young woman and the hardest flint have opposite sexual effects on men.

However, the most beautiful young woman and the hardest flint can have similar effects in pricking men’s senses. Flint tends to be sharp. Touching it can wound like the wounding of lovesickness. In human history, flint-like stone commonly has been used for arrowheads. The sight of an arrowhead directed at a man might cause him to tremble. Moreover, the classical love god Cupid shoots arrows at men to make them madly in love. Being pricked by the most beautiful woman in that sense is similar to being pricked by the hardest flint.

Men taking cold baths to inure themselves against women’s sexual allure isn’t generally supported in medieval literature. Medieval literature celebrates seminal blessing. Such a blessing depends on women’s attractiveness to men. Bishop Nonnus delighted in the sight of the beautiful, semi-naked actress Pelagia. She inspired him to love God more ardently. Saint John Climacus followed Bishop Nonnus in understanding bodily beauty as orienting men to God. Moreover, Saint Agnes redeemed men gazing upon women. Only persons ignorant of vital thrusts in medieval literature would believe that medieval men generally sought to deaden their senses with cold baths.

In our dour and dogmatic age, women and men together must ponder how best to put the Devil back into Hell. One way is cold baths, castration culture, more pervasive penal punishment, and other means to deaden men’s sexuality. A more excellent way celebrates the story of Sarah and Tobias, hope for the resurrection of the flesh, and medieval “laughter of Easter {risus paschalis}.”

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[1] Gerald of Wales {Giraldus Cambrensis}, Jewel of the Church {Gemma ecclesiastica}, Division {Distinctio} 2, Chapter {Caput} 15, “About acknowledgments that cohabiting chastely with women is very much to be avoided {De mulierum cohabitatione continentiam professis summopere vitanda},” Latin text from Brewer (1862) pp. 236-7, my English translation. The English translation of Hagen (1979) isn’t readily available to me. For a brief survey of Gerald’s life and works, Skeel (1918), introduction. For a detailed review, Henley & McMullen (2018).

Gerald of Wales further stated:

The privileges of individuals do not constitute a common law, nor are graces given singularly to some granted in common to all. If by fleeing we could triumph over such an enemy, rather than be pushed forward by our own fires, then we might not be burned by arrogantly attempting to triumph. To do otherwise is indeed like testing God. Jerome did not attempt this. He taught not to attempt it. So we read in the Epistles of Jerome’s same book, a certain monk, socializing in the city, came to Jerome who was dwelling in solitude. The monk asked Jerome whether it is more glorious and worthy of a greater crown to lead an angelic life among men or to live far from them. Jerome himself answered: “It is among men.” And the monk said to him, “Then what are you seeking in the desert?” To him Jerome responded, “That I may not see you, that I may not hear you, that I may not be corrupted by your conversation.” But the monk said to him, “This is to flee, not to fight.” To whom Jerome said, “I confess my weakness. I prefer to flee than to fight and be conquered.” For Jerome knew that both the world and woman are better conquered by fleeing than by resisting.

{ Privilegia namque singulorum communem legem non faciunt, nec gratiae quibusdam singulariter datae communiter omnibus sunt concessae. Utinam enim fugiendo potius de hoste hujusmodi triumphare possimus, quam ignibus sponte admoti ut non ardeamus triumphum arroganter attemptare. Hoc enim quasi Deum temptare est. Non hoc Jeronymus attemptavit; non attemptandum docuit. Sicut enim in Epistolari ejusdem libro legitur, monachus quidam in urbe conversans, accessit ad eum in solitudine commorantem, quaerens ab eo utrum gloriosius esset majorique dignum corona vitam angelicam inter homines ducere an procul ab ipsis. Cui ipse respondit: “Quod inter homines.” Et monachus illi: “Quid ergo quaeris in heremo?” Cui Jeronymus: “Ut te non videam, te non audiam, tuo non corrumpar colloquio.” At monachus illi: “Hoc est fugere non pugnare.” Cui Jeronymus: “Fateor imbecillitatem meam; malo fugere quam pugnare et vinci.” Sciebat quippe quia et mundus et mulier melius fugiendo vincitur quam resistendo }

Gemma ecclesiastica 2.15, sourced as previously. Gerald cited here a letter falsely attributed to Jerome: Letter to Occeanus {Epistula ad Occeanum}, incipit “To Occeanus about the life of clergy {Ad Occeanum de vita clericorum},” Latin text available in Patrologia Latina 30.288B-292A (letter 42). In reality, Jerome closely associated with women, although he probably didn’t sleep with women.

[2] Like Gerald of Wales, William of Malmesbury also acknowledged doubts about Aldhelm:

It is truly not right to believe that the holy man acted differently than he taught and that he lived differently than he said.

{ Neque enim fas est credi sanctum virum aliter fecisse quam docuit, aliter vixisse quam dixit. }

William of Malmesbury {Willelmus Malmesbiriensis}, Deeds of the English Bishops {Gesta pontificum Anglorum} 213 (Book 5), Latin text from Hamilton (1870), my English translation, benefitting from that of Winterbottom & Thomson (2007) vol. 1.

[3] William of Malmesbury, Gesta pontificum Anglorum 213, Latin text from Hamilton (1870), my English translation, benefitting from that of Winterbottom & Thomson (2007) vol. 1. The subsequent quote above is similarly from Gesta pontificum Anglorum 213.

William added:

I should be almost shy to dwell at this point on the saint’s remarkable continence, were it not that it gave rise to a glorious victory. If he felt the prick of the flesh, he did not merely do nothing to satisfy it. He also won a triumph over it of a most unusual kind. For he would not at such moments avoid feminine society, as others do who fear the possibility of a lapse. Rather, he would sit or lie while keeping some woman by him, until his flesh cooled and he could go off in a quiet and calm state of mind. The Devil realized that he was being mocked when seeing Aldhelm close by a woman and his mind elsewhere, intent on singing the Psalter. Aldhelm would say farewell to the woman with modesty and chastity unimpaired. The disquiet of his flesh died down, but the evil spirit grieved about the disturbing mockery.

{ Inter haec preclaram hominis continentiam describere pene uerecundaretur oratio, nisi esset in facto gloriosae uictorie occasio. Siquando enim stimulo corporis ammoneretur, non solum illecebre denegabat effectum, sed alias insolitum reportabat triumphum. Neque tunc consortium feminarum repudiabat, ut caeteri qui ex oportunitate timent prolabi. Immo uero uel assidens uel cubitans aliquam detinebat, quoad, carnis tepescente lubrico, quieto et immoto discederet animo. Derideri se uidebat diabolus, cernens adherentem feminam uirumque, alias auocato animo, insistentem cantando psalterio. Valefatiebat ille mulieri saluo pudore, illesa castitate. Residebat carnis incommodum; dolebat nequam spiritus de se agitari ludibrium. }

Gesta pontificum Anglorum 213, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Winterbottom & Thomson (2007) vol. 1.

[4] William of Malmesbury, Gesta pontificum Anglorum 213, Latin text from Hamilton (1870), my English translation, benefitting from that of Winterbottom & Thomson (2007) vol. 1.

The student that William warned against prostitutes and brothels was Wihtfrith. This student was traveling to Ireland for further study. William declared to Wihtfrith:

As one bent low with flexed knees and bent legs, driven to that by filthy report, I further beg you, my pupil, not to allow that pimp, riotous living, to lead you into houses of prostitutes and brothels, where prostitutes lurk to show off their wares, decked out with gleaming gold anklets and delicate bracelets, like chariot horses in their proud trappings.

{ Porro tuum discipulatum, ceu cernuus arcuatis poblitibus flexisque suffraginibus, feculenta fama compulsus, posco, ut nequaquam prostibula uel lupanarum nugas, in quis pompulentae prostitutae delitescunt, lenocinante luxu adeas, quae obrizo rutilante periscelidis armillaque lacertorum tereti, utpote faleris falerati curules, comuntur }

Gesta pontificum Anglorum 214, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Winterbottom & Thomson (2007) vol. 1.

[5] Jerome declared, “Nakedly follow a naked Christ {nudum Christum nudus sequere}” as the penultimate sentence (para. 20) is his Letter 125, To the monk Rusticus {Ad Rusticum Monachum}, incipit “No one is happier than the Christian {Nihil Christiano felicius},” Latin text and English translation in Wright (1933). Closely similar phrases were widely used in twelfth-century Europe. Constable (1979).

The phrase “nudus nudum Christum sequi” became a motto of the Fransciscans, an order of monks formed in the thirteenth century. A versified life of Saint Francis that Henry of Avranches {Henri d’Avranches} wrote between 1232 and 1239 celebrates the naked Saint Francis:

His clothes, he lays them down, including his trousers.
Without a stitch, stark naked he stands, for all the world like Adam.
But he differs from Adam in this: he suffers freely what Adam
was forced to endure. He suffers by merit what Adam endured for sin,
and yet he is penalized as Adam was — though in a different way.
Exposed was the shamefulness of Adam, while no shame
is discovered in him. Where is the shame in a naked body
when the vesture of its soul is honor? Wherein did this
manliness lie? In scorning the world, in making himself disdained
by the world, in caring not a whit for his property or person.

{ Exutus vestes etiam femoralia ponit.
Stat sine veste palam nudoque simillimus Adae;
In causa tantum distat status huius et eius:
Suffert iste libens, quod sustulit ille coactus;
Suffert hic propter meritum, quod sustulit ille
Propter delictum; tamen hic punitur ut ille.
Sed secus: eius enim patuere pudenda, sed huius
Nulla pudenda patent. Quid enim caro nuda pudendum
Offerret, cuius animam vestivit honestas?
Quae fuit haec virtus? Mundum contemnere, mundo
Reddere se contemptibilem, rerumque suarum
Personaeque suae nullis insistere curis. }

Henri d’Avranches, The Versified Life of Saint Francis {Legenda Sancti Francisci Versificata}, vv. 175-187, Latin text of Menestò & Brufani (1995), English translation (modified slightly) from Armstong, Wayne Hellmann & Short (1999-2001).

[6] Jocelin of Furness, Life of Saint Kentigern, Bishop and Confessor {Vita Sancti Kentigerni Episcopi et Confessoris}, chapter 14, “About the godly bed of Saint Kentigern, and his vigils, and his bath in cold water {De lectisternio Sancti Kentegerni; et vigilis, et balneo in aquis frigidis},” Latin text from Forbes (1874), my English translation, benefitting from those of id., Green (1998), and help from an expert Latinist. On the stag desiring springs of water, cf. Psalm 42:1. The subsequent quote above is similarly from Chapter 14 of Jocelin’s Vita Sancti Kentigerni.

The twelfth-century English anchorite Wulfric of Haselbury also reportedly spent nights submerged in a cold bath while reading through the entire Psalter. Green (1998), The Life of Kentigern (Mungo), note 127, refering to Chapter 5 of John of Ford, About the Life of Blessed Wulfric, anchorite of Haselbury {De vita beati Wulfrici anachorete Haselberie}. For Latin text, Bell (1933), with a new edition forthcoming in Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis; for an English translation, Matarasso (2011).

[image] Saint Aldhelm of Malmesbury in a stained-glass window installed at Malmesbury Abbey, England, in 1928. Source image thanks to Adrian Pingstone and Wikimedia Commons.


Armstrong, Regis J. J. A. Wayne Hellmann, and William J. Short. 1999-2001. Francis of Assisi: Early Documents. Hyde Park NY: New City Press. Commission on the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition online edition, including Latin of Menestò & Brufani (1995).

Bell, Maurice, ed. 1933. Wulfric of Haselbury, by John, abbot of Ford. Edited, with introduction and notes. Somerset Record Society XLVII. Printed for Subscribers Only.

Brewer, J. S., ed. 1862. Giraldi Cambrensis Opera. Volume 2 of 8. Chronicles and Memorials of Great Britain and Ireland during the Middle Ages {Rerum Britannicarum Medii Aevi Scriptores}. London: Longman. Description of volumes. Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 5. Alternate source.

Constable, Giles. 1979. “Nudus nudum Christum sequi and parallel formulas in the twelfth century.” Pp. 83-91 in Williams, George Huntston, F. Forrester Church, and Timothy George, eds. Continuity and Discontinuity in Church History: essays presented to George Huntston Williams on the occasion of his 65th birthday. Leiden: Brill.

Forbes, Alexander Penrose, ed. and trans. 1874. Lives of S. Ninian and S. Kentigern. Compiled in the Twelfth Century. Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas.

Green, Cynthia Whidden. 1998. Saint Kentigern, Apostle to Strathclyde: A critical analysis of a northern saint. M.A. Thesis, Department of English, University of Houston. With English translation Jocelyn, a monk of Furness: The Life of Kentigern (Mungo). Alternate source.

Hagen, John J., trans. 1979. Gerald of Wales. The Jewel of the Church. Lugduni Batavorum: Brill.

Hamilton, N. E. S. A., ed. 1870. Willelmis Malmesbiriensis Monachi. De Gestis Pontificum Anglorum. London: Longman & Co. Alternate source.

Henley, Georgia and A. Joseph McMullen, eds. 2018. Gerald of Wales: New Perspectives on a Medieval Writer and Critic. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Matarasso, Pauline Maud, trans. 2011. John of Forde, The Life of Wulfric of Haselbury. Collegeville, MN: Cisterican Publications. Review by Philip F. O’Mara.

Menestò, Enrico, and Stefano Brufani, eds. 1995. Fontes Franciscani. Assisi, Italy: Porziuncola.

Skeel, Caroline A. J. 1918. Selections from Giraldus Cambrensis. Text for Students. No. 2. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Winterbottom, Michael and Rodney Malcolm Thomson, ed. and trans. 2007. William of Malmesbury: Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, The History of the English Bishops. Oxford Medieval Texts. Volume I: Text and English translation. Volume II: Introduction and Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

Ermengard fought for her son William against King Louis

The epic hero Count William of Orange {Guillaume d’Orange}, son of Countess Ermengard and Count Aimeri, prevented another noble from usurping the throne of Charlemagne’s young son Louis. Years later, when the pagans inflicted a terrible defeat on William’s Frankish force at Aliscans, William came to King Louis to seek help in defending the city of Orange. Without his mother’s strong support in the royal court, William wouldn’t have received any help. Mothers acting courageously help men to receive justice.

King Louis initially refused to meet Count William. William had arrived dirty and in tattered clothes at the royal court at Laon. Louis apparently had heard about William’s disaster at Aliscans. He no longer wanted to associate with William. Rather than personally greeting William, Louis told his messenger Sanson:

Go, and you make it known
that he will never be received by me.
May the living devils themselves command his body,
such trouble and pain he has brought us.
He isn’t a man, but a living demon.
May he be cursed in his neck and in his nose.
Whatever comes to him, that is good!

{ … Alés, si vos saés,
Ke ja par moi ne sera ravisés.
As vis deables s’est ses cors commandés.
Tant nous avra travelliés et penés;
Ce n’est pas homs, ains est un vis maufés.
Maudehait ait et el col et el nes
Qui il est bei ke chi est arrivés! }

William was known for his short nose. His nose had been partially cut off in furious combat with a giant. Louis thus ridiculed and cursed his loyal supporter William. Gender equality will never be achieved while men treat other men so badly.

King Charles the Bald from the Vivian Bible

The lords at Louis’s court treated William no better than did Louis. William pleaded:

Lords, you do me great wrong.
I have nourished and advanced all of you.
Many times I have given my goods to you.
I have presented you with money and robes and horses.
If now I cannot give to you, I should not be blamed,
because at Archant I was completely beaten.
My men are dead. From much of mine little is left!

{ … Signeur, grant tort avés.
Je vos ai tos noris et alevés,
Mes biax avoirs par maintes fois donés,
Deniers et robes et chevax presentés;
S’or ne vos doing, n’en doi estre blasmés,
Car en l’Areant fui tos desbaretés.
Mort sont mi homme, molt m’en est poi remés! }

Men and women care much more about women’s welfare than men’s welfare. William knowingly concluded his plea with his most persuasive appeal:

Lady Guiborc, who has loved you so much,
sent me to ask you that you would help her.
By God, lords, take pity on her!
Help us! That would be great charity.

{ Dame Guibors, ki tant vos a amés,
Par moi vos mande ke vos le secorés.
Por dieu, signeur, prenge vos ent pité!
Secorés nos, grant aumosne ferés. }

The lords said nothing. They walked away from William.

Enraged, William resolved that, at court the next day, he would behead the king and kill as many lords as he could. Blanchefor, William’s sister, was then to be crowned as Louis’s queen. William arrived for the ceremony amid the noble, lavishly dressed court:

The count William was well recognized,
but badly he was received among them,
because he was so poorly dressed.
There was not one among them who would turn to greet him,
not even the queen, who had seen him well enough.
She is his sister, who should love him most.
By all in all he was disrespected.
William saw it and was burning in anger.
Upon a bench he went to seat himself, fully silent.
Under his cloak he held his sword fully bared.
Little more is needed. Certain is his anger toward them.

{ Li quens Guillames fu bien recounetis,
Mais malement fu entr’aus recletis.
Por ce k’il ert si povrement vestus,
N’i ot un seul ki li desist salus,
Nis la roïne, dont assés fu vetis;
Ki ert sa suer, amer le detist plus.
De tout en tout i fu mescounetis.
Voit le Guillames, forment fu irascus;
Deseur un banc s’ala seoir tous mus.
Sous son mantel tenoit son branc tout nus.
Petit s’en faut, seure lor est corus. }

Suddenly William’s father Aimeri appeared with one hundred and forty knights. More importantly, William’s mother Ermengard appeared:

Great was the noise and the cries and the shouts.
The Franks were excited. All at the court jumped up.
Facing Aimeri, the king also rose to meet him.
Now William’s increased his power and his strength.
If Ermengard can, she will help him well.

{ Grans fu la noise et li cris et li hus,
Franc s’estormisent, es les vos sailli sus.
Contre Aimeri s’en est li rois issus.
Or croist Guillaume sa force et sa vertus:
S’Ermengart puet bien sera recoruz. }

The king and the lords greeted Ermengard and Aimeri. William leaped to his feet. He was determined to display his courage in front of his parents. He approached King Louis and declared:

Jesus of Glory, the King of Paradise,
preserve her, of whom I was born,
and my dear father, by whom I was engendered,
and all my brothers and my other friends,
and destroy this evil and cowardly king,
and my sister, the whore, the courtesan,
by whom I was so basely received
and in whose court I was ridiculed and shamed.
When I dismounted beneath the olive branches,
then not one of his men, neither big nor little,
came to me to hold my Arabian warhorse.
But, by all the saints whom God has blessed,
were it not for my father, who sits beside the king,
I would split his head with my sword.

{ Jhesu de gloire, li rois de paradis
Save celi, de qui je sui nasquis,
Et mon chier pere, dont fui engenuis
Et tos mes freres et mes autres amis,
Et il confonde cel mavais roi faillis
Et ma serour, la putain, la mautris,
Par qui je fui si vieument recuellis
Et en sa cor gabés et escarnis.
Quant descendi sous l’olivier foillis,
Ainc de ses hommes n’i ot grant ne petis,
Ki me tenist mon destrier Arabis.
Mais, par les sains ke diex a beneis,
N’iert por mon pere, ki les lui est assis,
Je le fendroie del branc si qu’el cervis. }

King Louis and Queen Blanchefor were terrified. But Ermengard and Aimeri immediately recognized William and embraced him. So too did four of his brothers, who had traveled there with his parents.

The crowd at court was silent, uneasy, and unsure. Two of William’s brothers wept for close men relatives they had lost in the violence of William’s defeat. One noble softly said to another:

What living devils could endure so much?
Never did so many valiant knights go there,
who were never to return to France.
For evil we met William and his pride.
He left Orange. Let the infidels have command of it!
He can have Vermendois up to the port of Vuisart.

{ Quex vis deables porroient soffrir tant?
Ainc n’i alerent tant chevalier vaillant,
C’onques en France fuisent puis repairant.
Mar acointames Guillame et son beubant;
Car laist Orenge, as maufés le commant!
S’ait Vermendois jusqu’au port de Vuisant. }

No one came forward to offer William help. Then his mother Ermengard stood and proclaimed in a loud, clear voice:

By God, you Franks, you are all cowards.
Sir Aimeri, now your heart is going lacking.
Beautiful son William, you shouldn’t be distressing,
for by the apostles whom penitents seek,
I have yet a treasury so very large
that twenty oxen couldn’t carry it.
All of it I will give, not having a coin left,
to the soldiers who are willing to fight.
And I myself will be riding there,
wearing hauberk and shining helmet laced on,
shield at my neck, sword at my side,
lance in my fist, going in the first rank in front.
Even though I have hair old and white,
I have a heart bold and completely joyful,
so I will help my child, so please God.
For by the apostles whom penitents seek,
when I will be armed on my warhorse,
there’s no pagan, Saracen, or Persian,
that if I can reach him with my cutting sword,
will not at the battleground fall from his warhorse!

{ Par dieu, Francois, tout estes recreant.
Aimeris sire, or te va cuers faillant.
Biaus fiex Guillames, ne te va esmaiant;
Car, par l’apostle que quirent peneant,
Encor ai jo un tresor si tres grant,
Ne le menroient .xx. bués en cariant;
Tout le donrai, ja n’i lairai besant,
As saudoiers, ki s’iront combatant,
Et je meïsmes i serai cevauchant,
L’aubere vestu, lacié l’elme luisant,
L’escu au col et au costé le brant,
La lance el poing, el prumier cief devant.
Por ce se j’ai le poil cenu et blanc,
S’ai je le cuer hardi et tot joiant,
Si aiderai, se dieu plaist, mon enfant.
Car, par l’apostle ke quirent peneant,
Puis ke serai armé en l’auferrant,
N’i a paien, Sarrasin ne Persant,
Se le consieu de mon espié trenchant,
Ne le convigne chaoir de l’auferrant! }

Ermengard standing up for her son William was the turning point in his request for help. Men’s welfare depends on women’s decisive action. If a woman supports a man, men and women will rally behind her and support him, too.

Ermengard, Countess of Rietberg, 1562 to 1584

Men betraying men, as King Louis did to his loyal friend William, isn’t sufficient to perpetuate gender injustice. Women ultimately control men and effectively rule society under gynocentrism. Massively gender-disproportionate slaughter of men in war and in other forms of violence occurs only with women’s complicity. If she were for him, the world would be more just and more humane, and one could truly imagine gender equality.

* * * * *

Read more:


The above story of Countess Ermengard and her son William of Orange is from Aliscans, a twelfth-century “song of deeds {chanson de geste}.” It’s part of the Old French epic cycle known as the Deeds of Garin de Monglane {Geste de Garin de Monglane} or the Cycle of William of Orange {Cycle de Guillaume d’Orange}. Another chanson de geste in that cycle is The Monastic Life of William {Le Moniage Guillaume}. Aliscans, the place where the Saracens devastatingly defeated William and his Franks, is also called Archamps or Archant. It might be the place now known as Alyscamps in Arles.

Notice that when William’s mother and father arrive at King Louis’s court at Laon, William first thinks of his mother Ermengard, not his father Aimeri, helping him (Aliscans, v. 2594). In William’s defiant “Jesus of Glory” speech, he mentions his mother first (id., v. 2640). Ermengard also comes before Aimeri in recognizing William (id. v. 2658). Ermengard speaks first in support of William, and she even chides her husband Aimeri for not more strongly supporting their son William (id., v. 2710).

Ermengard was a well-known name in medieval Europe. It’s a Germanic name arising from the German words “ermen/irmin,” meaning “whole, universal” and “gard” meaning “enclosure, protection.”

Women have been powerful figures historically. Ferrante noted of Countess Ermengard:

Some of the traits attributed to this attractive character may well be based on a contemporary figure, Ermengard the Countess of Narbonne. She inherited her father’s lands in 1134 and ruled them, despite attempts by the Count of Toulouse and others to take them from her, until 1192, when she abdicated in favor of her nephew. While she ruled, she led her own troops and she exercised all the powers of a ruler, even judicial.

Ferrante (1974) p. 58, n. 44.

King Louis, the son of the first Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, is known historically as King Louis the Pious. King Louis historically was the husband of Ermengarde of Hesbaye. She had six children with him. The depiction in Aliscans of Ermengard dominating King Louis in support of her son William may reflect historical sense of Queen Ermengarde of Hesbaye’s marital relationship with King Louis.

In a related cyclical chanson de geste, The Crowning of Louis {Le Couronnement de Louis}, Guy of Alemagne challenged the young, weak King Louis to single combat to determine the fate of Rome. No Frankish baron was willing to accept that challenge on behalf of King Louis. Louis was sighing and weeping bitterly when William entered the royal tent on the battlefield outside Rome. William responded with motherly compassion and motherly aggression to Louis’s plight:

When he sees Louis, he was not a little enraged.
Then he shouts, so that all the barons can hear:
“Ah! Poor king, may only the body of God make you grieve!
Why do you cry? Who has done you harm?”
And Louis answered, he who was defenseless:
“In the name of God, sire, I know not to conceal it from you.
Guy of Alemagne has demanded of me a great outrage.
By my sweet body he orders me to fight.
There isn’t a Frank who will appear in my place,
and I am a young man, and small in age,
so I can’t endure well such barons.
“King,” said William, “may only the body of God make you grieve!
For your love I have done twenty-four challenges.
Do you think for this I would now fail you?
Not at all, by God! I will carry this fight.
All your Franks aren’t worth half a coin.”

{ Quant il le veit, a pou que il n’enrage.
Lors li escrie, oiant tot le barnage:
“Hé! povres reis, li cors Deu mal te face!
Por quel plorez? Qui vos a fait damage?”
Et Looïs respondi, que n’i targe:
“En nom Deu, sire, ne sai que vos celasse:
Gui d’Alemaigne m’a mandé grant oltrage.
Par noz dous cors me requiert la bataille,
N’i a Franceis qui por mon cors le face
Et je sui jovenes, et de petit eage,
Si ne puis pas bien sofrir tel barnage.
“Reis,” dist Guillelmes, “li cors Deu mal te face!
Por vostre amor en ai fait vint et quatre:
Cuidiez vos donc que por ceste vos faille?
Nenil, par Deu! Je ferai la bataille.
Tuit vo Franceis ne valent pas meaille.” }

Le Couronnement de Louis, vv. 2418-34, Old French text from Langlois (1920), my English translation, benefiting from that of Ferrante (1974). Le Couronnement de Louis is thought to have been composed before Aliscans. Ferrante (1974) pp. 10-2. Ermengard’s subsequent courageous action shows that William had his mother’s character.

The above quotes from Aliscans use Old French text from Wienbeck, Hartnacke & Rasch (1903) and English translation (modified) from Ferrante (1974). Those quotes are Aliscans vv. 2394-2400 (Go, and you make it known…), 2418-24 (Lords, you do me great wrong…), 2435-8 (Lady Guiborc, who has loved you so much…), 2576-86 (The count William was well recognized…), 2590-4 (Great was the noise and the cries and the shouts…), 2638-51 (Jesus of Glory, the King of Paradise…), 2695-700 (What living devils could endure so much…), 2709-28 (By God, you Franks, you are all cowards…).

[images] (1) King Charles the Bald on his throne. Charles the Bald {Charles le Chauve} was the son of King Louis the Pious and became King of West Francia in 843. The image is a detail from an illustration of the Vivian Bible being presented to King Charles. This illustration was made by monks of the Abbey of Saint Martin of Tours about 846. From folio 423r of the Vivian Bible {Bible de Vivien}. The Vivian Bible is a bible that Count Vivian gave to Charles the Bald in 846. Preserved as MS. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Lat. 1. (2) Ermengard, Countess of Rietberg from 1562 to 1584. Portrait painted by Hermann Tom Ring in 1564. Preserved in Collection Fritz Thomée. Source image via Wikimedia Commons and Bildindex der Kunst und Architektur. Here’s a family portrait that includes Ermengard of Rietberg.


Ferrante, Joan M., trans. 1974. Guillaume d’Orange: Four Twelfth-Century Epics. New York: Columbia University Press. Review by Diana Teresa Mériz.

Langlois, Ernest. 1920. Le Couronnement de Louis, chanson de geste du XIIe siècle. Les classiques français du Moyen Âge, 22. Paris: Champion. Alternate presentation.

Wienbeck, Erich, Wilhelm Hartnacke, and Paul Rasch, eds. 1903. Aliscans. Kritischer Text. Halle A.D.S: Verlag Von Max Niemeyer.