epithalamium for Sigibert: wanton king into Christian marital ideal

Fornication , adultery, and violence were prevalent among the sixth-century Merovingian elite. In 566, the Christian court poet Fortunatus wrote an erotically charged epithalamium for the marriage of the Merovingian king Sigibert and the Visigothic princess Brunhilda. Fortunatus’s epithalamium obliquely refers to Sigibert’s youthful wantonness and notably ignores intrafamilial violence. It praises Sigibert for embracing the Christian ideal of monogamous marriage within which loving, vigorous sexual relations produce children for a joyful dynasty.

Fortunatus’s epithalamium begins with natural effects of spring. The earth warms, new growth pushes up, and buds swell with the promise of fruit. Fortunatus explicitly associates birds and bees with procreation:

Sipping flowers and charming with delicate humming,
bees hide away in combs their delicious honey.
Fecund in providing progeny with a pure marriage bed,
one desires from a flower to bring forth masterful children.
Ready by obligations with love for posterity,
the twittering bird hurries, hastening toward children.
With offspring each, although old, becomes young in them.
When all thus reappear, the world has joy.

{ Praemittens flores gracili blandita susurro,
deliciosa favis mella recondit apes.
Progeniem reparans casto fecunda cubili,
artifices natos gignere flore cupit.
Nexibus apta suis pro posteritatis amore
ad fetus properans garrula currit avis.
Semine quisque suo senio iuvenescit in ipso;
omnia dum redeunt gaudia mundus habet. }[1]

Fortunatus celebrates the work of male worker bees, wrongly called drones. Moreover, with the lovely Brunhilda understood as a flower, a couplet about bees readily represents a marital ideal for Sigibert:

Fecund in providing progeny with a pure marriage bed,
one desires from a flower to bring forth masterful children.

Although directly referring to birds, the verse “ready by obligations with love for posterity” seems also to be urging Brunhilda and Sigibert to have children. In five successive verses Fortunatus uses five different words for offspring. His point is clear: the world has joy in creatures reproducing.

King Chilperic strangling his wife Queen Galsuenda in order to marry his lover Fredegunda

Fortunatus’s reference to progeny from a pure marriage bed alludes by contrast to fornication, adultery, and violence among King Sigibert’s fellow Merovingian elite. Sigibert’s father King Chlothar I had five wives and additional mistresses. His diverse sexual relations created political problems. Most prominently, a certain Gundovald claimed to be Chlothar’s illegitimate son. Gundovald’s paternity claim prompted armed conflict over royal succession in southern Gaul. Moreover, Chlothar had extramarital sex with King Theudebald’s widow Vuldetrada. Only when bishops criticized him did Chlothar end that relationship.[2]

Sigibert’s brothers also strayed far from Christian ideals of intimate love. Sigibert’s older brother King Charibert engaged in sexual relations with a broad range of women:

King Charibert married Ingoberga, with whom he had a daughter. The daughter afterwards married a husband in Kent and followed him there. At that time Ingoberga had in her service two young women who were daughters of a poor man. The first was called Marcovefa. She wore a nun’s clothes. The other was Merofled. The king was strongly taken in love for them. They were, as I said, the daughters of a wool worker. Ingoberga was jealous that the king was taken in delight by those young women. She secretly gave their father work to do, so that when the king saw it, he would hate the man’s daughters. While their father was working, she summoned the king. He expected to see something altogether novel. He saw only the father weaving the king’s wool. Upon seeing this, he stirred in anger, cast off Ingoberga, and married Merofled. He had another herder’s woman, that is the daughter of a guardian of sheep. Her name was Theodogild. By her he had a son. As soon as that son came from the womb, he was carried to the grave. … After this, Charibert united in marriage with Marcovefa, Merofled’s sister. For this reason the holy bishop Germanus excommunicated both of them.

{ Charibertus rex Ingobergam accepit uxorem, de qua filiam habuit, quae postea in Cantiam, virum accipiens, est deducta. Habebat tunc temporis Ingoberga in servitium suum duas puellas pauperis cuiusdam filias, quarum prima vocabatur Marcovefa, religiosam vestem habens; alia vero Merofledis: in quarum amore rex valde detinebatur; erant enim, ut diximus, artificis lanarii filiae. Aemula ex hoc Ingoberga, quod a rege diligerentur, patrem earum secretius operari fecit, futurum ut dum haec rex cerneret, odio filias eius haberet: quo operante vocavit regem. Ille autem sperans aliquid novi videre, aspicit hunc eminus lanas regias componentem: quod videns, commotus in ira, reliquit Ingobergam, et Merofledem accepit. Habuit et aliam puellam opilionis, id est pastoris ovium, filiam, nomine Theudechildem, de qua et fertur filium habuisse, qui ut processit ex alvo, protinus delatus est ad sepulcrum. … Posthaec Marcovefam, Merofledis scilicet sororem, coniugio copulavit. Pro qua causa a sancto Germano episcopo excommunicatus uterque est. }[3]

A king marrying a wool-worker’s daughter was irregular. Marrying both of a wool-worker’s daughters, as well as the daughter of a shepherd, was extraordinary. That’s an extreme pastoral fantasy enacted in real life.

Fredegunda and Chilperic rekindle their affair after Chilperic strangles his wife Galsuenda

King Chilperic, another of Sigibert’s older brothers, also had multiple wives and an affair with his wife’s servant. While married to Audovera, Chilperic had sexual relations with Fredegunda, who was among Audovera’s “lowest household servants {familia infima}.”[4] Chilperic regarded with envy Sigibert’s marriage to Princess Brunhilda, daughter of Visigothic king Athanagild:

When King Chilperic saw his brother’s royal marriage, although he already had many wives, he solicited Brunhilda’s sister Galsuenda. He promised through ambassadors that he would relinquish his other wives if only he could have one suitable to himself. He felt he merited to receive the offspring of a king. Her father accepted these promises. As before, the father similarly sent his daughter with great wealth. Indeed Galsuenda was older than Brunhilda. When Galsuenda came to King Chilperic, she was received with great honor. United to him in marriage, she delighted him with great love. She had bestowed upon him great treasure. But for love of Fredegunda, with whom he had sexual relations earlier, a great scandal arose among them. Galsuenda had already been made a convert to Catholic law and baptized. While complaining to the king that she was continually enduring wrongs and saying that she had no dignity living with him, she asked that she be allowed to relinquish the treasure that she had brought with her and be permitted the freedom to return to her fatherland. Dissembling with his wits, the king with soothing words calmed her. In the end, he ordered a servant boy to strangle her. The king found her dead on the pillow. … Although the king shed tears for her death, after a few days he married Fredegunda.

{ Quod videns Chilpericus rex, cum iam plures haberet uxores, sororem eius Galsuintham expetiit, promittens per legatos se alias relicturum: tantum condignam sibi, regisque prolem mereretur accipere. Pater vero eius has promissiones accipiens, filiam suam, sicut anteriorem, similiter ipsi cum magnis opibus destinavit. Nam Galsuintha aetate senior quam Brunichildis erat. Quae cum ad Chilpericum regem venisset, cum grandi honore suscepta, eiusque est sociata coniugio: a quo etiam magno amore diligebatur. Detulerat enim secum magnos thesauros. Sed per amorem Fredegundis, quam prius habuerat, ortum est inter eos grande scandalum. Iam enim in lege catholica conversa fuerat, et chrismata. Cumque se regi quereretur assidue iniurias perferre, diceretque nullam se dignitatem cum eodem habere, petiit ut relictis thesauris, quos secum detulerat, liberam redire permitteret ad patriam. Quod ille per ingenia dissimulans, verbis eam lenibus demulsit. Ad extremum eam suggillari iussit a puero, mortuamque reperit in strato. … Rex autem cum eam mortuam deflesset, post paucos dies Fredegundem recepit in matrimonio. }[5]

Fredegunda sends assassins to murder King Sigibert
assassin murders King Sigibert

Murder makes adultery even worse. Fredegunda herself arranged for the murder of her husband’s brother King Sigibert. She reportedly also attempted to have assassinated Sigibert’s wife Brunhilda, Sigibert and Brunhilda’s son Childebert II, as well as King Chilperic’s brother King Gunthram. Fredegunda even attempted to kill her own daughter Riguntha, whom she had with Chilperic:

Riguntha, Chilperic’s daughter, would also bring forward malicious charges against her mother Fredegunda. Riguntha would say that she herself was the lady-lord and that her mother should be returned to her servitude. She would harass her with many and frequent reproaches. Her mother said to her, “Why are you so troublesome to me, daughter? Here are your father’s things that I have with me. Take them, and use them as you would.” Having gone into a royal storeroom, she opened a chest containing jewels and precious ornaments. From that for a very long time she pulled out diverse things, and offered them to her daughter standing by. She said to her, “Now I’m tired of doing this. Put your hand in,” she said, “and take whatever you find.” While Riguntha was putting in her arm to take out things from the chest, her mother, having seized the chest’s lid, slammed it on her neck. With such strength she pressed the chest’s edge against Riguntha’s throat that Riguntha’s eyes were ready to crack out. One young servant-woman who was inside the room cried out with a loud voice, “Come quickly, I beg, come quickly. My lady is being violently strangled by her mother!” And the servants waiting outside for them burst into the room and pulled the young woman from imminent death and led her outside. After this, the hostilities between them spread more furiously, and they had no greater cause than following Riguntha’s adulteries. Brawls and fistfights were always associated with them.

{ Rigundis autem, filia Chilperici, cum saepius matri calumnias inferret, diceritque se esse dominam, genitricemque suam servitio redeberit, et multis eam et crebro convitiis lacesserit ac interdum pugnis se alapisque caederent, ait ad eam mater: Quid mihi molesta es, filia? Ecce res patris tui, quae penes me habentur, accipe, et utere ut libet. Et ingressa in regesto, reseravit arcam monilibus ornamentisque praetiosis refertam. De qua cum diutissime res diversas extrahens filiae adstanti porregeret, ait ad eam: Iam enim lassata sum; inmitte tu, inquid, manum et eiece quod inveneris. Cumque illa inmisso brachio res de arca abstraheret, appraehenso mater operturio arcae super cervicem eius inlisit. Quod cum in fortitudine praemeret atque gulam eius axis inferior ita adterreret, ut etiam oculi ad crepandum parati essent, exclamavit una puellarum, quae erat intrinsecus, voce magna, dicens: Currite, quaeso, currite: ecce! domina mea a genitrice sua graviter suggillatur. Et inrumpentes cellolam, qui coram foribus eorum praestulabantur adventum, erutam ab imminente interitu puellam adduxerunt foris. Post ista vero inter easdem inimicitiae vehementius pullulantes, et non de alia causa maxime, nisi quia Rigundis adulteria sequebatur, semper cum eisdem rixae et caedes erant. }[6]

Fredegunda, although persecuting her daughter Riguntha for committing adultery, allegedly herself committed adultery with Bishop Bertram of Bordeaux.[7] Women in general are no more angelic than men are. In contrast to authorities’ widely disseminated domestic-violence myths, violence between mothers and daughters has been more prevalent than violence between fathers and daughters.

Fredegunda attempting to murder her daughter Riguntha

Some Christian bishops of Sigibert’s time engaged in fornication and adultery. That was a matter of laughter to some in the court of King Gunthram, Sigibert’s older brother:

From the time when Palladius and Bertram were summoned to the king’s banquet, they roused and reproved each other about many of their adulteries and fornications, and with non-negligible perjuries also. About these matters many laughed, but a non-negligible number indeed, who were livelier in knowledge, lamented that among the Lord’s bishops the devil’s weeds should be so sprouting.

{ Nam cum iterato ad convivium regis Palladius atque Bertchramnus acciti fuissent, commoti in invicem multa sibi de adulteriis ac fornicatione exprobraverunt, nonnulla etiam de periuriis. Quibus de rebus multi ridebant, nonnulli vero, qui alacrioris erant scientiae, lamentabant, cur inter sacerdotes Domini taliter zezania diaboli pullularent. }[8]

The bishops Palladius and Bertram, apparently friends at this time, seem to have been just teasing each other at the royal banquet. One wouldn’t have to be much livelier in Christian knowledge to recognize that their behavior was seriously sinful.

According to Saint Gregory, the sixth-century Bishop of Tours, Gunthram was a relatively good king. Gunthram’s moral goodness seems to have been relative to his peers:

The good king Gunthram first subjoined Veneranda, who was his handmaid, in bed with her as his concubine. From her he had a son named Gundobad. Later he married Marcatrude, daughter of Magnachar, and transferred his son Gundobad to Orleans. However, Marcatrude was jealous of Gundobad after having a son. She contrived Gundobad’s death. She sent him, so they say, poison in a drink and thus poisoned him.

{ Gunthchramnus autem rex bonus primo Venerandam, cuiusdam suorum ancillam, pro concubina toro subiunxit; de qua Gundobadum filium suscepit. Postea vero Marcatrudem, filiam Magnarii, in matrimonium accepit. Gundobadum vero filium suum Aurilianis transmisit. Aemula autem Marcatrudis post habitum filium in huius morte crassatur; transmissum, ut aiunt, venenum in potu maedificavit. }[9]

King Gunthram founded the Church of Saint Marcellus and was buried there. After his death, his subjects acclaimed him as a saint. The Christian liturgy added a feast day for Saint Gunthram on March 28. A person doesn’t need to live a sinless life in order to become a Christian saint. Gunthram surely didn’t exemplify Christian ideals as a husband.

Queen Brunhilda judicially executed

According to Fortunatus, Gunthram’s brother Sigibert was passionately in love with Brunhilda. They weren’t heading into a marital alliance merely serving high political objectives:

The royal eminence was inflamed, not even with night’s sleep
did his heart rest. With his eyes and mind he was returning
to the face that Love had planted and exhausting his mind
with frequent, mistaken embraces, deceived by a phantom.

{ Regalis fervebat apex, nec nocte sopora
cordis erat requies, oculis animoque recurrens
ad vultus quos pinxit Amor mentemque fatigans
saepe per amplexum falsa sub imagine lusit. }[10]

These mistaken embraces with a phantom recall Aeneas’s mistaken embraces with phantoms of his wife Creusa and his father Anchises. From a Christian perspective, the sixth-century Merovingian court could be regarded as moral disaster analogous to the destruction of Troy. Fortunatus, however, insisted on prophesying good in the context of passionate love:

Sigibert loves, seized with fire for Brunhilda,
who pleases him. She is suited for bed, of mature, marriageable age,
her virginity swelling into bloom. When embraced by her husband,
she with her first fruits will please him. No injuries to her modesty
does she bear, and so she can be better called a queen.

{ Sigibercthus amans Brunichildae carpitur igne,
quae placet apta toro, maturis nubilis annis,
virginitas in flore tumens, complexa marito
primitiis placitura suis, nec damna pudoris
sustinet, unde magis pollens regina vocatur. }

Other queens of Brunhilda’s time undoubtedly weren’t virgins at the time of their marriages. Fortunatus, however, doesn’t celebrate virginity in itself. He makes clear, both implicitly and explicitly, that both Sigibert and Brunhilda will experience sexual pleasure in marriage. In this epithalamium, Venus herself attends the marriage. Venus praises Brunhilda’s beauty and addresses her as a virgin “soon to please her spouse {placitura iugali}.” As for the marital embrace, “this the virgin also desires {hoc quoque virgo cupit}.”

Sigibert himself apparently wasn’t a virgin. Fortunatus implicitly presents Sigibert as having sinned sexually as a young man. However, having matured beyond his youthful wantonness, Sigibert will now fulfill the Christian ideal of marriage:

Sigibert, created for our joy, is exulting
in making a vow. He who is now free from other loves
submits to beloved chains. With youthfulness moderating,
his chaste mind seeks marriage, restraining wantonness.
He flees to marital bonds, he in whom his age insinuates nothing.
Modest in heart, one ruler for all peoples,
to himself he confers restraints. As nature seeks,
according to marriage’s law, he is content with one woman’s embrace,
such that his love does not sin, but serving a chaste marriage bed,
restores with children the house where an heir would play.

{ Sigibercthus ovans, ad gaudia nostra creatus,
vota facit, qui nunc alieno liber amore
vincula cara subit, cuius moderante iuventa
conubium mens casta petit lasciva retundens;
ad iuga confugit cui nil sua subripit aetas.
Corde pudicus agens, rector tot gentibus unus,
et sibi frena dedit, sed quod natura requirit
lege maritali amplexu est contentus in uno,
quo non peccat amor, sed casta cubilia servans
instaurat de prole lares, ubi luserit heres. }[11]

Sigibert “at this very moment {nunc}” is free from other loves. That suggests that he enjoyed other’s women’s embraces in the past, perhaps even in the immediate past. Although still possessing youthful vigor, he has curbed his “wantonness {lasciva}.” Other men of his age, encompassing both personal lifespan and impersonal history, flee from marriage, which they associate with chains. Sigibert, however, runs for the chains of marriage. He limits himself to having sex with one woman within marriage and thus does not sin from a Christian perspective. Sigibert of course is not yet married. With his epithalamium, Fortunatus creates an other-worldly prophecy for Sigibert to fulfill.

sixth-century royal couples

Although as divorced from the reality of his time as it is from ours, Fortunatus’s epithalamium presents a marital ideal with enduring appeal. Many persons today might still aspire to the sort of marriage that Fortunatus invoked for Sigibert and Brunhilda:

May you advance, long joined in limbs and united in heart,
both equal in character, in merits and manners both equal,
each ornamenting your gender with your laudable actions.
May you encircle one another’s necks in a single embrace
and spend all your years in peaceful amusements.
May each desire what delights the other,
and both share equal health protecting your two hearts.
May one love, held firm in living union, nourish you.

May you thus celebrate again as parents your children’s wedding vows,
and may you have grandchildren, your own children’s offspring.

{ Ite diu iuncti membris et corde iugati,
ambo pares genio, meritis et moribus ambo,
sexum quisque suum pretiosis actibus ornans,
cuius amplexu sint colla conexa sub uno,
et totos placidis peragatis lusibus annos.
Hoc velit alterutrum quidquid dilexerit alter;
Aequa salus ambobus eat duo pectora servans;
unus amor vivo solidamine iunctus alescat.

Sic iterum natis celebretis vota parentes
et de natorum teneatis prole nepotes. }[12]

A scholar has described Sigibert, according to Fortunatus’s epithalamium, as a “forever young almost-fertility-god turned monogamous family man.”[13] That description implicitly derides a central aspect of Sigibert’s transformation. In Fortunatus’s epithalamium, Sigibert becomes a monogamous family man with complete joy, and he prolifically co-creates new, beloved life. In short, Sigibert lives the Christian marital ideal.

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[1] Fortunatus, Carmina 6.1, “On the lord and king Sigibert {De domno Sigiberctho rege},” vv. 7-14, Latin text from Roberts (2017), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. Here’s a French translation. Subsequent quotes above from Fortunatus’s Carmina are similarly sourced. Leo (1881) provides a freely available Latin edition of Fortunatus’s poems. Leo’s Latin edition differs little from Roberts’s Latin edition.

Sigibert I became king of the Frankish kingdom of Austrasia in 561 when his father King Chlothar I died. Sigibert married Princess Brunhilda, daughter of Visigothic king Athanagild, in Metz in 566.

[2] Clothar I, also known in English as Clotaire and Lothar, united Frankish lands to become King of the Franks from 558 to his death in 561. Clothar was simultaneously married to five women: Guntheuc, Radegund, Ingund, Aregund, and Chunsina. Ingund was the mother of Sigibert and his brothers Charibert and Gunthram. Chilperic was the son of Clothar and Aregund.

On the paternity of Gundovald / Gondovald, Widdowson (2008). On Clothar’s relationship with Theudebald’s widow Vuldetrada, Gregory of Tours, Ten Books of Histories {Decem Libri Historiarum}, also known as History of the Franks {Historia Francorum}, 4.9.

[3] Gregory of Tours, Ten Books of Histories {Decem Libri Historiarum} 4.26, Latin edition of Krusch (1951), my English translation, benefiting from that of Thorpe (1973) and Brehaut (1916). The Latin edition of Migne (1849) is readily available in Patrologia Latina 71, columns 159 – 572. Subsequent quotes from Decem Libri Historiarum are similarly sourced.

Gregory’s elevation to Bishop of Tours in 573 was irregular and surprising. He was neither well-known nor highly regarded in Tours, a major city of Gaul. However, Gregory gained the support of Aegidius (Egidius), Bishop of Reims, and Radegund, who married King Chlothar I and later became abbess of the Abbey of the Holy Cross at Poitiers. King Sigibert and Queen Brunhilda also supported Gregory for Bishop of Tours: “Applauding Sigibert, and Brunhilda as well, favors him to this honor {Huic Sigibercthus ovans favet et Brunichildis honori}.” Fortunatus, Carmina 5.3.15, “To the citizens of Tours about Bishop Gregory {Ad cives Turonicos de Gregorio episcopo}.” Apparently in violation of Gallic church law, Gregory was consecrated Bishop of Tours in Rheims rather than Tours. Van Dam (1993) p. 64. Gregory’s position at Tours was initially tenuous. He strengthened his position through skillful use of saints and the support of his mother Armentaria. Id. pp. 65-8; Dailey (2015) pp. 23-4.

[4] Wemple (1981) p. 56, citing The Book of the History of the Franks {Liber historiae francorum}, an eighth-century chronicle. Fredegunda and Brunhilda are also known as Fredegund and Brunhild, respectively. More generally, medieval Frankish names are not well-standardized in English.

[5] Decem Libri Historiarum 4.28. King Chilperic married Fredegunda in 567. Wemple (1981) p. 56. He thus was married to Galsuenda (Galswintha) for less than a year.

[6] Decem Libri Historiarum 9.34. Of course interpersonal violence throughout history has been predominantely violence against men. Both women and men are responsible for social conditions that sustain violence against men.

[7] Leudast, Count of Tours, accused Bertram and Fredegunda of committing adultery. Leudast attributed that information to Gregory of Tours. In synod at Berny-Rivière in August, 580, Gregory denied under oath that he had made an accusation of adultery against Bertram and Fredegunda. Decem Libri Historiarum 5.47, 5.49, and 8.9; Shanzer (2015) pp. 678-81.

Gregory accused Leudast himself of repeated, egregious adultery:

Yet Leudast was often caught in committing adultery in the holy side-chapel itself. The queen, undoubtedly disturbed that a place consecrated to God should be so polluted, ordered him to be ejected from the holy church.

{ Sed et in adulteriis saepe infra ipsam sanctam porticum deprehensus est. Commota autem regina, quod scilicet locus Deo sacratus taliter pollueretur, iussit eum a basilica sancti eici. }

Decem Libri Historiarum 5.49.

[8] Decem Libri Historiarum 8.7. This banquet occurred in 585. Bertram was Bishop of Bordeaux, and Palladius, Bishop of Saintes. Both supported Gundavold’s paternity claim on King Clothar I. Gunthram, recognized as a legitimate son of King Clothar, opposed Gundavold’s paternity claim. Decem Libri Historiarum 8.2. Bertram and Palladius, allies in supporting Gundovold in 585, subsequently became bitter enemies. Decem Libri Historiarum 8.22. On this banquet and the relationships between the persons, Shanzer (2015) pp. 675-6.

[9] Decem Libri Historiarum 4.25.

[10] Fortunatus, Carmina 6.1, vv. 43-6. The subsequent three quotes above are from id. vv. 51-5 (Sigibert loves…), 100 (soon to please her spouse), 56 (this the virgin also desires).

Gregory of Tours described Sigibert’s pursuit of marriage to Brunhilda:

After King Sigibert saw that his brothers had been accepting wives unworthy of themselves, and to their debasement associating in marriage with women-servants, he sent an embassy to Spain. With many gifts he asked for Brunhilda, daughter of King Athanagild. This young woman was elegant in her work, lovely in looks, honorable and proper in behavior, prudent in advice-giving, and pleasant in conversation. Her father did not refuse the marriage, and the previously mentioned king sent her with great treasure. Sigibert gathered to himself the elders, prepared banquets, and with immense happiness and joy married her. And although she was subjected to law of Arian Christianity, by the bishops’ preaching and by the king’s admonition, she converted, believed in the unity of the blessed Trinity, and was baptised. She persevered as a Catholic in the name of Christ.

{ Porro Sigyberthus rex cum videret, quod fratres eius indignas sibimet uxores acciperent, et per vilitatem suam etiam ancillas in matrimonio sociarent, legationem in Hispaniam mittit et cum multis muneribus Brunichildem, Athanagilde regis filiam petiit. Erat enim puella elegans opere, venusta aspectu, honesta moribus atque decora, prudens consilio et blanda colloquio. Quam pater eius non denegans, cum magnis thesauris antedicto rege transmisit. Ille vero, congregatus senioribus secum, praeparatis aepulis, cum inminsa laetitia atque iocunditate eam accepit uxorem. Et quia Arrianae legi subiecta erat, per praedicationem sacerdotum, atque ipsius regis commonitionem conversa, beatam in unitate confessa Trinitatem credidit atque chrismata est. Quae in nomine Christi catholica perseverat. }

Decem Libri Historiarum 4.27. Marriage among the Merovingian elite focused on the status issues of central pragmatic concern in modern “romantic” love:

Good relations with their neighbors could lead to a marriage between them, but marriage was not the precursor to peace and cooperation. Rather, marriage with prestigious foreign kings, princes and princesses served to enhance the royal status of the Merovingians. This is why discussions of the foreign marriages of the Merovingians in the sources reveal a strong emphasis on wealth, status, royal blood, character and beauty rather than alliances, treaties, and peace.

Crisp (2003) abstract, p. iii, similarly, p. 223. Cf. Dailey (2015) Chapters 4-5.

[11] Fortunatus, Carmina 6.1, vv. 27-36. The Latin verbs subrepo / surrepo {to creep or insinuate} and subripio / surripio {to purloin} are often confused in Latin texts of late antiquity. Gil (1984) p. 189. In Carmina 6.1.31, “cui nil sua subripit aetas,” id. reads a form of subrepo. I follow that reading. Other translations: “his youth exercises no allure,” Roberts (2017) p. 351; “he whose age stole nothing from him,” George (1995) p. 27.

These verses have been superficially interpreted. With much influence from Gregory of Tours, they have been read as meaning that Sigibert “deliberately shunned the casual liaisons of his brothers.” George (1995) p. 25; similarly, id. p. 130, citing Decem Libri Historiarum 4.27. A more perceptive reading suggests “Fortunatus may have lightly touched on previous entanglements of Sigibert’s in his epithalamium (C. 6.1.28 qui nunc alieno liber amore).” Shanzer (2015) p. 680. While Fortunatus is writing with a light touch, he communicates in numerous ways Sigibert’s youthful sexual promiscuity and more generally the Merovingian elite’s failings relative to Christian sexual morality.

Fortunatus’s Carmina 6.1 appears to be an example of figured speech. Practice of “figured speech {oratio figurata / λόγος ἐσχηματισμένος}” appears in Fortunatus’s Carmina 9.1 (“To King Chilperic {Ad Chilpericum regem}”). Shanzer (2015) pp. 677-86. On the classical practice of figured speech more generally, Howell (2017).

Carmina 6.1 is an epithalamium in the “true classical tradition.” George (1995) p. 25, n. 1. For Fortunatus, it’s “among his most classical works … similar to epithalamiums by Claudian, Ruricus, and Sidonius.” Williard (2016) p. 209. The first 24 verses of Carmina 6.1 are in Fortunatus’s typical elegiac couplets. The remaining 119 verses are in hexameter, “the traditional meter in late antiquity for epithalamium.” Roberts (2017) p. 863, note to 6.1.25. The poem features the traditional Roman love gods Cupid and Venus, as well as classical characterization of lovesickness. Fortunatus, a Christian in the Christian Merovingian court, doesn’t mention Christ and the Christian church at all. Both Sigibert’s previous wantonness and the Christian marital ideal are implicit.

[12] Fortunatus, Carmina 6.1, vv. 132-9, 142-3. On how this Christian marital ideal related to classical ideals of marriage, Williard (2016) pp. 209-16. Scholars have scarcely taken seriously Roman men’s subservience to their wives and the understandable reluctance of Roman men to marry. Of course, ignorance and myth-making concerning men’s gender position is currently enormous.

Both Fortunatus and Gregory of Tours depicted Brunhilda highly favorably. For Fortunatus writing specifically about Brunhilda, Carmina Appendix 6, “On Queen Brunhilda {De Brunichilde regina}.” For commentary on that poem, Williard (2016) pp. 205-7. Other historical sources present Brunhilda as thoroughly wicked. Thomas (2012). Gregory of Tours, however, drew a stark contrast between the good Brunhilda and the wicked Fredegunda. Hemmer (2013) pp. 22-49; Dailey (2015) Chapters 6-7. Although probably less so than academics in Westernized societies today, Gregory of Tours faced constraints on what he could write and wrote with concern for his own personal interests. Yet unlike much academic work today, Gregory wrote with complex rhetoric and subtle patterning. Wood (1993).

[13] Herschend (2018) p. 13. As early as 1981, one can perceive anti-meninism tainting scholarly understanding of intimate heterosexual relations in Merovingian Gaul. Consider this claim:

The combination of the Germanic polygyny and the Roman institution of concubinage gave almost complete license to men to be promiscuous, furthered male dominance, and accentuated sexual double standards in Merovingian society. As long as there were no strict requirements for the legalization of unions and the legitimization of children, polygyny continued unabated in the royal family.

Wemply (1981) p. 38. Men’s sexuality has typically been regulated more harshly than women’s sexuality, and punishment for adultery has typically been gender-biased against men. Scholars writing about gender historically should test their understanding on their own societies in their own time by asking the following questions: why do men lack reproductive choice of the sort championed for women and why do men have to endure forced financial fatherhood? Why have cheap DNA paternity tests not been used to eliminate fundamental gender inequality in parental knowledge?

More recent scholarship has rejected the existence of Merovingian polygyny while ignoring Fortunatus’s implicit critique of the Merovingian elite’s sexual behavior. Consider this scholarly program:

we will challenge the hypothesis that Merovingian kings practiced polygamy (or more specifically, polygyny) — a theory built upon an overly credulous approach to the stories in Book IV of the Histories {by Gregory of Tours}. Certainly, the Merovingians fell short of Gregory’s monogamous ideal, marrying several wives over the course of their lifetimes and keeping concubines as well. But they did so as part of a coherent, reasoned policy that used the exclusivity associated with the status of ‘wife’ to define the position of the ‘queen’. With some justification, Gregory criticised the Merovingians’ approach for leading to political instability and civil war, but he took his critique to excess, and it is doubtful that his alternative — uncompromising monogamy — stood a chance at improving matters.

Dailey (2015) p. 101 (program for id., Chapter 5). Consider Dailey’s claim in relation to Fortunatus’s Carmina 6.1. Fortunatus wrote Carmina 6.1 in 566, seven years before Gregory at age thirty-four was appointed Bishop of Tours. Gregory probably wrote the first four books of his Decem Libri Historiarum from 576 to 580. The subsequent six books probably were composed about 587-93. Smith (2010) pp. 65-6. This chronology implies that long before Gregory of Tours wrote Decem Libri Historiarum, Fortunatus apparently regarded the Christian marital ideal as likely to improve matters for Sigibert, Brunhilda, and their Austrasian realm. In inferring “coherent, reasoned policy” in Merovingian elite sexual relations, Dailey fails to account for Fortunatus’s implicit critique in Carmina 6.1.

[images] (1) King Chilperic strangling Queen Galsuenda. Illustration from the Great Chonicles of France {Grandes Chroniques de France}, made about 1375-79. From folio 31r in Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), Français 2813. Image on Wikimedia Commons. (2) Fredegunda and King Chilperic rekindle their affair after Chilperic strangles his wife Queen Galsuenda. Excerpt from painting titled “Fredegund and Chilperic.” Painted by Auguste Couder about 1826. Preserved in Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Orléans (Orléans, France). Source image via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Fredegunda sends assassins to murder King Sigibert. Excerpt from painting titled “Fredegund distributes daggers.” Painted by Emmanuel Herman Joseph Wallet in the nineteenth century. Preserved as accession number 2419 in Musée de la Chartreuse de Douai (Douai, France). Source image via Wikimedia Commons. (4) Assassin murders King Sigibert. Illustration from Grandes Chroniques de France. From folio 33v in BnF, Français 2813. Image on Wikimedia Commons. (5) Fredegunda attempting to murder her daughter Riguntha. Image from De Witt (1887) p. 27. Image on Wikimedia Commons. (6) Queen Brunhilda judicially executed. Illustration from Grandes Chroniques de France. From folio 60v in BnF, Français 2813. Here are another medieval illustration of Brunhilda’s execution, and a modern painting. (7) Royal couples in discussion. Illustration from Grandes Chroniques de France. From folio 15v in BnF, Français 2813.


Brehaut, Ernest, trans. 1916. Gregory of Tours. History of the Franks. Selections, translated with notes. New York: Columbia University Press. Alternate presentation.

Crisp, Ryan Patrick. 2003. Marriage and Alliance in the Merovingian Kingdoms, 481-639. Ph.D. Thesis, Ohio State University.

Dailey, E. T. 2015. Queens, Consorts, Concubines: Gregory of Tours and Women of the Merovingian Elite. Leiden: Brill.

De Witt, Henriette, née Guizot. 1887. Vieilles histoires de la Patrie. Paris: Librairie Hachette.

George, Judith W., trans. 1995. Venantius Fortunatus: Personal and Political Poems. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Gil, Juan Fernández. 1984. “Interpretaciones Latinas.” Habis. 15: 185-200. Alternate source.

Hemmer, Richard. 2013. A woman’s life in Gregory of Tours’ Histories. M. Phil. Thesis, University of Vienna.

Herschend, Frands. 2018. “How Norse Is Skírnismál? – a Comparative Case Study.” The Journal of Archaeology and Ancient History. 23: 1-44.

Howell, Justin R. 2017. The Pharisees and Figured Speech in Luke-Acts. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. Review by Jonathan Thiessen.

Krusch, Bruno, ed. 1951. Gregorii Episcopi Turonensis Historiarum Libri X. Pp. 1­-537 in Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores rerum Merovingicarum 1.1. Second edition (first, 1884). Hannover: Hahnian Library.

Leo, Friedrich, ed. 1881. Venanti Fortunati Opera Poetica (Pars Prior), Venanti Fortunati Opera Pedestria (Pars Posterior). Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Auctores Antiquissimi IV. Berlin: Weidmann. Another copy.

Roberts, Michael, ed and trans. 2017. Venantius Fortunatus. Poems. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 46. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Reviews by Hope Williard and by Lionel Yaceczko.

Shanzer, Danuta. 2015. “Capturing Merovingian Courts: a Literary Perspective.” Pp. 667-699 in Le Corti nel’ Alto Medioevo. Settimane di Studio della Fondazione Centro Italiano di Studi sull’alto Medioevo, 72. Spoleto, 24-29 April 2014. Spoleto, Italy: Fondazione Centro Italiano di Studi sull’alto Medioevo.

Smith, Adrian. 2010. The ‘Prehistory’ of Gregory of Tours: An Analysis of Books I-IV of Gregory’s Histories. MPhil Thesis, University of York, UK.

Thomas, Emma Jane. 2012. The ‘second Jezebel’: representations of the sixth-century Queen Brunhild. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Glasgow.

Thorpe, Lewis, trans. 1974. Gregory of Tours: The History of the Franks. Harmondsworth Middlesex England: Penguin Books.

Van Dam, Raymond. 1993. Saints and Their Miracles in Late Antique Gaul. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press. 

Wemple, Suzanne Fonay. 1981. Women in Frankish Society: Marriage and the Cloister, 500 to 900. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Widdowson, Marc. 2008. “Gundovald, ‘Ballomer’ and the Problems of Identity.” Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire. 86(3-4): 607-622.

Williard, Hope Deejune. 2016. Friendship in the Works of Venantius Fortunatus. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Leeds, UK.

Wood, Ian N. 1993. “The secret histories of Gregory of Tours.” Revue belge de Philologie et d’Histoire. 71-2: 253-270.

In rosa vernat lilium: unity in diversity of order, sex, and season

In the scientific classification of plants, roses and lilies belong to different taxonomic orders. Biologists categorize humans by sex chromosomes or by gamete size as female and male. Most persons readily distinguish the celestial bodies sun and moon, the environmental qualities darkness and light, and the seasons winter and spring. Nonetheless, the medieval song Within a rose blooms a lily {In rosa vernat lilium} asserts unity in diversity across these categories.

In rosa vernat lilium is attested in its earliest manuscripts as a conductus, a type of non-liturgical Christian sacred song cultivated in northern France between 1160 and 1250. This conductus probably was composed about 1200. It’s written for two voices in an early form of polyphonic music. Scholars have mainly considered it in the context of early European polyphonic music.[1] Its text, which seems to have been written to celebrate Christmas, deserve more attention.

In rosa vernat lilium provides a poignant witness to medieval belief in unity in diversity. The poem unites natural differences:

Within a rose blooms a lily —
a flower within a flower flourishing.
When a young daughter gives birth to a son,
in the darkness shines
a light without darkness.
In the hidden recesses of her flesh,
the true day dawns.

{ In rosa vernat lilium
Flos in flore florescit
Dum nata parit filium
In tenebris lucescit
Lux sine tenebris
In carnis latebris
Vera dies diescit }[2]

In early Christian imagery, the (red) rose was associated blood and martyrs, and the (white) lily with chastity and virgins. For Christians, the Virgin Mary is the preeminent virgin, and the crucified Christ, the preeminent martyr. However, the fifth-century poet Caelius Sedulius figured Mary as a rose:

And just as a tender rose arises from sharp thorns,
having nothing that would hurt, and covers its mother with honor,
so from the root-stock of Eve comes holy Mary,
a new virgin to expiate the wrong of the ancient virgin.

{ Et velut e spinis mollis rosa surgit acutis
Nil quod laedat habens matremque obscurat honore:
Sic Evae de stirpe sacra veniente Maria
Virginis antiquae facinus nova virgo piaret }[3]

In rosa vernat lilium expands upon Sedulius’s imagery to have Christ the lily arise from the rose Mary. A rose arising from thorns is a natural image of a rosebush. A lily arising from a rose, in contrast, is a combination of categorically different flowers. Nonetheless, within this conductus, a lily arising from a rose is no more unnatural than a male being born from a female. The combination of darkness and light in the conductus similarly unites a difference expressed in John 1:5:

And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

{ et lux in tenebris lucet et tenebrae eam non conprehenderunt

καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν }[4]

In rosa vernat lilium emphasizes reversal of contradiction, the abolition of categorical difference, and the impossible happening. It’s the wonder of Christmas and the “laughter of Easter {risus paschalis}.”

golden rose that Pope Leo XII presented to Caroline Augusta, Empress of Austria

In rosa vernat lilium affirms mutuality with difference, rather than subordination. The sun and moon are very different celestial bodies. In traditional Greco-Roman religion, sun and moon were associated with much different male and female gods.[5] Nonetheless, like woman and man in the Christian marital ideal, sun and moon in this conductus affirm and strengthen each other:

From the moon flashes forth the sun’s
brightening ray.
The moon, never waning,
shows the sun to the world.
When this sun is joined with the moon,
neither suffers an eclipse,
but each shines more than ever.

{ Ex luna solis emicat
Radius elucescens;
Mundanis solem indicat
Luna nunquam decrescens;
Hic sol dum lune iungitur,
Neuter eclipsim patitur,
Sed est plusquam nitescens }

In medieval poetry, love transforms seasons from their normal character. In this conductus, the mother Mary similarly creates spring in winter:

In time of winter
spring blooms beyond nature.
From a worthy body
a mother spreads a worthy fragrance.
O reward of spring!
Sadness of winter
flees from the true flower.

{ In hiemali tempore
Ver vernat ultra morem;
Dignum de digno corpore
Mater fudit odorem.
O veris premium:
Hiemis tedium
Ad verum fugit florem. }

The Christian church is centered on the woman Mary, the true flower. She is the model for all seeking to incarnate Christ, a fully masculine man, in themselves. In rosa vernat lilium is completely inconsistent with men’s subordination to women. Men are categorically different from women, but united equally with women as human persons.

In our benighted age of ignorance and bigotry, the humane subtlety of medieval understanding can scarcely be understood. Consider, for example, The Nativity Story, a mass-market, American-made film distributed to theaters in 2006. The Nativity Story retells the biblical story of Christmas. Mychael Danna’s score for the film includes a Latin song beginning “In rosa vernat lilium”:

Within a rose blooms a lily —
a flower within a flower flourishing
according to God’s plan.
The true day dawns.

From the moon flashes forth the sun’s
brightening ray.
It shows the manger —
a star never waning.

{ In rosa vernat lilium
Flos in flore florescit
Secundum Dei consilium.
Vera dies diescit.

Ex luna solis emicat
Radium elucescens;
Et praesepium indicat.
Stella numquam decrescens. }[6]

From the unity in diversity of the original conductus, only the image of a lily springing forth from a rose has survived. The adaptation inserted conventional references to God’s plan and the Christmas manger. The adaptation eliminated the wondrous unities of the medieval conductus: sexes, seasons, darkness and light, sun and moon. The adaptation should be credited with aspiring to medieval cultural heights, yet it falls far short. Alas for the loss of enlightenment!

With In rosa vernat lilium, medieval European culture expressed in a sophisticated way unity in diversity. That important idea has drowned in meaningless words. Men will not achieve equality with women until unity in diversity is meaningfully understood.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Concerning In rosa vernat lilium as a conductus in the context of sacred music, Crocker (1966), Anderson (1976-88), Falck (1981), and Mazzeo (2015). Everist (2018) provides broader analysis of conductus, but no analysis of In rosa vernat lilium specifically.

In rosa vernat lilium survives in five manuscripts. See its entry in CPI Conductus / Cantum Pulcriorem Invenire {To find a more beautiful song} Conductus. The earliest manuscript in which it survives is Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Guelf. 628 Helmst (W1), written in the 1230s. It also survives in Bodleian Library, MS. Add. A. 44 (The Bekynton Anthology), written early in the thirteenth century; and Florence, Biblioteca Mediceo Laurenziana, Pluteo 29.1, written in the 1240s. On dating conductus, Mazzeo (2015) pp. 152-207.

The sequence beginning “From the golden flower of the first mother, Eve, came forth the flowering rose like the sun {Aureo flore prime matris eue florens rosa processit sicut sol}” dates from no later than the tenth century. Boynton (1994) p. 25. In rosa vernat lilium may have existed earlier as a hymn before it became a conductus.

The rose and lily have long been important Christian symbols. They have typically been associated with types of virtues:

The grouping of diverse virtues with violets, roses, and lilies originated in non-Marian contexts, such as Ambrose’s commentary on the Gospel of Luke. Within a Christological exposition of Luke 12.27, Ambrose introduced the hortus clausus of the Song of Songs, “where integrity, chastity, devotion…is, there the violets of confessors, the lilies of virgins, the roses of martyrs are.” Gregory the Great, in one of his homilies on the prophet Ezechiel, expands the characterization of the three flowers and links them more immediately to the virtues. Gregory associates the lily with virginity and links the violet to the humble, who “preserve the purple of the celestial kingdom in their mind.” Jerome also associates the flowers with virtues.

Boynton (1994) p. 33, footnotes omitted. The early sixteenth-century Litany of Loreto calls to Mary as a “Mystical Rose {Rosa Mystica}.”

[2] In rosa vernat lilium / In rosa uernat lilium, stanza 1 (of 3), Latin text from Anderson (1976-88) vol. 3, pp. 78-82, my Latin translation, benefiting from the English translation of id. For an earlier Latin edition, Dreves (1895) p. 69 (song 46). For an alternate English translation, Crocker (1966) pp. 81-2. The subsequent two quotes from In rosa vernat lilium are stanzas 2 and 3, respectively, and are similarly sourced.

[3] Caelius Sedulius, Easter Song {Carmen paschale} 2.28-31, Latin text from Huemer (1885), my English translation. For the current best edition and translation, Springer (2013). For a freely available, partial English translation of Carmen paschale, Sigerson (1922). For Carmen paschale 2.28, Sedulius seems to have adapted Virgil, Eclogue 5.39: “the thistle and spine-shrub arise with sharp thorns {carduus et spinis surgit paliurus acutis}.” On Sedulius’s sources in figuring Mary, Heider (1918) pp. 65-7.

The beloved of the Song of Solomon is like a lily among thorns. Song of Solomon 2:2. In Christian literature, thorns have regrettably been used as a metaphor disparaging men’s sexuality. Isaiah prophesied a savior springing forth from the stump of Jesse. Isaiah 11:1.

[4] John 1:5, from the Blue Letter Bible. The Latin text, provided for comparison with that of the conductus, is from Jerome’s Vulgate.

[5] On sun and moon in traditional Greco-Roman religion and Christian understanding, Rahner (1957), Chapter 4.

[6] Mychael Danna, soundtrack for The Nativity Story (2006), Latin text from LyricsTranslate, my English translation. Danna’s soundtrack is generally regarded highly. Here’s Jonathan Broxton’s review.

[images] (1) Golden rose that Pope Leo XII presented to Caroline Augusta, Empress of Austria. Made by Giuseppe and Pietro Paolo Spagna in Rome about 1818-19. Source image by Dennis Jarvis (from Halifax, Canada) via Wikimedia Commons. Here are other images of this golden rose. Popes bless a golden rose on the third Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday) and occasionally give them as a gifts to eminent persons. (2) In Rosa Vernat Lilium by Mychael Danna from the original motion picture score for The Nativity Story. Via YouTube.


Anderson, Gordon A. 1976-88. Notre-Dame and Related Conductus: Opera Omnia. Henryville, PA, Institute of Mediaeval Music.

Boynton, Susan. 1994. “Rewriting the Early Sequence: Aureo Flore and Aurea Virga.” Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies. 25(1): 21-41. Alternate source.

Crocker, Richard L. 1966. A History of Musical Style. St. Louis, N.J: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Dreves, Guido Maria, ed. 1895. Cantiones et Muteti: Lieder und Motetten des Mittelalters. Analecta hymnica medii aevi, volume 20. Leipzig: O. R. Reisland.

Everist, Mark. 2018. Discovering Medieval Song: Latin Poetry and Music in the Conductus. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Falck, Robert. 1981. The Notre Dame Conductus: A Study of the Repertory. Henryville, PA: Institute of Mediaeval Music.

​Heider, Andrew B. 1918. The Blessed Virgin Mary in Early Christian Latin Poetry. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America. Alternate source.

Huemer, Johannes, ed. 1885. Sedulius, Opera Omnia. Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, 10. Vienna: C. Gerold.

Mazzeo, Jacopo. 2015. The Two-Part Conductus: Morphology, Dating and Authorship. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Southampton, UK.

Rahner, Hugo. 1957. Griechische Mythen in Christlicher Deutung. Rhein-Verlag AG. Translated by Brian Battershaw (1963). Greek Myths and Christian Mystery. New York: Harper & Row.

Sigerson, George. 1922. Sedulius. The Easter Song: Being the First Epic of Christendom. Dublin: Talbot Press.

Springer, Carl P. E., ed. and trans. 2013. Sedulius. The Paschal Song and Hymns. Writings from the Greco-Roman World, volume 35. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature. Introduction.

from ancient scribes to the misery of literary writers

About four thousand years ago in the Mesopotamian Third Dynasty of Ur, kings established schools with rigid curricula and strict discipline to train young persons to be scribes. Writing thus developed as a practice serving rulers. Over time, highly intelligent scribes expanded their scope of activity and became influential not only in copying texts but also in shaping royal and religious law.[1] Writers have seldom made a living from creative literary work. Writers throughout history have primarily been rewarded materially for serving mundane needs of the powerful and wealthy, as well as praising them.

ancient Sumerian seal in which two goddesses lead man in worship of king

The scribal schools of the Third Dynasty of Ur were run like modern military boot camps. A scribal supervisor explained to a young scribe-student his path to success:

I just did whatever my mentor outlined for me — everything was always in its place. Only a fool would have deviated from his instructions. He guided my hand on the clay and kept me on the right path. He made me eloquent with words and gave me advice. He focused my eyes on the rules which guide a man with a task. Zeal is proper for a task. Time-wasting is taboo. Anyone who wastes time on his task is neglecting his task.

{ jic ma-an-hur-ra na-an-dim2 ki-bi-ce3 al-jar-jar
na de5-ga-ni-ta lu2 hu-ru-um cu bar dib-ba-e
im-ma cu-ju10 si ba-ni-in-sa2 us2 zid mu-un-dab5
ka-ju10 inim-ma jal2 ba-ni-in-taka4 ad gi4-gi4 ma-an-pad3
jic-hur lu2 a2 aj2-ja2 si sa2-e igi ma-ni-in-si-si
gu2 zi-zi-i ha-la a2 aj2-ja2-kam ud zal-le nij2-gig-ga
lu2 ki a2 aj2-ja2-ni-ce3 ud zal-la a2 aj2-ja2-ni ab-taka4 }[2]

Scribal-school students learned to follow instructions and defer to authority:

The man in charge of the courtyard, says: “You all enter,” and they will enter.
After he says: “You all sit,” they sit down.
If a tablet inspection is to be carried out,
the scribal-school pupil makes his saršuba exercise and his muguba exercise
available to him on the obverse of his tablet.

{ lu₂ kisal-la₂-ke₄ ku₄-ra-en-ze₂-en u₃-bi₂-du₁₁ ba-an-ku₄-ku₄-de₃-eš
dur₂-ru-ba-an-ze₂-en u₃-ba-e-du₁₁ ba-dur₂-ru-ne-ne
tukum-bi dub-e igi bi₂-ib₂-KARA₂.KARA₂
dumu e₂-dub-ba-a sar-šub-ba-ni u₃ mu-gub-ba-ni
igi dub-ba-na-ka an-na-ŋal₂ }[3]

A student explained that physical punishment enforced school rules:

I must not arrive late, otherwise my master would hit me!

“Here you have skipped a line,” he said, and he hit me.

The man enforcing rules said to me, “You! You looked into the street and your clothing is not fitted to your chest!” And he hit me.
The man maintaining silence said to me, “Why do you speak without my permission?” And he hit me.
The bird-feather man said to me, “Why don’t you stand up straight?” And he hit me.
The man in charge of the models said to me, “Why did you get up without my permission?” And he hit me.
The man in charge of the gate said to me, “Why did someone go out without my permission?” And he hit me.
The man in charge of the ceramic container said to me, “Why did you take clay without my permission?” And he hit me.
The man in charge of Sumerian said to me, “We spoke in Akkadian!” And he hit me.

{ u₄ na-ab-zal-e-en um-mi-a-ŋu₁₀ mu-un-duda-de₃-en

mu im-ta-ku₅-da-aš e-še in-duda-de₃-en

lu₂ ta₃-ta₃-ge-da-ke₄ sila-a igi-ni i-ni-in-bar tu₉ gaba-zu nu-ub-bu-us₂ e-še in-duda-de₃-en

lu₂ si tur-ke₄ a-na-še-am₃ ŋa₂-da nu-me-a ka ib₂-ba-e e-še in-duda-de₃-en
lu₂ pa mušen-na-ke₄ a-na-še-am₃ gu₂ zi nu-mu-e-zi e-še in-duda-de₃-en
lu₂ ŋeš-ḫur-ra-ke₄ a-na-še-am₃ ŋa₂-da nu-me-a i₃-zi-ge-en e-še in-duda-de₃-en
lu₂ ka₂-na-ke₄ a-na-še-am₃ ŋa₂-da nu-me-a ib₂-ta-e₃ e-še in-duda-de₃-en
lu₂ duglaḫtan-na-ke₄ a-na-še-am₃ ŋa₂-da nu-me-a im šu ba-e-ti e-še in-duda-de₃-en
lu₂ eme-gi₇-ra-ke₄ eme-uri bi₂-in-du₁₁ e-še in-duda-de₃-en }[4]

Students were also physically abused for poor scribal performance:

My master said to me, “Your hand is terrible!” And he hit me.

{ um-mi-a-ŋu₁₀ šu-zu nu-sa₆-sa₆ e-še in-duda-de₃-en }

“Beatings will continue until your handwriting improves” probably isn’t propitious pedagogy, especially if students are struck on their hands. Like the gender protrusion among young persons foregoing college education, the educational process can create problems that education is thought to solve.

The development of the scribal profession could have appreciated men’s penises relative to swords. Scribes used their hands skillfully and at length. A scribe’s member was crucial for his work:

A scribe without a hand is like a singer without a throat.

{ dub-sar cu nu-a nar jili3 nu-a }[5]

An ancient Sumerian proverb disparaging a scribe implicitly uses a stylus as a metaphor for a penis:

You may be a scribe on top, but you are no man beneath.

{ dub-sar an-ta-me-en lu2 ki-ta nu-me-en }[6]

Such a scribe apparently was effectively castrated. Men intimately, lovingly embracing women uses their penises to contribute vitally to new life. Scribal work is a much more humane metaphor for men’s sexuality than are dominant, brutalizing images of weapons and war. Regrettably, the sword prevailed over the pen and the penis.

Scribes became associated with women. Sumerian texts concerning the scribal profession typically conclude by honoring the ancient Mesopotamian goddess of writing:

Praise be to Nisaba!

{ dnisaba za₃-mim }[7]

The goddess Nisaba was regarded as the most important scribe:

Good woman, chief scribe of An, record-keeper of Enlil,
wise sage of the gods!

{ munus zid dub-sar mah an-na saj-tun3 den-lil2-la2
gal-zu igi-jal2 dijir-re-e-ne }[8]

Enlil was the nominal chief deity of the Sumerian pantheon. As record-keeper for Enlil, Nisaba fixed in clay the law, assets, and worship of divinities. She was thus enormously powerful. Other scribes were also women, but not all women in ancient Babylon were regarded as divinities.[9] However, successful scribes were generally like women in their relation to rulers.

You who speak as sweet as honey, you whose name suits the mouth, you longed-for husband of Inana, to whom Enki gave broad wisdom as a gift! Nisaba, the woman radiant with joy, the true woman, the scribe, the lady who knows everything, guides your fingers on the clay. She makes them put beautiful wedges on the tablets and adorns them with a golden stylus. Nisaba generously bestowed upon you the measuring rod, the surveyor’s gleaming line, the yardstick, and the tablets that confer wisdom.

{ ka lal3-gin7 dug3 mu ka-ge du7
cag4-ge de6-a dam dinana
den-ki-ke4 jectug2 dajal saj-e-ec rig7-ga
dnisaba munus ul-la gun3-a
munus zid dub-sar nin nij2-nam zu
si-zu im-ma si ba-ni-in-sa2
cag4 dub-ba-ka gu-cum2 mi-ni-in-sag9-sag9
gi-dub-ba kug-sig17-ka cu mu-ni-in-gun3
gi-1-nindan ec2-gana2 za-gin3
jic-as4-lum le-um igi-jal2 cum2-mu dnisaba-ke4 cu dajal ma-ra-an-dug4 }[10]

While men’s sexuality continued to be devalued, scribes intimately associated with dominant political and economic interests successfully grasped for influence and prestige. Ezra, a scribe and a priest living about 400 BGC, led Jews back from Babylonian captivity to Jerusalem and taught them to follow Mosaic law:

And it was his fate, after being honored by the people, to die an old man and to be buried with great magnificence in Jerusalem.

{ ᾧ συνέβη μετὰ τὴν παρὰ τῷ λαῷ δόξαν γηραιῷ τελευτῆσαι τὸν βίον καὶ ταφῆναι μετὰ πολλῆς φιλοτιμίας ἐν Ἱεροσολύμοις. }[11]

Depicting scribes as eminent persons, Jesus warned his followers:

Beware of the scribes! They like to walk around in long robes, and they love personal greetings in the marketplaces and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and offer long prayers for appearance’s sake.

{ προσέχετε ἀπὸ τῶν γραμματέων τῶν θελόντων περιπατεῖν ἐν στολαῖς καὶ φιλούντων ἀσπασμοὺς ἐν ταῖς ἀγοραῖς καὶ πρωτοκαθεδρίας ἐν ταῖς συναγωγαῖς καὶ πρωτοκλισίας ἐν τοῖς δείπνοις οἳ κατεσθίουσιν τὰς οἰκίας τῶν χηρῶν καὶ προφάσει μακρὰ προσεύχονται }[12]

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus extensively and harshly disparages the hypocrisy of scribes:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of Mosaic law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!

{ οὐαὶ ὑμῖν γραμματεῖς καὶ Φαρισαῖοι ὑποκριταί ὅτι ἀποδεκατοῦτε τὸ ἡδύοσμον καὶ τὸ ἄνηθον καὶ τὸ κύμινον καὶ ἀφήκατε τὰ βαρύτερα τοῦ νόμου τὴν κρίσιν καὶ τὸ ἔλεος καὶ τὴν πίστιν ταῦτα δὲ ἔδει ποιῆσαι κἀκεῖνα μὴ ἀφιέναι ὁδηγοὶ τυφλοί οἱ διϋλίζοντες τὸν κώνωπα τὴν δὲ κάμηλον καταπίνοντες }[13]

The Gospel of Luke apparently uses “lawyer {νομικός}” synonymously with “scribe {γραμματεύς}”:

Woe to you lawyers! You have taken away the key of knowledge.

{ οὐαὶ ὑμῖν τοῖς νομικοῖς ὅτι ἤρατε τὴν κλεῖδα τῆς γνώσεως }[14]

Through their work with written texts, scribes and lawyers are responsible for preserving, interpreting, and disseminating knowledge for society as a whole. But like everyone else, they are also concerned for their own interests. Writers and lawyers use their work to curry favor with the rich and powerful, and to become rich and powerful themselves.[15]

Ezra the scribe repairing books

Writers who don’t gain favor from the rich and powerful typically gain no extrinsic rewards for their labor. Persons of wealth and leisure might write poetry to express themselves mainly to themselves, and perhaps also to signal their cultural sophistication.[16] For others, writing is a desperate business. From the ninth century, classical Arabic literature developed the motif “misery of literary writers.” The literary public as a whole has never been a patron to many writers. Consider, for example, the roguish Edward Ward. He was a writer who financially succeeded in London in 1698 with his prurient periodical publication The London Spy. Ward’s prefatory note “To the Reader” explained:

Some Authors are meer Beaus in Writing, and Dress up each Maggotty Flirt that creeps from their Mouldy Fancy, with a fine Dedication, tho’ to John-a-Nokes; and a long Preface to a little Matter, like an Aldermans Grace to a Scholar’s Commons, thinking their Pigmy Products look as Naked without these Ornaments, as a Puritan without his Band, or a Whore without her Patches.

For my part I only use this Preamble as a Sow Gelder does his Horn, that as by Hearing of the latter, you may give a shrewd guess at his Business; so by Reading of the former, you may rightly understand my Design, which I assure you in the first place, is not to Affront or Expose any Body; for all that I propose is, to Scourge Vice and Villany, without leveling Characters at any Person in particular.[17]

Ward’s prior book depicted the financial desperation of authors without elite patrons:

THE Condition of an Author is much like that of a Strumpet, both exposing our Reputations to sup­ply our Necessities, till at last we contract such an ill habit, thro’ our Practices, that we are equally troubl’d with an Itch to be alwas Doing; and if the reason be requir’d, Why we betake our selves to so Scandalous a Profession as Whoring or Pamphleteering, the same excusive Answer will serve us both, viz. That the unhappy circumstances of a Narrow Fortune, hath forc’d us to do that for our Subsistance, which we are much asham’d of.

The chiefest and most commendable Tallent, admir’d in either, is the knack of Pleasing; and He or She amongst us that happily arives to a Perfection in that sort of Witchcraft, may in a little time (to their great Honour) enjoy the Pleasure of being Celebrated by all the Coxcombs in the Nation.

The only difference between us is, in this perticular, where in the Jilt has the Advantage, we do our Business First, and stand to the Courtesie of our Benefactors to Reward us after; whilst the other, for her Security, makes her Rider pay for his Journey, before he mounts the Saddle.[18]

In 1787, another English writer depicted the typical misery of a literary author:

Say, why should POVERTY’S prediction
O’ercloud the sprightly scenes of Fiction?
Wherefore so long entail’d its curse,
On all the numerous sons of Verse?
Who scarce possessing from their birth
A legal settlement on earth
Exalted to a garret story,
Live on imaginary glory.[19]

Publication of novels grew rapidly from the mid-eighteenth century. Most writers of novels in the eighteenth century earned nothing from their work. Most novel writers today earn nothing. Whether William McGonagall exposing himself to being pelted with food, or a poet selling his work on the street, or Emily unhappily married to a poet, creative, literary writers have typically fared poorly.

impoverished poet in garret

Across the past four thousands years, financially successful writers have primarily produced and reproduced myths and praise in service to wealthy, powerful patrons.[20] Readers beware!

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Scribes thus became like lawyers. Recent scholarship has highlighted the interpretive work of scribes. See, e.g., Barmash (2020) Ch. 4, Toorn (2007).

[2] The advice of a supervisor to a younger scribe (Edubba’a C) (t.5.1.3) ll. 9-15, cuneiform Sumerian transliteration and English translation (modified insubstantially) from the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, second edition (ETCSL). Here’s an alternate Sumerian text. Edubba’a literature generally reflects scribal education in the earlier, Ur III period:

The dwellings House F, No. 7 Quiet Street {Nippur} and others like them that functioned as places of schooling elsewhere, for example at Isin, Tell ed-Der and Tell Harmal, clearly show that already in the Old Babylonian period much scribal training was a small-scale occupation run by private individuals and not by the state. … The Edubba-literature was traditional literature, already old when writing was taught in the houses of eighteenth-century Nippur and Ur. The tradition enshrined in Sumerian literature is that under the kings of the Third Dynasty of Ur (Ur III) there were special academies of learning in exactly these cities, Nippur and Ur. These institutions were very probably an innovation of this dynasty made to satisfy the growing bureaucracy’s demand for scribes that could not be met by the small-scale operations of the private sector.

George (2005) pp. 4-5, notes and references omitted. For an older description of Mesopotamian scribal education, Kramer (1956) Chapter 1.

The Edubba’a are “the oldest educational centers” known. Kramer (1949) p. 199. That’s true within the set of large, formalized, sedentary educational institutions. Such educational institutions are associated with the development of the bureaucratic state. In ancient Egypt:

the role of the scribe became vital with the development of a complex state at the beginning of the Old Kingdom. The computing and recording of taxes, the drawing up of census lists for military and labor corvées, and the calculations required for the massive building projects, all called for a large and well-trained civil service.

Williams (1972) p. 214.

Scribes practiced writing texts extolling the scribal profession:

Strive to master the scribal art, and it will enrich you.
Be industrious in the scribal art, and it will provide you with wealth and abundance,

{ nam-dub-sar-ra ir-pag u-bi-ak1 a-tuku ha-ra-ab-dah-e
nam-dub-sar-ra bar-dag1 u-bi-ak2 su-ni-gal-la a-ra-ab-tuku }

“In Praise of the Scribal Art” (also known as “Examination Text D”) ll. 4-5, Sumerian transliteration and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Sjöberg (1972). For commentary, Hurowitz (2000). Here’s a somewhat defective representation of “In Praise of the Scribal Art.” This text should be read as inspirational didactic propaganda, not as factual professional characterization. Cf. Nemetz (2023).

[3] Rules of the School (Edubba’a R) ll. 17-21, cuneiform Sumerian transliteration and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Gadotti & Kleinerman (2017) via Datenbank der sumerischen Streitliteratur (DSSt).

[4] Schooldays (Edubba’a A) ll .17, 26, 29, 35-40, cuneiform Sumerian transliteration from DSSt, my English translation drawing upon Pascal Attinger’s French translation for DSSt and the English translation of Kramer (1949). The subsequent quote above is similarly from Edubba’a A, l. 41. On beating scribal students in ancient Egypt, Williams (1972) p. 218.

Edubba’a A “was extremely popular in the Nippur schools.” Gadotti & Kleinerman (2017) p. 90. For Kramer’s commentary on the poem, Kramer (1956) Ch. 2.

[5] Proverbs, Collection 2, 2.43 (75), Sumerian transliteration and English translation (modified insubstantially) from ETCSL.

[6] Proverbs, Collection 2, 2.44 (76), Sumerian transliteration from ETCSL, English translation (modified insubstantially) from Foster (1974) p. 81, n. 34. With regard to this proverb and Proverbs 1.98, which Foster translates as “You’re a humanist within but no human without,” Foster commented that these proverbs “could be interpreted as an assault on the opponent’s masculinity but are more probably a way of saying that despite his learning he is still a boor.” Id. I think it is in fact an assault on the scribe’s masculinity. That’s a common type of assault on men. ETCSL translates Proverbs 2.44 as “You are an outstanding scribe; you are no lowly man.” That translation seems to me too abstract.

[7] E.g. Edubba’a R. Praise of Nisaba could be more extensive:

Praise Nisaba who has brought order to … and fixed districts in their boundaries, the lady whose divine powers are divine powers that have no rival!

{ us2 tec2-ba ri-a si sa2-e in ki-bi sur-sur
nin me-ni-da me nu-sa2-a dnisaba za3-mi2 }

Edubba’a C, ll. 73-4, Sumerian transliteration and English translation from ETCSL.

[8] A hymn to Nisaba (Nisaba A) (t.4.16.1), ll. 12-3, Sumerian transliteration and English translation from ETCSL. Another hymn expresses desolating grief upon the destruction of a scriptorium:

… is destroyed.
… is destroyed. It is destroyed.
… of Nisaba is destroyed.
The house of Nisaba, her of the tablets,
is destroyed.
The house of
… is destroyed.

{ […]-/ba\ X-ra ba-gul
[…] /gul-gul ba-gul
[…] dnisaba ba-gul
[e2] [d]/nisaba\ mu-lu2 dub-ba-ka ba-[gul]
[e2] [d]CE.TIR-ma ba-gul
[e2] [d]/nun-bar-ce-gu-nu ba-/gul\
[X X] X e2-ha-mun ba-gul }

A šir-namšub to Nisaba (Nisaba B) (t.4.16.2), via ETCSL.

[9] On women writers in ancient Mesopotamia, Halton & Svärd (2017) and Meier (1991). Literacy in ancient Mesopotamia wasn’t limited to professional scribes. Charpin (2010). In modern scholarship, patriarchal myth, which is particularly inappropriate for ancient Mesopotamia and its active women, has tended to control interpretation of evidence:

The fact that women were not simply an (admittedly rare) alternative but a preferred choice in certain contexts points to significant areas where, in spite of patriarchal patterns, women were successful in a limited fashion in carving out niches of influence in the patriarchal power structure.

Meier (1991) p. 547. Since men historically have vastly predominated among victims of institutionalized violence, the institutionalized beating of scribes suggests that most scribes were men.

[10] A praise poem of Lipit-Eštar (Lipit-Eštar B) (t., ll. 15-24, Sumerian transliteration and English translation from ETCSL.

[11] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews {Ἰουδαϊκὴ ἀρχαιολογία} Book 11, 5.5 (158), ancient Greek text and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Marcus (1937).

[12] Luke 20:46-7. Similarly, Mark 12:38. While scribes are mentioned repeatedly in the gospels, scribes are mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament only once. That sole mention is in 1 Corinthians 1:20. The early Christian communities were politically and religiously marginal. They depended mainly on personal authority. Scribes, in contrast, typically served well-established transactions, practices, and institutions. On how Jesus and his followers politically challenged the reigning elite, including scribes and Pharisees, Horsley (2014) Chapter 6.

[13] Matthew 23:23-4. Vigorously competing to guide Jewish belief, Matthew 23 intones six times, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites { οὐαὶ ὑμῖν γραμματεῖς καὶ Φαρισαῖοι ὑποκριταί}”: “The rhetoric is harsh, but the argument is Jewish and serious.” Saldarini (1992) p. 680. Scribes and Pharisees seem to refer sociologically to different groups. Little is known for sure about who these two groups were. Saldarini (1988). On characteristics of scribes, Tov (2004) Chapter 2.

[14] Luke 11:52. The lawyers in this context apparently were authorities in Mosaic law. On the identity of the lawyers more generally, Saldarini (1988) p. 669, n. 29. Luke 5:17 refers to “teachers of the law {νομοδιδάσκαλοι}.”

[15] Not all scribes at the time of Jesus were rich and powerful: “scribes were found at every level of society and did not form a cohesive group.” Saldarini (1992) p. 669, n. 30.

The author of Matthew seems to have been a marginal scribe. Duling (2002). The author perhaps modeled himself on Jesus’s depiction of a Christian scribe:

And Jesus said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure new things and old.”

{ ὁ δὲ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς διὰ τοῦτο πᾶς γραμματεὺς μαθητευθεὶς τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν ὅμοιός ἐστιν ἀνθρώπῳ οἰκοδεσπότῃ ὅστις ἐκβάλλει ἐκ τοῦ θησαυροῦ αὐτοῦ καινὰ καὶ παλαιά }

Matthew 13:52. On this passage, Orton (1989).

[16] The Book of Sirach / Ecclesiasticus, composed probably in the first quarter of the second century BGC, depicts the scribe / writer as requiring leisure (and implicitly, an independent source of income):

A scribe’s wisdom is in the opportunity for leisure, and he who does less business, it is he who will become wise. How shall he who takes hold of a plow and boasts in the shaft of a goad become wise, when he drives cattle and is engaged in their tasks and his talk is about the offspring of bulls?

{ Σοφία γραμματέως ἐν εὐκαιρίᾳ σχολῆς, καὶ ὁ ἐλασσούμενος πράξει αὐτοῦ σοφισθήσεται. τί σοφισθήσεται ὁ κρατῶν ἀρότρου καὶ καυχώμενος ἐν δόρατι κέντρου, βόας ἐλαύνων καὶ ἀναστρεφόμενος ἐν ἔργοις αὐτῶν, καὶ ἡ διήγησις αὐτοῦ ἐν υἱοῖς ταύρων }

Sirach 38:24-5, ancient Greek (Septuagint) text from Kata Biblon and English translation of Benjamin G. Wright from Pietersma & Wright (2007). Sirach was first composed in Hebrew. I quote the Septuagint text becomes the Hebrew text isn’t readily available to me. This passage isn’t substantially different in the Hebrew version. For commentary on this passage, Finbow (2017).

[17] Ward (1703), pp. i-ii, “To the Reader.” Here’s a brief biography of Edward (Ned) Ward. Ward is known for the quote, “He’s as great a master of ill language as ever was bred at a Bear-Garden.” A bear-garden isn’t the same as a beer-garden, but the two places are somewhat related behaviorally.

[18] Ward (1698) p. 3, “To the Reader.” The term “hack” for a mediocre writer comes from “hackney,” a street carriage for quick, temporary hire.

[19] Keate (1787) p. 1 (Distressed Poet, vv. 1.1-8). Here’s more on George Keate, “draughtsman, painter, poet, naturalist, antiquary.” For a thematically related poem also from 1787, Berensmeyer (2015).

[20] Consider the “literary and creative” work of scribes in ancient Mesopotamia:

As for the literary and creative aspects of the Sumerian curriculum, it consisted primarily in studying, copying, and imitating the large and diversified group of literary compositions which must have originated and developed mainly in the latter half of the third millennium B.C. These ancient works, running into the hundreds, were almost all poetic in form, ranging in length from less than fifty lines to close to a thousand. Those recovered to date are chiefly of the following genres: myths and epic tales in the form of narrative poems celebrating the deeds and exploits of the Sumerian gods and heroes; hymns to gods and kings; lamentations bewailing the destruction of Sumerian cities; wisdom compositions including proverbs, fables, and essays.

Kramer (1956) p. 5. In other words, scribes reproduced established narratives, praised ruling kings and gods, and provided ideological guidance (wisdom) for oral dissemination to the masses. Most financially successful writers today perform similar functions.

[images] (1) Two goddesses lead a man in worship of a deified king, perhaps King Ur-Nammu. Excerpt from a modern impression from a seal made about 2100 BGC. Seal incription: “Ur-Nammu, strong man, king of Ur: Hash-hamer, governor of the city of Ishkun-Sin, is your servant {sur-nammu / nita kala-ga / lugal uri-ma ha-as-ha-me-er / ensi / ish-ku-en-EN.ZU / ir-zu}.” Seal preserved as museum number 89126 in The British Museum. Source image via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Ezra the scribe writing in a book-room. Illustration made for a Vulgate bible about 700 GC in northeast England at the Benedictine Monkwearmouth–Jarrow Abbey. Excerpt from folio 5r (alternate source) of the Codex Amiatinus (Jarrow Codex): Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatinus 1. At the top of the page is written: “When the sacred books had been burned by the enemy’s destruction, Ezra, fervent for the Lord, repaired this damage {Codicibus sacris hostili clade perustis Esdra Domino fervens hoc reparavit opus}.” Here’s some history of the Codex Amiatinus. (3) Impoverished poet working in miserable conditions in a garret. Painting entitled “The poor poet {Der arme Poet}.” Painted by Carl Spitzweg in 1839. Preserved as accession # 7751 in the Neue Pinakothek (Munich, Germany). Via Wikimedia Commons. (4) “The Distrest Poet.” Illustration of an impoverished poet in a garret. Etching composed about 1736-7 by William Hogarth for an associated oil painting. Excerpt from accession # 1944.5.80 (Rosenwald Collection) of the National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC). The Princeton University Art Museum also has a version freely available as an image. Below this etching are the verses:

Studious he sate, with all his books around,
Sinking from thought to thought, a vast profound:
Plung’d for his sense, but found no bottom there;
Then writ and flounder’d on, in mere despair.

Those verses are explicitly attributed to (Alexander Pope’s) Dunciad, Book 1, line iii. Here’s a painting from the U.S. in 1811 depicting a poor author and rich bookseller.

Distrest poet: Hogarth's etching of an impoverished poet


Barmash, Pamela. 2020. The Laws of Hammurabi: At the Confluence of Royal and Scribal Traditions. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Review by Dylan R. Johnson.

Berensmeyer, Ingo, Gero Guttzeit and Alise Jameson. 2015. ‘“The Brain-Sucker: Or the Distress of Authorship”: A Late Eighteenth-Century Satire of Grub Street.’ Authorship. 4(1): 1-14. Alternate source. Here’s the authors’ critical edition of “The Brain-Sucker: Or the Distress of Authorship.”

Charpin, Dominique, translated by Jane Marie Todd. 2010. Writing, Law, and Kingship in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. Review by Rochelle Altman.

Duling, D.C. 2002. “Matthew as marginal scribe in an advanced agrarian society.” HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies. 58(2): 520-575.

Finbow, Douglas. 2017. The Wisdom of the Scribe: A Socio-Rhetorical and Theological Interpretation of Sirach 38:24–39:11. Ph.D. Thesis, Saint Paul University, Canada.

Foster, Benjamin R. 1974. “Humor and Cuneiform Literature.” Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society. 6(1): 69-85.

Gadotti, Alhena and Alexandra Kleinerman. 2017. “The Rules of the School.” Journal of the American Oriental Society. 137(1): 89–116.

George, Andrew. 2005. “In search of the é.dub.ba.a: The ancient Mesopotamian school in literature and reality.” Pp. 127-137 in Jacob Klein and Yitzhak Sefati, eds. An Experienced Scribe Who Neglects Nothing: Ancient near Eastern Studies in Honor of Jacob Klein. Bethesda, MD: CDL Press.

Halton, Charles, and Saana Svärd, eds. and trans. 2017. Women’s Writing of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Anthology of the Earliest Female Authors. 2017. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Review by Agnès Garcia Ventura.

Horsley, Richard A. 2014. Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

Hurowitz, Victor Avigdor. 2000. ‘Literary Observations on “In Praise of the Scribal Art.”’ Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society. 27(1): 49-56.

Keate, George. 1787. The Distressed Poet, A Serio-Comic Poem, in Three Cantos. London: Printed for J. Dodsley. Alternate presentation.

Kramer, Samuel Noah. 1949. “Schooldays: A Sumerian Composition Relating to the Education of a Scribe.” Journal of the American Oriental Society. 69(4): 199-215.

Kramer, Samuel Noah. 1956. History Begins at Sumer. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books.

Marcus, Ralph, ed. and trans. 1937. Josephus. Jewish Antiquities, Volume IV: Books 9-11. Loeb Classical Library 326. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Meier, Samuel A. 1991. “Women and Communication in the Ancient near East.” Journal of the American Oriental Society. 111(3): 540–47.

Nemetz, Alexander. 2023. Credo of the Scribes: The value of wisdom in ancient Mesopotamian
. BA Thesis, Uppsala University, Finland.

Orton, David E. 1989. The Understanding Scribe: Matthew and the Apocalyptic Ideal. London: T & T Clark International.

Pietersma, Albert and Benjamin G Wright, eds. 2007. A New English Translation of the Septuagint and the Other Greek Translations Traditionally Included Under that Title. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Saldarini, Anthony J. 1988. Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society. Edinburgh: T and T Clark. Overview.

Saldarini, Anthony J. 1992. “Delegitimation of Leaders in Matthew 23.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly. 54(4): 659–80.

Sjöberg, Åke W. 1972. “In Praise of the Scribal Art.” Journal of Cuneiform Studies. 24(4): 126–31.

Toorn, Karel van der. 2007. Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Review by Robert L Maxwell.

Tov, Emanuel. 2004. Scribal Practices and Approaches Reflected in the Texts Found in the Judean Desert. 2004. Leiden: Brill.

Ward, Edward. 1698. A Trip to Jamaica With a True Character of the People and Island. Edited by David Oakleaf. London.

Ward, Edward. 1703. The London Spy Compleat, In Eighteen-Parts. Edited by Ben Neudorf and Allison Muri. London: J. How.

Williams, Ronald J. 1972. “Scribal Training in Ancient Egypt.” Journal of the American Oriental Society. 92(2): 214–214.

Revelation represents men as sol novus and umbra viventis lucis

According to the biblical Revelation, a great sign appeared in Heaven. That sign was a pregnant woman. She was clothed with the sun, had the moon under her feet, and a crown with twelve stars on her head. Like any earthly pregnant woman, this cosmic woman cried out painfully in childbirth. She is both a cosmic woman and every woman. Then another sign, not great, appeared in Heaven. It was a male figure of evil — a huge red dragon. A cosmic battle ensued between good and evil — between forces supporting the woman and those supporting the male dragon.[1] To the discerning rather than comic-book reader, this cosmic battle shows Rome’s “new sun {sol novus}” and Hildegard of Bingen’s “shadow of the living light {umbra viventis lucis}.” Those are figures of men living as fruitful blessings for women and for the whole world.

Ancient Roman religion associated the divinities Sol and Luna with the sun and the moon, respectively. Sol was a male divinity and Luna, a female divinity. Sol and Luna assumed aspects of the corresponding ancient Greek divinities Helios and Selene. Perhaps in part seeking to improve men’s social position, the Roman Emperor Aurelian in 274 GC promoted Sol as nominal chief god of the Roman Empire. Sol thus became “Sol Invictus {Invincible Sun}.”

Jesus and his followers contested dominant Roman symbols of divinity. Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator of Judea, crucified Jesus for allegedly presenting himself as “King of the Jews {βασιλεύς τῶν Ἰουδαίων}.”[2] Asserting such kingship would challenge the authority of the Roman emperor Tiberius. Christians claimed that God raised Jesus from the dead to a position of supreme authority:

far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. God put all things under Jesus’s feet and gave him to the church as head over all things. The church is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

{ ὑπεράνω πάσης ἀρχῆς καὶ ἐξουσίας καὶ δυνάμεως καὶ κυριότητος καὶ παντὸς ὀνόματος ὀνομαζομένου οὐ μόνον ἐν τῷ αἰῶνι τούτῳ ἀλλὰ καὶ ἐν τῷ μέλλοντι καὶ πάντα ὑπέταξεν ὑπὸ τοὺς πόδας αὐτοῦ καὶ αὐτὸν ἔδωκεν κεφαλὴν ὑπὲρ πάντα τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ ἥτις ἐστὶν τὸ σῶμα αὐτοῦ τὸ πλήρωμα τοῦ τὰ πάντα ἐν πᾶσιν πληρουμένου }

The first Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, was divinized after his death. Greek-speaking persons in eastern areas of the Roman Empire referred to the living emperor as a god. In Corinth, a statue of the deified Caesar Augustus stood at the center of the city. Christians, however, regarded not the Roman emperor but Jesus to be the likeness of God. By the fifth century, on December 25, the Roman day of the winter solstice, Christians celebrating Christmas competed for attention with a Roman festival honoring Sol Invictus.[3]

Jesus Christ as the new sun (sol novus)

Christians have long celebrated Christmas as the birth of the sol novus Jesus. In the fourth century, Bishop Ambrose of Milan composed a Christmas hymn that proclaims:

Your cradle now shines,
and night breathes a new light —
no night shall intervene
as it would shine with everlasting faith.

{ Praesepe iam fulget tuum
lumenque nox spirat novum,
quod nulla nox interpolet
fideque iugi luceat. }[4]

In a fifth-century Christmas homily, Bishop Maximus of Turin declared:

It is good that the people should call this birthday of our Lord the day of the new sun, and so much he confirms this by his own authority, such that even Jews and pagans harmonize in this expression. We must gladly embrace this, because in the East is announced by the savior not only the salvation of the human race, but also the glory of the sun itself. So said the apostle: “so that he would renew through himself all things that are in Heaven and on earth.” If then the sun darkens when Christ suffers, it necessarily shines more brightly than usual with his birth.

{ Bene quodammodo sanctam hanc diem natalis domini solem nouum uulgus appellat, et tanta id sui auctoritate confirmat, ut Iudaei etiam atque gentiles in hac uoce consentiant. Quod libenter nobis amplectendum est, quia oriente saluatore non solum humani generis salus sed etiam solis ipsius claritas innouatur, sicut ait apostolus: Vt per ipsum restauraret omnia, siue quae in caelis siue quae in terra sunt. Si enim obscuratur sol cum Christus patitur, necesse est ilium splendidius solito lucere cum nascitur }[5]

From no later than about 600 GC, the Advent liturgy called to Christ as a new sun:

O Eastern Star, splendor of eternal light and sun of justice, come and illuminate those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

{ O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol iustitiae: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris et umbra mortis. }[6]

Jesus in Christian understanding brought a new light of justice and mercy to the world. He overcome the darkness of human death. Jesus is both the sol novus and the sol invictus.

Seven-headed dragon attacks woman clothed with sun and with moon under her feet (Revelation 12) in Facundus Beatus

Christians have interpreted the woman clothed with the sun in Revelation to be the Christian church clothed with the sol novus and the sol invictus. Early in the third century, the church leader Hippolytus of Rome declared:

Now “the woman clothed in the sun” indicates very obviously the church, robed in the Father’s word brighter than the sun. “Moon beneath her feet” means she has been adorned with heavenly glory like the moon. Saying “above her head a crown of twelve stars” reveals the twelve apostles, through whom the church is established.

{ τὴν μὲν οὖν “γυναῖκα τὴν περιβεβλημένην τὸν ἥλιον” σαφέστατα τὴν ἐκκλησίαν ἐδήλωσεν, ἐνδεδυμένην τὸν λόγον τὸν πατρῷον ὑπὲρ ἥλιον λάμποντα: “σελήνην” δὲ λέγων “ὑποκάτω τῶν ποδῶν αὐτῆς” δόξῃ ἐπουρανίῳ ὡς σελήνην κεκοσμημένην: τὸ δὲ λέγειν “ἐπάνω τῆς κεφαλῆς αὐτῆς στέφανος ἀστέρων δώδεκα” δηλοῖ τοὺς δώδεκα ἀποστόλους, δι’ ὧν καθίδρυται ἡ ἐκκλησία. }[7]

Proclaiming Jesus’s life, the Gospel of John declares, “the word became flesh and dwelt among us {ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν}.” The Christian church robed in the Father’s word is thus equivalent to the church robed in Jesus. Bishop Augustine of Hippo late in the fourth century explained to the people:

You know that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is the head of his body, that he is the one mediator between God and humans, that he is the man Jesus, born of a virgin, so to say in the wilderness, as we heard in the Apocalypse. … Moreover, that woman is the ancient city of God … And that woman was covered with the sun, the very sun of justice that the wicked do not know. The wicked will say at the end, “We have erred from the path of truth, and therefore the light of justice has not shone upon us, and the sun has not risen upon us.” … She was thus also clothed with the sun, and she was carrying in her womb a male about to be born. He was the same person who created Zion and was born in Zion. That woman, the city of God, was protected by his light and was pregnant with his body. She deservedly had the moon under her feet because he by his goodness trampled underfoot the mortality of the increasing and decreasing flesh.

{ nostis Dominum et Salvatorem nostrum Iesum Christum caput esse corporis sui, illum unum mediatorem esse Dei et hominum, hominem Iesum, natum ex virgine, tamquam in solitudine, sicut in Apocalypsi audivimus. … Haec autem mulier, antiqua est civitas Dei … Itaque et illa mulier sole cooperiebatur, sole ipso iustitiae quem non cognoscunt impii; qui dicturi sunt in fine: Ergo erravimus a via veritatis, et iustitiae lumen non luxit nobis, et sol non ortus est nobis. … Ergo et amicta erat sole, et gestabat visceribus masculum paritura. Idem ipse erat condens Sion, et nascens in Sion: et illa mulier civitas Dei, eius luce protegebatur, cuius carne gravidabatur. Merito et lunam sub pedibus habebat, quia mortalitatem crescentis et decrescentis carnis virtute calcabat. Ergo ipse Dominus Iesus Christus caput et corpus: voluit enim etiam loqui in nobis, qui dignatus }[8]

The great sign in Heaven was not just a good woman whom an evil male dragon attacked. She was a woman pregnant with fully male child who is the sol novus and sol invictus for the world. In the cosmic battle between good and evil, a male person is a cosmic force for good.

Seven-headed dragon attacks woman clothed with sun and with moon under her feet from Apocalypse Cycle in Liber Floridus

While the Christian church has always been gynocentric, the masculine seminal blessing was once highly appreciated. The Benedictine monk Ambrosius Autpertus in south Italy in the eight century explicitly identified the woman clothed with the sun as Mary, the mother of Jesus:

“A woman clothed with the sun,” and so to say, the ever-blessed Virgin Mary, overshadowed by the manliness of the Most High. We clearly know that to her the angel said, “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the manliness of the Most High will overshadow you,” namely, that manliness of which Paul says: “Christ the manliness of God and the wisdom of God.” And since the genus is usually found in the species, the blessed and pious Virgin herself bears in this place the person of the Church, which daily gives birth to new peoples from whom the general body of the Mediator is formed.

No miracle it is that she who would put herself forth to be the type of the Church is the one in whose blessed womb the head of the same Church deserved to be united. … It is said, therefore, that the woman is clothed with the sun, which is highly appropriate to the souls of the faithful. Are they not clothed with the clothing of whom through Paul was said: “As many of you as are baptized, you have put on Christ?” For Christ is the sun of justice and the brightness of eternal light.

{ Mulier amicta sole. Ac si diceretur, beata semperque uirgo Maria, obumbrata Altissimi uirtute, cui uidelicet dicum ab Angelo scimus: Spiritus Sanctus superueniet in te, et uirtus Altissimi odumbrabit tibi, illa scilicet uirtus, de qua Paulus dicit: Christum Dei uirtutem et Dei sapientiam. Et quia plerumque genus inuenitur in specie, ipsa beata ac pia Virgo hoc in loco personam gerit Ecclesiae, quae nouos cotidie populos parit, ex quibus generale Mediatoris corpus formatur.

Non autem mirum, si illa typum Ecclesiae praetendat, in cuius beato utero capiti suo eadem Ecclesia uniri meruit. … Dicatur igitur mulier amicta sole, quod omnino aptissime fidelium animabus convenit. An non solis amictu uestiuntur, quibus per Paulum dicitur: Quotquot baptizati estis, Christum industis? Christus enim sol iustitiae et candor lucis aeternae. }[9]

Jerome, who sympathetically understood men’s sexual desire, translated the Greek word δύναμις in the above quote of Luke 1:35 as the Latin word virtus. That Latin translation closely associates the power of the Holy Spirit with manliness. Ambrosius Autpertus rightly took Jerome’s translation to be authoritative. Manliness is a type of divine blessing associated with Christ.

Seven-headed dragon attacks woman clothed with sun and with moon under her feet in the Gerona Beatus

The great twelfth-century abbess and Christian mystic Hildegard of Bingen elaborated upon the seminal blessing that Revelation’s cosmic woman received. Hildegard understood the cosmic battle to summarize all of human history:

When the devil saw the woman clothed and knew in envy that he had been cast from Heaven, he inwardly wondered why God had given her clothing. She pulled herself away, as it is written in the Apocalypse {quoting Revelation 12:13-14}. That passage should be understood as follows. The ancient dragon saw that he had lost the location where he wanted to place his seat. He had been cast down into hellish places. He sharpened his anger against the woman, because he knew that by childbearing she was the root of the whole human race. And having extreme hate for her, he said to himself that he would never cease to pursue her until he had drowned her in the sea itself, because in the beginning he had deceived her. … However, when the ruddy time of dawn, that is when the time of complete justice, came through her son, the serpent, extremely terrified, became astonished. He had been totally deceived by the woman, that is to say the Virgin Mary.

{ cum diabolus mulierem vestitam vidisset, in invida scientia, qua se de coelo projectum cognovit, intra sciscitando ut quid Deus illi vestitum dedisset, se ipsum decerpsit, ut in Apocalypsi scriptum est … Hoc considerandum sic est: Antiquus draco, videns quia locum illum perdidisset in quem sedem suam ponere volebat, quoniam in tartarea loca projectus erat, iram suam in mulierem exacuit, quia illam radicem omnis humani generis per partum esse cognovit; et in maximo odio eam habens, intra se dixit quod nunquam cessaret illam persequendo quousque ipsam velut in mari suffocaret, quia eam primum deceperat. … Cum autem tempus rutilans aurorae, id est plenae justitiae per Filium meum venit, antiquus serpens valde exterritus obstupuit, quoniam per mulierem, videlicet Virginem, totus deceptus est. }[10]

Adam of course was equally with Eve the root of the whole human race. The fertility of Eve, like that of all women other than the Virgin Mary, depends on men. Moreover, the ruddy time of dawn is the time of the sol novus and the sol justiciae, the fully masculine man Jesus.

Hildegard intimately associated women and men. In a vision, she saw love appearing like Revelation’s cosmic woman clothed with the sun:

I also saw something like a most beautiful young woman. She was shining with a face of such splendid brightness that I could not behold her fully. And she wore a cloak whiter than snow and brighter than stars. She was shod with shoes like those of the purest gold. In her right hand she held the sun and the moon, and she caressed them lovingly. On her breast there was an ivory tablet, on which appeared in shades of sapphire the image of a man. All creation called this woman lady-lord. But she herself began to speak to the image that appeared on her chest: “I was with you in the beginning, in the day of your manliness and with the brightness of the saints. I bore you from the womb before the morning star.” And I heard a voice saying to me, “The young woman whom you see is love. She has her holy dwelling in eternity.”

{ Vidi etiam quasi pulcherrimam puellam in tanto fulgore splendidae faciei fulgentem, ut eam perfecte intueri non possem. Et pallium candidius nive et clarius stellis habebat. Calceamentis quoque velut de purissimo auro induebatur. Solem autem et lunam in manu dextera tenebat, et eos suaviter amplexabatur. In pectore etiam ejus tabula eburnea erat, in qua species hominis sapphirini coloris apparebat, et omnis creatura puellam hanc dominam nominabat. Sed et ipsa ad speciem, quae in pectore suo apparuit, dicebat: Tecum principium in die virtutis tuae in splendoribus sanctorum, ex utero ante Luciferum genui te. Et audivi vocem mihi dicentem: Puella haec quam vides, charitas est, quae in aeternitate tabernaculum habet. }[11]

This woman doesn’t objectify and appropriate the sun or dominate the moon. She caresses both of them lovingly. Moreover, she doesn’t magnify herself, but associates herself with the man whose image adorns her chest.

seven-headed dragon attacking woman in medieval illustration of Revelation 12

Hildegard of Bingen appreciated men and understood that men belong with Revelation’s cosmic woman on the side of good. Hildegard explained:

When God looked upon the adult male human, that human pleased him very well, because God had created him according to God’s own image and according to God’s own likeness. God had created him such that through the trumpet of his rational voice, he would announce all of God’s miracles. For the adult male human is a complete work of God, because God is known through him, and because God created all creatures for his sake. God granted to him to preach and bring praise to himself with the kiss of love’s truth through rationality.

But the adult male human lacked a helper similar to himself. Therefore God gave to him a helper who was the mirror-like form of woman. In her all of the human race was latent. In her the force of God’s strength was produced, just as in the first man the force of God’s strength was made.

Man and woman were thus put together, one with another, such that the work of one is for the other, because a man without a woman could not be called a man, nor could a woman without a man be named a woman. Woman is necessary for man, and man is an aspect of woman’s consolation, and neither of them could exist without the other.

{ Cum autem Deus hominem inspexit, valde bene ei placuit, quoniam secundum tunicam imaginis suae, et secundum similitudinem suam illum creaverat, quatenus per tubam vocis rationalis omnia miracula ejus pronuntiaret. Homo enim plenum opus Dei est, quia Deus per eum cognoscitur, et quoniam Deus omnes creaturas propter illum creavit, eique in osculo veri amoris per rationalitatem ipsum praedicare et laudare concessit.

Sed ipsi adjutorium similitudinis suae defuit. Unde et Deus illi adjutorium, quod speculativa forma mulieris fuit, in qua omne humanum genus latuit, quod in vi fortitudinis Dei producendum erat, sicut et primum hominem in vi fortitudinis suae profecerat.

Vir itaque et femina sic ad invicem admisti sunt, ut opus alterum per alterum est, quia vir sine femina vir non vocaretur, nec femina sine viro femina nominaretur. Femina enim opus viri est, et vir aspectus consolationis feminae est, et neuter eorum absque altero esse posset. }[12]

Hildegard perceived such seminal insights from what she called “the shadow of the living light {umbra viventis lucis}.” That shadow parallels the shadow by which the Holy Spirit overshadowed the Virgin Mary.[13] Women can receive men’s seminal blessing both in body and in mind.

Dragon attacking woman in the medieval Silos Beatus

On its surface, Revelation’s cosmic battle between good and evil might seem to devalue and marginalize men. The Virgin Mary’s husband Joseph shepherded Mary and the child Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod.[14] Herod, who sought to kill the child Jesus, corresponds to the evil male dragon in Revelation. Joseph, in contrast, was a good man. Revelation’s account of the woman clothed with the sun excludes a figure corresponding to Joseph. Moreover, the archangel Michael and his angel comrades fought with the dragon in Heaven and cast him down from Heaven. Fighting and dying in wars is a gender norm oppressively imposed on men.

dragon attacking woman in the medieval Trinity Beatus

In Revelation, men’s enlivening and redeeming importance isn’t explicitly recognized. That’s an actual, perennial social pattern. The Christian church historically has identified with Mary, “Mother of the Church {Mater Ecclesiae}.”[15] However, in Christian understanding, the church, the woman clothed with the sun, bears the sol novus. That sol novus is Jesus, a fully masculine man. Moreover, the great Christian mystic and community leader Hildegard of Bingen pointed to the umbra viventis lucis. That life-giving shadow represents seminal blessing from the Holy Spirit. Without seminal blessings from the Holy Spirit and from earthly men, the church would expire in aridity.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] The Revelation to John (The Apocalypse), chapter 12. Here’s an introduction to Revelation. For freely available modern commentary on Revelation 12, (2002) and Smith (2011).

[2] E.g. Mark 15:26. The subsequent quote above is Ephesians 1:21-3.

[3] On divine titles for the Roman Emperor, Price (1984). On the deified emperor in contrast to the Christian god in Corinth, Long (2016). On why Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25, Nothaft (2012) and Schmidt (2015). Evidence for the public celebration of Christmas on December 25 exists from no earlier than the 330s. The precedential relationship between a festival of Sol Invictus on December 25, if there actually was one, and Christmas isn’t clear.

The sun and moon played important roles in Hebrew medical astrology. On the relationship between traditional Roman religion and Jewish-Christian beliefs, Rahner (1957) Chapter 4. In a homily delivered about 592 GC, Pope Gregory I rhetorically declared to his fellow Christians, “With what name is the sun designated other than the Lord, and with what name is the moon other than the Church {quis enim solis nomine nisi Dominus, et quae lunae nomine nisi ecclesia designatur}?” Gregory the Great, Homilies on the Gospels {Homiliarum in Evangelia}, Homily {Homilia} 29.67, Latin text from Patrologia Latina 76 (part 2) columns 1218-9, my English translation. Gregory’s statement implicitly suggests tension with traditional Greco-Roman belief in Helios-Sol and Selene-Luna.

Melito’s Key to Holy Scripture {Melitonis Clavis Sanctae Scripturae}, an eleventh-century work wrongly ascribed to Melito of Sardis, has a Marian-Christological interpretation of the moon and the sun: “The moon fosters the sun, while the sun itself gives spendor to the moon {luna fovet solem cui sol dedit ipse nitorem}.” Latin text from Rahner (1957) p. 167, my English translation. The twentieth-century bishop Fulton Sheen, analogizing Jesus and Mary to the sun and the moon, declared, “The Blessed Mother reflects her Divine Son.” Sheen (1952) pp. 73-4.

Christians associated the moon with the church, but not in the context of Revelation 12. However, just as for the woman clothed with the sun of Revelation 12, perceptive and faithful Christians have emphasized the church mediating a seminal blessing. “The church shines not with its own light, but with the light of Christ {fulget Ecclesia non suo sed Christi lumine}.” Ambrose of Milan, Six Days {Hexaemeron} 4.32.

[4] Ambrose of Milan, Come, redeemor of the peoples {Veni redemptor gentium}, stanza six, Latin text from Preces Latinae, my English translation. Many English translations of this hymn, as well as recordings, are readily available online.

Ambrose’s words look forward to Jesus rising from the dead at Easter. A early sermon in the school of Augustine of Hippo declared, “Through the sign of the cross you are conceived in the womb of your holy Mother, the Church {per signum crucis in utero sanctae Matris Ecclesiae concepti estis}.” Pseudo-Augustine, About the symbol for Christian students {De symbolo ad catechumenos}, Latin tex from Patrologia Latina 40.659D, English translation from Rahner (1957) p. 78.

[5] Maximus of Turin, Sermon 62, “On the birthday of Our Lord Jesus Christ {De natale domini nostri iesu christi},” lines 1-10, Latin text from Mutzenbecher (1953), my English translation. On “renew through himself,” cf. Ephesians 1:10.

[6] This is one of the Advent “O antiphons.” The “O antiphons” are attested in The Book of Responses {Liber Responsalis}, dating from about 600 GC. That book is attributed to Pope Gregory I.

The “sun of justice” is a phrase from Malachi 4:2. In a Christmas homily questionably attributed to John Chrysostom (which isn’t the same as his homily on the date of Christmas), the author declares that Christmas makes Bethlehem like Heaven: “instead of stars it received angels hymning, instead of the sun it makes room for the indescribable Sun of Justice {ἀντὶ μὲν ἀστέρων ἀγγέλους ὑμνοῦντας δεξαμένη, ἀντὶ δὲ ἡλίου τὸν τῆς δικαιοσύνης ἀπεριγράπτως χωρήσασα}.” Ancient Greek text from Patrologia Graeca, volume 56, column 385, my English translation, benefitting from those by Bryson Sewell and by an uncredited translator.

More generally, the figure of Jesus as the sol novus arising at Christmas became a commonplace:

The theme permeates Christian writing on Christmas from the late fourth century on. Ambrose uses the phrase sol iustitiae (‘sun of righteousness’) from the Messianic prophecy in Mal. 4: 2, and suggests that the winter solstice symbolizes a new beginning, the start of our salvation (Hexameron 4.5.24). Similar themes are found in Gregory of Nyssa’s and Augustine’s Christmas homilies.

O’Daly (2012) p. 334 (commenting in the context of Prudentius’s Cathemerinon 11).

[7] Hippolytus of Rome, Treatise on Christ and the Antichrist, from section 61, ancient Greek text from the Catholic Library, English translation (modified insubstantially) from Jacobs (n.d.). Jacobs translated Norelli (1987), but that Greek text doesn’t differ substantially from the Greek text used here. The Ante-Nicene Fathers includes an English translation by Stewart Dingwall Fordyce Salmond.

Although he is regarded as an important theologian, little is known about Hippolytus of Rome. He lived from about 170 to 235 GC. He apparently wrote Treatise on Christ and the Antichrist in 202 GC.

[8] Augustine of Hippo, Exposition on Psalms {Enarrationes in Pslamos} 142, “Sermon to the people {Sermo ad populum},” section 3, Latin text from Patrologia Latina 37.1846 (alternate source), my English translation.

Writing about 555 GC, Primasius, Bishop of Hadrumetum in Roman Africa, commented on Revelation 12:1:

This temple in Heaven, this woman clothed with the sun and the moon under her feet, that is the church clothed with Christ. Because of his love, she is trampling on all things that are changeable.

{ hoc templum in caelo, hoc mulier amicta sole et luna sub pedibus eius, id est ecclesia Christo induta, propter eius dilectionem mutabilia cuncta calcantem. }

Commentary on the Apocalypse {Commentarius in Apocalypsin}, Latin text from Adams (1985) p. 178, my English translation.

During the first millennium of Christianity, many learned authors wrote lengthy commentaries on Revelation. Perhaps the earliest is an early sixth-century commentary in Greek known as Explanatory Notes about the Apocalypse {Scholia in Apocalypsin}. This commentary is now attributed to Cassian the Sabaite, the abbot at the monastery of Sabas in Palestine. For a critical edition, Tzamalikos (2013). Another early commentary is Pseudo-Oecumenius, Commentary about the Apocalypse {Commentarius in Apocalypsin}, written about 600 GC. For a Greek text and English translation, Hoskier (1928) and Suggit (2006), respectively.

[9] Ambrose Autpert {Ambrosius Autpertus}, Commentary on the Apocalypse {Expositionis in Apocalypsin}, Book 5, on Revelation 12:1a, Latin text from Weber (1971a), my English translation. On the words of Paul, cf. 1 Corinthians 1:24, Romans 13:14.

Ambrosius Autpertus’s interpretation of the woman clothed with the sun (Revelation 12:1) as being the Virgin Mary was highly influential. Revelation 12:1 became a reading for the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Christian liturgical calendar. On Marian iconograpy in Revelation, Garcia Mahiques (1995) and Garcia Mahiques (1996).

Ambrosius Autpertus is sometimes credited with having “introduced a Marian reading” of Revelation 12:1. Newman (1987) p. 113, n. 75. Similarly Klein (1992) pp. 168-9. However, a Marian reading of Revelation 12 was already known to Methodius of Olympus, who died in 311 GC. Rahner (1957) p. 162. From the earliest centuries of Christianity, the woman clothed with the sun has been interpreted as the church and the Virgin Mary: “these two forms of interpretation are closely connected with one another.” Id. For some Marian references in the early fathers of the church, Llasos (2019).

Tychonius, an important Christian theologian living in northern Africa and active late in the fourth century, implicitly linked the cosmic woman with Jesus’s mother. Tychonius’s view is attested in the writing of Cassiodorus, a sixth-century Roman statesman and monk. See Cassiodorus, Connections in the Apocalypse {Complexiones in Apocalypsin}, section 16 (connections in Revelation 11:15). A Latin text is available in Patrologia Latina 70:1411 (alternate source).

Haimo of Auxerre, a Benedictine monk writing in the ninth century, explicitly associated Revelation’s cosmic women with both Mary and the church. For Haimo, Heaven is the church — the body of the mother of the Lord. He declared: “Moreover, the blessed Mother of God herself in this place reveals the Church’s person {Ipsa autem beata Dei genitrix in hoc loco personam gerit Ecclesiae}.” Haimo of Auxerre, Explaination of the Apocalypse in Seven Books {Expositio in Apocalypsim libri septem} (previously attributed to Haymo of Halberstadt), Book 3, explanation on Revelation 12, Latin text from Patrologia Latina 117:1081, my English translation. Haimo, like Autpertus, associated the woman clothed with the sun with the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary to incarnate Jesus. Id.

In the ninth century, the monk Berengaudus of Ferrieres (north-central France) identified the woman clothed with the sun as the church:

And a great sign appeared in Heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. This woman represents the Church.

{ Et signum magnum apparuit in coelo, mulier amicta sole, et luna sub pedibus ejus, et in capite ejus corona stellarum duodecim. Haec mulier Ecclesiam designat }

Berengaudus of Ferrieres, Exposition on the Seven Visions of the Book of the Apocalypse {Expositio Super Septem Visiones Libri Apocalypsis}, on Revelation 12:1, Latin text from Patrologia Latina 17.874C-875D, my English translation. The woman clothed with the sun, according to Berengaudus, also represents Mary, the mother of Jesus:

And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she had given birth, he would devour her son. We can also understand Blessed Mary by the woman in this passage, because she is the mother of the Church, and because she gave birth to him who is the head of the Church. She is also the daughter of the Church, because she is the greatest member of the Church.

{ Et draco stetit ante mulierem, quae paritura erat; ut cum peperisset, filium ejus devoraret. Possumus per mulierem in hoc loco et beatam Mariam intelligere, eo quod ipsa mater sit Ecclesiae; quia eum peperit, qui caput est Ecclesiae: et filia sit Ecclesiae, quia maximum membrum est Ecclesiae. }

Berengaudus, Expositio Super Septem Visiones Libri Apocalypsis, sourced as previously. On Berengaudus, Knibbs (2019) and Visser (1996).

[10] Hildegard of Bingen, Book of Divine Works {Liber Divinorum Operum} / On God’s Activity {De operatione Dei} 11.5.16, Latin text from Patrologia Latina 197.915b-c (alternate source), my English translation. The currently best Latin edition, Derolez & Dronke (1996), wasn’t readily available to me. For a high-quality English translation of Liber Divinorum Operum, Campbell (2018). For a low-quality translation in the “you go girl” spirit, Fox (1987).

Hildegard of Bingen was “one of the most brilliant and original minds of the entire Middle Ages.” Dronke (1965) vol. 1, p. 66. Like other great medieval women writers, Hildegard had loving concern for men. She composed Liber Divinorum Operum from 1163 to 1173. This visionary work was her final book.

Hildegard’s interpretation of Eve having deceived the devil follows the literary motif “deceiver deceived.” That motif also appears in Hrotswitha’s plays and Hildegard’s Ordo virtutum. Weiss (2016). The literary motif “lover’s gift regained” is related to the motif “deceiver deceived.”

A scholar described Hildegard’s identification of Eve with the woman clothed with the son as “against all precedent.” Newman (1987) p. 113. However, Berengaudus in his ninth-century Expositio Super Septem Visiones Libri Apocalypsis expanded John’s revelation to encompass “all of sacred history since creation.” Visser (1996) p. 3. Hildegard thus thematically followed Berengaudus’s commentary on the apocalypse.

[11] Hildegard of Bingen, Letter {Epistola} 30, “About Abbot Adam of Ebra to Hildegard {Adami Abbatis de Ebra ad Hildegardem},” Hildegard’s response, Latin text from from Great Library of Lyon about the Holy Fathers {Sanctorum patrum bibliotheca maxima lugdunensis} via Patrologia Latina 197.192d-3a (alternate source), my English translation. For an alternate English translation of part of this passage, Donke (1965) vol. 1, p. 67.

[12] Hildegard of Bingen, Liber Divinorum Operum 1.4.99, Latin text from Patrologia Latina 197.885b-c, my English translation. Hildegard understood children to be generated from the man’s love for the woman:

When therefore God created Adam and sent sleep upon him, Adam experienced great love in his sleep. God made a form for the man’s love, and thus woman is man’s love. And as soon as the woman was formed, God gave to the man his creative manliness, so that by the man’s love, which is the woman, she might conceive children.

{ Cum ergo deus Adam creavit, Adam dilectionem magnam in sopore habebat, cum deus soporem in ipsum misit. Et deus fecit formam ad dilectionem viri, et sic femina dilectio viri est. Et mox cum femina formata est, virtutem illam creationis deus viro dedit, ut dilectione sua, quae femina est, filios procrecaret. }

Hildegard of Bingen, Causes and Cures {Causae et curae}, Book 2, “About the creation of Adam and the formation of Eve {De Adae creatione et Evae formatione},” Latin text from Kaiser (1903) p. 136, my English translation. The currently best Latin edition is Moulinier & Berndt (2003), which wasn’t readily available to me. For an alternate English translation, Berger (1999) p. 111.

Unlike modern scholars devoutly believing in the socially constructed myth of patriarchy, Hildegard understood men’s subordination to women. Alluding to the sin of gyno-idolatry, Hildegard explained why the Devil tempted Eve:

The Devil saw that Adam burned so strongly in love for Eve such that if the Devil himself conquered Eve, then whatever she said to Adam, Adam would do that.

{ videns etiam quod Adam in caritate Evae tam fortiter ardebat ut si ipse diabolus Evam vicisset, quidquid illa Adae diceret, Adam idem perficeret. }

Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias 1.2.10, Latin text from Führkötter & Carlevaris (1978), my English translation, benefiting from an uncredited English translation. For an earlier Latin text, Patrologia Latina 197.392A.

With exceptional courage and integrity, Hildegard described how the Devil got Eve and Adam expelled from Paradise:

At first the Devil seduces Eve, so that she might blandish Adam to the extent that she wins his assent, since she more quickly than any other could lead Adam into disobedience, because she was made from his rib. Thus woman quickly overthrows man, if he does not shrink in fear from her and easily accepts her words.

{ Evam primum seduxit, ut ipsa Adae blandiretur, quatenus ei assensum praeberet, quia ipsa citius Adam quam alia creatura ad inoboedientiam perducere potuit, quoniam de costa illius facta fuerat. Quapropter mulier virum citius deicit, cum ille eam non abhorrens verba eius facile assumit. }

Scivias 1.2.10, sourced as previously. Like the work of the great Hildegard, the brilliant mid-twelfth-century dramatic masterpiece The Play of Adam {Le jeu d’Adam} also squarely recognized the problem of men’s subservience to women.

[13] In her gynocentric, goddess-oriented work, Newman translated umbra viventis lucis as “reflection of the living light.” She explained:

Although the standard medieval Latin glossaries do not give the meaning “reflection” for umbra, Hildegard uses this word to denote images reflected in the fons vitae, literally a shining pool or fountain. The umbra viventis lucis is a “shadow” with respect to the lux vivens itself, but because it is brighter than the light of common day, “reflection” (with its emanationist overtones) is the better translation.

Newman (1985) p. 164, note 5. The fons vitae is literally the “fountain of life,” from which words and images were transmitted to Hildegard. The fons vitae has an obvious figural correspondence to men’s penises. Translating umbra as “reflection” is a domineering interpretation of Hildegard. That translation also implicitly devalues men’s sexuality.

Respect for Hildegard as a great woman mystic demands translating umbra in the way most conventional for her time and place. The central medieval Latin meaning of umbra — “shadow” — is thus the better translation. Moreover, Hildegard’s use of umbra apparently alludes to Luke 1:35. In that verse, an angel prophecies that “the manliness of the Most High will overshadow {virtus Altissimi obumbrabit}” Mary. “Vision, then, for Hildegard is a question of faith in its aspects as God’s gift and as human response.” Orthmann (1985) p. 63.

Contrived ambiguity seems to provide Newman with a pretext for her interpretive aggression. Consider the movement from “ambiguity” to declaring what “Hildegard understood”:

the ambiguous umbra connotes foreshadowing as well as overshadowing: both the preexistence of all beings through their exemplars in the divine Wisdom and the inspiration that reveals these exemplars to the prophets. Taking her own experience as a model, Hildegard understood obumbratio paradoxically as illumination: the prophet, a “mere shadow,” is overshadowed by the divine light, which enables her to see that light in which all being is foreshadowed.

Newman (1987) p. 53. Perhaps that’s what Hildegard thought and did. However, such though and action seems to me inconsistent with Hildegard’s profound appreciation for men’s sexuality. To serve her interpretative objective, Newman seems to invoke ambiguity in a context where the indicated ambiguity is scarcely relevant:

Obumbratio is, however, a profoundly ambivalent metaphor. On the one hand, it can denote grace, shelter, refreshing coolness, protection from too dazzling a light; but, on the other, it suggests sin, ignorance, error, and death.

Id. p. 106. Sin, ignorance, error, and death have extremely remote relation to the specific context of Mary encountering an angel in Luke 1:35.

[14] Matthew 2:13-5. Mary’s husband Joseph shouldn’t regarded as a cuckold but as a saintly servant of God.

[15] “Mary and the Church are one.” Rahner (1961) pp. 59, 109. Ambrose of Milan described Mary as the model for every Christian:

But blessed are you also, because you have listened and believed, for every believing soul conceives and gives birth to the Word of God and acknowledges his work. Would Mary’s soul be in all souls, so as to magnify the Lord, and Mary’s spirit be in all spirits, so as to praise God. If according to flesh one mother is Christ’s mother, according to faith nonetheless Christ is the fruit of all. Every soul receives the Word of God, as long as the soul keeps its chastity spotless and undefiled by shame. Every soul therefore is able to magnify the Lord, just as Mary’s soul magnified the Lord and her spirit exulted in God her savior.

{ Sed et uos beati, qui audistis et credidistis; quaecumque enim crediderit anima et concipit et generat dei uerbum et opera eius agnoscit. sit in singulis Mariae anima, ut magnificet dominum, sit in singulis spiritus Mariae, ut exsultet in deo, si secundum carnem una mater est Christi, secundum fidem tamen omnium fructus est Christus; omnis enim anima accipit dei uerbum, si tamen inmaculata et inmunis a uitiis intemerato castimoniam pudore custodiat. quaecumque igitur talis esse potuerit anima magnificat dominum, sicut anima Mariae magnificauit dominum et exsultauit spiritus eius in deo salutari. }

Ambrose of Milan, Commentary on the Gospel According to Luke {Expositionis in Evangeliam secundum Lucam} 2.26, Latin text from Schenkl & Schenkl (1902) pp. 55-6, my English translation. An earlier Latin text is Patrologia Latina 15.1561. Ambrose here is commenting on Luke 1:44-5. For other pre-modern commentaries, see Glossae Scripturae Sacrae-electronicae and Catena Bible.

The historical importance of Mary to the Christian church has been vastly under-estimated. One Marian scholar even declared:

the idea of the Mother of God as prototype of the Church is an exceptional one in the main stream of medieval theology; the relationships between Mary and the Church never become a major preoccupation with medieval thinkers of the first rank.

Cunningham (1958) p. 53. That’s a faulty scholarly judgment. It’s also consistent with a more general scholarly problem with gender. Henry Adams presented medieval history with more integrity than did Georges Duby.

[images] (1) Jesus Christ as the “new sun {sol novus}”: the Holy Face adored by saints Benedict and Paul. Illustration excerpt (color-enhanced) from James le Palmer’s encyclopedia, Every Good {Omne Bonum}, section “Absolucio-Circumcisio.” Made about 1360 to 1375. From folio 16 of British Library, Royal MS 6 E VI/1. Alternate image on Wikimedia Commons. Other images from Omne Bonum are readily available. (2) Seven-headed dragon attacks woman clothed with sun and with moon under her feet (Revelation 12). Illustration (detail) from Beatus of Liébana / Facundus Beatus, made in 1047 for Ferdinand I, King of León, and the Queen Sancha. Preserved on folio 186v of Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, Ms Vit.14.2 (alternate source). (3) Seven-headed dragon attacks woman clothed with sun and with moon under her feet in glossed Apocalypse made a few years before 1250. Image from folio 19v of Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Fr. 403. On this manuscript, Lewis (1990). (4) Dragon attacks woman in the Gerona Beatus. From folio 171v of Gerona Beatus made in 975 in the San Salvador de Tábara scriptorium. Manuscript preserved in Gerona Cathedral, Spain, as Catedral, Núm. Inv. 7 (11). (5) Dragon attacks woman. From folio 14v of the Chantilly Apocalypse made about 1444 to 1471 and preserved as France, Chantilly, Bibliothèque et Archives du Château, Ms. 724. (6) Dragon attacks woman in the Silos Beatus. From folio 147v of Silos Beatus made from 1091 to 1109 at the Monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos near Burgos in Spain. Preserved as British Library, Add MS 11695. Popular article about the Silos Beatus, and more scholarly information part one and part two. (7) Dragon attacks woman in the Trinity Apocalypse. From folio 13r of the Trinity Apocalypse, made about 1250 and preserved as Cambridge, Trinity College MS R.16.2. (8) Dragon attacks woman from Apocalypse cycle in Liber Floridus by Lambert of Saint-Omer. Illustration from folio 39r of manuscript made in the third quarter of the thirteenth century and preserved as Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Latin 8865. On the Apocalypse cycle in Liber Floridus, Woodward (2010).

Among the images above, those from the Facundus Beatus, Gerona Beatus, and Silos Beatus are of a common type known as a Beatus Apocalypse, or Beatus. About the year 776, the Spanish monk Beatus of Liébana in northern Spain wrote Commentary on the Apocalypse {Commentaria in Apocalypsin}. Beatus of Liébana probably was the abbot of the monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana in the Kingdom of Asturias. He was highly learned and familiar with leading Christian scholars preceding him. Beatus was also well-connected. He corresponded with Charlemagne’s eminent scholar Alcuin and with royalty of Asturias.

In writing the twelve books of his Commentaria in Apocalypsin, Beatus combined the text of Revelation with relevant textual comments from earlier Christian thinkers, including Irenaeus of Lyon, Tychonius, Gregory the Great, and Isidore of Seville. Following the first edition of 776, Beatus made subsequent editions in 784 and 786. All were illustrated. On these editions, Steinhauser (1995). Thirty-five manuscripts of the Beatus Apocalypse have survived. Twenty-seven of those are illustrated. Here’s a list of the manuscripts, and a set of facsimiles. For a critical edition of the Latin and an English translation, Gryson (2012) and O’Brien (2013) / O’Brien (2016), respectively.

dragon attacking woman in the Apocalypse cycle in Liber Floridus


Adams, A. W., ed. 1985. Primasius Hadrumetinus. Commentarius in Apocalypsin. Corpus Christianorum. Series Latina 92. Turnholti: Typographi Brepols.

Berger, Margret. 1999. Hildegard of Bingen: on natural philosophy and medicine: selections from Cause et cure. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Cambell, Nathaniel M., trans. 2018. Hildegard of Bingen. The Book of Divine Works. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2018. Table of Contents.

Cunningham, Francis L. B. 1958. “The Relationship Between Mary and the Church in Medieval Thought.” Marian Studies. 9(8): 52-78.

Derolez, Albert, and Peter Dronke, eds. 1996. Hildegard of Bingen. Liber divinorum operum. Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis CCCM 92. Turnhout: Brepols.

Dronke, Peter. 1965. Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric. 2 vols. Vol. 1Vol. 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Emmerson, Richard K. and Bernard McGinn, eds. 1992. The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press.

Fox, Matthew, ed. 1987. Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works with Letters and Songs. Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Company.

Führkötter, Adelgundis and Angela Carlevaris, eds. 1978. Hildegardis Scivias. Corpus Christianorum. Continuatio Mediaevalis, volume 43 and volume 43A.Turnhout: Brepols.

Garcia Mahiques, Rafael. 1995. “Perfiles iconográficos de la Mujer del Apocalipsis como símbolo mariano: Sicut mulier amicta sole et luna sub pedibus eius.” Ars Longa. 6: 187-197.

Garcia Mahiques, Rafael. 1996. “Perfiles iconográficos de la Mujer del Apocalípsis como símbolo mariano (y II): Ab initio et ante saecula creata sum.” Ars Longa. 7-8: 177-184.

Gryson, Roger, ed. 2012. Beati Liebanensis Tractatus de Apocalipsin. Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, volumes 107B and 107C. Turnhout: Brepols.

Hoskier, H. C. 1928. The Complete Commentary of Oecumenius on the Apocalypse: Now Printed for the First Time from Manuscripts at Messina, Rome, Salonika and Athos. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan.

Jacobs, Andrew S. n.d. “Hippolytus, On Christ and Antichrist.” Online.

Kaiser, Paul, ed. 1903. Hildegard of Bingen. Hildergardis Causae et curae. Lipsiae: in aedibus B.G. Teubneri.

Klein, Peter K. 1992. “Introduction: The Apocalypse in Medieval Art.” Chapter 7 (pp. 159-199) in Emmerson & McGinn (1992).

Knibbs, Eric. 2019. “Berengaudus on the Apocalypse.” Pp. 135–162 in Eric Knibbs, Jessica A. Boon, and Erica Gelser, eds. The End of the World in Medieval Thought and Spirituality. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lewis, Suzanne. 1990. “The Enigma of Fr. 403 and the Compilation of a Thirteenth-Century English Illustrated Apocalypse.” Gesta. 29(1): 31–43.

Llasos, Marwil N. 2019. “Marian Interpretation of the Woman Clothed with the Sun according to the Fathers of the Church.” The Marian Blogger. Posted October 8., 2019.

Long, Fredrick J. 2016. ‘“The God of This Age” (2 Cor 4:4) and Paul’s Empire-Resisting Gospel at Corinth.’ Pp. 219-269 in James R. Harrison and L. L. Welborn, eds. The First Urban Churches 2: Roman Corinth. Atlanta: SBL Press.

Moulinier, Laurence and Rainer Berndt, eds. 2003. Hildegard of Bingen. Beate Hildegardis Cause et cure. Berlin: Akademie Verlag. Introduction.

Mutzenbecher, Almut. 1953. Maximi Episcopi Tavrinensis Sermones. Corpus Christianorum. Series Latina 23. Turnholti: Typographi Brepols.

Newman, Barbara. 1985. “Hildegard of Bingen: Visions and Validation.” Church History. 54(2): 163–75.

Newman, Barbara. 1987. Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Norelli, Enrico, ed. 1987. Ippolito. L’anticristo = De Antichristo. Firenze: Nardini.

Nothaft, C. P. E. 2012. “The Origins of the Christmas Date: Some Recent Trends in Historical Research.” Church History. 81(4): 903–11.

O’Brien, M. S. 2013. Beatus of Liebana. Commentary on the Apocalypse (Translated): Part 1 – From Christ with Love. Amazon Kindle.

O’Brien, M. S. 2016. Beatus of Liebana. Commentary on the Apocalypse (Translated): Part 2 – Four Horses and the Lamb. Amazon Kindle.

O’Daly, Gerard J. P. 2012. Days Linked by Song: Prudentius’ Cathemerinon. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Review by Catherine Conybeare.

Osborne, Grant R. 2002. Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Orthmann, Brother James. 1985. “Hildegard of Bingen on the Divine Light.” Mystics Quarterly. 11(2): 60–64.

Price, S. R. F. 1984. “Gods and Emperors: The Greek Language of the Roman Imperial Cult.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies. 104: 79–95.

Rahner, Hugo. 1957. Griechische Mythen in Christlicher Deutung. Rhein-Verlag AG. Translated by Brian Battershaw (1963). Greek Myths and Christian Mystery. New York: Harper & Row. Citations above are to Battershaw’s English translation.

Rahner, Hugo. 1961. Maria und die Kirche. Innsbruck-Vienna: Tyrolia-Verlag. Translated by Sebastian Bullough (1961) as Our Lady and the Church. London: Darton, Longman & Todd. Citations above are to Bullough’s English translation.

Schenkl, Carl, and Heinrich Schenkl, eds. 1902. Ambrose of Milan. Expositio Evangelii Secundum Lucan. Vindobonae Wien: F. Tempsky.

Schmidt, Thomas C. 2015. “Calculating December 25 As the Birth of Jesus in Hippolytus’ Canon and Chronicon.” Vigiliae Christianae. 69(5): 542–63.

Sheen, Fulton J. 1952. The World’s First Love. New York, McGraw-Hill.

Smith, Cynthia Anne Miller. 2011. Apocalypticism Eschatology and Revelation 11:19 — 12:18: Conquering Chaos and Evil during the Apocalypse. Master of Arts Dissertation, University of Georgia.

Steinhauser, Kenneth B. 1995. “Narrative and Illumination in the Beatus Apocalypse.” Catholic Historical Review. 81(2): 185-210.

Suggit, John N., trans. 2006. Oecumenius. Commentary on the Apocalypse. Washington, D.C: Catholic University of America Press.

Tzamalikos, Panayiotes. 2013. An Ancient Commentary on the Book of Revelation: A Critical Edition of the Scholia in Apocalypsin. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Visser, Derk. 1996. Apocalypse As Utopian Expectation (800-1500): The Apocalypse Commentary of Berengaudus of Ferrières and the Relationship between Exegesis, Liturgy and Iconography. Leiden: Brill.

Weber, Robert, ed. 1971a. Ambrosius Autpertus Opera ,Part I. Expositionis in Apocalypsin, Libri I-V. Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis, vol. 27. Turnholti: Typographi Brepols Editores Pontificii.

Weber, Robert, ed. 1971b. Ambrosius Autpertus Opera, Part II. Expositionis in Apocalypsin, Libri VI-X. Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis, vol. 27A. Turnholti: Typographi Brepols Editores Pontificii.

Weiss, Sonja. 2016. “Cloud and Clothe : Hildegard of Bingen’s Metaphors of the Fall of the Human Soul.” Acta Neophilologica. 49(1-2): 5–18. Alternate source.

Woodward, Elizabeth. 2010. Illustrated Apocalypse Cycle in the Liber Floridus of Lambert of Saint-Omer. Master of Arts Thesis, Florida State University.

Gorgias’s defense of Helen: sophism for self-centered beauty

One woman, the beautiful Helen of Troy, motivated massive violence against men in the Trojan War. The Iliad emphasizes this stark lesson about men’s folly with Helen’s self-centered, self-pitying lament at Hector’s epic-ending funeral. Men ardently desire to be heroes for women. Men desiring to be heroes for women shapes not only violence against men but also verbal competition. Herodotus’s rational, historical assessment of the Trojan War is thus less insightful than Gorgias’s defense of Helen.

Herodotus, a thoughtful, research-oriented historian of the fifth century BGC, with good reason regarded the Iliad’s story about Helen to be implausible. Herodotus noted that King Proteus of Egypt built a shrine to Aphrodite the Foreigner in Memphis. No other shrine to Aphrodite had that epithet. Herodotus conjectured that Aphrodite the Foreigner referred to the beautiful, lustful Helen of Troy.

To test his conjecture, Herodotus asked Egyptian priests about Helen. They explained that when Paris and Helen were sailing away from Cythera, a storm blew them ashore on the Nile’s bank. Having heard that Helen and Paris had adulterously eloped and stolen her husband Menelaus’s goods, King Proteus had them arrested. Blaming the man for having “seduced” the woman, Proteus was outraged at Paris’s behavior. Proteus confiscated Menelaus’s goods, ordered Paris to leave immediately, and didn’t allow Helen to leave with him. Paris thus returned to Troy without Helen.[1] In short, according to the Egyptian priests, Helen of Troy was never in Troy. She was in Egypt.

Egyptian priests said that the Trojan War arose from the Greeks’ suspecting the Trojans of lying. Herodotus reported:

When I asked the Egyptian priests whether the version told by the Greeks of what had happened at Troy was mere fantasy, they replied with a story that they insisted had been obtained by making enquiries of Menelaus. After the abduction of Helen, a great army of Greeks made for the land of the Trojans to aid Menelaus. There they disembarked and set up camp. Then they sent to Troy messengers, one of whom was Menelaus himself. Once the embassy had arrived inside the city walls, its delegates demanded the return both of Helen and of all the goods which Paris had stolen and carried off, together with justice for the crimes that had been committed. The Trojans’ response was the one which they would never cease to give, under oath or not: namely, that they had neither Helen nor even the goods in question, since the whole lot were in Egypt. The Trojans said that it would therefore be most unjust if they were obliged to compensate the Greeks for what was actually in the possession of Proteus, the king of Egypt. The Greeks, who assumed that they were being made fun of, promptly put the city under siege, until finally it was theirs. Even with the city in their hands, however, there was no sign of Helen. Instead, all the Greeks could uncover was the same story as before. Believing it at last, the Greeks sent Menelaus himself to visit Proteus.

{ εἰρομένου δέ μευ τοὺς ἱρέας εἰ μάταιον λόγον λέγουσι οἱ Ἕλληνες τὰ περὶ Ἴλιον γενέσθαι ἢ οὔ, ἔφασαν πρὸς ταῦτα τάδε, ἱστορίῃσι φάμενοι εἰδέναι παρ᾽ αὐτοῦ Μενέλεω. ἐλθεῖν μὲν γὰρ μετὰ τὴν Ἑλένης ἁρπαγὴν ἐς τὴν Τευκρίδα γῆν Ἑλλήνων στρατιὴν πολλὴν βοηθεῦσαν Μενέλεῳ, ἐκβᾶσαν δὲ ἐς γῆν καὶ ἱδρυθεῖσαν τὴν στρατιὴν πέμπειν ἐς τὸ Ἴλιον ἀγγέλους, σὺν δέ σφι ἰέναι καὶ αὐτὸν Μενέλεων: τοὺς δ᾽ ἐπείτε ἐσελθεῖν ἐς τὸ τεῖχος, ἀπαιτέειν Ἑλένην τε καὶ τὰ χρήματα τά οἱ οἴχετο κλέψας Ἀλέξανδρος, τῶν τε ἀδικημάτων δίκας αἰτέειν: τοὺς δὲ Τευκροὺς τὸν αὐτὸν λόγον λέγειν τότε καὶ μετέπειτα, καὶ ὀμνύντας καὶ ἀνωμοτί, μὴ μὲν ἔχειν Ἑλένην μηδὲ τὰ ἐπικαλεύμενα χρήματα, ἀλλ᾽ εἶναι αὐτὰ πάντα ἐν Αἰγύπτῳ, καὶ οὐκ ἂν δικαίως αὐτοὶ δίκας ὑπέχειν τῶν Πρωτεὺς ὁ Αἰγύπτιος βασιλεὺς ἔχει. οἱ δὲ Ἕλληνες καταγελᾶσθαι δοκέοντες ὑπ᾽ αὐτῶν οὕτω δὴ ἐπολιόρκεον, ἐς ὃ ἐξεῖλον: ἑλοῦσι δὲ τὸ τεῖχος ὡς οὐκ ἐφαίνετο ἡ Ἑλένη, ἀλλὰ τὸν αὐτὸν λόγου τῷ προτέρῳ ἐπυνθάνοντο, οὕτω δὴ πιστεύσαντες τῷ λόγῳ τῷ πρώτῳ οἱ Ἕλληνες αὐτὸν Μενέλεων ἀποστέλλουσι παρὰ Πρωτέα. }[2]

According the Egyptian priests, Menelaus and Helen thus reunited in Egypt and returned to their home in Sparta.

Helen returning with her husband Menelaus to their home in Sparta

Herodotus rightly regarded the Egyptian priests’ account of Helen to be more reasonable than that of the Iliad. Herodotus explained:

Speaking personally, I do not doubt the Egyptian priests’ account as it relates to Helen. For surely, had she indeed been in Troy, then she would have been handed back over to the Greeks, whether Paris wished it or not. Neither Priam nor the rest of his family were so mentally defective as to willingly put themselves, their children and their city in peril, simply so that Paris might live with Helen. And even if we grant that this might perhaps have been their initial attitude, nevertheless, with the onset of hostilities, there was a slaughter of Trojans at the hands of the Greeks so prodigious that Priam himself, if the evidence of the epic poets is to be trusted, was losing some two or three or even more of his sons every time battle was joined. My supposition must surely be correct that the effect of these circumstances would have been to convince Priam, had he been the one who was living with Helen, that she simply had to be given back to the Achaeans. How else, after all, was he to be rid of the evils hemming him in? Nor is it the case that Paris was the heir to the throne, and might therefore conceivably have been operating as regent during Priam’s dotage. Rather, it was Hector, who was both older and more of a man than Paris, who stood to inherit the kingdom upon the death of his father. Thus it would hardly have been proper for him to indulge his brother’s lawlessness, not when Paris was bringing such suffering upon Hector himself and upon the entire Trojan people.

{ ἐγὼ δὲ τῷ λόγῳ τῷ περὶ Ἑλένης λεχθέντι καὶ αὐτὸς προστίθεμαι, τάδε ἐπιλεγόμενος, εἰ ἦν Ἑλένη ἐν Ἰλίῳ, ἀποδοθῆναι ἂν αὐτὴν τοῖσι Ἕλλησι ἤτοι ἑκόντος γε ἢ ἀέκοντος Ἀλεξάνδρου. οὐ γὰρ δὴ οὕτω γε φρενοβλαβὴς ἦν ὁ Πρίαμος οὐδὲ οἱ ἄλλοι οἱ προσήκοντες αὐτῷ, ὥστε τοῖσι σφετέροισι σώμασι καὶ τοῖσι τέκνοισι καὶ τῇ πόλι κινδυνεύειν ἐβούλοντο, ὅκως Ἀλέξανδρος Ἑλένῃ συνοικέῃ. εἰ δέ τοι καὶ ἐν τοῖσι πρώτοισι χρόνοισι ταῦτα ἐγίνωσκον, ἐπεὶ πολλοὶ μὲν τῶν ἄλλων Τρώων, ὁκότε συμμίσγοιεν τοῖσι Ἕλλησι, ἀπώλλυντο, αὐτοῦ δὲ Πριάμου οὐκ ἔστι ὅτε οὐ δύο ἢ τρεῖς ἢ καὶ ἔτι πλέους τῶν παίδων μάχης γινομένης ἀπέθνησκον, εἰ χρή τι τοῖσι ἐποποιοῖσι χρεώμενον λέγειν, τούτων δὲ τοιούτων συμβαινόντων ἐγὼ μὲν ἔλπομαι, εἰ καὶ αὐτὸς Πρίαμος συνοίκεε Ἑλένῃ, ἀποδοῦναι ἂν αὐτὴν τοῖσι Ἀχαιοῖσι, μέλλοντά γε δὴ τῶν παρεόντων κακῶν ἀπαλλαγήσεσθαι. οὐ μὲν οὐδὲ ἡ βασιληίη ἐς Ἀλέξανδρον περιήιε, ὥστε γέροντος Πριάμου ἐόντος ἐπ᾽ ἐκείνῳ τὰ πρήγματα εἶναι, ἀλλὰ Ἕκτωρ καὶ πρεσβύτερος καὶ ἀνὴρ ἐκείνου μᾶλλον ἐὼν ἔμελλε αὐτὴν Πριάμου ἀποθανόντος παραλάμψεσθαι, τὸν οὐ προσῆκε ἀδικέοντι τῷ ἀδελφεῷ ἐπιτρέπειν, καὶ ταῦτα μεγάλων κακῶν δι᾽ αὐτὸν συμβαινόντων ἰδίῃ τε αὐτῷ καὶ τοῖσι ἄλλοισι πᾶσι Τρωσί. }

Herodotus showed good reason in relation to Helen and the Trojans. However, Trojan men and Greek men, like many men through history, acted with bad reason in relation to a woman. That’s the story of Helen in the Iliad.

Helen and Paris leaving Cythera

Although regarded as extremely beautiful, the Iliad shows Helen to be a horrible person. She treats her second husband Paris with contempt after her first husband Menelaus thrashed him on the battlefield. Helen’s character is most fully exhibited at the funeral of Paris’s brother Hector, whom Achilles killed in battle. All of Troy mourned Hector. Underscoring women’s dominant social position in archaic Greek society, the Iliad concludes with three women speaking laments for Hector. Those lamenting women are Andromache, Hector’s wife; Hecuba, the queen of Troy; and ultimately Helen. Helen’s crowning role in lamenting Hector recalls her having motivated the Trojan War and thus Hector’s death within it. Helen’s lament for Hector is self-centered and self-pitying:

Hector, far dearest to my heart of all my husband’s brothers!
Indeed my husband is godlike Paris,
who brought me to the land of Troy. I wish I had died before then.
This is now the twentieth year from the time
when I went from there and left the land of my fathers,
yet never have I heard evil or spiteful word from you.
But if any other spoke reproachfully of me in the halls,
a brother of yours, or a sister, or a brother’s fair-robed wife,
or your mother — your father was ever gentle as if he had been my own —
yet you would turn them with speech and restrain them
by your gentleness and your gentle words.
So I wail alike for you and for my unlucky self with grief at heart.
No longer have I anyone else in broad Troy
who is gentle to me or kind. All others shudder at me.

{ Ἕκτορ ἐμῷ θυμῷ δαέρων πολὺ φίλτατε πάντων,
ἦ μέν μοι πόσις ἐστὶν Ἀλέξανδρος θεοειδής,
ὅς μ᾽ ἄγαγε Τροίηνδ᾽: ὡς πρὶν ὤφελλον ὀλέσθαι.
ἤδη γὰρ νῦν μοι τόδε εἰκοστὸν ἔτος ἐστὶν
ἐξ οὗ κεῖθεν ἔβην καὶ ἐμῆς ἀπελήλυθα πάτρης:
ἀλλ᾽ οὔ πω σεῦ ἄκουσα κακὸν ἔπος οὐδ᾽ ἀσύφηλον:
ἀλλ᾽ εἴ τίς με καὶ ἄλλος ἐνὶ μεγάροισιν ἐνίπτοι
δαέρων ἢ γαλόων ἢ εἰνατέρων εὐπέπλων,
ἢ ἑκυρή, ἑκυρὸς δὲ πατὴρ ὣς ἤπιος αἰεί,
ἀλλὰ σὺ τὸν ἐπέεσσι παραιφάμενος κατέρυκες
σῇ τ᾽ ἀγανοφροσύνῃ καὶ σοῖς ἀγανοῖς ἐπέεσσι.
τὼ σέ θ᾽ ἅμα κλαίω καὶ ἔμ᾽ ἄμμορον ἀχνυμένη κῆρ:
οὐ γάρ τίς μοι ἔτ᾽ ἄλλος ἐνὶ Τροίῃ εὐρείῃ
ἤπιος οὐδὲ φίλος, πάντες δέ με πεφρίκασιν. }[3]

Helen doesn’t lament the horror of seeing Achilles kill Hector and then abuse Hector’s dead body. Helen doesn’t lament that Hector, along with numerous other men, died in a foolish war over her. Helen doesn’t lament that the Greeks are likely now to destroy Troy. No, Helen, crying hot tears, laments that no one else will be kind to her like Hector was. She laments that others will now freely reproach her. The poor privileged dear! Helen earlier called herself a “horrible, evil-intriguing bitch {κῠ́ων κᾰκομήχᾰνος ὀκρυόεις}.”[4] While showing little direct concern for others, at least she rightly characterized herself. Helen’s self-centered, self-pitying lament for Hector in the Iliad emphasizes men’s bad reason in relation to women. Innumerable Trojan men and Greek men died fighting for the horrible woman Helen.

Criticizing even a horrible woman like Helen isn’t propitious for gaining honor, influence, and wealth within gynocentric society. No one has understood rational, self-interested men’s speech better than ancient Greek sophists. In the fifth century BGC, the sophist Gorgias assailed those who blame Helen for the massive violence against men of the Trojan War. Gorgias declared:

As for me, I wish, by providing certain argumentation in my speech, to stop the blame for Helen, who is being defamed. I wish to demonstrate that those who blame her are liars. I wish to show the truth and to stop their ignorance.

{ ἐγὼ δὲ βούλομαι λογισμόν τινα τῷ λόγῳ δοὺς τὴν μὲν κακῶς ἀκούουσαν παῦσαι τῆς αἰτίας, τοὺς δὲ μεμφομένους ψευδομένους ἐπιδεῖξαι καὶ δεῖξαι τἀληθὲς καὶ παῦσαι τῆς ἀμαθίας. }[5]

Gorgias thus positions himself as a man defending a woman. That’s a propitious position for social acclaim. With abstractions and elaborate rhetoric, Gorgias obscured the reality of what occurred:

Born of divine parents, Helen obtained beauty equal to the gods, beauty that she obtained receiving it and not hiding it. And she instilled in very many men very many longings for love. By means of her one body she brought together bodies of many men who had great ambitions about great matters. Among these men were ones who possessed an abundance of wealth, others renown for ancient nobility, others renown for the vigor of their innate strength, and others for the power of their acquired wisdom. They all came together, driven by the love that desires victory and by the invincible desire for honor.

{ ἐκ τοιούτων δὲ γενομένη ἔσχε τὸ ἰσόθεον κάλλος, ὃ λαβοῦσα καὶ οὐ λαθοῦσα ἔσχε· πλείστας δὲ πλείστοις ἐπιθυμίας ἔρωτος ἐνειργάσατο, ἑνὶ δὲ σώματι πολλὰ σώματα συνήγαγεν ἀνδρῶν ἐπὶ μεγάλοις μεγάλα φρονούντων, ὧν οἱ μὲν πλούτου μεγέθη, οἱ δὲ εὐγενείας παλαιᾶς εὐδοξίαν, οἱ δὲ ἀλκῆς οἰκείας εὐεξίαν, οἱ δὲ σοφίας ἐπικτήτου δύναμιν ἔσχον· καὶ ἧκον ἅπαντες ὑπ’ ἔρωτός τε φιλονίκου φιλοτιμίας τε ἀνικήτου. }

All these worthy men came together to kill each other. Helen provided the motive for the Trojan War. The men participated because they valued Helen more than themselves. Nonetheless, according to Gorgias, Helen should not be blamed for motivating the Trojan War:

How then ought one consider the blame for Helen as being just, given that, whether she did what she did because she had fallen in love or had been persuaded by speech or had been seized with force or had been constrained by divine constraint, on every count she is acquitted of the accusation?

{ πῶς οὖν χρὴ δίκαιον ἡγήσασθαι τὸν τῆς Ἑλένης μῶμον, ἥτις εἴτ’ ἐρασθεῖσα1 εἴτε λόγῳ πεισθεῖσα εἴτε βίᾳ ἁρπασθεῖσα εἴτε ὑπὸ θείας ἀνάγκης ἀναγκασθεῖσα ἔπραξεν ἃ ἔπραξε, πάντως διαφεύγει τὴν αἰτίαν }

Social norms favor women getting all the credit and none of the blame. Certainly men deserve blame for lacking self-esteem. Men too often have lacked a sense of their value as fully human persons — persons fully equal in value to women.

Isocrates, highly estimates ancient Attic orator

Gorgias’s student Isocrates, celebrated as one of the ten leading Attic orators, went beyond Gorgias in praising Helen. Isocrates also implicitly criticized Herodotus’s reasoning about the Trojans returning Helen to the Greeks:

What man would have rejected marriage with Helen, at whose abduction the Greeks were as incensed as if all Greece had been laid waste, while the barbarians were as filled with pride as if they had conquered us all? It is clear how each party felt about the matter. Although there had been many causes of contention between them before, none of these disturbed their peace. For Helen, however, they waged so great a war, not only the greatest of all wars in the violence of its passions, but also in the duration of its struggle. In the extent of their preparations, it was the greatest war of all time. And although the Trojans might have rid themselves of the misfortunes which encompassed them by surrendering Helen, and the Greeks might have lived in peace for all time by being indifferent to her fate, neither so wished. On the contrary, the Trojans allowed their cities to be laid waste and their land to be ravaged, so as to avoid yielding Helen to the Greeks. The Greeks chose to remain in a foreign land to grow old there and never to see their own again, rather than leave Helen behind to return to their fatherland. And they were not acting in this way as eager champions of Paris or of Menelaus. No, the Trojans were upholding the cause of Asia, and the Greeks that of Europe, in the belief that the land in which Helen resided in person would be the more favored of Fortune.

{ Τίς δ᾿ ἂν τὸν γάμον τὸν Ἑλένης ὑπερεῖδεν, ἧς ἁρπασθείσης οἱ μὲν Ἕλληνες οὕτως ἠγανάκτησαν ὥσπερ ὅλης τῆς Ἑλλάδος πεπορθημένης, οἱ δὲ βάρβαροι τοσοῦτον ἐφρόνησαν, ὅσον περ ἂν εἰ πάντων ἡμῶν ἐκράτησαν. δῆλον δ᾿ ὡς ἑκάτεροι διετέθησαν· πολλῶν γὰρ αὐτοῖς πρότερον ἐγκλημάτων γενομένων περὶ μὲν τῶν ἄλλων ἡσυχίαν ἦγον, ὑπὲρ δὲ ταύτης τηλικοῦτον συνεστήσαντο πόλεμον οὐ μόνον τῷ μεγέθει τῆς ὀργῆς ἀλλὰ καὶ τῷ μήκει τοῦ χρόνου καὶ τῷ πλήθει τῶν παρασκευῶν ὅσος οὐδεὶς πώποτε γέγονεν. ἐξὸν δὲ τοῖς μὲν ἀποδοῦσιν Ἑλένην ἀπηλλάχθαι τῶν παρόντων κακῶν, τοῖς δ᾿ ἀμελήσασιν ἐκείνης ἀδεῶς οἰκεῖν τὸν ἐπίλοιπον χρόνον, οὐδέτεροι ταῦτ᾿ ἠθέλησαν· ἀλλ᾿ οἱ μὲν περιεώρων καὶ πόλεις ἀναστάτους γιγνομένας καὶ τὴν χώραν πορθουμένην, ὥστε μὴ προέσθαι τοῖς Ἕλλησιν αὐτήν, οἱ δ᾿ ᾑροῦντο μένοντες ἐπὶ τῆς ἀλλοτρίας καταγηράσκειν καὶ μηδέποτε τοὺς αὑτῶν ἰδεῖν μᾶλλον ἢ ’κείνην καταλιπόντες εἰς τὰς αὑτῶν πατρίδας ἀπελθεῖν. καὶ ταῦτ᾿ ἐποίουν οὐχ ὑπὲρ Ἀλεξάνδρου καὶ Μενελάου φιλονικοῦντες, ἀλλ᾿ οἱ μὲν ὑπὲρ τῆς Ἀσίας, οἱ δ᾿ ὑπὲρ τῆς Εὐρώπης, νομίζοντες, ἐν ὁποτέρᾳ τὸ σῶμα τοὐκείνης κατοικήσειε, ταύτην εὐδαιμονεστέραν τὴν χώραν ἔσεσθαι. }[6]

Compared to the Iliad, Isocrates engages in crude myth-making. Compared to Herodotus, Isocrates is completely unreasonable. Such failings don’t lessen the acclaim for a speaker discounting innumerable men’s deaths to praise a woman.

Read with compassion for men’s lives, the Iliad powerfully questions men’s subordination to women. Men’s subordination to women isn’t rational. It defies belief in history like the reasoned history of Herodotus. Men’s subordination to women is an outcome of symbolic power in social discourse. Achieving gender equality depends on enough persons learning to read discerningly great literature such as the Iliad, the Aeneid, and fine medieval poetry.[7]

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Read more:


[1] Herodotus, Histories {Ἱστορίαι} 2.112-5. The sixth-century Greek lyric poet Stesichorus also asserted that Helen remained in Egypt. Other early Greek poets similarly challenged the Iliad’s account of the Trojan War. Richardson (1993) pp. 26-8.

[2] Herodotus, Histories 2.118, ancient Greek text from Godley (1920), English translation (modified) from Holland (2014). The subsequent quote above is similarly from Herodotus’s Histories 2.120. For an amazingly detailed, ultra-rigorous translation of these verses, Campbell (2015).

On the objective merits of Herodotus’s history of the Trojan War, Neville (1977). Not a narrow-minded empiricist, Herodotus had a sophisticated understanding of myth’s importance. Baragwanath (2012).

[3] Homer, Iliad 24.762-75, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified) from Murray (1924). One scholar tentatively observed, “Helen’s self-absorption here perhaps gives insight into the self-indulgent passion with which she and Paris carelessly sparked the war to begin with.” Perkell (2008) p. 105. Contrasting Andromache’s lament with Helen’s lament, Perkell noted, “Hektor has in some sense ultimately protected the wrong woman.” Id.

Some textual witnesses to Iliad 24.764 indicate that Helen wished “Paris had died before then.” But modern authorities favor the alternate textual witnesses indicating that Helen wished that she had died before then. That reading, as well as Iliad 24.763-4 more generally, are best interpreted to express Helen’s self-focus and self-pity. Carvounis (2007).

[4] Iliad 6.344. On Helen’s related self-characterizations, see note [7] in my post about Helen verbally abusing Paris. Punning on Helen’s name in Greek, the chorus in Aeschylus’s fifth-century BGC tragedy Agamemnon {Αγαμέμνων} sang that Helen brought “hell to ships, hell to men, hell to cities {ἑλένας, ἑλάνδρος, ἑλέπτολις}.” Agamemnon v. 689.

[5] Gorgias, Testimonia, Part 2: Doctrine (D), Encomium of Helen (D24), from section 2, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Laks & Most (2016). The subsequent two quotes above are similarly from Gorgias’s Encomium of Helen, sections 4 and 20. Here are Greek texts of Hermann Diels (1922) and Friedrich Blass (1908, Teubner), and English translations by LaRue Van Hook (1913) and by Brian R. Donovan (1999). Gorgias, from Leontini in Sicily, was a student of Teisias. Gorgias came to Athens on an embassy in 427 BGC.

[6] Isocrates, Discourses 10. Helen, sections 49-51, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Van Hook (1945). Isocrates remarked about Gorgias:

This is the reason why, of those who have wished to discuss a subject with eloquence, I praise especially him who chose to write of Helen, because he has recalled to memory so remarkable a woman, one who in birth, and in beauty, and in renown far surpassed all others. Nevertheless, even he committed a slight inadvertence — for although he asserts that he has written an encomium of Helen, it turns out that he has actually spoken a defense of her conduct.

{ διὸ καὶ τὸν γράψαντα περὶ τῆς Ἑλένης ἐπαινῶ μάλιστα τῶν εὖ λέγειν τι βουληθέντων, ὅτι περὶ τοιαύτης ἐμνήσθη γυναικός, ἣ καὶ τῷ γένει καὶ τῷ κάλλει καὶ τῇ δόξῃ πολὺ διήνεγκεν. οὐ μὴν ἀλλὰ καὶ τοῦτον μικρόν τι παρέλαθεν· φησὶ μὲν γὰρ ἐγκώμιον γεγραφέναι περὶ αὐτῆς, τυγχάνει δ᾽ ἀπολογίαν εἰρηκὼς ὑπὲρ τῶν ἐκείνῃ πεπραγμένων. }

Isocrates, Discourses 10. Helen, section 14, sourced as previously. Isocrates declared of Helen, “should she not be praised and honored, and regarded as far superior to all the women who have ever lived {πῶς οὐκ ἐπαινεῖν χρὴ καὶ τιμᾶν καὶ νομίζειν πολὺ τῶν πώποτε γενομένων διενεγκεῖν}?” Id., section 38. Such is the gendered way of sophists through the ages.

Many modern scholars in writing about Helen have worked essentially as students of Gorgias and Isocrates. Helen thus becomes a great poet, overcoming the shackles of gender to make Hector a hero:

At the end of the poem, Helen is not only a mourner but also a composer, a real contributor to the creation of epic poetry. Her weaving in Iliad 3 tells her story within the larger frame of Homer’s story. Her lament sings the glory of Hector within the larger frame of Homer’s song. In this instance, Helen employs the only recognized form of public speech available to women, to make sure that the memory of Hector will not die with him.

Pantelia (2002) p. 26. According to another scholar, Homer, who was remarkably in tune with modern gynocentric discourse, created Helen, queen of Sparta and princess of Troy, as a heroic woman-victim:

Homer creates Helen as a complex and suffering figure with a good mind, who strives for autonomy, expression, and belonging, within and despite the many constraints to which she is subject.

Roisman (2006), from abstract. Helen is a great woman for all she does, including characterizing herself as a “horrible, evil-intriguing bitch {κῠ́ων κᾰκομήχᾰνος ὀκρυόεις}”:

Her greatness lies in the many acts by which she asserts her freedom and autonomy even as her power to choose her actions is clearly limited: in her letting Priam know that she does not consider Troy her home, even though she is dependent on his good will; in the silence and invisibility she assumes when she is forced to go to Paris’ chamber; in her lashing out at Paris even though she will obviously have to go to bed with him and in her persistent distancing from him; in her affiliation with Hektor not only for his kindness but also for the respect in which he is held; and in the unique perception of him that she brings to bear in her lamentation. Her greatness lies, too, in her taking responsibility for the war, whereas Paris had denied his responsibility, and in her refusal to accept the definitions imposed on her by Aphrodite and Paris, instead persistently defining herself as a woman capable of shame and restraint.

Id. pp. 33-4. By this accounting, Helen probably ranks as greater than Empress Theodora. A scholar argued that the great Helen is a goddess, albeit a goddess “without serious regard for mortals.” Blankenborg (2022).

[7] Richardson observed:

It can also be argued that the Odyssey itself, in its implied ideals of survival at all costs, homecoming and domestic harmony, forms the first commentary on — and criticism of — the Iliad. What is clear, at any rate, is that the composer of the Odyssey has learnt a great deal from the extraordinary achievement of the earlier poem, and his work may well be seen as a poetic reflection on the Iliad, as well as a complement to it.

Richardson (1993) pp. 25-6. The Odyssey is better understand as presenting in a different way the Iliad’s concern for devaluation of men’s lives relative to women.

[images] (1) Menelaus takes Helen back to their home in Sparta. Attic black-figure amphora painting, made by the Amasis Painter c. 550 BGC. From Vulci in central Italy. Preserved as item 1383 in Staatliche Antikensammlungen (Berlin, German). Source image thanks to Bibi Saint-Pol and Wikimedia Commons. (2) Helen and Paris leaving Cythera. Painting by Guido Reni. This painting is commonly mistitled, “The Rape of Helen.” That title is as plausible as “The Rape of Paris.” Preserved as accession # INV 539 and MR 288 in the Louvre Museum (Paris). Photo thanks to Shonagon and Wikimedia Commons. (3) Isocrates, highly esteemed ancient Attic orator. Plaster copy of a head of Isocrates, thought to date to the third century GC, from Villa Abani, now in the Puskin Museum (Moscow). Source image thanks to shakko and Wikimedia Commons. Here’s another ancient Roman bust of Isocrates held in Berlin’s State Museum (Neues Museum) .


Baragwanath, Emily. 2012. “Returning to Troy: Herodotus and the Mythic Discourse of his Own Time.” Chapter 12 (pp. 287-312) in Emily Baragwanath and Mathieu de Bakker, eds. Myth, Truth, and Narrative in Herodotus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Blankenborg, Ronald. 2022. “‘Sort of human’? The Divinity and Humanity of Homer’s Helen.” Synthesis. 29(1): e116.

Campbell, E. H. 2015. “Herodotus on the Trojan War: 1.1.0-1.5.4 and 2.112.1-2.120.5. A New Translation, with Text, Commentary, and Preface.” Commentaries on Greek and Latin Literature. From the SelectedWorks of E. H. Campbell. Campbell’s Commentaries: Amherst, MA.

Carvounis, Katerina. 2007. “Helen and Iliad 24.763-4.” Hyperboreus. 13(1-2): 5-10.

Godley, A. D., ed. and trans. 1920. Herodotus. The Persian Wars. Loeb Classical Library 117-120. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Holland, Tom, trans. and Paul Cartledge, introduction and notes. 2014. Herodotus. The Histories. New York: Viking.

Laks, André and Glenn W. Most, ed. and trans. 2016. Early Greek Philosophy, Volume VIII: Sophists, Part 1. Loeb Classical Library 531. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Murray, A. T., trans. Revised by William F. Wyatt. 1924. Homer. Iliad. Loeb Classical Library 170 and 171. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Alternate source for Murray’s translation.

Neville, James W. 1977. “Herodotus on the Trojan War.” Greece & Rome. 24(1): 3–12.

Pantelia, Maria C. 2002. “Helen and the Last Song for Hector.” Transactions of the American Philological Association. 132(1/2): 21–27.

Perkell, Christine. 2008. “Reading the Laments of Iliad 24.” Chapter 5 (pp. 93-117) in Ann Suter, ed. Lament: Studies in the Ancient Mediterranean and Beyond. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Richardson Nicholas. 1993. The Iliad: A Commentary. Vol. 6 Books 21-24. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Roisman, Hanna. 2006. “Helen in the Iliad; Causa Belli and Victim of War: From Silent Weaver to Public Speaker.” American Journal of Philology. 127(10: 1–36.

Van Hook, La Rue, ed. and trans. 1945. Isocrates. Evagoras. Helen. Busiris. Plataicus. Concerning the Team of Horses. Trapeziticus. Against Callimachus. Aegineticus. Against Lochites. Against Euthynus. Letters. Loeb Classical Library 373. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.