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.


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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.

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

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