Danes besieging Paris needed Erik the Eloquent’s flyting skill

Danes (Vikings) sailed up the Seine and demanded tribute from Paris in 885. Count Ordo of Paris refused to pay. The Danes then besieged Paris, and the horrific matter of epic ensued:

Arrows fly from here and there, and blood falls through the air.
Mixed with these are projectiles of hand-sling and battered catapult.
Between earth and heaven nothing other is flying continually.

{ Pila volant hinc inde, caditque per aera sanguis,
Conmiscentur eis fundae laceraeque balistae;
Nil terras interque polos aliud volitabat. }[1]

Some Danes attempted to dig beneath the walls of the Franks’ tower guarding a bridge across the Seine. Count Ordo gave those Danes a special hair treatment:

He serves to them wax and pitch added to oil,
mixed together and liquefied in a furnace and intensely hot.
It burns and strips hair from the Danes’ necks.
Indeed it kills some, and it persuades some
to go to the river’s currents. As one, those of ours sing:
“Scorched, you run to the Seine’s sea so that
your heads would return with a mane once better arranged!”

{ Addit eis oleum ceramque picemque ministrans,
Mixta simul liquefacta foco ferventia valde,
Quae Danis cervice comas uruntque trahuntque,
Occiduunt autem quosdam quosdamque suadent
Amnis adire vada. Hoc una nostri resonabant:
“Ambusti Sequanae ad pelagos concurrite, vobis
Quo reparent alias reddendo iubas mage comptas.” }[2]

Abbot Ebolus, the brother of Ramnulf, Count of Poitiers, also fought strongly for Paris:

With just one spear he was able to pierce seven.
Jesting, he ordered the others to take them to the kitchen.

{ Septenos una potuit terebrare sagitta,
Quos ludens alios iussit praebere coquinae. }[3]

Killed like animals, the Danes became like meat for eating. This jesting allusion to cannibalism underscores the grotesque violence against men in the Danish siege of Paris.

Count Ordo and the Franks fight against Danes (Vikings) besieging Paris in 885

Women are complicit in creating values that support epic violence against men. Like Spartan men encountering their mothers after defeat in battle, some Danish men at the siege of Paris endured similar humiliation:

With plunder Danish horsemen return. They press together in battle
and approach the tower unharmed and sated with food.
Dying, many go back to the river-boats before
they throw stones, before weighted with stone-throwing at them.
Breathing out the sweet breeze of life, the Danes
tear their hair and cry. Wives assert to husbands:
“From where do you come? You flee battle’s furnace? I know, Devil’s son,
that no triumph of yours can surmount this.
Have I not now devoted wheat, wine, and wild boars to you?
So why do you so swiftly retreat to our bed-covering?
Do you desire again to be served a meal? Returning,
you glutton, like the others? May they merit similar honor!”

{ Huc praeda redeunt equites, certamina stipant,
Incolumes adeunt speculam saturique ciborum,
Anteque durcones multi repetunt morientes
Quam lapides iaciant illamque gravent lapidando,
Dulce quibus flamen Danae spirantibus aiunt,
Quaeque suo lacerans crines lacrimansque marito:
“Unde venis? Fornace fugis? Scio, nate diabli,
Hanc nullus poterit vestri superare triumphus.
Non tibi nunc Cererem vel apros Bacchumque litavi?
Tamque cito quare repedas ad tegmina stratus?
Haec iterum gestisne tibi poni? redeuntne
Elluo, sic alii? Similem mereantur honorem.” }[4]

Women support violence against men by shaming men who flee from it. Women disparage men for “acting like women,” for preferring pleasure to suffering, and for avoiding men’s particular gender burdens. Women through their words, often unwritten, have epically significant power over men.

To avoid being shamed, men must develop verbal skills equal to those of women. The difficulty of that task shouldn’t be under-estimated. Consider, for example, the ancient Danish woman Gotvara. She was an extraordinarily powerful woman:

She flaunted her outstanding eloquence so much that she was accustomed to exhausting even skillfully speaking and loquacious men. She was effective in disputation and resourceful in all forms of debate. Since she fought with words, she was at sea with no form of questions, and she was also truly armed with determined responses. She was unwarlike, but no one could conquer this woman, because her tongue lent her arrows. Some she confuted with verbose petulance. Others, as if entangled in the connections of her ironies, she strangled in nooses of sophistries. Very lively was this woman’s wit. Moreover, she was super-potent in making agreements or rescinding them. Either way, wielding the sting of her tongue made her effective. For this reason she was skilled in destroying alliances and forming them. Thus the commerce of her double-edged tongue was for the purpose as she pleased.

{ quae eximiae procacitate facundiae quantumlibet disertos ac loquaces enervare solebat. Altercando quippe efficax erat et in omni disceptationum genere copiosa. Pugnabat siquidem verbis, non modo quaestionibus freta, verum etiam pervicacibus armata responsis. Imbellem nemo feminam debellare poterat, a lingua spicula mutuantem. Quosdam verbositatis petulantia refellebat, alios veluti quibusdam cavillationum nexibus implicatos fallaciarum laqueis strangulabat. Adeo vegetum mulieri ingenium fuit. Ceterum condere pacta aut rescindere praepotens erat, utriusque horum efficaciam oris aculeo gestans. Quippe disicere foedera ac sociare callebat. Ita ad utrumlibet anceps linguae commercium fuit. }[5]

Obviously Gotvara was no man’s chattel. She was a highly intelligent, highly capable woman. In the U.S. today, she would have a lucrative career as a big-city lawyer.

Gotvara took on the high-profile case of gaining for the Danish King Frothi marriage to Hanunda, the daughter of the King of the Huns. Hanunda disdained King Frothi because he wasn’t renowned for heroic feats. Gotvara, however, told Hanunda that Frothi was ambidextrous and skillful in swimming and fighting. Gotvara also secretly administered to her a love potion, Like women raping men today, use of love potions was not generally considered rape in medieval Europe. To the astonishment of Hanunda’s father, Gotvara successfully induced Hanunda to choose to marry Frothi.[6]

Could any man resist Gotvara’s power of persuasion? One could scarcely expect a husband not to be subordinate to his wife. King Frothi thus couldn’t be expected to stand against Gotvara’s words. He would have to fight and die, or be shamed as the Danish wives shamed their husbands at the siege of Paris. But King Gotar of Norway called a Norwegian man of non-noble birth Erik the Eloquent {Ericus Desertus}. Erik’s stepmother Kraka made with snake saliva a brew that gave Erik extraordinary power:

He rose through its internal workings to the highest quantity of human wisdom. The power of her feast, beyond what could be believed, engendered in him an abundance of all knowledge, so that he even had skill in translating voices of wild animals and cattle. Not only was he exceedingly clever in human affairs, but he indeed could interpret animal sounds in understanding of certain feelings. Moreover, he had an eloquence so gracious and ornate, such that whatever he desired to discuss, he polished with continuous charm of proverbs.

{ interna ipsius opera ad summum humanae sapientiae pondus evasit. Quippe epuli vigor, supra quam credi poterat, omnium illi scientiarum copiam ingeneravit, ita ut etiam ferinarum pecudaliumque vocum interpretatione calleret. Neque enim solum humanarum rerum peritissimus erat, verum etiam sensuales brutorum sonos ad certarum affectionum intellegentiam referebat. Praeterea tam comis atque ornati eloquii erat, ut, quicquid disserere cuperet, continuo proverbiorum lepore poliret. }[7]

With his cleverness, Erik killed Gotvara’s husband and sons. Furious, she challenged him to stake his life on a disputing competition with her. He accepted this fearsome challenge. To live, he would have to outdo Gotvara in speaking.

Benefiting from women’s privilege, Gotvara spoke first. She asked a tendentious question:

When you grind within the two-edged whetstone,
doesn’t your quivering penis wear down the shaking buttocks?

{ Quando tuam limas admissa cote bipennem,
Nonne terit tremulas mentula quassa nates? }

That question disparaged Erik’s masculine sexuality. It also perhaps expressed what is now called homophobia. Erik the Eloquent didn’t complain to the king about Gotvara’s micro-aggression against him. Instead, he responded with exquisite reasoning:

Since nature has planted hairs on whomever it pleases,
of course all have a place to carry one’s beard.
In the act of sex, it is necessary for men to move their parts,
since indeed all work has its particular motions.
When buttock has been pushed away from buttock, or when the underlying vulva
has seized the penis, why should a man refuse to add to this?

{ Ut cuivis natura pilos in corpore sevit,
Omnis nempe suo barba ferenda loco est.
Re Veneris homines artus agitare necesse est;
Motus quippe suos nam labor omnis habet.
Cum natis excipitur nate, vel cum subdita penem
Vulva capit, quid ad haec addere mas renuit? }[8]

The hair on a mature woman’s vulva was commonly called a “beard.” With this reference, Erik undermined the gender binary. He also highlighted the naturalness of men’s sexual work. With his concluding question, he emphasized men’s seminal generosity. Gotvara grieved at Erik’s fluent response. She conceded to him her huge golden necklace for his victory.

The Danes besieging Paris in 885 had no recorded reply to their wives’ shaming taunts. Defeated, they perhaps returned to the horrific violence against men at the siege. But if they had acquired the flyting skill of Erik the Eloquent, they might have resisted their wives’ words. They might have enjoyed another good meal and warm beds instead of suffering more epic violence against men. With verbal dexterity, men have choices other than being eunuchs or tending their graves.[9]

* * * * *

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[1] Abbo of Saint-Germain-des-Prés / Abbo the Crooked {Abbo Cernuus}, Battles for the City of Paris {Bella Parisiacae urbis} 1.86-8, Latin text from Dass (2007), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. and Adams & Rigg (2004). Abbo repeatedly used the figure of the sky filled with projectiles. See Bella Parisiacae urbis 1.260 and 2.245.

Subsequent quotes from Bella Parisiacae urbis are similarly sourced. My translation is more literal than that of Adams & Rigg, which is more more literal than that of Dass. The freely available Latin edition of Winterfield (1899) provides useful textual notes (including the manuscript glosses), with text that is nearly identical to that of Dass (2007). For a modern French translation, Guizot (1824).

Bella Parisiacae urbis has survived in one manuscript: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. lat. 13833 (written in the tenth century). This manuscript, which Abbo himself may have written, contains glosses in Latin:

As is explained in the Scedula {letter} prefacing the poem, Abbo himself was aware of the difficulties which the readers would face and therefore chose to gloss all the difficult words. Nearly half of the words of the third book are accompanied by one or more Latin glosses, yielding an average of three glossed lemmata per line.

Lendinara (2006) pp. 321-2. With respect to difficult words, Abbo wrote, “I have set glosses above with my own hand {propria manu linguas superieci}.” From Bella Parisiacae urbis, prefatory letter of dedication to Brother Gozlin.

Abbo was born in Neustria (present-day Normandy). He studied under Aimoin, a senior monk at the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés on the left bank of the Seine outside the walls of the medieval city of Paris. Abbo wrote Bella Parisiacae urbis as a young monk. He probably completed this epic in 897. Abbo apparently died some time after 922. Dass (2007) p. 1.

Subsequent quotes above from Bella Parisiacae urbis are vv. 1.100-7 (He served to them wax…), 1.109-10 (With just one spear…), 1.121-32 (With plunder Danish horsemen return…), 3.98-9 (The eunuch furnishes castles…).

[2] Vikings were known to groom their hair carefully and regularly. Dass (2007) p. 110, n. 32.

[3] The translation of Adams & Rigg has Ebolus direct other Danes (“the rest”) to the kitchen. That makes little sense.

Ebolus {Ebles} was appointed abbot of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in 881. Dass (2007) p. 110, n. 26. Ebolus was also a nephew of Gozlin, Bishop of Paris. Adams & Rigg (2004) p. 7. Abbo apparently faulted Ebolus for the Christian sins of avarice and lust. Bella Parisiacae urbis 2.437, discussed in Dass (2007) p. 119. n. 188. Cf. Adams & Rigg (2004) p. 57, n. 170. On Ebolus as a warrior-cleric, Adams (2008) pp. 154-6.

[4] Adams & Rigg (2004) mistakenly has the Danish wives tearing their hair and weeping. Those are classical gestures of mourning women. In fact, Abbo repeatedly invokes them for women. Bella Parisiacae urbis 1.389-90 and 2.265. However, in id. 1.126, the retreating Danish men are being mocked as acting like women. Dass (2007), in my view, gets the translation right.

Adams called this scene “unusual.” Adams (2008) p. 210. But Murphy noted:

Rolf Heller notes over forty examples of women in 29 family sagas who incite men to vengeance, Laxdale and Njal leading the list of frequency of instances. His word for these women is hetzerinnen, female inciters.

Murphy (1995) p. 111, n. 154. Women inciting men to participate in violent or dangerous activities isn’t unusual in men’s actual experience of participating in such activities. A highly influential medievalist trivialized this epically significant passage. Curtius (1953) p. 432.

[5] Saxo Grammaticus, Deeds of the Danes {Gesta Danorum} 5.1.2, Latin text from Olrik & Raeder (1931), my English translation, benefiting from that of Davidson & Fisher (1979-80). For a freely available, online English translation, Elton (1894). Gotvara is also written as Gøtvara, Gøtwara, and Gotwar. Saxo states that Gotvara had as husband Koli, an advisor to the Danish king Frothi III. Gesta Danorum 5.1.2. Other evidence suggests that her husband was Vestmar, and her sons, the Greps.

Subsequent quotes from Gesta Danorum are similarly sourced. Those above are from 5.2.8 (He rose through its internal workings…), 5.3.17 (When you grind…), 5.3.17 (Since nature has planted hairs…).

[6] Love potions, which now might be called rape drugs, figure in the story of Tristan and Isolt, among other medieval romances. Often a third party, usually a woman, administers them. In some cases, the rape victim of the love potion may not know that he is being raped. As in the case of Tristan and Isolt, both parties might rape each other.

Medieval thought emphasized formal procedures of consent for marriage. Saxo stated, “In ancient times, women entered into vows of marriage with the choice of a freely selected spouse {antiqui in matrimoniorum delectu libera nupturas optione donassent}.” Gesta Danorum 5.1.9. In fact, both spouses’ freely given consent was formally necessary for marriage in medieval Europe.

[7] Gesta Danorum 5.2.8. According to Gesta Danorum, Erik the Eloquent {Ericus Desertus} was a son of the Norwegian warrior Regner {Regnerus}. Erik served King Gøtar of Norway and became the ruler of Sweden. Icelandic geneologies include Eirikr hinn malspeki in lists of rulers. The Ynglinga Saga reports Eirik (Eirík the Eloquent or Eiríkr the Wise in Speech) as an early king of Sweden. Davidson (1979-80) p. 115. Johannes Magnus’s pseudo-historical The History of all Geatish and Swedish kings {Historia de omnibus Gothorum Sueonumque regibus}, published in 1554, reports Ericus “Diserti” / Erik III the Eloquent as the fortieth king of Sweden. Johannes dated Erik’s ascension to King of Sweden as 34 BGC.

[8] Elton declared:

This “flyting” is corrupt in every sense of the word. The readings in Erik’s reply (of which Holder’s text is here given) are hopeless. (Spurcum hoc et honestis indignum auribus carmen {This is a dirty and shameful song to honorable ears}. — St. {Stephanius})

Elton (1894) p. 171, n. 1, my glosses in brackets. Saxo’s text is intelligible, as the moral tenor of these comments indicate. Saxo, apparently a canon at Lund Cathedral, wrote Gesta Danorum at the request of Absalon, Archbishop of Lund and finished it about 1210. Elton’s note indicate that medieval scholars’ broad-mindedness had troubled subsequent scholars.

In Gesta Danorum, Erik also engages in flyting with Koli and Gotvara’s son Grep. Erik wins each contest. Flyting in Gesta Danorum isn’t status-differentiated:

It is important to note that, so far as we may read from the writings of Saxo, there is often little if any difference in content and manner between court-poetry and the sort of poetry which critics have assigned to the mimi {low-status performers}

Schuyler Allen (1910b) p. 44, with my added gloss. For some comments about flyting in Old Norse literature, Edmunds (1985) pp. 118-27.

[9] Offering moral advice to a cleric, Bella Parisiacae urbis starkly presents men’s choices:

The eunuch furnishes castles; the sad man, truth.
And flesh furnishes one’s tomb, but a sad one.

{ Buggeus apparat et burgos, verum biliosus.
Apparat atque bosor taphium sibi, sed biliosum }

Bella Parisiacae urbis 3.98-9. It further declares to the cleric:

You should have a shaggy wool cloak on your bed, and a beardless youth absent.
Let geldings be abundant around you, but lovers absent.

{ Inque thoro amphyballum habeas, effebus et absit;
Canterus sit habunde tibi, sed amasius absit. }

Bella Parisiacae urbis 3.30-1, Latin text for v. 31 emended from “absit” to “sit” in accordance with manuscript evidence given in Winterfield (1899) p. 117. Abbo apparently meant by “geldings” chaste religious men. A cleric writing for clerics, Abbo devalued men’s sexuality.

[image] Count Ordo and the Franks fight against Danes (Vikings) besieging Paris in 885-886 / The count Ordo defends Paris against the Norsemen, 885-886 {Le comte Eudes défend Paris contre des Normands, 885-886}. Painted by Jean-Victor Schnetz in 1837. Preserved as INV 7885 in the Louvre Museum (Paris).


Adams, Anthony. 2008. Heroic slaughter and versified violence: a reading of sacrifice in some early English and Carolingian poetry of war. Ph.D. Thesis, Department of Medieval Studies, University of Toronto.

Adams, Anthony, and A.G. Rigg. 2004. “A Verse Translation of Abbo of St. Germain’s Bella Parisiacae urbis.” The Journal of Medieval Latin. 14:1–68.

Curtius, Ernst Robert. 1953. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Europäische Literatur und lateinisches Mittelalter (1947), translated from the Germany by Willard R. Trask. New York: Pantheon Books.

Dass, Nirmal, ed. and trans. 2007. Viking Attacks on Paris: The Bella Parisiacae urbis of Abbo of Saint-Germain-Des-Prés. Paris: Peeters.

Davidson, Hilda Ellis, commentary, and Peter Fisher, trans. 1979-80. Saxo Grammaticus. History of the Danes. Vol. 1 (English translation). Vol. 2 (commentary). Cambridge, GB: D.S. Brewer.

Edmunds, Susan. 1985. The English riddle ballads. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Durham, UK.

Elton, Oliver. 1894. The First Nine Books of the Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus. London: D. Nutt. Alternate presentation.

Guizot, François. 1824. “Siège de Paris par les Normands: Poème d’Abbon.” In Collection des Mémoires Relatifs a l’Histoire de France depuis la Fondation de la Monarchie Française jusqu’au 13 Siècle. Vol. 6. Paris: J.-L.-J. Brière.

Lendinara, Patrizia. 2006. “A Difficult School Text in Anglo-Saxon England: The Third Book of Abbo’s Bella Parisiacae Urbis.” Leeds Studies in English. n.s. 37: 321-42. Alternate source.

Murphy, Michael. 1985. “Vows, boasts and taunts, and the role of women in some medieval literature.” English Studies. 66(2): 105-112.

Olrik, Jørgen and Hans Raeder, eds. 1931. Saxo Grammaticus. Gesta danorum. Hauniae, Levin & Munksgaard.

Schuyler Allen, Philip. 1910a. “The Mediaeval Mimus: Part I.” Modern Philology. 7(3): 329-344.

Schuyler Allen, Philip. 1910b. “The Mediaeval Mimus: Part II.” Modern Philology. 8(1): 1-44.

Winterfield, Paul von, ed. 1899. “Abbonis Bella parisiacae urbis.” Pp. 72-122 in Poetae Latini Aevi Carolini, Vol. IV, Part I. Monumenta Germaniae Historica. Berlin: Weidmannos.

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