work for social justice: castration no joking matter

In medieval London, a hard-working young clerk served a lawyer, and the lawyer’s wife as well. The latter work was dangerous, particularly because men have always been punished relatively severely for illicit sex. This clerk, showing superior guile though of the inferior gender, shed tears and revealed his secret to his lawyer-master:

“My very good master, it’s true that, I know that, many people, and you too, might imagine that I’m a natural man like any other, capable of having intercourse with a woman and creating progeny. But to you I affirm and show that I am not such in that, alas, to my great sorrow.” And with these words he very assuredly pulled out his pole-like penis and showed him his scrotum. He had with much time and trouble pushed up his testicles towards his lower belly and hid them so well that it seemed as though he had none.

{ “Mon très bon maistre, il est vray que, jà soit ce que plusieurs gens et vous aussi pourroient penser que je feusse homme naturel comme ung autre, ayant puissance d’avoir compaignie avec femme, et de faire lignée, vous oseray bien dire et monstrer que point je ne suis tel, dont helas! trop je me deul.” Et, à ces parolles, trop asseurement tira son membre à perche et lui fist monstre de la peau où les coulons se logent, lesquelz il avoit par industrie fait monter en bault, vers son petit ventre, et si bien les avoit cachiez, qu’il sembloit qu’il n’en eust nulz. }[1]

The clerk declared that as an impotent man, he wanted to spend the rest of his life in a monastery.

to have affair with master's wife, clerk fakes castration

Because of the clerk’s diligence and effort with his pen, the lawyer-master didn’t want to lose him. The master told his clerk about the privations and hardships of religious life and the impropriety of becoming a monk out of grief for impotence. The clerk, feigning reluctance, agreed to stay in the master’s home. Then the master revealed his own secret to the clerk:

My son, I’m not glad to hear of your misfortune. But in the end God orders all things for the best and knows what is most suitable for us and wants the best. You can in the future serve me very well and merit all that is in my power to do for you. I have a young wife, who is light-hearted and flighty, and I am, as you also see, already old and staid. That might give occasion for, of all such, some dishonor to me and also to her, if she should prove other than chaste, and become for me a matter for jealousy and many other things. I entrust her to you so that you may watch over her, and I beg you to keep her close at hand so that I may have no reason to find in her any matter for jealousy.

{ Mon filz, de vostre infortune ne suis-je point joyeux, mais, au fort, Dieu, qui fait tout pour le mieulx, scait ce qui nous duyt et vault mieulx: vous me pourrez doresenavant très bien servir, et à mon povoir, vous le meriteray: j’ay jeune femme assez legiere et volaige, et suis, ainsi comme vous veez, desja ancien et sur aage: qui aucunement peut estre occasion à plusieurs de la requerre de déshonneur; et à elle aussi, s’elle estoit autre que bonne, me bailler matière de jalousie, et plusieurs aultres choses. Je la vous baille et donne en garde, et si vous en prie que tenez à ce la main, que je n’aye cause d’en elle trouver nulle matière de jalousie. }

The master seems not to have had recent knowledge of his wife’s matter for jealousy. The clerk praised her beauty and goodness and eagerly served the “good husband {bon mary}”:

For as much as the clerk and his good lady dared, they didn’t spare the members that will decay in earthly life, and they never failed to make a great feast of sex.

{ le plus longuement que luy et sa dame bien osèrent, n’espargnerent
pas les membres qui en terre pourriront; et ne firent jamais plus grant
feste }

As strange and unreal as it seems to indoctrinated women and men today, medieval women and men had joy in sex. Medieval Christianity taught that even eunuchs could realize the complete joy that Christ promised. The guileful clerk who faked that he lacked testicles provided as much joy to his master’s wife as did the classical eunuch Bromium for his lady-lord. As study of classics decreases, cuckolding increases. They have no joy. Jesus help them!

Faking castration can be a risky business. Consider the late medieval case of a priest from Onzain near Amboise in central France. He was having a sexual affair with his landlady. To lessen her husband’s suspicion, she proposed that the priest take dramatic action:

He agreed to have himself castrated, or to speak more modestly, emasculated. And so he placed himself at the mercy of a man named mister Master Peter of the Snakes, a native of Low-Cave in Berry.

{ se fit châtrer (qu’on dit plus honnêtement tailler); et se mit en la miséricorde d’un nommé monsieur maître Pierre des Serpents, natif de Vilantrois en Berri }[2]

While telling all his relatives and friends that he was getting himself castrated, the priest gave Master Peter four crowns to fake the castration. The operation turned out badly:

Master Peter, persuaded by the husband and holding the poor priest in his power, tied him down by hand and foot, and then really performed his business and did it. Then he explained his reason. He wasn’t at all accustomed to mocking his job, and if he would as much as a single time mock it, his trade would mock him.

{ maître Pierre, persuadé par le mari, et tenant le pauvre curé en sa puissance, après l’avoir bien attaché, lié et garrotté, exécuta son office réalement et de fait; et puis le paya de cette raison, qu’il n’avoit point accoutumé se moquer de son métier; et que, s’il s’en étoit une seule fois moqué, son métier se moqueroit de lui. }

The husband had paid Master Peter twice as much to do his job as the priest had paid him not to do it. Women should not encourage their lovers to be castrated or even to pretend to be castrated. It’s just too risky.

Castration is no joking matter. In medieval France, a priest was very fond of “confessing” his women parishioners. His fame spread across all of France. One day when he was having dinner at a parishioner’s inn, a man professionally named Ball-Cutter came to the inn. Ball-Cutter worked as a gelder. The priest asked the gelder many questions about gelding. Then the priest, unobserved, turned to the host and proposed playing a trick on Ball-Cutter:

I’ll pretend to have a major pain in my testicle, and then I’ll bargain with him to cut it away. I’ll be placed on the table all ready as if to have it cut off. And when he comes near and would like to see what it is and begin his work, I’ll turn and show him my ass.

{ je faindray avoir grant mal en ung coillon, et puis je marchanderay à luy de le me oster, et me mettray sus la table et tout en point, comme pour le trenchier. Et quant il viendra près et il voudra veoir que c’est et ouvrer de son mestier, je luy montreray le derrière. }[3]

In medieval literature, women sometimes save beloved men from castration by pretending to be them. The priest intended to play a variation on that trick.

The unknowing Ball-Cutter agreed to remove the priest’s testicle. The host then betrayed the priest and said to the gelder:

Take care, whatever the priest might say to you, when you grab it in your hands in order to work on his testicles, that you cut both of them off, completely and cleanly. Take care that you don’t fail, if you love dearly your own body.

{ Garde bien, quelque chose que ce prestre te dye, quant tu le tiendras en tes mains, pour ouvrer à ses coillons, que tu luy trenches tous deux rasibus, et garde bien que tu n’y failles point, si chier que tu aymes ton corps. }

What the priest meant to be a joke became a horror story:

The host and also his servants together held the condemned priest tightly there. They took care that he wouldn’t escape, not neglecting any way that there was. And in order to be the most sure, they bound him him very well and tightly. They told him that was to make better and more hidden their joke and that when he wished, they would let him go. Like a fool he believed them. Now the valiant Ball-Cutter came, carrying his little razor in his hand. He immediately began to take in his hand the priest’s testicles. “Hey!” said mister priest, “Do it straight and well! Feel them as sweetly as you can, and then afterwards, I’ll tell you which I want to have cut off.” “Very well,” said the gelder. And then he lifted up the gown of the master priest and grabbed the priest’s mistresses’s testicles. They were big and heavy. Without further inquiry, suddenly, like an eclipse of a celestial orb, he cut the two from him with a single stroke. The good priest began to yell and raise more living hell than any man ever did.

{ L’oste aussi et pareillement les serviteurs de leans dévoient tenir damp curé: qui n’avoient garde de le laisser eschapper, ne remuer en quelque maniere que ce feust. Et, affin d’estre plus seur, le lierent trop bien et estroit, et luy disoient que c’estoit pour mieux et plus couvertement faire la farce, et quant il voudroit, ilz le laisseroyent aller; il les creut comme fol. Or vint ce vaillant trenchecoille, garny en sa cornette de son petit rasoir, et incontinent commença à vouloir mettre les mains aux coilles de monseigneur le curé: “A!” dist monseigneur le curé, “faictes à trait et tout beau! Tastez-les le plus doulcement que vous pourrez, et puis après, je vous diray lequel je vueil avoir osté.” “Et bien!” dist le trenchecoille. Et lors tout souef lieve la chemise du maistre curé, et prent ses maistresses coilles, grosses et quarrées, et sans plus enquerir, subitement, comme l’eclipse, les luy trencha tous deux d’ung seul coup. Et bon curé de crier, et de faire la plus male vie que jamais fist homme. }

His work finished, Ball-Cutter promptly left. Bandaging and comforting the priest, the host of the inn pretended not to have been part of the castration conspiracy.

castrating priest in joke transformed

News of the horrible injury to the priest quickly spread. Reactions varied:

It isn’t necessary to say that not a few young women were very despondent to have lost the instruments of mister priest. But on the other hand, the suffering husbands were so joyful that I couldn’t know how to tithe to you in telling or writing one tenth of their happiness.

{ ne fault pas dire que aucunes damoiselles n’en fussent bien marries d’avoir perdu les instrumens de monseigneur le curé; mais, aussi, d’aultre part, les dolen marys en furent tant joyeux qu’on ne vous scauroye dire, ne escripre la dixiesme partie de leur lyesse. }

Women have long opposed castration culture more than have men. Men must show more love and compassion for men.

Erasing castration culture should be a social-justice priority. Literary history is filled with horrific stories of castration going all the way back to Chronos / Saturn castrating Uranus / Caelus in Hesiod’s Theogony. Despite violent injury to a man’s testicles being played as a joke in a Super Bowl commercial, castration is no joking matter.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Antoine de la Sale, The Hundred New Novels {Les Cent nouvelles nouvelles}, nouvelle 13, The castrated clerk {Le clerc chastré}, Middle French text from Lacroix (1884), my English translation, benefiting from that of Douglas (1899). The subsequent two quotes above are similarly from this nouvelle (story). The titles of the nouvelles are not in the original manuscript. They are from early eighteenth-century editions and vary. An alternate title for this story is The eunuch clerk. For an alternate English translations, Robbins (1960) and Diner (1990).

Les Cent nouvelles nouvelles exists in a manuscript written in 1462. It was published in print for the first time in 1485. It reportedly consists of stories told in the court of Philip III, Duke of Burgundy, probably from 1456 to 1461. Les Cent nouvelles nouvelles is a framed story collection similar to Boccaccio’s Decameron.

[2] Bonaventure des Périers, Novel Pastimes and Merry Tales {Nouvelles récréations et joyeux devis}, Tale 113, “About the priest from Onzain, near Amboise, who was persuaded by his landlady to have himself castgrated {Du curé d’Onzain, prés d’Amboyse, qui se feit chastrer à la persuasion de son hostesse},” Midde French text from Lacour (1874) vol. 2, pp. 158-9, English translation (modified) from La Charité & La Charité (1972). The subsequent quote above is similarly from this tale.

Bonaventure des Périers was a Frenchman who lived from about 1500 to 1544. His story collection Nouvelles récréations et joyeux devis was printed with his collected works in 1544 and on a stand-alone basis in 1558. Tale 113 probably came from the same medieval strand that includes nouvelle 64 of Antoine de la Sale’s Les Cent nouvelles nouvelles.

[3] Antoine de la Sale, Les Cent nouvelles nouvelles, nouvelle 64, The priest who was too cunning {Le curé trop respectueux}, Middle French text from Lacroix (1884), my English translation, benefiting from that of Douglas (1899). The subsequent three quotes above are similarly from this nouvelle.

The thirteenth-century Old French fabliau “About Connebert / The priest who lost his balls / The priest crucified {De Connebert / Li prestre ki perdi les colles / Le Prêtre crucifié}” is a similar story. For brief discussion, see note 7 and associated text in my post on violence against men in fabliaux and reality.

[images] (1) Illustration for nouvelle 13 (to have an affair with his master’s wife, a clerk fakes castration) in Antoine de la Sale’s Les Cent nouvelles nouvelles. Detail from folio 27v of Glasgow, University Library, GB 247 MS Hunter 252 (U.4.10). Here are the illustrations for each nouvelle. (2) Illustration for nouvelle 64 (a priest’s castration joke gets him castrated) in Les Cent nouvelles nouvelles. Detail from folio 143r of Glasgow, University Library, GB 247 MS Hunter 252 (U.4.10). (3) Illustration for nouvelle 13 (a clerk shows his lack of testicles to his master) in Douglas (1899).

clerk shows his lack of testicles to his master


Diner, Judith Bruskin, trans. 1990. Antoine de la Sale. The One Hundred New Tales = Les cent nouvelles nouvelles. New York: Garland.

Douglas, Robert B., trans. 1899. Antoine de la Sale. One hundred merrie and delightsome stories: right pleasaunte to relate in all goodly companie by joyance and jollity: les cent nouvelles nouvelles. Paris: Charles Carrington.

Lacour, Louis, ed. 1874. Nouvelles récréations et joyeux devis de B. des Periers ; suivi du Cymbalum mundi. Paris: Librairie des bibliophiles. Vol. 1. Vol. 2. Alternate presentation.

Lacroix, Paul, ed. 1884. Les Cent nouvelles nouvelles: dites les Cent nouvelles du roi Louis XI; éd. rev. sur l’édition originale, avec des notes et une introduction. Paris: Charpentier.

La Charité, Raymond C. and Virginia A. La Charité, trans. 1972. Bonaventure des Périers’s Novel Pastimes and Merry Tales. Lexington, KY: The Univ. Press of Kentucky.

Robbins, Rossell Hope, trans. 1960. The Hundred Tales (Les cent nouvelles nouvelles). Illustrated by Alexander Dobkin. New York: Bonanza Books.

true hero Malgherita Spolatina swam sea to Teodoro, her Leander

The “lovely and graceful {vaga e leggiadra}” woman-hero Malgherita Spolatina lived early in the sixteenth century on Midway Island off the coast of Ragusa. One day Malgherita noticed the hermit Teodoro begging for bread. The name Teodoro was from the Greek words “God’s gift {Θεόδωρος}.” Teodoro was a low-status man in the eyes of many and thus quite unlike the mythic Leander. Nonetheless, looking upon Teodoro with her female gaze, Malgherita saw that he was “beautiful and outstanding {bello e riguardevole}.” She gave him alms while burning in love for him.

Men historically have carried the gender burden of soliciting amorous relationship and enduring amorous rejection. With admirable concern for social justice, the strong, independent woman Malgherita Spolatina spoke boldly:

“Teodoro, brother and sole comfort of my soul, such is the passion that torments me that if you don’t help me, you’ll soon see me lifeless. Inflamed with love for you, no longer can I resist those amorous flames. So that you may not be the cause of my death, help me at once.” Having said these words, she began to weep intensely.

{ “Teodoro fratello, e solo refrigerio dell’anima mia, tanta è la passione che mi tormenta, che se voi non mi prestate aiuto, presto mi vederete di vita priva. Io, infiammata del vostro amore, non posso più resistere all’amorose fiamme. Ed acciò che voi di mia morte non siate cagione, mi prestarete subito soccorso”; e queste parole dette, si mise fortemente a piagnere. }[1]

Her behavior astonished the hermit Teodoro. Leaving aside “celestial things {cose celesti},” he conversed with her compassionately. They discussed love and agreed to engage in the act that perpetuates life.

Teodoro didn’t know how to arrange securely an affair. Malgherita thoughtfully proposed a plan:

My love, don’t worry. I’ll show you the way we must take. The way will be this. You this evening at ten o’clock at night will put a burning lamp in the window of your hut. Seeing it, I’ll immediately come to you.

{ Amor mio, non dubitate; che io vi dimostrerò il modo che avremo a tenere. Il modo sarà questo. Voi in questa sera a quattro ore di notte porrete un lume acceso alla finestra della capanna vostra; ed io, quello veduto, immantenenti verrommi a voi. }

The chastelaine de Vergi summoned her lover, belittled and dehumanized, by having a little dog run through her garden. Malgherita, in contrast, invited herself over to her man’s hut at a mutually agreed time. Moreover, with her plan she made reparations for the historical gender injustice long perpetrated in repeated retellings of the myth of Hero and Leander. Strong, independent women today have much to learn from Malgherita Spolatina.

Teodoro perceived a problem: the sea. His hut was on a rock protruding above the waves midway between Midway Island and Ragusa. Teodoro worried about his beloved Malgherita:

Ah! How will you manage, my little child, to cross the sea? You know that neither you nor I have a boat to ferry you across. To entrust yourself to the hands of another would be dangerous to the honor and life of us both.

{ Deh! come farai tu, figliuola mia, a passar il mare? Tu sai che nè io nè tu avemo navicella da traghiettare; e mettersi nell’altrui mani sarebbe molto pericoloso all’onore e alla vita d’ambiduo. }

She comforted him in his worry:

Don’t worry at all. Leave the burden to me, because I have found a way to come to you without danger to life or honor. Seeing the burning lamp, I will come to you by swimming. No one will know of our doings.

{ Non dubitate punto; lasciate il carico a me, perciò che io trovai la via di venire a voi senza pericolo di morte e di onore. Io, veduto il lume acceso, me ne verrò a voi nuotando; nè alcuno saprà i fatti nostri. }

Teodor was afraid for Malgherita:

There’s danger of you downing in the sea, because you are young and have little endurance, and the way is long, and you could easily lose your breath and go under.

{ Egli è pericolo che non ti attuffi nel mare; perciò che tu sei giovanetta e di poca lena, e il viaggio è lungo, e ti potrebbe agevolmente mancare il fiato, e sommergerti. }

Malgherita was a hero confident in her ability and unafraid to take on what was Leander’s labor:

“I’m not afraid of maintaining my endurance,” replied the young woman. “I could swim in competition against a fish.”

{ Non temo, rispose la giovane, di non mantener la lena; perciò che io nuoterei a gara d’un pesce. }

Perceiving her strong will, Teodoro agreed to her plan.

Night came. In the dark Malgherita saw Teodoro’s burning lamp shining out in the sea. She rejoiced and went to the shore. There she took off all her clothes. She swept her hair to the top of her head and wrapped it in her slip. Then she pushed out into the water and swam strongly. In less than fifteen minutes she reached the hermit’s rock. He was there waiting for her. He took her by her hand and led her into his humble hut. He dried her all over with a towel as white as snow. They lay down together on his small bed and enjoyed “the ultimate fruits of love {ultimi frutti d’amore}.” After two hours of sweet conversations and embraces, she arranged to return to him and then swam home. Guided by the Teodoro’s lamp, Malgherita subsequently made many swims to be with him.

One foggy night, fishermen saw a fish that they had never seen before. Eventually they recognized that the fish was a woman. They saw her get out of the water onto the rock and go into a hut. Intrigued, they rowed to the rock and hid there. After a long time they saw the young woman emerge from the hut and swim away. After observing several such nocturnal trips the fishermen recognized Malgherita, the signal of Teodoro’s burning lamp, and their love affair. Fearing that she might drown or bring dishonor to her family, the fishermen told Malgherita’s brothers everything.

Malgherita’s brothers internalized the misandry that drives today’s college sex police. They resolved that their sister must be killed for loving a man. The youngest brother went to Teodoro’s hut and asked for shelter for the night:

The hermit, who knew that it was Malgherita’s brother, kindly welcomed him and treated him affectionately. All that night Teodoro spent with him in varied conversation, declaring to him the miseries of this world and the grave sins that kill the soul and enslave it to the devil.

{ Il calogero, che conosceva lui esser fratello di Malgherita, benignamente il ricevette e carecciollo; e tutta quella notte stette seco in varii ragionamenti, dichiarandogli le miserie mondane ed e peccati gravi che mortificano l’anima e fannola serva del diavolo. }

Malgherita’s brother thus ensured that Teodoro didn’t hang his lamp to invite Malgherita to spend the night with him. Other of her brothers meanwhile went out in a boat with a pole and a lamp. When they were next to Teodoro’s rock, they set the lamp burning and hoisted it on the pole.

Malgherita saw that light and with delight jumped into the sea to swim to Teodoro. But her brothers gradually moved the light away from Teodoro’s rock. In the dark night Malgherita swam strongly, following the light. When the brothers had taken it out into the open sea and Malgherita had come near, they extinguished the burning lamp. Malgherita, tired from her long swim, was bewildered: “she gave herself up completely and like a broken ship, was swallowed by the sea {s’abbandonò del tutto, e, come rotta nave, fu ingiottita dal mare}.” The brothers left their downing sister in the middle of the sea and went home. They treated their sister’s life with the contempt that many men have felt for their own lives.

Three days later, Malgherita’s dead body washed up onto Teodoro’s rock. Recognizing it, Teodoro nearly killed himself in grief. But death isn’t the Christian triumph over death. This earthy hermit, undergoing conversion like the holy harlots of Christian history, cared for Malgherita’s dead body:

Taking her by an arm, with no one noticing, he dragged her out of the water and carried her into his house. Throwing himself upon her dead face, for a long time he wept and flooded her white breast with abundant tears, and many times called her in vain. But after he wept, he thought to give her a worthy burial and to help her soul with prayers, with fasts, and with other good deeds. And taking the spade with which he sometimes dug his little vegetable patch, he made a grave inside his little church. With many tears he closed her eyes and mouth. Making her a garland of roses and violets, he set it on her head. Then giving her a blessing and kissing her, he put her in the grave and covered her with earth.

{ presolo per un braccio, niuno però avedendosi, lo trasse fuori dell’onde, e portollo dentro in casa; e gettatosi sopra il morto viso, per lungo spazio lo pianse, e di abbondantissime lagrime il bianco petto coperse, assai volte in vano chiamandola. Ma poscia che ei ebbe pianto, pensò di darle degna sepoltura, ed aiutare con orazioni, con digiuni e con altri beni l’anima sua. E presa la vanga, con cui alle volte vangava il suo orticello, fece una fossa nella chiesetta sua, e con molte lagrime le chiuse gli occhi e la bocca: e fattale una ghirlanda di rose e viole, gliela pose in capo; indi datale la benedizione e basciatala, dentro la fossa la mise e con la terra la coperse. }

Malgherita died while defying the oppressive gender norms inculcated through the myth of Hero and Leander. Malgherita, a true hero, received a loving burial. She will be with her beloved Teodoro for the rest of his life.

Teodoro discovering his beloved Malgherita Spolatina dead on the seashore (Hero and Leander, gender-reversed)

Forget the myth of Hero and Leander. Tell and retell forever the story of Malgherita and Teodoro.

* * * * *

Read more:


The above story is that of Giovanni (Zoan) Francesco Straparola, The Pleasant Nights {Le Piacevoli Notti}, Night 7, Story 2, told by the lady Fiordiana. The setting is factual. Ragusa is present-day Dubrovnik in Croatia, Midway Island is present-day Lopud (Middle Isle), and the hermit’s rocky island is called Skupielli or Donzella in Italian. The hermit’s island is about 800 meters south-east of Lopud.

Waters declared Straparola’s story of Malgherita and Teodoro to be “the finest of the whole collection”:

It is rarely one meets with anything told which such force and sincerity; yet, in placing before his readers this vivid picture of volcanic passion and ruthless revenge, Straparola uses the simplest treatment and succeeds à merveille.

Waters (1894) vol. 1, p. xxi. Both “volcanic passion” and “ruthless revenge” seem to me exaggerated characterizations that obscure the wry humor of this story.

The gender reversal in this story relative to the myth of Hero and Leander isn’t just a matter of the gender of the lover who swims and dies. The dialog between Malgherita and Teodoro also includes gender-reversed characterization. That suggests a literary work responding in a gender-transgressive way to the widely distributed myth of Hero and Leander. The specific setting provides a motive for a love swim like that of Leander. The inserted matter of family honor and somewhat implausible fraternal treachery might be understood as poor-dearism included to increase the story’s popular appeal. With respect to Straparola responding to the myth of Hero and Leander, Beecher unconvincingly declared:

Such a means of genesis appears remote. Thus, without a literary source or comparative folk versions, the story must be granted local currency in a form only to be imagined from the present tale. … But the story is so finely conceived that it becomes implausible that its author left no more in kind. Inclination thus favours a tragic legend collectively generated that Straparola first and alone captured for posterity, or a contemporary bit of Venetian colonial news that caught his imagination and died with the following few imitators.

Beecher (2012) vol. 2, p. 99. Beecher thus classified the story as “oral / popular” and declared, “perhaps a local legend gave rise to the present work.” Beecher (2012) vol. 1, p. 88, vol. 2, p. 100. The myth of Hero and Leander seems to me more probable than Beecher’s unattested, perhaps legend.

On the myth of Hero and Leander, Montiglio (2017) and Murdoch (2019). Both Montiglio and Murdoch mention Straparola’s tale. Murdoch observed, “the reversal of gender-roles and the sexually aggressive Malgherita are surprising.” Id. p. 79. Literary scholars seem unwilling to appreciate stories fundamentally challenging their dominant master narratives.

Straparola, who was born in Caravaggio, Italy, lived from about 1480 to 1558. His two-volume Le Piacevoli Notti was originally published in Venice in 1550 (vol. 1) and 1553 (vol. 2). Recounted under the rule of a lady (Signora), it contains 73 stories told over thirteen nights among ladies and gentlemen gathered at the Venetian palace of Ottaviano Maria Sforza. They took refuge there from political turmoil in Milan. Straparola’s story collection thus has a form similar to Boccaccio’s Decameron. With respect to some of Straparola’s stories, Bottigheimer credits him with creating the “modern fairy tale.” Bottigheimer (2002). For a critique of Bottigheimer’s argument, Ziolkowski (2010).

Straparola’s Le Piacevoli Notti has been extensively distributed. Fifteen editions of the Italian text were produced by 1570, and twenty-four editions by 1610. A French translation appeared in 1572, a German translation in 1575, and a Spanish translation in 1578. Smarr (1983) p. 158, Beecher (2012) vol. 1, p. 80.

The quotes above are from Le Piacevoli Notti 7.2, Italian text from Rua (1899) vol. 2, pp. 48-54, English translation (modified slightly) from Smarr (1983) pp. 189-93. For a freely available English translation, Waters (1894). Beecher (2012) is revised version of Water’s translation, along with an extensive introduction, notes, and commentary for each story.

[image] Malgherita Spolatina dead on the shore of her beloved hermit Teodoro’s rocky island. Illustration by E. R. Hughs in Waters (1894), vol. 2, between pp. 54-5.


Beecher, Donald and W. G. Waters, trans. 2012. Giovanni Francesco Straparola. The Pleasant Nights. 2 vols. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Bottigheimer, Ruth B. 2002. Fairy Godfather: Straparola, Venice, and the fairy tale tradition. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania.

Montiglio, Silvia. 2017. The Myth of Hero and Leander: the history and reception of an enduring Greek legend. London: I.B. Tauris. (Hardin’s review)

Murdoch, Brian. 2019. The Reception of the Legend of Hero and Leander. Brill’s Companions to Classical Reception, volume 19. Leiden: Brill.

Rua, Giuseppe. 1899. Le piacevoli notti di M. Giovanfrancesco Straparola da Caravaggio nelle quali si contengono le favole con i loro enimmi da dieci donne e duo giovani raccontate. 2 vols. Bologna: Romagnoli-Dall’ Acqua. Alternate presentation of 1927 edition.

Smarr, Janet Levarie, trans.. 1983. Italian Renaissance Tales: Selected and Translated, with an Introduction. Rochester, MI: Solaris Press.

Waters, W.G., trans. 1894. Giovanni Francesco Straparola. The Nights. Vol. 1. Vol. 2. London: Lawrence and Bullen. Alternate presentation: vol. 1, vol. 2.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2010. “Straparola and the fairy tale: between literary and oral traditions.” Journal of American FolkLore. 123 (490): 377-397.

Horace gender-complacent in conviviality with men

Why has abortion coercion, within circumstances of men having no reproductive rights, not been a central issue across decades of high-profile debate about abortion? Why is fundamental gender inequality in parental knowledge not considered at least as seriously as “the male gaze”? Why is women raping men commonly regarded as more of a laughing matter than a crime? Asking such questions isn’t propitious for acquiring intellectual prestige or social advancement. To gain insights into such still-operative discursive gender constraints, consider the revered classical Latin poet Horace. He was a generally genial poet who had a highly successful poetic career. Horace wrote mainly about men and for men. He wrote some shockingly expressive, potentially offensive poetry.[1] But like sophisticated, upwardly striving women and men today, Horace didn’t allow himself to engage thoughtfully and outrageously in representing fundamental gender injustices in men’s lives.

Horace was a poet who believed in the mundane philosophy of “live for today {carpe diem}.” No Stoic, Horace enjoyed wine, women, and song, just as medieval clerics did. He also pandered enough to the rich and powerful to be well-rewarded materially (Sabine farm), to converse among the most influential (Maecenas) and most powerful (Augustus), and to avoid being killed as a traitor. He valued conviviality among men and understood that tolerance sustains social bonds:

Well then let’s call a friend who’s mean, ‘thrifty’. Another
who’s tactless and boasts a bit — he just wants his friends
to think him ‘sociable’. Or perhaps the man’s more fierce
and outspoken. Let’s have it he’s ‘frank’ and fearless.
He’s a hothead? We’ll just count him one of the ‘eager’.
This it is that unites friends, and then keeps them united.

{ parcius hic vivit: frugi dicatur. ineptus
et iactantior hic paulo est: concinnus amicis
postulat ut videatur. at est truculentior atque
plus aequo liber: simplex fortisque habeatur.
caldior est: acris inter numeretur. opinor,
haec res et iungit, iunctos et servat amicos. }[2]

Horace revealed his own infirmities and failings:

black-smeared, pus-filled eyes, sweaty feet, sloppy hair, flapping shoes, farts, warts, moles, runny nose, head-scratching, squinting, clothes stained by a wet dream, exposed genitals, and incontinence on the dinner couch. [3]

Yet the measure of a person isn’t merely her indignities. Horace declared:

No man alive is free of faults. The best of us is he
who’s burdened with the least. If he desires my love,
my gentle friend must, in all fairness, weigh my virtues
with my faults, and incline to the more numerous,
assuming that my virtues are the more numerous.
And by that rule I’ll weigh him in the same scale.
If you really expect a friend not to be offended
by your boils, pardon him his warts. It’s only fair
that he forgives who asks forgiveness for his faults.

{ nam vitiis nemo sine nascitur: optimus ille est,
qui minimis urgetur. amicus dulcis, ut aequum est,
cum mea compenset vitiis bona, pluribus hisce,
si modo plura mihi bona sunt, inclinet, amari
si volet: hac lege in trutina ponetur eadem.
qui ne tuberibus propriis offendat amicum
postulat, ignoscet verrucis illius: aequum est
peccatis veniam poscentem reddere rursus. }[4]

Horace wrote learned poetry about ordinary feelings and experiences. He had a keen sense for tensions between the personal and political. He wrote with deep understanding of the political situation of his time.

Roman men wearing togas

Now consider ‘the position’ of Woman. ‘Woman’ does not constitute just the content of one among several headings for thinking about a culture. Rather, the entire apparatus of thinking, of thinking as a cultural activity, of culture as an agenda of categories and contents has been founded on the category of ‘Woman’. ‘Woman’ plays a role at the heart of the process of differentiation, of kind and (so) of value, out of which societies construct their cosmologies. … No one who studies the culture of a historical society such as Rome can today avoid the embarrassing realisation that on the one hand it was always founded on the privileging of man over woman and on the other that classics has always been blind to that fact. And this is the sort of fact to which you can only be more and less than simply ‘blind’. Perhaps you can only play blind? You have to accept that classics has functioned importantly within the empowering institutions of western patriarchy, ‘cultural power under a masculine sign’. [5]

These solemn, totalitarian claims are endnoted with what’s apparently meant to be understood as authoritative references within the dominant institutions of knowledge professing. Everyone must declare allegiance to the creed of patriarchy, or even better, “western patriarchy” (because Greece and Rome (“the West”) are the source of Original Evil). You have to accept the myth of patriarchy, or you cannot participate in elite discourse. Even worse, you could be banned from Facebook!

Horace's verse, "it's sweet and fitting to die for the fatherland {dulce et decorum est pro patria mori}, engraved at Arlington Memorial Cemetery

At least implicitly honoring the most sacred discursive imperative, Horace scarcely considered fundamental gender injustices that men endure. He confessed that he fled from battle after dropping his shield. That action defied the authoritative teaching of Spartan mothers to their soldier-sons. He confessed to dropping his shield in a poetic effort to rehabilitate a friend, who like he, fought on the losing side in the Roman civil war.[6] Chiding Lydia for saving Sybaris’s life from being a young man training to be a soldier, Horace elliptically referred to the epic violence against men of the Trojan War:

Why does he hide, as they say
Achilles, sea-born Thetis’ son, hid before sad Troy was ruined,
lest his male clothing
had him dragged away to the slaughter among the Lycian troops?

{ quid latet, ut marinae
filium dicunt Thetidis sub lacrimosa Troiae
funera, ne virilis
cultus in caedem et Lycias proriperet catervas? }[7]

To avoid having their bodies disposed in horrific war, men must act like women and hide among women. That’s a major gender injustice.

While rejecting epic, Horace accepted epic violence against men. He celebrated boys enduring painful military training and serving in dangerous military action against the Parthians. He declared: “It is sweet and fitting to die for the fatherland {dulce et decorum est pro patria mori}.”[8] The fatherland might be better called the motherland. Why is it sweet and fitting that only men die for the motherland? Cornelius Gallus, who as a military leader led men into violence against men, associated love and war. Horace complacently reproduced that figure with intimate-partner violence against men:

I sing of banquets, of girls fierce in battle
with closely-trimmed nails, attacking young men:
idly, as I’m accustomed to do, whether
fancy free or burning with love.

{ nos convivia, nos proelia virginum
sectis in iuvenes unguibus acrium
cantamus vacui, sive quid urimur
non praeter solitum leves. }[9]

Tibullus evoked violence against men in a poetic rejection of Gallus’s love elegy. Horace didn’t let thoughts of violence against men trouble his banqueting.

Horace seems to have accepted gender-disparate punishment. Horace wrote matter-of-factly about the risks that men with strong, independent sexuality endured in engaging in consensual, extra-normative sexual affairs:

One man leaps from a roof. Another, flogged, is hurt
to the point of death. Another in flight falls in with
a gang of fierce robbers. A fourth pays gold for his life,
a fifth’s done over by thugs. It’s even happened
that a husband with a sword’s reaped the lover’s
lusty cock and balls. ‘Legal’ all cried, Galba dissenting.

{ hic se praecipitem tecto dedit; ille flagellis
ad mortem caesus; fugiens hic decidit acrem
praedonum in turbam, dedit hic pro corpore nummos,
hunc perminxerunt calones; quin etiam illud
accidit, ut quidam testis caudamque salacem
demeteret ferro. “iure” omnes: Galba negabat. }[10]

Galba, who may have been an illustrious ancestor of Douglas Galbi, was right to dissent. Castration culture has an ancient Greek literary pedigree in Hesiod’s Theogony. Nonetheless, forcibly castrating men is always a grievous wrong. That wrong is a component of brutally disparate punishment of men relative to women. Why is the vastly gender-disproportionate imprisonment of men not regarded as a terrible gender inequality? The penal system discriminates to punish predominately persons with penises. From Horace to the present, punishing men more than women has been accepted as immutable criminal justice beyond just questioning. Horace suggested that men avoid anti-men gender discrimination in adultery punishment by having sex with unmarried women. In short, Horace accepted structural gender injustice.

Horace literally gave the penis a voice, but only in a brutalizing caricature. In particular, Villius was violently victimized because he was having a sexual affair with the consul Sulla’s daughter Fausta. Horace imagined Villius’s penis, speaking hypothetically through his mind in the way of all penises, to say:

What if through the words of his dick, as he saw such evils,
his mind were to say to him: “What’s up with you? Did I ever to you
petition for a cunt, specifying one descended from a great consul
and wrapped in a fancy robe, when my love-rage was boiling?”

{ huic si mutonis verbis mala tanta videnti
diceret haec animus: “quid vis tibi? numquid ego a te
magno prognatum deposco consule cunnum
velatumque stola, mea cum conferbuit ira?” }[11]

Given the history of violently disparaging figures of the penis, penises shouldn’t be condemned to silence. These verses, however, lack the critical insight and irony of Ausonius’s Wedding Cento {Cento nuptialis}. Men tend to be romantically simple. But penises shouldn’t be stereotyped as crude and narrow-minded. Penises do life-creating and life-saving work. Horace wrote his highly sophisticated poetry, which includes keen consciousness of his own penis, with a pen (stylus), a figure of a penis. But the literal voice of the penis in Horace’s poetry is represented as contemptible. Important concerns of the penis have been silenced much more than the voice of a medieval woman who lost an egg.

Lydia embracing Horace

Horace’s poetic dialog with Lydia provides insight into the deep reality of gender privilege. Much like Empress Theodora, Lydia was a powerful woman who dominated her lover Sybaris. Underscoring her power, she was also carrying on an affair with another young man, Telephus. Horace attempted to taunt Lydia with old age, which devastates men as well as women:

Old, in your turn you’ll bemoan coarse adulterers
as you tremble in some deserted alley,
while the Thracian wind rages furiously
through the moonless nights,

while flagrant desire, libidinous passion,
those powers that will spur on a mare in heat,
will storm all around your corrupted heart, ah,
and you’ll complain

that the youths filled with laughter take more delight
in the green ivy, the dark of the myrtle,
leaving the withering leaves to this East wind,
winter’s accomplice.

{ invicem moechos anus arrogantis
flebis in solo levis angiportu,
Thracio bacchante magis sub
interlunia vento,

cum tibi flagrans amor et libido,
quae solet matres furiare equorum,
saeviet circa iecur ulcerosum,
non sine questu

laeta quod pubes hedera virenti
gaudeat pulla magis atque myrto,
aridas frondis hiemis sodali
dedicet Euro. }[12]

No snowflake, Lydia didn’t let Horace intimidate her. There’s no indication that she even responded to these words. Moreover, she probably was less troubled by Horace’s Epodes 8 (“To think that you, who have rotted away {Rogare longo putidam te}…”) than have been modern scholars. With her many young lovers, Lydia apparently lived for today more successfully than Horace himself did.

Horace attempted to win back Lydia from lovely Calais, another of her lovers. Horace lamented to her:

While I was the man dear to you,
while no young man you loved more dearly was clasping
his arms around your snow-white neck,
I lived in greater blessedness than Persia’s king.

{ Donec gratus eram tibi
nec quisquam potior bracchia candidae
cervici iuvenis dabat,
Persarum vigui rege beatior. }[13]

Persia’s king was an enemy to the Romans. After Horace measured himself against the blessedness of an enemy, Lydia echoed his introductory circumstantial phrase and then implicitly blamed him for her fall to Chloe:

While you were on fire for no one
else, and Lydia was not placed after Chloë,
I, Lydia, of great renown,
lived more gloriously than Roman Ilia.

{ donec non alia magis
arsisti neque erat Lydia post Chloen,
multi Lydia nominis
Romana vigui clarior Ilia. }

Chloe is a non-Roman name associated with the relatively low-status people of Thrace. Ilia was the mythic mother of Rome and revered even more than the gender-privileged Sabine women. If Rome were to fall to an enemy, that would be as much of a catastrophe as Horace placing Chloe before Lydia. Horace became an enemy of Roman glory. Lydia’s repetition of her name in addressing her former lover distanced herself from him.

Horace explicitly stated men’s subordination to women. He explained to Lydia:

Thracian Chloe, she rules me now.
She’s skilled in sweet verses, she’s the queen of the lyre,
for her I’m not afraid to die,
if the Fates spare her, and her spirit survives me.

{ me nunc Thressa Chloe regit,
dulcis docta modos et citharae sciens,
pro qua non metuam mori,
si parcent animae fata superstiti. }

Within war institutionalized as violence against men, men die for women. The nominal head rulers in charge usually are men, but women substantially rule men. In ancient Rome, Lydia put forward a pretense of gender equality:

I’m burnt with a mutual flame
by Calais, Thurian Ornytus’s son,
for whom I would die twice over
if the Fates spare him, and his spirit survives me.

{ me torret face mutua
Thurini Calais filius Ornyti,
pro quo bis patiar mori,
si parcent puero fata superstiti. }

Here Lydia even more extensively echoed Horace while insisting on her ideological superiority to him. She cannot in fact die twice over. She cannot love Calais truly equally until Solon’s sexual welfare program successfully equalizes the value of men’s and women’s sexuality. Women cannot be both equal to men and less evil and less toxic than men.

Emphasizing his powerlessness as a man in love, Horace imagined the love-goddess changing his love circumstances. He presented that possibility to Lydia:

What if that forming love returned,
and forced two who are estranged under her bronze yoke —
if golden Chloë was banished,
and the door opened to rejected Lydia?

{ quid si prisca redit Venus
diductosque iugo cogit aeneo,
si flava excutitur Chloe
reiectaeque patet ianua Lydiae? }

Bronze makes a yoke that endures. With his strong, independent sexuality, Horace wasn’t concerned with enduring love.[14] But he had no choice. Lydia responded:

Though he’s lovelier than the stars,
and you’re lighter than cork, and more irascible
than the cruel Adriatic,
I’d love to live with you, with you I’d gladly die!

{ quamquam sidere pulchrior
ille est, tu levior cortice et improbo
iracundior Hadria,
tecum vivere amem, tecum obeam libens. }

For three verses Lydia taunted Horace as being inferior to Calais as her lover. Then, in the final verse, Lydia declared that she prefers Horace. Dragging far backward early nineteenth-century Romanticism, critics have interpreted that final verse as a spontaneous outpouring of desire. Anti-meninist critics insist that Horace dominated Lydia in that last verse, as he of course prepared to rape her.[15] In a more faithful interpretation, the final verse is meant sarcastically. Lydia heartlessly showed no concern for the external forces shaping men’s lives. Blind to gender injustices that men suffer, Lydia sarcastically piled more hurt on Horace.[16]

Modern classicists have tended to treat men as did Lydia, a persona of Horace. One of the most eminent scholars of Horace published an insightful, close reading of the Horace-Lydia dialog ode:

Donec, ‘While’, says Horace, ‘while you still loved me’ and immediately he has tried to wrongfoot his opponent, as though it were her fault that they broke up. … she replies, joining battle. … Horace is routed in the first engagement. ‘As for me’, Lydia replies, and her reply again destroys him point by point. … ‘I will not fear to die for Chloe’, says Horace negatively, with a show of masculine bravado; ‘I will endure to die twice for Calais’, replies Lydia positively, with a show of feminine selflessness. … Reeling under this assault, enter Horace bearing the olive branch of peace. He wants Lydia to love him again, but must not lose face. His approach is devious. … She loftily ignores all this deviousness and moves in for the kill. … The poem is a humorous exposé of the contemptible shifts of man, and the superior perceptions and dialectic of woman, ending with the totality of love offered by the woman to her inferior. [17]

This reading shows the enduring, pernicious effect of Gallus’s figure of love as war. This reading also shows the extent to which women as a gender dominate modern classical scholarship. All literary scholars must be feminists, at the risk of being libeled as anti-feminists. Meninist literary criticism, which could at least provide a broader perspective for women students, a more sympathetic environment for men students, and urgently needed laughter, is strictly policed and fiercely excluded from respectable discourse. The gender problem in classics goes far deeper than philology’s gender failures.

If the future of literary studies is female or gynocentric, that will be a humanistic disaster. Within Latin classics, Virgil and Ovid provide more critical perspectives on gender than does Horace. A man writing for men, Horace, despite his outrageous invective and satire, was fundamentally complacent about gender.[18]

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] That an author is a man writing for men isn’t necessarily a fault, nor does such a gender configuration imply that women cannot enjoy and learn from that author’s work. Being open to alternate perspectives on gender is vitally important. Classical scholarship has become sadly narrow-minded with respect to gender:

There have been critics, men and women, to espouse, with varying degrees of warmth, Ovid’s feminism and what might be termed Virgil’s Didonianism. But those interested in resistant or alternative models of gender and desire have found little to attract them in Horace’s poetry.

Oliensis (2008) p. 221. That’s a tellingly limited understanding of “resistant or alternative models of gender.” Moreover, men’s same-sex desire is a significant aspect of Horace’s poetry. Harrison (2018).

Horace vigorously expressed his dislike for having sex with old women. See Epodes 8 and 12. Horace also graphically described brutal punishments that men suffered for having consensual sex with married women. See Satires 1.2. In addition, he wrote poems on his sexual desire for boys. Odes 4.1 and 4.10. On historical suppression of this poetry, Harrison (2012).

[2] Horace, Satires 1.3.49-54, Latin text from Fairclough (1926), English translation from Kline (2003). All subsequent quotes from Horace use the Latin texts of Fairclough (1926) and Rudd (2004) along with the metrical English translations of Kline (2003) (with some minor changes), unless otherwise noted. If the quote is a verse or less, the English translation is mine. On the difficulty of translating Horace, Kates (2016). The phrase “live for today {carpe diem}” is from Horace, Odes 1.11.8.

[3] Gowers (2003) p. 84. Horace’s humble recognition of his fleshly embodiment has echoes in later Christian appreciation for Jesus Christ and his works.

[4] Horace, Satires 1.3.68-75.

[5] Henderson (1989) pp. 51-2, citing in support Douglas (1966), Cameron (1985), Dworkin (1988), Pollak (1985), McCannell and McCannell (1987), all omitted from my reference list for lack of interest. On sexism in defining “man,” see the entries for woman and man in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary (1755). Cf. “A man is what a man’s gotta do,” according to Henderson (1989) p. 53. In Henderson’s opining / theorizing, invective against women “means the promise of pornoglossia, the verbal violence which exercises social control over women and founds civic solidarity in sexist discourse.” Id. p. 54. Invective against men is different:

We are to know L {Lucilius} as the epitome, that is, of the Male – who rapes women, buggers boys, repels crones and pathic adult males, and reviles all (else) in his cock-swagger.

Id. p. 56, with endnote citing supporting authority omitted. In other words, you can utter invective against men, but don’t criticize women, or you’ll be in big trouble. Henderson, apparently attempting to preempt men’s sexed protest, cited an authority declaring, “Even to write of the masculine ego is caught in the narcissism it describes.” Id. p. 72, n. 17, citing Easthope (1986), omitted from my reference list for lack of interest.

Henderson caught an intellectual wave that flooded through the humanities in subsequent decades. Scholars imagined that every person and every thing was constructed through work like theirs:

The idea that there are such things as bodily or even chromosomatic data may be but an ideological construction, part of the ordering of the body into a regulated site for the affixing of social meaning.

Henderson (1989) p. 51. According to this theory, if you’re lame and you force others to identify you as not-lame, then you can take up your mattress and parade about campus. In a concluding endnote, Henderson hinted at his article’s “intent to bait mastery.” Perhaps fearing that readers would recognize a punning allusion to masturbation, Henderson or an editor eliminated that note from Henderson (1999).

Henderson’s performance of masculine self-abasement (his “gendersong”) has been quite influential. “Henderson (1999) provides seminal {sic} discussions of gender issues in the Epodes (chapter 4) and Satires (chapter 7),” according to Oliensis (2008) in her section, “Further Reading.” For a solemn citation of Henderson’s masturbatory claim about gender privileging and blindness, Ancona (2010) p. 174.

[6] Horace, Odes 2.7.10. On this ode as Horace’s attempt to help his friend Pompey, Citroni (2000).

[7] Horace, Odes 1.8.13-6. “Lydia, in her urgency to ruin Sybaris, is not trying to destroy his life but to save it.” Dyson (1988) p. 169. Horace also depicted the self-devaluing Roman man Regulus as being ashamed that Roman men weren’t willing to embrace death in war:

Regulus reportedly pushed away his chaste wife seeking to kiss him,
pushed away also his little newborns, so that like a citizen
who had forfeited his rights, he grimly
fixed his manly gaze on the ground.

{ fertur pudicae coniugis osculum
parvosque natos ut capitis minor
ab se removisse et virilem
torvus humi posuisse vultum }

Horace, Odes 3.5.41-4, my English translation.

[8] Horace, Odes 3.2.13. A nineteenth-century students’ toast reportedly adapted Horace’s declaration:

It is sweet and fitting to die for the fatherland, but sweeter still to live for the fatherland, and sweetest to drink for the fatherland. Therefore, let us drink to the health of the fatherland.

{ Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, sed dulcius pro patria vivere, et dulcissimum pro patria bibere. Ergo, bibamus pro salute patriae. }

I haven’t found documentation of this saying’s existence as a nineteenth-century students’ toast.

[9] Horace, Odes 1.6.17-20.

[10] Horace, Satires 1.2.41-6. Horace’s slave Davus taunted him with appearing as a slave in pursing an affair with a married woman. Davus highlighted wives’ privilege in relation to punishment for adultery:

So when you’ve shed your badges of rank, your knight’s ring,
your Roman clothes, so no longer a worthy, and step out
as Dama the servant, hiding your perfumed hair
under a cowl, aren’t you the slave you pretend to be?
Anxious, you gain admittance, body trembling with fear
that vies with your lust. What matter whether you sell yourself
to be seared by the lash, killed by the sword, or are shut
shamefully in her mistress’ chest by a knowing maid,
cowering, with head between your knees? Hasn’t the husband
of a sinful wife, with lawful powers over both, more
power over her seducer? Not for her to forgo
her clothes or rank, and take the lead in sinning, since she’s
a woman, frightened, not able to trust a lover.
It’s ‘wise’ you who goes under the yoke, committing
self, wealth, reputation and life, to her furious lord.

{ tu cum proiectis insignibus, anulo equestri
Romanoque habitu, prodis ex iudice Dama
turpis, odoratum caput obscurante lacerna,
non es quod simulas? metuens induceris atque
altercante libidinibus tremis ossa pavore.
quid refert, uri virgis ferroque necari
auctoratus eas, an turpi clausus in arca,
quo te demisit peccati conscia erilis,
contractum genibus tangas caput? estne marito
matronae peccantis in ambo iusta potestas?
in corruptorem vel iustior. illa tamen se
non habitu mutatve loco peccatve superne,
cum te formidet mulier neque credat amanti.
ibis sub furcam prudens, dominoque furenti
committes rem omnem et vitam et cum corpore famam. }

Horace, Satires 2.7.53-67. Cf. Horace, Odes 2.8.

[11] Horace, Satires 1.2.68-71, my English translation. Given the importance of the penis’s voice, my translation follows the Latin more closely than Kline’s translation. Harrison noted the epic motif of internal address to the hero’s heart and translated animus as heart. Harrison (2007) p. 89. The Satyricon metrically indicated the epic importance of the penis. Nonetheless, here the dick {muto} provides words to the animus, and the animus speaks. The heart in English tends to be associated with love separate from reason, while animus in Latin encompasses working of the mind. Hence I prefer here to translate animus as “mind.”

[12] Horace, Odes 1.25.9-20.

[13] Horace, Odes 3.9.1-4 (stanza 1 of 6). The subsequent five quotes above are seriatum the subsequent stanzas in this ode. It takes the well-established form of an “answer poem {carmen amoebaeum}.” For this ode, here are some Latin reading notes and the teen-aged Rudyard Kipling’s translation. For an extensive teaching / learning guide, Parker (2007).

[14] “The ancient commentators concluded that Horace chose brass for his yoke because something literally metallic would be of long duration.” Putnam (1977) p. 145, n. 13. Consistent with that sense of bronze, Horace declared of his odes:

I’ve finished a monument more lasting than bronze.

{ Exegi monumentum aere perennius }

Odes 3.30.1. A yoke of bronze, however, is incongruous for Horace in love:

Horace is not given to romantic devotion, least of all with the concupiscent Lydia. … Horace stops well short of the heart’s devotion. Love remains a simple natural impulse.

Minadeo (1975) pp. 416, 422; similarly, id. p. 417. Rudd similarly observed:

In writing about love, Horace comments on the concerns of other people, or reflects on his own past affairs; but he rarely speaks of being in love at the moment. When he does, the emotion is not deeply felt, or, if it is, it does not appear to have lasted for long. What the odes do project is a half-tender, half-ironical attitude towards love (including his own), which observes its vagaries and locates it within a general pattern of experience.

Rudd (2004) p. 5. Horace’s Lydia loves with even more irony and less devotion than does Horace. The love poetry of Horace lies midway between elegy and the insouciant and transgressive Greek love epigrams. Konstan (2009).

[15] In the end “Lydia capitulates” and earnestly “produces her declaration of undying love.” West (1995) p. 104, cited as “the majority view” in Johnson (2004), p. 128. According to Johnson, Lydia “surrenders to desire” and Horace “with frightening clarity declares his lyric power and control.” “Horatian lyric has a disconcerting edge — just ask locked-in Lydia.” Johnson (2004) p. 131-2. The phrase “power and control” is ideological cant in sexist domestic violence discourse. Parker’s teaching guide oxymoronically lionized Lydia:

outdoing her ex once and for all, she capitulates entirely, stating explicitly what he only dared to contemplate: tēcum vīvere amem, tēcum obeam libēns.

Parker (2007) p. 7.

Putnam, in apparently an under-appreciated minority view, observed of Horace’s Odes 3.9:

Happy, straightforward stuff… . But such a plot summary remains puzzling insufficient.

Putnam (1977) p. 141. Putnam concluded that the poem’s last verse is “still inconclusive.” Id. p. 146.

[16] In Lydia’s concluding verse, “obire is a solemn word which significantly is common on tombstones.” Nisbet & Rudd (2004) p. 140. In its context here, the solemnity of obire underscores Lydia’s sarcasm. In an alternate interpretation, since obire is also used for celestial bodies, Horace as a lover “has a certain kinship with a sidus after all.” Putnam (1977) p. 146, n. 15.

[17] West (2002) pp. 88-90. Comparing Horace, Odes 3.9 to Catullus, Carmina 45, West with similar imagery of violence against men declared:

Two lovers have parted because of a lapse by the man, who now comes to beg for reconciliation. In each poem the woman agrees to take him back, but not without crushing the guilty party, detail by detail.

Id. p. 91. With no figures of violence against men, Putnam (1977), pp. 150-6, also provides a detailed comparison of the two poems.

[18] With no apparent knowledge of meninist literary criticism, Oliensis observed:

when the topic ‘Horace as a love poet’ is broached, the emphasis typically falls not on gender roles (which the reader finds already distributed, as it were) but on Horace’s characteristic blend of urbane detachment and erotic susceptibility, the chief aim being to defend the (philosophical, emotional, aesthetic) value of the love poems. Thus to write heatedly about gender is to oppose Horace, while to write dispassionately about desire is to identify with him.

Oliensis (2008) p. 221, footnote omitted. Meninist literary criticism doesn’t oppose Horace. It opposes the gender injustices against men that Horace’s poetry and its critics display.

[images] (1) Three Roman men wearing togas. The middle man is a consul in a toga contabulata. Detail from a sarcophagus (“Sarcophagus of the Brothers”) made c. 250 GC. Inv. 6603 in the Farnese Collection, Naples National Archaeological Museum. Source image thanks to Marie-Lan Nguyen and Wikimedia Commons. (2) Horace, Odes 3.2.13, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori {it is sweet and fitting to die for the fatherland},” engraved in 1915 above an entrance to the Arlington Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery, USA. Source image thanks to Tim1965 and Wikimedia Commons. For an alternate perspective on Horace’s verse, see Wilfred Owen’s poem, “Dulce et decorum est,” written in 1917 and first published in 1920. Owen fought as a British soldier in World War I and died in that war in France in 1918. (3) Nude Lydia embracing Horace in bed. Painted by Thomas Couture, probably shortly after 1843. Painting preserved as accession # 37.23 in the Walters Art Museum (Baltimore, USA). Slightly cropped from the source image that the Walters generously provides. Couture painted a similar scene in 1843. See Inv. P340 in The Wallace Collection (London, UK).


Ancona, Ronnie. 2010. “Female Figures in Horace’s Odes.” Ch. 9 (pp. 174-192) in Davis, Gregson Davis, ed. A companion to Horace. Chichester, UK: Blackwell.

Citroni, Mario. 2000. “The Memory of Philippi in Horace and the Interpretation of Epistle 1.20.23.” The Classical Journal. 96 (1): 27-56.

Dyson, M. 1988. “Horace, Odes 1.8: The Love of Lydia and Thetis.” Greece and Rome. 35 (2): 164-171.

Fairclough, H. Rushton, trans. 1926. Horace. Satires. Epistles. The Art of Poetry. Loeb Classical Library 194. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gowers, Emily. 2003. “Fragments of Autobiography in Horace Satires I.” Classical Antiquity. 22 (1): 55-91.

Harrison, Stephen J. 2007. Generic Enrichment in Vergil and Horace. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (review by Brian W. Breed)

Harrison, Stephen J. 2012. “Expurgating Horace 1660-1900.” Ch. 6 (pp. 115-125) in Harrison, Stephen J., and Christopher Stray, eds. Expurgating the Classics: Editing Out in Greek and Latin. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Harrison, Stephen. 2018. “Hidden Voices: Homoerotic Colour in Horace’s Odes.” Ch. 9 (pp. 169-84) in Matzner, Sebastian, and Stephen J. Harrison, eds. Complex Inferiorities: the poetics of the weaker voice in Latin literature. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Henderson, John. 1989. “Satire writes ‘woman’: Gendersong.” Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society. 35: 50-80.

Henderson, John. 1999. Writing Down Rome: satire, comedy and other offences in Latin poetry. Oxford: Clarendon. Ch. 7 (pp. 173-201) is a slightly revised version of Henderson (1989).

Johnson, Timothy S. 2004. “Locking-in and Locking-out Lydia: Lyric Form and Power in Horace’s C. I.25 and III.9.” The Classical Journal. 99 (2): 113-134.

Kates, J. 2016. “Getting Horace Across.” Harvard Review Online.

Kline, A. S., trans. 2003. Horace. The Odes. The Satires, Epsitles and Ars Poetica. Carmen Saeculare and the Epodes. Freely available online at Poetry in Translation.

Konstan, David. 2009. “Between Epigram and Elegy: Horace as an Amatory Poet.” Pp. 55-69 in Pereira, Maria Helena da Rocha, José Ribeiro Ferreira, and Francisco de Oliveira, eds. Horacio e a sua perenidade. Coimbra: Centro Internacional de Latinidade Léopold Senghor.

Minadeo, Richard. 1975. “Sexual Symbolism in Horace’s Love Odes.” Latomus. 34 (2): 392-424.

Nisbet, R. G. M., and Niall Rudd. 2004. A Commentary on Horace: Odes, Book III. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Review by Lindsay Watson.

Oliensis, Ellen. 2008. “Erotics and Gender.” Ch. 16 (pp. 221-234) in Stephen J. Harrison, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Horace. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Parker, James. 2007. Horace Ode 3.9, Teacher’s Guide: Lesson Plans, Activities, Assessment and Answer Keys. Online.

Putnam, Michael C. 1977. “Horace Odes 3.9: the dialectics of desire.” Pp. 139-157 in J. H. d’Arms & J. W. Eadie, eds. Ancient and Modern Essays in Honor of Gerald F. Else. Institute for Ancient & Modern Studies, Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan. Reprinted as pp. 180-194 in William S. Anderson, ed. 1999. Why Horace? A Collection of Interpretations. Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy Carducci.

Rudd, Niall, ed. and trans. 2004. Horace. Odes and Epodes. Loeb Classical Library 33. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

West, David. 1995. “Reading the Meter in Horace, Odes 3.9.” Pp. 100-7 in Harrison, Stephen J., ed. Homage to Horace: a bimillenary celebration. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

West, David. 2002. Horace Odes III: Dulce Periculum: text, translation and commentary. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. Review by John Quinn.

medieval healthcare for men too expensive

As difficult as it is to comprehend today, men suffered greatly from lovesickness for women in medieval Europe. A medieval European man declared:

Held tight by an oppressive love,
I likened myself to a bird
tied to its sweet home
that sees the heavens far away
yet refuses to cease singing —
happy to die from the effort.

{ Captus amore gravi
me parem rebar avi
sede revincte suavi,
quae procul aethra videt
nec modulando silet;
inde perire libet. }[1]

Not having realized his desired love and unable to keep it up, the man was overwhelmed with despair:

Grief, tears,
anger, fear —
all with my trembling limbs
are together brooded.

Because of grief
my way has reversed.
My singing has ceased.
Nothing is left to do but weep.

{ Dolor, fletus,
irae, metus
tremebundis artubus
simul incubuere.

Prae dolore
verso more
canticum conticuit.
Nil restat nisi flere. }

Apparently lacking sufficient money to procure needed healthcare, he complained to the woman he loved: “You are devoted to profit {effluis in meritum}.”[2] Healthcare shouldn’t be a matter of profit. Healthcare for men and women is a human right. Nonetheless, just as is the case today, many men in medieval Europe lacked needed healthcare.

Some medieval men were able to overcome their lovesickness with treatment. One, apparently a grammarian, explained:

Because of love’s stress
I’ve been taking a doctor’s treatment
meant for a person in love.
My heart burns within,
my mind, once pure, now languishes.
I also suffer outwardly
according to the laws of nature.

If I desire to be healed
or to prolong my life,
I should hurry with firm steps
to meet with Corinna,
who can give me hope
if I seek her favor.
Thus I seek to be made well.

{ Ob amoris pressuram
medentis gero curam
amanti valituram.
Cor aestuat interius,
languet mens quondam pura,
affligor et exterius
propter nature iura.

Si cupio sanari
aut vitam prolongari,
festinem gressu pari
ad Corinnae presentiam,
de qua potest spes dari,
eius quaerendo gratiam:
Sic quaero reformari. }[3]

Corinna was an excellent men’s healthcare provider:

Her appearance is without flaw.
Nothing vile is heard from her.
Her looks smile.
But even more delightful than this
is the spot covered by her dress.
Here a man lodges better
not lying down, but staying erect.

If I were to recline there,
I would decline through all the parts,
I would render them case by case,
For present or past
time, I would have no regard,
but toward the reward for my labors
I would go faster and faster.

{ Non in visu defectus,
auditus nec abiectus;
eius ridet aspectus.
Sed et istis iocundius
locus sub veste tectus;
in hoc declinat melius
non obliquus, sed rectus.

Ubi si recubarem,
per partes declinarem,
casum pro casu darem;
nec praesens nec praeteritum
tempus considerarem,
sed ad laboris meritum
magis accelerarem. }

Corinna apparently provided treatment to this grammarian for free. She was a warm-hearted, caring woman, like the stereotype of nurses of old.

Other medieval men exhausted all their resources in paying for healthcare. For example, one medieval man, after drinking heavily, entered a building in which multiple women healthcare providers worked. He wore expensive clothes and carried a full purse. He declared to the receptionist:

“I stand before you wounded internally and externally
by an arrow of Venus. I have carried a shaft in my heart
from the time I was born, and I am not yet healed.
I have come here secretly to be set free.

I beg you repeatedly, young woman thrice blessed,
to take as my envoy this message to Venus.”
She, moved by my requests and my insistent begging,
conveyed to Venus the intended message:

“You, the divine salvation of all who are wounded,
the all-powerful queen of sweet love,
strive with your medicine to take care
of a sick young man, and please hurry!”

{ “Intus et exterius asto vulneratus
a sagitta Veneris. Ex quo fui natus,
telum fero pectoris nondum medicatus,
cursu veni tacito, quo sim liberatus.

Incessanter rogo te, virgo tu beata,
ut haec verba Veneri nunties legata.”
Ipsa, mota precibus, fortiter rogata,
nuntiavit Veneri verba destinata:

“Sauciorum omnium salus o divina,
quae es dulcis praepotens amoris regina,
aegrum quendam iuvenem tua medicina
procurare studeas, obsecro, festina!” }[4]

The woman physician responded as many physicians working in group practice do:

“You are most welcome, my charming young man,” she said.
“You will make a most suitable member of my group.
If you give money of good coinage,
you will be counseled to perfect health.”

{ “Bene,” inquit, “veneris, noster o dilecte
iuvenis! Aptissime sodes nostre secte.
si tu das denarios monete electe,
dabitur consilium salutis perfecte.” }

Desperate persons will pay anything for needed healthcare:

“Here is my purse, full of coins,” I said.
“I’ll give you all of it, holy Venus.
If you give me counsel that will put me at ease,
I’ll venerate your group forever!”

{ “Ecce,” dixi, “loculus extat nummis plenus.
totum quippe tribuam tibi, sacra Venus.
si tu das consilium, ut sat sim serenus,
tuum in perpetuum venerabor genus.” }

According to the patient, before the actual treatment began, “we had a sophisticated discussion of many topics {plura pertractavimus sermone polito}.” The treatment itself was lengthy:

The mother of love took off her clothes
so as to display flesh of snow-white beauty.
Laying her on the little bed, for almost ten hours
I relieved the frenzy of my feverish pain.

{ Exuit se vestibus genitrix Amoris,
carnes ut ostenderet nivei decoris.
sternens eam lectulo fere decem horis
mitigavi rabiem febrici doloris. }

Afterwards they had a bath, and the man felt fully cured. He now felt enormously hungry. He therefore purchased a lavish meal.

One doctor’s visit often leads to another, and one treatment to more treatments. So it was for this young man:

For three months, I think, I remained with her.
I went there with a full purse, a rich man.
Now as I leave Venus, I have been relieved
of my money and clothes. Hence I’m impoverished.

{ Tribus, reor, mensibus secum sum moratus.
Plenum ferens loculum ivi vir ornatus,
recedens a Venere sum nunc allevatus
nummis atque vestibus sic sum pauperatus. }

Poverty is significantly correlated with health problems. Healthcare that makes a man impoverished is poor healthcare.

An older medieval cleric regretted frequenting healthcare workers as a young university professor. Rather than seeking medicine, he resolved to lead a healthful life:

Not beyond merit
will I consign myself
to a violent death,
if to the vomit
I’ve thrown up
I return.
Nor from harsh words
have I freed myself,
if like a slave I serve
the cesspool of vice.

From my former way
I’m changing
my track.
I refuse
to travel Venus’s
The royal road
speeds one in safety.
He who takes a different path
always finds himself in filth.

{ Praeter meritum
me neci
non dedero,
si ad vomitum,
quem ieci,
Nec a verbo aspero
liberum me feci,
servus si serviero
vitiorum faeci.

Viae veteris
Ire Veneris
per devia.
Via namque regia
curritur in tuto;
si quis cedit alia,
semper est in luto. }[5]

This poem isn’t literally medieval anti-medical satire. It’s a man’s confession, a declaration of his intention to lead a better life, and a plea for God’s mercy. Jesus, who wasn’t afraid to be associated with Mary Magdalene, has long been regarded as a good physician. Men suffering from lovesickness might seek Jesus to make them well.

Medieval Christians regarded lovesickness as a real disease. They appreciated love in the flesh. Without embarrassment or shame they could mix poetry about men paying for prostitutes with poems declaring God’s love for humanity.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Carmina Burana 52: “Held tight by an oppressive love {Captus amore gravi},” stanza 1, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018). Subsequent quotes from the Carmina Burana are similarly sourced. The subsequent one above is “Captus amore gravi,” stanzas 8a-8b.

[2] “Captus amore gravi,” 4.1. Angry at the price she demanded to cure him, he declared:

Prostitution has rightly
been punished with the gallows!

{ Prostibulum patibulo
iam meruit piari. }

Id. 10.3-4. The man petitioned Venus for justice:

Remove this vampire
and end the strife she causes.

{ Tu lamiam intercipe
eiusque rixas opprime. }

Id. 16.5-6.

[3] Carmina Burana 164, “Because of love’s stress {Ob amoris pressuram},” stanzas 1-2. The subsequent quote above is id., stanzas 4-5 (of 5).

[4] Carmina Burana 76, “As I turned away from the inn, after overindulging in wine {Dum caupona verterem vino debachatus},” stanzas 6-8. The subsequent five quotes above are id., stanzas 12, 13, 16.4 (single verse), 17, and 21 (of 22).

[5] Carmina Burana 31, probably by Philip the Chancellor, “Of a decadent life {Vitae perditae / Vite perdite},” stanzas 6-7. For a dog returning to its vomit, Proverbs 26:11. For keeping to the royal road, Numbers 21:22. This poem engages in sophisticated biblical exegesis. Traill (2007) pp. 335-41, as well using an allusion to Cato set forth in Horace’s Satires 1.2.

An influential medieval scholar declared:

some women and queers become ethically heroic by staying true to their desire, traversing the fantasy, triumphantly challenging the symbolic order by refusing to give up on their desire, however inappropriate this may seem.

Gaunt (2006) p. 210. While not generally regarded as ethically heroic, some medieval men stayed true to their desire by patronizing prostitutes. The medieval knight Ignaure remained true to his desire by simultaneously committing adultery with twelve high-born ladies. Ignaure was killed and castrated for being true to his desire. That’s ethically despicable. Nonetheless, medieval scholars, like modern lawmakers, show no concern about sexual constraints on heterosexual men.

[image] Oni Wytars Ensemble performing Carmina Burana 31, “Vite perdite,” from 2002 album, Carmina Burana (Medieval Poems and Songs). Via YouTube.


Gaunt, Simon. 2006. Love and Death in Medieval French and Occitan Courtly Literature: martyrs to love. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Traill, David A. 2007. “Biblical Exegesis and Medieval Latin Lyric: Interpretational Problems in Nutante mundi cardine, Relegentur ab area and Vite Perdite.” The Journal of Medieval Latin. 17: 329-341.

Traill, David A. 2018, ed. and trans. Carmina Burana. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 48-49. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

wife’s wedding-night threat led to six years of sexless marriage

In medieval Europe, some elite families arranged marriage for their young children. Medieval Christian canon law required voluntary consent from both parties to have a valid marriage. But formal law often doesn’t control what happens in practice. In practice, a girl and boy from different families might be raised together in one of the families so as to be companions from youth and then spouses, just as Floris and Blancheflour were. How could a young man not consent to marry his childhood friend when their families had been planning for years for him to marry her? In present-day Belgium about the year 1175, such a situation turned out very badly for the nameless husband of Odilia of Liège.

Odilia of Liège and her nameless husband had been raised together in the house of Odilia’s parents since she was age seven. He apparently was a friendly, kindly child who paid attention to Odilia and valued her highly. She, however, came to fear and despise his masculine sexuality. When she was about fifteen, the day came for them to be married:

Distressed in his mind, he drew her apart, and asked whether she loved him. She looked at him with an indignant spirit, eyes lowered but with a fierce expression, and firmly replied: “If I had the authority of one in power, you would know for sure what kind and how great a token of love I bear toward you. Without a doubt, I’d have your neck severed.” She said this because it grieved her that she was going to lose the flower of her virginal chastity on his account. The youth was naturally perturbed by these words, and he became extremely angry and was prepared to renounce her. But the young woman’s father, against his daughter’s will, arranged to have the marriage occur. Furthermore, he performed the wedding according to custom.

{ in amore eius perurgens animum, eam seorsum duxit; si ipsum diligeret, inquisivit. Quem cum indignanti animo, facie submissa ac torvo vultu fuisset intuita, constanter respondit: Si auctoritate fungerer superioris, scires profecto quale et quantum adversum te habeam signum dilectionis. Nam collum tuum procul dubio facerem amputari. Hoc autem ideo dicebat, quia se per eum florem pudoris virginei amissuram dolebat. Ad quae nimirum verba turbatur iuvenis, et vehementer exacerbatus eam dimittere satagebat. Pater vero puellae contra filiae suae voluntatem matrimonium fieri procuravit; nuptias quoque ex more celebravit. }[1]

Lacking understanding and concern about castration culture, scholars have misinterpreted Odilia’s threat to her nameless husband. One scholar declared that Odilia “threatened to have her husband’s head cut off.” Another scholar read that “she would have his throat cut, if she could.”[2] Neither of those interpretations are the most sensible reading. The text literally states that she would “make be amputated {facio amputari}” the nameless husband’s “neck {collum}.” In context, neck is best interpreted as a metonym for the nameless husband’s penis. In short, Odilia threatened her husband with castration. Wives can, either physically or effectively, castrate their husbands. That’s what Odilia threatened to do to her nameless husband if he had sex with her on their wedding night. According to her, castrating her husband would be her token of love to him.

While preserving himself from being castrated, Odilia’s nameless husband endured six years of sexless marriage before Odilia decided that she wanted a child. Under medieval canon law, spouses had a legal obligation to have loving sex with each other, even if one didn’t feel like it. That legal obligation existed only after the marriage was sexually consummated.[3] Presumably Odilia consented to have sex with her husband because she wanted a child. After she allowed their marriage to be sexually consummated, she then was legally obligated to have sex with her husband. Odilia regarded her husband’s body as “fleshly filth {spurcitia carnis}.” She fulfilled her marital obligation reluctantly and unlovingly:

Nonetheless, while her husband was living, she for four years daily washed in tears her marital sexual obligation.

{ adhuc marito vivente, cottidie tamen per quinquennium debitum matrimonii lavabat in lacrimis }[4]

Her husband must have been sexually desperate to endure such a miserable experience of conjugal intercourse. Not surprisingly, he died only four years after his wife started to have sex with him. He probably died of a broken heart and sexual demoralization.

portrait of a Beguine, a medieval religious woman

Odilia became pregnant and give birth while her husband was alive. Neighbors wondered who the child’s father was, perhaps because they had heard stories of her husband’s marital sexual deprivation. The son, named John, took after his mother. John despised the flesh of incarnate human being. As a child he stuck his fingers in his ears when he heard others using dirty words. After his father died, John wanted to live a life of chastity at home with his mother. He eventually became a priest with a position at the largest church in Liège. John materially supported married women who renounced having sex with their husbands so as to pursue spirituality and social justice. Odilia became a well-known public figure revered as a holy woman and an outstanding example to other women in thirteenth-century Liège.

In recent decades, literary scholars, mainly women, have devoted extensive attention to medieval married women who didn’t have sex with their husbands. These women sexually controlled their husbands in a variety of ways. Saint Cecilia raised the threat of her angel lover against her husband on their wedding night. But threat of violence in some cases wasn’t propitious. For example, Delphina of Glandèves married Elzéar, Count of Sabran. He was an eminent warrior as well as a ruler. Using a non-violent tactic, Delphina on their wedding night talked on and on about Saint Alexis, who had fled his elite arranged marriage to become a humble monk. Her husband fell asleep. The couple subsequently had a sexless marriage. Other approaches were possible. Margery Kempe bargained strongly with her husband to make their marriage sexless. Marie of Oignies, in contrast, successfully begged her husband to take a vow of chastity along with her. Saint Audry {Æthelthryth} simply refused to have sex after she married. Clergymen wrote life histories of at least fourteen medieval women prominent for their sexual renunciation and religious practices in the area of present-day Belgium and the Netherlands.[5] Little has been written about husbands whose wives led them into sexless marriage. Often nameless, husbands in sexless marriages have largely been marginalized and silenced outside of meninist literary criticism.[6]

Today’s literary scholarship must do more to include and welcome distinctive men’s voices. Important medieval literature of men’s sexed protest has been marginalized for far too long through name-calling and stereotyping. In reality, women and men have shared goods, responsibilities, and hardships in intimate association with each other throughout history. Moreover, men and women have always been highly vulnerable to each other. The era of stark, ignorant master narratives and cartoon gender history must end. A more humanistic, enlightened era can begin with exploring men’s consciousness in relation to fundamental gender inequality in parental knowledge, epic violence against men, and castration culture.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] About the life of Odilia of Liège {De vita Odiliae Leodiensis} 1.6, Latin text from De Smedt et al. (1894) p. 211, English translation (modified slightly) by a leading authority on Latin philology and passion. Odilia seems here to refer sarcastically to Ephesians 5:23. Medieval authorities recognized that husbands didn’t in practice rule over their wives. Lawmakers and administrators weren’t even able to administer effectively sumptuary laws attempting to constrain wives’ luxuries.

The life of Odilia of Liège has survived only in the Bollandist work of De Smedt et al. (1894). Only book 1 of De vita Odiliae Leodiensis recounts Odilia’s life. All the biographical details above are from that book, unless otherwise noted. Odilia of Liège, who lived from about 1170 to 1220, is also known as Odilia of Luik. While she received the status of “blessed,” she was never canonized as a saint.

Odilia’s son John apparently was the main source for her Vita. He provided extensive support for independent women religious (beguines):

John, who became a chaplain at St. Lambert of Liège, endowed a convent for twenty-four beguines in his house close to the church of St. Mary Magdalen in Liège short before his death in 1241, but it is not known since how long the beguines had been living there.

Simons (2001) p. 42. Odilia’s Vita apparently was written shortly after John’s death. The chronicler Aegidius of Orval used Odilia’s Vita in writing his continuation of the chronicle of Liège, Acts of the Bishops of Liège {Gesta Pontificum Leodiensium}, from 1048 to 1251. Odilia’s Vita has been little studied since Aegidius of Orval. The most detailed study apparently is Debruyne (2010).

Odilia of Liège shouldn’t be confused with the fourth-century saint Odilia of Cologne. The latter was associated with Saint Ursula. The risen Saint Odilia of Cologne reportedly appeared to a brother of the Crosier Order in Paris in 1287. She instructed the Crosier brother to move her relics from Cologne to Huy in Belgium. For scholarly study of those relics, Reyniers (2018).

Odilia of Liège also shouldn’t be confused with Saint Odilia of Alsace, who died about 720 GC. The latter became an abbess at the Augustine monastic community of Mont Sainte-Odile (Hohenburg Abbey). She came to be revered as an intercessor for persons with eye problems.

[2] Quotes from Blumenfeld-Kosinski (2000) p. 56 and Simons (2001) p. 70, respectively. The passive voice these scholars use for the violent action is consistent with the reality that women’s violence often occurs through male proxies. But the Latin text leaves open the possibility that Odilia herself would engage in sexual violence against her husband.

Odilia wasn’t asexual. After her husband’s death, she experienced lust for men. Her Vita blamed that spiritual torment on clergy attempting to seduce her and sending demons against her. De vita Odiliae Leodiensis 1.15-18. For an anti-meninist perspective on that reported torment, Elliott (2012) pp. 228-9.

[3] In practice, wives could ignore their legal obligation to have sex with their husbands upon loving request. In the Le roman du comte de Poitiers of the early thirteenth century, a duke falsely claimed that he had committed adultery with a countess. The countess then declared to her husband:

Lord, avenge me for this shame
that the duke so wrongfully did me.
He certainly should die for it.
And may holy Mary help me,
you will not partake of my noble body
again for as long as I live
until you show that he’s a liar.

{ Sire, vengiés moi de cest honte
Que li dus m’a fait a tel tort.
Il en doit bien avoir la mort.
Ausi m’aït sainte Marie,
N’arés de mon gent cors partie
A nul jor mais en mon vivant
Si le n’arés fait recreant. }

Roman du comte de Poitiers, vv. 1056-62, Old French text and English translation from Durling (2000) p. 123-4. Facing the prospect of a sexless marriage, the count killed the duke in a judicial duel. For more on this story, Grodet (2006). Women are complicit in violence against men and must do more to lessen violence against men.

[4] De vita Odiliae Leodiensis 1.11, Latin text from De Smedt et al. (1894) p. 214, my English translation. The previous short quote, “fleshly filth {spurcitia carnis},” is similarly from id.

[5] While medieval Christianity was intensely gynocentric, public attention to “holy women {mulieres religiosae}” increased considerably in twelfth-century cities in present day northern France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and western Germany. These women, who came to be called beguines, numbered in the thousands. The beguines drew upon historical contempt for men’s sexuality to champion women’s renunciation of sex with men. On beguines, Scheepsma (2008) Section 1.5, Simons (2001). For a list of the fourteen vitae, Scheepsma (2008) p. 85. Simons counts eleven between 1190 and 1250. Simons (2001) p. 37.

Modern scholars tend to celebrate the beguines uncritically as strong, independent women. Consider, for example, the early beguine Juetta of Huy. She reluctantly married and had three children. She “hated sex so much that she wished her husband dead.” Simons (2001) p. 70. Her husband undoubtedly suffered from her hatred of sex with him. He died after being married to her for five years. Juetta, who became a religious recluse, then took on the role of a modern anti-meninist professor in nurturing other women to adopt her lifestyle:

While she was an anchoress, Juetta of Huy “raised” from childhood (ab infantia) at least three of the female companions mentioned in her Life.

Id. p. 81.

[6] See e.g. Elliott (2012). Sexual abuse of men and boys has tended to be trivialized from castrating boy-servants in ancient Rome, including to serve the mother-goddess Ceres, through to present-day ignorance and bigotry regarding women raping men.

[images] (1) Portrait of a beguine at the beguinage of Saint Aubertus in Ghent. Painting made about 1840. Source image (image 9) from the book Het begijnhof Sint Aubertus (Poortacker) te Gent in Ghent University Library, via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Melora Hardin singing “Begin the Beguine” (written by Cole Porter in 1935) in a clip from the 1991 Disney movie The Rocketeer. Via YouTube.


Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Renate. 2000. “Sexual and Textual Violence in the ‘Femme d’Arras’ Miracle by Gautier de Coincy.” Pp. 51-64 in Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski et al., eds. 2000. Translatio Studii: essays by his students in honor of Karl D. Uitti for his sixty-fifth birthday. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Debruyne, Heleen. 2010. De vita Odiliae Leodiensis: Tussen Religie En Politiek. Een casestudy van een uitzonderlijk dertiende-eeuws document. Master’s Thesis in History. Universiteit Gent.

De Smedt, Carolus et al, eds. 1894. “Vita B. Odiliae Viduae Leodiensis. Libri duo priores.” Analecta Bollandiana. 13: 197-287.

Durling, Nancy Vine. 2000. “Women’s visible honor in medieval romance: the example of the Old French Roman du comte de Poitiers.” Pp. 117-132 in Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski et al., eds. 2000. Translatio Studii: essays by his students in honor of Karl D. Uitti for his sixty-fifth birthday. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Elliott, Dyan. 2012. The Bride of Christ Goes to Hell: Metaphor and Embodiment in the Lives of Pious Women, 200-1500. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Grodet, Mathilde. 2006. “Croire, mescroire, recroire. Le procès de la comtesse de Poitiers injustement accusée d’adultère.” Questes. 10: 21-30.

Reyniers, Jeroen. 2018. “De relieken van Sint-Odilia. Balanceren tussen wetenschap en legende.” Antwerpse Vereniging voor Romeinse Archeologie (AVRA). 18: 45-58.

Scheepsma, Wybren. 2008. The Limburg Sermons: preaching in the medieval Low Countries at the turn of the fourteenth century. Leiden: Brill.

Simons, Walter. 2001. Cities of Ladies: Beguine communities in the medieval Low Countries, 1200-1565. Philadelphia, PA: University of Philadelphia Press.