Homerocentones & Vergiliocentones from Jerome to Boccaccio and beyond

Faltonia Betitia Proba presents Virgilian cento

Homerocentones and Vergiliocentones are created by stitching together verses of Homer and Virgil, respectively. The great fourth-century Christian scholar Jerome ridiculed Christian Vergiliocentones in a letter to Paulinus of Nola in 394. Jerome in that letter alluded to Proba and her Virgilian Cento Concerning the Glory of Christ {Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi}. Jerome’s disparagement of centos paralleled the views of prominent Christian thinkers Irenaeus in the second century, Tertullian in the third century, and Augustine in the fifth.[1] Yet about a millennium later, Christian authors lavishly and superficially praised Proba’s cento. In doing so, they interpreted Jerome to support Homerocentones and Vergiliocentones and failed to appreciate Proba’s challenge to dominant gender ideology. When gender is important, reason often doesn’t guide interpretation.

Jerome wrote among closely connected elite thinkers pondering how the canon of traditional Greco-Roman culture related to Christian scripture. Paulinus of Nola, to whom Jerome wrote at least three warm letters, was a student of Ausonius. Ausonius had written the stunning Wedding Cento {Cento nuptialis} probably in the 370s. While Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis isn’t explicitly Christian, Ausonius himself was a Christian, and his Cento nuptialis has significant thematic connections to Proba’s Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi. Ausonius and Paulinus of Nola were close and frequent correspondents. Jerome may well have known of both Proba’s and Ausonius’s Vergiliocentones. Frequently censored through the ages, Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis would have disturbed Jerome even more than Proba’s cento.

With his usual vigorous, vibrant rhetoric, Jerome ridiculed Christian Homerocentones and Vergiliocentones in his letter to Paulinus. Jerome is the sort of writer who would playfully construct an obscene gesture with words and fabricate a text and attribute it to the ancient Athenian philosopher Theophrastus. When discussing field-specific learning, Jerome at first didn’t distinguish secular writing from sacred writing:

Agricultural laborers, masons, craftsmen, workers in wood and metal, wool-dressers and fullers, as well as those artisans who make furniture and cheap utensils, cannot attain the ends they seek without instruction from qualified persons. Those who practice medicine are medical doctors, and craftsmen put together craft-work {quoting Horace, Epistles 2.1.115-6}. Only the art of writing all everywhere claim to have. Taught or untaught, we all everywhere write poems {quoting Horace, Epistles 2.1.117}. The garrulous old woman, the raving old man, the wordy solecism-speaker — one and all they take it up, tear it apart, and teach it before learning it.

{ Agricolae, caementarii, fabri, metallorum, lignorumve caesores, lanarii quoque et fullones, et caeteri qui variam supellectilem et vilia opuscula fabricantur, absque doctore non possunt esse quod cupiunt. Quod medicorum est promittunt medici, tractant fabrilia fabri. Sola scripturarum ars est, quam sibi omnes passim vindicant. Scribimus indocti, doctique poemata passim. Hanc garrula anus, hanc delirus senex, hanc sophista verbosus, hanc universi praesumunt, lacerant, docent, antequam discant. } [2]

Writing poetry was an elite activity in the fourth-century Roman Empire. Jerome declaring that writing poetry is more prevalent than common manual trades shows Jerome engaging in extravagant rhetoric. His learned quotes of Horace distinguish him from the ignorant solecism-speaker. Jerome, like Paulinus, was highly educated in elite, secular literature.

Much more so than Paulinus, Jerome was also highly educated in Holy Scripture. Jerome mocked the pretense that secular learning is sufficient to understand and teach Holy Scripture:

Some, with brows knit and weighing grand words among unimportant women, philosophize concerning sacred literature. Others — for shame! — learn from women what they teach men, and if this weren’t bad enough, expound it to others with a certain ease, or even boldness, in speaking. They expound what they themselves do not understand. I remain silent about those who, like me, come to the study of Holy Scripture after having studied secular literature. When they have stroked the ear of the people with well-arranged speech, they think that whatever they say is the law of God. They do not deign to know what the prophets and the apostles perceived, but attach inept evidence to their own feelings, as if this were a grand accomplishment and not the most corrupt mode of speaking. They distort the intentions of Scripture and tug it, though it resist, toward their own inclination.

{ Alii adducto supercilio, grandia verba trutinantes, inter mulierculas de sacris litteris philosophantur. Alii discunt, proh pudor, a feminis, quod viros doceant: et ne parum hoc sit, quadam facilitate verborum, imo audacia edisserunt aliis, quod ipsi non intelligunt. Taceo de mei similibus, qui si forte ad Scripturas sanctas, post saeculares litteras venerint; et sermone composito aurem populi mulserint, quidquid dixerint, hoc legem Dei putant: nec scire dignantur, quid Prophetae, quid Apostoli senserint; sed ad sensum suum incongrua aptant testimonia; quasi grande sit, et non vitiosissimum docendi genus, depravare sententias, et ad voluntatem suam Scripturam trahere repugnantem. }

Jerome’s reference to women introduces his particularization “sacred literature.” Unlike in traditional Greco-Roman culture, gender had normative significant to Christians in the incarnation of God and in teaching sacred literature. Jerome’s paralipsistic reference to his prior study of secular literature emphasizes that he, unlike the others he ridicules, went on to study extensively sacred literature. For Jerome, sacred literature requires particular expertise, particular gender in teaching, and particular respect for its authority. Jerome in his letter to Paulinus was positioning himself to teach Paulinus about sacred literature, not secular literature.

Proba and her Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi represented to Jerome the wrong way to approach sacred literature. Proba was a married woman deeply learned in the secular literature of Virgil. She turned from the path of secular literature to write a Vergiliocento — an epic of Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament constructed from verses of Virgil. At least one other poet similarly made Christian Homerocentones.[3] Jerome apparently felt that study of sacred literature was being shortchanged. Secular learning was being given priority over study of sacred scripture:

Otherwise we wouldn’t read Homerocentones and Vergiliocentones, nor would we say that even Virgil was a Christian without Christ because he had written: “Now the Virgin returns, the kingdom of Saturn returns. Now a new race will spring up in the whole world {quoting Virgil, Eclogues 4.6-7},” and a father saying to his son: “Son, you alone my strength, my mighty power {quoting Virgil, Aeneid, 1.664},” and after the words of the Savior on the cross: “Speaking thus he rested and remained held in place {quoting Virgil, Aeneid 2.650}.” These are childish views and similar to the sport of pretentious frauds: to teach what you don’t know; or rather — to vent my spleen — not even to know that you don’t know.

{ Quasi non legerimus, Homerocentonas, et Virgiliocentonas: ac non sic etiam Maronem sine Christo possimus dicere Christianum, qui scripserit: “Jam redit et virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna. Jam nova progenies coelo demittitur alto.” Et patrem loquentem ad filium, “Nate, meae vires, mea magna potentia solus.” Et post verba Salvatoris in cruce, “Talia perstabat memorans, fixusque manebat.” Puerilia sunt haec, et circulatorum ludo similia, docere quod ignores: imo, ut cum stomacho loquar, ne hoc quidem scire quod nescias. } [4]

Jerome believed in the teaching authority of unmarried men who had made extensive study in the separate field of sacred literature. He wasn’t concerned about how the brutalization of men’s sexuality diminished marriage. Jerome, a priest engaged in monastic life, advocated for the distinctive calling of priests and monks. Jerome implicitly disparaging Proba’s cento is highly plausible.[5]

Antoine Dufour presents book on famous women to Queen Anne

Living about a millennium after Jerome, Boccaccio reconsidered Proba’s cento and the secular literature of ancient Rome. Seeking to earn a living in fourteenth-century Italian gynocentric society, Boccaccio wrote two collections of biographies: About Famous Women {De claris mulieribus} and About the Downfall of Illustrious Men {De casibus virorum illustrium}. The collection about women, which Boccaccio dedicated to Countess Andrea Acciaioli, was successful and influential. It included a chapter on Proba. Boccoccio credited Proba with lost works:

The more we think the work {Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi} worthy of being remembered forever, the less we can believe that so intellectually gifted a person {Proba} would have been satisfied with only this effort. In fact, I think that, if Proba lived for many years, she must have written other praiseworthy works which have not reached us, to our loss, because of scribal laziness.

{ Et quanto magis illud memoratu perpetuo dignum putamus, tanto minus credimus tam celebre mulieris huius ingenium huic tantum acquievisse labori; quin imo reor, si in annos ampliores vite protracta est, eam alia insuper condidisse laudabilia, que librariorum desidia, nostro tamen incommodo, ad nos usque devenisse nequivere. } [6]

Proba herself indicated in her surviving work that she had written an earlier work. Boccaccio claimed that, “according not to no source,” Proba wrote a Homerocento:

Among these {Proba’s lost works}, according not to no source, was a Homeric cento consisting of verses taken from Homer in which she displayed the same skill and used the same subject matter she had employed for Virgil. If this is the case, we can infer (and it rebounds even more to her credit) that she was deeply learned in Greek as well as Latin literature.

{ Que inter – ut non nullis placet – fuit Omeri centona, eadem arte et ex eadem materia qua ex Virgilio sumpserat ex Omero sumptis carminibus edita. Ex quo, si sic est, summitur, eius cum ampliori laude, eam doctissime grecas novisse literas ut latinas. } [7]

Boccaccio’s wording and previous rationalization of lost works suggest that his claim about Proba writing a Homerocento isn’t to be taken seriously. No evidence exists that Proba wrote a Homeric cento or that she knew Greek.[8] Boccaccio aimed to magnify Proba, particularly in relation to learned men:

But now I ask you: what more could one wish than to hear of a woman scanning the poems of Virgil and Homer and choosing those verses apt for her purpose? Let learned men consider how artistically she wove together her selected passages. Though they themselves belong to the honorable calling of sacred literature, they find it difficult and challenging enough to pluck passages here and there from the vast sacred book and to press them into an ordered prose narration of the life of Christ — something Proba did from a pagan poem.

{ Sed queso nunc: quid optabilius audisse feminam Maronis et Homeri scandentem carmina, et apta suo operi seponentem? Selecta artificioso contextu nectentem eruditissimi prospectent viri, quibus, cum sit sacrarum literarum insignis professio, arduum est et difficile ex amplissimo sacri voluminis gremio nunc hinc nunc inde partes elicere et ad seriem vite Cristi passis verbis prosaque cogere, uti hec fecit ex gentilitio carmine. }

Boccaccio depicted men learned in sacred literature composed centos on the life of Christ, as if the Gospels didn’t suffice. Boccaccio here seems to be mocking Jerome’s concern about centos in his letter to Paulinus. With his perverse wit, Jerome, rather than being offended, probably would laugh with Boccaccio if they were to read this together.

Boccaccio then went on to mock himself. He declared:

If we reflect on normal feminine practice, the distaff, the needle, and the loom would have been sufficient for Proba, had she wanted to lead an idle life like the majority of her sex. But she achieved eternal fame by taking her sacred studies seriously and scraping off completely the rust of intellectual sloth. Would that her example was favorably regarded by those women who yield to pleasure and idleness, who think it wonderful to stay in their rooms and waste irrevocable time in frivolous stories, who often drag out their hours from dawn to late at night in harmful or useless gossip and save time only for the pursuit of wantonness! Then they would see how much difference there is between seeking fame for praiseworthy works and burying one’s name together with one’s body — in effect, dying as if one had never lived.

{ Erat huic satis – si femineos consideremus mores – colus et acus atque textrina, si more plurium torpere voluisset; sed quantum sedula studiis sacris ab ingenio segniciei rubiginem absterxit omnem, in lumen evasit eternum. Quod utinam bono intuerentur animo voluptatibus obsequentes; et ocio quibus pregrande est cubiculo insidere, fabellis frivolis irreparabile tempus terere, et a summo diei mane in noctem usque totam persepe sermones aut nocuos aut inanes blaterando deducere, seu sibi tantum lasciviendo vacare, adverterent – edepol – quantum differentie sit inter famam laudandis operibus querere, et nomen una cum cadavere sepelire et tanquam non vixerint e vita discedere! }

About ten years before writing this, Boccaccio wrote his Decameron. In that work, seven women and three men go to a villa outside Florence for two weeks to escape the plague. There they idly enjoy each other’s company and tell each each other superficially frivolous and wanton stories. They don’t engage in scholarly study, or even engage in urgent discussion about how to cure the plague or help others suffering from it.

Boccaccio ironically concluded his chapter on Proba. Men in the ancient Greco-Roman world competed vigorously for fame — sometimes, as was the case with Peregrinus Proteus, to their own great harm. Boccaccio in De claris mulieribus presented both famously good and famously bad women. Believing in Christ, rather than making one’s own name famous or infamous, is the way to immortality for a Christian. Proba seeking immortal fame, if she actually did, wouldn’t be to her Christian credit.

After Boccaccio’s witty work on Proba came less imaginative writing in support of women. Christine de Pizan, who might be regarded as an early female supremacist, praised Proba as a great writer. Christine in her Book of the City of Ladies {Le Livre de la Cité des Dames} declared of Proba:

now that woman ran through, which is to say, skimmed and read, the Eclogues, Georgics, and Aeneid, as are entitled the books Virgil composed, and now she would take from one part entire verses, now from another she would tap small pieces. With wondrous craftsmanship and subtlety she composed entire verses in good order. She put together small pieces and paired and joined them while respecting the rules, craft, and measures of feet and the joining together of verses. Without making a slip she organized them with such great mastery that no man could have done better.

{ maintenant par Bucoliques et puis par Georgiques ou par Eneydos, qui sont livres ainsi appellez qui fist Virgile, ycelle femme couroit, c’est a dire, visitoit et lisoit, et maintenant d’une partie les vers tout entiers prenoit et maintenant de l’autre aucunes petites parties touchoit. Par merveilleux artefice et soubtiveté a son propos ordeneement ver entiers faisoit et les petites parties ensemble mettoit et coupploit et lyoit en regardant la loy, l’art et les mesures des piez et conjunctions des vers. Sans y faillir ordenoit tant magistraument que nul homme ne peust mieulx. } [9]

Of course no man could do better than the great woman.

The Dominican friar Antoine Dufour explained in 1504 that Proba was a better poet than Homer and Virgil. At the command of Anne of Brittany, Queen Consort of France, Dufour wrote The Lives of Famous Women {Les Vies des femmes célèbres}. Dufour knew well both the letters of Jerome and Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus. Dufour apparently altered his sources to puff up Proba:

By that time {fourth century} reigned one of the greatest poets and orators in the world, by the name of Proba, wife of Adelphius, who created a work that I, had I not read it, would consider impossible. For she composed a book in which she joined the entire Old and New Testament in meter, taking nothing but the words of Virgil. She called it centones of Virgil. Saint Jerome in the prologue of his Bible, praises her saying: “We have seen the celebrated work of the Vergiliocentones.” Thereafter, wanting to prove herself in the Greek language, she wrote another book in Greek out of the sentences of Homer, which she also named Homerocentones, of which Jerome speaks in this same prologue. To conclude, this woman was so very clever that in reading these books, you would say that Homer, Virgil and other orators, her predecessors, are nothing but her disciples.

{ En ce temps régnoit l’une des plus grans poèthes et oratrixes du monde, nommé Proba, femme d’Adelphus, laquelle fist ung oeuvre que, si je ne l’avoye leu, je le tnedroye comme impossible. Car elle fist ung livre là où accorda tout le viel et nouveau Testament en mettre, ne prenant riens seullement fors les parolles de Virgille. Elle l’intitula les centones de Virgille. Saint Ihérosme, au prologue de sa Bible, la loue en disant: “Nous avons veu l’oeuvre sollempnel de Virgiliocentones.” Depuys, se voullant monstrer en la langue grecque, fist ung aultre grant et merveilleux livre en grec des sentences d’Omère, qui fut aussi par elle nommé Homerocentones, duqel Saint Ihérosme parle en ce mesme prologue. Somme, ceste femme fut si tresingénieuse qu’en lisant ses livres, vous direz qu’Omère, Virgille et aultres orateurs, ses prédécesseurs, ne sont que ses disciples. } [10]

Jerome’s letter to Paulinus was included as a preface to the Gutenberg Bible and other medieval bibles. Dufour surely knew that Jerome in that letter didn’t praise Proba for her Vergiliocento. Moreover, Dufour almost surely had no credible information that Proba wrote a Homerocento. Scholars have recently complained of misogyny in evaluations of Proba’s work. Across all of history, misogyny probably mattered much less than the social value of praising women.[11]

Proba is a vitally important and sadly under-appreciated author. Proba wasn’t concerned to engage in gender war against men authors. She was a learned, wealthy, married woman in a politically elite fourth-century Roman family. Her epic poem of Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament — her Vigilian cento — would have delighted and instructed elites like her. Jerome ridiculed Proba’s cento in relation to the calling of men like him and Paulinus of Nola. Jerome’s calling wasn’t Proba’s calling. For understanding how to renew loving intimacy between women and men, the Virgilian centos of Proba and Ausonius are more important today than are Jerome’s letters and commentaries.

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[1] Homercentones are Homeric centos (centos made from verses from Homer’s poems). Vergiliocentones are Virgilian centos (centos made from verses from Virgil’s poems). Vergil is an alternate spelling of Virgil. The spelling Vergiliocentones is more common than Virgiliocentones. I use the former in English above, but the spelling in quoted, non-English source text is as from the source. The plural of “cento” may be written as “centos” or “centones.”

Writing in Greek late in the second century, Irenaeus of Lyons complained:

they {heretics} gather together sayings and names from scattered places and transfer them, as we have already said, from their natural meaning to an unnatural one. They act like those who would propose themes which they chance upon and then try to put it into verse from Homeric poems, so that the inexperienced think that Homer composed the poems {centos} with that theme, which in reality are of recent composition.

Irenaeus, Against Heresies {Adversus haereses} 1.9.4, Greek and Latin text in Harvey (1857) pp. 85, 86-7; trans. Unger (1992) p. 47. Here’s an online English translation linked to the relevant pages in Harvey. On the Homerocento that Irenaeus presents as an example, Wilken (1967).

Writing early in the third century, Tertullian declared:

And they {heretics} therefore possess power and facility in inventing and constructing errors. That shouldn’t be regarded as a marvel, as if it were difficult and inexplicable. A example in secular writings is readily available of that facility. Today you see from Virgil composed a totally different story, the matter following his verse, and his verse chosen according to the matter. In that way Hosidius Geta sucked all of his tragedy Medea out of Virgil. Among other works he did at his leisure, my relative explicated from the same poet {Virgil} the Pinax of Cebes. These are commonly called Homerocentones. They from the songs of Homer make their own work by composing into one body many pieces from here and there.

{ Et ideo habent uim et in excogitandis instruendisque erroribus facilitatem, non adeo mirandam quasi difficilem et inexplicabilem, cum de saecularibus quoque scripturis exemplum praesto sit eiusmodi facilitatis. Vides hodie ex Virgilio fabulam in totum aliam componi, materia secundum uersus et uersibus secundum materiam concinnatis. Denique Hosidius Geta Medeam tragoediam ex Virgilio plenissime exsuxit. Meus quidam propinquus ex eodem poeta inter cetera stili sui otia Pinacem Cebetis explicuit. Homerocentones etiam uocari solent qui de carminibus Homeri propria opera more centonario ex multis hinc inde compositis in unum sarciunt corpus. }

Tertullian, On the prescription of heretics {De praescriptione haereticorum} 39.2-5, Latin text of Refoulé (1957), my English translation benefiting from that of Holmes (1870) and Bindley (1914).

Writing early in the fifth century, Augustine of Hippo stated:

but I fear that, if I select some portions only, I may appear to many who know the material to have omitted parts that are more essential. Then, too, the evidence that is presented must be supported by the context of the entire psalm, at least so far as to show that there is nothing to contradict it in case the whole is not pertinent to its support. Otherwise I fear that I might seem to be gathering individual verses on the topic in hand, in the technique used in centos, when one makes selections from a long poem not written on the same subject, but on another and very different one.

{ deinde — quia testimonium, quod profertur, de contextione totius psalmi debet habere suffragium, ut certe nihil sit quod ei refragetur, si non omnia suffragantur—ne more centonum ad rem quam volumus tamquam versiculos decerpere videamur, velut de grandi carmine quod non de re illa, sed de alia longeque diversa reperiatur esse conscriptum. }

Augustine, City of God {De Civitate dei} 17.15, Latin text and English translation from Loeb Classical Library (1965).

[2] Jerome, Epistles 53.6-7 (to Paulinus of Nola), Latin text from Migne, my English translation benefiting from those of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (NPNF) 2, Ziolkowski & Putnam (2008) pp. 499-500, and Hutchinson (2014) pp. 63-70 (selected passages). The subsequent two quotes are similarly from id. Putnam in Ziolkowski & Putname (2008) translated sophista verbosus as “wordy solecist”; it’s “the person full of eloquent solecisms” in McGill (2007) p. 189, n. 37. Both seem to me better than “wordy sophist” of NPNF.

[3] Homerocentones from the fifth century are attributed to Eudocia Athenais. She in 421 married Theodosius II, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Emperor. On Eudocia’s centos, Whitby (2007) and Sandnes (2011) Ch. 6.

Proba wasn’t the only ancient poet to write a Christian Vergiliocento. Writing in support of Christianity, Minucius Felix early in the third century incorporated into his Octavius 19.2 a Virgilian cento. Sandnes (2011) pp. 125-7. Pomponius’s Verses to the Grace of the Lord {Versus ad gratiam Domini} is a Christian Virgilian cento of the late fourth or early fifth century. On that cento, McGill (2001). On the incarnation of the Word {De verbi incarnatione} and On the church {De ecclesia}, attributed to Vettius Agorius Basilius Mavortius of the late fifth to early sixth century, are other Christian Vergiliocentones that have survived from antiquity.

[4] Ziolkowski & Putnam (2008), p. 500, follows Hilberg’s emendation cum Clitomacho loquar. McGill (2007), p. 188, n. 28, and Hutchinson (2014), p. 67, n. 54, follow the manuscript reading cum stomacho loquar. Id. points out that the latter sets up an allusion to Socrates. I follow that reading.

The phrase quasi non legerimus Homerocentonas et Vergiliocentonas ac non sic etiam… has been difficult to understand exactly. McGill (2007) p. 177. The key insight is to understand this sentence as exemplying the problem indicated in the previous sentence. Hutchinson (2014) p. 67, n. 53. I’ve used the relatively loose translation “otherwise” to represent that semantic relation.

Jerome was deeply learned in the works of Virgil. Mohr aptly explained:

Throughout his formative years, trained by a Virgilian expert, Jerome had been immersed in the works of Virgil. Virgil could not simply be used or discarded, he was part of Jerome’s blood and bone. Though he did not approve of attempts to turn his beloved poet into a sort of proto- Christian, Jerome desperately wanted to hear a Christian song in Virgil’s lines, and listened carefully for it. In terms of his image of the captive maiden, the important thing is that Jerome recognized and valued her fertility, and envisaged a continuing relationship with her, to keep what he could of his classical heritage by producing new life out of it.

Mohr (2007) p. 318. Jerome’s view of fertility and producing new life was less connected to flesh-and-blood life than the views of Proba and Ausonius.

[5] Jerome’s explicit disparagement of the idea that Virgil was a Christian maps to Proba’s introductory claim:

God be present, raise my mind:
may I tell that Virgil sang of the holy gifts of Christ. }

{ Praesens, Deus, erige mentem:
Vergilium cecinisse loquar pia munera Christi. }

Proba, Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi ll. 22(2nd half)-23, sourced as in note [14] of my post on the centos of Ausonius and Proba. Two of the three Virgilian passages that Jerome cites in disparaging Christian Virgilian centos (Aeneid 1.664 and 2.650) appear fully in Proba’s cento (ll. 403, and 624, respectively). Jerome’s third Virgilian citation (Eclogues 4.6-7) appears in part in Proba’s cento (l. 34). Jerome’s references to the garrulous old woman and women boldly teaching also suggest Proba. Moreover, Proba was among the elite to which Jerome and Paulinus of Nola belonged. With good reason, “scholarly consensus has settled on this conclusion”: Jerome was alluding to Proba’s cento. McGill (2007) p. 178. Cf. Schottenius Cullhed (2015) pp. 57-8, which challenges that view by raising some relatively unimportant questions and then refraining from discussing the matter further.

Jerome disparaging Proba’s cento would be consistent with the views of Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Augustine on Christian centos. See previous note [1]. Isidore of Seville, a scholar, priest, and Christian church leader writing about 600 GC, knew of Proba’s cento, recognized Proba’s witness as a Christian, but didn’t regard her poem highly:

Proba, wife of Adelphius, the consul, the only woman {Isidore} placed among the men of the church; out of her concern for the praise of Christ, she composed a cento about Christ, put together out of Virgilian lines. Her art we do not admire, but we praise her ingenuity.

{ Proba, uxor Adelphii proconsulis, femina, idcirco inter viros ecclesiasticos posita sola pro eo quod in laude Christi versata est, componens centonem de Christo, Virgilianis coaptatum versucilis. Cuius quidem non miramur, sed laudamus ingenium.}

Isidore of Seville, De viris illustribus 18.22, Latin text and English translation from Sandnew (2011) pp. 141-2. Isidore in Etymologarium 1.39.26 made a shorter, more simply factual notice of Proba.

[6] Boccaccio, De claris mulieribus 97, “Proba, Wife of Adelphus,” trans. Brown (2001) pp. 410-15 (adapted slightly). The subsequent three quotes are similarly from id. Here’s the Latin text online.

Proba’s Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi, ll. 1-8, tells of an epic poem she wrote long ago on a civil war. According to a scholiast to the ninth-century Codex Mutinensis, Proba wrote on Constantius’s war against Magnentius (350 to 352 GC). Green (1995) p. 552.

In 1503, Symphorien Champier had published his book The Ship of Virtuous Ladies {La nef des dames vertueuses}. His book drew from Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus, but focused exclusively on praising women. Champier dedicated his book to the French princess and regent Anne of France. Schottenius Cullhed (2015) p. 109.

[7] Brown (2001) translated ut non nullis placet as “according to some sources.” Above I’ve translated that Latin phrase more literally to make clearer Boccaccio’s wink.

[8] Jerome’s letter to Paulinus is the most probable historical origin of claims that Proba wrote Homerocentones. Proba was known to have written a Vergiliocento. Jerome linked Homerocentones and Vergiliocentones, and alluded to Proba. Therefore Proba also wrote Homerocentones. While that conclusion doesn’t logically follow, advocating for women under gynocentrism commonly defies reason. Consider, for example, modern claims about domestic violence against women.

Pollmann, one of the most knowledgeable authorities on Proba, asked about Proba, “Did she know Greek?” Pollmann (2014) p. 255. Schottenius Cullhed (2015) p. 25, n. 37, provides an uncritical list of citations to claims that Proba knew Greek. Cf. id., pp. 62-5 on the medieval reception of Jerome’s letter to Paulinus in relation to Proba. More plausible than vague claims about an unknown, lost “ancient source” attesting to Proba having written Homerocentones is Boccaccio’s surely fictional dilation of information from Jerome’s letter to Paulinus.

[9] Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies {Le Livre de la Cité des Dames}, Old French text from Richards & Caraffi (1999), p. 156, English translation by Ziolkowski in Ziolkowski & Putnam (2008) pp. 146-7. Christine explicitly quoted Boccaccio’s biography of Proba in her own biography, but she showed none of Boccaccio’s literary flair in writing fiction. Christine declared:

In spite of the fact that the effort required by this work {Proba’s Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi}, on account of its length, should have taken a man’s lifetime, not nearly so long passed in her attention to this poem; on the contrary, she produced many other outstanding and most praiseworthy books. One among the rest that she composed in verse was also entitled Cento, because of the hundred (cento) verses that are contained in it. She took the expressions and verses from the poet Homer; from this one can conclude to her praise that she not only knew Latin literature but also knew Greek perfectly.

{ Et nonobstant que le labour de celle oeure, pour sa grandeur, deust souffire a la vie d’un homme, a y vacquier ne s’en passa mie a y tant, ains fist plusieurs autres livres excellens et tres louables. Un entre les autres en fist en vers appellés aussi Centomie pour la cause de cent vers qui y sont contenus: et prist les diz de Omerus, le pouette, et les vers. Par quoy on peut conclurre, a la louenge d’icelle, que non pas tant seullement les lettres latines savoit, mais aussi les grecques sçeut parfaictement. }

Le Livre de la Cité des Dames, from Ch. 29, “On Proba the Roman,” Old French text from Curnow (1975) p. 725, English translation by Ziolkowski in Ziolkowski & Putnam (2008) p. 147. In addition to following Boccaccio’s claim that Proba wrote Homerocentones, Christine may have also assimilated to Proba the fifth-century Homerocentones of Eudocia Athenais.

[10] Antoine Dufour, The Lives of Famous Women {Les Vies des femmes célèbres} (1504), Old French text from Jeanneau (1970) p. 142, English translation from Schottenius Cullhed (2015) p. 110. On Dufour’s Vies des femmes célèbres, Szkilnik (2010). Szkilnik declared:

He {Dufour} does not intend to write an apology nor a denigration of women like other men before him had done. What makes him different is his ability to look for (and find) serious, accurate sources with which he will correct prejudices, whichever they might be.

Id. p. 69. But Dufour also significantly misrepresented Jerome, whose writings he knew well. Id. pp. 77, 79.

[11] In 1574, the classical scholar and scholarly printer Henri Estienne compared Proba to the Amazon queen Penthesileia. He vowed to rival her like no man had done before. Schottenius Cullhed (2015) p. 31. That’s implicit praise. Estienne was less successful than Achilles in rivaling Penthesileia. On recent scholarly bias, see notes [12] and [20] in my post on the centos of Ausonius and Proba.

[images] (1) Proba the Roman presents her epic song from Virgil. Woodcut from Filippo de’ Barbieri, On the Discord between Jerome and Augustine, Settled Using Dicta of the Sibyls and of all the Gentiles, both Prophets and Ancient Poets Who Prophesied Concerning Christ {Discordantiae sanctorum doctorum Hieronymi et Augustini Sybillarum et gentilium de Christo vaticinia}, printed in 1481, instance Stockholm, Royal Libarary, Barbieri (1481) p. 31v. Image via Wikimedia Commons. The Biblioteca Nacional de Espana has an instance, with an uncolored, slightly different woodcut (image 24), similar to an instance in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (f. 39) and in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze (p. 46). (2) Antoine Dufour presenting to Queen Anne of Brittany his book praising famous women. Miniature created c. 1506 and attributed to Jean Pichore. In Antoine Dufour, The Lives of Famous Women {Les Vies des femmes célèbres}. Renck (2015) provides more on this book and its illuminations. Manuscript preserved as Nantes, Musée Dobrée, ms. XVII. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Brown, Virginia, ed. and trans. 2001.Giovanni Boccaccio. Famous women. I Tatti Renaissance Library, vol. 1. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Curnow, Maureen Cheney. 1975. The Livre de la cité des dames of Christine de Pisan: a critical edition. Ph.D. Thesis. Nashville, Tenn: Vanderbilt University. Available via Proquest Dissertations.

Green, R. P. H. 1995. “Proba’s Cento: Its Date, Purpose, and Reception.” The Classical Quarterly. 45 (2): 551-563.

Harvey, W. Wigan, ed. 1857. Sancti Irenaei: Libros Quinque Adversus Haereses. Cantabrigiae: Typis academicis.

Hutchinson, E.J. 2014. “And Zeus Shall Have No Dominion, or, How, When, Where, and why to ‘Plunder the Egyptians’: The Case of Jerome.” Ch. 3 (pp. 49-80) in Peter Escalante, and W. Bradford Littlejohn, eds. For the healing of the nations: essays on creation, redemption, and neo-Calvinism. Davenant Trust.

Jeanneau, Gustave, ed. 1970. Antoine Dufour. Les vies des femmes célèbres. Genève: Droz.

McGill, Scott C. 2001.“’Poet a Arte Christianus’: Pomponius’s cento Versus ad gratiam Domini’ as an Early Example of Christian Bucolic.” Traditio. 56: 15-26.

McGill, Scott. 2007. “Virgil, Christianity, and the Cento Probae.” Ch. 6 (pp. 173-193) in Scourfield & Chahoud (2007).

Mohr, Ann. 2007. “Jerome, Virgil, and the Captive Maiden: the attitude of Jerome to classical literature.” Ch. 12 (pp. 299-322) in Scourfield & Chahoud (2007).

Pollmann, Karla. 2014. “Ph.D. Thesis Review: Sigrid Schottenius Cullhed, Proba the Prophet. Studies in the Christian Virgilian Cento of Faltonia Betitia Proba.” Samlaren. Swedish Science Press. Stockholm: Elanders Gotab.

Renck, Anneliese Pollock. 2015. “Les Vies Des Femmes Celebres: Antoine Dufour, Jean Pichore, and a Manuscript’s Debt to an Italian Printed Book.” The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History. 18: 1-23.

Richards, Earl Jeffrey and Patrizia Caraffi, ed. and trans. (Italian). 1999. La Città delle Dame. Milano: Lune.

Sandnes, Karl Olav. 2011. The Gospel “According to Homer and Virgil”: cento and canon. Leiden: Brill. Here’s a closely related article by Sandnes.

Schottenius Cullhed, Sigrid. 2015. Proba the Prophet: the Christian Virgilian Cento of Faltonia Betitia Proba. Leiden: Brill. Related: cf. ch. 2, Proba and Jerome; ch. 5, cento and Genesis.

Scourfield, J. H. D., and Anna Chahoud, eds. 2007. Texts and Culture in Late Antiquity: inheritance, authority, and change. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales.

Szkilnik, Michelle. 2010. “Mentoring Noble Ladies: Antoine Dufour’s Vies des femmes célèbres.” Ch. 4 (pp. 65-80) in Brown, Cynthia Jane, ed. The Cultural and Political Legacy of Anne de Bretagne: negotiating convention in books and documents. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Unger, Dominic J., with John J. Dillon, trans. 1992. St. Irenaeus of Lyons: Against the Heresies. New York, N.Y.: Newman Press.

Wilken, Robert L. 1967. “The Homeric Cento in Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses I, 9,4.” Vigiliae Christianae. 21 (1): 25-33.

Whitby, Mary. 2007. “The Bible Hellenized: Nonnus’ Paraphrase of St. John’s Gospel and ‘Eudocia’s’ Homeric centos.” Ch. 7 (pp. 195-231) in Scourfield & Chahoud (2007).

Ziolkowski, Jan M., and Michael C. J. Putnam, eds. 2008. The Virgilian Tradition: the first fifteen hundred years. New Haven: Yale University Press.

other than a dirty old man: Swift’s “When I come to be old”

Sir William Temple, master to Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift’s patron Sir William Temple died at age 71. Swift was then 32 years old. About the time of Temple’s death in 1699, Swift composed points of advice entitled “When I come to be old.” Swift apparently sought that in his old age he would be able to see himself as he now saw Sir William Temple.[1] Swift’s exercise in perspective shifting reveals that even he, a master of shifts in perspective, had a highly constrained view of old men’s sexuality.

Swift’s advice to himself as an old man includes points that old women, younger women and men, and children might equally well follow. Desiderata:

Not to tell the same story over and over again to the same people.

Not to be too free with advice, nor trouble {with advice} any but those that desire it.

Not to talk {too} much, nor {too much} of myself.

Not to be peevish, or morose, or suspicious.

Not to be positive {insistent in opinion} or opiniâtre {stubborn}. [2]

Most of the biblical commandments known as the Ten Commandments take the form “You shall not {verb in imperative form}.” That form highlights specific actions. Swift’s advice to himself as an old man uses infinitive verbal forms that suggest the existence of a character’s shadow. Rather than prescribing particular rules for ethical behavior, Swift’s advice disparages “that sort of person.”

Swift particularly disparaged persons commonly called “dirty old men.” Sir William Temple was well-known to be “a very amorous man.” In 1677, when Temple was about fifty years old, a diplomat reported:

He held me in discourse a great long hour, of things most relating to himself, which are never without vanity, but this most especially full of it; and some stories of his amours, and extraordinary abilities that way, which had once upon a time very nearly killed him. [3]

Swift’s most extensive biographer commented, “a man {Temple} who enjoys such indulgence at fifty does not sacrifice it at sixty-five,” and then passed on to the Swift-Temple relationship.[4] Temple in his mid-fifties probably had an affair with his housekeeper Bridget Johnson and sired Swift’s life-long intimate friend Hester Johnson.[5]

Not you, Marinus, do not enter
warm baths with a tender girl.
Not an old man’s fit companion,
girls are different from old men.
Cups and wine instead of baths,
jugs not tender girls for you,
Melphiacan wine in flagons.
Baths are for boys, wine taverns
suit decrepit old men. And you,
dried up, frigid, minuscle,
hung with just a little pickle,
your stiff veins want a wetter Bacchus.

{ Ne tu, ne calidas, Marine, thermas
intres cum tenera senex puella:
nil habet socium senex puellae,
a sene omnimodis puella differt.
Pro thermis paterae et merum, lagena
assit pro tenera tibi puella,
assit Melphiaci cadus Liaei.
thermae nam iuvenes decent, tabernae
Leneae invalidos senes. Is ipse es
arens, frigidulus minutulusque
cui pendet cucumis rigentque venae,
quae Bacchum sitiant madentiorem. } [6]

Swift’s advice to himself as an old man deprecates old men’s sexual worth. To Swift, being an old man enjoying a young woman’s true love is inconceivable:

Not to marry a young woman.

Not to boast of my former beauty, or strength, or favor with ladies, etc.

Not to harken to flatteries, nor conceive I can be beloved by a young woman, et eos qui hereditatem captant odisse ac vitare {and detest and avoid those who try to catch an inheritance}. [7]

The eleventh-century Latin verse romance Ruodlieb celebrates the love of a young husband for his old, formerly widowed wife. As an old man, the great medieval church official Poggio Bracciolini entered into a fruitful marriage with a young woman. Such situations are sadly under-appreciated. An old man identifying as a young, sexually vigorous man commonly generates scorn.

Swift and many others less perceptive than he lack alternative perspectives on old men’s sexuality. Social justice doesn’t compel enacting laws requiring all to respect an old man’s self-identification as a person who is beautiful and sexually alluring to young women. Moreover, old men should understand that they have no reproductive rights and that they could face crushing “child support” payments even for children who aren’t biologically theirs. In the context of these mundane realities, the fundamental problem is imagination. Humane societies should provide safe space for old men’s sexual imagination and self-identification.

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Read more:


[1] Swift joined Temple’s household in 1689 and spent about six years there between 1689 and 1699. Marshall (2013) p. 35. Swift naturally would have striven to impress Temple early in their relationship. That basic status dynamic provides a straight-forward reading of “Ode to Sir William Temple,” which Swift wrote at Moor Park in June, 1689. For analysis, id. pp. 57-8, which favors an uncomplicated reading. Temple died on January 27, 1699. “When I come to be old” is dated 1699. Swift probably wrote that poem in January of 1699 or soon thereafter.

Marshall provides an extensive, objective, and judicious analysis of the relationship between Swift and Temple. Her conclusion has broad, weighty relevance to historiography:

The problem is a very simple one. A great deal has been said about the Swift-Temple connection despite the fact that precious little is known about it. … The only story we can believe is one no biographer wants to tell, because it is brief, undramatic, and fails to illuminate either the mind or the art of our subject. Swift lived with Temple for a while and did some work for him. Swift expected patronage, but whether or not Temple promised it, no remunerative position ever materialized, leaving Swift to shift for himself. He made relatively few remarks on his erstwhile patron in later years, which taken together suggest neither bitter traumatization nor veneration. His intellectual “borrowings” from Temple turn out to be commonplaces; his career is so different from that of the Moor Park patriarch as to make comparison difficult, and not as conclusive as has been suggested. In trying to understand the life and work of Swift, the invocation of Sir William Temple has been, at best, a distraction — regardless of whether Sir William Temple is viewed as a beloved surrogate father or a petty despot whose thrall the young Swift resented and systematically resisted. What should be clear, however, is that Ehrenpreis and his successors have put their faith in an engrossing, affecting saga that is essentially illusory.

Marshall (2013) p. 78, which refers to Ehrenpreis (1962). Cf. Rosenberg (2018). Marshall didn’t discuss Swift’s “When I come to be old.”

My point in addressing Swift’s “When I come to be old” isn’t to tell the true story of the Swift-Temple relationship. I want to change your life. Your father was or will be an old man. If you are male, you probably will become an old man if you aren’t already one. I want to inspire you to think differently about being an old man.

[2] Jonathan Swift, “When I come to be old,” excerpts (re-ordered), with modernized spelling, modernized capitalization, and my clarifications in {}. Lists of Note provides the full text and an image of the manuscript. Scott & Dennis (1902) vol. 1, p. xcii, provides a scholarly version of the text, as does Ross & Woolley (1984) p. 23. Id. provides the reading opiniâtre and comments:

May we not also hear ironic use of the tones of the urbane Temple in the second to last resolution, with its modish French word opiniâtre, meaning stubborn or opinionated?

Id. p. 611. Similarly Damrosch (2013) pp. 48-9, who doesn’t cite Ross & Woolley (1984) but for a similar reason suggests the reading  opiniâtre. Id., pp. 48-9, fails to observe that “or let them come near me hardly” (in reference to children) is scribbled out by other than Jonathan Swift’s hand. Scott & Dennis (1902) vol. 1, p. xcii, n. 1, suggests that Deane Swift did the crossing out.

[3] From the diary of Laurence Hyde, Earl of Rochester, reporting conversation with Lord Ambassador William Temple in the Hague in 1677. Singer (1828) p. 628. Quoted in Ehrenpreis,  (1962), vol. 1, p. 120, Damrosch (2013) p. 54. The description of Swift as “a very amorous man” is from an anonymous review in 1751 of the biography, Remarks on the Life and Writings of Dr. Jonathan Swift (1751), by John Boyle, fifth Earl of Cork and Orrery, quoted in Damrosch (2013) p. 54.

[4] Ehrenpreis (1962), vol. 1, p. 120.

[5] Damrosch (2013) pp. 50-6. Swift’s affectionate name for Hester Johnson was Stella.

[6] Giovanni Gioviano Pontano, “To Marinus Tomacellus {Ad Marinum Tomacellum},” Hendecasyllaborum sive Baiarum Libri Duo {Two Books of Hendecasyllables, or Baiae} 2.1, ll. 20-31, Latin text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Dennis (2006) pp. 92-4. For a Latin text freely available online, Oeschger (1948). Pontano wrote the Baiae in the Kingdom of Naples late in the fifteenth century. Potano’s Baiae were first published in 1505. The Baiae was a pleasure resort on the Bay of Naples.

Dennis observes Pontano’s “Dried up, frigid, minuscule, / hung with just a little pickle {arens, frigidulus minutulusque / cui pendet cucumis rigentque venae},” is similar to Catullus 67.21, “hung with a penis limper than a tender beet {languidior tenera cui pendens sicula beta}.” Dennis (2006) p. 215, note to ll. 29-30. The penis is commonly disparaged throughout literary history — particularly starkly in comparison to representations of the vagina. Maximianus’s exceptionally learned and insightful Greek girl, however, provides a heart-warming and stimulating lament for men’s impotence.

[7] Swift, “When I come to be old,” excerpts, cited as previously. Swift, like William Caxton, turned to Latin to express thoughts apart from vernacular gynocentric discipline and punishment.

In “When I come to be old,” Swift included a point of advice that literally addresses the issue of being a dirty old man: “Not to neglect decency, or cleanliness, for fear of falling into nastiness.”

[image] Portrait (excerpt) of Sir William Temple about 1660. Temple then was 32 years old. That’s Swift’s age when he wrote “When I come to be old.” This painting apparently was made from an original that Peter Lely painted. It’s preserved as item NPG 152 in the U.K. National Portrait Gallery. That national, public gallery apparently is slowly changing its rapacious, reactionary approach to making its collection accessible. More on problems at the National Portrait Gallery. Image thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Damrosch, Leopold. 2013. Jonathan Swift: his Life and his World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Dennis, Rodney G., ed. and trans. 2006. Giovanni Gioviano Pontano. Baiae. I Tatti Renaissance Library, vol. 22. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ehrenpreis, Irvin. 1962. Swift: the Man, his Works, and the Age. London: Methuen & Co Ltd.

Marshall, Ashley. 2013. “Swift and Temple.” 1650-1850: Ideas, Aesthetics, and Inquiries in the Early Modern Era (Brooklyn, NY: AMS Press), vol. 20: 33-78.

Oeschger, Johannes. 1948. Giovanni Gioviano Pontano. Carmina: Ecloghe, Elegie, Liriche. Bari: Laterza.

Rosenberg, Alex. 2018. How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ross, Angus, and David Wooley, eds. 1984. Jonathan Swift. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Scott, Temple, and G. Ravenscroft Dennis. 1902. The prose works of Jonathan Swift. London: Bell. Vol. 1.

Singer, Samuel Weller, ed. 1828. The correspondence of Henry Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, and of his brother Laurence Hyde, Earl of Rochester; with the diary of Lord Clarendon from 1687 to 1690, containing minute particulars of the events attending the revolution: and the diary of Lord Rochester during his embassy to Poland in 1676. London: H. Colburn.

sexual harassment of men: beautiful breasts in the Baiae

In classical Arabic literature, men admire women’s buttocks — the bigger the better. Classical Greek literature celebrates the rose-like beauty of women’s vaginas. In the Baiae, fifteenth-century Latin poems about times in a pleasure resort, women’s eyes and the female gaze sexually harass men. But most of all in the Baiae, women’s beautiful breasts attract men’s attention, divert men from drudgery, and arouse men’s sexual imaginations.

Bartolomeo Veneto's portrait of Lucrezia Borgia with a naked breast

One poem in the Baiae playfully explores the focus of the man poet’s attention. Consider:

Luna shined with new elegance,
and radiance streamed from her naked breasts;
from out of the blessed one’s dewy hollow
exhaled a breeze of rosy liquor,
from whose tender lips flowed down
Ambrosian essence dropwise liquefied.

{ Effulsitque novo decore Luna
ac nudis iubar extulit papillis,
cuius roridulo e sinu beatae
spirabant rosei liquoris aurae,
cuius de teneris fluens labellis
stillatim ambrosiae liquebat humor } [1]

Luna is a young woman lying on a bed beside a pool in the cool shade. The first focus is Luna’s naked breasts. Since it’s associated with a rose metaphor, the dewy hollow most likely is Luna’s vagina. A straight-forward reading of the third couplet shifts attention upwards, over Luna’s breasts, to her mouth. The second two couplets bodily bracket the radiance streaming from her naked breasts. Ovid long ago knew the rest:

she plays in the way of Venus in the wrestling arena,
and then sleeps with you, quietly and peacefully.

{ ludit Idaliae iocos palaestrae
et tecum placida cubat quiete. }

One might complain that the metaphor of wrestling brutalizes men’s sexuality. But at least their intercourse ends peacefully.

Sexual harassment, in contrast, can create a hostile environment for men. Under current U.S. sexual harassment law, intentions don’t matter. Only persons’ experienced feelings are relevant. The man poet spoke out about the discomfort he felt in encountering a topless woman:

I’m telling you to clothe those shining breasts,
desist from stirring the insanity of lovers.
I’m congealed already by cold, old age;
you’re improperly and wrongly heating me up. Hence
I’m telling you to clothe those shining breasts
and veil your bosom with a decent bikini-top.
For why do you your milky chest, and your very
breasts, in front of you carry, unclothed?
Do you wish to say, “Kiss these breasts,
and caress this glowing bosom”?
Thus are you saying, “Touch, touch, stroke them”?
Do you go out with naked breasts?
Do you expose your bosom to stroll around?

{ Praedico, tege candidas papillas
nec quaeras rabiem ciere amantum.
Me, quem frigida congelat senecta,
irritas male calfacisque: quare,
praedico, tege candidas papillas,
et pectus strophio tegente vela.
Nam quid lacteolos sinus et ipsas
prae te fers sine linteo papillas?
An vis dicere: “Basia papillas
et pectus nitidum suaviare?”
Vis num dicere: “Tange, tange, tracta?”
Tene incedere nudulis papillis?
Nudo pectore tene deambulare? } [2]

The young woman perpetrating sexual harassment with her naked breasts was none other than Hermione, the daughter of Menelaus and Helen of Troy. With her bodily beauty, Helen of Troy had prompted the deaths of many men in the Trojan War. Helen’s daughter Hermione apparently learned nothing from her mother about the effects of young, beautiful women on men. Women’s sexual harassment of men should be taken seriously. Too often it isn’t.

Mary Magdalene with naked breasts

In the Baiae, breasts seem to be the most powerful attribute with which women sexually harass men. Nearly every poem admiring a woman praises her breasts. Among the poetic lines in which breasts appear are these:

  1. “from your sweet bosom {sinuque blando}” exhale Arabian fragrances
  2.  helplessly “he is fixated on her breasts {haeret in papillis}”
  3. you “recline on her tender bosom {in sinu recumbis}”
  4. upon that “milky bosom {lacteolo sinu}” you sleep languidly
  5. you see her “delicate breasts {vesculas papillas}”
  6. don’t blush to stroke with your hand those “milky breasts {lacteolas papillas}”
  7. jealous of he who presses with his hand those “tender breasts {teneras papillas}”
  8. what “blissful man licks a saliva-moistened chest {beatus udo quis de pectore rettulit salivam}”
  9. I saw that “beautiful chest, those jeweled breasts {pulcro e pectore, gemmeis papillis}”
  10. she bears the day on her “glittering bosom {sinu corsco}”
  11. she with her “bright-white chest {pectore candicante}” outshines the sun
  12. girls thrust “tender bosom {teneros sinus}” toward you
  13. you recline on her “tender bosom {tenero sinu}”
  14. fragrant odors waft upon you “from her tender breasts {de teneris papillis}”
  15. she pours a calming potion on you “from her milky bosom {in lacteolo sinu}”
  16. this soft air breathes “from the bosom of tender young women {de tenerae sinu puellae}”
  17. “the brightness from her snowy breasts {de niveis nitor papillis}” leads him to devotion [3]

Almost all men typically love nearly all women. This man poet writing in late-fifteenth-century Italy particularly loved young women’s breasts. Despite frequently describing naked women and sex with women, he only rarely and vaguely alludes to women’s vaginas. Perhaps he regarded women’s vaginas as too awesome to describe. The poet also never mentioned women’s buttocks. Perhaps that was a matter of aesthetic preference. Not all men suffer sexual harassment by women in exactly the same way.[4]

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[1] Giovanni Gioviano Pontano, “To Chariteus {Ad Chariteum},” Hendecasyllaborum sive Baiarum Libri Duo {Two Books of Hendecasyllables, or Baiae} 1.30, ll. 34-9, Latin text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Dennis (2006) pp. 86-7. The subsequent quote is similarly from id. In addition to being the young woman’s name, luna is Latin for “moon.” The poem is to the Catalan poet Benet Gareth, who acquired the Italian name Benedetto Chariteo. Id. p. 213.

The Baiae commonly uses sinus in its meaning “bosom.” But sinus also means “hollow” or “cavity.” Here that could refer to Luna’s mouth, but vagina seems to me a better interpretation.

[2] Pontano, Baiae “To Hermione, to Cover Her Breasts {Ad Hermionen, ut papillas contegat},” Latin text from Dennis (2006) p. 12, my English translation, benefiting considerably from that of id. In Baiae 2.7, “To Focilla, to Restrain her Eyes {Ad Focillam de cohibendis ocellis},” the poet protests Focilla sexually harassing him with the female gaze. But in the Baiae, the female gaze sexually harasses men much less frequently than does a young woman’s breasts.

[3] In the Baiae (cited by citation number, poem number, Latin page in Dennis (2006)): 1, 1.13, p. 38; 2,1.14, p. 44; 3, 1.16, p. 48; 4, 1.16, p. 50; 5, 1.16, p. 50; 6, 1.18, p. 56; 7, 1.21, p. 64; 8, 1.21, p. 64; 9, 1.23, p. 68; 10, 1.23, p. 68; 11, 1.23, p. 68; 12, 1.24, p. 70; 13, 1.27, p. 76; 14, 2.9, p. 112; 15, 2.18, p. 132; 16, 2.28, p. 164; 17, 2.30, p. 168. Descriptions of breasts already quoted above are among those not cited.

In the above list I consistently translate papilla, sinus, and pectus as breast, bosom, and chest, respectively. Dennis translated those terms with similar sense, but not with strict, formal consistency.

[4] Men, even at the same time and place, find many different attributes of women beautiful. Like most men, Greeks in the time of Homer admired the full range of a woman’s physical being: from a woman with beautiful hair {καλλίκομος, Iliad 9.449} to a woman with beautiful ankles {καλλίσφυρος, Iliad 9.557}. What men admire in women depends partly on what men see and what men experience. Comparative literary study of men admiring women’s beauty is much less developed than scholarly work scrutinizing literature for the purpose of charging long-dead men authors with misogyny.

[images] (1) Portrait of courtesan Flora of literary imagination; person attributed to be Lucrezia Borgia. Painting made by Bartolomeo Veneto in Italy in c. 1520. Preserved under accession number 1077 in Städel Museum (Frankfurt, Germany). Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Mary Magdalene with naked breasts. Painting made in the Lombard School in northern Italy, c. 1515. Contested attribution between Giampetrino and Leonardo da Vinci. Preserved in private collection in Switzerland. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Dennis, Rodney G., ed. and trans. 2006. Giovanni Gioviano Pontano. Baiae. I Tatti Renaissance Library, vol. 22. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ausonius and Proba on “love is war” and brutalizing men’s sexuality

Dido embraces Aeneas

“Love is war” is a romantic cliché. That cliché is firmly rooted in literary works spanning millennia. If non-human primates could speak to humans, they could tell us that we aren’t rational in believing that love is war. While we lack that moral instruction, classical literature can help us to overcome our perversity in believing that love is war. Ausonius’s Wedding Cento {Cento nuptialis} and Proba’s Virgilian Cento Concerning the Glory of Christ {Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi} challenge in different ways prevalent sexual representations that support weaponizing and brutalizing men’s sexuality.

Literary works commonly depict sexual intercourse as combat. The generous Photis invited Lucius to engage in combat with her in Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, probably written about 1900 years ago. Latin poetry from fifteenth-century Italy likewise figures sexual intercourse:

And lest clothing bother us,
let combat be waged with naked bodies,
naked chests and naked breasts,
naked pubic hair and slender hips,
naked feet and naked knee,
and if the madness bears open orifices,
no sought-for wound is unperformed,
no empty blow endured.

{ Ac ne pallia sint molesta nobis,
nudis corporibus cienda pugna,
nudo pectore, nudulis papillis,
nudo pectine, nudulisque coxis
et nudis pedibus genuque nudo,
ac si fert patulis furor fenestris,
nulla ut vulnera in irritum petantur,
ut nulli in vacuum ferantur ictus. } [1]

The “sought-for wound” suggests the penis penetrating the vagina; “no empty blow” indicates ejaculation. In relatively liberal and tolerant medieval Europe, this description of sexual intercourse would have been understood as mutually loving. Yet it literally depicts a man physically assaulting a woman. That brutalizing of men’s sexuality supports criminalizing men and demonizing men.

Men’s sexuality has been brutalized even in poetic advice concerning the wedding night. Consider this guidance to Joannes Brancatus, a man heading to his first wedding night in fifteenth-century Italy:

Now for the combat in your future,
Brancatus, listen, as the first-time husband
that you are, with a first time-time wife.
First, you’re to enter the wedding bedroom quietly,
don’t take up the weapons of sex too fast, I say,
but explore with soft imploring and soft jokes,
having approached with little chuckles,
add some kisses, some requested sweetly,
some seized for you slyly, some denied —
that calls for capturing by force. Don’t blush
now to squeeze and tug those milky breasts,
and upon her tender throat,
press marks with your teeth,
not neglecting to stroke her swelling loins
and her snowy flank, and your other hand
will ready the way to her sweet love-grove,
for servant to the sweet love-grove is hand.
After soft kisses, chatter, and cooing,
enticing sweetly, joking delicately,
after touching tenderly and playful sexual teasing,
when she loosens herself to desire,
fearing but desiring to be embraced,
then you sound the trumpet. Then is permitted,
my friend, to bring out all the encampment’s weapons.
Brandish your spear close up, here and there,
and, fierce one, inflict the wound of love.

{ Nunc qualis tibi sit futura pugna,
Brancate, accipias, novus maritus
cum sis et nova cum tibi sit uxor.
Intras cum thalamum quiete prima,
ne statim venias ad arma, dico,
sed blandis precibus iocisque blandis
pertentes aditum cachinnulisque;
misce bis oscula, nunc petita blande,
nunc furtim tibi rapta, nunc negata,
quae per vim capias, nec erubescas
mox ad lacteolas manum papillas
tractans inicere ac subinde collo
impressum tenero notare dentem,
nec non et tumidum femur latusque
tractabis niveum manuque laevi
ad dulcem venerem viam parabis,
nam dulcis veneris manus ministra est.
Post blanda oscula garrulasque voces
dulcisque illecebras iocosque molles,
post tactus teneros levesque rixas,
cum sese ad cupidos resolvit illa
complexus simul et timet cupitque
tunc signum cane, tunc licebit arma
totis expedias, amice, castris,
telum comminus hinc et inde vibrans,
dum vulnus ferus inferas amatum. } [2]

Marital rape is now broadly understood to be a felony crime. A young man in college foolish enough today to capture by force a kiss from his intimate female friend could be expelled for that offense. Such criminalization of sexuality is discussed and applied with acute gender discrimination against men. This injustice is rooted in imaging sex as combat, and love as war. Within this oppressive imagination, men are structured sexually to be brutalizing.

Dido chases Aeneas

Even a wedding cento stitching together lines of Virgil’s epic poetry brutalized men’s sexuality. The literary situation was difficult for the government official and poet Ausonius. He was the tutor to Gratian, the son of the Roman Emperor Valentinian I. About 374, Ausonius had to write a cento:

It was written by command and at the request (which is the most pressing kind of order!) of one who was able to command — the Emperor Valentinian. He is a man, in my opinion, of deep learning. He had once described a wedding in a jeu d’esprit of this kind. His verses were to the point and their connections amusing. Then, wishing to show by means of a competition with me the great superiority of his production, he told me to compile a similar poem on the same subject. Just picture how tricky a task this was for me! I did not wish to leave him nowhere near as good as me, nor to be left behind myself. My foolish flattery was bound to be manifest in the eyes of him, and other critics as well, if I gave way. Likewise my presumption, if I rivaled and surpassed him. I undertook the task, therefore, with an air of reluctance. I finished with happy results. As obedient, I kept in favor, and as successful, I gave no offense.

{ iussum erat, quodque est potentissimum imperandi genus, rogabat qui iubere poterat. imperator Valentinianus, vir meo iudicio eruditus, nuptias quondam eiusmodi ludo descripserat, aptis equidem versibus et compositione festiva. experiri deinde volens quantum nostra contentione praecelleret, simile nos de eodem concinnare praecepit. quam scrupulosum hoc mihi fuerit intellege. neque anteferri volebam neque posthaberi, cum aliorum quoque iudicio detegenda esset adulatio inepta, si cederem, insolentia, si ut aemulus eminerem. suscepi igitur similis recusanti feliciterque et obnoxius gratiam tenui nec victor offendi. } [3]

The relevant wedding was between Valentinian’s son Gratian and Constantia, the daughter of the former Roman Emperor Constantius II. Roman men with good reason were reluctant to marry. Juvenal even went as far as to suggest that his friend Postumus was insane to be getting married. Ausonius’s job assignment was a dilemma like asking an obscure, independent thinker to “bring rationality and unity to pro-life and pro-choice advocates.” Ausonius had to produce a wedding cento that would resolve his dilemma and be unobjectionable.

In his Cento nuptialis, Ausonius praised the bride and groom and their families, described the lavish wedding dinner and wedding gifts, and presented conventional sexual imagery. All but the last are common aspects of discussing weddings right up to our day. Marital sexual behavior usually isn’t explicitly discussed publicly. Ausonius, an inferior to Emperor Valentinian in the gynocentric hierarchy of rule, positioned himself as also inferior to Valentinian under the gynocentric ideology of poetic decorum. Ausonius expressed with Virgil’s words normally unspeakable imaginative commonplaces of marital sexuality.

Ausonius described a wedding night that might have been similar to that of the second-century Saint Cecilia and her husband Valerian. Having retired with his bride to the wedding bed, the husband softly embraced and stroked his new wife. She apparently didn’t warm to the occasion. He exclaimed:

O young virgin woman, new to my sight, wife most acceptable,
you have at last come, my only and late joy.
O sweet wife, none but the cosmic one brings
this. Will you fight even against pleasing love?

{ O virgo, nova mi facies, gratissima coniunx,
venisti tandem, mea sola et sera voluptas.
O dulcis coniunx, non haec sine numine divum
proveniunt. Placitone etiam pugnabis amori? } [4]

She turned her eyes away and said nothing. After some time she begged him to leave her alone, just for this one night, because she didn’t feel like it. He probably imagined himself going the way of Margery Kempe’s husband. He responded scornfully:

for no cause you contrive idle excuses

{ causas nequiquam nectis inanes }

Both husband and wife were Christians. Christian spouses at this time were understood to owe each other sexual love. Yet that Christian love is a gift that cannot be forced.

In Cento nuptialis, brutalizing men’s sexuality allowed Ausonius to show poetic virtuosity without risking that he would earn poetic acclaim. He appropriately titled the concluding poetic section with a term disparaging men’s sexuality: imminutio, which most literally means diminishing. The violent husband merges in action with his monstrous penis:

After having joined together, in the shadows of lonely night,
Venus herself inspired them: they test new fights.
He raises himself erect; she struggles much in vain.
He attacks her mouth and face, fervidly presses foot to foot,
treacherously steering for the deep. The branch within his garment —
with elderberries scarlet and with dye made ruddy,
its head left bare, as their legs together entwined,
a horrible, huge, ugly monster, deprived of light —
he pulls from his thigh and fervidly presses into the quivering one.

{ Postquam congressi sola sub nocte per umbram
et mentem Venus ipsa dedit, nova proelia temptant.
Tollit se arrectum: conantem plurima frustra
occupat os faciemque, pedem pede fervidus urget,
perfidus alta petens: ramum, qui veste latebat,
sanguineis ebuli bacis minioque rubentem
nudato capite et pedibus per mutua nexis,
monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens, cui lumen ademptum
eripit a femore et trepidanti fervidus instat. } [5]

Just before this passage, the wife “dreads the threatening spear {telumque instare tremiscit},” meaning her husband’s penis. It’s the “horrible, huge, ugly monster, deprived of light” — a scarlet branch signifying the outcast sex. The phrase “deprived of light” through Virgil’s text is associated with Polyphemus — a one-eyed monster. Disparaging the penis as a horrid, one-eyed creature even today has been widely heard. Throughout history, the penis has had a massive image problem relative to the vagina.

Literary authors gesturing toward gender equality within gynocentric society — brave and few that they are — have paired disparaging descriptions of man and woman.[6] Ausonius paired his disparaging description of the husband’s penis with a disparaging description of the wife’s vagina:

In a secluded spot, to which a narrow pathway leads,
is a fiery, pulsing fissure; dark, it exudes foul vapor.
Divine law forbids the pure to cross that impious threshold.
Here is a horrible cave: vapor emanating from
its black maws strike the nostrils with odor.

{ Est in secessu, tenuis quo semita ducit,
ignea rima micans: exhalat opaca mephitim.
Nulli fas casto sceleratum insistere limen.
Hic specus horrendum: talis sese halitus atris
faucibus effundens nares contingit odore. }

Following Lucretius in stripping away gyno-idolatrous illusions, the great medieval humanist Boccaccio similarly exposed the bodily reality of Dante’s Beatrice and all other flesh-and-blood women. The text then returns to its primary figure of men’s sexuality as essentially brutal violence against women:

Here the youth is drawn in a way that a man knows,
and leaning in from above he hurls his spear
over knots and unshaved bark, applying all his manly strength.
It sticks in, driven deep, and drinks the virgin’s blood.
The caverns vibrate and give forth a groan.
She pulls at the weapon with dying hand, but between the bones,
deep within the living wound, lodges the hard tip.

{ Huc iuvenis nota fertur regione viarum
et super incumbens nodis et cortice crudo
intorquet summis adnixus viribus hastam.
Haesit virgineumque alte bibit acta cruorem.
Insonuere cavae gemitumque dedere cavernae.
Illa manu moriens telum trahit, ossa sed inter
altius ad vivum persedit vulnere mucro. }

The husband is viciously figured as relentlessly attacking his wife:

Three times she pushes herself upwards on her elbows.
Three times she falls back on the bed. He remains unafraid.
No delay, no respite: attached to his helm, he clings
to his course and keeps his eyes on the stars.
Up and down he goes along the way as the womb shudders.
He thrusts between the bones and bangs with his ivory quill.

{ Ter sese attollens cubitoque innixa levavit,
ter revoluta toro est. Manet imperterritus ille;
nec mora nec requies: clavumque affixus et haerens
nusquam amittebat oculosque sub astra tenebat.
Itque reditque viam totiens uteroque recusso
transadigit costas et pectine pulsat eburno. } [7]

Not all men are like that. But like Paris in his first night sleeping with Helen, and like Aesop in his tenth sexual effort with the wife of the philosopher Xanthus, this wedding-night union wasn’t fulfilling:

And now, the course nearly done, they wearily
approach the end. Then rapid panting shakes
arid lips and limbs, and sweat flows all over in rivers.
He slumps bloodless; slime drips from her groin.

{ Iamque fere spatio extremo fessique sub ipsam
finem adventabant: tum creber anhelitus artus
aridaque ora quatit, sudor fluit undique rivis,
labitur exsanguis, destillat ab inguine virus. }

The natural, life-promoting semen, rather than being taken in and absorbed, was spilled. Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis falls within the genre of wedding poem (epithalamium), broadly understood. An epithalamium typically ends with a prayer that the marital union be fruitful and produce children. Cento nuptialis ends violent sexual intercourse with barren ejaculation and no reference to childbirth. The concluding poetic word is virus. In addition to “slime,” that word also means “poison.” Moreover, that word is closely associated in sound and root with the Latin word for man (vir). Ausonius thus connects brutalizing men’s sexuality to more general disparagement of men and harmful relationships between women and men.[8]

Ausonius may have understood gynocentric society’s silent acceptance of brutalizing men’s sexuality. A perceptive scholar recently set out a worthy program of study:

my intention is to take Ausonius seriously as a poet and as a Christian, and to challenge the frequent assumption that he was disengaged from the social and cultural developments of his time. His work may not fit our expectations of a Christian poet, or indeed of poetry in general — but … the fault in that case may lie in our expectations. [9]

Ausonius ended his Cento nuptialis with a thought-provoking statement. He declared that his intricately literary poem has broad social significance:

As a matter of fact, it is the story of a wedding, and like it or dislike it, the rites are exactly as described.

{ Etenim fabula de nuptiis est: et velit nolit aliter haec sacra non constant. }

The penis’s image problem, well-established by Ausonius’s time and unforgettably represented in Cento nuptialis, has broad social significance. Men are devalued relative to women under gynocentrism’s sacred rites of story-telling. That effect can be seen in the reception of foundational Roman myths such as the Sabine women winning a Pyrrhic peace for Roman men, Lucretia inciting Roman men to war without questioning, and the bizarre development of Cato the Elder’s persona. Today, sex, violence, and rape are at the core of anti-men ignorance and bigotry and the collapse of enlightenment.[10] That’s a problem not just in academic study and teaching in the humanities, but also in society more generally. Gynocentric society refuses to recognize the problem.

Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis has been largely ignored, condemned, or foolishly under-interpreted throughout history. Virgil’s Aeneid provides an epic warning about men misconstruing women’s capabilities. Most readers haven’t understood. They wrongly think that gender relations aren’t a matter of epic poetry. They have thus condemned Ausonius’s cento for debasing Virgil’s lofty poetry by explicitly representing the brutalization of men’s sexuality. In his 1597 edition of Cento nuptialis, a poet-editor refrained from following the dictates of castration culture:

But to castrate the Poet, that is, to omit one of his parts, is impossible to do respectfully. The reader should rapidly pass through that part detrimental to piety, and embrace the rest, indubitably witty and elegant. For the whole Cento {Cento nuptialis} is as elaborately composed as that part is shameless.

{ Castrare autem Poëtam, hoc est, particulam eius omittere, honeste non potuimus. Transiliet igitur lector ista, quae pietati officiunt, et caetera, sanè lepida, elegantia, amplectetur: tam enim Cento totus est elaboratus, quam pars illa inuerecunda. } [11]

Repeatedly invoking the misandristic concept of “defloration,” a scholar recently lamented this literary history:

they never exact the punishment considered befitting of a textual rapist, namely castration – deletion of the phallic deflowering scene. Such an editorial intervention never occurs in the long series of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century editions, although, we do, indeed, come across individual copies where the pages have been torn out or the text erased. [12]

Twentieth-century translators have castrated their translations of Cento nuptialis. Castration culture has ancient origens. However, condemning as a “textual rapist” a section of an imaginative literary poem is extraordinary. That probably wouldn’t be conceivable apart from today’s gender beliefs — beliefs with little understanding of the reality of rape or the highly gender-disprotionate incarceration of men.

Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis has a worthy fourth-century complement in Proba’s Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi. Proba’s Virgilian cento was much more widely circulated than Ausonius’s Virgilian cento. When Ausonius’s cento was first printed in 1472, it was printed with Proba’s:

From this point onwards, the two centos were continually presented together in a series of editions. They came to define the genre, often configured as a dichotomy of sacred and profane, chaste and obscene, angelic and demonic. [13]

That dichotomy mirrors the typical representation of gender under gynocentrism: sacred, chaste, angelic woman versus profane, obscene, demonic man. But Proba wasn’t a modern academic apparatchik writing in support of dominant secular gender ideology. She was a learned, highly sophisticated fourth-century Christian woman poet writing with loving concern for men.

Proba teaches from her Cento

Proba rejected anti-meninist representations of men and forthrightly recognized the problem of feminine evil. In describing the creation of humans, she overturned the gynocentric construction of demonic male and the brutalizing of men’s sexuality:

And then an image of much piety unexpectedly
first went forth: a male human being, a new, most beautiful form!
In face and shoulders like God, his mind and spirit
the greater God drives and brings back from greater works.

The almighty Father bared the ribs and entrails,
and from the young man’s well-built rib-cage he
yanked out one. Suddenly arose a wonderful gift,
an extraordinary discussion-partner! She shined with brilliant light.
She was a young woman with distinguished face and beautiful breast,
already mature enough for a husband, already fully nuptial in age.
Enormous, fearful trembling broke his sleep. His bones and joints
he called his wife, and amazed with this divine favor, he
squeezed her, held her right hand, and cleaved to her in embrace.

{ Iamque inproviso tantae pietatis imago
procedit nova forma viri pulcherrima primum,
os umerosque Deo similis, cui mentem animumque
maior agit Deus atque opera ad maiora remittit.

omnipotens genitor costas et viscera nudat.
Harum unam iuveni laterum conpagibus artis
eripuit subitoque oritur mirabile donum,
argumentum ingens, claraque in luce refulsit
insignis facie et pulchro pectore virgo,
iam matura viro, iam plenis nubilis annis.
Olli somnum ingens rumpit pavor: ossaque et artus
coniugium vocat ac stupefactus numine pressit
excepitque manu dextramque amplexus inhaesit. } [14]

Proba described the first man and first woman as both wonderful beings. The man approaches the woman with fearful trembling, like to a God, but she is not a distant, dominating Goddess, but of his own bones and joints. He marries her and physically, tenderly loves her. They are a “blessed pair {fortunati ambo}.”[15]

But as modern classical studies makes clear, feminine evil exists. In Proba’s Virgilian epic, Satan appeals to the woman’s pride. Satan prompts her to transform her and her husband’s good life into ruins and death:

“Tell me,” said Satan, “O young woman, we live in dim-lit groves
and river banks and cultivate stream-refreshed meadows:
what great cowardice has come upon your will?
You are his wife. It is right for you to test his will by pleading.
I shall be your guide. If your choice of me is certain,
let us pull together couches and feast on a rich, sacrificial banquet.”

{ “Dic,” ait, “o virgo, lucis habitamus opacis
riparumque toros et prata recentia rivis
incolimus: quae tanta animis ignavia venit?

Tu coniunx, tibi fas animum temptare precando.
Dux ego vester ero: tua si mihi certa voluntas,
extruimusque toros dapibusque epulamur opimis.” }

The wife follows Satan and destroys her husband’s life. He laments:

With sinister exhortations
that woman brought bitter juice and long aftertaste.
Under her breast she weaved deceit and horrible evil against
the innocent. With unnatural indication, the death-destined young woman
while raging destroyed the unsuspecting with cruel death.

{ monitisque sinistris
femina fert tristis sucos tardumque saporem.
Illa dolos dirumque nefas sub pectore versans
insontem infando indicio moritura puella,
dum furit, incautum crudeli morte peremit }

God understood all that had happened, and would happen:

And knowingly the creator of humans and the world
watched with his eyes and foresaw murders and a tyrant’s acts:
he understood what a woman in her fury could do.

{ At non haec nullis hominum rerumque repertor
observans oculis caedes et facta tyranni
praesensit: notumque furens quid femina posset. }

Unlike so many other readers, Proba understood the Aeneid. She sought to help others, especially men, to learn what they need to know.[16]

Proba loved men in general, and loved her husband with special intimacy. She ended her learned and brilliant Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi with Christ being raised up and sacred human conduct. She implored all women and men, and her husband in particular, to love one another and so make children:

Let us honor and favor,
women and men, this sacred conduct. Hold to this very practice,
o sweet husband, and, if we merit with our piety,
may our children’s children continue purely in this holiness.

{ Celebrate faventes
hunc, socii, morem sacrorum: hunc ipse teneto,
o dulcis coniunx, et, si pietate meremur,
hac casti maneant in religione nepotes. } [17]

Both Virgil and Proba understood, “seeds of life have a divine source and fiery force {igneus est ollis vigor et caelestis origo seminibus}.”[18] Whatever sort of sex she and her husband enjoyed, Proba surely wouldn’t have feared that her husband would rape her. She probably would have been furious if anyone had suggested to her personally that her husband might rape her. Proba had powerful political connections and was a highly intelligent woman fully capable of creative planning. No ordinary, sane person would have dared to affront her with such an insulting suggestion. With her all-encompassing, profound understanding, Proba may have recognize that brutalizing men’s sexuality ultimately could destroy civilization. Her Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi offers an epic, curative vision.

Both Proba and Ausonius addressed vital gender troubles. Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis explicitly described the groom “deflowering” his bride. With poetic cunning, he insisted that all wedding nights are exactly as he poetically represented the wedding night of the Emperor’s son and his royal bride. Assuring that he wouldn’t win laurels under gynocentrism, he challenged readers to believe explicitly the imaginative commonplace of brutalizing men’s sexuality. With a formally similar Virgilian cento, Proba’s Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi presented both profound spousal love and feminine evil. Her cento is an astonishing fourth-century complement to Ausonius’s cento. Like Ausonius’s cento, Proba’s cento has been taken far less seriously than it deserves.[19]

Under dominant gynocentric belief, all evil flows from toxic masculinity and penises. Proba’s Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi and Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis offer the hope, yet to be realized, of overturning imaginative oppression of men’s sexuality. Virgil has never been received more significantly than by Ausonius and Proba. They are of epic importance today. Unlike “love is war,” gender war isn’t a cliché.[20]

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[1] Giovanni Gioviano Pontano, “To Elisius Gallutius {Ad Elisum Gallutium},” Hendecasyllaborum sive Baiarum Libri Duo {Two Books of Hendecasyllables, or Baiae} 2.2, ll. 23-30, Latin text from Dennis (2006) pp 96, 98, my English translation, benefiting considerably from that of id. Elisius Gallutius was also known as Luigi Gallucci and Elisio Calenzio. Id. p. 215. In the quote above, Pontano is addressing “my dear little Fannia {mihi, cara Fanniella},” a girl with whom he particularly loved to have sex. See Baiae 1.19 and id. p. xxi.

[2] Pontano, “The Marriage of Joannes Brancatus and Maritella {De nuptis Ioannis Brancati et Maritellae},” Baiae 1.18, ll. 10-35, Latin text and English translation (adapted considerably) from Dennis (2006) pp. 56-9. Joannes Brancatus, also known as Giovanni Brancaccio, was the son of Pontano’s friend Marino Brancaccio. Id. p. 209.

[3] Ausonius, Cento nuptialis, “Ausonius to Paulus, Greeting {Ausonius Paulo sal.},” ll. 8-17, Latin text from Green (1991) , English trans. (adapted) from White (1919) vol. 1, pp. 370-3. Paulus was Ausonius’s close friend and fellow professor of rhetoric Axius Paulus. Green’s Latin text differs little from White’s and other available Latin texts. Here’s a full online Latin text of Cento nuptialis (alternate). All of the poetic lines in Cento nuptialis are constructed from lines in Virgil, mainly from the Aeneid. For the source lines, Green (1991) and Ehrling (2011) pp. 111-33.

Ausonius was a leading figure of his time. He was a professor of rhetoric at Bordeaux. He was then summoned to Valentinian’s court to tutor Gratian in the 360s. In 379, Gratian, then Roman Emperor, made Ausonius a Roman consul, the highest Roman office under the emperor. Ausonius taught Paulinus of Nola, who later served as governor of Compagna in Spain and as bishop of Nola. Ausonius and Paulinus had a rich literary correspondence.

[4] Cento nuptialis, “The entry into the bedchamber {Ingressus in cubiculum},” ll. 87-90, Latin text from Green (1991), my English translation, benefiting from that of White (1919) vol. 1, pp. 384-5. The subsequent quote is l. 98, similarly sourced. The line numbers exclude introductory prose comments, the prose “Digression {Parecbasis}” before the “Defloration {Imminutio},” and the concluding prose comments.

[5] Cento nuptialis, “Defloration {Imminutio},” ll. 101-9, Latin text from Green (1991), my English translation, benefiting from those of White (1919nc) vol. 1, pp. 387-91, Ehrling (2011) pp. 111-33, Murray (1999) pp. 53-4, and Levine (undated). Subsequent quotes from the “Imminutio” (which cover all of it) are similarly sourced, as is the quote of the final line of Cento nuptialis. Adams (1981) provides a philological analysis of the “Imminutio.”

The phrase “its head left bare” describes the erect penis. That phrase indicates that the husband hadn’t suffered a form of male genital mutilation commonly called circumcision. Jewish law requires male infants to be circumcised. Genesis 17:9-14. Christianity doesn’t require circumcision. 1 Corinthians 7:17-20, Acts 15:28. Islam doesn’t require infant circumcision, and Hinduism, Confucianism, and Buddhism don’t require it at all. Many persons, particularly in the U.S., have their male children undergo male genital mutilation as infants for no good reason. That’s irrational and abusive. This issue, like sexist Selective Service, attracts remarkably little concern in gynocentric societies.

[6] See, e.g. the paired portraits of an old woman and an old man in Ruodlieb, an eleventh-century Latin romance. Ausonius pairs an appreciative description (descriptio) of the groom with an appreciative description of the bride earlier in Cento nuptialis.

[7] The Latin word pecten (ablative singular pectine) can also mean pubic hair. See, e.g. Pliny, Natural History 29.26, Juvenal, Satires 6.370. Hence pectine pulsat eburno might also be translated as “bangs against her blonde pubic hair.”

[8] An epithalamium, a Latin transcription from the Greek ἐπιθαλάμιον, is strictly speaking a song sung to a bride upon her entering the wedding chamber. A typical refrain for an epithalamium is “Oh Hymen! Oh Hymenaeus! { O Hymen O Hymenaee}.” See, e.g. the ending of the final chorus in Aristophanes’s Peace and Ceres’s lament in Claudian’s De raptu Proserpinae. Epithalamium has long been used more generally for any wedding poem. McGill (2005) p. 205, n. 7.

Cento nuptialis is an epithalamium that explicitly represents marital consummation. Men’s ejaculate contains semen. The sperm in semen is naturally necessary to create a new human being. Semen also contains a variety of proteins likely to contribute to a woman’s sense of well-being. Erhling (2011) pp. 169-70, notes that the ending is “highly remarkable” in not referring to coming offspring. The ending can be understood as an explicit representation of failure in love.

[9] Williams (2010) p. 144. Williams points out:

His {Ausonius’s} work is frequently strange and disquieting: it is absurd and experimental, artificial and mannered, and can easily be relegated to the cabinet of literary curiosities. And yet if we are to understand the fourth century we must take account of this poetry and seek to make sense of it, and to make sense of the poet’s motives in writing it. It will not be enough to dismiss it as an embarrassment, or as evidence of the final bankruptcy of the classical tradition. Nor will it be enough to call it uninspired, and to disparage Ausonius for his apparent willingness to prostitute his talent. For this work was deliberately undertaken and involved no small expenditure of effort; it was circulated and widely read; and it was recognised as some of the best that the age had to offer.

Id. p. 163. McGill (2005), Ch. 5, provides a detailed, sophisticated reading of Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis. He rightly observes Ausonius employing strategies of disingenuousness and a “willfully perverse notion of ambiguity.” Id. p. 112. Yet Ausonius’s intent seems to me more specific and more signficant than ludic virtuosity, making a parodic degradation of Virgil, and supporting many different possible interpretations.

[10] The trinity “sex, violence, and rape” is from Schottenius Cullhed (2016) p. 249. Rape is a crime of violence. Compared to other types of violence and crimes of violence, rape has the distinctive discursive position of being probably the most powerful verbal tool for inciting men to violence against other men.

[11] Meibom (1597), image 60 (Ad Lectorem {To the Reader}), Latin text quoted in Brancher (2008) p. 117, n. 85 and Schottenius Cullhed (2016) p. 242, my English translation, benefiting from that of id.

[12] Schottenius Cullhed (2016) p. 242. White (1919), for example, castrated his English translation of Cento nuptialis. Only with Murray (1999) was a full, accurate English translation of the “Imminutio” printed. Schottenius Cullhed (2016) p. 245.

Ausonius’s “Imminutio” might be called misandristic or misogynistic. Reviewing the Ph.D. thesis that became Schottenius Cullhed (2015), Pollmann notes “frustratingly misogynistic statements about the poet {Proba}” that other scholars have made, such as that Proba was a virtuous wife and mother, and that Proba sought to educate her children. Pollmann (2014) p. 254. In name-calling within gynocentric society, “misogynistic” tends to be slung much more frequently than “misandristic.”

[13] Schottenius Cullhed (2016) pp. 239-40. Proba’s Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi has survived in at least 102 manuscripts. The earliest is Vaticanus Palatinus Lat. 1753, dating to the eighth or ninth century. Several other manuscripts of Proba survive from the ninth century. For details on all the known manuscripts, Fassina & Lucarini (2015) pp. XI-LXXV.

Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis, in contrast to Proba’s cento, left little trace until the fourteenth century. Cento nuptialis influenced the sixth-century North African Latin poet Luxorius in writing his Epithalamium for Fridus. But the text of Cento nuptialis has survived only in fourteenth and fifteenth century manuscripts in the Z family of Ausonian manuscripts. Other Ausonian manuscript branches exclude Cento nuptialis, probably because of its sexual content. Schottenius Cullhed (2016) p. 239.

Most scholars today believe that Proba was Faltonia Betitia Proba. Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae, written c. 600, testifies to that identification. If that’s true, then Proba was:

the daughter of Petronius Probianus (consul in 322), wife of Clodius Celsinus Adelphius (urban prefect of Rome in 351), and mother of Q. Clodius Hermogenianus Olybrius (consul in 379) and Faltonius Probus Alypius (prefect of Rome in 391).

Schottenius Cullhed (2015) pp. 20-1. Some scholars believe that Proba was Anicia Faltonia Proba, the granddaughter of Faltonia Betitia Proba. E.g. Shanzer (1994). Schottenius Cullhed pp. 20-3 analyzes the differing  biographical evidence and concludes in favor of the status quo attribution to Faltonia Betitia Proba. Her grandfather Probus was consul of Rome in 310. Her granddaughter Anicia married Sextus Petronius Probus, “one of the richest business men of his day, and Prefect of Illyricum, Italy and Africa in the 380s.” Plant (2004) p. 170. Faltonia Betitia Proba probably lived from about 322 to 370 and probably wrote her Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi in the 360s. Id. pp. 170-1.

For online, freely available studies of Proba and her work, Andersen (c2015) and Mărmureanu, Cernescu & Lixandru (2008) pp. 4-10.

Both Ausonius and Proba were learned Christians well-connected in elite society. Ausonius wrote Cento nuptialis about 374. As the author of Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi, Faltonia Betitia Proba would have written her cento before 370. Ausonius shows no knowledge of Proba’s cento. The two centos, however, are based on Virgil and concerned with failure in a paradigmatic marital relationship.

Ausonius and Proba shared forms and themes that had direct relevance to their elite contemporaries. Jerome and Jovinian engaged in a highly profile dispute on the relative value of the marital state. Hunter (2013) Ch. 2. The early Christian historian Sozomen (Ecclesiastical History 5.18) noted the significance of Christian centos to Emperor Julian’s decree in 362 forbidding Christian teachers from teaching pagan texts. Green (2016) p. 454. Virgil was the most most important of these pagan texts.

[14] Proba, Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi ll. 118-21, 127-35, Latin text from Fassina & Lucarini (2015), my English translation benefiting from those of Clark & Hatch (1981), Plant (2004), and Schottenius Cullhed (2015). Here’s a machine-readable online Latin text of Proba’s cento. Fassina & Lucarini (2015) is the leading critical edition. It differs slightly (including in line number) from earlier Latin texts of the cento. The line numbers cited of those of Fassina & Lucarini. All subsequent quotes from Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi are sources similarly. They are (by line numbers): 170 (blessed pair); 183-5, 194-6 (“Tell me,” said Satan…); 236 (2nd half)-240 (With sinister exhortations…); 210-2 (And knowingly the creator…); 691(2nd half)-694 (Let us honor and favor…).

In Roman marriage custom, bride and groom clasp each others’ right hands. That “dextrarum iunctio {joining together of right hands}” is a practice with ancient origins. Ricks (2006). It today forms a common handshake. Adam and Eve clasp right hands in Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi l. 135, taken from the Aeneid 8.124. Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis uses part of that line to describe the bride and groom’s embrace:

He tastes her kisses and holds her right hand close

{ oscula libavit dextramque amplexus inhaesit }

Cento nuptialis l. 56. Proba (l. 120) and Ausonius (l. 51) similarly both use Aeneid 1.589 (“in face and shoulders like God {os umerosque Deo similis}”) in describing Adam and the groom, respectively.

[15] While describing Adam and Eve as a blessed pair, Proba foreshadowed their troubles:

Blessed pair — if the mind of the unnatural-acting wife
had not swerved sinister. Their extraordinary exit later taught all.

{ Fortunati ambo, si mens non laeva fuisset
coniugis infandae: docuit post exitus ingens. }

Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi ll. 170-1. The Virgilian hypotexts to Proba’s epic narration of the lives of Adam and Eve associate their lives with those Aeneas and Dido. Schottenius Cullhed (2015) pp. 142-5.

[16] At the beginning of her cento, Proba wrote:

God be present, raise my mind:
may I tell that Virgil sang of the holy gifts of Christ. }

{ Praesens, Deus, erige mentem:
Vergilium cecinisse loquar pia munera Christi. }

Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi ll. 22(2nd half)-23. About half of Proba’s cento narrates Hebrew scripture. Adam in relation to Christ, and Eve and Mary in relation to Adam and Christ are central aspects of Christian scriptural understanding. Romanos the Melodist sixth-century songs makes clear women’s vital position in Christianity. Early Christian hymns address sexuality with under-appreciated frankness. Proba surely understood the importance of women and men’s intimate relations. She sang of those relations in her cento. Yet at the same time, for Christians, Christ encompasses all and is the name above all other names. Proba thus singled out “the holy gifts of Christ” in invoking inspiration for her cento.

Proba’s Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi apparently was used in the study of Latin in the Carolingian era. Schottenius Cullhed (2015) pp. 89-91. In educating young men, it would have been an important complement to other school texts such as Ecloga Theoduli, Claudian’s De raptu Proserpinae, and Statius’s Achilleid.

[17] On her tombstone, Proba’s husband Adelphius praised Proba as being an “incomparable wife {uxori inconparabili}.” CIL 6.1712, discussed in Shanzer (1994) pp. 80-1.

Proba’s cento has a strong first-personal component. Proba explicitly names herself:

so that I, Proba the Prophet, can revive all mysteries

{ arcana ut possim vatis Proba cuncta referre. }

Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi l. 12. The word vatis also means “poet,” and can be translated as a genitive qualifying “mysteries”: “mysteries of the poet {Virgil}.” The narrating voice explicitly naming itself doesn’t otherwise occur in the epic genre. Schottenius Cullhed (2015) pp. 9-10, Pollmann (2014) p. 253. On Proba’s personal interjections, Schottenius Cullhed (2015), Ch. 4.

[18] Virgil, Aeneid 6.730, quoted in part in describing creation in Proba’s Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi ll. 32 & 382.

[19] Pollmann (2004) contrasts Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis and Proba’s Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi. See, e.g. discussion associated with “striking contrast” and “contrasts sharply,” in reprinting Pollmann (2017) pp. 114, 117. But Pollmann concludes:

if one judges the quality of a cento in terms of the degree of transformation of a given phrase in its new context, then Ausonius’s sexualization of Vergil in his Imminutio and Proba’s Christianisation in her Cento are closely related from a technical point of view. The extent of the success of this technique can be seen in particular clarity when one looks at Aen. 7.66 pedibus per mutua nexis (‘with their feet mutually intertwined’, of a swarm of bees clinging together), which is one of the only two Vergilian phrases used both in Proba’s Cento and Ausonius’s Imminutio. Whereas in Proba, Cento 618, it describes the fixing of Jesus’s feet when he is mounted on the cross, in Ausonius, Cento 107, it refers to the intertwining of the couple’s limbs during sexual intercourse.

Id. pp. 117-8. Proba and Ausonius share a common theme in using the Virgilian phrase pedibus per mutua nexis: passion in its full Christian sense.

[20] With respect to Proba and other early Christian poets, Pollmann declares:

Christian poetry did not primarily aim at making its subject matter more truthful in an intellectual sense, but was directed towards authoritatively augmenting the appeal, impact, and transforming power of its message.

Pollmann (2017) p. 234. In Christian understanding, authority and truth are inextricably linked. Proba employed Virgil and the Bible to express truths about gender that authorities deny only to their disrepute and peril.

Presenting gender truthfully is especially difficult today. Pollmann presents Proba as working “to destabilize gender.” Pollman (2014) p. 255. That cant academic phrase in practice means interpreting literature to buttress gynocentrism. Thus in Pollmann and Schottenius Cullhed’s interpretion of Proba’s cento:

Jesus oscillates between stereotypes of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ … and Mary is characterized as a heroine while Joseph is omitted altogether.

Id. Proba surely didn’t intend to push fathers out of their children’s lives, as today family courts do with acute anti-men discrimination.

Pollmann agrees with Schottenius Cullhed about “the predominantly biased state of scholarship” concerning Proba. Pollmann declares, “scholarship should simply not operate with such biased and unreflected assumptions at all. ” Pollmann (2014) p. 252. All scholars, particular men scholars, should take seriously gender and gender bias.

[images] (1) Aeneas embraces Dido. Mid-fourth century mosaic made in the the Low Ham Roman Villa in Somerset, England. Thanks to Udimu via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Dido chases Aeneas. Same mid-fourth century mosaic from the Low Ham Roman Villa. Thanks again to Udimu via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Faltonia Betitia Proba teaches from her Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi. Miniature by Robinet Testard in manuscript of Giovanni Boccaccio’s De mulieribus claris. Made between 1488-1496. Manuscript: Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Français 599, folio 83r. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Adams, J. N. 1981. “Ausonius Cento nuptialis 101–131.” Studi Italiani di Filologia Classica. new series 53: 199–215.

Andersen, Magnus Ulrik Scheel. c2015. “Maro changed for the better” The Virgilian Cento of Faltonia Betitia Proba: Christian Poetry and Classical Paideia. MA Thesis. Copenhagen Faculty of Theology.

Brancher, Dominique. 2008. “Virgile en bas-de-chausse: Montaigne et la tradition de l’obscénité latine.” Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance. 70(1): 95-122.

Clark, Elizabeth Ann, Diane F. Hatch, and Proba. 1981. The Golden Bough, the Oaken Cross: the Virgilian Cento of Faltonia Betitia Proba. Chico, California: Scholars Press.

Dennis, Rodney G., ed. and trans. 2006. Giovanni Gioviano Pontano. Baiae. I Tatti Renaissance Library, vol. 22. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ehrling, Sara. 2011. De inconexis continuum: a Study of the Late Antique Latin Wedding Centos. Ph.D. Thesis. Göteborg: Institutionen för Språk Och Litteraturer, Göteborgs Universitet.

Evelyn-White, Hugh G., ed. and trans. 1919. Decimus Magnus Ausonius. Ausonius. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. Vol. 1Vol. 2. English translation of Cento nuptialis section “Imminutio” added silently no later than in the 2002 reprinting (referred to as White (1919nc)).

Fassina, Alessia and Carlo M. Lucarini, eds. 2015. Faltonia Betitia Proba. Cento Vergilianus. Bibliotheca Teubneriana. Berlin: De Gruyter. (review)

Green, R. P. H., ed. 1991. The Works of Ausonius. Oxford: Clarendon Press. (review)

Green, Roger. 2016. “Review: Cullhed, Proba the Prophet.” The Classical Review. 66(2): 453-455.

Hunter, David G. 2013. Marriage, Celibacy and Heresy in Ancient Christianity: the Jovinianist controversy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Levine, Robert. Undated. “Ausonius’ Imminutio.” Online page.

Meibom, Henricus, ed. 1597. Virgilio-Centones auctorum notæ optimæ, antiquorum & recentium Probae Falconiae Hortinae: D. Magni Avsonii, Bvrdigal: Laelii Capilvpi Mantvani: Ivlii Capilvpi Mantvani. Helmaestadii: Lucius.

McGill, Scott. 2005. Virgil Recomposed: the Mythological and Secular Centos in Antiquity. New York: Oxford University Press. (review)

Mărmureanu, Cătălina, Gianina Cernescu, Laura Lixandru. 2008. “Early Christian Women Writers: The Interesting Lives and Works of Faltonia Betitia Proba and Athenais-Eudocia.” Program in Communication and Intercultural Management, University of Bucharest.

Murray, Alexander Callander. 1999. From Roman to Merovingian Gaul: a reader. Peterborough: Broadview Press.

Plant, I. M. 2004. Women writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: an anthology. London: Equinox.

Pollmann, Karla. 2004. “Sex and Salvation in the Vergilian Cento of the Fourth Century.” Ch. 5 (pp. 79-96) in Rees, Roger, ed. Romane Memento: Vergil in the Fourth Century. London: Duckworth. (freely available online as ch. 4 in Pollmann (2017))

Pollmann, Karla. 2014. “Ph.D. Thesis Review: Sigrid Schottenius Cullhed, Proba the Prophet. Studies in the Christian Virgilian Cento of Faltonia Betitia Proba.” Samlaren. Swedish Science Press. Stockholm: Elanders Gotab.

Pollmann, Karla. 2017. The Baptized Muse: Early Christian Poetry as Cultural Authority. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ricks, Stephen D. 2006. “Dexiosis and Dextrarum Iunctio: The Sacred Handclasp in the Classical and Early Christian World.” FARMS Review 18(1): 431-6.

Shanzer, Danuta R. 1994. “The Date and Identity of the Centonist Proba.” Recherches Augustiniennes. 27: 74-96.

Schottenius Cullhed, Sigrid. 2015. Proba the Prophet: the Christian Virgilian Cento of Faltonia Betitia Proba. Leiden: Brill. Related: cf. ch. 2, Proba and Jerome; ch. 5, cento and Genesis.

Schottenius Cullhed, Sigrid. 2016. “In Bed with Virgil: Ausonius’ Wedding Cento and its Reception.” Greece and Rome. 63 (2): 237-250.

Williams, Michael Stuart. 2010. “sine numine nomina’: Ausonius and the Oulipo.” Pp. 90-105 (but here cited by page numbers listed in pdf) in Kelly, Christopher, and Flower, Richard, eds. Unclassical Traditions. Vol.1: Alternatives to the Classical Past in Late Antiquity. Cambridge Classical Journal, Supplementary Volume 34. Cambridge Philological Society.

Liudprand’s ideal of masculinity disastrous for men in long run

precious pen held with white gloves

In 968, Saxon King and Holy Roman Emperor Otto I sent Liudprand of Cremona to Constantinople as an emissary. Otto sought to ally with Byzantine Emperor Nicephoros Phocas by having Liudprand arrange for Nicephoros’s daughter to marry Otto’s son Otto II. That mission failed.[1] Upon his return, the embittered Liudprand wrote a caustic account of what happened. Liudprand’s account celebrated a narrow ideal of masculinity. That ideal of masculinity has become disastrous for men.

In his account of the mission, Liudprand disparaged the Byzantine Emperor Nicephoros as being unmanly. According to Liudprand, Nicephoros was:

a quite bizarre man, dwarfish, with a fat head, and mole-like by virtue of the smallness of his eyes, deformed by a short beard that is wide and thick and decaying … small legs, flat feet, dressed in an ornamental robe, but one old and, by reason of its age and daily use, stinking and faded, with Sicyonian footgear on his feet, provocative in his speech, a fox in his slyness, a Ulysses in his perjury and mendacity.

{ hominem satis monstruosum, pygmaeum, capite pinguem atque oculorum parvitate talpinum, barba curta, lata, spissa et semicana foedatum, … cruribus parvum, calcaneis pedibusque aequalem, villino, sed nimis veternoso vel diuturnitate ipsa foetido et pallido, ornamento indutum, Sicioniis calceamentis calceatum, lingua procacem, ingenio vulpem, periurio seu mendacio Ulyxem. } [2]

Liudprand embedded in this description a learned critique of Nicephoros’s masculinity. Sicyonian footgear was elaborate, luxurious shoes for women. Nearly a millennium earlier, Cicero commented:

if you had brought me a pair of Sicyonian shoes, I would not wear them, no matter how comfortably and well they fit my feet, because they would be unmanly.

{ si mihi calceos Sicyonios attulisses, non uterer, quamvis essent habiles et apti ad pedem, quia non essent viriles } [3]

Liudprand defended Otto’s decision to conquer Rome and thus seize it from Byzantine rule. He taunted the Byzantine Emperor:

Were not effeminates lording it over Rome, and, what is more serious and sordid, were not whores doing the same? Back then, I think, your power was snoozing, along with that of your predecessors, who in name alone, and not in actual fact, are considered emperors of the Romans. If they were powerful, if they were emperors of the Romans, why were they leaving Rome to the power of whores?

{ Nonne effoeminati dominabantur eius, et — quod gravius sive turpius — nonne meretrices? Dormiebat, ut puto, tunc potestas tua, immo decessorum tuorum, qui nomine solo, non autem re ipsa imperatores Romaorum vocantur. Si potentes, si imperatores Romanorum erant, cur Romam in meretricum potestate sinebant? } [4]

Rule by whores (pornocracy) is a deeply corrupt form of government. Yet men alone shouldn’t be burdened with responsibility for overthrowing pornocracy. Women, too, should bear responsibility, and bare responsibly.

Liudprand starkly contrasted the manliness of Byzantines (Greeks) and Europeans (Lombards, Franks, Saxons, etc.). He described the difference at the top of the food chain:

The king of the Greeks {the Byzantine Emperor Nicephoros} is long-haired, tunic-wearing, long-sleeved, hooded, lying, fraudulent, merciless, fox-like, haughty, falsely humble, cheap, greedy, eating garlic, onions, and leeks, drinking bath-water. By contrast, the king of the Franks {Holy Roman Emperor Otto I} has beautifully cropped, short hair, and attire that differs from women’s clothing. He’s hat-wearing, truthful, guileless, quite merciful when appropriate, strict when necessary, always truly humble, never cheap; not a consumer of garlic, onions, and leeks in order to spare animals and accumulate money by selling animals instead of eating them.

{ Graecorum rex crinitus, tunicatus, manicatus, teristratus, mendax, dolosus. immisericors, vulpinus, superbus, falso humilis, parcus, cupidus, allio cepe et porris vescens, balnea bibens; Francorum rex contra pulchre tonsus, a muliebri vestitu veste diversus, pileatus, verax, nil doli habens, satis ubi competit misericors, severus ubi oportet, semper vere humilis, nunquam parcus, non allio, cepis, porris vescens, ut possit animalibus eo parcere, quatinus non manducatis, sed venundatis pecuniam congreget. } [5]

When he called the king of the Franks guileless, Liudprand was identifying the king with men’s characteristic inferiority to women in guile. The king of the Greeks had long hair. Men in the ancient world regarded long hair as an important aspect of a woman’s beauty.[6] The king of the Franks, in contrast, had short hair. Moreover, the Frankish king wore manly clothing that differed from women’s clothing, while the Greek king didn’t. The Greek king traded animals for money, as women, most of whom have always worked outside the home, have long done. The masculine Frankish king, in contrast, slaughtered animals and ate them.

Liudprand failed to appreciate his own masculine strength. When the Byzantines took from Liudprand five luxurious purple robes, Liudprand evoked masculinity in lashing out at the Byzantines:

how unsuitable and how insulting it is that soft, effeminate, long-sleeved, tiara-wearing, hooded, lying, unsexed, idle people strut around in purple, while heroes, that is, strong men who know war, full of faith and charity, in submission to God, full of virtues, do not!

{ Quod quam indecorum quamque contumeliosum sit, molles, effoeminatos, manicatos, tiaratos, teristratos, mendaces, neutros, desides, purpuratos incedere; heroas vero, viros scilicet fortes, scientes bellum, fidei charitatisque plenos, Deo subditos, virtutibus plenos, non! Quid est, si non haec contumelia est? } [7]

Men deserve to be appreciated for their large, gender-specific contributions to public welfare. Yet in practice, men tend to be disparaged as being primitive beasts, lacking culture, and needing women to civilize them. The Byzantines, who had lavish and elaborate Christian culture, described Otto and his Saxon people as having a primitive faith. Understanding the implicit contrast between cultured women and primitive men, Liudprand responded:

As you call the faith of the Saxons primitive, I confirm the very same thing. For among them the faith of Christ is always primitive and not old, where good works follow upon belief. Yet here the faith is certainly not primitive, but old, where belief does not unite with good works but instead is disdained on account of its age, like some old garment. But I know for sure that a council was held in Saxony wherein it was discussed and established that it is more honorable to fight with spears than with pens, and to accept death before turning one’s back on the enemy. Your army is now learning all about that council!

{ Rudem quia dicis Saxonibus esse fidem, id ipsum et ego affirmo; semper enim apud eos Christi fides rudis est, et non vetus, ubi fidem opera sequuntur. Hic fides non rudis sed vetus est, ubi fidem opera non comitantur, sed quasi prae vetustate, ut vestis contempta, contemnitur. Sed hanc synodum factam esse in Saxonia certo scio, in qua tractatum est et firmatum, decentius ensibus pugnare quam calamis, et prius mortem obire quam hostibus terga dare. Quod vel tuus exercitus experitur! }

Figuring the penis as sword has devalued the intrinsic beauty of men’s bodies, constructed men as tools for defending gynocentrism, and supported the worst gender gap of all: men’s lifespan shortfall relative to women. Liudprand himself was a brilliant writer-rhetorician. Men and women of well-formed social conscious should learn from Liudprand’s skill with the pen. They should imitate him. That’s how gynocentrism will be overthrown.

Men and women must understand that pens are almost as important as men’s penises. Grasp a pen. Write in praise of men. Write thanks to men and for men. Write in sympathetic understanding of men’s sufferings. Write to correct wrongs against men. Stroke a pen, gaze upon its shape, and write for men!

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] As wise classical thinkers have long recognized, husbands in reality are subordinate to their wives, and wives are subordinate to their children. Otto I was thus willing to transfer effective rule from his son Otto II to Nicephoros’s daughter. Conveying such a generous offer to Nicephoros, Liudprand, not surprisingly, was furious at Nicephoros for rudely rejecting it. Liudprand’s account says nothing about Otto II’s preferences about marriage. Men have often been and continue to be deprived of importance choices in their lives.

[2] Liudprand of Cremona, Relatio de Legatione Constantinopolitana {Embassy} 3, Latin text from Chiesa (1998), English trans. (adapted slightly) from Squatriti (2007). All subsequent quotes from Liudprand’s Embassy are similarly sourced.

Liudprand ridiculed praise sung for Nikephoros during a formal procession. Liudprand wrote that the singers more accurately might have sung:

Come, burnt cinder, dark one, old hag in your walk, forest-animal in your expression, rustic, jungle-wanderer, goat-footed, horned, double-limbed, bristly, wild, country bumpkin, barbarian, hard and hairy one, rebel and Cappadocian!

{ Carbo exstincte veni, μέλας, anus incessu, Sylvanus vultu, rustice, lustrivage, capripes, cornute, bimembris, setiger, indocilis, agrestis, barbare, dure, villose, rebellis, Cappadox! }

Embassy 10. Liudprand seems to have admired the vigorous and tolerant Byzantine public sphere.

Dümmler (1877) and Wright (1930) include a Latin text and English translation of Liudprand’s Embassy. Here’s an alternate online English translation of the first twenty-one sections. Here’s the Latin text in machine-readable form.

Liudprand’s Embassy is known today only from a text first printed in 1600. It apparently didn’t circulate widely earlier. John Tsimiskes replaced Nicephoros Phocas as Byzantine Emperor in December, 969. Liudprand’s harsh disparagement of the Byzantines may well have been regarded as counter-productive diplomatically with a change in the Byzantine ruler. Squatriti (2007) p. 30.

[3] Cicero, De Oratore 1.54.231, Latin text from Loeb Classical Library, v. 348 (1948), English translation from May & Wisse (2001). Lucretius associated Sicyonian (Sikyonian) footwear with idolized, privileged wives. Lucretius, De natura 6.1125. See also Herondas (Herodas), Mime 7, l .57. Sicyonian footwear apparently was used as a pun for a dildo described as a cucumber (σίκυος). See Sumler (2010) pp. 468-9.

[4] Embassy 5.

[5] Embassy 40. The reference to “drinking bath-water {balnea bibens}” is obscure. It might be tepid water, as suggested by Squatriti (2007) p. 279, n. 119;p. 282, n. 129; or wine mixed with water, as suggested by Dümmler (1877) p. 153, n. 2. It might also be a allusion to Pseudo-Sirach describing Jeremiah as having masturbated into bath water. See my post on Marcolf and Solomon.

Byzantine urban-dwellers undoubtedly ate less meat than person living in more rural areas in Saxony. Eleni Albanidou explained:

The Byzantines did not often eat meat. Not only was it expensive but fasting was imposed by the Christian religion. … The “skordaton” (with garlic) was meat stuffed with cloves of garlic. Some times they roasted it on spits over a coal fire and other times in an oven in a special utensil that looked like a casserole dish. Meat was referred to then as “klivanoton”.

Liudprand refers to the Byzantine Emperor Nicephoros as eating goat with fish-sauce. Embassy 20. Fish was highly prized food in ancient Greece.

[6] See Paul’s preference for Thecla’s long hair in my post on Paul and Thecla. See also additional references in note [5] of that post.

[7] Embassy 54. Purple was the color of royalty.

[image] Precious pen held with white-gloved hands. Thanks to cobalt123 for sharing image on flickr under CC-by-nc 2.0 license.


Chiesa, Paolo, ed. 1998. Liudprand of Cremona. Antapodosis; Homelia pachalis; Historia Ottonis; Relatio de Legatione Constantinopolitana. Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Mediaevalis, 156. Turnholt: Brepols.

Dümmler, Ernst Ludwig, ed. 1877. Liudprand of Cremona. Liudprandi episcopi Cremonensis opera omnia. Hannoverae: Imp. bibl. Hahniani. (alternate source)

May, James M. and Jakob Wisse, trans. 2001. Cicero on the ideal orator {De oratore}. New York: Oxford University Press.

Squatriti, Paolo, trans. 2007. The Complete Works of Liudprand of Cremona. Washington: Catholic University of America Press.

Sumler, Alan. 2010. “A Catalogue of Shoes: Puns in Herodas Mime 7.” Classical World. 103 (4): 465-475.

Wright, F.A., trans. 1930. The Works of Liudprand of Cremona. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

ancient Greek & Roman classics deeply influential in medieval Italy

dead Hector being brought back to Troy

In our age of ignorance, bigotry, and superstition, few persons have any appreciation for the glorious classical literature of ancient Greece and Rome. Today even classical scholars pay little attention to the vital heart of Lucretius’s De rerum natura. What schoolboy today sings passages from Juvenal? What adult knows of the Sabine women’s founding of gynocentrism in Rome? Who now recognizes Cicero’s wit and wisdom? For a rebirth of enlightenment, students must skip the involuted, ossified scholasticism of today’s academia. They must imitate the imaginative, fully committed appropriations of classical literature that have miraculously survived from medieval Italy.

A unique story collection from the fifteenth century has preserved the classical response of an ordinary, unlearned man in medieval Italy. The narrator recounted:

A certain neighbor of mine, a simple man, heard one of those singers at the end of his performance announce, in order to lure back his audience, that the next day he would recite The Death of Hector. This friend of mine, before he would allow the singer to leave, obtained by cash payment a promise that the singer would not so soon kill off the manly, beneficial warrior Hector. The Death of Hector was thus put off to the subsequent day. Indeed again and again he paid to extend Hector’s life across successive days. And when he ran out of money, he then with much tears and groaning heard the sad story of Hector’s death.

{ Quidam (inquit) vicinus meus, homo simplex, audiebat quempiam ex ejusmodi cantoribus, qui in fine sermonis ad illiciendam audientium plebem, praedixit se postridie Mortem Hectoris recitaturum. Hic noster, antequam cantor abiret, pretio redemit, ne tam cito Hectorem virum bello utilem interficeret. Ille Mortem postero die distulit. Alter vero saepius pretium dedit sequentibus diebus pro vitae dilatione. Et cum pecuniae defuissent, tandem mortem ejus multo fletu ac dolore narrari audivit. } [1]

This simple man lived the classics in a way that few students or teachers of classics today can even imagine. The classics weren’t dead in medieval Italy. The classics died in modern classrooms.

Ordinary people in medieval Italy interpreted ordinary experience within the framework of classics. Consider, for example, the affairs of King Hugh of Arles in tenth-century Italy. After two prior marriages, Hugh married the whorish Marozia and then a woman named Bertha. Apparently pressured into marrying, Hugh enjoyed simply having sex with concubines:

while there were a number of concubines, he {King Hugh} burned with most sordid love for three above the rest: Pezola, whose origin was in the bloodline of the lowliest servants, with whom he also generated a son named Boso, whom he ordained bishop of Piacenza’s church after Wido’s death; then Rosa, daughter of the beheaded Walpert we mentioned above, who gave him a daughter of wondrous beauty; third was Stephania, a Roman, who also bore a son, by the name of Tedald, whom he later appointed archdeacon of the Milanese church, so that once the archbishop died, Tedald might become his successor there. … And since it was not just the king who made use of them, their children take their origin from unknown fathers.

{ Verum cum nonnullae essent concubinae, tres supra caeteras turpissimo amore ardebat: Pezolam, vilissimorum servorum sanguine cretam, ex qua et natum genuit nomine Boso, quem in Placentina post Widonis obitum episcopum ordinavit ecclesia; Rozam deinde, Walperti superius memorati filiam decollati, quae ei mirae pulcritudinis peperit natam; tertiam Stephaniam genere Romanam, quae et filium peperit nomine Tedbaldum, quem postmodum in Mediolanensi ecclesia archidiaconem ea ratione constituit, ut defuncto archiepiscopo eius ipse vicarius poneretur. … Et quoniam non rex solus his abutebatur, earum nati ex incertis patribus originem ducunt. } [2]

Ordinary Italians interpreted King Hugh’s three favorite concubines in terms of the classical beauty contest among Hera (Juno), Athena (Minerva), and Venus:

the people called these three women by the names of goddesses on account of their sordid crime of promiscuity, with Pezola nicknamed Venus, Rosa nicknamed Juno because of her quarrels and tenacious hatred, since according to the corruption of the flesh she seemed more attractive than them, and Stephania Semele.

{ populus has ob turpis inpudicitiae facinus dearum nominibus, Pezolam videlicet Venerem, Rozam Iunonem ob simultatem et perpetuum odium, quoniam quidem ea secundem carnis putredinem hac spetiosior videbatur, Stephaniam vero Sémelen apellabat. } [3]

For the historian, Hugh’s impressive career provising for non-marital offspring who may have been biological children of other men are highly relevant. For the people, the matter was more literary. Showing impressive classical learning, they substituted in the classical story Semele for Minerva. Both Minerva and Semele were offspring of Jupiter. Minerva was a career woman and a virgin. Semele, the mother of Dionysus, enjoyed the Bacchic frenzy of orgies. As ordinary people in tenth-century Italy recognized, Semele was a much more appropriate figure for one of Hugh’s concubines than was the virgin career-woman Minerva.

Ancient Greek and Roman classics deserve to be as well-known today as they were in medieval Italy. Ordinary persons cannot be expected to be as learned as the greatest classicist of all time, the twelfth-century Byzantine scholar John Tzetzes. Yet all persons today should at least understand Helen of Troy’s adultery and the horrendous violence against men of the Trojan War. To found a new, promised land of Enlightenment, we must know Ovid’s fate and be wise enough to shun Danaids.

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[1] Poggio Bracciolini, Facetiae 83, “About a singer who announced that he would recite the Death of Hector {De cantore qui praedixit se Mortem Hectoris recitaturum},” Latin text from Poggio (1879) vol. 1, pp. 133-4, my English translation with help from that of id. Here’s the Latin text in machine-readable form.

According to Poggio Bracciolini, the medieval Italian Ciriacus Anconitanus grieved and deplored the fall of the Roman Empire. Poggio’s contemporary Antonio Lusco compared Ciriacus’s grief to a Milanese man’s response to a singer reciting the deeds of Roland (surely based on the Song of Roland). When the singer came to Roland’s death, the Milanese man began to weep bitterly. When he returned home, his wife asked him why he was so grief-stricken:

“Do you not know,” he responded, “what news I have heard today?” His wife asked, “What is it, my husband?” “Roland is dead — the sole bulwark of Christendom!”

{ “An nescis,” respondit, “quae nova hodie audivi?” – “Quaenam, vir?” uxor inquit. – “Mortuus est Rolandus, qui solus tuebatur Christianos!”}

Facetiae 82, “A Comparison by Antonio Lusco {Comparatio Antonii Lusc},” Latin text from Poggio (1879) vol. 1, pp. 131-3, my English translation with help from that of id.

[2] Liudprand of Cremona, Antapodosis {Retribution} 4.14, Latin text from Chiesa (1998), English translation from Squatriti (2007). The subsequent quote is similarly from id. For a freely available English translation, Wright (1930).

[3] Liudprand had a perceptive understanding of “corruption of the flesh {carnis putredinem}.” According to Liudprand, that corruption was Juno regarding herself as being as beautiful as Venus and Minerva. Perceiving ugliness as beauty is a deep corruption of the flesh. Not surprisingly, Liudprand, like Bishop Nonnus on seeing Pelagia, forthrightly recognized female beauty in describing Roza’s daughter. See previous quote above.

[image] Dead Hector being brought back to Troy, as described in the Iliad. Marble relief (excerpt) on a Roman sarcophagus. Made c. 180-200 GC. Preserved as accession # Ma 353 (MR 793) in Louvre Museum, Paris. Image thanks to Marie-Lan Nguyen and Wikimedia Commons.


Chiesa, Paolo, ed. 1998. Liudprand of Cremona. Antapodosis; Homelia pachalis; Historia Ottonis; Relatio de Legatione Constantinopolitana. Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Mediaevalis, 156. Turnholt: Brepols.

Poggio. 1879. Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini. The facetiae or jocose tales of Poggio, now first translated into English with the Latin text. Paris: Isidore Liseux (vol. 1, vol. 2).

Squatriti, Paolo, trans. 2007. The Complete Works of Liudprand of Cremona. Washington: Catholic University of America Press.

Wright, F.A., trans. 1930. The Works of Liudprand of Cremona. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

LOVE TRUMPS HATE: Dame Custance triumphs over Ralph Roister Doister

apostrophe makes punctuation poem

A neighbor told me that she saw a car with a bumper-sticker proclaiming in all capital letters, “LOVE TRUMP’S HATE.” What kind of person would put that bumper-sticker on a car? Nicholas Udall’s comedy Ralph Roister Doister, written about 1552, points to the answer.

In Ralph Roister Doister, a strange, hateful letter became a proper love letter when read correctly. The title character Ralph Roister Doister is a delusional braggart enamored of Dame Christian Custance, a wealthy widow. He foolishly attempted to woo her like a courtly lover begging for a woman’s love. He even hired a scrivener to compose a love letter. Roister Doister’s jestful, manipulative hanger-on Mathew Merygreeke read the letter to Custance on behalf of Roister Doister:

To mine own dear coney-bird, sweetheart, and pigsney, Good Mistress Custance, present these by and by.
Sweet mistress, where as I love you nothing at all —
regarding your substance and richesse chief of all —
for your personage, beauty, demeanour and wit,
I commend me unto you never a whit.
Sorry to hear report of your good welfare,
for (as I hear say) such your conditions are,
that ye be worthy favour of no living man,
to be abhorred of every honest man,
to be taken for a woman inclined to vice,
nothing at all to virtue giving her due price.
Wherefore, concerning marriage, ye are thought
such a fine paragon, as ne’er honest man bought.
And now by these presents I do you advertise
that I am minded to marry you in no wise.
For your goods and substance, I could be content
to take you as ye are. If ye mind to be my wife,
ye shall be assured, for the time of my life,
I will keep you right well from good raiment and fare —
ye shall not be kept but in sorrow and care —
ye shall in no wise live at your own liberty.
Do and say what ye lust, ye shall never please me;
but when ye are merry, I will be all sad.
When ye are sorry, I will be very glad.
When ye seek your heart’s ease, I will be unkind.
At no time in me shall ye much gentleness find.
But all things contrary to your will and mind
shall be done — otherwise I will not be behind
to speak. And as for all them that would do you wrong,
I will so help and maintain, ye shall not live long.
Nor any foolish dolt shall cumber you but I.
I, whoe’er say nay, will stick by you till I die.
Thus, good mistress Custance, the Lord you save and keep
from me, Roister Doister, whether I wake or sleep —
who favoureth you no less, ye may be bold,
than this letter purporteth, which ye have unfold.

This letter, not surprisingly, didn’t prompt Dame Custance to love. The letter mocked her. Then the scrivener read the letter to her differently:

To mine own dear coney-bird, sweetheart, and pigsney, Good Mistress Custance, present these by and by.
Sweet mistress, whereas I love you nothing at all
regarding your richesse and substance — chief of all
for your personage, beauty, demeanour, and wit
I commend me unto you. Never a whit
sorry to hear report of your good welfare,
for (as I hear say) such your conditions are,
that ye be worthy favour. Of no living man
to be taken for a woman inclined to vice,
nothing at all. To virtue giving her due price.
Wherefore concerning marriage, ye are thought
such a fine paragon, as ne’er honest man bought.
And now by these presents I do you advertise,
that I am minded to marry you — in no wise
for your goods and substance — I can be content
to take you as you are. If ye will be my wife,
ye shall be assured for the time of my life,
I will keep you right well. From good raiment and fare,
ye shall not be kept. But in sorrow and care
ye shall in no wise live. At your own liberty
do and say what ye lust. Ye shall never please me
but when ye are merry. I will be all sad
when ye are sorry. I will be very glad
when ye seek your heart’s ease. I will be unkind
at no time. In me shall ye much gentleness find.
But all things contrary to your will and mind
shall be done otherwise. I will not be behind
to speak. And as for all them that would do you wrong —
I will so help and maintain ye — {they} shall not live long.
Nor any foolish dolt shall cumber you, but I,
I, whoe’er say nay, will stick by you till I die.
Thus, good mistress Custance, the Lord you save and keep.
From me, Roister Doister, whether I wake or sleep,
who favoureth you no less, ye may be bold,
than this letter purporteth, which ye have unfold.

Love wins! But first Dame Custance’s nurse and maids prepared to assault Roister Doister:

Margerie Mumblecrust: I with my distaff will reach him one rap.
Tibet Talkapace: And I with my new broom will sweep him one swap,
and then with our great club I will reach him one rap.
Annot Alyface: And I with our skimmer will fling him one flap.
Tibet Talkapace: Then Trupenie’s firefork will him shrewdly fray,
and you with the spit may drive him quite away.

Roister Doister and his men recognized the “ancient law of honor” that a man shouldn’t strike a woman. Like many other men, they were ignorant of what Achilles did to Penthesileia, or what Arruns did to Camilla. Dame Custance’s fiancé questioned her:  “do ye hate him more than ye love me?” Of course she didn’t. She participated in plans to host and roast Roister Doister for dinner and to be as good friends with him as she ever had been. Love can encompass hate.

Punctuation poems reveal an underside to the dominant order. Roister Doister’s courtly love letter is a punctuation poem that also represents derisive hate. LOVE TRUMP’S HATE. It makes sense.

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Ralph Roister Doister is play attributed Nicholas Udall, master of Eton College and Westminster School in England. Udall is thought to have written the play about 1552 for his school students. The text above is from the edition of Child (1912). The edition of Arber (1869) is freely available online.

Ralph Roister Doister was once regarded as the first comic drama in English. A much longer tradition of English comedy, closely associated with Latin literature, is now recognized beginning with The Interlude of the Student and the Girl from about 1300. For text and modern English translation, Wickham (1976) pp. 195-203.

The first version of the punctuation poem in Ralph Roister Doister is from Act 3, Scene 4. The second version is from Act 3, Scene 5. The maids violent assault on Roister Doister and Mathew Merygreeke is from Act 4, Scene 4. Violence against men in medieval Europe contribute to the extraordinary large gender disparity in medieval lifespans. The “ancient law of honor” requires men not to defend themselves even when women violently attacked them. That prevalent norm, as well as women’s power to incite men to violence against other men, is an aspect of truthful understanding of domestic violence and violence in general. Roister Doister refers to the “ancient law of honor” in Act 5, Scene 6. Gawyn Goodluck addressed the question “do ye hate him more than ye love me” to Dame Custance in Act 5, Scene 5.

In Ralph Roister Doister, Roister Doister’s behavior is a comic parody of the courtly lover. The braggart Roister Doister ridiculously complains about the female gaze: “they {women} gaze all upon me and stare.” Act 1, Sc. 2. He begs for Dame Custance’s love like a man ignorant of medieval women’s love poetry. The irreverent Mathew MeryGreeke makes vacuous wisdom from Roister Doister’s courtly love folly:

All men take heede by this one gentleman,
how you set your love upon an unkind woman.
For these women be all such mad peevish elves,
they will not be won except it please themselves.

Act 3, Sc. 3. The “good man” Gawyn Goodluck at least recognized the medieval wisdom “all that glistens isn’t gold.” Act 5, Sc. 1.


Arber, Edward, ed. 1869. Nicholas Udall. Roister Doister. London.

Child, Clarence Griffin, ed. 1912. Nicholas Udall. Ralph Roister Doister. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Wickham, Glynne. 1976. English Moral Interludes. London: Dent.

listening to God & persistent asking: don’t under-interpret the Bible

shoot from stump

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as the underworld or high as the sky.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, I will not put the Lord to the test.” And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

{ ויוסף יהוה דבר אל־אחז לאמר׃
שאל־לך אות מעם יהוה אלהיך העמק שאלה או הגבה למעלה׃
ויאמר אחז לא־אשאל ולא־אנסה את־יהוה׃
ויאמר שמעו־נא בית דוד המעט מכם הלאות אנשים כי תלאו גם את־אלהי׃
לכן יתן אדני הוא לכם אות הנה העלמה הרה וילדת בן וקראת שמו עמנו אל׃ }

How does a person weary God? Ask and it shall be given to you.

The prophet Isaiah, not Ahaz, declares “Hear then, O house of David! ….” The prophet Isaiah addresses Ahaz, the ruler of the Judah in the line of the house of David. Ahaz is wearying God not by nagging God, but by not asking God for help. Ahaz is putting God to the test by testing God’s patience with them — his people who don’t understand their relationship to him. They don’t seek the Lord. They don’t cry out to God. They don’t expect the Lord to come to their aid.

The Lord commanded his people not to put him to the test. The Lord told Ahaz to ask for a sign. Moses, following the Lord’s instructions, brought water forth from a rock at Massah and Meribah. Anything is possible with God. Is this generation asking for a sign to test God? A sign has been given to them.

And he told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor regarded man; and there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Vindicate me against my adversary.’ For a while he refused; but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will vindicate her, or she will wear me out by her continual coming.'” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?”

{ ελεγεν δε παραβολην αυτοις προς το δειν παντοτε προσευχεσθαι αυτους και μη εγκακειν λεγων κριτης τις ην εν τινι πολει τον θεον μη φοβουμενος και ανθρωπον μη εντρεπομενος χηρα δε ην εν τη πολει εκεινη και ηρχετο προς αυτον λεγουσα εκδικησον με απο του αντιδικου μου και ουκ ηθελεν επι χρονον μετα δε ταυτα ειπεν εν εαυτω ει και τον θεον ου φοβουμαι ουδε ανθρωπον εντρεπομαι δια γε το παρεχειν μοι κοπον την χηραν ταυτην εκδικησω αυτην ινα μη εις τελος ερχομενη υπωπιαζη με ειπεν δε ο κυριος ακουσατε τι ο κριτης της αδικιας λεγει ο δε θεος ου μη ποιηση την εκδικησιν των εκλεκτων αυτου των βοωντων αυτω ημερας και νυκτος και μακροθυμει επ’ αυτοις }

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The two quoted passages are from Isaiah 7:10-14 and Luke 18:1-7. See also Malachi 3:10, Matthew 7:7, Psalms 18:6, 34:4, 40:1, 118:5, 120:1, Deuteronomy 6:16, Matthew 4:5-7, Exodus 17:1-7, Matthew 19:26, Mark 8:11-12, and Isaiah 11:1.

[image] Shoot springing forth from a stump. Source image thanks to Zumthie via Wikimedia Commons.