sanctifying Desiré’s sexual relationship with a fairy

In a lai from thirteenth-century France, Desiré was a young, handsome, passionate knight. He was the son of the King of Scotland and lived in Calder. To demonstrated his worth, for seven years he engaged in violence against men in Normandy. He won renown for his bravery and prowess. One early summer day in Calder, with the trees in flower and the birds singing, he went riding for pleasure on his magnificent horse. He was mysteriously prompted mid-ride to visit a holy man who had a hermitage-chapel in the Blanche Lande.

On his way to the holy man’s chapel, Desiré came across a beautiful, scantily dressed young woman. She was shapely and noble-looking. Desiré dismounted and greeted her. He then took hold of her and laid her down on the fresh grass. As is typical for the pastoral genre, he sought to make her his beloved. The young woman cried out for mercy while showing respect for Desiré’s strong sexual passion:

Knight, away with you from here!
You will hardly gain
if you dishonor my body.
Don’t commit any evil act.
Let me be, for your own advantage.
I’m the servant of a maiden, and
in all the world there is none more beautiful.
I will let you see her shortly,
and if you are able,
make sure she doesn’t escape from you,
whatever I tell you.
If you are well-loved by her,
you will not go astray for any reason.
You will have an abundance of gold and silver
entirely at your disposal.
Don’t think that I’m lying to you,
and if she’s not to your liking,
you cannot fail with me.
I will do whatever you wish.
Put your trust in me completely.
I give you my word.
I will help you in your time of need,
whether it be near or far.

{ Chevalier, tolez vos de ci.
Ne serez gueres avanciez,
Se de mon cors me honnissiez.
Ne fetes nule mesprison,
Lessiez m’estre pur guerredon.
Je sui ja une damoisele,
El siecle n’a nule plus bele;
Je la vos ferai ja veoir;
Se vos estes de tel pooir,
Gardez que ne vos eschap mie,
Por nule rien que je vos die.
Se de li estes bien amez,
Por nïent seriez esgarez.
Assez avrez or e argent
Tot a vostre comamndement.
Ne cuidiez pas que je vos mente,
Et s’ele ne vos atalente,
A moi ne pouez vos faillir;
Je feré tout vostre plesir.
Tout asseür soiez de moi;
Je vos afi la moie foi,
Aiderai vos a grant besoing,
Ou soit de pres, ou soit de loing. }[1]

What an extraordinarily generous young woman! She obviously didn’t want to increase the number of men imprisoned for serious crimes such as rape. After her words, Desiré retained enough reason to realize that he shouldn’t rape this women just because he passionately desired her.

The young woman then took Desiré to her mistress. The mistress was extremely beautiful. Apparently ready to welcome a man, she had prepared a luxurious bed. The young woman urged Desiré to go to her mistress. However, when Desiré went to her, she fled. Desiré chased after her and grabbed her by her right hand. That’s a gesture of leading a woman to marriage. He spoke agreeably to her:

“Beautiful one,” he said, “speak to me!”
Why are you fleeing so fearfully?
I am a knight from this land.
I will be your vassal-servant and your lover.
In order to have your loyal love,
I’ll serve you as best as I can.”

{ ‘Bele,’ fet il, ‘parlez a moi;
Por qoi fuiez a tel desroi?
Chevaliers sui de cest païs,
Vostre hon serai et vostre amis;
Por vostre druerie avoir
Vos servirai a mon pooir.’ }

Men should not offer to be women’s servants. Desiré was deluded with men-oppressing ideals of courtly love. The woman assented to this all-too-common love relationship. Then they had sex.

Desiré spent a long time with the woman. He was very unwilling to leave her. But women dominated men in medieval Europe just as women do today. She told him to leave her. She insisted that he follow prescribed morality and urged him to continue to engage in violence against men:

“Beloved,” she said, “Desiré,
you will go to Calder.
I shall give you a ring made of gold
and I tell you one thing:
if you are striving to love well,
take care you do not transgress.
If you transgress in any way,
you will lose the ring at once.
And if that happens to you,
that you have lost the ring,
you will have lost me forever,
without any chance of getting me back or seeing me.
Take care that you act correctly.
Don’t let me become a hindrance to you.
I have no regard for a knight
who doesn’t attend tournaments frequently.
A knight who has a beloved
must certainly perform deeds of valor,
spend very lavishly,
and continually keep good lodgings.
Before you had my love,
you were a man of very great valor.
It’s not right for a knight
to deteriorate because of love.”

{ ‘Amis,’ fet elle, ‘Desirrez,
A Calatir vos en irez;
.I. anel d’or vos baillerai,
Et une chose vos dirai:
Or vos gardez de meserrer,
Si vos penez de bien amer.
Se vos mesfetes de noient,
L’anel perdrez hastivement;
Et se ce vos soit avenu
Que vos l’anel aiez perdu,
A toz jors mes m’avrez [perdue],
Sanz recovrer et sanz veüe.
Gardez que molt la faciez bien,
Ne nos chargiez por moi de rien.
Je ne pris noient chevalier
Qui sovent ne vait tornoier,
Car chevalier qui a amie
Doit bien fere chevalerie,
Et despendre bien largement,
Et bons ostex tenir sovent.
Ainz que vos eussiez m’amor,
Fustes vos molt de grant valor;
N’est mie droiz a chevalier
Que por amor doie empirier.’ }

In controlling Desiré, the woman instructed him “not to transgress” and to “act correctly.” What exactly these instructions mean isn’t clear.[2] Modern academics celebrate alleged “transgressing,” yet they’re also typically keen to act correctly according to dominant academic ideology. The woman explicitly urged Desiré to continue to maintain relationships with his fellow knights while engaging in risky acts of violence against men. That seems to be an implicit comment on Erec’s retirement from chivalry after marrying Enide in Chrétien de Troyes’s well-known twelfth-century romance Erec et Enide.[3]

Desiré did as his beloved instructed him. He spent lavishly, gave many gifts, and performed many deeds of violence against men. He would return occasionally to his beloved and stay briefly with her. She had a son and daughter with him, but she never told him of the existence of these children. Fathers typically love their children dearly and want to have a meaningful relationship with them. Modern “child support” laws often reduce fathers to wallets in relation to their children. At least Desiré’s beloved didn’t send the child-support police after Desiré while denying him access to his children.

Nicholas Poussin, Sacrament of Penance

One day while heading to visit his beloved in the Blanche Lande, Desiré came upon the hermitage where a holy man lived. Desiré decided to confess his sins to him. Among other sins, he confessed to having sex outside of marriage with his beloved woman.[4] The holy man gave Desiré advice, imposed a penance, and absolved and blessed him. When Desiré mounted his horse to leave, he looked at his finger and realized that the ring his beloved had given him was gone. He was filled with sorrow and fear.

Desiré rushed to visit his beloved. But he couldn’t find her. Desiré’s beloved was a fairy-woman. She had magically taken her gold ring back from him. Desiré lamented:

I shall never again have joy or pleasure.
Alas, unhappy one, what have I done wrong?
I love you above all.
You are certainly not acting properly.
The hermit gave me confession.
He never spoke ill of you.
I asked for pardon from him for my sins.
If I haven’t done anything unreasonable,
beautiful one, don’t get angry.

{ Jamés n’avré [joie] ne hait;
Hai las! chaitif! qu’ai je mesfait?
Ja vos ain ge sor toute rien;
Certes ne fetes mie bin.
Li hermites me confessa;
Onques de vos n’i mesparla.
De mes pechiez li quis pardon;
Se je n’ai fet (a)autre reson
Bele, ne vos en courouciez }

Desiré and his beloved sinned by having sex outside of marriage. He knew this. The hermit, of course, didn’t blame her for their sexual relationship. But Desiré’s sin went beyond illicit sex. He declared to his beloved woman, “I love you above all {Ja vos ain ge sor toute rien}.” That’s a sin against love for God. Like so many men, Desiré had fallen into gyno-idolatry. He went so far as to declare to his beloved fairy-goddess:

Impose my penance on me.
What the hermit told me
and the fasting in which he instructed me,
at your pleasure I shall abandon them
and do your bidding.

{ Ma penitance m’enchargiez.
Ce que li hermites me dit,
Et les junes que li aprist,
A vostre plaisir les lairai,
Et vos commandemenz ferai. }

That’s like the Hebrews casting and worshiping a golden calf in the desert after God had led them out of slavery.[5] Men throughout history have been prone to gyno-idolatry. If a woman or a fairy-woman gets angry at a man for confessing to a priest his sexual sin with her, then she has no understanding of Moses’s fury and God’s mercy. Desiré’s sacrilege was even worse:

His heart was filled with sorrow,
and he roundly cursed the hermitage,
and likewise the hermit himself
he cursed repeatedly.
And the horse that had carried him there,
and himself for ever having spoken to him.
He cursed himself a great deal in a short time, saying
more than a hundred times that he should not remain there.
He lamented very greatly
and prayed more than a hundred times
that the whole place should be shamed
and consumed by hell-fire,
along with the hermit who lived there,
and the mouth with which he spoke,
and all those who had confessed to him
or who would ever speak to him.

{ Molt ert dolenz en son corage,
Durement maudit l’ermitage,
Et l’ermite tout ensement
Remaudit it assez sovent,
Et le cheval qui l’i parta,
Et soi quant onques i parla;
Molt se maudit em petit d’eure
Plus de .C. foiz qui’il n’i demeure.
Molt durement s’est dementé,
Et plus de .C. foiz a oré
Que trestot le lieu fust honniz,
Et que mau feus l’eüst bruïz,
Et l’ermite qu’il i trova,
Et la bouche dont il parla,
Toz ceus qui consenti li ont,
Ne qui jamés i parleront. }[6]

In short, Desiré became furiously, blasphemously insane. He returned to his home in Calder. There he languished seriously ill for more than a year. Everyone thought that he would die. The righteous God that most medieval Europeans worshiped might well have struck him down for his blasphemy.

One day while Desiré was in bed, his beloved came to him. She declared that she had hated him for a long time for his lack of discretion. She rationalized their sexual relationship:

It was not such a great sin.
I have never been married,
or engaged or promised,
and you have never had a wife.
I think you will regret this.
When you sought out confession,
I well knew that you would be losing me.
What use is it to confess a sin
if one cannot abandon it?

{ Ce ne fu pas si granz pechiez.
Je ne fui onques esousee,
Ne fianciee, ne juree.
Ne fame esplusee n’en as;
Je croi tu t’en repntiras.
Quant tu confession queroies,
Bien sai que do moi partiroies.
Que li pechiezvaut au gehir,
Que ne se puet mie partir? }

Human beings are rationalizing animals. In Christian understanding, sincerely intending to sin no more is sufficient to receive absolution in confession. Many persons confess the same sins over and over again. Christians must believe that with God all things are possible, including abandoning any sin.

In fact, Desiré was compelled to abandon his sexual sin. When his beloved fairy-woman took away her gold ring from him and disappeared, he couldn’t have sex with her. When she reappeared, she refused to have sex with him:

You have wronged me greatly,
but because I loved you so much,
I want to give you another chance.
You can see me each day,
laughing and sporting with you.
Renounce your grief!
But you certainly won’t have any more from me,
nor will you ever seek out confession.

{ Molt avez vers moi meserré;
Por ce que tant vos ai amé,
Vos veil fere tant de retor.
Veoir me porrez chascun jor
Ensemble o vos rire et joer.
Lessiez vostre dolor ester,
Mes ja certes plus n’i avrez,
Ne confession n’i querrez. }

Desiré was immediately restored to good health. He thanked her and kissed her. Then she departed. Although the fairy-woman apparently never confessed her sexual sin, she joined Desiré in church and took Eucharist with him. In the teaching of the medieval Christian church, her action probably wasn’t licit. At the level of everyday life, medieval Christians weren’t enmeshed in logic-chopping.

One day the fairy-woman arrived at the King of Scotland’s court. She brought with her Desiré’s son and daughter. She requested that the King make their son a knight and find a suitable spouse for their daughter. She also requested that she be married to her beloved Desiré. The King fulfilled all her requests. He himself married their daughter, despite the near consanguinity. Then Desiré and the fairy-woman departed to her fairy land. Apparently giving up fellowship with his knight-friends and the violence against men of chivalry, Desiré never returned to his father’s court.

The early thirteenth-century lai Desiré shows the sophistication and intricacy of medieval thinking about men’s gender position. While men are not merely dogs, men tend to be romantically simple. Men readily fall into gyno-idolatry. From a Christian perspective, gyno-idolatry is a more grievous sin than illicit sexual activity among never-married persons. After Desiré confessed his sexual sin, his beloved fairy-woman ensured that he sinned no more in that way. She, however, had tempted him to gyno-idolatry in his desperate attempt to regain her. Moreover, she led him away as a married man to her fairy land. Meninist literary critics find in that ending troubling questions.[7] So too should all readers with sensitivity to men’s lived experiences in relation to women.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Desiré, vv. 148-72, Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Burgess & Brook (2007). Burgess & Brook (2016) includes nearly the same faithful translation, but without the lineation and the corresponding Old French text.

The lai (lay) Desiré survives in two manuscripts. Burgess & Brook’s text and translation are based on MS S: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, nouvelles acquisitions françaises, 1104, f. 72rb-77ra. Tobin (1976) is based on MS P: Cologny (Genève), Fondation Martin Bodmer, 82, f. 7vb-12va. “Dialect apart, the two versions are not greatly dissimilar.” Burgess & Brook (2007) p. 15. MS S is 48 verses longer. For a detailed analysis of the manuscript differences, id. pp. 14-6.

In the lais Graelent, Guingamor, Desiré, and Marie de France’s Lanval, a knight falls in love with a fairy. Desiré is the most structurally complex of these lais and is the one most implicated with Christianity. Smithers (1953) provides extensive, deadening structural analysis. Burgess & Brook (2007) pp. 13-4 provides a useful structural summary.

The supernatural women of the lais have been variously called a fay, fée, enchantress, and fairy mistress. Burgess and Brook, the leading authorities on lais, prefer the terms fée or fairy mistress. Burgess & Brook (2007) p. 17. I use the term fairy above for simplicity for a non-scholarly audience. The point at which Desiré realizes his beloved is a fairy isn’t clear.

Subsequent quotes above from Desiré are similarly sourced. They are from vv. 213-8 (“Beautiful one,” he said…), 231-55 (“Beloved,” she said…), 351-9 (I shall never again have joy…), 360-4 (Impose my penance on me…), 367-82 (His heart was filled with sorrow…), 420-8 (It was not such a great sin…), 437-44 (You have wronged me greatly…).

[2] The woman’s vagueness in commanding Desiré isn’t incidental. It’s “structurally crucial.” Burgess & Brook (2007) p. 28.

[3] Scholars have pointed to links between Desiré and Chrétien de Troyes’s Yvain. For a review, Burgess & Brook (2007) p. 19. Perhaps the link to Chrétien de Troyes’s Erec et Enide has been too obvious for scholars to mention.

[4] A public ceremony and a priestly blessing wasn’t necessary to enact a Christian marriage in medieval Europe. A lavish special-day wedding banquet wasn’t required either. Pope Alexander III in 1181 declared that freely given, explicit consent and sexual intercourse established a marriage. However, Pope Innocent III early in the thirteenth-century made consent the only relevant factor. Trafford (1999) pp. 15-6. Cf. Burgess & Brook (2007) p. 37, n. 62. In practice, parents, particularly mothers, often had decisive influence. Desiré and his beloved fairy-woman agreed to be lovers, not spouses.

[5] Exodus 32.

[6] “One wonders if such an attack could have been written by a cleric.” Burgess & Brook (2007) p. 35. Medieval clerics effectively had much greater freedom of expression than do most scholars today. With respect to this specific lai, Desiré’s vicious rant against the hermit and against sacramental confession emphasizes his fall into gyno-idolatry.

[7] The story of the sinful woman of Luke 7:36-50 can raise troubling questions. Interpreted superficially, Jesus’s teaching there might be thought to mean that sinning more implies loving more, or that loving and sinning are equivalent. Christians throughout history surely wouldn’t regard such an interpretation as the best interpretation with respect to overall understanding of Jesus’s teachings. The interpretive difficulties of Luke 7:36-50 seem to me included in Desiré. That lai has sexual desire, sexual sin, and forgiveness as central, but not exclusive, themes.

[image] Jesus forgiving the sinful woman: Luke 7:36-50. Painting by Nicholas Poussin in 1647 for his Seven Sacraments series as the Sacrament of Penance. Preserved in the National Gallery of Scotland. Image via Web Gallery of Art.


Burgess, Glyn S., Leslie C. Brook, ed. and trans. 2007. French Arthurian Literature. Volume IV: Eleven Old French Narrative Lays. Cambridge, UK: D.S. Brewer.

Burgess, Glyn S., and Leslie C. Brook, trans. 2016. Twenty-Four Lays from the French Middle Ages. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Smithers, Geoffrey V. 1953. “Story-Patterns in some Breton Lays.” Medium Ævum. 22 (2): 61-92.

Tobin, Prudence Mary O’Hara, ed. 1976. Desiré. Genève: Droz. Publié en ligne par l’ENS de Lyon dans la Base de français médiéval, dernière révision le 20-6-2016.

Trafford, Claire de. 1999. The Contract of Marriage: the maritagium from the eleventh to the thirteenth century. Ph.D. Thesis, School of History. University of Leeds.

equality activists seize US Capitol & decree full equality

Near the US Capitol, cis-gender equality student-activist Praxagora emerges from her Volvo. Her thumb presses furiously on her iPhone 11. She stares at her phone intently for a long time. Then she begins to speak to it.

Praxagora: Behold, portal of enlightenment, hear my cry! Let the seas roar, and justice roll down like thunder! Rancid and sexist butter, gender-exclusive from cows, is still served onto us daily! Men students careth not. They are apathetic, listless, and impotent. Only we cis-gender women student-activists feel what should be their pain. When Sappho was stirring a pot in the dorm kitchen and wiggling her behind for all her worth, her roommate remained stolidly seated, peeling potatoes for her. He kept apologizing for her stirring the pot in the kitchen instead of taking her place in the house governing assembly. Me too, that’s happened to me, too! Why am I the only one here? Where are all the rest of the equality activists?

A Toyota Subaru parks nearby. Three persons emerge from it. They’re dressed in black boots, black cargo pants, white t-shirts, and black leather jackets. They have freshly trimmed crew-cuts and carry “END VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN” signs. Over the next hour, many more persons gather.

Praxagora: Enough waiting for those woefully late, whether they are cis-gender women, non-binary women, or transmen. Muster forces! Cis-gender women to the right, non-binary women in the middle, and transmen left out, I mean, left. Count out!

There are 52 cis-gender women, 50 non-binary women, and 48 transmen.

Praxagora: We can’t storm the Capitol until we have an equal number of activists by gender category. We need two more non-binary women and four more transmen. Does anybody know two non-binary women they can call?

Non-binary woman A: No, no, that’s wrong. You can’t summon non-binary women in two’s. Shame on you!

Praxagora: Can we get four more transmen? Any transmen friends who aren’t here?

Cis-gender woman A: I won’t date transmen, and I won’t even be friends with them. They aren’t real men. Why can’t only we women seize the Capitol and establish gender equality for women? Why do we have to have transmen with us?

Praxagora: You’re such a ditz. We need an equal number of transmen to be credible as revolutionaries for gender equality for women. Any more hate out of you, and you’ll be expelled from our Broad-Based Alliance for Equality.

Stacy: Dana and I, we’re standing here with the cis-gender women. But we feel like men. We like fixing cars, getting rid of spiders, and we’re always telling each other fart jokes. We’re strong, silent types. We’ll identify as transmen. Then we’ll have gender equality. Sorry for not speaking up sooner. We don’t like to talk about ourselves.

Praxagora: Say no more. Now we’ve got 50-50-50 gender parity. Onward. Storm the Capitol!

They march to the gates of the Capitol.

Assembly of equality activists:

Oh when the saints, go marching in,
oh when the saints go marching in,
oh how I want to be in that number,
when the saints go marching in!

And when the cis, begin to scream,
and when the cis begin to scream,
oh how I want to be in that number,
when the saints go marching in!

And gender binary-less come,
and gender binary-less come,
oh how I want to be in that number,
when the saints go marching in!

Oh when the transmen, sound their call,
oh when the transmen sound their call,
oh how I want to be in that number,
when the saints go marching in!

And when the stars, fall from the sky,
and when the stars fall from the sky,
oh Lord I want to be in that number,
when the saints go marching in.

Capitol policeman A: You can’t come in here.

Assembly of equality activists:
End violence against women!
End violence against women!
End violence against women!

The Capitol police back away.

Capitol police chief: Stop them! Push them back!

Equality activist A: Don’t you dare assault me with your toxic masculinity!

Equality activist B: He wants to rape us!

Capitol policeman A: Fuck you!

Equality activist B: He just admitted it. Help me! Rapist! Help me!

Three transmen equality activists encircle equality activist B.

Transmen equality activists: Don’t touch them!

Capitol policeman A: I didn’t touch her!

Transmen equality activists: You just assaulted them! We just heard you assault them!

The Capitol police back away in bewilderment. The equality activists march into the Capitol as members flee in fear.

Loudspeaker announcement: There is a fire in building. All occupants must lock down immediately. A lock-down is now in effect. Do not leave your shelter location until further notice.

Senator in bathroom stall: For the love of constipation, what’s this shit? I’ve already been sitting here for an hour. Members farting like horses pisses me off. They stand in front of the urinal shaking it like they’re LBJ, and they fart away. It stinks in here. I wish I had COVID so I couldn’t smell it.

Loudspeaker announcement: There is an equality disturbance in the building. Evacuate the building immediately through the nearest emergency exit. Everyone except policemen with large guns should evacuate the building immediately.

Capitol policeman Ted: I’ve got a compact assault rifle. Is that big enough?

Capitol policeman Chad: C’mon, check yourself. A large gun looks more like a bazooka. You gotta evacuate.

Capital policeman Ted: Man, that’s humiliating. I’m sure I could get the job done. But I don’t want guys with bigger guns laughing at me. I’m pulling out.

Senator in bathroom stall: I still can’t even evacuate my bowels. Forget it, I’m not leaving here until I finish my motion. I don’t care if they shoot me like a sitting duck. They’re all complete crappers, and I’m stuck. No stool fluidity.

Praxagora: Equality activists, we’re now in complete control of the US government.

Praxagora begins to sing, with a chorus of equality activists joining her.

Something has changed within me.
Something is not the same.
I’m through with playing by the rules
of someone else’s game.
Too late for second-guessing,
too late to go back to sleep.
It’s time to trust our instincts,
close our eyes and leap!

It’s time to try
defying gravity!
I say let’s try
defying gravity!
No, they can’t pull us down!

Senator in bathroom stall:
Nothing is moving within me.
I’m struggling just to take a shit.

Equality activists:
We’re through accepting limits
‘cuz someone says it’s so.
Some things we cannot change
but till we try, we’ll never know!
Too long we’ve been afraid of
losing love we long have lost.
Well, if that’s love,
it comes at much too high a cost!
We’d sooner fly,
defying gravity.
Kiss us goodbye.
We’re defying gravity,
and they can’t pull us down.

Senator in bathroom stall:
I’ve been taking Flomax for years,
but I’m still a weak pisser.
Now I can’t even crap.

Equality activists:
Together we’re unlimited,
together we’ll be the greatest team
there’s ever been, with dreams
just the way we planned ’em.

Senator in bathroom stall:
If I can’t even piss and crap well,
I should just retire,
and sit forever on the toilet at home,
king of my own place.

Equality activists:
There’s no fight we cannot win —
three genders together,
defying masculinity —
three genders together,
defying masculinity!

Senator in bathroom stall:
I’m still straining.
It’s not coming.

Equality activists:
We really hope you move it,
and then you live to regret it,
with your insides no longer in!
We hope you’re crappy in the end,
we hope you’re crappy, man fiend!

Senator in bathroom stall:
Uuuuuhh. Uuuuuuuhh.

Equality activists:
So if you care to find us,
look to the western sun!
As Siri told me lately,
all of us deserve the chance to fly.
And if we’re too near the sun,
at least we’re flying free.
To those who’d keep us on the ground,
take this message the world ’round.
Tell them how we’re
defying gravity.
We’re flying high,
defying masculinity.
And soon science will meet us in renown,
and nobody, no coronavirus,
no scientist that there is or was,
is ever gonna bring us down!

Senator in bathroom stall:
It’s probably that wicked vaccine.
I shouldn’t have gotten that witch brew.
I’d rather die of COVID than
not be able to take a shit.

Praxagora: As recently chosen eternal paramount leader of our praiseworthy insurrection, my first executive order is that all US universities must make classics compulsory. All students shall be taught to read Greek and Latin equally.

Equality activist D: What about Sanskrit. Are you gonna mandate Sanskrit equally?

Praxagora: Did Aristophanes write Ἐκκλησιάζουσαι / Ecclesiazusae — that’s Parliament of Women, you dopes — in Sanskrit?

Equality activist D: I don’t know who Aristophanes is. Sounds Sanskrit to me.

Praxagora: No, he didn’t write in Sanskrit, you ignorama. If I hadn’t studied classics, this insurrection would have never happened. I got the idea from a great ancient Greek woman orator-leader’s speech to the Athenian assembly.

Equality activist D: But women were held captive, barefoot and starving and working as slaves in the kitchen, throughout all of history until now. Was she a transman?

Praxagora: She was gender-fluid. She moved easily between identifying as a cis-gender woman and a transman.

Equality activist A: So what did she say? “Equality now!” or something like that?

Praxagora: No, no, no. Classical Greek women were much more sophisticated. The great Greek woman-leader didn’t just chirp short sayings like a parrot or you tweeters. She delivered an eloquent speech to the governing assembly. I’ll deliver it in English to you barbarians:

Friends, Athenians, countrypersons, lend
me your ears, and you shall escape from your
current muddle. I propose that we turn over all government
to women, who successfully run and rule over our households.

Women are superior to men, and the future is female,
as I will demonstrate. First, they dye their wool
in hot water according to their ancient custom,
each like the other. You’ll never see them doing differently
from what other women do. But the Athenian state
is blown around with the whims of democracy,
always enthralled with the antics of some new clown.
Meanwhile, the women cook, as they always have.
They keep personal burdens within their heads, as they always have.
They celebrate sisterly solidarity, as they always have.
They drive their husbands crazy, as they always have.
They hide their lovers in the house, as they always have.
They treat themselves to extra morsels, as they always have.
They drink their wine undiluted, as they always have.
They enjoy a fucking, as they always have.
And so, activists, let’s give all government to women,
and no arguing about how they govern,
just let them do what they want to do.
As mothers, they’ll inspire our soldiers to death or mommy’s love,
and nourish them with extra rations while they’re still alive.
Moreover, there’s nobody more inventive in getting money than women,
and when in power they’ll never be cheated,
since women themselves are masters at cheating.
I’ll pass over the many other reasons why our future is female.
Adopt my resolution, and with happy wives, you’ll lead happy lives.

{ ἢν οὖν ἐμοὶ πείθησθε, σωθήσεσθ᾿ ἔτι·
ταῖς γὰρ γυναιξὶ φημὶ χρῆναι τὴν πόλιν
ἡμᾶς παραδοῦναι. καὶ γὰρ ἐν ταῖς οἰκίαις
ταύταις ἐπιτρόποις καὶ ταμίαισι χρώμεθα.

ὡς δ᾿ εἰσὶν ἡμῶν τοὺς τρόπους βελτίονες
ἐγὼ διδάξω. πρῶτα μὲν γὰρ τἄρια
βάπτουσι θερμῷ κατὰ τὸν ἀρχαῖον νόμον
ἁπαξάπασαι, κοὐχὶ μεταπειρωμένας
ἴδοις ἂν αὐτάς. ἡ δ᾿ Ἀθηναίων πόλις,
εἰ τοῦτο χρηστῶς εἶχεν, οὐκ ἂν ἐσῴζετο,
εἰ μή τι καινόν <γ᾿> ἄλλο περιηργάζετο.
καθήμεναι φρύγουσιν ὥσπερ καὶ πρὸ τοῦ·
ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς φέρουσιν ὥσπερ καὶ πρὸ τοῦ·
τὰ Θεσμοφόρι᾿ ἄγουσιν ὥσπερ καὶ πρὸ τοῦ·
πέττουσι τοὺς πλακοῦντας ὥσπερ καὶ πρὸ τοῦ·
τοὺς ἄνδρας ἐπιτρίβουσιν ὥσπερ καὶ πρὸ τοῦ·
μοιχοὺς ἔχουσιν ἔνδον ὥσπερ καὶ πρὸ τοῦ·
αὑταῖς παροψωνοῦσιν ὥσπερ καὶ πρὸ τοῦ·
οἶνον φιλοῦσ᾿ εὔζωρον ὥσπερ καὶ πρὸ τοῦ·
βινούμεναι χαίρουσιν ὥσπερ καὶ πρὸ τοῦ.
ταύταισιν οὖν, ὦνδρες, παραδόντες τὴν πόλιν
μὴ περιλαλῶμεν, μηδὲ πυνθανώμεθα
τί ποτ᾿ ἄρα δρᾶν μέλλουσιν, ἀλλ᾿ ἁπλῷ τρόπῳ
ἐῶμεν ἄρχειν, σκεψάμενοι ταυτὶ μόνα,
ὡς τοὺς στρατιώτας πρῶτον οὖσαι μητέρες
σῴζειν ἐπιθυμήσουσιν· εἶτα σιτία
τίς τῆς τεκούσης θᾶττον ἐπιπέμψειεν ἄν;
χρήματα πορίζειν εὐπορώτατον γυνή,
ἄρχουσά τ᾿ οὐκ ἂν ἐξαπατηθείη ποτέ·
αὐταὶ γάρ εἰσιν ἐξαπατᾶν εἰθισμέναι.
τὰ δ᾿ ἄλλ᾿ ἐάσω. ταῦτ᾿ ἐὰν πείθησθέ μοι,
εὐδαιμονοῦντες τὸν βίον διάξετε. }

Equality activist A: So that’s where the saying “Happy wife, happy life” came from. It’s a classic!

Praxagora: You wouldn’t know a classic from a folktale. Register for courses in ancient Greek and Latin at your nearest university. Education is cheaper than ignorance! But the time for oratory is over. I’m issuing an executive order requiring all wages and other income be paid directly to the government. The government will in turn provide every resident with a Vice-Versa GovPayPal EqualityCard. With that card, every resident will have equal ability to buy any good or service. In fact, with the Vice-Versa GovPayPal EqualityCard, everybody will be able to buy whatever they want!

Equality activists: All for equality! Equality for all! All for all!

Cis-gender woman equality activist A: What about cis-gender men?

Praxagora: Cis-gender men will have to do whatever we cis-gender women, non-binary women, and transmen tell them to do.

Cis-gender woman equality activist A: What if a man isn’t able to do it when I tell him I want him to?

Praxagora: No problem. Just get another man to have sex with you.

Cis-gender woman equality activist A: That’s what I’ve been doing.

Praxagora: Keep in mind that I’m also issuing an executive order that prioritizes marginalized people’s safety over privileged people’s comfort. Sexually marginalized persons such as Dis and others in celibate Hell will have priority access to the most sexually desirable persons. Many sexually impoverished persons urgently need thrilling sexual satisfaction to be safe from serious personal harm. If the necessary sexual access causes privileged persons some discomfort, well, they’ll just have to lay down and endure it.

Cis-gender woman equality activist A: How do we know who’s privileged and who’s marginalized under the new sexual equality decree?

Praxagora: The Bureau of Labor Statistics has been tasked with creating a Sexual Privilege Index. It will weigh various attributes, such as how tall a man is, how much hair he has on his head, how muscular he is, how many other women he has, etc., to compute an SPI with a value from 1 to 100 for each man. A similar SPI will be constructed for women. If you want to have sex with a particular man, you must check how low your SPI is relative to the SPIs of all the other persons who want to have sex with him. By the looks of you, I’d estimate you have an SPI below 10. That makes you a very marginalized person. You’ll be able to have sex right away with any man you choose!

Cis-gender woman equality activist A: This is a just, equitable, and rational government!

Praxagora: The Vice-Versa GovPayPal EqualityCard should be printed and distributed in time for everyone to go to restaurants for dinner tomorrow night. Enjoying magnificent dinners, all will know that equality rules this land!

Equality activists form a chorus and sing.

Limpets with saltfish and sharksteak with dogfish,
hot mullets, oddfish, and savory pickle sauces,
cold thrushes, blackbirds, and pan-roasted pigeons,
fresh cooked-up roosters and crisp larks with wagtails,
rabbits with spritzer and mulled wine with olives,
big chunks all drizzled with honeyed silphium,
plus vinegar, oil, and spices galore!

{ λοπαδοτεμαχοσελαχογαλεο-
λοπτερυγών. }

Non-binary woman equality activist C: These are a few of my favorite things!

News of the insurrection, coup d’etat, and new executive orders spreads among men working on the streets of Athens. A road-working man repairing a pothole calls to a man sweeping out a sewer.

Road-worker: I’ve heard that the assembly passed a bunch of new safety regulations.

Sewer-worker: Yea, something about prioritizing the safety of sexually marginalized persons.

Road-worker: The street-walkers would be safer if the assembly could hire more road-workers to fill the holes. But it’s dirty, dangerous work. Yesterday a bone that some woman hurled out of her home nearly hit me in the head. There aren’t many women hole-fillers. Women know how dangerous the work is.

Sewer-worker: At least we’re not house-movers or plumbers. Women are always grabbing their parts and trying to force them. As Βλεπυροσ said in Aristophanes’s Ἐκκλησιάζουσαι, “τὸ πρὸς βίαν δεινότατον.”

Road-worker: What the Hell does that mean?

Sewer-worker: I majored in classics and learned ancient Greek. What Blepyrus said basically means that men don’t like having women rape them. Anyone with common sense should know that, but most people don’t understand. If I ever get a job as a classics teacher, I’ll teach them.

Road-worker: I heard that now we’re gonna be forced to have sex with old, ugly women before we can do our primary squeeze. Something about an SPI measurement. I don’t need any new measurements. I do well enough with just eye-balling.

Sewer-worker: You can eye-ball as much as you like, but under the new regs you’ll be doing nothing more than eye-balling unless your SPI is low enough.

Further down the street, two other Athenian men are discussing the new equality regulations.

Eddimedes Murphes: I’m no racist, but if the bitch is green, there’s something wrong with the pussy.

Epicenes: That doesn’t matter. Marginalized people’s safety has priority over privileged people’s comfort.

Eddimedes Murphes: I’ve got hot young black women pinching my ass and pulling at me, but I have to have sex with some green witch? What’s the point of working hard to become the most famous speaker in all of greater Greece?

Epicenes: You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that your speaking and teaching fees, which will now be paid directly to the government, will contribute to funding Vice-Versa GovPayPal EqualityCards for all.

Eddimedes Murphes: Sounds as good as eating an ice cream cone dropped in a pile of dog shit!

Epicenes: You’ve already got three white crones seeking your meat. Their SPIs are gonna be much, much lower than any hot young woman.

I weave with brightly colored strings
to keep my mind off other things.
So, my friend, let your fingers dance,
and keep your hands out of romance.

Falling in love with love is falling for make believe.
Falling in love with love is playing the fool.
Caring too much is such a juvenile fancy.
Learning to trust is just for children in school.

I fell in love with love one night when the moon was full.
I was unwise with eyes unable to see.
I fell in love with love, with love everlasting,
but love fell out with me.

Two ugly old white cis-gender women, eminent professors of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equality, appear and start tugging on Eddimedes Murphes’s arms.

Eddimedes Murphes: Is this some sick joke? Please, someone tell me what in the world these are! Are they monkeys plastered with makeup? Hags arisen from the underworld?

{ πότερον πίθηκος ἀνάπλεως ψιμυθίου
ἢ γραῦς ἀνεστηκυῖα παρὰ τῶν πλειόνων }

Epicenes: They identify as cis-gender women. Under the executive order of the new equality regime, they have priority access to you.

Loudspeaker announcement:
The women have decreed that if a young man desires a young woman he may not hump her until he bangs an old woman first. Should he in his desire for the young woman refuse to do this preliminary banging, the older women shall be entitled with impunity to drag the young man off by his pecker.

{ ἔδοξε ταῖς γυναιξίν, ἢν ἀνὴρ νέος
νέας ἐπιθυμῇ, μὴ σποδεῖν αὐτὴν πρὶν ἂν
τὴν γραῦν προκρούσῃ πρῶτον. ἢν δὲ μὴ ᾿θέλῃ
πρότερον προκρούειν, ἀλλ᾿ ἐπιθυμῇ τῆς νέας,
ταῖς πρεσβυτέραις γυναιξὶν ἔστω τὸν νέον
ἕλκειν ἀνατεὶ λαβομένας τοῦ παττάλου. }

Eddimedes Murphes: I’ve heard this shit before. Same fucked-up gynocentric government putting half the black men in jail. Better to lock up all of us black men than to have such creatures forced on us for extra sexual duty. You think I didn’t study classics?

The kooky gynaecocracy says I have to fuck this old hag night and day, and after I get free of her, start in again on this other old toad with a funeral urn already standing by her legs. Man, I’m damned to be clamped with such freaks as these. But if the very worst really does happen to me as I put into port atop these two harridans, bury me right where I penetrated this first one’s channel. As for other, why didn’t Zeus make her a transgender gay man? While she’s still alive, cover her with pitch all over and put her feet in molten lead up to her ankles. Then stick her over my grave instead of an urn!

{ ὢ τρισκακοδαίμων, εἰ γυναῖκα δεῖ σαπρὰν
βινεῖν ὁλὴν τὴν νύκτα καὶ τὴν ἡμέραν,
κἄπειτ᾿, ἐπειδὰν τῆσδ᾿ ἀπαλλαγῶ, πάλιν
φρύνην ἔχουσαν λήκυθον πρὸς ταῖς γνάθοις.
ἆρ᾿ οὐ κακοδαίμων εἰμί; βαρυδαίμων μὲν οὖν,
νὴ τὸν Δία τὸν σωτῆρ᾿, ἀνὴρ καὶ δυστυχής,
ὅστις τοιούτοις θηρίοις συνείρξομαι.
ὅμως δ᾿, ἐάν τι πολλὰ πολλάκις πάθω
ὑπὸ τοῖνδε τοῖν κασαλβάδοιν δεῦρ᾿ ἐσπλέων,
θάψαι μ᾿ ἐπ᾿ αὐτῷ στόματι τῆς ἐσβολῆς,
καὶ τήνδ ἄνωθεν ἐπιπολῆς τοῦ σήματος
ζῶσαν καταπιττώσαντες, εἶτα τὼ πόδε
μολυβδοχοήσαντες κύκλῳ περὶ τὰ σφυρὰ
ἄνω ᾿πιθεῖναι πρόφασιν ἀντὶ ληκύθου. }

Young, handsome man: Crazy old ladies are sexually harassing me with Diomedes’ necessity. They say if I refuse, they’ll come with me to jail!

Another young, handsome man: Apparition of damnation — a woman over sixty who looks like a big blood blister demands me! I think I’m gonna shit my pants for fear of her touch.

Epicenes: Eros is dead. The joy of sex is over. Withdraw into your homes, men, and don’t come out until this kooky gynaecocracy is overthrown. Video games, porn, and Netflix, and now porn video games on Netflix. That’s the best life has to offer us men today. Withdraw! Withdraw!

One by one the actors leave the stage to the sound of doors slamming.

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The above play is adapted from Aristophanes’s Parliament of Women {Ἐκκλησιάζουσαι / Ecclesiazusae}. Aristophanes’s Ἐκκλησιάζουσαι was performed in Athens, probably in 392 BGC. The name Praxagora {Πραξαγορα} is from Aristophanes and means literally “public-spirited.” On the relation of Ἐκκλησιάζουσαι to Athenian democracy, Sonnino (2017).

Preceding the quotes in ancient Greek are English translations, with some modifications. The Greek text and source English translation are from Henderson (2002). Roche (2005) provides a lively English translation somewhat less faithful to the ancient Greek. The Greek text of Hall & Geldart (1906) is freely accessibly, as is the English translation of Theodoridis (2009).

The ancient Greek quotations are Aristophanes, Ἐκκλησιάζουσαι, vv. 209-12, 214-40 (Friends, Athenians, countrypersons…), 1169-75 (Limpets on saltfish…), 471 (It’s absolutely terrible when you’re forced; Blepyrus on a man being raped), 1072-3 (Are they monkeys plastered…), 1015-20 (The women have decreed…), 1098-1111 (The kooky gynaecocracy says I have to fuck this old hag…).

Showing the progress of philological knowledge and expertise, Jacobson (2011) convincing argues that Ἐκκλησιάζουσαι vv. 465-72, which concerns women sexually coercing men, did not include a gesture suggesting how a man could stimulate his reluctant penis. A woman’s active, loving, and appreciative receptivity to a man’s penis is generally the most effective way to stimulate it.

The text above includes parodically lyrics of the song “Defying Gravity” from the 2003 Broadway musical Wicked (music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz). It also includes a quote (I’m no racist, but…) from Eddie Murphy’s 1983 stand-up comedy television special Delirious. It includes as well lyrics from the song “Falling in Love with Love” from the 1938 Broadway musical The Boys from Syracuse (music by Richard Rogers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart). The meter of the above English translation of Aristophanes, Ἐκκλησιάζουσαι, vv. 1169-75, draws on that of the song “My Favorite Things” from the 1959 Broadway musical The Sound of Music (music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II).

[images] (1) 1938 filming of Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra singing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Via YouTube. (2) Theater Mania’s video compilation of various artists performing the song “Defying Gravity” from the 2003 Broadway musical Wicked (music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz). Via YouTube. Here’s a performance by Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth, who performed the song in the original Broadway show. (3) T.3 (Liam Fennecken, Brendan Jacob Smith, Jim Hogan) with its 2021 recording of “Defying Gravity.” Via YouTube. (4) Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson performing the song “Make Believe” from the 1951 film version of the 1927 Broadway musical Show Boat (music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II). Via YouTube. (5) Oscar Peterson performing on piano the song “Falling in Love with Love” in 1977 at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. With wonderful artistic sense, Peterson culturally appropriated Richard Rogers’s music from the 1938 Broadway play The Boys from Syracuse, which is based on William Shakespeare’s play The Comedy of Errors, which is based on Plautus’s play The Two Menaechmuses {Menaechmi}. Plautus wrote Menaechmi in Latin in Rome some year about 200 BGC. Plautus based Menaechmi on a now-lost ancient Greek play of New Comedy. Like other fine artists, Oscar Peterson appreciated classics and produced classics.


Hall, F. W., and William Geldart, eds. 1906. Aristophanes. Comoediae. Oxonii: Oxford University Press.

Henderson, Jeffrey, ed. and trans. 2002. Aristophanes. Frogs. Assemblywomen. Wealth. Loeb Classical Library 180. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jacobson, David J. 2011. “A Gestural Phallacy.” Didaskalia. 8 (25): online.

Roche, Paul, trans. 2005. Aristophanes. The Complete Plays. New York, N.Y.: New American Library.

Sonnino, Maurizio. 2017. “Restoring and Overturning Athenian Democracy in Aristophanes: Paradigmatic Truths and ‘Carnival’ Reversals.” Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought. 34 (2): 366-389.

Theodoridis, George, trans. 2009. Aristophanes. Women in Parliament. Online at Poetry in Translation.

domineering, barking wives not worth their wealth in Plautus’s plays

As presented by Plautus in Rome about the year 206 BGC, Periplectomenus was a fifty-four year-old man who had never married. He had a lively mind, was in good health, and owned his own house. He also attended dinner parties, enjoyed dancing, and was still interested in love affairs with women. Periplectomenus explained why he wasn’t seeking to get married:

Yes, a good wife is sweet to marry, if there were any family on earth
where one could be found. But should I really marry a woman
who’d never say to me: “My dear husband, would you buy me wool from which
I can make a soft and warm cloak for you and good winter tunics,
so that you won’t feel cold this winter?” These words you’d never hear from a wife.
Instead, before the cock crows, she’d stir me from my sleep and
say: “My dear husband, give me something to give to my mother on the first of the month,
give me something to make preserves, give me something to give to the sorceress
on Minerva’s festival, to give to the dream interpreter, to the clairvoyant, and to the soothsayer.
It’s a disgrace if nothing is sent to the woman who uses eyebrows to prophesy.
Furthermore, there’s no avoiding a present to the woman who folds the clothes.
The woman delivering our food has been angry for a while already for not getting any tips.
The midwife also complained to me that she’s receiving too little.
What? You’re not going to give anything to the nurse feeding the slaves born in the house?”
Women cause these losses and many similar others.
They keep me away from a wife, for she would torment me with such talk.

{ Nam bona uxor suave ductu est, si sit usquam gentium
ubi ea possit inveniri; verum egone eam ducam domum,
quae mihi numquam hoc dicat “eme, mi vir, lanam, unde tibi pallium
malacum et calidum conficiatur tunicaeque hibernae bonae,
ne algeas hac hieme” — hoc numquam verbum ex uxore audias —
verum prius quam galli cantent quae me e somno suscitet,
dicat “da, mi vir, kalendis meam qui matrem munerem,
da qui faciam condimenta, da quod dem quinquatrubus
praecantrici, coniectrici, hariolae atque haruspicae;
flagitium est si nil mittetur quae supercilio spicit;
tum plicatricem clementer non potest quin munerem;
iam pridem, quia nihil abstulerit, suscenset ceriaria;
tum opstetrix expostulavit mecum, parum missum sibi;
quid? nutrici non missuru’s quicquam quae vernas alit?”
haec atque huius similia alia damna multa mulierum
me uxore prohibent, mihi quae huius similes sermones serant. }[1]

In many countries today, the earnings of a husband and wife belong equally to both. If a woman earns nothing, than a man who marries her effectively provides half of his income to her. That’s a very expensive way to buy the possibility of having sex, or to buy cooking and housecleaning services of the minimal sort that many men actually prefer.

The solution to men’s concern about potential wives wasting money is obvious. Men should encourage women to work in stressful, demanding jobs that provide high pay. Men, in contrast should occupying themselves with important, home-based work such weightlifting, cleaning and polishing motorcycles and guns, and helping kids to play video games. Then men should insist on dating and marrying only women who earn much more money than they do. As long as a husband gets his half of his wife’s much higher earnings, why should he care if she wastes some of the money she earns?

Periplectomenus rejected opportunities to marry wealthy women. He explained:

My house is free, and I’m also free. I want to live freely.
Actually because of my wealth, I should say thanks to the gods,
I could have married a wife with a rich dowry from a very high-status family,
but I don’t want to bring a female barker into my house.

{ liberae sunt aedis, liber sum autem ego; me volo vivere.
nam mi, deum virtute dicam, propter divitias meas
licuit uxorem dotatam genere summo ducere;
sed nolo mi oblatratricem in aedis intro mittere. }

Periplectomenus used the neologism “female barker {oblatratrix}” in referring to a wife. Plautus’s Casina includes a related dialogue between the husband Lysidamus and his servant Olympio:

Lysidamus: What’s that? Who are you arguing with, Olympio?

Olympio: With the same woman you are always arguing with.

Lysidamus: With my wife?

Olympio: What wife are you talking about? You’re like a hunter:
day and night you spend your life with a bitch.

{ Lysidamus: quid istuc est? quicum litigas, Olympio?

Olympio: cum eadem qua tu semper.

Lysidamus: cum uxoren mea?

Olympio: quam tu mi uxorem? quasi uenator tu quidem es:
dies ac noctes cum cane aetatem exigis. }[2]

In contrast to myths of patriarchy, men throughout history have been terrorized and traumatized at the thought of a domineering, barking wife. No amount of money can compensate a husband for being married to a “rabid bitch {rabiosa femina canes}.”[3]

Classicists, medievalists, and other literary scholars have tended to trivialize men’s voices expressing marital horrors and men’s sexed protest. Smugly smearing men for “misogyny” is no way to understand truthfully women’s and men’s intimately related lives throughout human history. Men often remain silent about important aspects of their lives because they sense that their voices won’t encounter compassionate, attentive listening, but will only prompt vicious personal attacks on them. Meninist literary criticism takes men’s voices seriously in their protests about women and gender. That’s merely humane practice. If you’re not a meninist, you’re a bigot. You’re the hater that you imagine men to be.

* * * * *

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[1] Plautus, The Braggart Soldier {Miles Gloriosus}, vv. 685-700, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from De Melo (2011). Subsequent quotes from Plautus are similarly from the edition of De Melo (2011). The subsequent quote above is Miles Gloriosus, vv. 678-81. For Miles Gloriosus, the Latin text of Leo (1895) and the English translation of Riley (1912) are freely available through Perseus. Married women {matronae} in Plautus’s plays are “constantly nagging battleaxes,” with the exception of the warmly receptive Alcmene in Amphitryon. De Melo (2011) p. xxxviii.

[2] Plautus, Casina, vv. 317-20. For Casina, the Latin text of Leo (1895) and the English translation of Riley (1912) are freely available through Perseus.

[3] Plautus, The Two Menaechmuses {Menaechmi}, v. 837. One Menaechmus brother, acting mad, refers to his brother’s wife as a “rabid bitch {rabiosa femina canes}.”

Throughout history, men have been commonly been described as dogs. In Plautus’s Amphitryon, Mercury in the guise of Sosia suggests that Alcmene regards Amphitryon like a dog: “She’s as happy to greet him as she would be to greet a dog {exspectatum eum salutat magis hau quicquam quam canem}.” Amphitryon, v. 680.

Braund interprets abstractly husbands’ concerns about wealthy wives:

So here we have it: it’s all about money and power. The uxor dotata {wife with a dowry} is resented because her money gives her more freedom and independence than is acceptable to the male ego.

Braund (2005) p. 48. One could call Braund’s generic characterization of “the male ego” as misandristic or anti-meninist. In Plautus’s plays, the money a wife brings to a marriage isn’t enough to compensate for her being a domineering, barking wife from her husband’s perspective. Why should acknowledging that specific literary representation not be acceptable to the female and male egos of today’s literary scholars?

[image] Video recording of “What Can You Do With A Man?” Song from the 1938 Broadway play The Boys from Syracuse (music by Richard Rogers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart, and book by George Abbott). This recording is from the 1963 Off-Broadway re-staging. The Boys from Syracuse is based in William Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, which is based on Plautus’s The Two Menaechmuses {Menaechmi}. Via YouTube.


Braund, Susanna Morton. 2005. “Marriage, Adultery, and Divorce in Roman Comic Drama.” Ch. 3 (pp. 39-70) in Smith, Warren S., ed. Satiric Advice on Women and Marriage. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

De Melo, Wolfgang, ed. and trans. 2011. Plautus. Amphitryon, The Comedy of Asses, The Pot of Gold, The Two Bacchises, The Captives, in Loeb Classical Library 60; Casina, The Casket Comedy, Curculio, Epidicus, The Two Menaechmuses, in Loeb Classical Library 61; The Merchant, The Braggart Soldier, The Ghost, The Persian, in Loeb Classical Library 163. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Leo, Friedrich, ed. 1895. Plauti Comoediae. Berolini: Weidmann.

Riley, Henry T. 1912. The Comedies of Plautus. London: G. Bell & Sons.

Matthew of Vendôme’s Milo: poetic justice for low-status men

According to mythic medievalism, a medieval lord had the right to sleep with any woman in his realm before any other man did. That’s known as the “right of the first night {jus primae noctis},” “right of the lord {droit du seigneur},” or “right of the thigh {droit de cuissage}.” It’s an ideological fabrication like medieval use of chastity belts, medieval belief that the world is flat, and patriarchy and misogyny.[1] In behavioral reality, women generally find high-status men more sexually attractive than low-status men. That makes low-status men vulnerable to an “alpha male” gaining sexual opportunities with the low-status man’s girlfriend or wife. In France about the year 1165, the cleric Matthew of Vendôme in his Latin comedy Milo narrated the low-status man Milo prevailing through poetic justice against the king who was sleeping with his wife.

In composing Milo, Matthew of Vendôme apparently drew upon the ancient Seven Sages corpus. Within that corpus, a story known as Senescalcus tells of an Egyptian king who was extremely fat. He was thought to be a frequent, actively receptive homosexual.[2] His seneschal advised that the labor of having semen-giving sexual intercourse with women would bring him to a healthy weight in six months. With men’s characteristic solicitous towards women, the sexually naive king rejected that health treatment for fear that he would crush a woman. Hence the seneschal put the king on a harsh diet of barley bread and water. He also squeezed the king’s body by wrapping him tightly in a sheet. After some time, these cruel treatments reduced the king’s body to a normal weight.

No longer fearing that he would crush a woman in sexual intercourse, the king now sought to have heterosexual intercourse. He offered the seneschal a large sum of money to procure a well-born woman to have sex with him. Throughout history, even high-status men have felt compelled to pay women for sex. The seneschal financially exploited this gender injustice by having his wife have sex with the king and collect the sex payment. The seneschal assured her that it would be only one day of work outside the home and that he would ensure that she would come and go under the cover of darkness.

However, when the seneschal came to take his wife home after she had sex with the king, she refused to leave. The king similarly refused to let her go. Showing his lack of sexual self-esteem, the king had fallen in love with this otherwise-unknown woman who had sex with him for money. Upon learning that this woman was the seneschal’s wife, pimped to him because of the seneschal’s greed, the king banished the seneschal. The king then married the seneschal’s wife. While the pathetic king deserves the reader’s sympathy, Senescalcus emphasizes that the seneschal’s greed led him to disaster.

Within the Seven Sages corpus, another story known as Leo inverts the status-based sexual drama of Senescalcus. In Leo, the king from a lofty place in his palace saw a beautiful woman below. He asked her to come to him to have sex.[3] She replied that she would not because her husband was at home. The king then sent her husband, a soldier, into the violence against men of war. The king subsequently came to the woman’s home. She then handed him a book on laws and judgments concerning adultery. She told him to read it while she went to beautify herself. Reading the book, the king became ashamed at committing the wrong of adultery. He then hurried away from her home. He accidentally left his sandals behind.

When the husband returned from his brutal war assignment, he noticed in his home the king’s sandals. He surmised that his wife was having sex with the king. Terrified, he didn’t say anything, but stopped having sex with her. In medieval Europe, a husband’s sexual obligation to his wife was regarded as a matter of life-and-death importance. The wife complained to her family that her husband wasn’t having sex with her. Her family confronted him. He explained that he saw the king’s sandals in his home and that he didn’t dare have sex with his wife since she was now the king’s lover. The soldier thus expressed internalized sexual subordination to the king.

With the husband’s cooperation, the wife’s family brought him before the king for justice. They charged the husband with not cultivating a field that they had given to him. The husband responded that he was afraid to cultivate the field because he had seen lion tracks there. The king understood this allegory. He explained that a lion entered the field, but did no harm. The king ordered the man to resume cultivating the field. No merely listening and believing even the king, the husband confirmed with his wife that the king didn’t have sex with her. The husband and wife then resumed their loyal marital relationship.

With keen insight into men’s gender position, Matthew of Vendôme about 1165 adapted Leo of the Seven Sages corpus for his Milo. In Milo, the beautiful young woman Afra is the first character to appear:

Worthy Afra is blessed with beauty. Nature’s skillful hands
are dedicated to adding to her grace.

{ Afram forma decens beat, huic natura decori
Artifices studuit apposuisse manus. }[4]

Matthew described Afra like he described Helen of Troy. Paris’s desire for Helen led to the horrific massacre of men in the Trojan War. Yet Afra’s bodily beauty signaled the possibility of a great blessing for a man:

Yes, the honeycomb is hidden, yet what inclination, what joy, how many
delights — about these her face is able to be a prophet.
Well-knowing is the blessed man who sees the features
of her face and who is permitted to touch what he has seen.
He who will be permitted to caress her, warm her, and have the rest
can number himself with the most fortunate.

{ Quis favor, immo favus lateat, que gaudia, quante
Delicie, vultus esse propheta potest.
Argumentose faciei signa beatus
Qui videt, immo cui tangere visa licet;
Cetera cui tractare, fovere, tenere licebit,
Cum fortunatis se numerare potest. }

Not surprisingly, Afra had many wealthy suitors:

While she hastens down a line of men who one at time speak to her,
each fears that he is chided for his extravagant offer.

{ Dum perpendiculo percurrit singula, dici
Prodiga formidat increpitatque manum. }

Buying women, whether explicitly or implicitly, is always a bad bargain for men. Men who believe that their wealth is the best of what they have to offer women don’t appreciate their own seminal blessing.

Afra and Milo married. He was materially poor, but rich in the character of a manly man:

Milo is given to Afra as a husband. He has little fortune,
but with slim wealth he works as a soldier with abundant loyalties.
His poverty doesn’t break him, and anger at his wintry prosperity
doesn’t suppress the honor of his face.
His poverty is softened in turning to his wife’s dignity and image.
The anxiety of the husband can be seen in his face.
Milo soldiers for a living daily. Displaying his
merchandise, he diligently augments his modest wealth.

{ Afre Milo datur coniunx, cui parva facultas
Sed tenui censu militat ampla fides.
Paupertas non frangit eum, non mergit honorem
Vultus irate prosperitatis hiems;
Ad decus, ad speculum sponse dulcescit egestas,
Anxietas viso coniugis ore sapit.
Militat ad victum Milo mercesque diurnas
Exponens modicas sedulus auget opes. }

Money and social status affect enormously men’s access to women. Most men throughout history have been poor, low-status men like Milo. Yet women have loved poor, low-status men for their intrinsic value as men. With little more than the comforting thought that their wives appreciate their labors, most men have worked hard and fruitfully throughout history.

The king fell in love with Milo’s beautiful wife Afra. Backed by his wealth and power, he begged Afra for sex. She consented. While Milo was working in the field to grow produce, the king was plowing Milo’s wife at home. She enjoyed her affair with the king. Not surprisingly, she grew cold and domineering toward Milo. He wondered why his marital relationship had gone bad. He was filled with sorrow and felt beaten down. But then Milo remembered Afra’s beauty. He could not imagine that a beautiful women could do ugly deeds:

When Milo recalls Afra’s beauty and her keeping of faith,
joys renew his footing, and his sorrow recedes.
For a revered woman, the ray of her beauty argues for her.
It supports Afra’s case, and it acts for the rights of the silent.
If a beautiful woman injures, her beauty speaks for her sinning,
recommends a judgment, and makes her sin pardonable.
The husband’s indignation vanishes when it comes to the wife’s image.
His fear apparently deceives, and his case is abandoned.

{ Dum speciem recolit Afre fideique tenorem
Milo, pedem referunt gaudia, maror abit.
Pro domina radius speciei disputat, Afre
Causam sustentat, iura tacentis agit;
Si formosa nocet, peccanti forma perorat,
Crimen commendat et veniale facit.
Ad sponse speculum perit indignacio sponsi,
Mentiturque metus et sua causa iacet. }

Women’s privileged position explains in part the fifteen-to-one gender protrusion in persons incarcerated under penal punishment. Men find myriad reasons to excuse women’s wrongs, especially if the woman cries.

One day when Milo returned home, Afra and the king were in bed engaging in foreplay. The king fled, not because he feared punishment, but because he was ashamed at what he was doing. Milo stormed in brandishing a sword. He was ready to castrate or kill the man committing adultery with his wife. Milo didn’t find the man. He saw, however, the royal sandals that the king had left behind in his rush to leave. Milo rightly surmised that the king was having sex with his wife. He couldn’t castrate or kill the king. That would be a grave wrong. Moreover, neither of those punishments were applied to wives who committed adultery. Milo instead stopped having sex with Afra. Because medieval society appreciated the joy of sex, Milo’s action was a serious matter: “the husband revoked from his wife her joys {a sponsa revocat sponsus sua gaudia}.”

Afra complained to her brothers that Milo had stopped having sex with her. Her brothers charged him with neglecting his wife. The case was brought before the king. To avoid revealing the king’s adulterous behavior and shaming him, the brothers presented their case allegorically. They argued that this vine-grower was neglecting his vine:

The vine lacks children. Hair and arms that should reach to the sky
instead lie on the earth with impoverished foliage.
She complains to be as motionless as an inactive young widow
and to suffer the sorrowful damages of a sterile life.
She doesn’t birth an heir as fruit, or branches as descendants,
nor a young shoot to redeem the violent death of a mother.

{ Cedit in oppositum spes fructus, vinea languet
Cultorisque sui sentit abesse manus;
Vinea prolis eget crinitaque brachia celo
Debens serpit humi pauperiore coma;
Languida conqueritur viduam torpere iuventam
Et sterilis vite tristia dampna pati:
Non parit heredem fructum ramosve nepotes
Nec matris redimit postuma virga necem; }

The brothers asked the king to order Milo to pay his debt, meaning his marital debt to his wife. Unlike in the modern world, sexless marriage in medieval Europe could not legally occur without the consent of both spouses.

Milo in response spoke allegorically and eloquently about his sexual service to his wife. He was active, attentive, and assiduous in cultivating and caring for the vine. Then he saw lion tracks in his vineyard. He stopped cultivating the vine because he feared for his life. He didn’t want to waste his life foolishly.

The king was impressed with Milo’s eloquence. The king in turn knew his “crime {scelus}.” He recognized that he was the lion in the allegory of the vine. The king ordered Milo to return in peace and cultivate his vine. He assured Milo that he would never again see lion tracks in his vineyard. The king declared:

May the vine sprout forth fruit on its branches, and
may the vineyard pledge to be united to its cultivator.

{ Pullulet in ramos vitis fructumque propinet
Vinea cultori conciliata suo. }

Responding to the allegory of the vine, the king replaced adultery with the unity of husband and wife. That’s poetic justice.

Milo was happy with the king’s decision. Milo forgave his wife, and she once again appreciated him:

Applause returns from exile. The integrity of love
revives — unity of mind, faithful loyalty.
Anger cools, and love expands. Afra, who at first
was pleasing to her husband, after this can be more pleasing.
Thus with their minds united as one, they rejoice
to enjoy in the course of life more prosperity.

{ Plausus ab exilio remeat, respirat amoris
Integritas, mentis unio, fida fides;
Ira tepescit, amor exuberat, Afra marito
Grata prius post hoc gracior esse potest:
Sic dum mentis eos confederat unio, gaudent
Vitae curriculo prosperiore frui. }

In concluding Milo, Matthew of Vendôme insisted, “I do not adorn my speech with falsehoods {non falero falsum}.” That’s true. Respect for men, even for low-status men, promotes happiness and prosperity.

With Milo, Matthew of Vendôme greatly amplified Leo of the Seven Sages corpus. In its story of men’s sexual-status dynamics, Leo created a bland soldier to take the place of the greedy, cruel seneschal in the related Seven Sages’s Senescalcus. Matthew gave the low-status soldier of Leo much more human vibrancy and added greater insight into men’s gender position.

Meninism is the radical notion that men are human beings. While meninism wasn’t a school of critical thought in medieval Europe, Matthew of Vendôme’s Milo can be rightly regarded as a seminal work of proto-meninist literature.[5]

man climbing out of a sewer

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[1] On the chastity belts that medieval husbands allegedly used to prevent their being cuckolded, Classen (2007). The myth of the flat earth is more understandable than modern myths about rape. On the former, Russell (1991). On the myth of the “right of the first night {jus primae noctis},” “right of the lord {droit du seigneur},” or “right of the thigh {droit de cuissage},” Boureau (1998). Elites seem to have intentionally created these myths, along with the myth that elite Roman women didn’t find Roman gladiators sexually attractive.

[2] In the eastern part of the Seven Sages corpus, a story called Balneator is an earlier version of Senescalcus. A bathhouse-keeper, a prince, and the bathhouse-keeper’s wife are the principal figures in Balneator. They correspond to the seneschal, the king, and the seneschal’s wife in Senescalcus. The prince in Balneator isn’t characterized as homosexual, but he’s so fat that he can’t see his penis. Moreover, the bathhouse-keeper describes the prince as being sexually impotent. The prince pays the bathhouse-keeper to bring him a beautiful woman. The bathhouse keeper brings his own wife in the expectation that the prince wouldn’t be able to have sex with her. But the prince and the wife have enjoyable sex. The bathhouse-keeper, seeing his wife having sex with the prince, orders her to go home. She, however, insists on staying for the night, as they originally agreed. The bathhouse-keeper then hanged himself. The suicide rate for men is about four times that for women.

For Balneator in the eastern Seven Sages corpus, Hilka (1912) v. 1, pp. xxiv-v (table of manuscripts), pp. 20-1 (Latin text). For an English translation of Balneator from The Book of the Wiles and Fabrications of Women {El Libro de los Engaños e los Asayamientos de las Mugeres}, Keller (1956) pp. 29-30. El Libro de los Engaños was translated from Arabic into Spanish in 1253 at the request of Frederick of Castile, the brother of King Alfonso X (Alfonso the Wise). Here’s a listing of the stories in that book, which is also known as Sendebar. For a Hebrew version with English translation, Epstein (1967) pp. 209-17.

For Senescalcus in the western Seven Sages corpus, Paris (1876) pp. 9-11, Speer (1989) p. 77, Haro Cortés (2015), and Speer & Foehr-Janssens (2017). Senescalcus, along with Canis, Aper, and Avis, are the only stories shared between the eastern and western parts of the Seven Sages corpus. Here’s an extensive bibliographic reference on western versions of The Seven Sages of Rome {Les Sept Sages de Rome}. Speer asserted:

Seemingly extraneous details, like the reputed homosexuality of the King of Egypt and the strange cure that makes him heterosexual, or reawakens his heterosexual appetites, divert our attention from the greedy seneschal whose dual betrayal anchors the plot and provides the moral the queen wishes to emphasize.

Speer (2014) p. 194. These details show the value of heterosexuality to men, just as the experience of the seneschal’s wife indicates the value of heterosexuality to women. The redactor of this version (K manuscript) apparently sought to dampen the anti-meninism of Senescalcus. Matthew of Vendôme’s Milo went further in that same direction.

[3] Leo is included only in the eastern part of the Seven Sages corpus. For the Latin version, Hilka (1912) pp. 5-6; for an English translation of Leo from El Libro de los Engaños, Keller (1956) pp. 21-2. Leo draws on the account of David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11-12) with the Uriah-letter motif as well as with the king looking down and seeing a beautiful woman that he desires.

[4] Matthew of Vendôme {Matheus Vindocinensis}, Milo, vv. 9-10, Latin text from Munari (1982) pp. 59-72, my English translation, benefiting from that of Crawford (1977), pp. 51-61. For a critical edition with more extensive commentary, Busdraghi (1976). For a freely available Latin text that is quite good, Haupt (1834) pp. 19-28.

Milo has survived in two manuscripts: Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, MS 303, f. 155-158, and Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, MS 312, f. 27-30. Milo is thought to have been composed between 1160 and 1170. Crawford (1977) p. 44.

Matthew styled Milo as a classical work. In a prologue, he invokes his muse Thalia and declares:

I sing of Milo of Constantinople.
I sing playful Greek with a Roman song.

{ De Milone cano constantinopolitano,
Carmine Romano ludicra Greca cano. }

Milo, vv. 5-6. The classical Roman plays of Plautus and Terence were known as “plays in Greek clothes {fabula palliata}.” Matthew again links Milo to Constantinople in vv. 253-4. Matthew thus emphasizes that his source is Eastern, e.g. Leo of the Seven Sages corpus.

Many other works of Matthew of Vendôme have survived, including his Art of Writing Verse {Ars Versificatoria} and his Tobias. Gronbeck-Tedesco (1980) sees in Milo a connection between medieval rhetoric and drama. Other Latin comedies, e.g. Babio and Geta, have much more dialogue than Milo. For a comparison of narrative shares in the medieval Latin comedies, Crawford (1977) p. 385.

Subsequent quotes from Milo are similarly sourced. Those above are vv. 33-8 (Yes, the honeycomb is hidden…), 41-2 (While she hastens down a line of men…), 43-50 (Milo is given to Afra…), 103-110 (When Milo recalls Afra’s beauty…), 155 (the husband revoked from his wife her joys), 175-81 (The vine lacks children…), 221 (crime), 241-2 (The king was impressed with Milo’s eloquence…), 247-52 (Applause returns from exile…), 253 (I do not adorn my speech with falsehoods).

[5] Anti-meninism has become deeply entrenched in medieval scholarship. For example, the special issue of Narrative Culture on the Seven Sages tradition (Fall 2020, vol. 7, no. 2) is thoroughly anti-meninist. For an overview, Reynders & Sleiderink (2020). Consider this “reasoning” with respect to the Seven Sages’ frame story of the queen falsely accusing the king’s son of raping her:

This type of story implies a deeply misogynistic argument for rape culture: every accusation of rape could be the result of a woman’s invention, used to hide uncontrollable female lust. This way of reasoning can give substance to the opinion according to which all accusations of rape are fictitious or deserve to be treated as such.

Foehr-Janssens (2020) p. 165. Such totalitarian claims about “this type of story” are part of the dominant, censorious ideology that supports the fifteen-to-one gender protrusion in persons incarcerated, as well as public ignorance and bigotry concerning rape. The Seven Sages corpus surely isn’t an argument for modern, hateful rape-culture culture, nor for treating all accusations of rape as fictitious. The Seven Sages corpus should help readers to appreciate a medieval culture that took seriously the serious problem of false accusations of rape.

[images] (1) Older man handing a bird to a younger man in agricultural work. Photo (excerpt) by Rex Gary Schmidt, an employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Made between 1950 and 1972. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Three Austrian men working in iron mines in Minnesota in 1911. Photo (excerpt) by F.L. Washburn of the Agricultural Experiment Station, Anthony Park, MN. Via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Sculpture of Čumil, a sewer worker in Bratislava, Slovakia. Installed in 1994. Photo by Dennis Jarvis, who shared it under a Creative Commons BY-SA-2.0 license.


Boureau, Alain. 1998. The Lord’s First Night: the myth of the droit de cuissage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Translation by Lydia G. Cochrane of Boureau, Alain. 1995. Le droit de cuissage: la fabrication d’un mythe (XIIIe-XXe siècle). Paris: Albin Michel.

Busdraghi, Paola, ed. and trans. (Italian). 1976. “De Afra et Milone.” Pp. 168-195 in Bertini, Ferruccio, ed. Commedie latine del XII e XIII secolo. Vol. 1. Genova: Università di Genova.

Classen, Albrecht. 2007. The Medieval Chastity Belt: a myth-making process. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Crawford, James Martin. 1977. The Secular Latin Comedies of Twelfth Century France. Ph.D. Thesis. Indiana University, USA.

Epstein, Morris. 1967. Tales of Sendebar = Misle sendebar: an edition and translation of the Hebrew version of the Seven Sages based on unpublished manuscripts. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America.

Foehr-Janssens, Yasmina. 2020. “Misogyny and the Trends of a European Success: The French Prose Roman des sept sages de Rome.” Narrative Culture. 7 (2): 165-180.

Gronbeck-Tedesco, John L. 1980. “An Application of Medieval Rhetorical Invention to Dramatic Composition: Matthew of Vendôme’s Ars versificatoria and Milo.” Theatre Journal. 32 (2): 235-247.

Haro Cortés, Marta. 2015. “De Balneator del Sendebar a Senescalus de los Siete sabios: del exemplo al relato de acción.” Revista De Poética Medieval. 29: 145-175.

Haupt, Moritz. 1834. Exempla Poesis Latinae Medii Aevi. Vindobonae: Gerold.

Hilka, Alfons. 1912. Historia Septem sapientum I: eine bisher unbekannte lateinische Übersetzung einer orientalischen Fassung der Sieben weisen Meister (Mischle Sendabar). Heidelberg: Carl Winter.

Keller, John Esten, trans. 1956. The Book of the Wiles of Women. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Munari, Franco, ed. 1982. Mathei Vindocinensis Opera. Vol. 2: Piramus et Tisbe. Milo. Epistule. Tobias. Roma: Edizioni di storia e letteratura.

Paris, Gaston. 1876. Deux Redactions du Roman des Sept Sages de Rome. Paris: Firmin Didot.

Reynders, Anne, and Remco Sleiderink. 2020. “Shades of Misogyny: Medieval Versions of the Seven Sages Tradition from a Gender Perspective.” Narrative Culture. 7 (2): 119-123.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. 1991. Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and modern historians. New York: Praeger.

Speer, Mary B. 1989. Le Roman des sept sages de Rome: a critical edition of the two verse redactions of a twelfth-century romance. Lexington, KY: French Forum.

Speers, Mary B. 2014. “What Ails the Sodomite King of Egypt? ‘Senescalcus’ in the K Sept Sages de Rome.” Pp. 193-208 in Uhlig, Marion, and Yasmina Foehr-Janssens, eds. 2014. D’Orient en Occident les recueils de fables enchâssées avant les ‘Mille et une nuits’ de Galland (‘Barlaam et Josaphat’, ‘Calila et Dimna’, ‘Disciplina clericalis’, ‘Roman des sept sages’). Turnhout: Brepols.

Speer, Mary Blakely, and Yasmina Foehr-Janssens. 2017. Le Roman des Sept Sages de Rome: édition bilingue des deux rédactions en vers français. Paris: Honoré Champion.

Floire et Blancheflor: roman idyllique from ancient Greek romance

Sexual symmetry distinguishes ancient Greek romance from other classical literature. For example, Longus’s ancient Greek romance Daphnis and Chloe tells of two adolescents who grow up together and come to love each other. She’s a shepherd, and he’s a goatherd. While not dogmatically identical, Chloe and Daphnis are sexually symmetric in social status, emotional response, instrumental activity, life experiences, and their valuation of each other’s lives. Daphnis and Chloe and other ancient Greek romances are rare, classical works showing meninist concern for gender equality. The twelfth-century romance Floire et Blancheflor apparently drew upon ancient Greek romance.[1] Widely distributed and adapted in medieval Europe, Floire et Blancheflor supported an idyllic vision of gender equality. That vision, so painfully missing from modern gender orthodoxy, deserves to be disseminated and nurtured.

parents holding Floire and Blancheflor

Floire and Blancheflor were together from birth. Floire was the son of the pagan king Felix. While raiding Galicia, King Felix killed Blancheflor’s father and captured Blancheflor’s mother. He gave Blancheflor’s mother to his wife as a slave. Both Felix’s wife and Blancheflor’s mother gave birth on Palm Sunday. Their children were named after flowers: Floire and Blancheflor, respectively. Blancheflor’s mother raised Floire:

She raised him very properly
and guarded him attentively
just as her own daughter, and no one knew
which of the two was dearer to her.
Together the children were raised
such that each from two years of age
never separately ate
nor drank, except for their breast-feeding.
Together they slept in one bed.
They grazed and were watered as a couple.

{ El le nouri molt gentement
et garda ententivement
plus que sa fille, et ne savoit
le quel des .II. plus cier avoit.
Ensamble nori les enfans
tant que cascuns ot bien .II. ans ;
onques ne lor sevra mangier
ne boire, fors seul l’alaitier.
Ensamble en un lit les couçoit,
andeus paissoit et abevroit. }[2]

Blancheflor and Floire lived together in pastoral simplicity and gender equality. These two children probably played with the same toys, with Floire not being specially trained with toy soldiers to kill men. They probably wore the same color clothes. In other words, Floire was not projected out into the vast emptiness of sky and sea by being distinctively clothed in blue.

Floire and Blancheflor as children
When the children reached seven years of age, King Felix sent Floire away for schooling under a master-teacher. In medieval schools, boys were often beaten and abused. Moreover, in medieval sex-segregated schooling, boys were taught gendered lessons inculcating subservience to women. Using an important method for eliciting compassion, Floire refused to participate in sex-segregated learning:

The king commanded his son
to learn, and that child, crying,
responded: “Sir, what will Blancheflor
do? And will she not also learn?
Without her I cannot learn,
nor will I know how to speak my lessons.”
The king responded: “For your love,
Blancheflor will also be taught.”
And so the couple went to school.
They were very devoted to the word.
Each of the two learned so much
from the other that it was marvelous.

{ Li rois commande son enfant
qu’il aprenge, et cil en plourant
li respont: “Sire, que fera
Blanceflors? Et dont n’aprendra?
Sans li ne puis jou pas aprendre
ne ne saroie lechon rendre.”
Li rois respont: “Por vostre amor
ferai aprendre Blanceflor.”
Es les vos andeus a escole!
Cius fu molt liés de la parole.
Cascuns d’aus .II. tant aprendoit
pour l’autre que merveille estoit. }

Formal education is now much more important for earning a living than it was in medieval Europe. In the U.S. today, women outnumber men among those receiving undergraduate degrees by 41%.[3] Yet some U.S. colleges still categorically exclude men from undergraduate study. Those female-exclusive, sex-segregated colleges deprive men and women of important educational opportunities. Women today should denounce sex segregation and advocate to learn with men, just as Floire implored to learn with Blancheflor.

Floire and Blancheflor at school

Book learning didn’t lead Blancheflor and Floire to feel gender-aggrieved. It nurtured their love:

As soon as Nature had allowed,
love became their concern.
In learning they had good sense
for retaining what was most fitting.
They read pagan books
where they heard talk of love.
In this they greatly delighted,
in the ingenuity of love that they found.
These readings made them hasten more
to another sense of loving one another
from the infant love
that had been their concern.
Together they read and they learned,
and the joy of love accompanied them.
When they returned from school,
one kissed the other and they embraced.

{ Au plus tost que souffri Nature
ont en amer mise lor cure.
En aprendre avoient boin sens,
du retenir millor porpens.
Livres lisoient paienors
u ooient parler d’amors.
En çou forment se delitoient,
es engiens d’amor qu’il trovoient.
Cius lires les fist molt haster
en autre sens d’aus entramer
que de l’amor de noureture
qui lor avoit esté a cure.
Ensamle lisent et aprendent,
a la joie d’amor entendent.
Quant il repairent de l’escole,
li uns baise l’autre et acole. }

Good education is priceless. It need not be expensive, but it must be thoughtfully sought.

Seeing how much Floire and Blancheflor loved each other, King Felix was concerned that they would marry. He didn’t want his son to marry a non-royal Christian girl. He planned to kill Blancheflor. His wife, however, convinced him to send Floire away instead. King Felix falsely promised that Blancheflor would join Floire in two weeks. She was instead sold to slave-traders who took her to Babylon. There the emir of Babylon bought her for seven times her weight in gold. Men value women very highly.

Back in Felix’s realm, a magnificent fake tomb was prepared to support the fiction that Blancheflor had died. The engraving on the tomb declared Blancheflor and Floire’s mutual love:

Here lies sweet Blancheflor
that Floire loved with passion.

{ Here lyth swete Blauncheflour,
That Florys lovyd par amoure. }[4]

As this clever couplet indicates, Blancheflor loved Floire with passion, and Floire loved Blancheflor with passion. Their love was an equal love like that of ancient Greek romance.

Blancheflor’s mother told Floire that Blancheflor had died. She showed him her fake tomb. Then Floire wanted to be dead just as he believed Blancheflor was. Just in time his mother stopped him from killing himself. She told him the truth: Blancheflor had been sold to foreign slave-traders. Floire immediately declared that he would search for her until he found her and not return until he regained her. King Felix, repenting of what he had done, equipped Floire lavishly for this quest.

Floire went to the port from which the slave-traders had left with Blancheflor. He didn’t know where to go from there. At the port inn where he stayed, he ate little and was mostly silent. He lamented losing Blancheflor. The hostess observed:

The other day I saw another like you,
a young woman Blancheflor,
so she called herself to me.
She resembled you, by my faith,
and well might have been the same age,
and resembled you in appearance.
She likewise ate pensively
and lamented about her beloved
Floire, by whom she was beloved.
To tear her away from him, she was sold.
For fifteen days she was here.
Her laments were continually with tears.
Floire her beloved she lamented,
and night and day for him she cried.
Except for so saying, she was silent all days.

{ Autretel vi jou l’autre jor
de damoisele Blanceflor
(Ensi se noma ele a moi):
el vos resanle, en moie foi,
bien poés estre d’un eage,
si vos resanle du visage.
Ensement au mangier pensoit
et un sien ami regretoit,
Flore, cui amie ele estoit;
por lui tolir on le vendoit.
Ele fut çaiens .XV. jors,
ses regrés fu adés en plors.
Flore son ami regretoit,
et nuit et jor por lui ploroit.
Fors de cest dit tos jors ert mue. }

Women are silenced by being deprived of men’s love. The hostess perceptively observed:

You here are alike in all things
of appearance and of mourning.
But you are a man and she is a woman.

{ Thou art ilich here of alle thinge,
Of semblant and of mourning,
But thou art a man and she is a maide. }

Just like heroes in ancient Greek romance, Blancheflor and Floire were sexually symmetric. Their voices were much alike when active and when silenced. When Floire heard the hostess’s news of Blancheflor, he spoke profusely in thanks. He ate and drank in celebration. Then he prepared to follow Blancheflor to Babylon.

On the way to Babylon, three other strangers told Floire of seeing a young women named Blancheflor. They observed that, like him, she was mournful and pensive and lamented a lost beloved. They said she also looked like him. Two even suggested that he and she were kin. In fact, the toll-man Daire’s wife Licoris said to her husband:

“Sir,” said Licoris, “by my faith,
it seems to me, when I look at him,
that he is beautiful Blancheflor.
I’m certain that he is her twin.
That face, that body, and that resemblance
like her he had from infancy.
I believe that he was born of the same parent,
because they marvelously resemble each other.
She was here fifteen days ago.
Her comforts were lamenting and crying.
She lamented Floire, her beloved,
and night and day she cried for him.
Then from here she was taken
and the emir purchased her.
This is her brother and her beloved.”

{ Sire, fait Licoris, par foi,
çou m’est avis, quant jou le voi,
que çou soit Blanceflor la bele.
Jou cuit qu’ele est sa suer jumele:
tel vis, tel cors et tel sanlant
com ele avoit a cest enfant.
Jou cuit qu’il sont proçain parant,
car a merveille sont sanlant.
Ele fu çaiens .XV. jours;
ses confors fu regrés et plors.
Floire, un sien ami, regretoit,
et nuit et jor por lui ploroit,
quant ele de çaiens torna
et li amirals l’acata.
Cix est ses frere u ses ami. }[5]

These three encounters on Floire’s way to Babylon all attest to Blancheflor and Floire’s sexual symmetry. Floire rewarded these strangers lavishly for providing news of his beloved Blancheflor. He then continued on to Babylon.

The toll-man Daire advised Floire against attempting to rescue Blancheflor. She was being held in the emir’s harem in a great tower in strongly walled Babylon. Each of the one hundred and forty young woman in the harem was confined in a separate room. Nine vicious eunuchs carefully guarded the young women. The young women in the tower were allowed to see no men other than the emir and eunuchs:

No servant may go in there
that has a penis in his pants —
neither by day or by night,
unless he be castrated like a capon.
And at the entrance is a gatekeeper.
He is neither fool nor coward.
If there comes any man
within that particular fortress,
unless it be by his permission,
the gatekeeper will both beat him and castrate him.

{ Ne mai no seriaunt be therinne
That in his brech bereth the ginne,
Neither bi dai ne bi night,
But he be ase capoun dight.
And at the gate is a gateward,
He nis no fol ne no coward;
Yif ther cometh ani man
Withinne that ilche barbican,
But hit be bi his leve
He wille him bothe bete and reve. }[6]

Castration culture is intimately connected to women’s captivity. If you seek women’s liberation, work to abolish castration culture.

Each year the emir had a different woman as his wife. He would parade all the young women of his harem one by one past a stream in his lush garden. That stream would test their virginity. If the stream turned muddy and agitated, the woman would be judged to be “befouled” by a man and executed for her impurity. That’s horrific historical witness to disparagement of men’s sexuality.

After being tested for not having intimately loved a man, the young women would then walk under a blossoming tree. The woman upon whom a blossom fell would be the emir’s wife that year. After a year of marriage, there would be no divorce trial in which a gynocentric family-court judge would deprive the husband of his children and most of his wealth. Instead, the wife would simply be beheaded. Then another young woman of the harem would be selected as a new wife for the emir. Because the emir wanted to marry Blancheflor, he procured magic to ensure that this year the blossom fell on her.

Determined to rescue his beloved Blancheflor, Floire with guile as impressive as that of any woman contrived to penetrate the emir’s harem tower. First Floire pretended to be a rich foreign architect intending to build such a tower in his land. He thus carefully surveyed the tower. Then Floire played chess with the tower’s gatekeeper for three straight days. Floire contrived to give the gatekeeper much gold and a precious cup for his winnings and his friendship at the chessboard. Floire in this way secured the gatekeeper’s allegiance. With Floire dressed in a red shirt, the gatekeeper smuggled him into the tower in a basket of roses intended for Blancheflor.

Unfortunately, the basket of roses was mistakenly delivered to another young woman named Claris. She was the king of Germany’s daughter. When Floire arose from the flowers to embrace his beloved Blancheflor, Claris screamed. Realizing that he had been delivered to the wrong woman — apparently a man-hating woman — Floire feared for his safety. He dove back into the basket of roses.

Floire emerges from basket and scares Claris

Claris soon realized that this strange man looked like her friend Blancheflor. She told the many young woman who ran to her aid when she screamed that she was merely startled by a butterfly that had flew from the basket of roses. Claris, a loyal and loving woman, deeply appreciated men. She saved Floire from being exposed and killed. She brought him to his beloved Blancheflor. Floire and Blancheflor then enjoyed many nights naked in bed together in the emir’s harem tower.

Blancheflor wasn’t a passive medieval woman like the modern academic stereotype. Her vigorous activity with Floire at night frequently made her sleepy in the morning. When one morning Claris came to summon Blancheflor to go with her to serve the emir with water basins, Blancheflor said she was coming. Then she fell asleep. The emir inquired about the lovely Blancheflor. Claris claimed that Blancheflor was continuing to read a book that she had been reading all night to promote the emir’s well-being. The emir was pleased with Blancheflor’s devotion to him.

The next morning, Claris and Blancheflor were again required to serve the emir with water basins. Blancheflor again said she was coming and fell asleep in Floire’s embrace. This time Claris mistakenly told the emir that Blanchefor was coming. The emir sent his chamberlain to hurry her along. The chamberlain peered into Blancheflor’s room:

He seemed to see there
Blancheflor and beautiful Claris.
Why shouldn’t he have thought that?
Neither Floire’s face nor his chin had
a beard, and no mustache was visible.
The tower didn’t have a young woman
who in appearance was more beautiful than Floire.

{ vis li est qu’il i a veü
Blanceflor et bele Gloris.
Por coi ne li fust il avis?
K’a face n’a menton n’avoit
barbe, ne grenons n’i paroit:
en la tor n’avoit damoisele
qui de visage fust plus bele. }

With Claris not present, the chamberlain reported to the emir:

Sir, a marvel have I seen!
Never was love so grand as
as has Blancheflor toward Claris
and she toward her. It’s something to see.
Together they sleep sweetly,
and they have embraced closely.
Mouth to mouth and face to face
they have embraced, and arm in arm.
From compassion I didn’t want to wake them,
for fear of causing them too much suffering.
They are well set in resting together.

{ Sire, merveilles ai veü!
Ainc mais si grans amors ne fu
com a Blanceflor vers Gloris
et ele a li, ce m’est avis.
Ensanle dorment doucement,
acolé s’ont estroitement,
et bouce a bouce et face a face
s’ont acolé, et brace a brace.
De pitié nes voel esvillier,
trop les cremoie a travillier.
Molt lor siet a gesir ensanle. }

The emir was outraged. He thought that Claris had stolen Blancheflor’s love from him.[7]

The emir grabbed his sword and went straight to Blancheflor’s room. There he saw the two lovers sleeping sweetly in the bright daylight:

When he saw them, he was all distressed.
Blancheflor, his beloved, he knew well,
but the other he didn’t know.
Floire was resting with his beloved.
His face didn’t have any indication
that he was a man, for his chin
didn’t have a beard, nor did he have a mustache.
Except for Blancheflor, there wasn’t such a beautiful
young woman in the tower.
The emir looked at him and knew nothing.

{ Quant il les vit, tous fu maris;
Blanceflor connut bien, s’amie,
mais l’autre connut n’avoit mie.
Flores o s’amie gisoit;
en son vis nul sanlant n’avoit
qu’il fust hom, car a son menton
n’avoit ne barbe ne grenon;
fors Blanceflor n’avoit tant bele
en la tor nule damoisele.
Li rois le voit, nel connut mie. }

The ignorant emir put the matter to a test:

“Uncover the chests,” he said
to the chamberlain, “of these two young women.
First let us see their breasts
and then we will wake them.”
They were uncovered. It was apparent
that one was a man who was lying there.

{ “Descoevre, fait il, les poitrines,
au cambrelenc, des .II. mescines;
les mameles primes verrons
et puis si les esvillerons.”
Cil les descoevre, s’aparut
que cil est hom qui illuec jut. }

The learned today learn that breasts don’t identity a woman any more than a penis and testicles identify a man. But the emir was ignorant. He thought he could distinguish between man and woman. He thus identified Floire as a man. He intended to kill them both. That’s unusual in the oppressive history of penal punishment being predominately directed at persons with penises.

Before killing Floire and Blancheflor, the emir sought to hold a trial. That’s how accusations of serious crimes were commonly handled before the recent turn to social-media stoning. Blancheflor and Floire each took responsibility for their sexual crime and sought to exonerate the other. But the emir, acting as judge, resolved to kill them both. Then a king in attendance proposed a plea bargain. He suggested that the emir not kill them if Floire would fully reveal how he, an uncastrated man, had managed to penetrate the emir’s harem. Floire added the proviso of pardon for those who had helped him. The emir agreed. He thus heard Floire’s tale. Floire concluded his tale by falling at the emir’s feet and saying that he would rather be killed than live without Blancheflor.

Floire and Blancheflor gain emir's pardon

The emir was movingly impressed with Floire and Blancheflor’s love for each other. He made Floire a knight. Then he provided a lavish wedding for them. In addition, the emir chose to marry Claris. Blancheflor pleaded that the emir not behead Claris after a year, but that he take her as his wife for life. So the emir did. Floire then received news that his father the king had died. The realm sought Floire to succeed to his father’s throne. Floire and Blancheflor thus sailed back from Babylon to reign happily together in Spain.

Despite too many wives dominating their husbands, Blancheflor and Floire undoubtedly had a sexually symmetric marriage — a conjugal partnership. Like the protagonists of ancient Greek romance, Floire and Blancheflor were sexually symmetric from childhood. Why wouldn’t they remain sexually symmetric as they grew old together? The medieval romance Floire et Blancheflor sparkles with the inspiring meninist vision of ancient Greek romance.[8]

Floire and Blancheflor have a baby

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Lot-Borodine identified five Old French romances composed in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as romans idylliques. She declared that the first roman idyllique is the ancient Greek romance Daphnis and Chloe. Lot-Borodine (1913) pp. 3-5. Similarly, “The prototype is Daphnis and Chloe.” Hubert (1966) p. 14. But Lot-Borodine concluded:

With regard to the problem of origins, we have noted the impossibility of finding a single source for our romances. Every time we thought we had our hands on this supposed source, it fled before us, unknowable. We have only succeeded in discovering a few motifs, mostly borrowed from oriental fictions or from the folklore of all peoples, motifs which are embedded in the idyllic theme, like ornaments, but do not form the framework.

{ En ce qui concerne le problème des origines, nous avons constaté l’impossibilité de trouver à nos romans une même source. Chaque fois que nous pension savoir mis la main sur cette prétendue source, elle fuyait devant nous, insaisissable. Nous avons réussi seulement à découvrir quelques motifs, empruntés pour la plupart à des fictions orientales ou au folklore de tous les peuples, motifs qui s’incrustent dans le thème idyllique, comme des ornements, mais n’en forment pas la trame. }

Lot-Borodine (1913) p. 267. Sexual symmetry is distinctive to ancient Greek romance. Sexual symmetry isn’t common in literary history or folklore. Konstan (1994).

Floire et Blancheflor has explicit connections to late antiquity. It presents itself as a romance about Charlemagne’s grandparents (the parents of his mother Berthe aux Grands Pieds). That implies a setting late in the seventh century. Estoria de España, a thirteenth-century chronicle written under the direction of King Alfonso X, associates the story of Floire and Blancheflor with the Moors’ conquest of Spain in 711. On the Spanish Chronicle of Floire and Blancheflor {Cronica de Flores y Blancaflor}, Grieve (1997), Segol (2003), and Wacks (2015). The author of Floire et Blancheflor apparently knew The Romance of Apollonius {Roman d’Apollonius} and perhaps knew The Story of Apollonius King of Tyre {Historia Apollonii Regis Tyri}. The Apollonius story probably dates from the late fifth or early sixth century.

According to perceptive critics, ancient Greek romance may have been intended for a young audience. See, e.g. Konstan (1994) Ch. 6. The same has been said for Floire et Blancheflor:

Many romances have heroes who are children, but modern editions of Floris have been especially styled as sentimental juvenilia. … The text might be usefully read as exploring deeper themes of emotional, moral, and sexual development which might have appealed to a younger audience.

Eckert (2012) p. 243.

The transmission of the sexual symmetry of ancient Greek romance to Floire et Blancheflor plausibly occurred through Islamic or Byzantine connections. The Apollonius story is a patterned tale and so represents an artistic key common in the ancient Islamic world. Moreover, Floire et Blancheflor is similar to the story of Ni’ma ibn al-Rabi’ and Nu’m (nights 237-246) in the Arabian Nights. See, e.g. Lyons (2008) vol. 1, pp. 808-27. Much Greek learning was translated into Syriac and Arabic and then entered Europe through Spain. Ideas from ancient Greek romance might also have come into Europe through Byzantine occupations of parts of Italy. More generally, the same current that brought the Panchatantra / Fables of Bidpai to western Europe could have also brought the sexual symmetry of ancient Greek novels to Floire et Blancheflor.

Specific evidence of transmission of the ancient Greek romances to western Europe isn’t know. According to one authority, Eumathios Makrembolites’s twelfth-century Greek (Byzantine) novel Hysmine and Hysminias and Chrétien de Troyes’s twelfth-century Old French romance Cligès:

together may represent the most tangible link that is now recoverable, in the history of literary fiction, from the ideal novels (or ‘romances’) of Greek antiquity to the chivalric tradition that would come to dominate the western Middle Ages.

Beaton (2018) p. 513. Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe and Floire et Blancheflor seem to me a similarly plausible link. The thirteenth-century German poet Konrad Fleck attributed Floire et Blancheflor to Ruoprecht von Orbênt. Beaton lamented:

Perhaps discouragingly, it turns out that the western leader who spent the longest time in the Byzantine capital during the winter of 1147-8 was the German king, Conrad {Conrad III}, a fact that hardly helps explain literary developments in French.

Id. pp. 499-500. Perhaps Conrad III’s court transmitted to Floire et Blancheflor the idea of sexual symmetry from ancient Greek romance that they encountered in Constantinople.

The anonymous lai Espine, probably composed late in the twelfth century, attests to the distinctiveness of sexual symmetry in Floire et Blancheflor. In Espine, a girl and a boy grow up together. She is the queen’s daughter by a previous royal marriage. He is the king’s son by a concubine. These two children were nearly inseparable:

The two children loved each other dearly.
In perfect harmony with each other,
they enjoyed playing together,
and in this way they fell in love with each other,
so that one of them never discovered anything
without sharing it with the other.
The children, as far as I am aware,
had been brought up together.
The girl would accompany the boy,
and the man who had the task of guarding them
permitted them everything,
no forbidding them anything,
neither food nor drink,
except for sharing the same bed.
But this they had no desire to do.

{ Li dui enfant molt s’en entramoient;
Selonc l’entente qu’il avoient
Volentiers ensemble jooient,
Et en tel guise s’entramoient
Que li uns d’eus riens ne savoit,
Par soi jusque l’autre n’avoit.
Norri orent esté ensemble
Li enfant, si con me semble.
Cel(i)e ensemble o lui aloit,
Et cil qui garder les devoit
De trestout lor donoit congié,
Ne de rien ne lor fesoit vié,
Ne de boivre ne de mengier,
Fors seul tant qu’ensemble couchier;
Mes de ce n’orent il pas gré. }

Espine, vv. 29-43, Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Burgess & Brook (2007) p. 216-7. Espine parallels Floris et Blancheflour in vv. 33-4 to 225-6; 35 to 722, 40-2 to 193-5, 45-6 to 227-8, respectively. Id. p. 240.

The boy and girl in Espine, however, aren’t sexually symmetric. While Floris and Blancheflour were born on the same day, the boy and girl of Espine are explicitly not of the same age:

The children were both of the same lineage,
but they were not the same age.
The elder was only seven years old.
This was the boy, who was the older of the two.

{ Ambedui erent d’un prage,
Mes n’estoient pas d’un aage;
Ku ainznez n’avoit que .VII. anz,
C’est li vallez qui plus ert granz. }

Espine, vv. 25-8, sourced as above. The Espine of Burgess & Brook (2007) is based on MS S: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, nouvelles acquisitions françaises, 1104, folios 27va-30vb. The Espine of Tobin (1976), in contrast, is based on MS B: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, français, 1553, f. 480va-483ra. The tale is substantial similar in these two manuscript. Burgess & Brook (2007) p. 200. For a freely available English translation of Espine, Donnelly (1998).

[2] Ruoprecht von Orbênt / Robert d’Orbigny (attributed), Floris and Blancheflour {Floire et Blancheflor}, vv. 185-96, Old French text from Leclanche (1980), my English translation, benefiting from that of Hubert (1966), which is based on the Old French edition of Pelan (1956). For an early Old French critical edition, Du Méril (1856). Leighton (1922) is a freely available English translation.

All references here to Floire et Blancheflor are to what’s called the “aristocratic version.” A later Old French version is called the “popular version.” Robert d’Orbigny apparently composed the aristocratic version about 1155-1170. Hubert (1966) p. 19. For Ruoprecht von Orbênt / Robert d’Orbigny as author, Leclanche (2003).

Floire et Blancheflor survives in three nearly whole copies and two fragments. Leclanche (1980) is based on MS A: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, français, 375, f. 247va-254va. Pelan (1956), however, is based on MS B: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, français, 1447, f. 1r-20v.

Floire et Blancheflor was widely distributed in medieval Europe through adaptations into other languages:

Floire et Blancheflor was one of the most popular medieval romances, with a multitude of surviving manuscripts in Old French, Middle English, Low German, Old Icelandic, Old Norse, Ladino, Italian, Middle Dutch, and Old Spanish.

Segol (2003) p. 233. Among many medieval works drawing upon the story, Boccaccio’s Filocolo is based on Floire et Blancheflor. Floire (Flor, Fleur, Floris) and Blancheflor (Blancheflour, Blanchefleur) became names of model lovers:

the names of the two lovers became a legend, a sort of symbol of faithful and unswerving devotion. One finds them cited, over and over again, along with Tristan and Iseult, and Lancelot and Guinevere, as perfect examples of those who loved and suffered for their love, very much as Romeo and Juliet are cited in later days.

Hubert (1966) p. 21.

Subsequent citations to and quotes from Floire et Blancheflor are sourced as above. The quotes are vv. 209-22 (The king commanded his son…), 227-42 (As soon as Nature had allowed…), 1295-1309 (The other day I saw another like you…), 1725-39 (“Sir,” said Licoris…), 2582-8 (He seemed to see there…), 2593-603 (Sir, a marvel have I seen…), 2634-43 (When he saw them, he was all distressed…), 2647-52 (Uncover the chests…).

[3] Calculated for Associate’s degrees and Bachelor’s degrees for school year 2018-19 using data from U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, Table 318.10, Degrees conferred by postsecondary institutions, by level of degree and sex of student: Selected years, 1869-70 through 2029-30.

While studies of sex differences in communication haven’t addressed the matter, modern presentations of sex differences are often misleading. For example, this Department of Education table shows “percent female” for degrees awarded. Master’s degrees for 2018-19 shows a “percent female” of 60.7%. Put differently, the ratio of women to men earning Master’s degrees is  60.7% / 39.3% = 1.54. Thus 54% more women than men earned Master’s degrees. That means that about a third (0.54/1.54) of women earning Master’s degrees could not have had each their own special beloved man in their graduating class. That’s a terrible gender inequality. Women students should protest and resist such social injustice!

[4] Floris and Blancheflour (Middle English version) vv. 217-8, Middle English text from Kooper (2006), my English modernization, benefiting from that of Eckert (2015). Apparently pleased with these witty verses, the poet repeated them as vv. 265-6. The Middle English Floris and Blancheflour was adapted from the Old French Floire et Blancheflor about the year 1250.

The Middle English poet associated Floris (“belonging to the flower”) and Blancheflour (“white flour”) with color symbolism:

Throughout, the story emphasizes that the red rose is the flower of Floris and the white lily that of Blancheflour. These colors/flowers are found, for example, on the tomb made for Blancheflour and later in the Emir’s garden; both are decorated with trees, one of which has white flowers, the other red. The color symbolism explains as well the curious colors of Floris’ horse, which was half red, half white (lines 365-66).

Kooper (2006), Introduction. The red rose and the white lily were closely associated in medieval Christian thought.

Subsequent quotes from the Middle English Floris and Blancheflour are sourced as above. Those quotes are vv. 419-21 (You here are alike in all things…) and vv. 629-38 (No servant may go in there…).

[5] On Floire’s way to Babylon, the three strangers that mention to him his resemblance to Blancheflor are a merchant (vv. 1459-68), the ferryman (vv. 1459-68), and the toll-man Daire’s wife Licoris (vv. 1725-39).

In medieval Europe, Babylon was the name for Cairo. While much of the geography of Floire et Blancheflor is vague and inconsistent, its description of Babylon is a plausible description of medieval Cairo. Kinoshita (2006) pp. 91-3.

[6] The Middle English version celebrates cunning / ingenuity with frequent use of the associated Middle English word ginne. Barnes (1984) pp. 14-23. In v. 630, ginne is used in its additional meaning of “penis.” That’s a witty invocation of what might be considered a false etymology. Women have long been regarded as superior to men in guile.

[7] Barnes associated the emir with the blocking figure of Greek New Comedy. Barnes (1984) p. 14. A more direct source is likely to be blocking figures in the Roman Latin comedies of Terence and Plautus.

[8] With great loss of personal joy and cultural vitality, literary scholars have deplorably marginalized and ignored meninist literary criticism. No meninist literary critic has ever been included in a major conference of medievalists. That’s not surprising. No persons police boundaries more vigilantly than well-disciplined academics. For all their talk about transgressions, successful literary scholars vigorously promote dominant academic ideology. See, e.g. Kinoshita (2006).

[images] Blancheflor and Floire in illustrations by Eleanor Forescue Brickdale from Leighton (1922). For a fifteenth-century illuminated manuscript of Konrad Fleck’s Flore und Blanscheflur, Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, MS Cod. Pal. germ. 362.

Floire and Blancheflor together


Barnes, Geraldine. 1984. “Cunning and Ingenuity in the Middle English Floris and Blauncheflur.” Medium Ævum. 53 (1): 10-25.

Beaton, Roderick. 2018. “Transplanting Culture: from Greek Novel to Medieval Romance.” Ch. 22 (pp. 499-514) in Shawcross, Teresa, and Ida Toth, eds. Reading in the Byzantine Empire and Beyond. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Burgess, Glyn S., Leslie C. Brook, ed. and trans. 2007. French Arthurian Literature. Volume IV: Eleven Old French Narrative Lays. Cambridge, UK: D.S. Brewer.

Donnelly, Linda Marie Asfodel. 1998. The Anonymous Fairy-Knight Lays: Tydorel, Tyolet, Doon and Espine. M.A. Thesis, University of Alberta.

Du Méril, Édélestand, ed. 1856. Floire et Blanceflor, poèmes du XIIIe siècle publiés d’après les manuscrits. Paris: P. Jannet.

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