Jerome to Dante: men’s ardent sexual desire for women

About the year 375 GC, Jerome’s friend Heliodorus decided to leave solitary life as a desert monk. Jerome knowingly warned him about perils of worldly life:

These dangers I forewarn not as a learned sailor, with ship and cargo intact, speaking to those ignorant of the sea, but rather like some newly shipwrecked sailor cast upon the shore. I address my faltering voice to those about to sail. On one side, the Charybdis strait of self-indulgence engulfs salvation. On the other side is the Scylla of lust. With beaming, virginal face, she prompts us to the shipwreck of chastity.

{ haec ego non integris rate vel mercibus quasi ignaros fluctuum doctus nauta praemoneo, sed quasi nuper naufragio eiectus in litus timida navigaturis voce denuntio. In illo aestu Charybdis luxuriae salutem vorat, ibi ore virgineo ad pudicitiae perpetranda naufragia Scyllaceum renidens libido blanditur }[1]

Jerome in the desert imagined chorus girls, and he lusted after them. Such desire would be much more dangerous at a city feast where actual young women were singing and dancing. Being a Christian saint like Jerome or having as keen a sense of Hell and Heaven as Dante did doesn’t prevent a man from ardently desiring women.

Jerome spoke frankly about sexual desire to the elite Roman women who were among his close friends. The young Roman woman Eustochium, whom Jerome taught, committed herself to perpetual virginity in 384. Jerome warned Eustochium:

It grieves me to say how many virgins fall daily, what number are lost from mother church’s embrace, over how many the proud enemy places his throne, and how many rocks the serpent bores into and dwells within their holes.

{ Piget dicere, quot cotidie virgines ruant, quantas de suo gremio mater perdat ecclesia, super quot sidera superbus inimicus ponat thronum suum, quot petras excavet et habitet coluber in foraminibus earum }[2]

Jesus founded the Christian church upon a male rock — the apostle “Peter {Petrus},” formerly called Simon. The church, however, has long been understood as a woman (“mother church {mater ecclesia}”). Jerome understood virgin women dedicated to God as supporting rocks within the foundation of the church. The imagery of a snake making a hole within a rock and dwelling there disparages men’s penises in sexual intercourse with a virgin woman. Jerome elaborated upon that imagery by immediately discussing unmarried women becoming pregnant.[3] While Christians value children as a blessing from God, Jerome warned Eustochium that illicit sex could lead to pregnancy and associated difficulties.

Auguste Rodin, The Kiss sculpture

Many medieval men inordinately desired sex with women. This was the case even with a bishop in twelfth-century France. He became the butt of witty satire:

For a price he has his stomach
invited to dinner
and Venus in his bed,
and such, purchased for more,
delights him more fully
than when it’s a cheaper commodity.

He’s entirely devoted to Venus.
No other planet’s course
does he follow.
He’s wholly libidinous.
The man’s entire “law and prophets”
is based on this.

If denominated
according to the duty
that is done every morning,
you would have designated
seven days of Venus
in every week.

{ Invitatur pretio
venter in convivio,
Venus in cubili;
et hoc empto carius
delectatur potius
quam hac merce vili.

Tonus est Venerius
nec cursum alterius
sequitur planetae.
Totus est libidinis;
hinc tota lex hominis
pendet et prophetae.

Si denominatio
fiat ad officio,
quod fit omni mane,
deputare poteris
septem dies Veneris
omni septimanae. }[4]

In medieval European literature, Venus means both a planet and goddess of love. Venus here specifically means a prostitute in the bishop’s bed. Christians revere Hebrew scripture as the “law and prophets.” This bishop’s bible was sex, and he had sex seven days a week.

During the twelfth century, the western half of the Christian church decreed that priests couldn’t marry, nor have concubines. Some priests objected to this restriction on their love for women. They contrived arguments for priests marrying:

If perhaps you were to preach to him
that bishops should be
pure of self-indulgence,
he would regard this as silly.
He would prefer with the apostle
to marry rather than burn.

If you were to say, “Be continent,”
he would say, “In the volume
by Paul is contained the advice,
not that one should be continent,
but that each should have his own woman
with whom to fornicate.”

{ Cui si forte praedices
quod debent pontifices
esse luxu puri,
id habens pro frivolo
mavult cum apostolo
nubere quam uri.

Cui si dicas “contine,”
dicet, “In volumine
Pauli continetur
non ut quis contineat,
sed ut suam habeat,
cum qua fornicetur.” }[5]

Christian scripture celebrates both celibacy and sexual relations within marriage between a woman and a man. Just as many persons have done throughout the ages, the bishop misread scripture to serve his own sexual interest.

The eminent twelfth-century poet Walter of Châtillon, who authored the satire of the licentious bishop, attested to his own sexual vigor. In the satire’s penultimate stanza, Walter spoke about its author:

For him who does nothing, even at night,
without witnesses
that are vigorous and lively,
it is right for him to be called
for testimony about whether his
witnesses be diminished.

{ Qui nil vel in noctibus
agit absque testibus
vegetis et vivis,
fas in testimonium
produci si testium
sit deminutivis. }[6]

In Latin, testes can mean both “witnesses” and “testicles.” Moreover, testiculi, the diminutive of testes, can mean both “manliness” and “testicles.” One can imagine testes diminished by ejaculation. Walter here learnedly suggests that a test of his manliness is whether he will testify as to the name of the bishop he satirizes. Walter put forth the bishop’s name obliquely.[7] He thus characterized himself as less vigorous and lively in speaking poetry than in having sex.

The twelfth-century canonist Peter of Blois depicted his girlfriend Venus treating him as if he were patronizing a prostitute. She teased him, and he wasn’t satisfied:

I will inveigh against Venus
if she doesn’t repent
and unlearn
her inveterate
spirit of ill will,
which with in beginnings
she caresses
and with auspicious caressings
a sad outcome.

{ Invehar in Venerem
nisi resipiscat
et dediscat
malignandi spiritum,
quo principiis
et blanditiis
tristem lactis exitum. }[8]

With intricately shifting wordplay, the poem’s refrain explains what Peter perceived as misrepresenting:

It isn’t sufficiently pleasing
unless Venus freely
confers herself.
If she comes so as to sell herself,
she debits
when she should better bless.

{ Non est grata satis,
ni se Venus gratis
nam si venit, ut veneat,
cum debeat
beare, magis debeat. }[9]

Christian theologians understand conjugal love, including sex, to be a complete gift of self. Sex with a prostitute isn’t such a gift. The twelfth-century canonist Peter of Blois regarded sex with a woman prostituting herself to be less pleasing than sex with a woman who freely offered herself to him. His judgment wasn’t a matter of church law. It nonetheless commands broad assent among emotionally sentient men.

lovers Francesca and Paolo in Dante's Inferno. Painting by William Blake.

In his Small Treatise in Praise of Dante {Trattatello in Laude di Dante}, Boccaccio acknowledged that the great Christian poet Dante was lustful. Boccaccio explained:

Certainly I must be ashamed to sully with any faults the fame of so great a man. But beginning in this matter is an order required in any case, because if I am silent about things less worthy of praise in him, I will destroy much faith in those worthy of praise that I have already shown. I therefore ask for forgiveness from Dante himself, who perhaps while I am writing this looks down at me with a scornful eye from a high part of Heaven.

{ Certo, io mi vergogno dovere con alcuno difetto maculare la fama di cotanto uomo; ma il cominciato ordine delle cose in alcuna parte il richiede; perciò che, se nelle cose meno che laudevoli in lui mi tacerò, io torrò molta fede alle laudevoli già mostrate. A lui medesimo adunque mi scuso, il quale per avventura me scrivente con isdegnoso occhio d’alta parte del cielo ragguarda. }[10]

In Dante’s Paradise within his Divine Comedy, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux prays to the Virgin Mary to enable Dante to ascend to the summit of paradise and encounter God face-to-face. Dante, however, lacked the Virgin Mary’s chastity:

Amid so much virtue, amid so much learning, the quantity of which has been shown to be of the uppermost status in this wondrous poet, lust found a large place, and not only in his youth, but also in his maturity.

{ Tra cotanta virtù, tra cotanta scienzia, quanta dimostrato è di sopra essere stata in questo mirifico poeta, trovò ampissimo luogo la lussuria, e non solamente ne’ giovani anni, ma ancora ne’ maturi. }

Boccaccio offered highly rhetorical, circuitous excuses for Dante’s lust:

Although this vice is natural, common, and in a certain sense necessary, it not only cannot be commended, but cannot even be decently excused. But who will be that mortal, the just judge, to condemn it? Not I. Oh little strength of character, of bestial appetite of men! What effect can women not have over us if they will, for since without willing, they can have such large effect? They have charm, beauty, natural desire, and many other qualities that continually work on their behalf to procure the hearts of men.

And to show this to be true, let us pass over what Jove did for Europa, or Hercules for Iole, or Paris for Helen. These are called matters of poetry, and many of little feeling would call them mere stories. But let it be shown by matters suitable for none to deny. Was there yet more than one woman in the world when our first father, breaking the commandment given to him by the very mouth of God, yielded to her persuasions? Certainly not.

{ Il quale vizio, comeché naturale e comune e quasi necessario sia, nel vero non che commendare, ma scusare non si può degnamente. Ma chi sarà tra’ mortali giusto giudice a condennarlo? Non io. Oh poca fermezza, oh bestiale appetito degli uomini, che cosa non possono le femine in noi, s’elle vogliono, che, eziandio non volendo, posson gran cose? Esse hanno la vaghezza, la bellezza e il naturale appetito e altre cose assai continuamente per loro ne’ cuori degli uomini procuranti;

e che questo sia vero, lasciamo stare quello che Giove per Europa, o Ercule per Iole, o Paris per Elena facessero, che, perciò che poetiche cose sono, molti di poco sentimento le dirien favole; ma mostrisi per le cose non convenevoli ad alcuno di negare. Era ancora nel mondo più che una femina quando il nostro primo padre, lasciato il comandamento fattogli dalla propria bocca di Dio, s’accostò alle persuasioni di lei? Certo no. }

Boccaccio then went on to cite the biblical women-trouble of David, Solomon, and Herod. In their poetry in the “sweet new style {dolce stil novo},” Dante and other leading poets addressed women in the unearthy manner of courtly love and philosophy. In contrast, Boccaccio in his Decameron described himself as loving women in a earthy, sexual way.[11] Boccaccio apparently had much self-interest in excusing Dante’s lust for women.

In his Trattatello in Laude di Dante, Boccaccio depicted Dante as a scholar-saint in the model of Thomas Aquinas. According to Boccaccio, Dante was frequently engrossed in reading and study, gave acclaimed lectures at the University of Paris, and provided extraordinary theological insight. Thomas Aquinas was famed for such acts. Moreover, Thomas Aquinas gave his sermons in Italian. Dante thus shared with Aquinas respect for the vernacular. Dante was thought to have conversed with visitors from the afterlife, as Dante did in his Divine Comedy. Both Aquinas and Dante were unworldly advisors to leading secular authorities.[12]

Boccaccio used Dante’s lust as a feigned foil in depicting Dante as a scholar-saint like Thomas Aquinas. As a young man, Aquinas sought to join the Dominican friars, while his family wanted him to join the Benedictines. When Aquinas insisted on joining the Dominicans, his brothers imprisoned him and sought to deter and corrupt him:

When they could not overthrow him by the injury of insults and tearing his habit, those brothers thought to oust him by another kind of attack. This was the attack by which towers are shaken, rocks softened, and cedars of Lebanon usually drowned by the storm in which we find all fighters, but few victors given the difficulty. Thus to him alone in the room in which he was sleeping under external guard, they sent a very beautiful young woman. She was adorned with the dress of a prostitute. By sight, touch, love-games, and whatever other means she would allure him to sin.

The unconquered fighter had already taken for himself the wisdom of God as his bride and emitted the fragrance of that love. When he saw the young woman, he felt the prick in his flesh rising within. He had always kept it subject to his reason. This permitted that a more glorious triumph arise outside of him. The young woman having been brought into a furnace as the spirit of a firebrand, the young man with indignation expelled her from his room. He approached the corner of his room in fervor of the spirit. He pressed onto the wall the sign of the Holy Cross with the top of his firebrand-head and then prostrated himself on the ground. With tears he begged God in prayer for the under-robe of perpetual virginity. That God granted him to keep him uncorrupted in the fleshly battle.

{ Quem cum per predictam iniuriam non possent evertere, cogitaverunt predicti fratres per aliud genus impugnationis evincere, quo turres concuti, saxa molliri et cedri Libani consueverunt tempestate suffodi. In quo cunctos invenimus pugiles, sed paucos prae difficultate victores. Nam miserunt ad ipsum solum existentem in camera, in qua sub tali custodia dormiebat, puellam pulcherrimam, cultu meretricio perornatam, que ipsum aspectu, tactu, ludis et quibus posset aliis modis alliceret ad peccandum.

Quam cum vidisset pugil invictus, qui sibi iam Dei sapientiam sponsam acceperat, cuius amore fragrabat; et sentiret in se carnis insurgere stimulum, quem semper tenuerat sub ratione subiectum, hoc permittente providentie Divine consilio ut gloriosior de certamine sibi triumphus exsurgeret, accepto de camino in spiritu titione, iuvenculam cum indignatione de camera expulit et accedens in spiritus fervore ad angulum camerae, signum sancte Crucis in pariete cum summitate titionis impressit et prostratus ad terram, cum lacrimis a Deo petivit orando perpetuae virginitatis cingulum, quod servare sibi in pugna concesserat incorruptum. }[13]

Thomas Aquinas remained a virgin all through his life. Dante even as a married man apparently had numerous sexual affairs with other women. The scholar-saint Dante was in that way quite unlike Thomas Aquinas.

While faults can coexist with an outstanding human life, men’s sexual desire for women should be other than fire or ice. Medieval church authorities castigated men for castrating themselves. Jerome described a martyr biting off his tongue to stop a woman from raping him. At least before our modern, frigid age, men often suffered from broadly burning sexual desire for women. A Christian liturgical poem from perhaps the sixth or seventh century implored:

Illuminate now our hearts
and set them burning with your love,
for having heard the herald’s cry,
finally our deceits would be dispelled.

{ Illumina nunc pectora
tuoque amore concrema;
audita per praeconia
sint pulsa tandem lubrica. }[14]

These “deceits” including self-deceits. From what perspective can one dispel self-deceit? These verses meaningfully appeared in the Advent liturgical season preceding Christmas, the coming of the Christian savior. Thomas Aquinas himself composed a liturgical poem that includes prayer for divine aid through the body of Christ:

O salvific sacrifice,
you expand Heaven’s entrance.
The enemy’s wars press upon us.
Give us strength. Bear us aid.

{ O salutaris hostia,
Quae caeli pandis ostium,
Bella premunt hostilia;
Da robur, fer auxilium. }[15]

Dante, who knew much about Hell, was not beyond hope even with his inordinate sexual desire for women. The same is true for every person.

Across the millennium from Jerome to Dante, eminent thinkers considered men’s ardent sexual desire for women in knowing, learned, and compassionate ways. Men shouldn’t be condemned merely for being sexually like dogs. Men can lead lives that embody much more than just one of their desires.

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[1] Jerome, Letters 14, “To the monk Heliodorus {Ad Heliodorum Monachum},” section 6, Latin text of Wright (1933), my English translation, benefitting from those of id., Carroll (1956), and Freemantle (1892). Jerome wrote this letter about 375 GC. Heliodorus had been a soldier before becoming a Christian. He eventually was appointed a bishop.

Jerome (Jerome of Stridon) lived from about 345 to 420 GC. He was a learned scholar and an eminent Christian teacher. Christians came to honor him as a saint and a preeminent teacher (“doctor”) for the universal church.

[2] Jerome, Letters 22, “To Eustochium {Ad Eustochium},” section 52, Latin text from Wright (1933), my English translation, benefiting from those of Wright (1933), Carroll (1956), , and Freemantle (1892).

[3] With a frankness that few men would dare today, Jerome told Eustochium:

You might see many women who have been left widows before they were even married. They try to conceal their unhappy consciousness by means of mendacious clothing. Unless they are betrayed by a swelling womb or by the crying of their infants, they wander around with playful feet and lifted head. Others indeed provide for sterility and even murder humans before they are fully made. Not a few others, when they sense that they have conceived from their sin, contrive abortion with poison, and frequently in this way they bring about their own death. They take with them to Hell the guilt of three crimes: suicide, adultery against Christ, and a parent killing a newly made child.

{ Videas plerasque viduas ante quam nuptas infelicem conscientiam mentita tantum veste protegere, quas nisi tumor uteri et infantum prodiderit vagitus, erecta cervice et ludentibus pedibus incedunt. Aliae vero sterilitatem praebebunt et necdum sati hominis homicidium faciunt. Nonnullae, cum se senserint concepisse de scelere, aborti venena meditantur et frequenter etiam ipsae commortuae trium criminum reae ad inferos perducuntur, homicidae sui, Christi adulterae, necdum nati filii parricidae. }

Jerome, “Ad Eustochium,” sections 52-3, sourced as previously.

[4] Walter of Châtillon, incipit “About the tribe of bishops {De grege pontificum},” stanzas 9-11, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Traill & Haynes (2021) pp. 140-1. Subsequent quotes from this poem are similarly sourced. “De grege pontificum” is number 9 in the poems of the Chartres anthology, MS. Vat. lat. 4389. It also survives as Arundel Lyrics 25, where it has stanzas reordered and four fewer stanzas. Id. p. 176, n. 66. For an edition with English translation of Arundel Lyrics 25, McDonough (2010).

In most languages that have evolved from Latin, the word for “Friday” come from the Latin expression “day of Venus {dies Veneris}.” That Latin expression translates the ancient Greek expression “Aphrodites’s day {Ἀφροδίτης ἡμέρα}.” The French word for “Friday,” vendredi, reflects this linguistic history. In modern English, “Friday” comes from the Old English “day of Frig {frīġedæġ}.” The Nordic-Germanic goddess Frigg here replaces the Roman goddess Venus.

[5] Walter of Châtillon, “De grege pontificum,” stanzas 20-21. Cf. the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, 1 Corinthians 7:1-9. In Jerome’s Vulgate translation, 1 Corinthians 7:2 is:

An account of fornication, let each man have his own wife and each women have her own husband.

{ propter fornicationes autem unusquisque suam uxorem habeat et unaquaeque suum virum habeat }

However, propter can mean “for the sake of” as well as “on account of.” Traill & Haynes (2021) p. 177, n. 88 (using slightly different words). In context, “on account of” or “for fear of” is an appropriate translation. The bishop misreads the verse by interpreting propter as “for the sake of.” A similar problem arose with deliberate sexual misinterpretation of quoniam.

[6] Walter of Châtillon, “De grege pontificum,” stanza 26.

[7] The final stanza:

If I am asked
who is he so said to be
mendacious and faulty,
I have forgotten his name,
because the man’s name
is “Forgettable.”

{ A me si requiritur,
quis est qui sic dicitur
mendax et mendosus;
oblitus sum nominis
quia nomen hominis
est “Obliviosus.” }

“De grege pontificum,” stanza 27. The Hebrew name “Manassas” means “forgetful.” The Latin obliviosus has the meaning “that causes forgetfulness.” The bishop has thus been identified as Manassas of Orléans. Traill & Haynes (2021) p. 177, n. 92.

Walter of Châtillon doesn’t identify himself as the author in the poem, nor is it explicitly ascribed to him. David Traill, who identified Walter as the author, has considered in detail the context of the satire:

It seems more likely, therefore, that the satire was delivered at the court of Henry the Liberal, count of Champagne, who appears to have had grounds for blaming Manassas for his humiliation before Frederick Barbarossa, in that he was obliged to hold nine of his castles as Frederick’s vassal. This was a result of a failure of the promised meeting between Frederick and Louis VII at Saint Jean-de-Losne on September, 1162, arranged by Manasses and Henry to settle whether Alexander III or Victor IV (Frederick’s anti-pope) should be recognized as pope.

Traill & Haynes (2021) p. 176, n. 66. If Walter delivered this satire in person, then his reference to the author was explicit in its presentational context.

[8] Peter of Blois, incipit “I will inveigh against Venus {Invehar in Venerem},” stanza 1, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill & Haynes (2021) pp. 154-5. This poem survives as number 12 in the poems of the Chartres anthology, MS. Vat. lat. 4389.

“Invehar in Venerem” survives with a musical score. On the music that accompanies Peter of Blois’s poetry, Thornton (2007). Steven Sametz’s choral symphony Carmina amoris (Songs of Love) includes an interpretation of his poem. Here’s the piece online.

[9] Peter of Blois, “Invehar in Venerem,” refrain, sourced as previously. This refrain includes fashionable twelfth-century wordplay:

The invention of de- compounds to give the sense of undoing or reversing the normal sense of a given root was a fashionable conceit of twelfth-century poetry; so debeat (from debeare) means the reverse of beare (“enrich, make happy”) … this particular play is unusual and probably original here, for debeare is an invented word.

Traill & Haynes (2021) p. 179, n. 171.

The poem ends with the poetic persona considering hating his Venus. But he decides that to hate her would be wrong. Men are very reluctant to hate women.

[10] Giovanni Boccaccio, Small Treatise in Praise of Dante {Trattatello in Laude di Dante}, first recension, section 171, medieval Italian text from Baldan (1991) p. 77, my English translation, benefitting from that of Smith (1901) p. 59. This passage is also included in Boccaccio’s second and third abridged editions of Trattatello in Laude di Dante as section 113. Baldan (1991) p. 167.

For an earlier edition, Guerri (1918) p. 47, where the passage is within Chapter 25 (“Character of Dante {Carattere di Dante}”). Chapter titles and chapter ordering vary considerably across editions.

The subsequent two quotes above are similarly from Trattatello in Laude di Dante, sections 172-4.

[11] Boccaccio declared:

Now many of my detractors say that I am wrong for doing my best to entertain you, O my young ladies, and too ingeniously striving for your pleasure and that you are too pleasing to me. I confess this most openly, for you indeed please me and I use my ingenuity to please you. And I ask what in this is astonishing, when you consider, leaving aside the amorous kisses, the pleasing embraces, and the delightful couplings which with you, sweetest ladies, I have frequently taken and known, but it was only to have seen and to see continually the refined manners, the charming beauty, the graceful elegance, and other aspects of your womanly honor. …

Will they reproach and bite and tear me if you please me and I use ingenuity to please you, when Heaven has given me a body fit for loving you, and when I have devoted my soul to you from my childhood, having felt the power that comes from the light shining in your eyes, from the sweetness of your mellifluous speech, and the fire kindled by your compassionate sighs? … Those who scold me are surely people who, being entirely ignorant about the pleasures and power of natural affection, neither love you nor desire your love in return, and about such people I care little.

And as for those who keep harping on my age, they simply reveal what they do not know, namely that although the head of the leek is white, its tail is still green. But joking aside, I will respond to them by saying that to the very end of my life I will never be ashamed of seeking to give pleasure to those whom Guido Cavalcanti and Dante Alighieri, when they were already old men, and Messer Cino da Pistoia, when he was very aged indeed, found it an honor to serve and whose beauty was so dear to them. And if it did not require that I depart from the customary mode of debate, I would turn to history and show how it is filled with countless examples of worthy men from antiquity who even in their most mature years still strove with all their might to give pleasure to the ladies.

{ Dicono adunque alquanti de’ miei riprensori che io fo male, o giovani donne, troppo ingegnandomi di piacervi, e che voi troppo piacete a me. Le quali cose io apertissimamente confesso, cioè che voi mi piacete e che io m’ingegno di piacere a voi: e domandogli se di questo essi si maravigliano, riguardando, lasciamo stare gli aver conosciuti gli amorosi baciari e i piacevoli abbracciari e i congiugnimenti dilettevoli che di voi, dolcissime donne, sovente si prendono, ma solamente a aver veduto e veder continuamente gli ornati costumi e la vaga bellezza e l’ornata leggiadria e oltre a ciò la vostra donnesca onestà; …

Riprenderannomi, morderannomi, lacererannomi costoro se io, il corpo del quale il cielo produsse tutto atto a amarvi e io dalla mia puerizia l’anima vi disposi sentendo la vertú della luce degli occhi vostri, la soavità delle parole melliflue e la fiamma accesa da’ pietosi sospiri, se voi mi piacete o se io di piacervi m’ingegno, … Per certo chi non v’ama e da voi non disidera d’essere amato, sí come persona che i piaceri né la vertú della naturale affezione né sente né conosce, cosí mi ripiglia: e io poco me ne curo.

E quegli che contro alla mia età parlando vanno, mostra mal che conoscano che, perché il porro abbia il capo bianco, che la coda sia verde: a’ quali, lasciando il motteggiar da l’un de’ lati, rispondo che io mai a me vergogna non reputerò infino nello stremo della mia vita di dover compiacere a quelle cose alle quali Guido Cavalcanti e Dante Alighieri già vecchi e messer Cino da Pistoia vecchissimo onor si tennero, e fu lor caro il piacer loro. E se non fosse che uscir sarebbe del modo usato del ragionare, io producerei le istorie in mezzo, e quelle tutte piene mostrerei d’antichi uomini e valorosi, ne’ loro piú maturi anni sommamente avere studiato di compiacere alle donne }

Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 4, Introduction, sections 30-34, medieval Italian text of Padoan (1994) via Brown’s Decameron Web, English translation (modified) from Rebhorn (2013) pp. 304-5. Boccaccio wove into his argument the ancient story of the king’s cloistered son who nonetheless ardently loved women.

[12] The above paragraph is based on Gross (2009), which develops the parallel further. While Thomas Aquinas was an eminent scholar-saint, the most eminent scholar-saint was Saint Jerome. Pope Benedict XV in his 1920 encyclical, Spirit of the Advocate {Spiritus Paraclitus} identified Jerome as the Christian church’s “greatest doctor.”

Boli interpreted Trattatello in Laude di Dante as a defensive work casting Dante in the mold of Petrarch. Boli (1988). Gross observed:

Todd Boli has very persuasively demonstrated that the Trattatello is Boccaccio’s effort to mold Dante into a figure of Petrarchan contemplation and scholarship. Instead of seeing the Trattatello as a story of amorous sighs, as Leonardo Bruni did, Boli recognizes that Boccaccio rewrites Dante’s attitude towards erotic love: rather than emphasizing the influence of Beatrice, and Dante’s celebration of the powers of love to elevate one’s mind to the divine, Boccaccio has Dante’s love for women be a distraction competing with the true loves of God, learning, and self; thus the Dante of the Trattatello accords with the Petrarch of the Secretum, who rejected Laura and the concept of a salvific romantic love. Boli’s reading of a Petrarchization of Dante is corroborated by Simon Gilson’s observation that Boccaccio explicitly attempts to reconcile Dante with Petrarch in his “Ytalie iam certus honos,” a Latin carman written contemporaneously with the first redaction of the Trattatello as an accompaniment to the Commedia manuscript sent to Petrarch. Furthermore, the Trattatello and its later redactions appear to have been written in dialogue with Petrarch’s notorious evaluation of Dante’s merits in Familiare XXI.

Gross (2009) pp. 69-70. That analysis doesn’t explain why Boccaccio explicitly mentioned Dante’s lust. Boccaccio’s concern seems to have been not only to defend Dante, but also to defend his own lust.

[13] William of Tocco {Guillaume de Tocco}, History of Saint Thomas Aquinas {Ystoria Sancti Thome de Aquino}, chapter 11, “About the sharpest attack in the struggle that he won with God’s help {De acriori insultu certaminis quod Deo auxiliante vicit},” Latin text from Le Brun-Gouanvic (1999) p. 112, my English translation. For a freely available Latin text, see The Life of Saint Thomas Aquinas by the Author William of Tocco {Vita S. Thomae Aquinatis auctore Guillelmo de Tocco} in Prümmer (1912) chapter 10, p. 75. While the relevant chapter is 10 in Prümmer versus 11 in Le Brun-Gouanvic, the quoted text is substantially identical. For a scholarly review of this incident, Weisheipl (1974) pp. 30-1. For a full English translation of William of Tocco’s life of Aquinas, Foley (2023). Many accounts of the life of Thomas Aquinas exist.

Guillaume de Tocco, a fellow Dominican, wrote his account of Thomas Aquinas in redactions between 1318 and 1323. His account pushed to have Aquinas declared a saint. Boccaccio wrote the first version of Trattatello in Laude di Dante sometime between 1351 and 1360. Boccaccio may well have known of Guillaume’s work. Given his interest in such tales, Boccaccio would have been eager to hear the story of the beautiful woman attempting to seduce Thomas Aquinas.

Writing about 1260, Thomas of Cantimpré {Thomas Cantimpratanus} summarized a less sensational story of Thomas Aquinas resisting womanly seduction:

And thinking of all those things by which they might overturn his youthful spirit, they confined women with him in prison for some time. Stronger than ever before, he endured in prison for two or three years, defying enticements.

{ Et his omnibus nequius cogitantes per quod possent iuvenilem animum evertere, secum mulieres in carcere per tempus aliquod concluserunt. Qui fortius quam prius, spretis illecebris, sic annis duobus, vel tribus in carcere perduravit. }

Thomas Cantimpratanus, The universal good of bees {Bonum universale de apibus}, Book 1, Chapter 20, section 10, Latin text of Ferrua (1968) pp. 377-8 via Corpus Thomisticum, my English translation.

[14] Hymn incipit “The Word descending from above / from the Father light shining forth {Verbum supernum prodien / a Patre lumen exiens},” stanza 2, Latin text from the medieval Roman Breviary via Thesaurus Precum Latinarum and Saint Augustine’s Lyre, my English translation.

[15] Thomas Aquinas, “The Word descending from above / without leaving the Father’s right hand {Verbum supernum prodien / Nec Patris linquens dexteram},” stanza 5, Latin text from Hymns and Carols of Christmas, my English translation. This hymn is used for the Feast of Corpus Christi. This stanza and the subsequent, final stanza of this “Verbum supernum prodien” are also used for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

[images] (1) The Kiss {Le Baiser}. Marble sculpture carved by Auguste Rodin in 1882. This sculpture was originally titled Francesca da Rimini, a noblewoman in the circle of lust (Circle 2 of Canto 5) in Dante’s Inferno. Image thanks to Tylwyth Eldar and Wikimedia Commons. (2) The Lovers’ Whirlwind: Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta in the circle of lust in Dante’s Inferno. Painted by William Blake between 1824 and 1827. Preserved in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Baldan, Paolo, ed. 1991. Giovanni Boccaccio. Vita di Dante. Bergamo: Moretti & Vitali.

Boli, Todd. 1988. “Boccaccio’s Trattatello in Laude di Dante or Dante Resartus.” Renaissance Quarterly. 41(3): 389–412.

Carroll, Paul, trans. 1956. The Satirical letters of St. Jerome. Chicago: Gateway Editions, distributed by H. Regnery Co.

Foley, David M., trans. 2023. William of Tocco. Life of St. Thomas Aquinas. Saint Marys, KS: Angelus Press. Overview.

Ferrua, Angelico, ed. 1968. S. Thomae Aquinatis Vitae Fontes Praecipuae. Alba: Edizioni domenicane.

Gross, Karen Elizabeth. 2009. “Scholar Saints and Boccaccio’s Trattatello in Laude di Dante.” MLN. 124(1): 66–85.

Guerri, Domenico, ed. 1918. Il Comento Alla Divina Commedia e Gli Altri Scritti Intorno a Dante. Bari: G. Laterza.

Le Brun-Gouanvic, Claire, ed. 1996. Ystoria Sancti Thome de Aquino de Guillaume de Tocco (1323): Édition critique, introduction et notes. Studies and Texts, 127. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

McDonough, Christopher J., ed. and trans. 2010. The Arundel lyrics; The poems of Hugh Primas. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 2. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Padoan, Giorgio, ed. 1994. Giovanni Boccaccio. “Il Corbaccio.” In Carlo Delcorno, ed. Tutte le opere di Giovanni Boccaccio. Volume 5, Book 2. Milano: Mondadori.

Prümmer, Dominicus M., ed. 1912. Fontes vitae S. Thomae Aquinatis notis historicis et criticis illustrati. Tolosae: Apud Ed. Privat, Bibliopolam.

Rebhorn, Wayne A., trans. 2013. Giovanni Boccaccio. The Decameron. New York : W.W. Norton & Company.

Smith, Robinson, trans. 1901. The Earliest Lives of Dante. New York: H. Holt.

Thornton, Lyndsey. 2007. Musical characteristics of the songs attributed to Peter of Blois (c. 1135-1211). Thesis, Master of Music. Florida State University.

Traill, David A and Justin Haynes. 2021. Education of Nuns, Feast of Fools, Letters of Love: Medieval Religious Life in Twelfth-Century Lyric Anthologies from Regensburg, Ripoll and Chartres. Leuven: Peeters. Latin text and English translation, with commentary.

Weisheipl, James A. 1974. Friar Thomas D’aquino: His Life, Thought, and Work. Oxford: B. Blackwell.

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

men and female prostitutes from ancient Sumer to medieval Europe

Men historically have much more commonly paid for sex than women have. That’s consistent with social devaluation of men’s sexuality relative to women’s sexuality, along with continuing repressive regulation of men’s sexuality. Men paying women for sex, however, has not been a consistently functioning social institution across history. Female prostitutes’ treatment of men generated much more vigorous written protest in medieval Europe than in ancient Sumer.

In Sumer about four thousand years ago, the goddess Inanna was figured as a prostitute. Inanna, known as the “Queen of Heaven,” was an extensively honored goddess. She was also regarded favorably as a prostitute:

When I sit by the gate of the tavern,
I am a prostitute familiar with the penis,
the friend of a man, the girlfriend of a woman.
I am milk of the god. I am preeminent in the mountains.
I am milk of the god, of Dumuzid. I am preeminent in the mountains.

{ kan4 ec2-dam-ma-ka tuc-a-ju10-[ne]
kar-ke4 mu-lu mu zu me-e-jen-[na]
mu-tin-na gu5-li-ni munus-e ma-la-ga
dijir-ra ga-jenmi kur-ra dirig-ga-jen-[na]
dijir-ra ddu5-mu-zid-da ga-jenmi kur-ra dirig-ga-jen-[na] }[1]

Men and women didn’t regard Inanna the prostitute with animosity. She was their friend. Like milk, she was nourishing. She was both a prostitute snatching men from taverns and a goddess of grandeur:

They cannot compete with you, Inanna.
As a prostitute, you go down to the tavern and
like a ghost who slips in through the window, you enter there.
Inanna, you lady of all the divine powers, no deity can compete with you.
Here is your dwelling, Lady of the Palace. Let me tell of your grandeur!
When the servants let the flocks loose,
and when cattle and sheep are returned to cow-pen and sheepfold,
then, my lady, like the nameless poor, you wear only a single garment.
The pearls of a prostitute are placed around your neck,
and you are likely to snatch a man from the tavern.

{ dinana nu-mu-e-da-sa2-e-ne
kar-ke42-dam-ma mu-un-ed3-de3-en
dgidim ab-ba šu2-šu2-ka ma-ra-ni-in-ku4-ku4-de3-en
dinana nin me šar2-ra-me-en diĝir nu-mu-e-da-sa2
dnin-e2-gal-la ki-ur3-zu mu-ĝal2 nam-maḫ-za ga-am3-dug4
kuš7 maš2-anše du8-du8-a-ba
gud udu tur3 amaš-e gi4-a-ba
nin-ĝu10 mu nu-tuku-gin7 tug2 dili im-me-mur10
NUNUZ kar-ke4 gu2-za i-im-du3
2-dam-ta lu2 mu-dab5-me-en }[2]

Inanna was both a palace lady and an ordinary woman prostitute. That surely worked to raise the status of the latter. Moreover, Inanna behaved in the way an ordinary prostitute would and probably charged similar prices:

— Your hand is womanly, your foot is womanly,
your conversing with a man is womanly,
your looking at a man is womanly.
As you rest against the wall, your patient heart pleases.
As you bend over, your hips are particularly pleasing.
— My resting against the wall is one lamb.
My bending over is one and a half giĝ.
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!

{ šu-zu munus-am3 ĝiri3-zu munus-am3
inim lu2-da bal-e-zu munus-am3
igi lu2-ra bar-re-zu munus-am3
zag e2-ĝar8-da gub-bu šag4 sud-zu i3-sag9
gam-e-de3 ib2-ib2 i3-sag9-sag9
e2-ĝar8-da gub-bu-ĝu10 1(DIŠ) sila4-am3
gam-e-ĝu10 1 1/2 giĝ4-am3
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 }[3]

While the value of “one and a half giĝ” isn’t clear, “one lamb” was probably an asset that many men possessed or could readily steal. In fact, Inanna explicitly served poor men:

She who makes … for the poor, whose play is sweet,
the prostitute who goes out to the inn,
who makes the bedchamber delightful,
who is food to the poor man,
Inanna, the daughter of Suen,
arose before him like a bull in the land.
Her brilliance, her stellar brightness, like that of holy Šara,
illuminated for him the mountain cave.

{ ukur3-e NE-NE ĝa2-ĝa2-da ešemen dug3-ga-am3
kar-ke42-dam-še3 ed2-da ki-nu2 dug3-dug3-ge-da
ukur3-e niĝ2 gu7-da-ni
dinana dumu dsuen-na-ke4
gud-gin7 kalam-ma saĝ mu-na-il2
me-lem4-ma-ni kug dšara2-gin7
muš3-a-ni ḫur-ru-um kur-ra-kam ud mu-un-na-ĝa2-ĝa2 }[4]

In a well-ordered society, men, like women, are entitled to basic human needs such as food and sex on feasible terms. Marriage was probably a relatively expensive way for a Sumerian man to be able to have sex with a woman. In ancient Sumer, Inanna represented sex made available to poor men on comparable terms to food. Inanna was thus a divine representation that parallels Solon’s wise public provision for men’s sexual welfare in ancient Athens. More generally, female prostitutes in ancient Sumer had the highly favorable status of being associated with the goddess Inanna.[5]

Old Babylonian plaque: man from behind sexually penetrating woman drinking beer

Inanna as a prostitute goddess apparently influenced small, mass-produced terracotta plaques found in non-elite residential areas in ancient Sumer. One standard design consists of a man having sex with a woman from the rear while she drinks beer. This design suggests a man providing an important material good (beer) to a woman in exchange for her allowing him to sexually penetrate her.[6] That’s a stark depiction of heterosexual relations. Such non-mutual relations could easily turn exploitative and antagonistic. The ancient Sumerian terracotta plaques plausible function as talismans to make what was regarded as mundane sexual relations auspicious and harmonious by associating them with the widely honored prostitute goddess Inanna.

Old Babylonian plaque: man from behind sexually penetrating woman drinking beer. She affectionately strokes his face.

Men regarded female prostitutes much less favorably in medieval Europe than in ancient Sumer. The twelfth-century Latin poet Hugh Primas, also known as Hugh of Orléans, complained bitterly of prostitutes unjustly exploiting men. The eminent twelfth-century poet known as the Archpoet figured a whore swallowing him like a whale had swallowed the prophet Jonah. The thirteenth-century Old French Guide for fools {Chastie musart} extensively protested women trading sex for material goods. Perhaps the most extensive and close-to-the-people protest against prostitutes comes in the Old French Salemon and Marcoul. Marcoul of Salemon and Marcoul begins with abstract denunciation of prostitutes of the sort found in medieval clerical texts:

From the whore come evil
and deadly wars
and the peril of humanity.

{ De putain sourt maus
et guerre mortaus,
et peril de gent. }[7]

Such claims associate the medieval European whore with Babylon in the biblical Book of Revelation: “Babylon the great, the mother of harlots and of the abominations of the earth {Βαβυλὼν ἡ μεγάλη, ἡ μήτηρ τῶν πορνῶν καὶ τῶν βδελυγμάτων τῆς γῆς}.”[8] The biblical Whore of Babylon reversed the moral value of Inanna as a prostitute in ancient Sumer.

Female prostitutes in medieval Europe weren’t merely condemned as figures of the Whore of Babylon. Marcoul condemns the prostitute for mundane offenses such as theft:

He who trusts a whore
will be left
with neither coat nor cape.

{ Qui putain croira,
ne li remaindra
ne cote, ne chape. }

Associated with taverns, whores didn’t serve poor men, but exploited men to get alcoholic drinks:

If a whore has no wine,
she seeks by artifice and guile
to get something to drink.

{ Quant pute n’a vin,
art quiert et engin
comment ait a boivre. }[9]

While Sumerian literature admired a prostitute’s beauty as she bent over, Salemon and Marcoul associated a bent-over prostitute with sexual intercourse crudely represented and the repulsiveness of a fart:

A whore well bent over
is well ready
to fuck and to fart.

{ Pute bien corbee
est bien aprestee
de fouture et de poirre }

A primary sense of the Old French Salemon and Marcoul is of men embittered through bad experiences with prostitutes:

He who honors a whore
in the end cries,
when he perceives his situation.

{ Qui putain honeure
en la fin pleure,
quant il s’aperçoit }

Unlike in ancient Sumer, female prostitutes in medieval Europe weren’t understood as friends to men and women. Female prostitutes in medieval Europe were perceived to exploit men. Men protested bitterly about such exploitation and urged other men to treat prostitutes badly.[10]

In medieval Europe, men’s protests against female prostitutes existed apart from authoritative Christian morality. Salemon and Marcoul ends with the rogue Marcoul (Marcolf) preceding the wise Salemon (Solomon):

Here ends Marcoul and Salemon,
which isn’t worth a big turd.

{ Explicit Marcoul et Salemon qui
ne vaut pas un grant estron. }

Salemon and Marcoul wasn’t written to promote Christian moral values of chastity and fidelity. It doesn’t condemn prostitution itself, but mainly laments prostitutes exploiting men. It offers a wry voice of men’s sexed protest in despair.

Medieval European culture lacked a friendly, compassionate prostitute goddess such as Inanna in ancient Sumer. In medieval Europe, the Virgin Mary was more honored than any god or goddess. She jealously loved men and was extraordinarily merciful towards men. Nonetheless, she remained a virgin. Esmerée in Jean Renaut’s twelfth-century romance Galeran de Bretagne and other warm-hearted medieval women showed compassionate concern for men’s sexual welfare. Such women, however, were too few to shape medieval European prostitution. Many men in medieval Europe weren’t satisfied with the non-commercial heterosexual opportunities available to them. They sought prostitutes. Without widely honored representations and norms of prostitution, relations between men and female prostitutes came to include a quagmire of exploitation and antagonism.[11]

Modern Western societies offer even less support for heterosexual relations than did medieval Europe. Christianity in medieval Europe honored men’s seminal blessing, the fully masculine son of God born of a woman, and marriage as a conjugal partnership with the marriage example of Sarah and Tobias. Such understandings have largely vanished from public consciousness. Now popular singer-dancers such as Rosalía figure themselves as whore goddesses, but with little concern for promoting men’s sexual welfare. Leading public institutions such as the British Museum celebrate divine and demonic feminine power while willfully subordinating men.[12] Modern societies should aspire to more delightful, more fruitful heterosexual relations than existed in medieval Europe. Publicly promoting the prostitute goddess Inanna, extensively honored in ancient Sumer, might be the best feasible path forward.

Goddess Inanna (Ishtar) on seal from the Akkadian Empire

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] A šir-namšub to Inana (Inana I) (t.4.07.9) Segment A, vv. 20-4, cuneiform transliteration and English translation (modified insubstantially) from the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, second edition (ETCSL). Inana is a variant for the more common spelling Inanna.

Inana and Enki credits Inanna with bringing to the world sexual intercourse, kissing, and prostitution:

you have brought with you sexual intercourse,
you have brought with you kissing,
you have brought with you prostitution

{ [jic3 dug4-dug4] ba-e-de6
jic3 ki su-ub ba-e-de6
nam-kar-kid2 ba-e-de6 }

Segment J, vv. 37-9, cuneiform transliteration (simplified slightly) and English translation from ETCSL Prostitution, here associated with sexual intercourse and kissing, is merely a type of sexual relation.

In The Golden Bough (first edition published in 1890), James Frazer imagined in ancient western Asia a “great mother Goddess” and “sacred marriage {ἱερὸς γάμος}”:

we may conclude that a great Mother Goddess, the personification of all the reproductive energies of nature, was worshipped under different names but with a substantial similarity of myth and ritual by many peoples of Western Asia; that associated with her was a lover, or rather series of lovers, divine yet mortal, with whom she mated year by year, their commerce being deemed essential to the propagation of animals and plants, each in their several kind; and further, that the fabulous union of the divine pair was simulated and, as it were, multiplied on earth by the real, though temporary, union of the human sexes at the sanctuary of the goddess for the sake of thereby ensuring the fruitfulness of the ground and the increase of man and beast.

From Chapter 31, “Adonis in Cyprus,” of Frazer (1922). “Sacred marriage” quickly evolved into the concept of “sacred prostitution.” Frazer imagined master narratives of cultural history and projected them across cultures and time. Frazer’s work is more useful for studying Frazer and his time than for understanding ancient historical cultures. For some relevant analysis, Larsen (2014), Chapter 2.

[2] A hymn to Inana as Ninegala (Inana D) (t.4.07.4), vv. 104-13, cuneiform transliteration and English translation (modified insubstantially) from ETCSL. For clarity, I’ve replaced Ninegala, in this context an epithet for Inanna, with its meaning “Lady of the Palace.”

Budin insisted about harimtu / KAR.KID:

Since the work of J. Assante {Assante (1998)}, it is now more commonly {sic; “more commonly” shouldn’t be confused with “commonly”} recognized that these terms refer not to prostitutes, but to single women not under the authority of a father. That is to say, they are women whose lives and sexuality are not regulated by a male authority figure. These women certainly may have been prostitutes, or even merely promiscuous, but there is no clear evidence that they are necessarily professional prostitutes per se.

Budin (2008) p. 26. The claim “there is no clear evidence that they are necessarily professional prostitutes per se” is plausible, given modern understandings of “professional.” But that’s consistent with interpreting harimtu / KAR.KID to mean “prostitute” within a context that favors that meaning. The electronic Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary (ePSD2) lists 152 instances of “karkid,” which it defines as “prostitute.”

Budin and others who also insist on a narrow, highly culturally circumscribed meaning of “prostitute” nonetheless assume a universal, transcultural significance of “under the authority of a father” and “patriarchy.” The specification “women whose lives and sexuality are not regulated by a male authority figure” is far from clear. Most persons would regard women’s sexuality as an aspect of women’s lives. Rulers of ancient Mesopotamia were nearly uniformly men (“male authority figure”). Nonetheless, both women and men have always been intimately involved in regulation of women’s sexuality, as well as regulation of men’s sexuality. Arguments assuming the significance of “patriarchy” to women’s sexuality in ancient Mesopotamia are merely artifacts of currently dominant ideology. Arguments based on “patriarchy” are neo-Frazerian. They should have no place in reasoned, fact-based analysis.

[3] A balbale to Inana as Nanaya (Inana H) (t.4.07.8), vv. 16-26, cuneiform transliteration and English translation (modified insubstantially) from ETCSL. Inanna and Enki, in Alster’s reading, describes third-personally Inanna bowing down and showing her “marvelous vulva.” Alster (1993) p. 20.

To serve her argument that “there are no terms for prostitutes and prostitution” in Sumerian, Assante declared these lines to be interpolations:

My resting against the wall is one lamb.
My bending over is one and a half giĝ.

A balbale to Inana as Nanaya (Inana H), vv. 21-2. Specifically, Assante claimed:

Just as there are no terms for brothels or bordellos in cuneiform, there are no terms for prostitutes and prostitution. In fact, as I have previously noted elsewhere, the only unambiguous evidence for prostitution are two interpolated lines in a Sumerian hymn to the goddess Nanâ. Significantly, there is no mention of a kar.kid in this text.

Assante (2007) p. 129 (internal footnote omitted). Nanâ (Nanaya) was a Mesopotamian goddess of love. The version A manuscript of this text describes it as a balbale of Inanna rather than a balbale of Nanaya. Inanna elsewhere is described as a kar.kid / prostitute. See other Sumerian texts quoted above. Cooper observed of Inanna here:

She does not explicitly say here that she is a kar-kid “prostitute,” though she does so in other compositions (¶ 7), and it can reasonably be assumed that this is what is portrayed here.

Cooper (2006) p. 14 (para. 3), referring to A balbale to Inana as Nanaya (Inana H), vv. 21-2.

In Assante’s long, tendentious article on “prostitute” in ancient Mesopotamia, these verses are discussed in the final textual page, mainly in a footnote. She offered so-called “evidence” that these verses are interpolated: one surviving cuneiform version of the text includes them, while another doesn’t. In addition, she perceived in these verses “comic cynicism incongruous” with the rest of the text. Assante (1998) p. 86, n. 237. These are weak arguments that an interpolation exists.

Assante seems to have used “interpolation” to mean that scholars should ignore the verses. She offered no insight into where, when, and why such an “interpolation” appeared in the ancient cuneiform tablet. Budin cited A balbale to Inana as Nanaya (Inana H), vv. 21-2, lauded Assante (1998) without any critical analysis, and sought to shut down discussion (“This chapter should not have to be written.”). Without good reason, Budin effectively gave these verses no significance. Budin (2021) p. 21 (the first page of Chapter 2, “Ḫarīmtu”). Cf. Cooper (2006) and Cooper (2016).

[4] Lugalbanda in the mountain cave (t., vv. 173-9, cuneiform transliteration and English translation (modified insubstantially) from ETCSL.

[5] Some ancient Mesopotamian texts disparage prostitutes. For example, a surviving text from ancient Sumer declares:

You should not buy a prostitute: she is a mouth that bites.

{ [kar]-/ke4\ na-an-sa10-sa10-an ka u4-sar-ra-kam }

The instructions of Šuruppag (t.5.6.1), v. 154, cuneiform transliteration and English translation from ETCSL. For other examples, Cooper (2006) pp. 13-4. Texts surviving from about 4000 years ago obviously aren’t a representative sample of what was said or written at the time. Given praise for the revered goddess Inanna as a prostitute in ancient Sumer, disparagement of prostitutes was less likely to be written. Yet some literary example could have survived if it had existed. No highly literary nor extensive disparagement of prostitutes has survived in Sumerian literature. That absence should be given significance in evidence-based analysis.

“Sacred prostitution” in ancient Mesopotamia has been an issue of scholarly controversy in recent decades. Ideological master narratives, so evident in Frazer’s Golden Bough, are also prominent in the recent debate about sacred prostitution. Driven by a modern, ideological understanding of patriarchy projected onto ancient Mesopotamia, Budin made the domineering claim, “There were no sacred prostitutes in the ancient Near East.” Budin (2008) p. 47. But Budin didn’t rule out the existence of “sacred sex.” Id. pp. 4, 8, 18. For arguments that sacred prostitution of some sort existed in ancient Mesopotamia, Cooper (2016) pp. 223-4, and Morris (2019). Recognizing representations of the revered goddess Inanna as a prostitute doesn’t entail any judgment about the existence of sacred prostitution in ancient Mesopotamia.

Budin’s more recent work is far more narrowly ideological than James Frazer’s Golden Bough. Budin defined harimtu / KAR.KID as the “Freewoman”:

The ḫarīmtu isn’t just a Freewoman: She is the embodiment of androcentric claims to the female body, played out in academia. … History, as Samuel Noah Kramer put it, began in Sumer. So did the Freewoman. Although not dedicated to the arts or deities, not a culture-bearer instead of a child-bearer, the kar.kid/ḫarīmtu was the first woman recorded in the texts as being free of male control and in charge of her own sexuality. She was not a prostitute. She couldn’t even be called a whore, because the idea, and thus the insult, did not yet exist.

Budin (2021) p. 58. This particular ideological construction of history actually began about fifty years ago. As a basic empirical matter, almost all the nominal rulers in ancient Mesopotamia were men, whom women almost surely strongly influenced. Moreover, men contributed to constructing all of ancient Mesopotamian culture and civilization. Arguably no man or woman in ancient Mesopotamia was “free of male control.” Similarly, no woman or man was “free of female control.” The woman “in charge of her own sexuality” is presumably masturbating.

Budin is now delivering lectures as an Archaeological Institute of American Lecturer. The Archaeological Institute of American is:

North America’s largest and oldest nonprofit organization dedicated to archaeology. The Institute advances awareness, education, fieldwork, preservation, publication, and research of archaeological sites and cultural heritage throughout the world.

Budin’s lecture abstract on “The Problem with Prostitutes” declares:

As a matter of fact, it would appear that there was no prostitution at all {sic} in ancient Mesopotamia or Egypt, and that the profession {sic} came into being only in the Iron Age.

From webpage on Archaeological Institute of American’s website. Julia Assante, in contrast, is active in providing psychic readings and liberating ghosts. Prostitution certainly is a perennial and fundamental human temptation!

[6] Such plaques could fit within the palm of one’s hand and were ubiquitous in residential areas. Assante (2002a) pp. 2, 15. A man having sex from behind (coitus a tergo) with a woman drinking beer is “the longest lasting and the most widespread of the sexual varieties” of Old Babylonian plaques. Assante (2002b) p. 31. The woman isn’t a deity, because deities in Old Babylonian plaques are always depicted with horned crowns. Cooper (2016) p. 218, n. 19. Assante characterized these plaques as magical and as intended to entice the goddess Inanna’s favor and also to protect a person’s house and to make it auspicious. Assante (2002b) pp. 27, 47. Above I provide a more specific interpretation consistent with those generalities.

[7] Salemon and Marcoul, Version A, stanza 1, vv. 5-7 (citation form: A.1.5-7), Old French text and English translation from Stadtler-Chester (2022) pp. 25, 439. Nearly identical verses occur in Salemon and Marcoul B.1 and G.1. The stanzas consist of a statement of Salemon (Solomon), followed a response from Marcoul (Marcolf). Such dialogue exists in the Latin stream of the tradition, known as Solomon and Marcolf.

Salemon and Marcoul dates from no later than the thirteenth century. The work survives in at least ten manuscripts. Id. p. 22. An English translation, made about 1527, includes a version of A.1.5-7:

Because of a whore, all affliction,
death, war, and great grief
come soon again.

{ For a hoore all myschefe
Mortalyte, warre and great grefe
commeth soone agayne. }

“The Sayinges or Prouerbes of King Salomon, with the answers of Marcolphus, translated out of frenche in to englysshe,” vv. 118-20, source text from Sanger & Ziolkowski (2022) p. 90, my English modernization. This text seems to be alluding to Helen of Troy.

Subsequent quotations from Salemon and Marcoul are similarly sourced. In some cases I’ve modified Stadtler-Chester’s English translation to follow the Old French more closely in my understanding of it. The quotations above are Salemon and Marcoul A.7.5-7 (He who trusts a whore…); A.8.5-7, similarly G.9, H.29 (If a whore has no wine…); A.16.5-7, similarly B.28 and G.15 (A whore well bent over…), A.3.5-7, similarly B.30 (He who honors a whore…), A.coda (vv. 326-7) (Here ends Marcoul and Salemon…).

[8] Revelation 17:5.

[9] In the early thirteenth-century Old French play The Well-Mannered Man of Arras {Courtois d’Arras}, the prostitute Pourette meets the Courtois of Arras in a tavern and exploits his naiveté and kindness. For an English translation, Axton & Stevens (1971).

[10] Salemon and Marcoul associates a whore’s love for a man with his abuse of her:

The whore is lost
if she’s isn’t well beaten
and often mistreated.

Mistreat the whore,
and keep her under foot,
then she will hold you dear.

{ La pute est perdue
s’ele n’est bien batue
et souvent foulee

La putain foulez
et sous pié tenez,
dont vous avra chier }

Salemon and Marcoul A.21.5-7 and A.29.5-7. Similarly, A.38.5-7 and likewise in other versions of Salemon and Marcoul.

[11] Similar exploitation and antagonism is evident in present-day academia. Budin noted:

Personal anecdote: A few years ago the soon to be ex-wife of a friend decided to get into gender studies. She quickly came to two obvious, irrefutable conclusions: 1) There is no such thing as binary sex or gender and all such categories are fluid and dynamic; 2) Men are assholes. She never saw the contradiction.

Budin (2020) p. 16, n. 12. Budin attempted to refute point 1, while Budin’s work largely put forward ideology associated with belief in point 2. See, e.g. Budin (2021). Budin apparently didn’t perceive the inaptness of projecting such ideology onto ancient Mesopotamia.

[12] Modern literature on female prostitutes is drenched in hostility toward men and men’s heterosexual desire. Consider, for example, an analysis of prostitution in ancient Mesopotamia:

Males in Mesopotamia married relatively later than females, resulting in a pool of young single men, and there were male travelers, military personnel, and workers away from home, yet most women — other men’s wives and daughters, and religious celibates — were not sexually available. Demand was there. On the supply side, there were destitute vulnerable women — the widows and orphan girls whom rulers traditionally claimed to protect — as well, no doubt, as wives and daughters from impoverished families who saw no other alternative, and dependent women whose parents or owners might earn income from their sale of sexual favors. A socially sanctioned outlet for male desire was necessary to protect proper wives and daughters from improper advances or attacks; hence, the Middle Assyrian Laws required that married women appear veiled in public, but forbade prostitutes from doing so, visually marking the sexually approachable and the unapproachable.

Cooper (2016) pp. 211-2, internal references and footnotes omitted. This analysis depicts “demand” for heterosexual sex as arising only from men. It assumes that wives, daughters, and religious women never seek illicit sex, and that illicit sex results only from men’s “improper advances or attacks.” Medieval literature makes clear that such analysis is totally unrealistic. Cooper, whose scholarship doesn’t explicitly draw from the anti-meninist tradition, shows with his analysis of prostitution the extent to which men’s gender position has been largely understood through ignorance, bigotry, poor-dearism, and gynocentrism.

[images] (1) Old Babylonian plaque: man from behind sexually penetrating woman drinking beer. Fired clay plaque made about 1800 BGC in present-day southern Iraq. Preserved as British Museum number 116731. The British Museum has made the source image available under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. A cast for a similar plaque is BM 116661. Here’s a similar Old Babylonian sexual plaque, and another one, but without beer. (2) Old Babylonian plaque: man from behind sexually penetrating woman drinking beer. She affectionately reaches back and strokes his face. Fired clay plaque made between 2000 and 1500 BGC. Found in Tello (ancient Sumerian city of Girsu) in present-day southern Iraq. Preserved as item AO 16681; T 1496 in the Louvre Museum (Paris). Source image used in accordance with U.S. fair use law and Louvre Terms of Use. Another Old Babylonian plaque shows a man and woman musician having sex. See Louvre Museum, item AO 16924 ; L.51. Old Babylonian plaques also show a man and woman vigorous embracing sexually face-to-face. See Metropolitan Museum (New York), accession # 1974.347.1. (3) Goddess Inanna (Ishtar) on seal from the Akkadian Empire. The seal (full image here) was made between 2350–2150 BGC. Inanna, wearing a horned helmet and weapons on her back, is dominating with her foot a lion held on a leash. The star of Shamash is depicted to Inanna’s right. Item preserved in the Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures, West Asia & North Africa (formerly the Oriental Institute) of the University of Chicago, USA. Source image thanks to Sailko and Wikimedia Commons.


Alster, Bendt. 1993. “Marriage and Love in the Sumerian Love Songs.” Pp. 15-26 in Daniel C. Snell, Mark E. Cohen, and David B. Weisberg, eds. The Tablet and the Scroll: Near Eastern Studies in Honor of William W. Hallo. Bethesda, MD: CDL Press.

Assante, Julia. 1998. “The kar.kid/harimtu, Prostitute or Single Woman? A Reconsideration of the Evidence.” Ugarit-Forschungen. 30: 5–96.

Assante, Julia. 2002a. “Style and Replication in ‘Old Babylonian’ Terracotta Plaques: Strategies for Entrapping the Power of Images.” Pp. 1-29 in Oswald Loretz, Kai Metzler and Hans Peter Schaudig, eds. Ex Mesopotamia et Syria Lux: Festschrift für Manfried Dietrich zu seinem 65 Geburtstag. Alter Orient und Altes Testament 281. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag.

Assante, Julia. 2002b. “Sex, Magic and the Liminal Body in the Erotic Art and Texts of the Old Babylonian Period.” Pp. 27-51 in Simo Parpola and Robert M. Whiting, eds. Sex and Gender in the Ancient Near East. Actes de la XLVIIe Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale (Helsinki, 2-6 July 2001). Helsinki: Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project.

Assante, Julia. 2003. “From Whores to Hierodules: the Historiographic Invention of Mesopotamian Female Sex Professionals.” Chapter 2 (pp. 13-47) in A. A. Donohue and Mark D. Fullerton, eds. Ancient Art and its Historiography. Cambridge University Press.

Assante, Julia. 2007. “What Makes a ‘Prostitute’ a Prostitute?: Modern Definitions and Ancient Meanings.” Historiae. 4: 117-132. Alternate source.

Axton, Richard, and John E. Stevens, trans. 1971. Medieval French Plays. New York: Barnes & Noble.

Budin, Stephanie. 2008. The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Review by Deming (2010) and by Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge.

Budin, Stephanie Lynn. 2020. “Sex and Gender and Sex.” Mare Nostrum: Estudos sobre o Mediterrâneo Antigo. 11(1): 1–59

Budin, Stephanie Lynn. 2021. Freewomen, Patriarchal Authority and the Accusation of Prostitution. London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group. Review by Josué J . Justel and by Mali Skotheim.

Cooper, Jerrold S. 2006. “Prostitution.” Reallexikon der Assyriologie und Vorderasiatischen Archäologie (RlA). 11: 12–21.

Cooper, Jerrold S. 2016. “The Job of Sex: The social and economic role of prostitutes in ancient Mesopotamia.” Pp. 209-227 in Brigitte Lion and Michel Cécile, eds. The Role of Women in Work and Society in the Ancient near East. Boston: De Gruyter.

Deming, Will. 2010. “Review of The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity by Stephanie Budin.” The Journal of Religion. 90(4): 591-3.

Frazer, James George.1914. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Third Edition. Part IV. Adonis, Attis, Osiris: Studies in the History of Oriental Religion. Volume 1. Volume 2. London : Macmillan & Co.

Frazer, James George. 1922. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Abridged ed. New York: Collier Books.

Larsen, Timothy. 2014. The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Silver, Morris. 2019. Sacred Prostitution in the Ancient Greek World: From Aphrodite to Baubo to Cassandra and Beyond. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag. Excerpts: “Sacred Prostitution: Overview and Conceptual Foundations” and “Temple/Sacred Prostitution in Ancient Mesopotamia Revisited.”

Sanger, Edward, and Jan M. Ziolkowski, eds. 2022. “The Sayinges or Prouerbes of King Salomon (Modern English).” Chapter 4 (pp. 81-91) in Ziolkowski (2022).

Stadtler-Chester, Mary-Ann. 2022. “Salemon and Marcoul (Old French)” and “Old French Texts of Salemon and Marcoul.” Chapter 2 (pp. 21-65) and Appendix 3 (pp. 439-479) in Ziolkowski (2022).

Ziolkowski, Jan M. ed. 2022. Solomon and Marcolf: Vernacular Traditions. Cambridge, MA: Department of the Classics, Harvard University.

Maugalie raped Floovant in medieval chanson de geste

Amid the massive slaughter and butchery of men in the Old French “songs of deeds {chansons de geste},” rape occasionally occurs. The path to rape in the chanson de geste Floovant starts with Prince Floovant fighting on behalf of the French king Flores. Prince Floovant captured the enemy princess Maugalie. She was a young woman with jewel-like beauty. She pleaded to Floovant:

By the law of your god, have mercy!
Do not allow me to be dishonored by your men.

{ … Por lou ton deu merci!
Ne me laisiez tu pas à tes homes honir. }

Although he eagerly killed enemy men, Floovant wouldn’t allow an enemy princess to be dishonored:

“Lady-lord,” said Floovant, “for nothing you have said this.
I wouldn’t allow you to endure it for 1000 pounds of pure gold.”

{ “Dame,” dit Floovans, “por néant l’avez dit;
Je ne lou sofreroie por .M .livres d’or fin.” }

Male primates rarely sexually assault females. Like Floovant, most men wouldn’t rape even a beautiful enemy princess that they had captured in war.

King Flores’s two sons betrayed their father and Floovant. The enemy thus rescued Maugalie and captured Floovant. Floovant’s loyal squire Richier, disguised as the enemy king’s nephew, infiltrated the enemy palace to attempt to rescue Floovant. Before Richier could accomplish a rescue, the enemy also captured twelve leading French knights. Richier was playing chess with Maugalie when he heard this terrible news:

Richier left the game so as to sit himself in the dust.
The noble Maugalie, who had great beauty,
sat herself next to him. The noble one thus conducted herself —
she placed her arms about his neck so as to kiss him three times.
“Cousin,” said the young woman, “what sort of men are the French?”
“Lady-lord,” said Richier, “There will never be more valiant ones.
Three of them would fight against thirty heathens.”

{ Richiers let le joer, si s’est aulez soioir.
Maugalie la bale, qui grant bauté avoit,
De joste lui s’essit, la bale, demenois;
Ses branz li mit au coul, si l’ai baisié .III. foiz:
“Cosins,” dit la pucelle, “qués homes sont François?”
“Dame,” dit ai Richiers, “ja plus prouz n’en auroiz.
Contre .XXX. paiens s’an conbatrient .III.” }

Maugalie didn’t ask Richier for affirmative consent before she kissed him. In short, by modern academic standards, she sexually assaulted him.

Maugalie’s offensive behavior became even worse when she secretly observed Richier sympathetically visiting Floovant and the other French prisoners. Maugalie then recognized Richier as a Frenchman who had once treated her kindly when she was a prisoner. He and the other Frenchmen were now in immediate mortal danger:

He fell at her feet and cried out for mercy:
“If you wish, my lady-lord, we will not now die here.”

{ Il li chaï es piez et merci li criai:
“Se vos volez, ma dame, nos i moromsnes jai.” }

From her position of controlling life and death for them, Maugalie proposed:

“Richier,” said the young woman, “brave, praiseworthy knight,
if your feudal lord would avow fidelity
such that he would take me as wife and equal partner,
for love of him I will relinquish my god
and never in another day of my life seek to love Mahomet.
Then I will struggle to honor your heart and mind
and for him and for the others, to do your will.”

{ “Richiers,” dit la pucelle, “frans chevalier loez,
Se de ton seignour lege avoie féauté
Que il me vosit panre à moilier et à pers,
Por la sue amitié relanquirai mon dé,
Jemais jor de ma vie ne quier Maom amer;
Puis si me penerai de ton cors henorer
Et de lui et des autres, à vostre velonté.” }

Richier conveyed Maugalie’s proposal to the imprisoned Floovant and his fellow French prisoners. Floovant enthusiastically consented to Maugalie’s marriage proposal. He clearly acted under a large power differential and dire distress. In short, by modern academic standards, Maugalie subjected Floovant to marital rape.

amorous couple in Iranian ceramic

As folk wisdom teaches, what goes around, comes around. Soon after Maugalie raped Floovant, Maugalie’s father King Galeen forced her to marry the eminent knight Prince Maudaranz. Her father thus arranged for her to be raped by Maudaranz. Maugalie appealed to Richier for help. He arranged for Maugalie and the French knights to make a daring escape. In the battle during their escape, Floovant encountered Maudaranz and killed him. Maudaranz probably would have preferred to be raped.

Medieval chansons de geste don’t just narrate violence against men. They regrettably encompass rape. They depict both men raping women and women raping men. They thus at least promote progress towards an enlightened understanding of gender equality.

* * * * *

Read more:


Floovant is a chanson de geste composed by an unknown author towards the end of the twelfth century. Floovant survives, with some gaps, mainly in one manuscript: Montpellier, Bibliothèque interuniversitaire, Section Médecine, H 441, folios 1r-46r, written in the fourteenth century. Here are images of folios 19v and 20r.

Floovant’s father is the historical King Clovis I, ruler of the Franks from 509 to 511. Clovis united Gaul under his rule and founded the Merovingian dynasty. He converted to Christianity in 496 at the urging his wife Clotilde.

Floovant attracted citations and references in medieval works. Dutch, English, Icelandic, and Italian translations of Floovant were made. The Icelandic version is entitled Flovents Saga. Newth (2014) p. 10.

Maugalie expressed amorous interest in Floovant in a section of the text missing from the main manuscript, but surviving in other manuscript pages. For that additional text, Gehrt (1889). For a summary of Maugalie’s initiative and Floovant’s warm response, Juel (2007) pp. 74-5.

The quotes above are from Floovant, with the Old French text of Michelant & Guessard (1859) and my English translation, benefiting from the poetic translation of Newth (2014). The current best edition is Andolf (1941). That edition wasn’t readily available to me. The quotes above are Floovant, vv. 567-8 (By the law of your god…), 569-70 (“Lady-lord,” said Floovant…), 1472-8 (Richier left the game…), 1535-6 (He fell at her feet…), 1553-9 (“Richier,” said the young woman…).

[image] Amorous couple depicted in ceramic house. Made in twelfth or early thirteenth-century Iran. Such objects may have been wedding gifts. Preserved as accession # 20.120.66 in the Metropolitan Museum (New York). Credit: The Grinnell Collection, Bequest of William Milne Grinnell, 1920. Source image dedicated to the public domain by the public-spirited Metropolitan Museum.


Andolf, Sven, ed. 1941. Floovant: Chanson de Geste du XIIe Siècle, Publiée avec Introduction, Notes et Glossaire. Uppsala, Sweden: Almquist & Wiksell.

Gehrt, Paul. 1889. “Zwei altfranzösische Bruchstücke des Floovant.” Romanische Forschungen. 10: 248-271.

Juel, Kristin E. 2007. “The Crime and Rehabilitation of the Errant Son in Floovant.” Romania. 125(497/498, 1/2): 69-86.

Michelant, Henri and François Guessard, eds. 1859. Floovant, chanson de geste publiée pour la première fois d’après le manuscrit unique de Montpellier. Les anciens poètes de la France, 1. Paris: Jannet. Digital edition of Jean-Baptiste Camps.

Newth, Michael, trans. 2014. Heroines of the French Epic: A Second Selection of Chansons de Geste. Woobridge: D. S. Brewer.