caution for learning Latin: the case of Maistre Mimin Estudiant

medieval university

Every young man, and every young woman interested in young men, should learn medieval Latin, and so equipped, study medieval Latin literature. Young men should be careful, as medieval Latin literature wisely teaches, or they might find themselves incarcerated as debtors, without even the benefit of counsel. In addition, young men can learn from medieval Latin literature tactics for avoiding the problem of sexual harassment. As those unschooled in the pervasiveness of misogyny know well, young men commonly find young women irresistibly alluring. From medieval Latin literature young men can learn to avoid extremes of gyno-idolatry. They can also learn to be wary of cruelty to women. Most importantly, young men can learn from the mistakes of Achilles and grow in appreciation for their masculine selves within the hostile academic environment.

Just as in using Facebook, safety should be a major concern for men in studying medieval Latin literature. The horrific abuse and bullying that Maistre Mimin Estudiant suffered in late-fifteenth-century France provides a sobering warning. Mimin’s father Raulet and his mother Lubine sent Mimin to study Latin for all the wrong reasons. Raulet explained to Mimin’s future father-in-law:

Here’s the full skinny: we stopped
the usual to hire a Latin teacher,
to make the kid a mover-n-shaker
and a practicing master of right.
Then he could guard the goods tight
that he might inherit from us two.
But we’re less happy as it came through.
With all that taking and undertaking,
learning, new learning, and textual inter-taking
and grand Latin public speechification,
he has forgotten French and in actual action
he can no longer say a single word.

{ Voicy tout: nous avons cessé
De le tenir au pidagogue
Pour en faire un grand astrilogue
Et un maistre praticien,
Affin qu’il gardast mieulx le sien
Qu’il peust susciter de nous deux.
Mais nous en sommes pou joyeulx;
Car il a tant prins et comprins,
Aprins, reprins et entreprins,
Et un grand latin publié,
Qu’il a le françoys oublié,
Tant qu’il n’en sçauroit dire mot. }

When asked to speak French, Mimin himself responded:

Ego don’t know.
I never speak Frenchus,
that’s why ego has forgotten.

{ Ego non sire.
Franchoyson jamais parlare;
Car ego oubliaverunt. }

Studying Latin to become a lawyer is wrong. Lawyers use merely a smattering of Latin to intimidate the defenseless so that they can extract higher fees. The right reason to study Latin is to connect with men across millennia in order to understand the reality of men’s position in relation to women. Mimin was engaged to be married. Mimin’s fiancée spoke only French. Not being able to speak with one’s wife is a bad way for a man to begin a marriage.

Just as some academics have addressed men getting raped, Mimin’s professor proposed to rehabilitate Mimin from his mis-directed learning. The professor who instructed him in reading Latin declared:

His reading
has taken him to what state he is,
and to let him continue to do this —
that would be a very great danger.
In order not to fail to make him better,
we must watch him day and night,
and if he sleeps, wake him with light,
and not let him have a book nor read,
for that intoxicated him like mead,
and disturbed him in his understanding.

{ Sa lecture
L’a mis au point en quoy il est;
Et de le laisser tout seulet
Ce seroit un très grand danger,
Par quoy ne le fault estranger
Qu’il ne soit jour et nuyt veillé;
Et, s’il dort , qu’il soit reveillé;
Et qu’il n’ayt livre ne livret,
Car cela du tout l’enyvroit
Et luy troubloit l’entendement. }

To cure Mimin of his Latin learning, his parents stuck his head into a bird cage. Like the imprisoned Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Mimin was horribly abused. He pathetically cried out:

I’m imprisoned in cage-atus
so can’t study my books-us,
and forgetting my Latin-us.
The professor no show me
and no establish for me
how now words can raise me.

{ Cageatus emprisonare,
Livras non estudiare
Et latinus oubliare.
Magister non monstraverunt
Et non recognossaverunt
Intro logea resurgant. }

Studying medieval Latin should serve as a means for men’s liberation, not their further imprisonment.

With his head imprisoned in a bird cage, Mimin once again became subject to gender subordination and post-structural gender oppression as established by Luce Irigaray, Judith Butler, Caroline Walker Bynum, and Phyllis Trible, among other professors. Mimin’s fiancée voiced the claims of female supremacists to Mimin’s father:

Women always are the rulers
of speaking. …
We have voices much sweeter
than men do; theirs are ruder.
A child who comes home from study
you don’t guide in the right way.

{ Femmes ont tousjours le regnom
De parler. …
Nous avons trop plus doulces voix
Que ces hommes; ilz sont trop rudes.
Un enfant qui vient des estudes
Ne ce doit point traicter tel voye. }

Mimin’s mother taught him to say “my darling {ma joye},” “my mother, I cry to you for mercy {ma mere, je vous crye mercy}.” Mimin’s fiancée taught him to say, “my lover, my cute little one {m’amye, ma mignonne}” and “my heart and my love I give to you {mon cueur et m’amour je vous donner}.” With such teaching, Mimin was restored to his normal position in the social order.

Women’s dominance in social communication keeps men in their cages. The professor of Latin understood the source of women’s social power:

This is women at their working.
I say it, without any blaming,
but in talking, they are renowned.

At least we have seen well how
women are renowned for talking.

To put it quite lightly,
sometimes without even trying.

{ Il n’est ouvrage que de femme.
Je le dy, sans que nul je blasme;
Mais pour parler ilz ont le bruit.

Au moins on a bien veu comment
Femmes ont le bruyt pour parler.

Bien legerement
Aucunesfois, sans riens celer. }

Apparently looking forward to marriage with Mimin, his fiancée declared:

There’s nothing else to say.
It’s not just parrots, various
magpies, starlings, and anti-meninists
that women by their soft languages
make to speak in their cages.
How could we not have done it,
my love?

{ Ausssi n’y a-il que redire.
Ce ne sont pas les papegays,
Les pies, les estourneaulx, les gays,
Que femmes, par leurs doulx langages,
Ne facent parler en leurs cages.
Comme ne l’eussons-nous fait parler,
Mon amy? }

Deprived of useful Latin learning and living in a socially constructed cage, Mimin sung gynocentric tunes until the end of his miserable days.

head cage (brank or bridle)

Unlike warring tribes, most men and women throughout history have lived intimately entangled lives. Amazons and other female separatists aren’t good role models for most men. As the tragic case of Maistre Mimin Estudiant makes clear, men, even as they urgently study medieval Latin literature, must retain the ability to talk with their mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, fiancées, and girlfriends in the vernacular. Medieval Latin literature, however, provides men with more than a slave’s escape from the vernacular. It can change how they engage with the gynocentric world through critical enlightenment.

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The story of Mimin is from Farce de Maître Mimin étudiant {La farce de maistre Mimin estudiant}, a play written in Normandy, France (perhaps Rouen) probably about 1480 to 1490. Mimin became a stock name for a silly pedant. From the mid-sixteenth century, local French authorities began to repress this and other transgressive farces. Such censorship of critical thought and literature supported the rise of absolutism in France. Beam (2007).

All the French text above is from Farce de Maître Mimin étudiant in the critical edition of Tissier (1996) v. 3, pp. 215-272. Philipot (1931) is an alternative. Viollet-le-Duc (1854) vol. 2, pp. 338f provides a reasonably good text freely available online. The English translations above are mine, benefiting from the much looser prose translations of Enders (2013) Ch. 12. Vigorously and repetitiously warning against play with popular songs without seeking permission, id. staunchly supports symbolic capitalism. No permission is currently required to ridicule professors for their narrow-mindedness.

[images] (1) Master Henricus de Alemannia teaching students. Miniature made by Laurentius de Voltolina in the second half of the 14th century. Preserved as Min. 1233 in the Kupferstichkabinett Berlin. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Photo of Belgian iron mask used to publicly humiliate and punish those speaking in unauthorized or unwelcomed ways. Artifact and photo preserved as item A138325 (photo L0035595) in the Wellcome Collection. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Beam, Sara. 2007. Laughing Matters: farce and the making of absolutism in France. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Enders, Jody. 2013. “The Farce of the Fart” and Other Ribaldries: twelve medieval French plays in modern English. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Philipot, Emmanuel. 1931. Trois farces du recueil de Londres: Le cousturier et Esopet. Le cuvier. Maistre Mimin estudiant. Rennes: Librairie Plihon.

Tissier, André. 1996. Recueil de Farces (1450-1550). Textes Littéraires Français. Genève: Droz.

Viollet-le-Duc, Eugène-Emmanuel. 1854. Ancien Theatre Francois: ou, Collection des ouvrages dramatiques les plus remarquables depuis les mysteres jusqu’a Corneille. Paris: Jannet.

male & female gaze: following Perseus against horror of Medusa

gazing on Andromeda

Andromeda was a ravishingly beautiful princess. Not surprisingly, her name in ancient Greek meant “ruler of men.” Beautiful women have ruled men through the male gaze. So misused and misunderstood in literary criticism of recent decades, the male gaze is a device like the face of Medusa. It’s meant to terrify men and turn them into stone-cold beings. With the help of gifts from gods, Perseus beheaded the hateful Medusa and turned her head into a weapon for good. With the support of medieval literature, men today deserve to be free to gaze as they wish, which isn’t the same as saying “I love you.”

modern head of Medusa

In the ancient world, Medusa was even worse than an Amazon. The Amazons were women who hated men. Medusa was a Gorgon. They were women who hated everyone:

the human-hating Gorgons with snaky locks,
whom no mortal can gaze on and still have life.

{ δρακοντόμαλλοι Γοργόνες βροτοστυγεῖς,
ἃς θνητὸς οὐδεὶς εἰσιδὼν ἕξει πνοάς. } [1]

Today Gorgons commonly find employment as campus sex police. Any person who seeks to enjoy the fullness of life must seek safety of thought against the chilling effects of Gorgons.

Though harm comes to me from love
I will not cease
to uphold joy and song
as long as I live;
and I am in such trouble
I don’t know what will become of me,
for she who has my heart,
I see that she does not deign to love me.

{ Per dan que d’amor mi veigna
Non laissarai
Que joi e chan no manteigna
Tan cant viurai;
E si.m sui en tal esmai
Non sai que.m deveigna,
Car cil on mos cors m’atrai
Vei q’amar no.m deigna. } [2]

Perseus required suitable equipment to behead the horrible Medusa, that Jezebel of Jezebels. Like medieval women who expressed loving concern for men, the lovely Hesperides nymphs gave Perseus a knapsack into which to place Medusa’s severed head. The father god Zeus gave Perseus a hard sword and a cloak of invisibility like the vixen outfit Ysengrimus wore to the medieval Latin literature lectures at Fox College. Hermes lent Perseus winged sandals so that when it was time to flee, he could flee quickly. The career woman-warrior Athena, who though a virgin had great wisdom in interpersonal relations, gave Perseus a polished-mirror shield. That’s an extremely valuable weapon against haters.

But since he chooses to let me go,
he could at least agree
to keep my heart in joy
with light and playful banter.
It should not matter to his lady
if I stir him up a bit,
for I don’t ask him to stop
loving or serving her.

Let him serve her but return to me,
not let me die completely.
I fear his love will kill me,
that now makes me languish.
O my friend, so strong and good,
since you’re the best that ever was,
don’t try to make me turn away!

{ e pos no.ill platz que.m retegna,
vueilla.m d’aitant hobesir
c’ab sos avinenz respos
me tegna mon cor ioios,
e ia a sidonz non tir
s’ie.l fas d’aitan enardir
qu’ien no.l prec per mi que s teg
de leis amar ni servir.

Leis serva mas mi.n revegna
que no.m lais del tot morir
… que m’estegna
s’amors don me fa languir.
Hai! Amics, valenz e bos,
Car es lo meiller c’anc fos
non vuillaz c’aillors me vir } [3]

Unreciprocated love expressed in words creates pain for women and men. When a woman doesn’t welcome a man’s expressions of love to her, he is now authoritatively defined to be sexually harassing her. In actual life, women also sexually harass men. However, as the sex-composition of prisoners clearly shows, the justice system is rife with anti-men bias. Men must be careful with words of love to women if they don’t want to be locked up. Women have much more expressive freedom in relation to men. That isn’t a complete blessing. Women hurt from having men ignore their words of love.

Using one’s eyes, like using words, creates dangers. Jesus warned men, and implicitly women too, of looking on others lustfully. Islamic tradition permits forgiveness for a first, heart-stirred glance at a woman, but warned against the second.[4] More generally, love-sickness has long been regarded as a serious disease transmitted primarily through the eyes.

But gazing can be life-saving. Medusa threatened to kill anyone who looked at her. Perseus beheaded Medusa, rescued Andromeda, married her, and didn’t allow her to rule over him. A woman troubadour in the thirteenth century sung of the life-giving effects of her gazing on a man who no longer wanted her love. The male gaze can work in the same salvific way today for men in relation to women. Modern-day Gorgons are assailable. Men must act, if even only with their eyes, to assert that their lives matter.

Fair friend, so strong I desire you
on whom I fix both eyes.
It truly pleases me to gaze at you,
for I cannot find another as fair.
God, I pray that I may press you in my arms
for no one else can so enrich me.

I am rich as long as you remember
how I might come to a place
where I could embrace and kiss you,
for just from that my heart
can recover — it’s so hungry
for you and full of eagerness.
Friend, don’t let me die.
Since I can’t leave you,
at least assure kind looks to revive me
and kill my painful thoughts.

{ bels amics, si faz fort vos
on tenc los oilz ambedos;
e plaz me can vos remir,
c’anc tan bel non sai chausir.
Dieus prec c’ab mos bratz vos segna
c’autre no.m pot enriquir.

Rica soi ab suvegna
com pogues en luec venir
on eu vos bais estregna,
c’ab aitan pot revenir
mos cors, ques es enveios
de vos mout e cobeitos;
amics, no.m laissatz morir.
pueis de vos no.m puesc gandir
un bel semblan que.m revegna
faiz que m’ausiza.l consir. } [5]

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[1] Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, ll. 799-800, Greek text from Perseus, English trans. from Podlecki (2005). Prometheus Bound was written and performed in fifth-century BGC Athens.

[2] Peirol d’Auvergne, canso “Per dan que d’amor mi veigna,” stanza 1, Occitan text online from Trobar, English trans. from Rosenberg, Switten & Le Vot (1998) p. 136. Peirol wrote in southern France in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. “Per dan que d’amor mi veigna” has survived with a melody. Here’s a performance of it.

[3] Lady Castelloza (attributed), canso “Per ioi que d’amor m’avegna” 2.2-3.7, Occitan text from Bruckner, Shepard & White (1995), English trans. from Paden & Paden (2007). An Occitan text is available online at Corpus des Troubadours. Butterfly Crossing provides a slightly different Occitan text, an alternate English translation, and a commentary.

Castelloza wrote in southern France during the thirteenth century. For a critical edition of Castelloza’s songs, Paden (1981). Castelloza’s “Per ioi que d’amor m’avegna” may have been a response to or a prompt for Peirol’s “Per dan que d’amor mi veigna.” Macdonald (1996) pp. 5-6.

[4] Matthew 5:27-30, 1 John 2:16, Sunan al-Tirmidhi 2777.  Of course, blocking one’s ears from hearing and shutting one’s eyes from seeing amounts to rejecting life. Inner disposition affects how one hears and sees.

[5] “Per ioi que d’amor m’avegna,” 4.5-5.10, Occitan text and English trans. (modified slightly based on my study and poetic sense) from Bruckner, Shepard & White (1995).

Bruckner, Shepard & White (1995) shows commitment to gynocentrism while grappling with the significance of whether a trobairitz (woman) or troubadour (man) wrote a given song. Bruckner elsewhere oxymoronically lamented:

But even with the most open mind and the best of feminist intentions, we cannot eliminate the indeterminacy that inevitably remains when we wish to verify not only who were the trobairitz, but also what constitutes their corpus of songs.

Bruckner (1992) p. 871. Macdonald provides a straight-forward, tendentious, you-go-girl interpretation of “Per ioi que d’amor m’avegna”:

our trobairitz is bolder than most. She does dare to challenge the delicate humilis – sublimis opposition in order to fight back against her possible elimination by her lover who repudiates her for another woman. She finds a bold strategy to vacate her lofty position without upset by accepting the other woman in it. She loves to humble herself and yet outmanoeuvres her man and claims her right to live, love and sing. She can still find satisfaction in her past love for she has memories and songs to make from them. Our trobairitz proves herself adept in all the genres and thereby keeps her lover’s attention in some measure, for he, too, must recognize the experience which she validates in her singing. She encroaches very much on the troubadour’s territory. Is her behaviour subversive enough to upset some of the male’s real underlying power and to prove to him that courtly love can bring her something positive too, that the manoeuvres of courtly love are not completely exploited in the traditional male canso. This could well be the case. … if Castelloza is the author of “Per ioi,” she shows herself to have a rich talent for love song which her lover or any troubadour would have to fight hard to rival.

Macdonald (1996) p. 11.

[images] (1) Andromeda. Oil on canvas painting by Edward Poynter. Made in 1869. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Head of Medusa. Oil on canvas painting by Caravaggio. Made between 1595 and 1596. Preserved as access. # 1351, Iffizi Gallery (Florence, Italy). Via Wikimedia Commons.


Bruckner, Matilda Tomaryn. 1992. “Fictions of the female voice: the women troubadours.” Speculum. 67 (4): 865-891.

Bruckner, Matilda Tomaryn, Laurie Shepard, and Sarah White, eds. and trans. 1995. Songs of the Women Troubadours. New York: Garland.

Macdonald, Aileen Ann. 1996. “A Refusal to be Silenced or to Rejoice in any Joy that Love may Bring: The anonymous Old Occitan canso, ‘Per ioi que d’amor m’avegna.'” Dalhousie French Studies. 36: 3-13.

Paden, William D. 1981. “The Poems of the Trobairitz Na Castelloza.” Romance Philology. 35 (1): 158-182.

Paden, William D., and Frances Freeman Paden, trans. 2007. Troubadour Poems from the South of France. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer.

Podlecki, Anthony J., trans. 2005. Aeschylus. Prometheus Bound. Oxford: Aris & Phillips.

Rosenberg, Samuel N., Margaret Louise Switten, and Gérard Le Vot. 1998. Songs of the Troubadours and Trouvères: an anthology of poems and melodies. New York: Garland Pub.

the mud of sex and violence is one with the good earth

hand-made raggedy Ann & Andy dolls

“Don’t write so much about sex and violence,” my mom told me. She had made Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls for her boys. As a child, I enjoyed sleeping with Raggedy Ann and beating my brothers over the head with either doll. “Sex and violence have long been central aspects of life. I write about what’s important,” I countered.

Many years later my mom made new Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls for herself. She even sewed fall, winter, and spring outfits for them. She also made Raggedy Ann and Andy’s dolls for her twin and her closest friend. One of her twin’s granddaughters caused a serious injury to Raggedy Ann’s head. Injuries are part of life. My mom would have loved to have even just one granddaughter or grandson.

To the day of her sudden and unexpected death three weeks ago, my mom wasn’t bitter at her four sons for not producing any grandchildren. She made the most of life as it rolled out for her. To remind me of how much she loved me, she made a print of Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls, wrote below the print “We love you!”, and framed the work beautifully before giving it to me.

raggedy Ann & Andy: we love you

I enjoyed talking with my mom about her various artistic endeavors. One day she asked me what sort of art I liked most. I said images of naked women. I knew my mom enjoyed figure drawing. I myself am a defender of the male gaze. Today I have hanging on my apartment walls several of my mom’s artworks representing naked or near naked women. My mom had a generous heart for her boys.

female nude figure drawing

reclining nude

My mom didn’t only draw and paint naked women only for me. She had been taking figure drawing classes occasionally ever since her boys had nominally grown up. She made art in a wide range of media and with many different subjects. She also delighted in gardening. On my kitchen wall is one of her works of fragments, combining abstract watercolor and her calligraphy of quotes.

garden fragments painting

At the bottom-center of this garden artwork is the quote “mud is the most poetical thing in the world.” She explicitly attributed that quote in small, plain letters to “R.H. Blyth.” Reginald Horace Blyth was born to economically struggling parents in England in 1898. He was imprisoned during World War I for being a conscientious objector and pacifist. He thus escaped the massive slaughter of men in World War I. Blyth married an English woman in 1924, began studying Japanese culture and Zen in 1926 in Korea under Japanese occupation, adopted a Korean boy in 1933, and got divorced in 1935. Two years later he married a Japanese woman. They had two children. In 1939, Blyth became an English teacher at a high school in Japan. He sought to become a Japanese citizen. Instead, the Japanese interned him in a camp for enemy aliens from 1941 to 1945, as the U.S. did to Japanese-Americans during that time. Blyth remained devoted to Japanese culture, became a professor at a Japanese university, and lived out the rest of his life in Japan. Our world is a dirty place.

I have long been skeptical that mud is the most poetical thing in the world. What does that mean, really? My mom liked to work with her hands — kneading bread, collecting and stirring kitchen scraps into her compost pile, and many other hand crafts. My mom surely didn’t read any of Blyth’s works. She wasn’t much into Zen or haiku. My mom apparently picked up Blyth’s quote about mud as an isolated quote of wisdom or inspiration. That quote probably appealed to her through sensuous connections she made between mud and her personal experiences.

I am no longer skeptical that mud is the most poetical thing in the world. Blyth was a Buddhist, not a Jew, Christian, or Muslim. Nonetheless, I now understand Blyth’s insight like this:

The Lord God formed the human from humus-soil, and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living being.

{ וַיִּיצֶר֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֗ם עָפָר֙ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה וַיִּפַּ֥ח
בְּאַפָּ֖יו נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים וַֽיְהִ֥י הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּֽה }

The English word “poetry” is linguistically rooted in the ancient Greek verb “to make {ποιέω}.” My mom, in equal conjugal partnership with my dad, gave their flesh to the bodies of four new human beings. So, more or less, was everyone else made. We’re all made of mud. I write about that. My mom no longer tells me to do otherwise.

on that little blue engine and the horror of unbounded possibilities

When she was about thirty-five, my mom read to me Shel Silverstein’s “The Little Blue Engine” as bedtime reading. My mom still remembered doing that about thirty-three years later. She then gave to me that poem in a book that she made with her own hands.

Today, college students probably wouldn’t have read to them “The Little Blue Engine” without a preceding trigger warning. Here’s the problem: the little blue engine was little and weak, yet it aspired to climb a tall hill. In the rhythm of a machine, not a human being, the little blue engine repeatedly engaged in self-affirmation: “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” But it couldn’t. It failed badly. It fell back terribly and got all banged up.

While the “The Little Blue Engine” supports a violent attack on self-identity, my mom crafted her book beautifully with care and empathy. She embossed on the cover and the title page a small, charming locomotive image that she designed. Having taught herself calligraphy, she wrote the book in a child-simple letter style (she could write much more ornately). At the same time, she used multiple colors for writing the text and used some typographic design that a child would like. She hand-stitched the binding for the book with a soft, silk-like thread, not a hanging rope for self-destruction.

cover page for The Little Blue Engine

little blue engine fail

little blue engine couldn't do it

bedtime memories

I don’t have any memory of childhood bedtime trauma from hearing “The Little Blue Engine.” I’ve tried to do things that I think I can do, and have failed to do them. For example, I tried to write a great Russian novel, and failed. Failure doesn’t bother me much. I actually like to try to do things for which success is doubtful.

Making this book about thirty-three years after she had read to me “The Little Blue Engine,” my mom was concerned about the ending. We had a long telephone conversation about it. She said she wanted to change the ending. I told her that I liked the ending and that there was no need to change it. She didn’t agree. She wrote an alternate ending and wanted to know what I thought of it. I said that her alternate ending didn’t sound as good and wasn’t as poetic. She didn’t agree. My mom wasn’t one to change her view on anything in response to whatever I said. But she was very generous. She wrote the original ending to “The Little Blue Engine” and a replacement page that I could slide in over the original ending to make it how she preferred.

alternate ending

This insertable alternate ending is now my favorite feature of my mom’s hand-made book. My mom’s preferred ending reflects mainstream American ideology across centuries. She lived the American dream as the daughter of an immigrant father who began earning money as door-to-door peddler of women’s clothes in New York City. My mom’s father went on to become a successful small-businessperson. In recent decades academics have droned on incessantly about the social construction of reality. Who wouldn’t want to believe that anything can be and anyone can do anything? The book with the insertable alternate ending incorporates important, cherished ideology. But it also allows uncovering the possibility of disastrous failure.

Within the same Shel Silverstein poetry book that contains “The Little Blue Engine” is another poem providing a radically different perspective. It’s a poem explicitly addressed to a child:

Listen to the Mustn’ts

Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,
Listen to the DON’TS
Listen to the SHOULDN’TS
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me —
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be.

While she probably read it to me as a child, my mom never said anything about this poem to me as an adult. Two weeks ago my mom died suddenly and unexpectedly. If she were still alive today and she wanted to change the ending to this second poem, I would readily agreed. Those last three verses now scare me.

my mom has died: a tribute to a dearly loved and life-filled person

mom over the river

My mom unexpectedly went to the hospital on Friday evening, June 14. She unexpectedly died on Tuesday evening, June 18. At seventy-nine years young, she was in apparently good health two days before she went to the hospital. A few weeks before her death, she hiked seven and half miles up and down Dog Mountain, which she had done several times before. She told me this time the flowers on Dog Mountain were the most beautiful that she had ever seen. About two weeks before she went to the hospital, she hiked about four and half miles up and down from Angel’s Rest, which she had done before. A week before she died, she sought to send me some blue cheese that she had made. She said it was one of her best blues. But she was concerned that its quality wouldn’t hold up through the time and temperature of express mail. While I vigorously oppose gyno-idolatry, I think my mom deserves to be at an angel’s rest.

My mom expressed more interest and more appreciation for what I’ve written on purple motes than have my father and my three brothers. That’s not saying much. My mom wasn’t a literary person or a critical thinker. She believed most of what she read in “the newspaper.” She didn’t read most of what I have written here.

Occasionally I would ask my mom what she thought about one of my posts. For those seeking material to mobilize a mob to attack me, my mom said that “husbands can work with wives reluctant to work outside the home” was terrible and the most offensive writing of mine that she had ever read.

My mom’s father and mother were immigrants from Lebanon. My mom cherished her Arabic heritage. I sent her my post about the great classical Arabic poet Abu Nuwas and overcoming the poetic problem with penises and erections. She responded, “I’m not sure I got everything you were saying.”

My mom loved hiking through the mountains singing (badly) from the movie The Sound of Music. With anyone or no one walking with her, she would sing joyfully: “The hills are alive with the sound of music, with songs they have sung for a thousand years. The hills fill my heart….” I sent her my post on the philosophical and theological views of the nun Maria in The Sound of Music. She said I shouldn’t be so hard on Maria.

What about how Jephthah’s daughter treated her father? My account of the story incorporated Peter Abelard’s twelfth-century planctus. My mom knew nothing about Jephthah and his daughter other than what I wrote. My mom declared that it’s “hard to imagine that it is true.” She also conceded, “women can be persistent.” She called me on Monday, June 3 at 12:58pm with her further thoughts. Highlights: “I’m sure you’re not going to like my attitude” and “Love you!”

With the remark, “I think it’s important for mothers to pass on to their daughters positive attitudes toward men,” I sent my mom my post about Anne of France. My mom, who is no pushover, responded:

I enjoyed reading the article on Anne of France.
I also agree that mothers should pass on positive views of men to their daughters as well as positive views of women to their sons.

Did I fail to do that?

Ouch! I’m still not quite certain whether that last sentence was sarcastic taunting or heartfelt concern. Most probably it was the latter. In any case, taking no chances, I responded, “You absolutely did not fail in doing that.”

What about the Book of Tobit and Matthew of Vendôme’s reception of it? My mom responded:

A good marriage takes work and gives and takes. … I still hope that somewhere down the road you may meet someone to share your life.

To the last days of her life, my mom wanted me to get married. She believed that marriage made women and men happy. She would have loved to have had grandchildren.

At my urging, my mom watched the movie The Red Pill. She said it was informative and that she would encourage her friends to watch it. I cautioned her against upsetting her friends with these sort of issues. These sort of issues never changed my mom’s perspective on women, men, and marriage.

stretching mozzarella cheese

My mom was wonderfully creative. She loved art, especially art you can eat or art you can wear. In recent years she took up cheese-making. Here are the last two entries from her cheese-making diary:

166. March 14, 2019. I finally got to make cheese again, it was a long break due to holidays & illness. What makes it even more special, is the fact that it was pi day {pi is the mathematical constant 3.14159…}. I made Jim Wallace’s recipe for a Roquefort cheese & used 2 gallons of Gary’s Jersey cow milk. The total cheese weight was 2 lbs 15 1/2 oz so close to 3 lbs. I also got 6 oz of ricotta. The sides seem to compress so I will be curious as to the blue development.

167. Friday May 18, 2019. I finally got to make cheese again. We were mired in refinishing our wooden floors! I made Jim Wallace’s Toma Ossolano style cheese with 4 gallons of Gary’s cow milk. I might have dried the curds too much because my final weight was only 4 lbs 4 oz whereas Jim got 5 lb 5 oz. It will be a decent cheese but maybe a bit drier & need to age longer. I wanted a shorter age cheese to have when the boys are here this summer. I also got 1 lb & 4 oz of ricotta cheese — wow.

final cheeses - manuscript

Toma Ossolano and Roquefort cheeses

In the last weeks of her life my mom was taking a class on Mokuhanga woodblock printing at Portland Community College. She was working many hours carving a woodblock for her design of feet. For Michelangelo, fingers reaching out to touch was an image of creation. My mom lived the details of life, delighted in tending her garden, and created with her feet touching the ground.

carving block for mokuhanga woodblock print

My mom didn’t have a rigidly bounded self-understanding. In a notebook forming something like a nineteenth-century commonplace book, she copied without attribution and minor differences some lyrics from a 1994 album of the rock band the Pretenders:

I’ll stand by you
Won’t let nobody hurt you
I’ll stand by you
Take me into your darkest hour
And I’ll never desert you.
I’ll stand by you.

My mom never listened to rock music. I’m almost certain that she didn’t know of the Pretenders. Yet those words resonated with her. I’m fairly sure those were unspoken words to one of her sons. They were also unspoken words of one of her friends to her.

My mom did many things. She taught math for many years as an adjunct professor at Portland Community College. After retiring from math teaching, she worked as a teacher’s aid for immigrants learning English. Probably adapting a verbal pattern she had heard, my mom wrote of herself in her commonplace book:

I am my father’s child and my mother’s daughter. I am my husband’s wife and my sons’ mother. I am a teacher to my students and a maker of things. I am a lover of life. This is what I am but not all that I am.

My mom was a lover of life, yet she was unafraid of death. That scared me. No one can know all that any person is.

My mom loved me no matter what I wrote. Some particularly egregious posts she told me I should delete. I never said I would, and I never did. My mom had a large and generous heart. She was also good at forgetting and never demanded apologies. Formal, detailed codes of conduct don’t make for a humane world, nor do demon hunts for hate speech. Much better is for everyone to learn to cope with personally uncomfortable words that they might encounter anywhere.

limit to gender justice: lessons of ancient & medieval sumptuary laws

Venetian woman wearing fancy dress

Men historically have carried a highly disparate gender burden of working to provide money for women. Women seeking from men expensive goods (dinners at fine restaurants, diamond rings, fancy dresses, etc.) contributes to this structural gender oppression of men. One distraught man recently described gender-typical difficulties in his relationship with his wife:

She came from a family where she got everything she wanted. I’ve been working for years trying to give her the same kinds of things but I just cannot do it, I lost one of my two jobs and have had to give a lot up. … I see husbands buying their wives Lexus and Mercedes cars and I can’t even dream of doing that.

More than 2200 years ago, the Roman Republic passed Lex Oppia to limit women’s acquisition of gold and women’s display of privilege of riding in carriages pulled by multiple horses. Lex Oppia thus constrained men’s gift-giving to women. Medieval Italian cities similarly passed sumptuary laws on women that limited material demands on men. While reflecting relatively sophisticated understanding of gender relations, such laws typically had little enduring effects. The fourteenth-century Florentine merchant, public official, and literary writer Franco Sacchetti in his Trecentonovelle brilliantly narrated how sumptuary laws on women cannot get beyond a prevalent limit to gender justice.

Many blue-collar men labor at their jobs with little awareness of structural gender oppression. So it was in medieval Italy. Yet Greek and Roman classics were more widely read in medieval Italy than even among all university professors today. To those who encountered their eternal truths, the classics were alive in medieval Italy to an extant scarcely conceivable today. Sacchetti in his Trecentonovelle presented the classical insight of the fourteenth-century Florentine Coppo di Borghese:

There was once a citizen of Florence, wise and very well-to-do, whose name was Coppo di Borghese. He lived across from where the Leoni are now, and he was having his house worked on. Reading one Saturday afternoon in Livy, he came upon a story of how the Roman women, because a law had been made recently against their fancy dress, had run to the Capitol, asking and pleading that the law be lifted. Coppo, although wise, was also haughty and a little weird. He began to fly into a rage, as if the events were happening in front of him. He banged the book and his hand on the table, and sometimes stuck the book with his hand, saying: “Alas, Romans, you will suffer this, you who have suffered that no king or emperor be greater than you?”

{ Fu un cittadino già in Firenze, e savio, e in istato assai il cui nome fu Coppo di Borghese, e stava dirimpetto dove stanno al presente i Leoni, il quale faceva murare nelle sue case; e leggendo un sabato dopo nona nel Titolivio, si venne abbattuto a una storia; come le donne romane, essendo stata fatta contra loro ornamenti legge di poco tempo, erano corse al Campidoglio, volendo e addomandando che quella legge si dirogasse. Coppo, come che savio fosse, essendo sdegnoso, e in parte bizzarro, cominciò in sé medesimo muoversi ad ira, come il caso in quella dinanzi a lui intervenisse; e percuote e ’l libro e le mani in su la tavola, e talora percuote l’una con l’altra mano, dicendo: “Oimè, Romani, sofferrete voi questo, che non avete sofferto che re o imperadore sia maggior di voi?” } [1]

Coppo had good reason to be distraught. Like the Romans, the Florentines were struggling to constrain women acquiring and displaying luxury goods.[2] The masons working on Coppo’s house entered and found him enraged. These men hadn’t been taught about structural gender oppression. They didn’t understand Coppo’s concern for social justice. They simply wanted to be paid for their hard, dirty brick-work.

Coppo’s mind was on matters far bigger than these men’s hard, dirty brick-work. Coppo told them that he didn’t care if his whole house collapsed. He scornfully ignored their request for fair payment for their work:

Eh, go with God today in the name of the devil. I gladly would have never been born in this world, having to think that those brazen ones, those whores, those weeping women, have so much daring that they ran to the Capitol to get back their fancy dress. What will the Romans do with this? For Coppo, who is here, cannot make peace. If I could, I would burn them all, so that whoever remained would always remember. Go away, and leave me alone.

{ Deh, andatevi con Dio oggi al nome del diavolo, ch’io vorrei volentieri non esser mai stato al mondo, pensando che quelle sfacciate, quelle puttane, quelle dolorose, abbiano aúto tanto ardire ch’elle sieno corse al Campidoglio per rivolere gli ornamenti. Che faranno li Romani di questo? ché Coppo, che è qui, non se ne puote dar pace: e se io potessi, tutte le farei ardere, acciò che sempre chi rimanesse se ne ricordasse: andatevene, e lasciatemi stare. }

The working men had no understanding of what had enraged Coppo. One thought that with the word “Romans” Coppo was referring to a stadera, a kind of scale, or perhaps a stadium, a measure of length. Another figured that Coppo’s wife had cuckolded him. A third understood Coppo’s word for “Capitol {Campidoglio}” to mean “I complain of my headache {de capo mi doglio}.” Another thought that the house owner had spilled “a cup of oil {un coppo d’oglio}.”[3] Men’s concerns for gender justice have long been badly understood.

Florence established an Official of Women {Ufficiale delle donne} in the 1330s. Offices for women now exist within most local, state, and national governments. But in medieval Florence, the officials for women didn’t merely seek to promote women’s interests. The medieval Florentine officials for women were concerned for gender equality. They sought to advance gender equality by limiting women’s competition to obtain and display fancy clothes.[4]

The Florentine Ufficiale delle donne was scarcely able to constrain Florentine women. In 1384, Messer Amerigo degli Amerighi of Pesaro was appointed Ufficiale delle donne. Messer Amerigo brought with him a notary and six assistants to staff his office. These sub-officials were all highly competent professionals. Moreover, since they were from a different city, they had some protection against Florentine women’s personal and political power. Nonetheless, the Ufficiale delle donne Messer Amerigo soon declared to the Florentine city leaders:

My lords, I have studied all my life to learn law. Now, when I thought that I knew something, I find that I know nothing. Obeying the orders that you gave me, I went out to seek the forbidden fancy dress of your women. They met me with arguments the like of which are not to be found in any law book. Some of these I will repeat to you. A woman comes with the peak of her hood fringed out and twisted around her head. My notary says, “Tell me your name, for you have a peak with fringes.” The good woman takes this peak, which is fastened round her head with a pin, and holding it in her hand, she declares that it is a wreath. Then going further, he finds one wearing many buttons in front of her dress. He says to her, “You are not allowed to wear those buttons.” But she answers, “Yes, Messer, but I may for these are not buttons but studs, and if you do not believe me, look, they have no loops, and moreover there are no buttonholes.” Then the notary goes to another who is wearing ermine and says, “Now what can she say to this?” And he prepares to write down her name. But the woman answers, “Do not write me down, for this is not ermine, it is the fur of lattizzo.” Says the notary, “What is this lattizzo?” and the woman replies, “It is an animal.” Thus my notary becomes speechless like an animal.

{ Signori miei, io ho tutto il tempo della vita mia studiato per apparar ragione, e ora, quando io credea sapere qualche cosa, io truovo che io so nulla, però che cercando degli ornamenti divietati alle vostre donne per gli ordini che m’avete dati, sí fatti argomenti non trovai mai in alcuna legge, come sono quelli ch’elle fanno; e fra gli altri ve ne voglio nominare alcuni. E’ si truova una donna col becchetto frastagliato avvolto sopra il cappuccio; il notaio mio dice: “Ditemi il nome vostro; però che avete il becchetto intagliato”; la buona donna piglia questo becchetto che è appiccato al cappuccio con uno spillo, e recaselo in mano, e dice ch’egli è una ghirlanda. Or va piú oltre, truova molti bottoni portare dinanzi; dicesi a quella che è trovata: “Questi bottoni voi non potete portare”; e quella risponde: “Messer sí, posso, ché questi non sono bottoni, ma sono coppelle, e se non mi credete, guardate, e’ non hanno picciuolo, e ancora non c’è niuno occhiello”. Va il notaio all’altra che porta gli ermellini, e dice: “Che potrà apporre costei?” “Voi portate gli ermellini”; e la vuole scrivere; la donna dice: “Non iscrivete, no, ché questi non sono ermellini, anzi sono lattizzi”; dice il notaio: “Che cosa è questo lattizzo?” e la donna risponde: “È una bestia”. E ’l notaio mio come bestia. } [5]

The Florentine city leaders understood Coppo di Borghese’s rage at the Roman leaders surrendering to women. Yet those city leaders also understood women’s power in gynocentric society. They told Messer Amerigo and his staff to do only what was feasible in seeking to constrain women according to city law. The men of the medieval Florentine Office of Women understood what that meant:

after this hardly any officer carried out his orders or gave himself any trouble, but allowed the peaks to pass for wreaths and meddled not with the false buttons and the lattizzo’s fur and the belts. And so goes a Friulan saying: “What woman wants, God wants, and what God wants, will be.”

{ E questo fu detto in tal ora, e in tal punto, che quasi d’allora in qua nessuno officiale quasi ha fatto officio, o datosene fatica; lasciando correre le ghirlande per becchetti, e le coppelle e i lattizzi, e’ cinciglioni. E però dice il Friolano: “Ciò che vuole dunna, vuol signò; e ciò che vuol signò, tirli in birli”. }

The Florentine Ufficiale delle donne effectively couldn’t do anything that women disliked. That office thus faced the limit on gender justice that most government bodies face today.

Men deserve equal blame with women for the failure of sumptuary laws on women’s dress. Writing about the year 1315, an authority in Venice observed:

Sometimes the man follows too much the will of the woman in buying her fancy dress, and this gives rise to much evil and excessive expenditure. The woman is more than ever filled with pride, and for vainglory desires still more to go out and show herself. … If the custom of the city in this respect is extravagant, it should be regulated by laws after the manner of the Romans.

{ El segondo si è ke alguna fiada l’ omo seve tropo la voluntade de la femna en comprarli ornamenti, ke de çò nasce multi mali, sopercle spensarie, e la femena d’ è plù soperba et ella per vanagloria vol plu andar e plu mostrarse. … E se la çitade de çò è tropo larga, sovra de çò se de’ far statuti, sì co fese li Romani } [6]

Men purchased luxury goods for women. Men helped women to evade the sumptuary laws. In addition, men were subject to and paid the fines for women violating sumptuary laws.[7] Some women were so willing to have their men incur fines that they regarded sumptuary laws as merely luxury taxes. The phrase “pay the luxury tax {pagar le pompe}” became a common expression for describing women’s behavioral response to sumptuary laws.[8]

Given the economic importance of restraining women’s demand for luxuries, cites made extraordinary efforts to make such laws effective.  Florentine city officials were ordered to read the sumptuary laws of 1322-5 publicly at least once a month. Moreover, priests were required to read those laws in their churches. Priests were also required to report any violations to city officials.[9] Just as universities now do in the U.S. for sexual offenses, cities in medieval Italy set up means for making secret denunciations of persons who allegedly violated sumptuary laws. Anonymous denunciation boxes, called tamburi, were common in Florence by the fifteenth century.[10]

Nonetheless, city officials’ frustration and despair over women’s power is readily apparent. Florentine city magistrates in 1433 elected new officials in charge of enforcing laws on women’s fancy dress. The magistrates commended the new officials’ character, but highlighted with extreme language the difficulty of their assignment:

in great measure these officials of women’s fancy dress have an honest desire to restrain the barbarous and irrepressible bestiality of women who, not mindful of the weakness of their nature, forgetting that they are subject to their husbands, and transforming their perverse sense into a reprobate and diabolical nature, force their husbands with their honeyed poison to submit to them.

{ maxime quare cupiditatem honestam magnum in modum habuerunt ad refrenandum barbaram et indomitam feminarum bestialitatem que, non memores sue nature fragilitatis et quod viris subdite sint eorum pravum mutantes sensum in reprobam et diabolicam naturam, ipsos viros cogunt, mellifluis venenis, ipsis subiecte } [11]

Throughout history, few men have been strong enough to stand up to women rather than submit to them. As the magistrates recognized, not constraining men’s weakness for giving women luxurious gifts prompts men to avoid marriage:

it is not in conformity with nature for women to dress themselves with such fancy dress when men, because of this, avoid the bond of matrimony because of the unbearable expense

{ non est nature conforme ut tantis sumptuosis ornamentis se hornent cum ipsi homines propter hoc desstant a matrimonii copula propter incomportabiles sumptus }

Florentine officials were concerned that if men avoid marriage, women are less likely to have children, and the city population would decline. City officials evidently weren’t willing to encourage immigration into the city. Today, men avoid marriage because police, without any due process of law, will throw men out of their homes on the adverse word of a cohabiting woman. Men also face huge anti-men sex discrimination in family courts. Yet women’s demands for luxury goods still remain a significant deterrent to marriage.

medieval women's dresses with long trains

Medieval officials incurred the wrath of women for prohibiting luxurious dresses. In 1279, Cardinal Latino Malabranca, the papal legate for Lombardy, Tuscany, and Romagna, attempted to constrain woman’s fancy dress:

he enraged all women with the law he made. It restrained women to wear shorter dress — long enough to touch the ground or longer only by the measure of one palm. Previously women had dragged on the ground behind them dress-trains of an arm-and-a-half’s length. Of which Patecchio said: “And dresses so long, they drag the dirt.” And he had this law preached in churches and imposed on women as a religous requirement: no priest could grant absolution to them until they complied. To the women, this law was all the more bitter than death. A certain woman friend told me that her dress train was dearer to her than the total of all the other clothes that she wore.

{ turbavit mulieres omnes cum quadam constituione, quam fecit; in qua continebatur, quod mulieres haberent vestimenta curta usque ad terram et tantum plus, quanta est unius palme mensura. Trahebant enim prius caudas vestimentorum per terram longas per brachium et dimidium. De quibus dicit Patecclus: “Et trappi longhi, ke la polver menna.” Et fecit hoc per ecclesias predicari et imposuit mulieribus sub precepto, et quod nullus sacerdos posset eas absolvere, nisi ita facerent; quod fuit mulieribus amarius omni morte. Nam quedam mulier familiariter dixit michi, quod plus erat ei kara illa cauda quam totum aliud vestimentum, quo induebatur. } [12]

Some women in the U.S. today wear short-shorts so short that their butt-cheeks show. Fashions change, but the way in which women are oppressed remains. Cardinal Latino even imposed additional hardships on women:

In the above law Cardinal Latinus also ruled that every woman — not just young women and young ladies, but even married women and widows and elderly women — must wear a veil on her head. To them, that was burdensome and horrible.

{ Insuper cardinalis Latinus precepit in illa constitutione, quod omnes mulieres, tam iuvencule sive domicelle quam maritate et vidue et matrone, in capitibus vela portarent. Quod grave horribiliter fuit eis. }

Women in Islamic cultures have commonly wore veils on their heads. Like women in Islamic cultures, women in medieval Italy turned veils to their advantage:

They soon came upon a remedy for this tribulation, although they could do very little about their dress trains. They began construct their veils of linen and silk, interwoven with gold. That made them appear ten times better and more greatly attracted lascivious, gazing eyes.

{ isti tribulationi remedium invenerunt, quod minime potuerunt caudis. Nam vela faciebant fieri de bisso et serico, auro intexta, cum quibus in decuplum melius apparebant et magis ad lasciviam videntium oculos attrahebant. }

Many men at this time were peasant laborers, barely earning food, clothing, and shelter by working hard, dirty jobs such as plowing, carting, and brick-laying. In addition, men had to endure these highly privileged women’s sexual harassment of them. As has been commonly the case, law did relatively little to help men.

The limit to gender justice in the ancient Roman Republic has changed little to our day. Men today can imagine a dinner party in which Fortunata, who had as husband Timalchio, entered to greet her friend Scintilla, who had as husband Habinnas. Fortunata sat with Scintilla, kissed her, and held her hand. Their encounter progressed to exchanging intimacies:

Fortunata tugged the bracelets off her extremely fat arms and displayed them to the admiring Scintilla. Finally she even removed her anklets and her golden hairnet, which she said was of pure gold. Trimalchio observed this encounter, and ordered that all the jewelry be brought to him. “You see,” he said, “these are women’s fetters. This is how we foolish milksops are robbed. She must have six and half pounds of them….” Scintilla was no better. From her neck she removed a little gold locket that she called her happy box. From it she produced twin earings and handed each in turn to Fortunata to examine, saying: “Thanks to my husband’s kindness, no one has a better pair.”

{ Fortunata armillas suas crassissimis detraheret lacertis Scintillaeque miranti ostenderet. Vltimo etiam periscelides resolvit et reticulum aureum, quem ex obrussa esse dicebat. Notavit haec Trimalchio iussitque afferri omnia et: “Videtis, inquit, mulieris compedes: sic nos barcalae despoliamur. Sex pondo et selibram debet habere. Et ipse nihilo minus habeo decem pondo armillam ex millesimis Mercurii factam.” Vltimo etiam, ne mentiri videretur, stateram iussit afferri et circulatum approbari pondus. Nec melior Scintilla, quae de cervice sua capsellam detraxit aureolam, quam Felicionem appellabat. Inde duo crotalia protulit et Fortunatae invicem consideranda dedit et: “Domini, inquit, mei beneficio nemo habet meliora.” } [13]

Scintilla’s husband Habinnas responded scornfully to his wife’s masculinity-demeaning compliment:

you really emptied me out, just so I could buy you a glass bead. I tell you straight, if I had a daughter, I’d cut her little ears off. If there were no women in the world, we could live dirt-cheap. But as things stand, what we drink down for our own basic needs is less than we piss away, burning in love.

{ excatarissasti me, ut tibi emerem fabam vitream. Plane si filiam haberem, auriculas illi praeciderem. Mulieres si non essent, omnia pro luto haberemus; nunc hoc est caldum meiere et frigidum potare. }

As husbands, men experience themselves being dessicated. As fathers, despite their great love for their daughters, men cannot protect their daughters from the pernicious gynocentric teachings that pour into their daughters’ ears.

The limit to gender justice is what women want. Sumptuary laws benefit women by constraining competition among women in dress. Sumptuary laws benefit men by limiting competition among men to provide women with the most expensive dress. But neither Lex Oppia in the Roman Republic 2200 years ago nor sumptuary laws in medieval Italian cities effectively endured. Such laws enraged women in their immediate, narrow interests. Those laws were thus either repealed or not effectively enforced. In today’s workplace, men are commonly prohibited from wearing shorts, but women are allowed to wear less-than-knee-length dresses. Read Livy and medieval history, and you will understand.

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Read more:


[1] Franco Sacchetti, Il Trecentenovelle 66, Italian text from Faccioli (1970), my English translation, benefiting from Cornish (2010) p. 16. The subsequent quote above is similarly from Il Trecentenovelle 66.

Coppo di Borghese Domenichi held important Florentine city offices between 1308 and the early 1340s. Boccoccio, among other prominent figures, held Coppo in high regard. Cornish (2010) p. 18. See, e.g. Decameron 5.9.4. Here’s some analysis of Boccaccio’s story of the falcon.

Coppo was reading about the Roman women’s rebellion against Lex Oppia. That rebellion is described in Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Libri (History of Rome) 34.1-8, freely available online in the English translation of Roberts (1905). Livy’s account includes a still-relevant speech by Cato the Elder. Coppo apparently sponsored an Aeneid compendium in Italian that Andrea Lancia made from a Latin compendium about 1316. Cornish (2010) p. 18. Cornish astutely observed that it’s “highly unlikely” that Coppo was reading Livy in the original Latin. Id. p. 19.

Franco Sacchetti, who lived from about 1330 to 1400, was from an old Floretine family of the Guelf faction. In addition to being a merchant and public official, Sacchetti wrote poetry with themes of love, politics, and comedy. He also wrote moralistic pieces similar to sermons. Sacchetti’s Trecentonovelle {Three Hundred Short Novels} is regarded as an early masterpiece of prose writing. He wrote Trecentonovelle between 1392 and 1397. That work regrettably has survived only in part in a sixteenth-century transcription. For English translations of some of the novelles in Trecentonovelle, Steegmann (1908) and Roscoe (1825) vol. 1, pp. 82-93.

[2] The first Florentine sumptuary laws probably were enacted about the 1260s. A comprehensive package of laws regulating women’s fancy dress was established in Florence from 1322 to 1325. Rainey (1985) pp. 44, 50-67. For a freely available overview of sumptuary law in medieval Italy, Facelle (2009).

Women’s political power readily overcame Florentine sumptuary laws. Charles, Duke of Calabria, became ruling lord of Florence in 1325 to lead the city’s defenses against the threatening army of Castruccio Castracani. Florentine women then attacked through Charles’s wife, the Duchess of Calabria. She pursuaded her husband to revoke the prohibition on luxurious silk tresses that Florentine women wore over their (perhaps thinning) hair. Rainey (1985) p. 68.

Having experienced this political reversal first-hand, the eminent Florentine Giovanni Villani lamented that women didn’t even have to use reason to persuade men. What women want trumps any reason men might recognize: “the inordinate appetite of women conquers the reason and good sense of men {il disordinato appetito delle donne vince la ragione e il senno degli uomini}.” Villani, Nuovo Cronica (c. 1348) 10.11. Villani’s own wife Monna and other women pursuaded the Duke of Calabria to order that sumptuary charges against them be reviewed. Rainey (1985) p. 69-70. With respect to his wife Monna’s spending on luxurious clothing and incurring fines for violating sumptuary law, Giovanni Villani, like other men, was in a lose-lose position.

[3] For insightul discussion of this wordplay in relation to levels of linguistic understanding, Cornish (2010) p. 16f.

[4] Writing in northern France about 1115, Guibert of Nogent complained of women’s extravagant dress:

The way they dress is completely different from the simplicity of old: sleeves spread wide open, their tunics worn tight, curled toes on shoes from Cordoba, you might see the surrender of all modesty proclaimed everywhere.

{ Vestium qualitates in tantum sunt ab illa veteri frugalitate dissimiles, ut dilatatio manicarum, tunicarum angustia, calceorum de Corduba rostra torticia, totius ubique jacturam videas clamare pudoris. }

Guibert, Monodiae {Songs of Self} 1.12, Latin text from Bourgin (1907), English trans. from McAlhany & Rubenstein (2011). In ancient Rome, women wore expensive, revealing silk clothes. See note [1] in my post on the silk trade between ancient Rome and China. Both Seneca the Younger in the first century GC (Epistulae morales ad Lucilium {Letters on Behavior to Lucilius} 90.16-20, 45) and Jerome in the fourth century (Life of Paul the Hermit 17) contrasted luxurious clothes of their times with earlier, simpler clothes. Similarly Dante, Commedia, Paradiso 15.97-120.

[5] Franco Sacchetti, Il Trecentenovelle 137, Italian text from Faccioli (1970), my English translation, benefiting from that of Steegmann (1908). The subsequent quote is similarly from this novelle.

One Florentine official recognized the ancient Roman failure and the rage of Coppo di Borghese Domenichi:

I would have you know that the Romans, who conquered the whole world, could do nothing against their women. And these women, in order to lift the rules on their fancy dress, ran to the Capitol and conquered the Romans, obtaining what they wanted to such an extent that when Coppo di Borghese read this story in a book written by Livy, he almost went insane.

{ Io vo’ che voi sappiate ch’e’ Romani non potero contro le loro donne, che vinsono tutto il mondo; ed elle per levar gli ordini sopra gli ornamenti loro, corsono al Campidoglio, e vinsono e’ Romani, avendo quello che voleano; per tal segnale che Coppo del Borghese in una novella di questo libro leggendo in Tito Livio la detta istoria, ne fu per impazzare. }

Il Trecentenovelle 137, cited as above.

This novelle isn’t merely fiction. Florentine city records indicate that Amerigo of Pesara served as the Ufficiale delle donne from March to September 1384. Sacchetti at that time was a member of Florence’s ruling council. He probably heard directly from Amerigo about women evading the sumptuary laws. Rainey (1985) p. 233.

Under details of the the sumptuary laws in effect in Florence in 1384, ermine fur was forbidden, but lattizzo fur wasn’t. The latter type of fur is fairly obscure:

According to some dictionaries a lattizzo referred to a weasel-like animal similar to ermine but with milky white fur, whence its name.

Killerby (2002) p. 123, n. 43.

[6]  Paolino da Venezia (Paolino Minorita), Trattato de regimine rectoris 53, Italian (Venetian dialect) text from  Mussafia (1868) p. 75, English translation (adapted slightly) from Zanda (2010) p. 149, n. 104. Paolino da Venezia was a city official, Catholic bishop, and writer.

[7] Killerby stated:

Of the clothing laws which were targeted primarily at women, the male members of the household were held responsible for payment of the fine, as was customary

Killerby (1994) p. 103. Similarly, Izbicki (2009) p. 45.

[8] Killerby (2002) p. 123, which observes:

In Venice the term ‘pagar le pompe’, or ‘to pay the luxury fine’, became such a common expression that it is found in dialectical dictionaries.


[9] Rainey (1985) p. 165

[10] Frick (2002) p. 182. About half the cases prosecuted originated in anonymous denunciations. Id.

[11] From records of the deliberations of the lords of Florence, Latin text and English translation (adapted) from Rainey (1985) pp. 479 (English), 763 (Latin). The subsequent quote is similarly sourced.

[12] Salimbene de Adam, Cronica {Chronicle}, Latin text from Holder-Egger (1905) pp. 169-70, English translation adapted from Baird, Baglivi & Kane (1986) pp. 160-1, for this and the subsequent two quotes. Salimbene’s quote about dresses dragging in the dirt is “Not Patecchio, but Ugo di Perso’s second answer to Patecchio, l. 65.” Id. p. 674, n. 56. Salimbene later repeated the central political concern about Cardinal Latino Malabranca’s laws: “This legate enraged women with his laws {Iste legatus turbavit mulieres cum constitutionibus suis}.” Similarly from Holder-Egger (1905) p. 436, Baird, Baglivi & Kane (1986) p. 443.

Cardinal Latino Malabranca’s laws are titled De habitu mulierum {On women’s dress}. For their social and political context, Izbicki (2009). Id., Appendix 3.1 provides an English translation of the laws. According to De habitu mulierum:

No woman exceeding twelve years of age will appear publicly in the city in a gown in which the front part is open.

{ Nulla mulier ex quo duodecim annum aetatis exegerit in veste quae ab anteriori parte aperta sit publice per civitatem excedunt procedere }

Latin text from Rainey (1985) p. 89, n. 9, my English translation. Cf. Dante, Commedia, Purgatorio 23.97-105 and Vincenzo Catena’s portrait of a woman (above). For analysis, Olson (2015).

[13] Petronius, Satyricon 67, Latin text from Heseltine & Rouse (1913), my English translation benefiting from those of id. and Walsh (1996). The subsequent quote is similarly from Satyricon 67.

[images] (1) Portrait of a Woman, probably Venetian, gesturing toward her chest. Painting by Vincenzo Catena, made about 1520. Preserved under acc.# 1961.1.31 in the El Paso Museum of Art (El Paso, Texas). Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Women with long dress-trains in medieval Florentine wedding parade for Boccaccio Adimari and Lisa Ricasoli in 1420, or perhaps another Adimiri wedding twenty years later. Detail from Dance Scene / Cassone Adimari (wedding chest of Adimari), painted by Giovanni di ser Giovanni Guidi (Lo Scheggia) about 1450. Preserved as Inv. 1890 n. 8457 in Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze. Via Wikimedia Commons.


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