holy mother Rachel weeping for the massacre of innocents: boys

massacre of innocents - boys, from Codex Egberti

About two millennia ago, the tyrant Herod heard that a boy had been born who would overthrow tyranny’s reign. Herod’s primitive surveillance method wisely didn’t reveal the boy’s location. The learned Roman poet Prudentius four centuries later wrote:

Crazed at the news, the tyrant shouts:
“My successor looms, I’m thrown out —
guards, go, take your swords,
drench the cradles in blood!

Every male infant shall die:
search the nurses’ bosoms,
and at his mother’s breast,
redden your sword with boy’s blood.

I suspect all who have given birth
in Bethlehem. They’re traitors,
underhand, ready to smuggle
their baby boys to safety.”

{ exclamat amens nuntio,
“successor instat, pellimur:
satelles, i, ferrum rape,
perfunde cunas sanguine!

mas omnis infans occidat,
scrutare nutricum sinus
interque materna ubera
ensem cruentet pusio.

suspecta per Bethlem mihi
puerperarum est omnium
fraus, ne qua furtim subtrahat
prolem virilis indolis.” } [1]

Women in the ancient world strove to save the boys. They failed:

Therefore the executioner,
crazed, sword drawn,
stabs the new-born bodies,
gashes the baby lives.

The killer can hardly find
space in the tiny limbs
for the cutting stab to penetrate,
the dagger is bigger than the throat.

O savage sight! A head
dashed on the stones
scatters the milk-white brains,
vomits the eyes from the wound.

Or a quivering infant is thrown
into the depths of the stream,
down there, his tiny throat gasps,
water with breath chokes him.

{ Transfigit ergo carnifex
mucrone destricto furens
effusa nuper corpora,
animasque rimatur novas.

Locum minutis artubus
vix interemptor invenit,
quo plaga descendat patens
iuguloque maior pugio est.

O barbarum spectaculum!
inlisa cervix cautibus
spargit cerebrum lacteum
oculosque per vulnus vomit.

Aut in profundum palpitans
mersatur infans gurgitem,
cui subter artis faucibus
singultat unda et halitus. }

A few decades later, the learned Roman poet Sedulius, writing in epic meter, invoked a simile before going on to describe the slaughter of boys and their mothers’ grief:

Groaning over the criminal deed snatched from him, like a voracious lion
from whose mouth a tender lamb suddenly slips free,
and who then launches an assault on the entire flock and mauls and rends
the soft animals, as the new mothers all trembling call for
their offspring in vain and fill the empty breezes with their bleatings,
even so Herod was provoked because Christ had been taken away from him,
and he kept on dashing to the ground and slaying masses of infants,
fierce in his unwarranted murder. …
Killing them at their first cries and daring to
perpetrate wickedness beyond number, he slaughtered boys
by the thousands and give a single lament to many mothers.
This one tore out her mangled hair from her bare scalp,
that one scored her cheeks. Another beat her bared breast with fists.
One unhappy mother, now a mother no longer,
bereft, pressed her breast to her son’s cold mouth — in vain.

{ Ereptumque gemens facinus sibi, ceu leo frendens,
Cuius ab ore tener subito cum labitur agnus,
In totum movet arma gregem manditque trahitque
Molle pecus — trepidaeque vocant sua pignera fetae
Nequiquam et vacuas implent balatibus auras —
Haut secus Herodes Christo stimulatus adempto
Sternere conlisas paruorum strage catervas
Inmerito non cessat atrox. …
primosque necans vagitus et audens
Innumerum patrare nefas puerilia mactat
Milia plangoremque dedit tot matribus unum.
Haec laceros crines nudato vertice rupit,
Illa genas secuit, nudum ferit altera pugnis
Pectus et infelix mater (nec iam modo mater)
Orba super gelidum frustra premit ubera natum. } [2]

This massacre was a brutal gendercide of boys. Like calling the massacre of the men of Shechem “the rape of Dinah,” calling Herod’s massacre of innocent boys “the Massacre of the Innocents” misrepresents the actual gender structure of violence.

horse's ass and soldier pissing

In 1611, the enormously influential King James translation of the Gospel of Matthew obscured gender in this massacre of innocent boys. The King James Bible told of Herod ordering the massacre of “children”:

Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men.

{ tunc Herodes videns quoniam inlusus esset a magis iratus est valde et mittens occidit omnes pueros qui erant in Bethleem et in omnibus finibus eius a bimatu et infra secundum tempus quod exquisierat a magis

τότε Ἡρῴδης ἰδὼν ὅτι ἐνεπαίχθη ὑπὸ τῶν μάγων ἐθυμώθη λίαν καὶ ἀποστείλας ἀνεῖλεν πάντας τοὺς παῖδας τοὺς ἐν Βηθλέεμ καὶ ἐν πᾶσι τοῖς ὁρίοις αὐτῆς ἀπὸ διετοῦς καὶ κατωτέρω κατὰ τὸν χρόνον ὃν ἠκρίβωσεν παρὰ τῶν μάγων } [3]

The underlying Greek word for those killed is the accusative plural for the substantive παῖς, which is cognate with the Latin puer. Both those words predominately imply “boy.” Moreover, Matthew almost surely was addressed to Jews pondering the significance of Jesus. A genealogy begins Matthew and roots Jesus in Jewish history. That genealogy lists Jacob as the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Joseph led Jesus and Mary into Egypt to save Jesus from Herod’s massacre. For Jews, Herod’s massacre and Joseph going to Egypt would have evoked the Pharaoh’s government and the Pharaoh’s order to the Hebrew midwives and then to all his people to kill all newly born Hebrew boys:

When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, she shall live.

Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live. [4]

{ וַיֹּאמֶר בְּיַלֶּדְכֶן אֶת־הָֽעִבְרִיֹּות וּרְאִיתֶן
עַל־הָאָבְנָיִם אִם־בֵּן הוּא וַהֲמִתֶּן אֹתֹו
וְאִם־בַּת הִיא וָחָֽיָה

וַיְצַ֣ו פַּרְעֹ֔ה לְכָל־עַמֹּ֖ו לֵאמֹ֑ר כָּל־הַבֵּ֣ן הַיִּלֹּ֗וד הַיְאֹ֨רָה֙
תַּשְׁלִיכֻ֔הוּ וְכָל־הַבַּ֖ת תְּחַיּֽוּן׃ ס }

A Jewish Christian writing Matthew would regard Jesus as the fulfillment of Hebrew scripture. Joseph taking Jesus into Egypt to escape Herod’s massacre would have been understood as paralleling Moses escape from the Pharaoh’s massacre of Hebrew boys and the Jewish people’s flight from Egypt. The learned Roman authors Prudentius, Sedulius, and Macrobius understood Herod’s massacre to have targeted boys.[5] Both linguistic and contextual evidence convincingly indicates that Matthew described Herod ordering gendercide. According to the best reading of Matthew, Herod ordered a massacre of innocent boys.[6]

Prior to the more repressive gynocentrism of the modern era, medieval authorities openly acknowledged the gynocentrism of Christian society. Writing about 885, Notker of St. Gall composed a poignant interior monologue for the eminent Jewish woman Rachel. She was the beloved wife of Jacob (Israel) and the mother of Joseph and Benjamin. Notker apparently thought deeply about Matthew’s description of Herod’s massacre of innocent boys:

Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.”

{ τότε ἐπληρώθη τὸ ῥηθὲν διὰ Ἰερεμίου τοῦ προφήτου λέγοντος: φωνὴ ἐν Ῥαμὰ ἠκούσθη κλαυθμὸς καὶ ὀδυρμὸς πολύς Ῥαχὴλ κλαίουσα τὰ τέκνα αὐτῆς καὶ οὐκ ἤθελεν παρακληθῆναι ὅτι οὐκ εἰσίν } [7]

Here Rachel is weeping for “children,” as represented by the accusative plural for the substantive τέκνον. The central meaning of that word is child, irrespective of sex. Rachel herself, however, didn’t give birth to any female children. The prophet Jeremiah, whom Matthew cited, invoked Rachel more abstractly as the mother of the children of Israel. Jeremiah chided Rachel for her weeping. He prophesied that a day would come when a woman would protect a man:

How long will you waver, O faithless daughter? For the Lord has created a new thing on the earth: woman protects man. [8]

{ עַד־מָתַי֙ תִּתְחַמָּקִ֔ין הַבַּ֖ת הַשֹּֽׁובֵבָ֑ה כִּֽי־בָרָ֨א יְהוָ֤ה
חֲדָשָׁה֙ בָּאָ֔רֶץ נְקֵבָ֖ה תְּסֹ֥ובֵֽב גָּֽבֶר׃ ס }

Women must not merely weep in sorrow for themselves. Women must do more to save men’s lives and to prevent wars.

In his sequence entitled “A virgin crying about a martyr {De uno martyre virgo plorans},” Notker depicted Rachel’s extraordinary concern for miserable men. Notker’s sequence begins:

Why do you, virgin

mother, cry,
lovely Rachel
whose face
delights Jacob?

As if your little sister’s
moistened eyes would please him!

Wipe dry, mother,
your flowing eyes.
How could be worthy of you
water-cracked cheeks?

{ Quid tu, virgo

mater, ploras,
Rachel formosa,
Cuius vultus
Jacob delectat?

Ceu sororis aniculae
Lippitudo eum iuvet!

Terge, mater,
fluentes oculos.
Quam te decent
genarum rimulae? } [9]

The reference to Rachel as a virgin mother associates her across time with the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. Rachel competed successfully with her sister Leah for Jacob’s heart-felt love. Yet in this sequence, Rachel displays the insecurity of a woman appreciating the importance of woman’s beauty to men. So incomprehensible in today’s thinking, Rachel sought to please her man’s gaze, and she was concerned to retain his affection.

Another voice within Rachel’s self-consciousness speaks differently. That voice laments to herself:

Alas, alas, alas,
why do you accuse me
of having shed tears in vain?
Now I am without
my son, who in my poverty
alone would have cared for me.

He would not yield to the enemy
the paltry territory
which for me
Jacob had acquired.
His stupid brothers —
the many, sad to say,
that I have brought forth —
he would have helped.

{ Heu, heu, heu,
quid me incusatis fletus
incassum fudisse.
Cum sim orbata
nato, paupertatem meam
qui solus curaret,

Qui non hostibus cederet
angustos terminos,
quos mihi
Jacob adquisivit;
Quique stolidis fratribus,
quos multos, pro dolor,
esset profuturus. } [10]

The son that Rachel has lost could be literally only Joseph. His brothers faked his death and sold him into slavery. Joseph’s father Jacob mourned Joseph’s apparent death for many days. Rachel herself died in giving birth to Benjamin. Just as Rachel being virgin mother collapses time and person, so too does Rachel lamenting the loss of her son.[11] Christians interpreted Rachel’s son Joseph as a figure of Jesus. They understood Rachel as a figure of the Christian church. In Christian understanding, the Christian church possesses the heritage of Jacob and the Jews. Joseph’s stupid brothers are both those who sold him into slavery and mass of men in the Christian church.

In Notker’s Rachel sequence, why are most Christian men represented as stupid? Many Christian men and women throughout history haven’t recognized that the Christian church is female as a figure and gynocentric in its pragmatic orientation. Men must actively affirm the goodness of their masculinity and cherish their masculine fruitfulness. Passive and apathetic in relation to women’s dominance, most men today don’t even question current female supremacist dogma that the future is female. These men are stupid. Men throughout history have been stupid in similar ways.

Another voice within Rachel’s self-consciousness recognizes Jesus’s love and concern for men. Rachel laments the loss of her son in part out of typical womanly self-concern: what man will provide me with money? But she also recognizes men’s need for help. She questions herself:

Are tears to be shed for him
who possesses the heavenly kingdom,
who with frequent prayers
for his miserable brothers
intercedes before God?

{ Numquid flendus est iste,
qui regnum possedit caeleste
quique prece frequenti
miseris fratribus
apud deum auxiliatur? } [12]

Rachel understood the misery of men enduring earthly gynocentrism. Yet miserable men have reason for hope. Rachel as the virgin mother Mary, and Rachel as the church, both have as son Jesus. Jesus loves men as well as women. The fully masculine man Jesus brings miserable men’s plight before God in heaven. Men need only wonder: how long, Lord, how long?

Like the Massacre of the Innocents, deaths of boys and men typically pass without particular notice. The issue isn’t just modern philology’s gender trouble. The lives of boys and men are gynocentrically devalued. Like earlier poetry, Notker of St. Gall’s brilliant ninth-century Rachel sequence, “De uno martyre virgo plorans,” recognized that the Massacre of the Innocents was the massacre of innocent boys. Moreover, Notker’s Rachel shows that Christian gynocentrism can encompass concern for miserable men. Women and men today must develop this medieval Rachel’s breadth of emotional life.

Sedulius, Massacre of the Innocents - Boys

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Prudentius, Book of the Daily Round {Liber Cathemerinon}, 12 “Hymn for Epiphany {Hymnus epiphaniae},” vv. 97-108 (st. 25-7), Latin text and English translation (adapted slightly) from O’Daly (2012) pp. 357-60. The subsequent quote above is similarly from “Hymnus epiphaniae” vv. 109-24 (st. 28-31). Here are Latin reading notes for these passages. Here’s the translation of these passages from Thomson (1949) vol. 1. Both Pope (1905) and Thomson (1949), vol. 1, provide freely accessible text and translation of Liber Cathemerinon.

Prudentius lived on the Iberian Pennisula and worked as a Roman government official until about 390 GC. He then retired and began writing poetry. He distributed his collected poems in 405. Prudentius wrote in the high tradition of Augustan Latin poetry, yet recast his sources to reflect a “cosmic Christian vision.” McKelvie (2010).

A few decades later, Caelius Sedulius may have responded to the fear of Prudentius’s Herod:

Impious Herod, stranger,
what is to fear with Christ to come?
He takes away no earthly realms,
he who gives the heavenly crown.

{ Hostis Herodes impie,
Christum venire quid times?
Non eripit mortalia,
Qui regna dat celestia. }

Sedulius, “From the pivot of the sun’s rising {A solis ortus cardine},” vv. 29-32, Latin text from the Latin Library, my English translation. These verses now begin a portion of Sedulius’s poem used at Vespers for Epiphany. Michael Martin’s Treasury of Latin Prayers {Thesaurus Precum Latinarum} provides for Hostis Herodes impie a Latin text and an English translation by J.M. Neale, and similarly for an truncated version of A solis ortus cardine.”

[2] Caelius Sedulius, Easter Song {Carmen paschale} 2.110-17, 120-26, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Springer (2013) pp. 52-3. Sedulius (not to be confused with the ninth-century Latin poet Sedulius Scottus) apparently wrote Carmen paschale between 425 and 450 GC. On Latin biblical epics, Green (2006) and McBrine (2017).

[3] Matthew 2:16. The biblical texts are via Blue Letter Bible. Subsequent biblical texts are similarly sourced. The Greek text is from the Morphological Greek New Testament (MGNT). The Latin text is from Jerome’s Vulgate. Herod’s massacre is widely called the “Massacre / Slaughter of the Innocents” or the “Massacre / Slaughter of the Holy Innocents.” Even as learned a philologist as Jan Ziolkowski wrote:

the event in the Gospel that instigates it {the citation of Jeremiah 31:15} is the Slaughter of the Innocents (Matthew 2. 16) — the killing, at Herod’s order, of all children in the environs of Bethlehem who were two years or younger. … Herod decided to execute the infants of Bethlehem directly as a result of the Adoration of the Magi (Matthew 2. 16–18) … Christian responses to the Massacre of the Innocents reflect the Christian ambivalence about the death of children.

Ziolkowski (2010) pp. 94-5.

[4] Exodus 1:16, 22. The Hebrew text is from the Westminster Leningrad Codex.

[5] On Prudentius and Sedulius, see quotes previously above. Writing about 400 GC, Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius (Macrobius) reported:

When he {Emperor Augustus} heard that among the boys in Syria under two years old who Herod, king of the Jews, had ordered to be killed, Herod’s own son was also killed, Augustus said: “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son.”

{ Cum audisset inter pueros quos in Syria Herodes rex Iudaeorum intra bimatum iussit interfici filium quoque eius occisum, ait: Melius est Herodis porcum esse quam filium. }

Macrobius, Saturnalia 2.4.11, Latin text of Ludwig von Jan (1852) via LacusCurtius, my English translation, benefiting from various publicly available ones. Jewish law regards pigs as unclean animals. Jews therefore shouldn’t slaughter a pig. MGV Hoffman notes that the jest encodes a pun in Greek: “hus / ὑς means pig and huios / υἱος means son.”

Jests are commonly attributed falsely to prominent figures. Emperor Augustus probably never uttered this jest. Moreover, he almost surely didn’t know Greek. Given the jest’s significant Greek pun, most likely it was originally formulated in Greek. It evidently circulated broadly enough to cross into Latin. While a matter of contentious argument, in my view no convincing evidence has been put forward to establish whether the jest independently attests to Herod’s massacre of innocent boys.

[6] Most modern biblical translations of Matthew 2:16 into English represent Herod ordering a massacre of “male children.”  See here a variety of translations. The New Revised Standard Version, first published in 1990, retains the gender-obscuring translation “children.” In a preface to the Catholic version of the New Revised Standard Version, Alexander A. Di Lella, Professor of Biblical Studies at The Catholic University of America, stated that this translation “offers the fruits of the best biblical scholarship in the idiom of today while being sensitive to the contemporary concern for inclusive language when referring to human beings.” Biblical scholarship must honestly address contemporary gender trouble.

[7] Matthew 2:18, which quotes Jeremiah 31:15. After the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, Jewish captives were transported to Ramah on their way to exile in Babylon. Jeremiah 40:1. Rachel was the foremother of the Jewish tribe of Benjamin, as well as of Ephraim and Manasseh of the house of Joseph.

[8] Jeremiah 31:22. Philologists are uncertain about the meaning of the concluding clause. Among a variety of English translations is “a woman shall encompass a man.” That translation can also be interpreted as a woman protecting a man. The New American Bible, Revised Edition (released in 2011) comments:

No satisfactory explanation has been given for this text. Jerome, for example, saw the image as a reference to the infant Jesus enclosed in Mary’s womb. Since Jeremiah often uses marital imagery in his description of a restored Israel, the phrase may refer to a wedding custom, perhaps women circling the groom in a dance. It may also be a metaphor describing the security of a new Israel, a security so complete that it defies the imagination and must be expressed as hyperbolic role reversal: any danger will be so insignificant that women can protect their men.

The concluding reference to insignificant danger shows sexist ignorance. Men and women currently face very significant danger. Women could play a vital role in protecting men from society-destroying gynocentric oppression and contempt for men.

[9] Notker of St. Gall, also know as Notker the Stammerer {Notcerus Balbulus}, “A virgin crying about a martyr {De uno martyre virgo plorans},” Latin text from Godman (1985) pp. 320-3 (with some minor changes to the editorial punctuation), my English translation, benefiting from those of id. and Dronke (1994) p. xxix. Subsequent quotes from “De uno martyre virgo ploransare similarly sourced and cover all of this sequence. Godman described this sequence as a “dramatic interior monologue.” Godman (1985) p. 68. I follow that interpretation above.

Notker wrote this sequence about 885 and included it in his Liber ymnorum {Book of Hymns}. It has survived in 35 manuscripts. For a manuscript list, Yearley (1983) vol. 2, pp. 44-5 (lyric L134). Notker composed “De uno martyre virgo plorans” to the melody (he wrote it as a contrafactum) for his earlier Easter sequence “This is the holy solemnity of solemnities {Haec est sancta solemnitas solemnitatum}.” That melody was re-used in many subsequent songs and became known as the “virgin weeps {virgo plorans}” melody. On the musical characteristics of Notker’s lament and subsequent laments of Rachel, Yearley (1983) vol. 1, pp. 94-5, 269-75, and Stevens (1986) pp. 351ff.

A performance of “De uno martyre virgo plorans” by Gérard Le Vot et al. from the album Ultima Lacrima, Sacred Chants of the Middle Ages 9th-13th centuries (Studio S.M., 1997) is freely available on YouTube. This sequence seems to me quite difficult to perform well. Here’s a rather different performance of Haec est sancta solemnitas directed by Jón Stefánsson in 2015.

Notker’s Rachel sequence contributed to early liturgical drama. Ordo Rachelis, a late-eleventh-century play in a lectionary from the cathedral of Freising (Munich, Staatsbibl. MS S Lat. 6264) incorporated Notker’s “Quid tu virgo” as concluding dialogue between Rachel and a consoler. The late-twelfth-century Fleury Playbook (Orléans, Bibliothèque Municipale MS. 201) similarly incorporates “Quid tu virgo” in its play Interfectio Puerorum {The Massacre of the Boys}. With respect to the Freising and Fleury Rachel laments, Boynton observed:

“Quid tu virgo” is the structural basis of the lament, providing typological, allegorical, and tropological readings of Rachel that are complemented by the literal interpretation in leonine hexameters added before the sequence.

Boynton (2004) p. 326. Other dramatic Rachel laments are the eleventh-century Lamentatio Rachelis from Saint-Martial at Limoges (Paris, BnF lat. 1139), a lengthy part of a twelfth-century Epiphany play from the cathedral at Laon (in troper Laon 263), and Rachel’s dramatic lament incorporated into a twelfth-century Magi play (Paris, Bibliothèque Mazarine, 1712). For relevant discussion, id. pp. 320-7. On laments for lost children in Latin generally, Ziolkowski (2010).

[10] Notker wrote “De uno martyre virgo plorans” for the feast day of a martyr. For the Feast of the Holy Innocents – Boys, Notker wrote the sequence “Praise to you Christ, who tastes goodness {Laus tibi Christe cui sapit}.” The speaking voice of that sequence triumphantly declares:

The fresh and tender
by Herod’s sword, preached
you today.

{ Recentes atque teneri
Herodiano ense
trucidati, te hodie
praedicaverunt }

St. 3a, Latin text and English translation from Kovács (2017) p. 203*.

[11] Notker’s sense of time’s unity is similar to that which Prudentius presents in Christ:

Born of the Father’s life before the world began,
called Alpha and Ω, the source and the ending
of everything that is, and was, and shall be in the future.

{ corde natus ex parentis ante mundi exordium,
alfa et Ω cognominatus, ipse fons et clausula
omnium quae sunt, fuerunt, quaeque post futura sunt. }

Prudentius, Book of the Daily Round {Liber Cathemerinon}, 9 “Hymn for Every Hour {Hymnus omnis horae},” vv. 12-14 (st.4), Latin text and English translation from O’Daly (2012) pp. 252-3. Cf. Revelation 1:8, 21:6; Virgil, Georgics 4.392-3; Homer, Iliad 1.70. This poem ends:

Let the flowing river waters, the seashores,
rain, heat, snow, frost, wood and wind, night and day,
praise you, all together, for ever and ever!

{ fluminum lapsus et undae, littorum crepidines,
imber, aestus, nix, pruina, silva et aura, nox, dies,
omnibus te concelebrent saeculorum saeculis. }

Id. vv. 111-3 (st. 38), sourced as previously. The modern hymn “Of the Father’s Heart Begotten {Corde natus ex parentis}” is based on Prudentius’s “Hymnus omnis horae.” O’Daly explains that, in context, “life” is a better translation of corde than is “heart.” Id. p. 264.

[12] The martyr who possesses the heavenly kingdom seems to be Joseph / Christ. In “Laus tibi Christe cui sapit,” that Notker wrote for the Feast of the Holy Innocents – Boys, the boys together pray to Christ:

Dear little sons,
sweet little boys,
help us with your prayers,
which may Christ gently listen to,
feeling pity for your
innocent death hastened
for his own sake;
may he deem us worthy of his kingdom.

{ Clari filioli,
dulces pusioli,
Nos iuvate precibus,
Quas Christus, innocentem
mortem vestram miserans
Pro sese maturatam,
placidus exaudiens
Nos regno suo dignetur. }

St. 7b-10, Latin text and English translation from Kovács (2017) p. 204*. This sequence doesn’t represent the men of the church as being stupid. Scholars regard Notker’s Rachel sequence as poetically superior to this sequence.

[images] (1) The Massacre of the Innocents – Boys. Illumination from Codex Egberti, Fol 15v. The Codex Egberti was produced in the Reichenau Monastery for Egbert, who was Bishop of Trier from 980 to 993. Preserved at Stadtbibliothek Trier, Germany. Source image via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Horse’s ass and soldier pissing. Detail from painting of the Massacre of the Innocents – Boys by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Painted between 1565 and 1567. Preserved as accession # RCIN 405787 in Royal Collection, Windsor Castle, London. Via Wikimedia Commons. Sometime between 1604 and 1621, parts of the painting were painted over to make the painting depict a general scene of plunder, rather than a massacre of innocent boys. At the far left in the doorway of the brick house, the child being dragged away is clearly a boy. (3) Illumination (color enhanced) of the Massacre of the Holy Innocents – Boys in Sedulius’s Carmen paschale. From folio 16r of a manuscript made in 860 in a Liège scriptorium. Preserved in Antwerp, Belgium, as Museum Plantin-Moretus  M 17.4. This manuscript apparently is a copy of a manuscript made for Cuthwine, Bishop of Dunwich (in Suffolk, England), sometime between 716 and 731.


Boynton, Susan. 2004. “From the Lament of Rachel to the Lament of Mary: A Transformation in the History of Drama and Spirituality.” Pp. 319-40 in Petersen, Nils Holger. Signs of Change: transformations of Christian traditions and their representation in the arts, 1000-2000. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Dronke, Peter. 1994. Nine Medieval Latin Plays. Cambridge Medieval Classics, 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (review by James Whitta)

Godman, Peter. 1985. Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance. London: Duckworth.

Green, Roger P. H. 2006. Latin Epics of the New Testament: Juvencus, Sedulius, Arator. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kovács, Andrea. 2017. Monuments of Medieval Liturgical Poetry in Hungary: sequences; critical edition of melodies. Musica sacra Hungarica (English ed.), 1. Budapest: Argumentum Publishing House.

McBrine, Patrick. 2017. Biblical Epics in Late Antiquity and Anglo-Saxon England: divina in laude voluntas. Toronto Anglo-Saxon series, 27. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

McKelvie, Christopher Gordon. 2010. The Cosmic Christian Vision of Prudentius’ Liber Cathemerinon, and the Inculturation of Augustan Vatic Poetry. M.A. Thesis. Halifax: Dalhousie University.

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

Pope, R. Matin, trans. 1895. The Hymns of Prudentius. London: J.M. Dent.

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

Stevens, John E. 1986. Words and Music in the Middle Ages: song, narrative, dance and drama, 1050-1350. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (review by Hans Tischler)

Thomson, Henry John, ed. and trans. 1949. Prudentius. Loeb Classical Library 387, 398. Vol. 1, Vol. 2. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Yearley, Janthia. 1983. The Medieval Latin Planctus as a Genre. Ph.D. Thesis. University of York.

Ziolkoswki, Jan M. 2010. “Laments for Lost Children: Latin Traditions.” Pp. 81-107 in Tolmie, Jane and M. J. Toswell, M. J., eds. Laments for the Lost in Medieval Literature. Turnhout: Brepols.

aspects of women’s privilege in the Old French jeu-parti

battle at medieval castle of love

In northern France in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, men and women poet-singers known as trouvères composed lyric debates. This type of song, called the jeu-parti, involved two voices defending in alternate stanzas alternate responses to a question set out for debate in the first stanza.[1] Jeux-partis involving women trouvères depict significant aspects of women’s privilege in medieval France.

Like most women today, women trouvères in medieval France rarely assumed the emotional risk of soliciting an amorous relationship. A jeu-parti between Dame Margot and Dame Marote debates a case involving a woman and man who love each other dearly. The man dares not declare his desire to the women. The debate question is whether the woman should assume a man’s typical burden and declare her love to him. Dame Margot argues against the woman taking the initiative to establish an amorous relationship. Dame Marote argues for the woman taking the initiative.

In their arguments, both Dame Margot and Dame Marote recognize women’s privilege in relation to men. Dame Marote declares that “she should not be proud {pas ne doit cele estre fiere},” as if a woman telling a man that she loves him in some way injures her pride and lowers her worth. Dame Margot counters Dame Marote’s position, but confirms women’s privilege:

You are not heading the right way,
Dame Marote, I believe.
A lady makes a grave mistake in courting
her beloved first. Why
should she thus demean herself?
If he lacks courage,
I do not think it proper
that she should then solicit his love.
She should rather conceal her feelings
and suffer love’s pains
without ever disclosing them,
because a woman should have such high merit
that no word would come from her
that could diminish her worth.

{ Vous n’ales pa droite voie,
Dame Marote, je croi.
Trop mesprent dame ki proie
Son ami avant. Pour koi
S’aveilleroit elle si?
Se cil a le cuer falli,
Ne di jou pas k’il afiere
Por ce k’ele le reqiere,
Ains s’en doit chovrir
Et les fais d’Amours soufrir
Sans ja fiare percevoir;
Kar feme doit tant valoir
Que n’en doit parole issir
Ki son pris puist amenrir. } [2]

Underscoring that women equally sharing men’s burdens is inconceivable to gynocentric reason, Dame Marote argues that true love should make a woman act insane. While a sane woman would retain women’s privilege, a woman insane with love would take the initiative to solicit an amorous relationship. Dame Marote concludes:

Better it is to live in joy
for having pleaded than now to languish
for having been silent and then die.

{ Miex vient en joie manoir
Par proier q’adés langir
Par trop taire et puis morir. }

Dame Marote’s point seems indisputable. Yet many women today would rather be coerced into a having an abortion or even die rather than relinquish their gynocentric privilege.

Another jeu-parti between two women trouvères debates women’s preference regarding how men bear the burden of soliciting an amorous relationship. In this case, two knights both love one woman. One knight seeks to communicate his love through the woman’s friends. The other declares his love to her directly. According to women’s preference, which knight behaves better? One woman trouvère argues that a man who directly declares his love to her would make her seem shameful and weak. The other woman trouvère disputes that claim:

Sister, you are in error,
of that I do not doubt in the least.
When this one tenderly
humbles himself before you
and requests your loyalty,
you feel contempt for him.

{ Suer, vous estes en errout,
Je ne m’an dout mie.
Cant celui par sa dousor
Ver vous s’umelie
Et vos requiert loialteit,
Vos lou teneis an vitei. } [3]

As if that would justify him soliciting her love, the man humbles himself before the woman. In actuality, if he approached her as an arrogant jerk, she would more likely feel her loins tingle. Men must be learned enough to reject women’s privilege in prescribing how men should behave.

Women’s privilege prompts women to look down on men as if men were inferior human beings afflicted with “toxic masculinity.” A jeu-parti between two women trouvères debates whether a woman should allow a man to declare his love to her. One woman trouvère proposes listening to the man. College administrators evaluating sexual assault charges today generally reject the practice of listening to an accused man. But this medieval woman argues:

By listening to him you will be able to decide
if it pleases you to accept him or refuse him,
and you will know if he speaks wisely or foolishly.

{ Qu’en lui oiant porrez vous bien eslire
Se il vous plaist l’otroi ou le desdire,
Et si savrez s’il dist sens our folour. } [4]

What could be wrong with listening to a man? At least with respect to men, everyone isn’t required to listen and believe. Yet the other woman trouvère vehemently argues against even just listening to a man:

a woman should really not
listen to a man; she should rather fear
being seduced by the words she hears.
For men are consummate flatterers
and their arguments they so beautifully describe
that simply by listening to them she could well agree
to something that would quickly dishonor her.

{ fame ne doit mie
Home escouter, ains doit avoit paour
Qu’ele ne soit a l’oir engignie,
Quar home sont trop grant losengeour
Et leur raisons sevent tant bel descrire
Qu’en eulz oiant puet a cele souffire
Chose dont tost cherroit en deshonour. }

For women’s safety men must not be allowed to speak. That such ridiculous claims about women’s safety are taken seriously exemplifies women’s privilege.

Medieval scholars have recognized that these women-exclusive jeux-partis closely engage relational reality. One eminent medieval scholar observed:

it is the practical, level-headed outlook of both {women} speakers, calculating the respective roles of the emotions and social niceties, which is notable. Even if these debates are about questions of love, they are not romantic, or erotic, lyrics. … The jeux-partis were among the games devised for that {mixed-sex castle} hall, diverstissements of a society that thought such topics up in order to amuse as well as wittily to provoke. Yet the range and subtlety of emotion and argument that we glimpse in some of the debates involving women suggest something more. Here were poets who, even if they lived lightly — at least in the imagination — could also reflect searchingly. [5]

One doesn’t need to reflect searchingly to recognize women’s privilege in the jeux-partis involving women. Two knights seek one woman’s love. One is rich and worthy, the other is wise and worthy. Which man should the woman choose? A woman again has the choice of two knights. One extensively offers his warrior skills in knightly combat. The other generously shares his money and goods. Which man should the woman choose? Between an arrogant knight and a quarrelsome knight, which man should a woman choose?[6] Men’s choices are much more narrow than women’s choices. Men are burdened with responsibilities while women are privileged with choices.

At least medieval women recognized women’s privilege and men’s hardships. Regarding men’s sexual labor for women, one woman trouvère frankly observes:

You know full well that back pain sets in
that keeps old men from laboring as long.
Beyond the age of forty, he does nothing but decline;
he is then hardly suited to partake in pleasure.

{ You saveis bien ke li maus tient en rains,
Dont li vielars an sont ovriers dou moins;
Puis .xl. ans ne fait hons fors c’aleir,
Pou vaut on puis por deduit demeneir. } [7]

Men’s sexual service to women is a matter of life and death, yet it’s often undervalued, disparaged, and criminalized. Men deserve more choices in how they sexually serve women. Men deserve reproductive freedom. Women’s special privilege must end. Women and men must share equally privileges and hardships.[8]

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Jeux-parti typically have six stanzas. The final stanza often appeals to an external judge for a decision regarding the winning position. For extensive discussion of the historical definition of jeu-parti, Mason (2018) Ch. 1. Debate poems in Old Occitan are known as tensos or partimens.

Trouvères composed and performed jeux-partis primarily in Arras in northern France in the thirteenth century. Arras was a center of commercial trade and artistic activity. The trouvères of Arras were associated with the literary academia Puy d’Arras. On Arras in relation to jeux-partis, Barker (2013) pp. 6-9, 52. About 175 jeux-partis have survived, 60% of which come from Arras. Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) p. 73  (total number 182), Barker (2013) p. 4 (total number 170), p. 52, n. 92 (Arras share 60%, citing Symes estimate).

Most surviving jeux-partis involve only men trouvères. Mason (2018) p. 298. Jeux-partis in which women trouvères participate as debaters have survived mainly in the Oxford Chansonnier (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 308), known by the siglum I.

Jeux-partis could be aggressive contests, but such symbolic violence has far different effects on human lives than does actual violence. In medieval Europe, elite men had a life expectancy nine years less than that of women. Medieval literature depicts horrific violence against men. The enormous masculine gender protrusion in suffering violent injury and death reflects in part women’s privilege.

Literary scholars have tended to ignore and trivialize the reality of violence against men. Mason’s thesis, for example, shows no awareness of the actual gendered facts about violent victimization. In accordance with prevailing academic fashion, Mason suggests violence against men is about misogyny and the exclusion of women:

In applying the metaphor of single combat to the jeu-parti, Jeanroy, Fiset and Nicod invoked the homosociality of combat prevalent in Europe before the First World War. The paradigm of the duel is demonstrably at work in the ‘footnote quarrels’ of German and French musicologists at the start of the twentieth century, whose blows and counterblows in their retaliatory publications and footnotes are reminiscent of verbal sparring. Jeanroy, Fiset and Nicod defined the jeu-parti as a combative, robustly masculine genre, in which poetic skill could be equated with bravura and violence. The misogyny of late romantic duellers could map neatly onto the subject of many dilemma questions in jeux-partis: how best to please one’s Lady. In defining the genre in this way, women were excluded as possible interlocutors and, as a result, the genre has since been treated as principally masculine.

Mason (2018) p. 54. Women, including during the First World War, have played a important role in promoting violence against men. Men and women scholars should show more love for men and less eagerness to please “the Lady.”

[2] Dame Margot & Dame Maroie, Jeu-parti, “I entreat you, Lady Maroie {Je vous pri, dame Maroie}” st. 3 (vv. 29-42), Old French text (Picard dialect) and English translation (with my modifications to follow the Old French more closely) from Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) p. 76. Within this jeu-parti, Dame Maroie is subsequently called Dame Marote. I use the latter name consistently above. The previous short quote above is similarly from v. 22; the subsequent quote above is vv. 82-4 (ending stanza 6 of 6). Here’s a performance of “Je vous pri, dame Maroie” by Musiktheater Dingo (2012).

Many women today have never contacted an man, expressed amorous interest in him, and invited him to dinner and evening entertainment, with the clear understanding that she would pay for the cost of the whole evening. Of course the man for a variety of reason might reject the woman’s proposal. Most men have many times had the experience of paying for dates and being romantically rejected. Today is long past the time for women to share that experience equally.

[3] Lorete & Suer, Jeu-parti, “Lorete, sister, in the name of love {Lorete, suer, par amor}” vv. 57-62 (from st. 5 of 5), Old French text (Lorraine dialect) and English translation (with my modifications) from Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) p. 80. This jeu-parti survives only in the Oxford Chansonnier. The 26 jeux-partis in that chansonnier have been dated to 1310. Barker (2013) p. 43.

[4] Sainte des Prez & Dame de la Chaucie, Jeu-parti, “What shall I do, Lady of Chaucie {Que ferai je, dame de la Chaucie},” vv. 12-4 (from st. 2 of 5), Old French text (Lorraine dialect) and English translation (with my modifications) from Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) p. 81. The subsequent quote above is similarly from id. vv. 15-21 (in st. 3).

The woman trouvère who opposes the man making known his love through the woman’s friends figures a man acting that way as being like Renart the Fox:

he is Renart the Fox,
who pursues his intrigue until he has seized his prey.

{ s’est Renars li Werpis,
Ke quiert ses tors tant ke il soit saixis. }

Id. vv. 64-5. The man trobairitz Pèire de Bossinhac in his song “Quan lo dous temps d’abril” uses Renart as a figure of being shrewdly vengeful. See note [7] in my post on medieval women’s strong, independent sexuality.

[5] Dronke (2007) pp. 330, 335. Dronke concludes with flattery for gynocentric authority:

And it certainly looks as if some of these poets — perhaps indeed, the most perceptive of them — were themselves women.

Id. p. 335. Similarly conforming to academic orthodoxy, Barker concludes her chapter on women’s desire with gynocentric panegyric: “these feminine voices are able to carve out space in which they resist the pressure to conform.” Barker (2013) p. 313.

[6] The four jeux-parti described in the above paragraph (in order of description above, with page citations in Quinby et al. (2001) are: Dame & Rolant de Reims, “Advise me, Rolant, I entreat you {Concilliés moi, Rolan, je vous an pri},” pp. 87-8; Dame & Rolant de Reims, “Dear lady, do respond {Douce dame, respondex},” pp. 89-1; Dame & Rolant de Reims, “Dear lady, I would gladly {Douce dame, volantiers},” pp. 92-4; and Dame & Perrot de Beaumarchais, “Dear lady, let this one be your call {Douce dame, ce soit en vos nomer},” pp. 97-8.

[7] Dame & Sire, Jeu-parti, “Tell me, lady, who has better discharged his debt {Dites, dame, li keilz s’aquitait muelz},” vv. 29-32 (from st. 4 of 5), Old French text (Lorraine dialect) and English translation (with my modifications) from Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) p. 104.

[8] The term “women’s privilege is preferable to “female privilege.” Infants in laughing, crying, pooping, sleeping, etc., typically do not act with gender privilege. Gender privilege emerges through human development. Brothers and sisters as children, however, can experience analogues of women’s privilege. Consider, for example, the childhood experience of U.S. politician Joe Biden:

According to Biden’s own words his sister regularly beat him in his childhood and adolescence. “And I have the bruises to prove it,” he said, at a senate hearing on violence against women, December 11, 1990. To make sure the audience knew this wasn’t a joke, he added, “I mean that sincerely. I am not exaggerating when I say that.”

In Biden’s brief tell-all, he acknowledged that the beatings he received were condoned and sanctioned by his parents, and that he was prevented from defending himself; That he was literally, in fact, powerless to make the abuse stop.

“In my house,” he stated, “being raised with a sister and three brothers, there was an absolute. It was a nuclear sanction, if under any circumstances, for any reason –even self defense– you ever touched your sister, not figuratively, literally.”

“My sister, who is my best friend, my campaign manager, my confidante,” he continued, “grew up with absolute impunity in our household.”

From Elam (2010). While such behavior should be a matter of serious social concern, “women’s privilege” seems to me nonetheless a more reasonable term than “female privilege.”

[image] Women occupying the castle of love from above assail men confined outside the castle and besieging it. Excerpt from design on a side panel of an elephant ivory coffret made in Paris between 1310 and 1330. Preserved as accession # 17.190.173a, b; 1988.16 in The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City, USA). Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917; The Cloisters Collection, 1988. Image derived from an image that the Metropolitan Museum has made available under a public spirited public domain dedication (CCO license).


Barker, Camilla. 2013. Dialogue and Dialectic in Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century Occitan and Old French Courtly Lyric and Narrative. Ph.D. Thesis, King’s College, London.

Doss-Quinby, Eglal, Joan Tasker Grimbert, Wendy Pfeffer, and Elizabeth Aubery. 2001. Songs of the Women Trouvères. New Haven: Yale University Press. (review by Carol Symes)

Dronke, Peter. 2007. “Women’s Debates in Medieval French Lyric.” Ch. 18 (pp. 323-336) in Dronke, Peter. Forms and Imaginings: from antiquity to the fifteenth century. Roma: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura.

Elam, Paul. 2010. “VAWA — Corrupt Law and Joe Biden’s Abusive Sister.” A Voice For Men. Online.

Mason, Joseph W. 2018. Melodic Exchange and Musical Violence in the Thirteenth-Century jeu-parti. D. Phil. Thesis, Faculty of Music Lincoln College, Oxford.

medieval poetry on the horror of men absent and dying in war

After a battle in Ireland in 649, Créide, the daughter of the king of Aidne, lamented the killing of a man who had helped her father in the fight. She had fallen in love with this fallen warrior:

And they the arrows that murder sleep,
at every hour of the cold night,
are love-lamenting, for time spent with
him from beside the land of Roigne.

Tormented is my kindly heart,
holy Christ, by his grievous death —
and they the arrows that murder sleep,
at every hour of the cold night.

{ It é saigte gona súain,
cech trátha i n-aidchi adúair
serccoí, lia gnása, iar ndé
fir a tóeb thíre Roigne.

Cráidid mo chride cainech,
a Chríst cáid, a foraided;
It é saigte gona súain,
cech trátha i n-aidchi adúair. } [1]

This poem implicitly contrasts the warm joy of a woman sleeping with her beloved man to the horror of her sleeping with the cold nightmare of his grievous death. That nightmare envelops her imagination of loving him. Yet that nightmare had an underlying reality. His death was no violence-induced fantasy.

War historically has been almost exclusively structured as men killing other men. For most of history, most women have sincerely loved men and cared greatly about men’s deaths. Yet today, many men feel as if their lives don’t matter. Governments treat fathers as wallets and draft men as cannon fodder for senseless wars. Changing that oppressive, unequal gender structure begins with truthfully acknowledging a fundamental problem: the devaluation of men’s lives.

Men’s courage in battle shouldn’t be understood to devalue men’s lives. When the Christian Roman Emperor Louis the Pious died in 840, his sons contended with each other for succession to their father’s throne.[2] Efforts to settle their dispute peacefully failed. The brothers and their supporters then fought a brutal battle at Fontenoy on June 25, 841. That was a Saturday, “Saturn’s Day {Saturni dies}” in the Roman calendar. The poet Angelbert wrote:

I grieve, for it was not the Sabbath day, but Saturn’s day;
the wicked demon rejoices in the breaking of peace among brothers.

{ Sabbati non illud fuit, sed Saturni doleo,
de fraterna rupta pace gaudet demon impius. } [3]

Saturn was a traditional Greco-Roman god associated with castration culture and child sacrifices. Neither castration culture nor child sacrifices are consistent with the new creation of Christ.

Angelbert condemned the horrific violence against men in the battle at Fontenoy. He wasn’t a poet-moralist condemning from afar the ways of the world. He was a supporter of William the Pious’s eldest son Lothar. Angelbert fought on the front line at Fontenoy:

Fontenoy is what peasants call the water-spring and village
where Frankish blood was shed in slaughter and ruin.
Horror-stricken themselves are fields and woods and marshes.

May neither dew nor showers nor rain fall on that meadow
in which strong men, learned in battles, fell.
Father, brother, mother, sister, and friends wept for them.

And this finished crime, which I have described in verse,
I Angelbert myself witnessed, fighting with the others.
I alone remain of the many on the battle’s front line.

{ Fontaneto fontem dicunt, villam quoque rustice,
ubi strages et ruina Francorum de sanguine.
orrent campi, orrent silve, orrent ipsi paludes.

Gramen illud ros et ymber nec humectet pluvia,
in quo fortes ceciderunt, proelia doctissima,
pater, frater, mater, soror, quos amici fleverant.

Hoc autem scelus peractum, quod descripsi ritmice,
Angelbertus ego vidi pugnansque cum aliis
solus de multis remansi prima frontis acie. } [4]

In contrast to the civilized vitality of water-spring and village, even the basic elements of nature are horrified. Life-giving water should now refuse to infuse the earth.[5] Angelbert saw the field become white with the inner linen garments of men lying dead, their bodies sliced into pieces. Against the ancient epic tradition of battle poetry, Angelbert lamented the suffering and deaths of so many men:

The battle is not worthy of praise, nor of melodious song.
The rising, midday, setting, and darkening sun
should lament for those who died in that disaster.

Cursed be that day, may it not in the year’s circle
be counted, but eradicated from all memory,
not lit by the sun’s splendor, nor by dawn or dusk.

That night and subsequent day, a most terrible night,
that night mixed equally with lament and pain —
here they died, there they groaned in grave distress.

O grief and lamentation! Naked are the dead.
Vultures, crows, and wolves voraciously devour their flesh.
Horror-stricken, lacking burial, helplessly lies the corpse.

The weeping and the wailing I will not describe further.
Let each, as much as one can, restrain tears.
For their souls, let us pray to the Lord.

{ Laude pugna non est digna, nec cantu melodię,
oriens, meridianus, occidens et aquilo
plangant illos qui fuerunt illocasu mortui.

Maledicta dies illa, nec in annis circulo
numeretur, sed radatur ab omni memoria,
iubar solis nec illustret aurore crepusculum.

Nox et sequens diem illam, noxque dira nimium,
nox illa que planctu mixta et dolore pariter,
hic obit et ille gemit cum gravi penuria.

O luctum atque lamentum! Nudati sunt mortui.
Illorum carnes vultur, corvus, lupus vorant acriter;
orrent, carent sepulturis, vane iacet cadaver.

Ploratum et ululatum nec describo amplius,
unusquisque quantum potest restringatque lacrimas;
pro illorum animabus deprecemur Dominum. } [6]

For his lament, Angelbert adapted to rhythmic verse the marching meter that Venantius Fortunatus used in 570 for his triumphant hymn “Sing, tongue, the battle of glorious combat {Pange lingua gloriosi proelium certaminis}.” Moreover, in emphasizing that “most terrible night {noxque dira nimium},” Angelbert calls to mind in contrast the Exsultet of the Christian Easter Vigil:

This is the night
when our forefathers,
sons of Israel, you led out of Egypt,
with dry steeps you made them cross the Red Sea.

This is the night
when, having broken the chains of death,
Christ rose victorious from Hell.

O truly blessed night,
when earth and heaven,
human and divine, are joined.

{ Haec nox est,
in qua primum patres nostros,
filios Israel eductos de Aegypto,
Mare Rubrum sicco vestigio transire fecisti.

Haec nox est,
in qua, destructis vínculis mortis,
Christus ab ínferis victor ascendit.

O vere beata nox,
in qua terrenis caelestia,
humanis divina iunguntur. } [7]

From Angelbert’s perspective, the battle of Fontenoy was a disastrous failure of Christian society. He recognized the intrinsic value of men’s lives. Yet Angelbert didn’t directly challenge structures of gender oppression that devalue men’s lives. He concluded with a call for prayer to the Lord.

While some medieval women encouraged men to prove their prowess in deadly violence against men, other medieval women grieved that their beloved men went into battle, especially in far-away wars such as the crusades. Early in the thirteenth century, a woman trouvère probably sang:

I will sing for my heart
that I wish to comfort.
For despite my great distress
I do not wish to die or go mad
when from the savage land
I see no one return,
from where he is who calms
my heart, whenever I hear talk of him.

God, when they shout “Charge!”,
Lord, help the pilgrim
for whom I tremble,
because ruthless are the Saracens.

I will suffer in this state
until I see him come back.
He is on pilgrimage —
God grant that he may return!
And in spite of all my family
I do not seek reason to find
another to make a marriage.
Fools they are whom I hear talk of him.

God, when they shout “Charge!”,
Lord, help the pilgrim
for whom I tremble,
because ruthless are the Saracens.

For in my heart I grieve
that he is not in this land,
the one for whom I am so often tormented:
I have neither pleasure nor laughter.
He is handsome and I am nobly born.
Lord God, why have you done this?
When we desire one another,
why have you parted us?

God, when they shout “Charge!”,
Lord, help the pilgrim
for whom I tremble,
because ruthless are the Saracens.

{ Chanterai por mon corage
Que je vueill reconforter,
Car avec mon grant damage
Ne vueill morir n’afoler,
Quant de la terre sauvage
Ne voi nului retorner,
Ou cil est qui m’assoage
Le cuer, quant j’en oi parler.

Deus, quant crïeront “Outree,”
Sire, aidiez au pelerin
Por qui sui espöentee,
Car felon sunt Sarrazin.

Soufferai mon lonc estaige
Tant que.l voie rapasser.
Il est en pelerinage,
Dont Deus le lait retorner!
Et maugré tot mon lignage
Ne quier ochoison trover
D’autre face mariage;
Folz est qui j’en oi parler!

Deus, quant crïeront “Outree,”
Sire, aidiez au pelerin
Por qui sui espöentee,
Car felon sunt Sarrazin.

De ce sui au cuer dolente
Que cil n’est en cest païs
Qui si sovent me tormente:
Je n’en ai ne gieu ne ris.
Il est biaus et je sui gente.
Sire Deus, por que.l feïs?
Quant l’une a l’autre atalente,
Por coi nos as departis?

Deus, quant crïeront “Outree,”
Sire, aidiez au pelerin
Por qui sui espöentee,
Car felon sunt Sarrazin. } [8]

The woman trouvère’s song focuses on her own grief. It thus reflects the gynocentrism of medieval culture as a whole. Medieval mothers typically influenced strongly their children’s marriage decisions.[9] Despite such pressure to marry another, this woman remained loyal to her beloved man. She felt sensually connected to his body even while he was in battle far from her:

For this I faithfully wait,
that I have accepted his homage;
and when the sweet breeze blows
that comes from that sweet land
where he is whom I desire,
eagerly I turn my face to it.
Then it seems to me that I feel him
underneath my gray mantle.

God, when they shout “Charge!”,
Lord, help the pilgrim
for whom I tremble,
because ruthless are the Saracens.

For this I greatly regret,
that I was not in his departure parade.
The tunic he had worn
he sent to me to embrace.
At night, when his love spurs me,
I lay it down beside me,
all night against my naked skin,
to soothe my pain.

God, when they shout “Charge!”,
Lord, help the pilgrim
for whom I tremble,
because ruthless are the Saracens.

{ De ce sui en bone atente
Que je son homage pris;
Et quant la douce ore vente
Qui vient de cel douz païs
Ou cil est qui m’atalente,
Volentiers i tor mon vis;
Adont m’est vis que je.l sente
Par desoz mon mantel gris.

Deus, quant crïeront “Outree,”
Sire, aidiez au pelerin
por qui sui espöentee,
car felon sunt Sarrazin.

De ce sui mout decüe
Que ne fui au convoier;
Sa chemise qu’ot vestue
M’envoia por embracier:
La nuit, quant s’amor m’argue,
La met delez moi couchier
Mout estroit a ma char nue
Por mes malz assoagier.

Deus, quant crïeront “Outree,”
Sire, aidiez au pelerin
por qui sui espöentee,
car felon sunt Sarrazin. }

Men in their masculine bodily presence are wonderful gifts to women. What this woman felt from afar is a mere shadow of the pleasure she and her man would have felt together in person. Women must not merely lament the absence of beloved men. Women must act to make their men less exposed to violence.

Women haven’t done enough to protect men. With her beloved man suffering in the brutal crusade for Jerusalem, one woman trouvère early in the thirteenth century warned that she was close to getting angry with God:

Jerusalem, you do me great harm,
robbing me of the one I loved most of all!
Know in truth that I will no longer love you,
because he is what brings me the saddest joy.
And very often I sigh in anguish
so that I am very close to getting angry at God,
who has taken from me the great joy in which I lived.

{ Jherusalem, grant damage me fais
qui m’as tolu ce que je pluz amoie!
Sachiez de voir: ne vos amerai maiz
quar c’est la rienz dont j’ai pluz male joie!
Et bien sovent en souspir et pantais,
si qu’a bien pou que vers Deu ne m’irais,
qui m’a osté de grant joie ou j’estoie. } [10]

Threatened by men pursuing them, a woman in an early twelfth-century Irish poem urged her man to sleep. She promised to watch over him:

Sleep a little, just a little,
for there is little for you to fear,
O lad to whom I have given love,
son of Úa Duibne, Díarmait.

Sleep here soundly, soundly,
descendent of Duibne, noble Díarmait;
I shall watch over you the while
lovely son of Úa Duibne.

{ Cotail becán becán bec,
úair ní hecail duit a bec,
a gille día tardus seirc,
a meic uí Duibne, a Díarmait.

Cotailsi sunn go sáim sáim,
a uí Duibne, a Díarmait áin;
do-génsa t’foraire de,
a meic uí delbda Duibne. } [11]

As Walter made clear to Hildegund in the Waltherius, quality sleep is important to men. Yet women can’t be expected to be always with men, ready to keep watch so that their men can sleep peacefully. Moreover, if some mortal danger arises, the woman always keeping watch at night is likely to be too tired to fight effectively alongside of her man. Woman must take more radical action to save men’s lives.

Women today should unite in a mass uprising against sexist military draft registration. Despite having women generals, women fighter pilots, women Marines, and women fully integrated into the armed services, the U.S. still requires only men to register for being drafted under U.S. Selective Service. A U.S. District Court has declared that policy unconstitutional. The U.S. Selective Service System has ignored this court ruling. The U.S. Congress is too keen to pander to anti-men gender bigots and too busy with political theater simply to pass a law abolishing sexist Selective Service registration. Mass media directs its propaganda cannon at changing the gender composition of small, elite groups and ignores the gender composition of those at the bottom of society. Too many men have internalized the ideological gynocentric construction of their lives as being less valuable than women’s lives. Women must act to protect men’s interests and women’s own interests in men.

A country is more likely to engage in foolish wars if undervalued men vastly predominate among the soldiers dying in those wars. If women and men truly served equally in the military and died in roughly equal numbers in military service, a country would be much more reluctant to engage in wars. Women can best promote peace by insisting on gender equality in military service. Women must do more than merely lament their beloved men’s absences and deaths in war.

Selective Service sexist propaganda

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] “And they the arrows that murder sleep {It é saigte gona súain}” st. 1, 8 (of 8), Old Irish text and English translation (modified slightly) from Murphy (1956) p. 87. I’ve aligned the English translation lines with the Irish text. To follow the Irish, I’ve also made identical the first and last two lines in the English translation (using the translation of it é from Murphy’s glossary). Murphy dates this poem as c. 800. This lament is preserved in a single sixteenth-century manuscript, British Museum Harleian MS. 5280, f. 15b. Id. p. 212.

The preface to the poem explains that Créide, daughter of Gúaire of Aidne, fell in love with Dínertach, son of Gúaire of the Ui Fidgente only when she saw him mortally wounded in battle:

She had seen him in the battle of Aidne, in which he had been wounded with seventeen woundings on the breast of his tunic. She loved him after that.

{ Di-connuircsi isin treus Aidne ro geghin secht ngoine deac for seglach a léniod. Ro-carostoirsie ierum. }

Old Irish text and Engish translation (modified insubstantially) from id. p. 87.

[2] Louis the Pious was the son of Charlemagne. At Louis’s death, his three surviving sons were Lothar I of Italy (the eldest son), Charles the Bald, and Louis the German. At the battle of Fontenoy, Lothar was allied with Pepin II of Aquitaine. According to Angelbert, Lothar fought strongly, but some of his princes betrayed him in battle. Lothar’s side lost, and he fled. The warring brothers established peace among themselves through an agreement on the division the Charlemagne’s empire only in 843 through the Treaty of Verdun.

[3] Angelbert, “Aurora cum primo mane tetra noctis dividet {At the first light, dawn will separate the horrors of night},” 1.2-3, Latin text from Jasiński (2016) p. 78 (unified Latin text), my Latin translation benefiting mainly from the English translations of Godman (1985) pp. 262-5, Waddell (1948) pp. 102-5, translation via Eric Boulanger, and translation via Gérard Le Vot. Subsequent quotes from “Aurora cum primo mane tetra noctis dividet” are similarly sourced. The Paris manuscript alone has the reading “Saturni dolium {Saturn’s cauldron}.”

The first letter in each stanza of Angelbert’s poem form the alphabetical sequence A through P. Other examples of that poetic form (abecedarius) are chapters 1, 2, and 4 of the Book of Lamentations; Psalm 119; Augustine’s “Psalm against the Donatists {Psalmus contra partem Donati}” written in 393 (for scholarly discussion Hudnick (2011)); Sedulius’s “From the pivot of the sun’s rising {A solis ortus cardine},” probably written in the second quarter of the fifth century; and Chaucer’s “Prayer of Our Lady,” beginning “Almighty and All-Merciful Queen {Almighty and al merciable queene}.”

Authors have commonly claimed that the abecedarius was “employed as a mnemonic technique for public recitation.” See, e.g. Godman (1985) p. 49, which provides the quote. Medieval literary persons developed extraordinary memories. They could readily appreciate complex Homeric and Virgilian centos. The first letter of each stanza of a poem has trivial significance relative to medieval demands and capabilities for literary memory. The abecedarius is better interpreted as a constructed poetic sign for “natural” literary order.

Three medieval manuscripts of Angelbert’s poem have survived. The most important is in the Kórnik Library of the Polish Academy of Sciences. That manuscript dates to the second half of the ninth century. Jasiński (2016) pp. 29, 35. A codex of the tenth century, now held in Paris (BnF lat. 1154), includes musical notation (neumes). Id. p. 33. Another manuscript originates from a Benedictine monastery in St. Gallen. Angelbert’s poem apparently was copied into that manuscript in the tenth century. Id. Following Jasiński, these manuscripts are called the Kórnik, Paris, and St. Gallen manuscripts, respectively.

Latin texts printed for this poem have varied significantly. Both Godman’s and Waddell’s Latin texts differ from Jasiński’s. Motivating his thorough study of the surviving manuscripts, Jasiński stated:

Unfortunately, the Carolingian poetical masterpiece has survived to our own times in a form which is questionable in many respects. Since the 18th century until today, the most eminent Latinists have made the poem a subject of their studies. The text has been published many times, and scholars undertook numerous attempts at a reconstruction of the original text in their separate studies. Although these works deserve the highest respect, the same cannot be said about the subsequent editions of the poem. The later the edition, the more errors it contains. In our opinion, the sheer number of errors in these editions prevents any critical analysis of the text of this unique poem.

Jasiński (2016) p. 84 (abstract). Jasiński’s study allows one to analyze whether a given Latin text contains a medieval variant or simply a modern printing error. Jasiński unified Latin text is the best reconstruction of the original Latin text. I’ve thus favored that text, while noting interesting medieval variants.

Here’s a Latin text and loose English translation printed in 1857 in Dublin University Magazine (vol. 49).

[4] For the first hemistich of verse 7.1, the St. Gallen manuscript has “pater, frater, mater, soror”; the Paris manuscript, “pater, mater, soror, frater”; and the Kórnik manuscript, “pater matri, soror fratri.” Jasiński (2016) pp. 36-40. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, Jasiński judged the St. Gallen manuscript to best represent the original text. Id. pp. 62-3. In the poetic context of brutal violence against men, placing first the compassion of male relatives emphasizes the gender structure of the violence.

[5] Cf. Isaiah 55:10-11.

[6] The Latin text of Waddell (1948) follows the Paris manuscript. In that manuscript, stanza 13 {Nox…} repeats the third line of stanza 7 {Gramen…}. That brings in the dead men’s community and lessens the stark desolation conveyed by what was probably the original stanza 13.

About the year 820, Theodulf of Orléans wrote allegorically of an epic battle of birds:

They tore at one another everywhere with blows and bites,
and both sides waged war with spiritful determination.
Here you might think you were seeing Rutilians, there Trojans
roused to action, and a fierce battle raging on both sides.
As acorns tumble in autumn from the oak trees
and full-grown leaves fall when the frost comes,
so the army of birds was cut down and died on that spot,
the enormous mass of their corpses covering the earth.
Just as the smooth threshing-floor is filled with grain in summer,
so that field was filled with birds who had been slaughtered.
A small number coming from the north were turned back northwards;
an entire cohort lay destroyed on either side.

{ Inque vicem laniant se hinc morsibus, ictibus illinc,
Ingenti bellum surgit utrimque animo.
Hinc Rutilos, illinc videas consurgere Teucros,
Saevire et Martem parte ab utraque ferum.
Glans cadit autumno veluti de stipite querna,
Maturum et folium iam veniente gelu,
Non aliter avium moriens exercitus illic
Decidit et magna strage replevit humum.
Nam teres aestivis impletur ut area granis,
Campus ita extincta sic ave plenus erat.
A borea in boream veniens pars parva reversa est,
Tota in utraque cohors parte perempta iacet. }

Theodulf of Orléans, “We can understand certain things from exemplary events {Rebus et exemplis quaedam bene nosse valemus}” vv. 173-84, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Godman (1985) pp. 174-5. This poem is “an understated allegory of the political dissension threatening the {Carolingian} empire and threatening his own fate.” Id. p. 15. The description of the field filled with the dead bodies of birds may have influenced Angelbert’s description of the dead after the battle of Fontenoy.

Theodulf ‘s poem, which is also known by the title “The Battle of the Birds {De pugna avium},” is part 3 of Theodulf’s “Letter to Moduin {Epistola ad Modoinum}.” Moduin is Moduin of Autun. He was a court poet, the Bishop of Autun, and Theodulf’s close friend. Moduin used the pen name Naso. Apprently he apparently admired the poetry of Ovid.

[7] Excerpt from the Exsultet {Rejoice} of the Christian Easter Vigil. The Exsultet is attested in the seventh-century Bobbio Missal, a Gallican sacramentary.

Angelbert’s “cursed be that day” moves the self-curses of Jeremiah 20:14-18 and Job 3:3-7 to the social level of a day of horrible violence against men. The Vulgate translation of Leviticus 25:30 refers to one year’s time as “the year’s circle {anni circulus}.” On persons nakedly departing from the world, Job 1:21, Ecclesiastes 5:15, 1 Timothy 6:7.

[8] Guiot de Dijon, Chanson de croisade, Retrouenge, “I will sing for my heart {Chanterai por mon corage}” st 1-3 (with the refrain broken out separately), Old French text and English translation (with my modifications) from Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) pp. 141-2. A significant scholarly view doubts the attribution to Guiot de Dijon and asserts that a woman trouvère probably wrote this song. The subsequent quote is stanzas 4-5 (of 5) from this song.

Significant textual variations exist for “Chanterai por mon corage.” For a slightly different Old French text, with English translation and thorough scholarly notes, see song RS 21 in Warwick’s Troubadours, Trouvères and the Crusades site. The “about the text” tab suggests that this song “may date from the first third or half of the 13th c.” For an interpretation of the textual differences in versions of this song, Atkinson (1979).

Several modern performances of this song are available on YouTube. In addition to the recording embedded above, The Early Music Consort of London (directed by David Munrow) recorded a version on its album Music of the Crusades (1991). Studio Der Frühen Musik recorded a version on its album Chanterai Por Mon Coraige (1994).

Despite some women’s laments for men, women play a central role in inciting men to violence against men. In an article published in an elite scholarly journal, Perfetti reported:

Reading medieval poems with a focus on the crusader figure and not just on references to specific efforts to recover the Holy Land, we can see at work an eroticized poetics of crusading in which love for a lady is not in conflict with crusading but rather an enhancement of it. … the eroticized portrait of the crusader they created undoubtedly helped to promote crusading.

Perfetti (2013) pp.  956-7. Perfetti discerns “a process of gendering the crusades as a masculine enterprise.” Id. p. 944. The gynocentric process of devaluing men’s lives and gendering men to be subject to brutal violence has been prevalent throughout history. That oppressive gender structure continues to our day. Perfetti offers no insight into how to change it.

[9] In the motet “I rightly should grieve {Je me doi bien doloseir},” Motetus, a woman trouvère sings:

Why have you given me,
mother, a husband?
For never willingly
would I have wished to be given
to anyone other than
the one I have taken as my own.

{ Por coi m’aveis vos doneit,
Mere, mari?
Cant ja par mun greit
Ne fuist ensi
K’a autrui fuisse doneie
K’a celi cui j’ai de moi saisit }

Old French text (Walloon / Lorraine) and English translation (modified slightly) from Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) p. 217. Id., pp. 218-9, provides music for this song. In Byzantium, mothers arranged bride shows for their sons.

[10] Chanson de croisade, “Jerusalem, you do me great harm {Jherusalem, grant damage me fais}” st. 1, Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) p. 146. For a good online text and translation of the whole song, see song RS 191 in Warwick’s Troubadours, Trouvères and the Crusades site. That site suggests that this song dates from the second quarter of the thirteenth century. A performance of this song by The Ensemble Perceval is readily available.

[11] “Sleep a little, just a little {Cotail becán becán bec},” also known as “Díarmait’s sleep” st. 1-2, Old Irish text and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Murphy (1956) pp. 161-2. Murphy dates this anonymous poem to c. 1150. Finn (Fionn) and his fianna (warrior band) were pursuing the two lovers Gráinne and Díarmait úa Duibne.

[images] (1) Video with recorded performance of Angelbert’s “Aurora cum primo mane tetra noctis dividet” by Gérard Le Vot on Ultima Lacrima, Sacred Chants of the Middle Ages 9th-13th centuries (Studio S.M., 1997). (2) Video with recorded performance of “Chanterai por mon corage” by Estampie / Schola Cantorum Gedanensis on the album Crusaders – In Nomine Domini (1996). (3) Selective Service video poster on display at Reagan National Airport, Washington, DC, on December 23, 2019. Photo by Douglas Galbi.


Atkinson, J. Keith. 1979. “Deux interprétations de la chanson ‘Chanterai por mon corage.’” Pp. 33-45 in Mélanges de Langue et Littérature Françaises du Moyen-Âge Offerts à Pierre Jonin. Sénéfiance, 7. Aix-en-Provenc: Publications du Cuerma, Université de Provence.

Doss-Quinby, Eglal, Joan Tasker Grimbert, Wendy Pfeffer, and Elizabeth Aubery. 2001. Songs of the Women Trouvères. New Haven: Yale University Press. (review by Carol Symes)

Godman, Peter. 1985. Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance. London: Duckworth.

Hunink, Vincent. 2011. “Singing Together in Church: Augustine’s Psalm against the Donatists.” Pp. 389-403 in A.P.M.H. Lardinois, J.H. Blok, M.G.M. van der Poel, eds.. Sacred Words: Orality, Literacy and Religion. Orality and Literacy in the Ancient World, vol. 8. Leiden: Brill.

Jasiński, Tomasz. 2016. “Próba rekonstrukcji pierwotnego tekstu wiersza Angilberta o bitwie pod Fontenoy (841 rok).” Pamiętnik Biblioteki Kórnickiej. 33: 29-84. Online.

Murphy, Gerard. 1956. Early Irish Lyrics, Eighth to Twelfth century. Edited with translation, notes, and glossary. Clarendon Press: Oxford.

Perfetti, Lisa. 2013. “Crusader as Lover: The Eroticized Poetics of Crusading in Medieval France.” Speculum. 88 (4): 932-957.

Waddell, Helen. 1948. Mediaeval Latin Lyrics. New York: Henry Holt.

women dominant gender in Christian literary history

Revelation 12: woman versus dragon
In 203, Saint Perpetua resolutely rejected her father’s abject pleas and triumphantly proceeded to Christian martyrdom. In the sixth-century kontakia of Romanos the Melodist, the blessed Mary overshadows Jesus. Moreover, men’s voices on the way to Jesus’s crucifixion are scarcely heard. Mary the Mother of God and Saint Perpetua aren’t exceptional Christian women in dominating men. Notker of Saint Gall’s ninth-century sequence, “For the festival of holy women,” shows the pattern of Christian gynocentrism. The central position of women in Christianity was ultimately expressed parodically about 1450 in “The Dispute Between God and His Mother.”

Christianity requires its followers to strive for holiness. The seventh-century desert monk John Climacus explored in his Ladder of Divine Ascent the difficulties of obtaining union with the heavenly divine. Notker of Saint Gall’s ninth-century sequence “For the festival of holy women {In natale sanctorum feminarum}” proclaimed that Christ’s love had made heavenly ascent possible for women:

A ladder stretching to heaven,
surrounded by torments —

at its base an attentive dragon
keeps watch, constantly awake,
so that no one even to the first step
can climb unhurt.

Its ascent is barred
by an Ethiop with drawn sword
threatening death.
Its highest step supports
a radiant young man
holding a golden bough.

This is the ladder that Christ’s love
made possible for women to climb.
So trampling down the dragon,
passing by the Ethiop’s sword,
and going through all kinds of torments,
they may reach heaven’s summit,
and from the hand of the consoling
king take the golden laurel.

{ Scalam ad caelos subrectam
tormentis cinctam —

Cuius ima draco servare
cautus invigilat iugiter,
Ne quis eius vel primum gradum
possit insaucius scandere,

Cuius ascensus extracto
Aethiops gladio
vetat exitium minitans,
Cuius supremis innixus
iuvenis splendidus
ramum aureolum retinet

Hanc ergo scalam ita Christi
amor feminis fecit perviam
ut dracone conculcato
et Aethopis gladio transito
Per omne genus tormentōrum
caeli apicem queant capere
et de manu confortantis
regis auream lauream sumere. } [1]

The ladder surrounded by torments, the dragon at its base, the hostile gladiator, and the magnificent man holding a prize come from visions of Saint Perpetua. Perpetua envisioned herself stepping on the head of the serpent in climbing the ladder to heaven.

Notker generalized the heroic Saint Perpetua to the gynocentric Christian path to holiness. In Christian understanding, Mary, the new Eve, gave birth to Jesus, who stepped on the head of the serpent.[2] Mary thus nullified the serpent’s deception of Eve and gave every woman the capacity to be like Saint Perpetua:

What help was it for you,
unholy serpent,
once to have
deceived one woman,
when the virgin birthed
in the flesh
of God the Father
the one Lord Jesus?

He took spoils from you and
pierced your jaw with a hook
to make a way out for Eve’s offspring,
whom you desire to possess.

Thus you now discern yourself
defeated by virgins, hated one,
and by married women bearing
children who please God,

and by widows now
wholly faithful to their husbands.
They cause you to groan,
you who persuaded a virgin
to be unfaithful
to her Creator.

Women you now see in war
against you becoming leaders,
urging their children
bravely to defeat your torments.

Even vessels of your grace,
prostitutes, are by the Lord cleansed,
and these for himself as a temple
he deems worthy to purify.

{ Quid tibi profecit,
profane serpens,
quondam unam
decepisse mulierem,
Cum virgo pepererit
dei patris
unicum dominum Jesum?

Qui praedam tibi tulit et
armilla maxillam forat,
Ut egressus Evae natis
fiat, quos tenere cupis.

Nunc ergo temet virgines
vincere cernis invide,
Et maritatas parere
filios deo placitos,

Et viduarum
maritis fidem
nunc ingemis integram,
Qui creatori
fidem negare
persuaseras virgini.

Feminas nunc vides in bello
contra te acto duces existere,
Quae filios suos instigant
fortiter tua tormenta vincere.

Quin et tua vasa
meretrices dominus emundat
Et haec sibi templum
dignatur efficere purgatum. } [3]

Notker insistently privileges women in the Christian way of holiness. The one woman Mary precedes the one Lord Jesus. Mary, made in the flesh according to God the Father, gave birth in the flesh to Jesus. Like a father deprived of custody of his children in gender-biased family courts, Adam is absent; all humans are Eve’s children. The Christian way is that of a blessed woman — from virgin woman, to married woman, to widow (woman outliving her husband). Even women prostitutes are recognized to be, like Mary Magdalene, vessels of the Lord. In Notker’s depiction of the Christian church as the people of God, men exists only at the periphery in their relations to women.[4]

Notker’s closing two stanzas of praise and thanksgiving resonate with the figure of the fallen and redeemed woman. Genesis describes a radical unity of female and male. A central figure of Christianity is conjugal partnership. Yet human societies preferentially provide compassion to women. Notker’s gender-inclusive terms such as “us” are merely surface forms for women’s underlying gender dominance:

For these favors now
let us together,
both the sinners and the righteous,
glorify the Lord,
who strengthens the upright
and to the fallen extends
his right hand, so that at least
after our evil deeds we may rise.

{ Pro his nunc beneficiis
in commune dominum
nos glorificemus
et peccatores et iusti,
Qui et stantes corroborat
et prolapsis dexteram
porrigit, ut saltem
post facinora surgamus. } [5]

No less human and no less beloved of God, men like women are also fallen and redeemed in Christ. Men, however, tend to be submerged within gender-generic references such as “man.” In the Christian gendering of man’s path to holiness, women are the dominant gender.[6]

About 1450, “The Dispute between God and his Mother {La Desputoison de Dieu et de sa Mère}” comically represented the extreme of Christian gynocentrism. Jesus, living among the poor, brought his rich mother Mary to court with a claim for child support. After describing many lavish cathedrals dedicated to Mary across France, Jesus noted:

In her mansions, enclosed in walls,
with high, crenellated towers,
she keeps relics, chalices, gems,
brocades of fine gold and of silk;
no one could count all the riches
with which her mansions are decked out

I dare to say in front of you all
that even the beeswax candles
my mother burns in her houses
cost more than all the goods we have

{ En sez maisonz closez de murz,
A haultez tourz et à créneaux,
Fiertrez, calicez et joyaulz
Et drapz de fin or et de soie,
Si qu’à nombrer ne les saroie,
Dont sez maisonz sont reparéez

J’ose bien par devant tous dire,
Que mielz vault seullement le chire
Que ma mère art en sez maisons,
Que tous lez bienz que nous avons } [7]

Mary in response declared that she had earned all her wealth. She disparaged Jesus for his poverty:

I’ve many times caught sight of him
in churches, his arms outstretched,
poor and barefoot and badly dressed.
I well know he will live like this
for as long as this world endures.

{ Je l’ay maintez foiz regardé
En chez moustierz, lez braz tenduz,
Povrez, nuz piéz, et mal vestus.
Bien scay qui ainsy se maintenra
Tant qui che siècle chy durra. }

The pope, judging the dispute between Jesus and Mary, ruled in favor of Mary. He ordered Jesus to pay all of Mary’s court costs and support all her servants throughout all their lives. Mary was awarded the souls of all who died after having served her well. Gynocentric society privileges women above men, even to the extent of favoring a wealthy Mary over God, her poor son Jesus.

Gynocentric society is more nefarious than gender. Many women and men don’t perceive that the gender binary oppresses them. Gynocentric society, in contrast, deprives men of reproductive rights, encourages abortion coercion, produces grotesque anti-men sex discrimination in child custody and child support rulings, promotes hateful rape-culture culture, and generates highly disproportionate incarceration of men, among many other social injustices. Abolishing gynocentric society should be a much higher social-justice priority than abolishing gender.

Gynocentric society rests in part on inadequate literary history. Those who don’t learn that women were the dominant gender in Christian literary history cannot create a better future. Marginalized medieval men with lively literary imaginations recast gendered literary figures supporting the subordination of men. Men and women today must study medieval literature and do better.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Notker of Saint Gall, also know as Notker the Stammerer {Notcerus Balbulus}, “For the festival of holy women {In natale sanctorum feminarum}” preface to st. 6, Latin text from Godman (1985) pp. 318-21, my English translation, benefiting from those of id., Dronke (1968) pp. 41-2, and A.Z. Foreman. Subsequent quotes from this sequence are similarly sourced.

Notker wrote this sequence about 885 GC. It’s one of the 49 sequences in Notker’s Liber ymnorum {Book of hymns}. Bower (2016), a magnificent edition of that work, is sadly expensive and not readily available.

[2] Genesis 3:15, Revelation 12.

[3] Notker’s figures associate Perpetua with Christ and universalize her triumph. The ladder parallels Jacob’s ladder to heaven. Genesis 28:10-2. The gladiator (in Perpetua’s account, an Egyptian with whom she fights) is linked to Christian imagery of spiritual struggle. 1 Timothy 1:18, 6:12; 2 Timothy 4:7; 1 Corinthians 9:25-6. The radiant young man holding a golden bough suggests Aeneas visiting the underworld, and the consoling king with the golden laurel, the laurel of Apollo and immortality. Dronke (1968) p. 43. The Christian God, the father and the son Christ in heaven, encompass both. After his defeat of death through his resurrection, Christ harrowed Hell. That’s analogous to Christ overcame God’s impossibility challenge to Job: to snare the face of the behemoth. Job 40.24. For the explication, id. Christ then climbed the ladder to heaven, showing the way for all of “Eve’s children.”

[4] Notker holds a “binary hierarchical version of gender difference.” Cotter-Lynch (2016) p. 101. Notker represents Perpetua in terms of a “strict gender hierarchy.” Gold (2018) p. 160. Neither Cotter-Lynch nor Gold, however, recognizes men’s marginality in Notker’s poem, and neither contextualizes that poem within medieval gynocentrism. The Ruodlieb and Waltharius are much better evidence of medieval gender than are the sermons of Augustine. Women’s Christian gender dominance was obvious in the pilgrimage sites, church dedications, and popular devotion of medieval Europe.

[5] In Latin, the masculine plural substantives peccatores {sinners} and iusti {the righteous} aren’t reserved only for men. Women may be included in those terms. In contrast to Godman (1985), p. 321, but like Dronke (1968), p. 42, I’ve translated those terms gender-inclusively. I have done similarly for filii {children} previously in this sequence.

[6] Men are an addendum in Notker’s poetic scheme:

Notker seems to say, not only the martyr heroines but women in all their womanly capacities can triumph in that encounter and ordeal by which the divine is attained: through the harrowing of hell, in which they were achieved archetypally, they lost their impossible fearfulness. Every woman’s life can become a vindication of Eve, a bruising of the serpent’s head; even the lives of courtesans {meretrices} — for Christ did not reject them.

Dronke (1968) p. 43. In Dronke’s view, the last two stanzas of Notker’s sequence go on to associate Perpetua with “Everyman” {sic, id.}, meaning every person.

Godman provides an opposing reading, but similarly backgrounds men as a gender:

Notker’s poem celebrates the very familial virtues which Perpetua repudiated. … His poem is not written in indiscriminate praise of ‘the Perpetuas of this world or Everyman’ {citing Dronke (1968) p. 43}, for the theme of Notker’s sequence is much more daring. Instead of Perpetua he praises Everyman {sic}, and celebrates the extraordinary qualities in the ostensibly commonplace virtues of holy women.

Godman (1985) p. 67. Both Dronke’s and Godman’s interpretations agree that women are the dominant gender in Notker’s poetic representation of the ladder to heaven. So too are women in Christian literary history generally.

[7] “The Dispute between God and his Mother {La Desputoison de Dieu et de sa Mère}” vv. 62-7, 85-8, Old French (Picard dialect) text and English translation (modified slightly) from Newman (2013) App. 2. Subsequent quotes from “La Desputoison de Dieu et de sa Mère” are similarly sourced. The subsequent quote above is vv. 168-72.

This comedic poem survives only in Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Ottoboniani latini, 2523, f. 46vb-47vb. Jehan le Leu, a Walloon glovemaker, wrote this manuscript in 1453. Newman dates the composition of “La Desputoison de Dieu et de sa Mère” to probably 1450, or possibly 1417. Newman (2013) p. 203. Langlois (1885), pp. 54-61, provides a freely accessible Old French text.

“La Desputoison de Dieu et de sa Mère” shows concern for parental uncertainty. That’s a fundamental gender disadvantage of men. Jesus asserted regarding his mother:

All the while she withholds my share from me,
and I’m certainly no bastard!

{ Quant elle me détient ma part,
Et sy ne suiz mie bastart! }

Vv. 27-8. The judge ironically questions Mary’s parental knowledge:

And it seems to me he is right
to claim his father’s legacy,
if you were indeed his mother!

{ Et il me sanble qu’il a droit
S’il demande la part son père,
Ou caz que vous fustez sa mère. }

Vv. 100-3. Paternity laws today use biological paternity to assign sex-payment (“child support”) obligations when no other man is assigned them.

[image] Women (Mary) / Church with moon under her feet confronts dragon. The small naked man (Jesus) has clearly drawn masculine genitals. That reflects medieval appreciation for Christ as a fully masculine man. Illumination on folio 29v of Bamberger Apokalypse. Made at Reichenau Abbey (Germany), c. 1010. Preserved as Staatsbibliothek Bamberg Msc.Bibl.140.


Bower, Calvin M., ed. and trans. 2016. The Liber ymnorum of Notker Balbulus. London: Published for Henry Bradshaw Society by the Boydell Press. (review by Susan Forscher Weiss)

Cotter-Lynch, Margaret. 2016. Saint Perpetua across the Middle Ages: Mother, Gladiator, Saint. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Dronke, Peter. 1968. The Medieval Lyric. London: Hutchinson University Library.

Godman, Peter. 1985. Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance. London: Duckworth.

Gold, Barbara K. 2018. Perpetua: Athlete of God. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. (review by Stavroula Constantinou)

Langlois, Ernest. 1885. “Notice du manuscrit Ottobonien 2528.” Mélanges d’Archéologie et d’Histoire. 5 (1): 25-80.

Newman, Barbara. 2013. Medieval Crossover: reading the secular against the sacred. The Conway Lectures in Medieval Studies. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

enlightened questioning of medieval pregnant nun claiming rape

young woman holding ermine

Today men are taught to “listen and believe” women making accusations of serious crimes. Such dogma would never have been accepted in relatively enlightened medieval Europe. Clerics, church officials, and monks such as Erasmus of Rotterdam, Poggio Bracciolini, and François Rabelais taught men and women to think and to question. That’s the path to a more just, more enlightened world.

No later than early in the sixteenth century, a Dominican friar in his homily on Good Friday presented to a crowded congregation the story of a pregnant nun who claimed to have been raped. Erasmus reported in his Colloquies that a butcher relayed the story to a fishmonger. The butcher explained:

A young man had laid with a nun. Her swollen belly provided subsequent proof of the act. The nuns were called together, with the abbess presiding. The nun was accused. There was no grounds for status inficialis {controverting the facts}. She needed to argue a justification. She took refuge in status qualitatis {the meaning of the facts}, or, if you prefer, status translationis {the justification for the action}. “I was laid by force of someone stronger,” the nun said. “At least you could have screamed,” responded the abbess. “I would have done so,” the nun said, “but in the dormitory, to break the silence is forbidden.”

{ Virginem sacram oppresserat adolescens. Vteri tumor arguit factum. Conuocatus est virginum chorus, praesedit abbatissa. Accusata est. Infidali statui non erat locus, argumentum erat necessarium. Confugit ad statum qualitatis, nisi mauis translationis. – Oppressa sum a valentiore. — At saltem exclamasses. — Fecissem, inquit, sed in dormitorio nefas est soluere silentium. } [1]

Given the penal orientation of criminal law, men have a strong incentive to develop a sophisticated understanding of criminal procedure. The butcher analyzed the case through technical terms of forensic rhetoric.[2] Since he was directly addressing a fishmonger, he apparently expected the fishmonger to have a similar level of legal sophistication. The Dominan friar’s story of the pregnant nun claiming rape was probably one that his congregation, like the butcher and the fishmonger, could handle in a sophisticated way.

The nun’s claim would not have been understood as presenting a serious risk of criminal injustice. Today, men are regarded as culpable of rape for having wives who truly love them. Men today must adhere to detailed scripts for amorous encounters in order not to be subject to sex charges. In the more enlightened medieval period, criminal justice was more reasonable. The Dominican friar told the story of the pregnant nun claiming rape during his Good Friday sermon. The crucifixion of Jesus was a mob-driven travesty of justice.  Consistent with that context, the Dominican friar told the pregnant nun story “to dissipate the bitterness of his sermon with a more pleasant story {sermonis amaritudinem … iucundiore narratione dilueret}.” The butcher commented:

So that’s the story. Only we must confess, many sillier claims have been carried forward.

{ Sit haec fabula; modo fateamur, hoc stultiora geri permulta. }

The butcher statement shouldn’t be misinterpreted literally. Medieval criminal courts weren’t filled with silly sex claims. Such claims, if carried forward during the medieval period, surely would have been quickly dismissed. The congregation that heard the Dominican preacher’s story of the pregnant nun claiming rape probably laughed at that story.[3]

Rabelais emphasized the ridiculousness of the nun’s claim of rape. Rabelais told nearly the same story as Erasmus had:

You know how that nun, Sister Bottom in Croquignoles, got pregnant by a begging brother called Stiffly-Redeem-It. When the bulge became evident, she was summoned by the abbess to the chapter-house and charged with incest. She made excuses, maintaining that it had not happened with her consent but by violence, through being raped by Frère Stiffly-Redeem-It. The abbess said, “You wicked little thing! It took place in the dormitory. Why did you not cry ‘Rape’? We would all have rushed in to help you.” The nun replied that she dared not cry out in the dormitory, because in the dormitory, one kept perpetual silence.

{ Vous sçavez comment à Croquignoles quand la nonnain seur Fessue, feut par le ieune Briffault dam Royddimet engroissée, & la groisse congnue, appellée par l’abbesse en chapitre & arguée de inceste, elle s’excusoit, alleguante que ce n’avoit esté de son consentement, ce avoit esté par violence & par la force du frère Royddimet. L’abbesse replicante & disante, meschante, c’estoit on dortouoir, pourquoy ne crioys tu à la force? Nous toutes eussions couru à ton ayde? Respondit qu’elle ne ausoit crier on dortouoi : pource qu’on dortouoir, y a silence sempiternelle. } [4]

Rabelais named the nun Sister Bottom {seur Fessue} and her lover Stiffly-Redeem-It {Royddimet}. Both those names bear sexual innuendo. He also had the abbess refer to the nun as a “wicked little thing.” Women characteristically speak more frankly about women than men do.

Rabelais expanded upon the nun’s false claim of rape to engage with the context of interpreting signs. Rabelais’s story continued:

“But, you wicked little thing,” said the abbess, “why didn’t you make signs to the other nuns in the room?” “I,” said La Bottom, “did make signs as much as I could with my bottom; but nobody came to help me.” “But, you wicked little thing,” demanded the abbess, “why didn’t you come straight to me, to tell me and formally accuse him? If it had happened to me, that’s what I would have done to prove my innocence.” “Because,” said La Bottom, “fearing to remain in sin — in a state of damnation — if overcome by sudden death, I made my confession to him before he left the room. The penance he gave me was not to reveal the encounter and to tell it to nobody. To reveal his absolution would have been a most enormous sin, most odious before God and the angels. It might perhaps have been the cause of fire from Heaven burning down the whole of our abbey, and we might all have been cast down into the pit with Datham and Abiram.

{ Mais (dist l’abbesse) meschante que tu es, pourquoy ne faisois tu signes à tes voisines de chambre? Ie (respondit la Fessue) leurs faisois signes du cul tant que povois, mais persone ne me secourut. Mais (demanda l’abbesse) meschante, pourquoy incontinent ne me le veins tu dire, & l’accuser reguliairement? Ainsi eusse ie faict, si le cas me feust advenu, pour demonstrer mon innocence, (respondit la fessue) que craignante demourer en peché & estat de damnation, de paour que ne feusse de mort soubdaine prævenue, ie me confessay à luy avant qu’il departist de la chambre: & il me bailla en penitence non le dire ne deceler à persone. Trop enorme eust esté le peché, reveler sa confession, & trop detestable davant Dieu & les anges. Par adventure eust ce esté cause: que le feu du Ciel eust ars toute l’abbaye: & toutes feussions tombées en abisme avecques Dathan & Abiron. }

The reference to Sister Bottom making signs with her bottom is a visually pun on characteristic activity of sexual intercourse. The fake confession is another addition in the same pattern as the nun not wanting to violate the rule of silence. The Old French lay Ignaure features a fake confession. In this story the confession isn’t fake, but it’s done with bad faith. The sister’s claim about fear of revealing her absolution similarly appears to be in bad faith. Rabelais’s expansion of the story of the pregnant nun claiming rape highlights human wiles in obscuring and excusing disapproved actions.

In the relatively enlightened medieval period, human impurity, reason’s capacity to invent justifications, and women and men’s equal sinfulness were widely understood. Today, men are socially constructed as an intrinsically toxic gender,  mass incarceration of men is rationalized through a social code of silence, and gender inequality is promoted under the guise of gender equality. The preaching delivered through the churches of our time — universities, businesses, and the media-entertainment industrial complex — is a ridiculous mass of absurdities. If elephants can be trained to dance, lions tamed for sport, and leopards taught to hunt, surely our secular elite can learn to be reasonable.[5]

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Erasmus of Rotterdam, Patterns of Fitting Conversations {Familiarium colloquiorum formulae}, Fish-Eating {Ίχθνοφαγία}, ll. 1063-8, Latin from ASD I-3, p. 524, English translation (modified slightly) from Thompson (1997) p. 706 (v. 40). The subsequent quote is similarly sourced from ll. 1068-9.

Thompson translated Virginem sacram oppresserat adolescens as “A young man had taken advantage of a nun.” That English translation conveys at least moral disparagement of the young man. The Latin verb opprimo seems to me better translated in relation to its primary meaning “to press down upon.” Erasmus’s subsequent retelling of the story doesn’t support assuming that the young man committed a non-consensual sex crime. See note [3] below.

Erasmus’s Colloquies “grew from a small collection of phrases, sentences, and snatches of dialogue written in Paris about 1497 to help his private pupils improve their command of Latin.” The first edition was published in Basel in 1518. From Thompson (1997), online overview. The colloquy Fish-Eating first appeared in edition of Erasmus’s Colloquies published in February, 1526.

The story of the pregnant nun claiming rape probably was a well-known medieval tale. Erasmus stated that he heard it as a boy. See quotes from Ecclesiastes in note [3]. That implies Erasmus heard the story before about 1480. A similar tale exists in Heinrich Bebel’s Facetiae, first published in 1506. Thompson (1997) p. 744, n. 219. An Old French farce The Abbess and Sister Bottom {L’Abbesse et Soeur Fessue} dates from about 1510. Hayes (2010) pp. 51-3. Hayes interprets that farce from the perspective of conventional poor-dearism: “Sister Fessue is the gullible pawn who is controlled by those in authority, first by the monk and now by her abbess.” Id. p. 53. Medieval nuns were guileful enough to fake death with a body double to escape the convent.

[2] Regarding technical terms of forensic rhetoric, Quintilian’s analysis is “long and complex.” In addition to status inficialis, status qualitatis, and status translationis, forensic rhetoric also includes status conjecturalis and status definitivus. Thompson (1997) p. 745, n. 220. Above I’ve provided simple glosses.

[3] Erasmus included a version of the story of the pregnant nun claiming rape in his Ecclesiastes, or the Evangelical Preacher {Ecclesiastes, sive Concionator Evangelicus}, also titled Ecclesiastes, or the Art of Preaching {Ecclesiastes, sive de ratione concionandi}:

As a boy I heard a certain Dominican who was endowed with an outstanding native grace of tongue. In order to rouse sleepers, he told this story, which is not without a hint of depravity. “A certain nun,” he said, “was shown by the swelling of her belly to have had relations with a man. In an assembly of nuns she was severely rebuked by the superior, whom they call an abbess, for having disgraced the holy community in this way. She pleads the excuse of force, saying “A young man entered my room. He was stronger than I. It would have been useless for me to resist him. Besides, force is not reckoned a crime.” Then the superior said, “You could be excused if you had shouted, as Scripture advises.” Here the maiden said, “I would have done that, but it happened in the dormitory, where breaking silence was forbidden.”

{ Puer audiui quendam Dominieanum, eximia ae natiua linguae gratia praeditum. Is vt excitaret dormitantes hane retulit fabulam, non absque specie nequitiae. “Nonna, inquit, quaedam vteri tumore prodita est habuisse rem cum viro. Conuocato virginum coetu seueriter obiurgata est a praeposita quam Abbatissam vocant, quod ad eum modum dehonestasset sanctum collegium. IlIa exeusat vim: “Iuuenis, inquiens, venit in eubiculum meum, me robustior, cui frustra fuissem reluctata. Porro vis non imputatur pro crimine.” Tum praeposita: “Excusari poteras si clamasses, quemadmodum admonet Scriptura.” Hie virgo: “Id quidem fecissem, sed res acta est in dormitorio, vbi soluere silentium erat religio.” }

Ecclesiastes 2.672-81, Latin text from ASD V-4, p. 278, English translation (modified slightly) from McGinness et al. (2015) p. 508. Erasmus then comments:

But I desist, lest in rebuking foolishness, I become foolish myself.

{ Sed desino, ne reprehendendo ineptias, ipse fiam ineptus. }

Ecclesiastes 2.681-2, sourced as above. The first edition of Ecclesiastes was published in 1535. It’s a massive work drawing upon many of Erasmus’s prior works.

Standards of seriousness for scribes copying sacred works were higher. In a titulus intended for a scriptorum, probably the scriptorum at St. Martin at Tours, Alcuin in the eighth century wrote:

May those who copy the pronouncements of the holy law
and the hallowed sayings of the saintly fathers sit here.
Here let them take care not to insert silly remarks;
may their hands not make mistakes through silliness.

{ Hic sedeant sacrae scribentes famina legis,
Nec non sanctorum dicta sacrata patrum,
Hic interserere caveant sua frivola verbis,
Frivola nec propter erret et ipsa manus }

vv. 1-4, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Godman (1985) p. 138.

[4] Rabelais, Gargantua and Patagruel, Book 3, Ch. 19, French text from Rabelais, Oeuvres complètes (1552), edited by Alphonse Lemerre (1870), via Wikisource, English translation (modified slightly) from Screech (2006) pp. 483-4.

The third book of Gargantua and Patagruel was first published in 1546. While Rabelais followed Eramus’s work closely, whether Rabelais picked up the story of the pregnant nun claiming rape from Erasmus isn’t clear.

About 1730, Thomas, the sixth Earl of Harrington, apparently wrote an English version of this tale.

[5] Regarding priests, Erasmus wrote:

Do we know how to tame wild and frightful beasts, either for entertainment or for ordinary use, and not know how to pacify men so that they serve Christ? Do monarchs pay people to teach elephants to dance, to tame lions for sport, to tame lynxes and leopards for hunting: and the monarch of the church cannot find how to entice men to the lovable service of Christ?

{ Nouimus cicurare bestias feras et horribiles, vel ad voluptatem vel ad vsum vulgarem, et non nouimus mansuefacere homines vt seruiant Christo? Monarchae alunt, qui doceant elephantos ad saltandum, qui doment leones ad lusum, qui doment lynces ac leopardos ad venatum, et monarcha Ecclesiae non inuenit quo homines alliciat ad amabile Christi seruitium? }

Ecclesiastes 1.336-41, ASD V-4, p. 148, sourced as above.

[image] Young woman holding ermine. Painting (slightly excerpted) by Leonardo da Vinci, about 1490. Held as accession # XII-209 in the Czartoryski Museum (Krakow, Poland). Via Wikimedia Commons.


ASD. Desiderii Erasmi Roterodami Opera omnia (Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1969-2018).

Godman, Peter. 1985. Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance. London: Duckworth.

Hayes, E. Bruce. 2010. Rabelais’s Radical Farce: Late Medieval Comic Theater and Its Function in Rabelais. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate.

McGinness, Frederick J., Michael Heath, James L. P. Butrica, and Alexander Dalzell, eds. 2015. Spiritualia and Pastoralia: Exomologesis and Ecclesiastes. Collected Works of Erasmus, vols. 67-68. Toronto: University of Toronto.

Screech, M.A., trans. 2006. François Rabelais. Gargantua and Pantagruel. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin Books. (review by Barbara Bowen)

Thompson, Craig R., trans. 1997. Erasmus of Rotterdam. Colloquies {Colloquia}. Collected Works of Erasmus, vols. 39-40. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

medieval counterparts to women’s strong, independent sexuality

Slut walks, vagina monologues, and similar public celebrations of women’s strong, independent sexuality aren’t new cultural phenomena. The story of the sexually eager widow of Ephesus has been known for at least two millennia. The sixth-century Byzantine Empress Theodora was famous for her vibrant, dynamic sexuality. College students in English-speaking countries today, deprived of adequate education in medieval literature, probably know only of Chaucer’s now revered Wife of Bath. But many women in medieval fabliaux also exemplify women’s sexual strength. Moreover, as scholars in recent decades have affirmed, in northern France in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, women trouvères themselves sang of their own strong, independent sexuality.

Medieval husbands who failed to satisfy their wives felt the force of their wives’ sexual vigor and independence. Ten medieval wives got together in a tavern and ridiculed their husbands’ inadequate penises. About 1500, two married women and a widow in Scotland viciously abused their husbands for sexual failures. One woman trouvère sang to her lover with spiteful glee:

You will have the pleasure,
my lover, from me,
as my husband never has.
You have deserved it well,
with good faith.
You will have the pleasure,
my lover, from me,
Slanderers are on watch,
day and night,
to do us evil.
You will have the pleasure,
my lover, from me,
as my husband never has.

{ Vous arez la druerie,
Amis, de moi,
Ce que mes mariz n’a mie.
Vos l’avez bien deservie
En bone foi.
Vos arez la druerie,
Amis, de moi.
Mesdissant sont en agait
Et main et soir
Por nos faire vilonie.
Vous arez la druerie,
Amis, de moi,
Ce que mes mariz n’a mie. } [1]

Women trouvères didn’t disparage their husbands sexually only to their lovers and women friends. One wife-trouvère treated her husband with open, flagrant contempt:

Endure, husband, and don’t be annoyed,
tomorrow you’ll have me, but my lover’s tonight.
I forbid you to speak of it a single word
— endure, husband, and do not move —
the night is short, soon you’ll have me again,
when my lover has had his sensual pleasure.
Endure, husband, and don’t be annoyed,
tomorrow you’ll have me, but my lover’s tonight.

{ Soufrés, maris, et si ne vous anuit,
Demain m’arés et mes amis anuit.
Je vous deffenc k’un seul mot n’en parlés.
— Soufrés, maris, et si ne vous mouvés —
La nuis est courte, aparmains me rarés,
Quant mes amis ara fait sen deduit.
Soufrés, maris, et si ne vous anuit,
Demain m’arés et mes amis anuit. } [2]

Suppose the husband resigned himself to trying to endure quietly his wife’s affair. That wasn’t possible with some medieval wives. Another wife-trouvère made clear to her husband that she would talk about her affairs:

I won’t on behalf of my husband not be saying
that my lover last night slept with me.
I said it well before he was betrothed to me:
— I won’t on behalf of my husband not be saying —
if he would beat me or treat me badly,
he’d be a cuckold and so he would pay.
I won’t on behalf of my husband not be saying
that my lover last night slept with me.

{ Jai ne lairai por mon mari ne die
Li miens amins jeut aneut aveucke moi.
Je li dis bien ainz qu’il m’eut plevie:
— Jai ne lairai por mon marit ne die —
S’il me batoit ne faixoit vilonie,
Il seroit cous, et si lou comparroit.
Jai ne lairai por mon mari ne die
Li miens amins jeut aneut avecque moi. } [3]

Under modern “child support” laws, husbands are financially liable for children that their wives have extra-maritally. Evidently being cuckolded was similarly costly in medieval Europe. At the same time, men face a burden of performance in love. A medieval wife-trouvère taunted her husband for his loving:

Blech, husband, on your love
because I have a lover!
Handsome is he, and of noble bearing:
blech, husband, on your love!
He serves me night and day:
for that I love him so.
Blech, husband, on your love
because I have a lover!

{ Fi maris de vostre amour,
car j’ai ami!
Biaus est et de noble’ atour:
fi, maris de vostre amour!
il me sert et nuit et jour:
pour che l’aim si.
Fi maris de vostre amour,
car j’ai ami! } [4]

This song is appealing enough to gynocentric sensibility today for Leonard Bernstein to have composed a score for it, and for it to be performed in churches. For anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear, women’s strong, independent sexuality cannot be doubted.

Men leaders tend to respond to women’s strong, independent sexuality with compassion and indulgence. Consider the behavior of Daniél úa Líathaiti, Abbot of Lismore and Cork in ninth-century Ireland. A woman attempted to seduce Daniél while he has hearing her confession. He counseled her:

O woman, a blessing on you — say it not!
Let us meditate on the assembly of eternal judgment.
Decay is the fate of every creature.
I fear going into the cold earth.

Your mind is set on folly that lacks lasting value.
Clearly, you are not pursuing wisdom.
What you are saying will be empty talk.
Our death will be nearer before it comes to be.

I will not sell Heaven for sin.
The payment will be paid back to me if I do.
Put not forward for wrongdoing that
which you shall never recover here, O woman.

Abandon that which will injure you;
sell not your share in Heaven.
Under God’s protection, go to your home,
and take from me a blessing, O woman.

{ A ben, bennacht fort — ná ráid!
Imráidem dáil mbrátha búain.
A-tá irchra for cach n-dúil:
ad-águr dul i n-úir n-úair.

Im-ráidi baís cen bríg mbaí:
is súaichnid ní gaís fris-ngní.
A n-as-bir-siu bid rád fás:
bid nessa ar m-bás ‘síu ‘ma-rrí.

Ríched ní renaim ar chol;
dam ad-fíther cía do-gnem.
Ní nád faigbe síu íar sin
ní thaibre ar bin, a ben.

Léic úait a n-í condat-sil;
do chuit i n-nim náchas-ren;
for fóesam n-Dé eirg dot treib
bendacht úaim-se beir, a ben. } [5]

Daniél úa Líathaiti witnessed to the spirit of forgiveness and loving correction that Jesus taught to his disciples. Yet many women chafe at even the thought of a man telling her what to do. Moreover, authorities today preach unquestioning belief in whatever charges a woman brings against a man. What if, in response to being sexually rebuffed, the woman had falsely accused Daniél of sexually harassing her or raping her? Perhaps Daniél would have called on Saint Marina or Saint Eugenia for help. Without divine aid, a man today could easily have his life ruined by a woman’s false accusation.

Struggling to make a living, ordinary men understandably get angry with women’s disloyalty to their men. Speaking the voice of such men, one man trobairitz sang:

I thought that among a thousand
would be found one loyal woman —
so much have I searched,
but all behave as a betrayer
and act like a thief
who when blindfolded,
demands that her partner
endure her shame with her,
so as not to be alone
to bear all the worries she has.

Such a fine and subtle heart
women have for deceiving
that not a single one can be found
who doesn’t dupe her partner.
Then she doesn’t care and laughs
when she sees him made a fool.
And she who knows how to take care of
the affairs of others,
so well it would seem,
knows how to advance her own interests.

And those women who can’t spin a yarn
to their own benefit
make the loss go to another.
You’ll know worse in the morning
when you have bad women neighbors,
for what you hold most dear
they will make hate you,
and make you love that which
in a thousand years
can bring you no joy.

If you regard vile women
and want to condemn them,
always they will swear to you,
by the teeth of a noble lady,
that what a man has said to have seen
shouldn’t be taken into consideration.
And they know how to pay you back
for such nobleness with their deceit.
From their treacheries
no man can safeguard himself.

One who believes that in women
he can find loyalty
is well made to be chastised.
I tell myself he’ll in the dog kennel
search in vain for lard.
And he who wants to send
to a hawk, with no fooling,
his chickens to feed —
one of the big ones of these
I don’t want promised to me for roasting.

{ Qu’ieu cugiei entre mil
Una lïal trobar,
Tan cujava cercar;
Totas an un trahí
E fan o atressí
Co’l laire al bendar,
Que demanda son par
Per sas antas sofrir,
Per que’l mazans
Totz sobre lui no’s vir.

Tant an prim e subtil
Lur còr per enganar,
Qu’una non pòt estar
Que sa par non galí;
Pueis s’en gab’e s’en ri,
Quan la ve folejar;
Et qui d’autrui afar
Si sap tan gent formir,
Ben es semblans
Que’l sieu sapch’ enantir.

E celha que del fil
A sos òps no pòt far,
Ad autra en fai filar;
E ja pejor matí
No’ us cal de mal vezí;
Que çò qu’avètz plus car
Vos faràn azirar,
E tal ren abelhir
Que de mil ans
No vos poiretz jauzir.

Si las tenètz tan vil
Que las vulhatz blasmar,
Sempre’ us iràn jurar,
Sobre las dens N’ Arpí,
Que çò qu’òm ditz que vi
No’s fai a consirar;
E saubràn vos pagar
Tan gent ab lur mentir,
De lurs enjans
Nulhs òm no’s pòt gandir.

Qui en lòc feminil
Cuja feutat trobar
Ben fai a castiar ;
Qu’ieu dic qu’en loc caní
Vai ben cercar saï ;
E qui vòl comandar
Al milan ni bailar
Sos poletz per noirir,
La us dels grans
No’m don pòis per raustir. } [6]

This is a song of field and market and real folk concerns: thieves, punishment for avarice, spinning yarn, neighborhood affairs, dogs, hawks, chickens, and trades. Among persons living close to economic subsistence, men and women depend on each other as partners. A woman’s sexual disloyalty indicates that she’s an undependable partner to a man.

Among the gynocentric elite, criticizing women has scarcely been tolerated. The man trobairitz not surprisingly began his song about women’s disloyalty with a poetic feint and an acknowledgement of fear:

When the mild weather of April
covers the dry trees with leaves,
and mute birds now begin to sing,
each in his own language,
I would well like to have in me
the ability to compose a poem
with power to chastise
women for their failings,
without harm or damage
being able to come to me.

{ Quan lo dous temps d’abril
Fa’ls arbres secs fulhar,
E’ls auzelhs mutz cantar
Quascun en son latí,
Ben vòlgr’ aver en mi
Poder de tal trobar,
Cum pogués castiar
Las dòmnas de falhir,
Que mals ni dans
No m’en pogués venir. }

One would have to be as clever as Renart the fox to chastise women for their failings without incurring the wrath of the gynocentric elite.[7] The man trobairitz chose the tactic of speaking blunt truth through figures of folk experience. Men’s poetry of sexed protest can be suppressed, but ordinary reality inexorably resists.

Women’s strong, independent sexuality doesn’t necessarily imply that all women will be disloyal to their men. A woman recently abandoned her husband and two children to become a sex worker in Nevada. That’s probably not common. However, particularly with men today being held financially responsible under child-support laws for women’s extra-marital (or extra-relational) children, men should evaluate women’s loyalty carefully.[8] Men, here’s a simple test: if your wife or girlfriend enjoys a performance in church of “Blech, husband, on your love {Fi, maris, de vostre amour},” you probably face serious risk of being cuckolded.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Rondeau, “You will have your pleasure {Vous arez la druerie},” text (Picard dialect of Langue d’oïl) and translation (with some insubstantial changes) from Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) p. 187. This rondeau, which was composed in the thirteenth century, survives only in the manuscript Paris, BnF, Ms. fr. 12786. Here’s a performance of this song from Anne Azéma & Aziman Ensemble’s album Le Tournoi de Chauvency (2017). Here’s another performance by Ensemble Sanacore and Ensemble Perceval from Tournoi des dames (1997).

[2] Rondeau, “Endure, husband, and don’t be annoyed {Soufrés maris, et si ne vous anuit},” text (Picard dialect of Langue d’oïl) from Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) pp. 184, 186, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. This rondeau, composed about 1250, survives only in the manuscript Rome, Bibliothèque Vaticane, Ms. Regina 1490. Medieval music for it has also survived. Id. p. 185. Here’s a performance of this song by Ensemble Perceval from the album La chanson d’ami (1994).

[3] Rondeau, “I won’t on behalf of my husband not be saying {Jai ne lairai por mon mari ne die},” text (Lorraine dialect of Langue d’oïl) from Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) p. 183, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. The text survives in the manuscript Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ms. Douce 308. Here’s a performance of this song by Ensemble Sanacore and Ensemble Perceval from Tournoi des dames (1997). With respect to the woman trouvère betraying her husband, Dell signals this woman’s strength: “Under no set of circumstances will this juggernaut of a woman be deflected.” Dell (2008) p. 127.

Men have long protested women talking about previously hidden matters to the harm of their men. One man trobairitz sang:

One has difficulty finding healthy reason
in a woman, in truth,
for she would change her disposition
from what you find now
if you make her slightly angry.
And once annoyed, she has changed,
and all, which she knew in secret,
when she’s angry, she reveals.
I regard as a senseless person
one who wants to reveal to a woman
a secret to be kept hidden.
I have seen great things come
to nothing in decay and death
because the well-hidden was revealed.

{ Grèu tròb’ òm natural sen
En una femn’ en vertat;
Que son voler cambïat
Li trobaretz mantenen,
Si la faitz un pauc irada,
E pòis tantòst s’es cambiada
E tot, aitan quan sabria,
Quant es irada, diria,
Ieu tenc cel dessenat
Que secret en celat
Vòlh’a femna descobrir.
Qu’ieu n’ai vist grans res venir
En decazement e a mòrt
Qu’ab ben celar foran estòrt. }

Anonymous cobla, Old Occitan text from Bec (1984) p. 66, my English translation, benefiting from the French translation of id. The great medieval woman writer Marie de France in her romance Bisclavret showed compassionate concern for keeping men’s secrets.

[4] Adam de la Halle, Rondeau, “Blech, husband, on your love {Fi, maris, de vostre amour},” text (Picard dialect of Langue d’oïl) from Ibos-Augé (2019) p. 262, my English translation. A motet version of this rondeau has also survived. Id. Here’s a score for the rondeau.

Adam de la Halle was active in Arras, France, in the second half of the thirteenth century. While Adam de la Halle is nominally the author, a woman, such as Adam’s wife, may have actually composed “Fi, maris, de vostre amour.” As we are now repeatedly instructed, women throughout history often been deprived of credit for their inventions and their work.

Leonard Bernstein wrote music for “Fi, maris, de vostre amour” as a chorus for the 1955 Broadway adaption of Jean Anouilh’s play The Lark (1952). On Bernstein’s version of this song, Dittamo (2019) pp. 38-42. Here’s a performance of Bernstein’s version.

In recent decades, many arrangements and performances of “Fi, maris, de vostre amour” have occurred. The two videos embedded above and cited below document two performances in churches. Here are additional performances available on YouTube: recording by Ensemble Sanacore & Ensemble Perceval in 1997; performance by Insieme Vocale Tourdion in Italy in 2011; performance by Kate Smith and others in Beijing, China on Aug. 10, 2013 (in Songs From the Labyrinth in Yuanfen~Flow 798 Art Zone); a performance by The King’s Counterpoint at Old St. Andrew’s Parish Church, Charleston, SC, in September, 2015; and a recording by a Capella de Ministrers in 2016. Two other available performances (here and here) lack attributions. See also a young man doing an amateur trumpet peformance of this song.

Moving beyond disparing her husband’s love and taunting her husband with her lover, another wife-trouvère sought a divorce:

Take it off —
this ring on my finger!
A boor should not have me,
for I know well he would end up a cuckold
if he were with me
for long;
I want to leave him right now.
This marriage is not right.

{ Osteis lou moi,
L’anelet dou doi!
Avoir pas vilains ne me doit,
Car, bien sai, cous en seroit
S’avocke moi
Longement estoit;
Departir m’an vuel orandroit,
Je ne suix pas marïee a droit. }

Motet, text (Lorraine dialect of Langue d’oïl) and translation (with insubstantial changes) from Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) p. 249. For a resolutely gynocentric perspective on betrayal in medieval French songs, Harkey (2016).

[5] Daniél úa Líathaiti, “Oh woman, a blessing on you – say it not! {A ben bennacht fort – ná ráid},” also known as “Sell Not Heaven for Sin {Ríched ní renaim ar chol},” st. 1-2, 4-5 (of 7), Gaelic text from Murphy (1956) pp. 6-9, translation adapted from those of id., Meyer (1904), and Swift (2014). The Corpus of Electronic Texts has made freely available a Gaelic text quite close to Murphy’s.

This poem survives in the Book of Leinster. See Best & O’Brien (1967) vol. 5, p. 1221. The Book of Leinster was compiled about 1160. Daniél úa Líathaiti is a historical Irish abbot who died in 863. On Jesus’s loving forgiveness and correction for a woman caught in adultery, John 8:1-11.

[6] Pèire de Bossinhac, “When the mild weather of April {Quan lo dous temps d’abril},” st. 2-6, Old Occitan text from Bec (1984) pp. 62-4, my Englist translation benefiting from the French translation of id. Pèire de Bossinhac florished about 1160 and was a contemporary of the man trobairitz Bertran de Born. The subsequent quote is similarly from st. 1 of this song. Medieval authorities regarded this song well enough for it to have been included in Matfre Ermengaud’s Le Breviari d’amor. Matfre Ermengaud begin that work in 1288 and finished it sometime before 1322.

[7] In the penultimate stanza of “Quan lo dous temps d’abril,” Pèire de Bossinhac daringly sings:

Never did Renart on Ysengrimus
know such pleasant revenge
as when he had him flayed
and for mockery gave to him
a fur hat and fur gloves.
Likewise I do when I’m angry.

{ Anc Rainartz d’Isengri
No’s saup tan gent venjar,
Quan lo fetz escorjar,
E’ il det per escarnir
Capèl e gans,
Com ieu fas quan m’azir. }

Sourced as for previous quotes from this song. Modern scholars have viciously condemned Pèire de Bossinhac’s song of men’s sexed protest. Bec categorizes it as “fundamental, gratuitous and ferocious misogyny {misogynie fondamentale, gratuite et féroce}.” Bec (1984) p. 62. If Pèire de Bossinhac lived today, he probably would be forced to write a poem of repentence for criticizing women.

[8] Amid today’s failing relationships between women and men, Dell ponders cultish abstractions:

If there is no sexual relation and no ‘Woman’, what position could  feminity take up? … what if any relation fails? This seems to be what my research has shown, an ultimate inability to ‘place’ femininity securely in any relation.

Dell (2008) p. 205, tendentiously following Lacan’s manipulation of Arnaut’s “Pòis Raimons e’N Truc Malècs.” On the latter, see note [6] in my post on Arnaut Daniel’s medieval protest. Neither men nor women deserve to be symbolically defined or constrained. Fruitful relations are built on truth. Dell presumes that medieval discourse was “a system which relies for its effects of meaning on binary oppositions favouring masculinity.” Id. p. 204. That’s false. Many medieval scholars are woefully ignorant of the gender reality of their own times, to say nothing of that of the Middle Ages.

[videos] (1) Performance of “Fi, maris, de vostre amour” at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist (Cleveland, Ohio) in March, 2015. Performance by Contrapunctus Early Music (David E. A. Acres, Director). (2) Performance of “Fi, maris, de vostre amour” at the Church of the Epiphany (Crafters, South Australia) in 2004. Performance by Lumina Vocal Ensemble (Anne Pope, Director).


Bec, Pierre. 1984. Burlesque et Obscénité chez les Troubadours: pour une approche du contre-texte médiéval. Paris: Stock.

Best, R. I., and M. A. O’Brien, eds. 1967. The Book of Leinster. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

Dell, Helen. 2008. Desire by Gender and Genre in Trouvère Song. Gallica, vol. 10. Woodbridge: Brewer. (review by Lisa Padden)

Dittamo, Patrick Connor. 2019. The prehistory and reception of Leonard Bernstein’s Missa Brevis (1988). Thesis, Master of Music. College of Arts and Sciences, Kansas State University (Manhattan, Kansas, USA).

Doss-Quinby, Eglal, Joan Tasker Grimbert, Wendy Pfeffer, and Elizabeth Aubery. 2001. Songs of the Women Trouvères. New Haven: Yale University Press. (review by Carol Symes)

Harkey, Hannah. 2016. Quant se depart li jolis tan: betrayal in the songs of medieval French women. Master Thesis, University of Mississippi. Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 696.

Ibos-Augé, Anne. 2019. “Refrain Quotations in Adam’s Rondeaux, Motets, and Plays.” Ch. 9 (pp. 249-281) in Saltzstein, Jennifer, ed. Musical culture in the World of Adam de la Halle. Brill: Leiden.

Meyer, Kuno. 1904. “Daniel Húa Liathaide’s Advice to a Woman.” Ériu. 1: 67-71.

Murphy, Gerard. 1956. Early Irish Lyrics, eighth to twelfth century. Edited with translation, notes, and glossary. Clarendon Press: Oxford.

Swift, Catherine. 2014. “Penitence, confession and the Irish anmchara.” Paper given to CAMP group, NUI Galway, November 2014.

men’s blessing of seminal creativity as numerous as stars of Heaven

Both in classical Socratic learning and in Christian tradition, men are figuratively constructed as women participating in the awesome privilege of incarnating both thoughts and human beings. Yet men have their own natural gender blessing. Consistent with the promise from God recorded in Hebrew scripture, men with their testicles bear seminal creativity to make descendants as numerous as stars of heaven.

Women throughout history have been naturally privileged to give birth. In the classical Socratic method of learning, to nurture their own thinking men must develop the procreative capabilities of women. Socrates himself explained how as a teacher he was like women midwives:

All that is true of their art of midwifery is true also of mine, but mine differs from theirs in being practiced upon men, not women, and in tending their souls in labor, not their bodies. … Now those who associate with me are in this matter also like women in childbirth. They are in pain and are full of trouble night and day, much more than are women. My art can arouse this pain and cause it to cease.

{ Τῇ δέ γ᾿ ἐμῇ τέχνῃ τῆς μαιεύσεως τὰ μὲν ἄλλα ὑπάρχει ὅσα ἐκείναις, διαφέρει δὲ τῷ τε ἄνδρας ἀλλὰ μὴ γυναῖκας μαιεύεσθαι καὶ τῷ τὰς ψυχὰς αὐτῶν τικτούσας ἐπισκοπεῖν ἀλλὰ μὴ τὰ σώματα. … πάσχουσι δὲ δὴ οἱ ἐμοὶ συγγιγνόμενοι καὶ τοῦτο ταὐτὸν ταῖς τικτούσαις· ὠδίνουσι γὰρ καὶ ἀπορίας ἐμπίμπλανται νύκτας τε καὶ ἡμέρας πολὺ μᾶλλον ἢ ἐκεῖναι ταύτην δὲ τὴν ὠδῖνα ἐγείρειν τε καὶ ἀποπαύειν ἡ ἐμὴ τέχνη δύναται. } [1]

Christians have traditionally understood Mary, the mother of Jesus, as the first tabernacle of Christ’s body. Christians seek to follow Mary in incarnating God. The great Christian scholar Origen of Alexandria, writing early in the third century, explained:

The soul conceives from this seed of the Word and the Word forms a fetus in itself until it gives birth to a spirit respecting the majesty of God.

{ Concipit ergo anima ex hoc verbi semine et conceptum format in se verbum, donec pariat spiritum timoris Dei. } [2]

For Christians, Mary the mother of Jesus has long been a figure of hyper-veneration {hyperdulia}. From the earliest Christian understanding, the Christian church has been a figure of the heavenly Jerusalem, the bride of Christ, and the eternal mother of all Christians. To be Christian, men must learn from Mary and embrace feminine receptivity in relation to God.

carmen figuratum of Christ from Hrabanus's In honorem sanctae crucis

The eminent ninth-century poet and theologian Hrabanus Maurus recognized men’s natural gender blessing. Hrabanus about 810 created a magnificent book, In Honor of the Holy Cross {In honorem sanctae crucis}. That book contains 28 intricately shaped poems (carmina figurata).[3] One of its carmina figurata shows Jesus with his arms extended widely, reaching beyond the frame of the image to embrace all of the world. While Jesus is not depicted on the cross, his bodily gesture prefigures his crucifixion. The figure of Jesus is composed within a square field of letters. Read as horizontal lines of text, those letters make a poem in praise of the word of God incarnated as Jesus Christ. Hrabanus literally constructed Jesus with letters. As the image makes clear, Jesus isn’t a neuter word. Christ is a fully masculine man.

Hrabanus’s prose explanation for this poem instructs the reader to trace with a finger the outline of Jesus’s body. From the middle finger of Jesus’s right hand, stroking Jesus’s arm, and then caressing to the top of Jesus’s head traces the text “Dextra Dei summi cuncta creavit Jesus {Jesus has created all things by the right hand of the most high}.” Similarly stroking from the top of Christ’s head to the middle finger of Christ’s left hand generates the text “Christus laxabit e sanguine debita mundo {Christ will pay with his blood for the sins of the world}.” Tracing from the ring finger of Jesus’s right hand, along the bottom of his arm, and then down the right side of Jesus’s body to his right ankle gives “In cruce sic positus desolvens vincla tyranni {On the cross thus placed, he delivers us from the chains of the tyrant}.” Turning to understand, a reader traces the outline of Christ’s right foot and then caresses up between Christ’s legs to his loincloth. One’s finger then drops to earthy understanding in tracing the outline of Jesus’s left foot. The whole movement generates the text “Aeternus dominus deduxit ad astra beatos {The eternal Lord has guided the blessed to the stars}.”[4] The overall shape of this tracing is masculine genitals, with the penis pointing up through Jesus’s loincloth to heaven. For those who appreciate it, masculine sexuality points from earthly gynocentric tyranny to blessed, external life with Christ in heaven.

tracing Christ's genitals pointing to heaven

The words woven through Christ’s loincloth emphasize the blessing of men’s sexuality. Classical literature and sculpture representing men’s penises were predominately concerned with the size of men’s penises. Jesus, who joined heaven and earth, made all one from the small to the large:

A small cloth covers that which contains the stars
and with only the palm of his hand he encloses the entire world.

{ Veste quidem parva hic tegitur qui continet astra,
atque solum palmo claudit ubique suo. } [5]

As its folds make clear, the small cloth (the loincloth) covers Jesus’s masculine genitals. Jesus’s testicles contain the stars in the sense that they encompass the central blessing of Hebrew scripture: the divine promise of descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven.[6] The background poem for the loincloth underscores God’s creative power:

Here is truth clothed in a garment which Christ with his teaching
reveals in explication: this small garment the law
signifies, for with a few letters it covers
the all-powerful Creator, the Ruler who contains all things.
To him the world relates, the stars and the sea and the air.
Our nature closely is linked with our Creator,
for it covers that Creator. He holds the dry land in his palm,
protects it, and makes it visible to humanity by his power.
He is revealed everywhere in this world through his work.

{ induta en veritas veste quid dogmate christus
indicat exponam legem parva hic quoque vestis
significat namque hic tegitur in grammate raro
summipotens auctor qui continet omnia rector
ad quem mundus pertinet astra ac pontus et aether
nostraque natura arta atque sociate creanti ets
nam auctorem haec illum palmo qui claudit et arua
obtegit humano aut claudit uisu ecce potentem
ipse tamen ostensus ubique suo est oere orbi huic }

Human nature is closely linked with the creation of the world and the incarnation of human beings. All men have a natural, distinctive gender blessing. Men bear the blessing of seminal creativity to make descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven.[7]

Jesus's loincloth with covering poem

A leading sex theorist has recently emphasized that men don’t have intrinsically less biological value than women do. Folk wisdom tends to regard men as relatively expendable because (male) sperm is plentiful while (female) eggs have a small, fixed supply. Gynocentric society treats fathers as persons readily reduced to visitors in their children’s lives, and treats men as readily expendable on sinking ships or in wars. Yet from an evolutionary perspective, reproduction has no value without survival to reproduce again. Men have been and continue to be crucial for children and civilizations to grow and flourish.[8]

Men don’t have value merely in all their doings for others. From a Christian perspective, men are as much beloved children of God as women are. Men in their human being are capable of incarnating divine being in the same way as any woman today could. Moreover, as Hrabanus recognized in his magnificent carmen figuratum of Jesus, men with their testicles, penises, and plentiful sperm represent the divine blessing of potentially making descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Plato, Theaetetus 150, 151, Greek text and English translation (modified slightly for ease of reading) from Fowler (1921).

[2] Origen of Alexandria, Homily 12.7 (from his homilies on Leviticus), quoted in Coon (2004) p. 295 (with my changes to the translation for clarity). Cf. John 1:1-4, 14. This understanding of masculine pregnancy is similar to that in Philo of Alexandria and rabbinic midrashim. Id. Here’s Origen’s full homily in Latin, with an English translation. For all of Origen’s homilies on Leviticus in English translation, Barkley (1990).

Throughout history, masculinity or being “virtuous” has often been oppressively constructed as an attribute that men must work to achieve. That was the ideological structure in the Carolingian Empire. Stone (2012). Not surprisingly, men have often preferred to be characterized as pigs.

[3] Hrabanus Maurus (lived about 783 to 856 in present-day Germany) was a scholar, poet, monk, and theologian. As a young man Hrabanus studied under the eminent scholar Alcuin of York, Abbot of Tours. Hrabanus himself became Abbot of the Benedictine Abbey of Fulda in 822.

Particularly learned in the Torah of Hebrew scripture, Hrabanus became the foremost biblical scholar in the Carolingian Empire. He associated with the leading religious and political authorities of his time. The Holy Roman Emperor Lothar I, in a letter he wrote in 854, ranked Hrabanus with the eminent church fathers Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and Pope Gregory the Great. Coon (2011) p. 13. Hrabanus appears in Dante’s Paradiso, Canto 12, in the fourth sphere of heaven. Hrabanus appears there with Peter Lombard, Albertus Magnus, Hugh of St. Victor, Orosius, Boethius, Gratian, and other eminent, learned Christian men.

Hrabanus wrote In honorem sanctae crucis, his first book, for his teacher Alcuin. Alcuin composed some carmina figurata in the tradition of the early-fourth-century poet Publius Optatianus Porfyrius. One of Alcuin’s carmina figurata is an acrostic in praise of the cross, “On the holy cross {De sancta cruce}.” For that poem, with Latin text, figurative presentation, and English translation, Godman (1985) pp. 139-43.

Hrabanus took carmina figurata to a much higher level of sophistication than Alcuin’s acrostic. Hrabanus’s In honorem sanctae crucis, completed about 810, was recognized as a masterpiece. Hrabanus sent copies to eminent patrons, friends, and monasteries: Emperor Louis the Pious, Pope Gregory IV, bishops Haistulf of Mainz and Otgarius of Mainz, and the monasteries of Saint-Martin and of Saint-Denis.

While not well-know today, In honorem sanctae crucis was long regarded as an important work. About 81 medieval manuscripts of In honorem sanctae crucis are known, with ten surviving from the ninth century. The last manuscript copy was made in 1600 for the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf. A printed version was published in 1503. In honorem sanctae crucis is also called On praise of the holy cross {De laudibus sanctae crucis}.

The best current critical edition of In honorem sanctae crucis is Perrin (1997), building upon Perrin (1990). For a detailed technical analysis of a tenth-century manuscript (Cambridge University, Trinity College, MS B.16.3), Panayotova & Ricciardi (2017). On the manuscript and print production history of In honorem sanctae crucis from the ninth century to the seventeenth century, Michael (2019).

Ancient and early medieval texts presented letters without spacing for words (scriptio continua). Ancient and early medieval text also had little or no punctuation and little or no distinctive capitalization. These practices of textual presentation made carmina figurata more accessible to ancient and medieval readers than to readers today.

Hrabanus made some adjustments to letters in creating the 28 carmina figurata of In honorem sanctae crucis:

To make his letters fit the established grid, Hrabanus freely bent the rules of orthography and grammar. In 26 instances he elided words as when caeleste animal was rendered caelestanimal. He dropped letter ‘u’ following ‘q’ 295 times. Readers would know that qater = quater and atqe = atque. In 104 cases Hrabanus dropped letters that are not pronounced. These and other strategies enabled him to free up space for 811 letters according to Perrin’s analysis. By the same token, Hrabanus added letters to fill out blank spaces (‘caedris’ for ‘cedris’) 36 times. Clearly his major problem was fitting his words into the available spaces on the grid. Hrabanus’s linguistic ingenuity offers an interesting contrast to the linguistic hypercorrectivity of many of his contemporaries.

Contreni (1998).

[4] The Latin texts and English translations for these tracing are from Schipper (2014) p. 194, with my minor modifications. The subsequent two quotes are similarly from id. pp. 194, 196. The interpretation of the fourth tracing is mine.

Hrabanus regarded the written word as having eternal value. In a poetic preface to tituli that he wrote about 820 for churches that Abbot Eigil of Fulda founded, Hrabanus wrote:

No work arises that age, full of years,
does not destroy, or wicked time overturn:
only written things escape this fate, repel death,
only written things in books renew what has been.
God’s finger carved written things aptly
on rock, when he gave his Law to his people.
The world that is, has been, or may come in future’s chance —
these written things teach all their connected speakings.

{ Nullum opus exsurgit quod non annosa vetustas
Expugnet, quod non vertat iniqua dies:
Grammata sola carent fato, mortemque repellunt,
Praeterita renovant grammata sola biblis.
Grammata nempe dei digitus sulcabat in apta
Rupe, suo legem cum dederat populo,
Sunt, fuerant, mundo venient quae forte futura,
Grammata haec monstrant famine cuncta suo. }

Hrabanus, “Since the benign Law of God in mastery rules the wide world {Lex pia cumque dei latum dominans regit orbem}” vv. 7-14 (of 14), Latin text from Goodman (1985) pp. 248-9, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. The rare Latin word famen, plural famina, evokes the Hisperica Famina. A similar poem, which the first line Nullum opus exsurgit quod non annosa vetustas, appears in the Anthologia Latina (Riese 418). It’s labeled an epigram of Seneca.

[5] Cf. Isaiah 40:12, 48:13; Psalm 102:25. Christians seek to model themselves on Christ. Hrabanus quoted Origen:

Understand that you are another world in small, and inside of you is the sun, the moon, and stars.

{ intellige te alium mundum esse in parvo, et esse intra te solem, esse lunam esse etiam stellas }

Origen, Homilies on Leviticus 5.2, quoted in Hrabanus, Commentary on Leviticus {Expositiones in Leviticum} 2.3. For Origen’s Homilies on Leviticus, Barkley (1990). Coon associates this text with “remaking of the ascetic male into a dazzling vessel of the divine.” Coon (2004) p. 297. That text, however, doesn’t just concern “the ascetic male.” It relates to all men. Hrabanus’s representation of Christ presents a profound interpretation of being Christian.

[6] Genesis 15:5, 22:17, 26:4; Exodus 32:13; 1 Chronicles 27:23. Hrabanus wrote:

What is the Word if not semen? When the Word is emitted in an orderly fashion, the hearing mind — like a conceiving uterus — is impregnated for the offspring of good works.

{ Quid est sermo, nisi semen, qui dum ordinate mittitur, audientis mens, quasi concipientis uterus, ad boni operis prolem fecundatur. }

From Hrabanus’s commentary on Leviticus, written about 820. Via Coon (2004) pp. 278-9. For this understanding, Hrabanus apparently drew upon the exegetical thinking of Gregory the Great. Id.

Rabbinic authorities had similar understanding of the seminal blessing. In the Avot and the Mishnah, written about 200 GC, the model rabbinic sage never loses a drop of Torah. Id. p. 296, with related discussion p. 294. Present-day U.S. child support laws provide strong incentives for men to account for every drop of their semen. See Phillips v. Irons, 354 Ill. App. 3d 1164, 2005 Ill. App. LEXIS 1807 (Ill. App. Ct. 1st Dist. 2005), 883 N.E.2d 1151, summarized here.

[7] My interpretation of Hrabanus’s carmen figuratum of Jesus builds upon those of Coon and Schipper. Coon declares:

In his image of Christ, the Carolingian artist both screens the divine phallus from human gaze and simultaneously reveals its glorious nature and function through the agency of the letters scattered across the loincloth. It is a fitting combination for the Son of God, who fuses divine and human attributes and who is himself the Word. … For Hrabanus those stars {of Genesis 15:5} were future Christian souls born through the potency of Christ’s preaching.

Coon (2011) pp. 219-20. Schipper states:

But what exactly does Hrabanus mean to say with these clearly sensual if not erotic references to caressing movements, broken movements, and references to stars at the centre of the loin cloth of Christ? The temptation, of course, is to conclude immediately that something intentionally erotic is meant; indeed, that astra is intended as an indication of what lies beneath the loin cloth, namely Christ’s manhood. The very position of the inscription invites such an interpretation, and it is one I’m sure Hrabanus must have been aware of, even if he never says so in so many words. But there is a broad explanation as well. … The general direction of meaning of these lines {the background poem for the loincloth} suggests God or the Law covering Truth, God as the all-powerful Creator who has fashioned and revealed all the created world. But Hrabanus never lets go of the literal meaning of a small cloth (paruauestis) covering that which creates or procreates, Christ’s penis, which is not just a penis, but also the creator (or the creative power) who makes the created world visible for mankind.

Id. pp. 195-7. In my understanding, Hrabanus used astra in specific reference to the central blessing of Hebrew scripture, and the shape of the fourth tracing he meant to represent masculine genitals.

[8] Ryan (2020). Most medievalists haven’t read Ryan and similar thinkers. Like many medievalists discussing gender and “the body,” Coon refers to men’s bodies abstractly and makes broad claims supporting current academic dogma such as gender theory:

the body of a monk served as a bridge between classical Rome and an encroaching Dark Age. … the monastic body expressed the imperial ambitions of the religious leadership of the Carolingian Empire. …. clerical elites forged a model of gender that sought to feminize lay male bodies through textual, ritual, and spatial means, reflecting the rivalry between lay and priestly groups. … For gender theorists, monastic masculinity also discloses the queerness of the Carolingian cloister. … The monastic refectory is a sparring ground, where corporal pleasures, such as eating or moving the eyes over the bodies of other diners, are crushed by power of the Word performed by a lector trained in the art of classical oratory. The dining hall of a monastery is a perilous space, where monks are “invited into the body only to resist.”{reference note omitted} … Hrabanus’s In Honor of the Holy Cross visualizes the fundamental spiritual dilemma of the Dark Age body: the body is central to the meaning of the faith but its centrality occasions anxiety among the faithful.

Coon (2011) pp. 2, 10, 249, 252. In contrast to Coon’s dark and stormy account, Stone states, “the Carolingian religious elite do not seem to have found celibacy difficult.” Stone (2012) p. 326. Medieval scholarship would be more interesting and serve social justice better if it addressed the specific biological reality of men’s bodies in relation to structures of oppression, e.g. violence against men’s genitals, normative mutilation of men’s genitals, cultural support for castrating men, and laws that suppress men’s plentiful seminal capabilities.

[image] Carmen figuratum of Jesus Christ in Hrabanus Maurus’s In honorem sanctae crucis. Folio 8v (excerpt) from instance made in mid-eleventh-century Paris. That instance follows the content of the ninth-century instance made in Fulda for the Holy Roman Emperor Louis the Pious. Manuscript preserved as Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits (BnF) Latin 11685. The subsequent two images are excerpts from that image, with my blue-guideline overlay added to the first of those two.

Other instances of this carmen figuratum from Hrabanus’s In honorem sanctae crucis are freely available online. See:

  1. Folio 3v in a ninth-century instance made in Fulda and probably offered to the Abbey of Saint-Denis between 845 and 847. Preserved as BnF Latin 2422.
  2. Folio 8v in an instance made between 825-850 in Fulda. Preserved as Biblioteca Apostolia Vaticana. Reginensis lat. 124.
  3. Folio 4v in a tenth-century instance. Preserved as BnF Latin 2421. Kelin Michael suggests that this manuscript “may be an Anglo-Saxon copy made in the 10th century during a period of Benedictine monastic reform.” Jesse Hurlbut shows details of this manuscript.
  4. Folio 3v in a tenth-century instance. Preserved as Cambridge University, Trinity College, MS B.16.3. On this instance, Panayotova & Ricciardi (2017).
  5. Folio 6v in an instance produced in 1490 in Lorch, Germany. Preserved as Württembergische Landesbibliothek (Stuttgart, Germany), Cod.theol.et phil.fol.122.
  6. Folio 9v in an instance made for Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in 1600. Preserved as BnF Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Ms-472 réserve.


Barkley, Gary Wayne, tr. 1990. Origen. Homilies on Leviticus: 1-16. Fathers of the Church, Vol. 83. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press.

Contreni, John J. 1998. “Review of Perrin (1997), Rabani Mauri In honorem sanctae crucis.” The Medieval Review. Online.

Coon, Lynda L. 2004. “‘What is the Word if not semen?’ Priestly bodies in Carolingian exegesis.” Ch. 15 (pp. 278-300) in Brubaker, Leslie, and Julia M. H. Smith. Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and West, 300-900. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Coon, Lynda L. 2011. Dark Age Bodies: gender and monastic practice in the early medieval West. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press. (review by Rebecca Hardie)

Fowler, Harold N., ed. and trans. 1921. Plato. Vol. 7. Theaetetus. Loeb Classical Library, Vol. 128. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

Godman, Peter. 1985. Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance. London: Duckworth.

Michael, Kelin. 2019. “The Transition of Material: Hrabanus Maurus’s In honorem sanctae crucis as Manuscript and Printed Book.” Paper presented at The Materiality of Devotion Exhibition Symposium, Emory University, Mar. 1, 2019. (video of presentation)

Panayotova, Stella and Paola Ricciardi. 2017. “Painting the Trinity Hrabanus: Materials, Techniques and Methods of Production.” Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society. 16: 227-249. (web-viewable version)

Perrin, Michel. 1990. “Le De laudibus Sanctae Crucis de Raban Maur et sa Tradition Manuscrite au IXe siècle.” Revue d’Histoire des Textes. 19 (1989): 191-251.

Perrin, Michel, ed. 1997. Rabani Mauri In honorem Sanctae Crucis. Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Mediaevalis, Vols. 100, 100 A. Turnholti: Brepols.

Ryan, Peter. 2020. “Gynocentrism, Sex Differences and the Manipulation of Men.” Available online at both Gynocentrism and Its Cultural Origins and A Voice for Men.

Schipper, William. 2014. “Secretive Bodies and Passionate Souls: Transgressive Sexuality Among the Carolingians.” Pp. 173-199 in Kambaskovic, Danijela, ed. Conjunctions of Mind, Soul and Body from Plato to the Enlightenment. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.

Stone, Rachel. 2012. Morality and Masculinity in the Carolingian Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (review by Valerie L. Garver, review by Clara Harder)

Ignaure & castration: against women imprisoning men in love

six legendary lovers worship Venus

The Old French lay Ignaure, composed about the year 1200, tells a common story of penal bias in punishment for adultery. Men’s sexuality has long been socially constructed to have lower social value than women’s sexuality. However, with astonishing daring, Ignaure didn’t merely represent gynocentric reality. This marginalized lay also sought to change it. Ignaure presented a lesson from its man author to the woman patron who loved him. The lesson of Ignaure remains to be learned: women who reject the masculine model of Jesus’s love and seek to control and constrain men’s sexuality produce castration and death.

Violence against men in medieval literature and society, as in most societies today, is prevalent and unmarked. Gender bias in medieval violence gave elite medieval men a life expectancy about nine years less than that of elite medieval women. Violence against men has often targeted men’s genitals. When Heloise of the Paraclete’s relatives discovered her sexual affair with Peter Abelard, he was castrated. She wasn’t subject to any violence. Like some men academics today, the medieval courtier Sincopus castrated himself for career advancement. To enhance further his social standing, Sincopus subsequently hosted dinner parties for eminent guests. One night, guests inadvertently ate the ashes of Sincopus’s genitals. A culturally elaborate form of cannibalism, castration culture cuts deeply into European culture.

Ignaure introduces itself as an instructive tale of love. It subtly associates sense and wisdom with men’s seminal work:

Anybody who loves should not conceal,
rather should with none but fine words expose
that from which others can learn
and none but a fine lesson take.

Seeds are wasted if they’re kept covered.
That which is shown and revealed
can sow a seed in any place.
For this reason I wish to start a romance

{ Cors ki aimme ne doit reponre,
Ains doit auchun biel mot despondre,
U li autre puissent aprendre
Et auchun biel example prendre.

Sens est perdus ki est couvers;
Cis k’est moustrés et descouvers
Puet en auchun liu semenchier.
Pour chou voel roumans coumenchier } [1]

The central character of this romance is a very sexually potent knight named Ignaure. He enjoyed the music of flutes and pipes and the pleasure of gathering blossoms to celebrate the coming of May. Courtly love for women aroused and inflamed him. Yet he wasn’t a self-abasing knight groveling in service before one lady-idol. He was sexually loving the twelve high-born, beautiful wives of the twelve leading knights of the castle in which he was born. Women called him Nightingale. Women gave him money and goods in appreciation for his love. Who has ever welcomed the seeds of such romance?

The adulterous wives who loved Ignaure refused to accept that one man could fully love all twelve of them. At first they didn’t know that their extra-marital affairs were all with the same man. Some medieval men for amusement recited liturgical poems recast as drinking songs; other men confessed their weakness for beautiful, warmly receptive women like those in Pavia. In that spirit, these twelve wives got together in a garden and arranged a mock confession of their love affairs to one of them pretending to be a priest. That ordinary childish fun turned terrible when the fake woman priest found that all the women confessed to be having affairs with Ignaure. He was the same man with which the pretend woman priest herself was having a love affair!

No less prone to stumbling than Jesus’s own original twelve bumbling apostles, these twelve adulterous wives responded furiously and violently to not having sole possession of their lover. Jesus knew that the Samaritan woman at the well had five husbands and was currently sleeping with a man who wasn’t her husband. Yet Jesus treated the Samaritan woman with such dignity and respect that she called her fellow Samaritans to meet Jesus. When Jesus encountered a woman caught in the act of adultery, he saved her from punishment.[2] While the Gospel authors didn’t record such love toward relationally wayward men, Jesus almost surely would have treated men with equal compassion. Most importantly, Jesus, a fully masculine man, offered his love and his body wholly and completely to all who followed him. The twelve adulterous wives, however, plotted to kill Ignaure for loving all twelve of them.

One of the twelve adulterous wives lured Ignaure into an enclosed garden. There the other adulterous wives were hiding, waiting for him. They had sharp knives concealed under their cloaks. When the gate to the garden was locked and Ignaure had sat down, these woman rushed out. They were inflamed with anger and rage. They encircled Ignaure. Bereft of self-consciousness, they called Ignaure faithless, treacherous, and disloyal.

Despite being violently ambushed, Ignaure remained calm and retained his love for these adulterous wives. He declared that every one of them he loved truly with a pure and sincere heart. One adulterous wife cross-examined him, expecting with a leading question to lead him into an abject confession of wrong-doing:

“What?” said another, “what did you say?
You do not love me faithfully?”

{ “Coi?” dist une autre, “c’avés dit?
Enne m’amés vous par fianche?” }

Ignaure in response confidently asserted his capacity to love women:

Yes, with all my power,
you indeed and all the others,
I love truly, all of them, without doubt,
in both their solace and their delight.

{ Oïl, de toute ma poissanche,
Et vous et les autres testoutes
Ain ge bien, testoutes sans doutes,
Et lor solas et lor delis. }

Yelling and threatening, the women drew out their knives and said that they would kill him. Ignaure calmly responded:

Ladies, you would never be so cruel
that you would commit so great a sin.
If now I had my helmet laced on my head
and was riding my warhorse Equilanche
with shield around my neck and lance in hand,
so I would descend here,
and place myself at your mercy.
If I were to die at such beautiful hands,
I would be a martyr with the saints.
Well I know I was born at an auspicious hour.

{ Dames, ja ne serés si crueux
Que vous fachiés si grant pechiet.
S’or avoie l’iaume lachiet
Et fuisse el destrier d’Equilanche,
L’escu au col, el puing la lanche,
Si descendroie jou ichi
Et me metroie en vo merchi.
Se je muir a si bieles mains,
G’iere martyrs avoec les sains;
Bien sai qui fui nés en bonne eure. }

Most men don’t want to compete with women, even women who are trying to kill them. Ignaure’s bold and fearless speech brought love to the women’s hearts.

One of the adulterous wives proposed that Ignaure be allowed to love only one woman, and that he choose which one to love. The other adulterous wives agreed to impose this sexual constraint on Ignaure rather than to kill him. Ignaure chose the woman who had intervened to save his life. Yet he also truthfully and courageously said that he was “much grieved {molt dolans}” over losing the other women as concurrent lovers.

Having sex with only one woman creates risks for men. One risk is being stranded in a relationship that turns sexless. Another is that the man slips into gyno-idolatry and becomes oblivious to the reality that his beloved woman is a human like any other woman. Yet another risk is that the woman becomes excessively domineering over her lover and essentially makes him her prisoner. Moreover, when a man loves just one woman who is another man’s wife, he faces an increased risk of being caught in his frequent visits to her. Ignaure summarizes the risk to a man of having only one woman lover with a homely Old French proverb:

A mouse with just one hole can’t last long.

{ Soris ki n’a c’un trau poi dure. } [3]

Men deserve freedom to choose the sexual risks they will take. The angry, adulterous wives deprived Ignaure of choice.

The sexual constraint the women imposed on Ignaure proved disastrous for him and them. The knight caught his wife and Ignaure in bed together. Ignaure was imprisoned under the threat of being killed. The wife wasn’t punished. But she and the other adulterous wives were upset about the imprisonment of Ignaure. They swore to fast until they found out whether he would be killed or released. They thus engaged in ridiculous news-seeking and showed callus indifference to Ignaure’s actual fate. Fasting in Christian understanding is a practice of purification. Women must purify themselves to love men more substantively.

In the Christian Last Supper, Christ recast the Incarnation as Christians continually feeding upon his body. Christian cannibalism is loving incorporation. One of the betrayed husbands proposed a parody of the Eucharistic meal:

After four days, let’s remove from the serving man
all of his member dangling down below,
the delights of which have pleased our wives.
Then let’s make it appear to be something to eat;
the heart we’ll put in as well.
Twelve bowls from this we’ll make
and trick them into eating it,
because we couldn’t take any better revenge.

{ Au quart jor prendons le vassal
Tout le daerrain membre aval,
Dont li delis lor soloit plaire,
Si en fache on .I. mangier faire;
Le cuer avoec nous meterons.
.XII. escuieles en ferons;
Par engien lor faisons mangier,
Car nous n’en poons mieus vengier. }

The betrayed husbands made such a meal and gave it a sweet aroma. They praised this “good and fine {bonne et biele}” meal to their fasting wives. The adulterous wives broke their fast to eat the meal. They thus ate Ignaure’s penis and his heart. [4]

Most women don’t desire literally to eat their merely human lover’s penis and heart. To the principal adulterous wife, who was the pretend woman priest who became Ignaure’s exclusive lover, her husband declared:

Lady priestess,
you have already been his mistress.
You have eaten that of your great desire,
which provided you with much pleasure,
for you had no wish for any other.
In the end it has been served to you.
I have killed and destroyed your lover.
All can share a piece of the pleasure
from that which women crave most.
In having it, was there enough for you twelve?
We are now well-avenged for the shame.

{ Dame prestresse,
Ja fustes vous sa mistresse.
Mangié avés le grant desir
Ki si vous estoit em plaisir,
Car d’autre n’aviés vous envie;
En la fin en estes servie.
Vostre drut ai mort et destruit;
Toutes partirés au deduit
De chou que femme qui plus goulouse.
End avés assés en vous douse?
Bien nous sommes vengié del blasme. }

Ignaure had been killed. His heart and penis had been torn off from his body and made into a meal. The adulterous wives recognized their culpability in that horror. They vowed to God that they would never eat again. This vow they kept, and they too died.

The adulterous wives contributed to castration culture by hypocritically seeking to control and constrain Ignaure’s sexuality. Eunuchs were widely despised in ancient and medieval times. One man trobairitz, presenting himself as a eunuch, sang of his misery:

Of this I fully assure you:
that which gives a man the most happiness
I have lost and have instead been given shame,
and I dare not say who took it from me.
I have truly a good heart,
since I speak of such great embarrassment.

But for that reason I so hasten
to speak of this that I now lament:
because I wish easily, without delay, to relieve
all husbands from the nightmare,
and the anger and the worry,
for which they look at me with darkened face.

Although I act gracious and generous,
I am in fact flaccid and despicable,
a coward both armed and without breastplate.
I am leprous and foul-smelling,
a miser, a low-grade host,
of all by far the most inept warrior.

{ D’aisso vos fatz ben totz certz:
qu’aicels don hom es plus gais
ai perdutz, don ai vergoigna;
e non aus dir qui·ls me trais;
et ai ben cor vertadier
quar dic tant grand encombrier.

Mas per so sui tant espertz
de dir aisso que er plais:
quar voill leu gitar ses poigna
totz los maritz de pantais
e d’ira e de conssirier,
don mout m’en fan semblant nier.

Si·m fatz coindes e degertz
si·m sui eu flacs e savais
volpilz garnitz e ses broigna,
e sui mizels e putnais:
escars, vilan conduchier,
de tot lo plus croi guerrier. } [5]

Peter Abelard was viciously abused as a castrated man. Modern authorities, however, have obliterated castration as personal experience of men and cultural constraint on men. Instead, the psychoanalytic abstraction “castration complex” is used to disparage men’s wounds, fears, and anxieties. The adulterous wives duped into eating their lover’s penis finally digested the reality of castration culture. Castration culture must be understood before it leads to more deaths of men and women.

Ignaure includes a telling epilogue. In that epilogue, the author (self-identified as Renaut) blesses and praises his patron:

And a blessing be on her who had it made,
this lay which must be pleasing to lovers.
She has bound me so strongly
that I am unable to be untied.

{ Et benie soit ki le fist faire,
Cest lai ki as amans doit plaire.
Cele m’a si fort atachié
Que n’en puis estre deslachié. }

Renaut then describes the woman to whom he is bound. She is beautiful, charming, and very polite. Moreover, her breasts, which are “very firm {bien duretes},” push out her tunic, and she has a “lovely waist {gente par la chainture}.” In summary, she seems to be a woman of many men’s dreams. But Renaut hints at a difficulty he has:

She is the chain, all entirely.
Be aware that through this chain
the lady leads me wherever she wishes.
Much am I in a very sweet prison;
I have no desire to be ransomed.
That is the subject of this lay.
Here for you I will end it.
The French, the Poitevins, and the Bretons
call it the lay of the Prisoner.
Here ends the lay of the Prisoner.
I know about it absolutely nothing more.

{ C’est la caïne toute entiere.
Sachié que par cester caïne
La u la dame velt me mainne.
Molt sui en tres douche prison;
Issir n’en quier par raenchon.
C’est la matere de cel lay;
Ichi le vous definerai.
Franchois, Poitevin et Breton
L’apielent le lay del Prison.
Ichi faut li lays del Prison;
Je n’en sai plus ne o ne non. }

The last line above is best read ironically. The lay of the prisoner seems to describe the personal situation of the author Renaut. His woman patron apparently demanded to love him wholly and exclusively. That should be his choice. But he wasn’t given the freedom to choose. She, a person under whom he worked, enchained him.[6] The lesson of the lay is that women controlling and constraining men’s sexuality isn’t fruitful. Such possessive dominance in love leads to castration and death.

The lesson of the lay of the prisoner has largely been lost. The text itself survives in only one manuscript. One modern man medievalist with no appreciation for men’s interests interpreted Ignaure genderlessly as a “social drama of class conflict.”[7] Modern women medievalists have a keener sense of their gender identity and gender interests. Gynocentric medieval scholarship has established Christine de Pizan, Marguerite Porete, and the beguines as leading figures of the European Middle Ages. Not surprisingly, an eminent woman medievalist reads Ignaure as a satire against beguines and their Eucharistic piety.[8] Another woman medievalist reads the penal killing of Ignaure and the adulterous wives eating his penis and heart as an appealing metaphor for heterosexual love:

As a metaphor for love, the act of cannibalism gives voice to the wordless acts of physical love and intimate exchange that are difficult if not impossible to describe, and thus articulates the possibility of unity between two desiring subjects. … Placing satisfied female desire at the center of the tale also reclaims female literary influence, putting women in charge of heart and penis, in charge of desire and its related lyric outpouring. [9]

What about satisfying male desire? Is Ignaure’s sexual desire humanely satisfied in this romance? Why is castration culture unremarkable within dominant discourse?

Good-faith “and/both” interpretation can contribute to appreciating the cultural richness of medieval literature and activating its critical potential. Considering the Wife of Bath’s Prologue from the perspectives of “misogynists and feminists” merely exercises narrow minds across the linear moral hierarchy of today’s dominant, totalizing gender paradigm.[10] A good-faith effort at “and/both” thinking would also read the Wife of Bath’s Prologue from the perspectives of misandrists and meninists. Such readings can provide critical insight into the highly disproportionate imprisonment of men, pervasive anti-men bias in the administration of domestic violence laws, and the incarceration of men too poor to make onerous monthly payments obligations resulting from a man choosing nothing more than to have consensual sex. Even without a general commitment to “and/both” interpretation, medieval literary studies should strive to be welcoming and inclusive of meninist literary criticism.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Ignaure vv. 1-4, 11-14, Old French text (Picard dialect) from Burgess & Brook (2010) p. 70, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. The introductory verses of this lay aren’t transparent. They apparently relate to the amorous context of the epilogue. Id. pp. 60-1. My translation, while following the Old French closely, attempts to bring out the relation of sens {good sense; significance; seed; semen} and semencher {to plant seed; to have sex of reproductive type} to sexuality. Other scholars have recognized this relation. Id. and Bloch (1992) p. 127. An alternate translation of Ignaure, vv. 11-14:

Talent is wasted if it is kept hidden;
That which is displayed and revealed
Can begin to grow in some place.
For this reason I wish to begin a tale.

Burgess & Brook (2010) p. 71.

Ignaure is known through only one manuscript, Paris BnF fr. 1553, f. 485r – 488v. That manuscript appears to have been written between 1285 and 1290. Burgess & Brook (2010) p. 7. Ignaure, v. 621, identifies its author as Renaut. This Renaut has long been regarded as Renaut de Beaujeu, but recent scholarship suggests Renaud of Saint-Trivier. Scholars have dated the composition of Ignaure to the late twelfth century or early thirteenth century. Id. pp. 8-10. Here’s an incomplete bibliography of studies concerning Ignaure. On the structure of Ignaure in relation to other Old French lays, Sasková (2009).

Subsequent quotes from Ignaure are similarly sourced. They are vv. 310-11 (What?…), 312-5 (Yes, with all my power…), 324-33 (Ladies, you would never be so cruel…), 373 (A mouse…), 541-8 (After four days…), 565-76 (Lady priestess…), 627-30 (And a blessing be on her…), 652-62 (She is the chain…).

[2] John 4:1-42 (Samaritan woman at the well), John 8:1-11 (woman caught in adultery).

[3] Emphasizing the importance of this medieval folk wisdom, Ignaure repeats it subsequently with slightly different wording:

The mouse who has but one hole
is very soon caught in a trap.

{ La soris ki n’a c’un pertruis
Est molt tost prise en enganee. }

Vv. 4801-1. This proverbial wisdom exists in a variety of closely related medieval sayings, e.g. “God help the mouse who knows but one hole {Dahez ait la soriz qui ne set c’un pertuis},” and “The mouse is unhappy if it knows but one hole {La soriz est mauvese qui ne set c’um pertuis}.” Burgess & Brook (2010) p. 107, note to v. 373, and more generally, Singer (1999) pp. 154-5. The metaphorical implications for men’s loving sexual work with their penises is straight-forward.

[4] Ignaure has been classified with a group of tales known as the “eaten heart story.” In Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk Literature, the eaten heart story is Q478.1: “adultress is caused unwittingly to eat her lover’s heart (sometimes other parts of the body).” Cited in Burgess & Brook (2010) p. 25. Ten medieval European eaten heart tales have been identified. For a review, id., pp. 25-35. The adulterous wives eating Ignaure’s penis is central to the distinctiveness and meaning of Ignaure. Scholars haven’t considered seriously the eating of the penis or castration culture more generally. See, e.g. id. pp. 35-6.

[5] Raimbaut d’Aurenga (Raimbaut of Orange), “For a long time I have been hiding {Lonc temps ai estat cubertz}” st. 2-4, Old Occitan text (based on that of Milone (1998)) from Lirica Medievale Romanza, my English translation benefiting from the Italian translation of id. (Samantha Molinaro), the English translation from trobar, and that of Gaunt (1989) pp. 140-1. Lirica Medievale Romanza provides many other songs by Raimbaut d’Aurenga, as does trobar

At some point in his life, Raimbaut d’Aurenga apparently was highly capable of loving women well. He sang:

Thus about loving I say:
I love so guilelessly
her whom I should love,
that the best lovers
(if they were sure how truly I love her)
would come to me here
to beg from this day forth
that I teach them as apprentices
about good loving;
and even thus to beg
me about it would come five hundred ladies.

{ Don d’amar dic:
Qu’am si ses tric
Lieys qu’amar deg,
Que·l miels adreg
(s’eron sert cum l’am finamens)
M’irion sai
Preguar hueymai
Que·ls essenhes cum aprendens
De ben amar;
E neus preguar
M’en venrion dompnas cinc cens. }

Raimbaut d’Aurenga, “I am very pleased {Assaz m’es belh},” st. 4, Old Occitan text (Pattison edition) via Lirica Medievale Romanza, my English translation, benefiting from that of trobar and Gaunt (1989) p. 124. Raimbaut expresses in some of his songs vigorous sexuality:

Indeed it shall be, lady, a great honor
if I from you am granted
the privilege under the covers
of holding you in naked embrace;
you are worth as much as the best hundred ladies!
And I’m not overly boastful —
the sole thought of this has rejoiced my heart
more than if I were the emperor.

{ Ben aurai, dompna, grand honor
si ja de vos m’es jutgada
honranssa que sotz cobertor
vos tenga nud’ embrassada;
car vos valetz las meillors cen!
Q’ieu non sui sobregabaire —
sol del pes ai mon cor gauzen
plus que s’era emperaire! }

Raimbaut d’Aurenga, “I do not sing for bird nor flower {Non chant per auzel ni per flor},” st. 3, Old Occitan text (Pattison edition) via Lirica Medievale Romanza, my English translation benefiting from that of trobar. See similarly Raimbaut d’Aurenga, “Amid the frost and wind and mud {Entre gel e vent e fanc},” st. 8, available with Old Occitan text and English translation at trobar and Gaunt (1989) p. 142.

As a model for his lady and him, Raimbaut references Iseult and Tristan cuckolding her husband King Mark:

See, lady, how God helps
the lady agreeable to loving.
Iseult was in great fear,
then soon she was counseled.
She made her husband believe
that no man born of woman
had touched her – now
the very same thing you can do!

{ Vejatz, dompna, cum Dieus acor
Dompna que d’amar s’agrada.
Q’Iseutz estet en gran paor,
Puois fon breumens conseillada;
Qu’il fetz a son marit crezen
C’anc hom que nasques de maire
Non toques en lieis. – Mantenen
Atrestal podetz vos faire! }

“Non chant per auzel ni per flor,” st. 6, sourced as previously. In the Iseult & Tristan tales of Thomas of Britain and Béroul, Iseult passes a chastity test throught a guileful, covering interaction with Tristan (an ambiguous oath). Whether Raimbaut was castrated at some point in his life, or he only claimed to be castrated to dupe husbands, isn’t known. Cf. Gaunt (1989) pp. 139-43. But castration unquestionably was a real risk that medieval men endured.

Another, possibly related poem, attests to medieval awareness of the horror of castration. This Old Occitan poem tells of Linaura (an Old Occitan form for Ignaure) being castrated and killed for having sex with another man’s wife:

From Linaura, know
how he was greatly loved
and how all the ladies
loved him and sought him,
until the wicked husband,
by great treachery,
caught him and had him killed.
But this was most deplorable,
that his penis was butchered.
He was, I believe, cut up
and divided into four parts
by those four husbands.
He was the master
of his office
until he was betrayed
and killed by the jealous.

{ De Linaura sapchatz
com el fon cobeitatz
e com l’ameron totas
donas e·n foron glotas,
entro·l maritz felon,
per granda trassion,
lo fey ausir al plag.
Mas aco fon mot lag
que Massot so auzis;
e·n fo, so cre, devis
e faitz catre mitatz
pels catre molheratz.
Sest ac la maÿstria
dedintre sa bailia,
entro que fon fenitz
e pels gilos traïtz. }

Arnaut Guilhem de Marsan, ensenhamen “Who is able to understand well {Qui comte vol apendre},” vv. 217-32, Old Occitan text of Gouiran (2014) via Rialto, my English translation, benefiting from the French translation of id. and the English translation of Burgess & Brook (2010) pp. 14-5. This poem dates to 1170-80. Philologists have debated the meaning of moheratz and massot. Following Mouzat and Pirot, I’ve interpreted these words as “husbands” and “club / penis(mace / massue). For the philological issues, with relevant scholarly references, id.

Ignaure’s castration seems to have been widely known in late twelfth-century France. Chrétien de Troyes refered to Ignaure:

That is the greatly loved Ignaure,
a pleasing man who loves women.

{ C’est Iagnaures li covoitiez,
Li amoreus et li pleisanz. }

The Knight of the Cart {Chevalier de la charette}, vv. 5788-9, Old French text and English translation from Burgess & Brook (2010) p. 13. Moreover, Linaura (Old Occitan form of Ignaure) was a code name (senhal) used for Raimbaut d’Aurenga in the songs of the men trobairitiz Giraut de Bornelh and Gaucelm Faidit. Id. p. 15. See also Samantha Molinaro’s commentary on Raimbaut d’Aurenga.

[6] Women using their positions of authority to coerce men sexually is morally wrong. That’s also formally illegal in most places. In thirteenth-century Navarre, Thibault de Champagne sang of a similar imprisonment:

Lady, when I stood before you
and I saw you for the first time,
my heart leaped forth so far
that it remained with you when I left.
Then I was led without offer of ransom
to be captive in the sweet prison

{ Dame, quant je devant vos fui
Et je vos vi premierement,
Mes cuers aloit si tresaillant
Qu’il vos remest quant je m’en mui.
Lors fu menés sanz raençon
En la douce chartre en prison }

“Just like the unicorn am I {Ausi conme unicorne sui}” vv. 10-15, Old French text from Samuel N. Rosenberg, my English translation benefiting from that of id. and O’Sullivan (2005) pp. 190-1. Here’s the song with a modern French translation. Culpability for this man’s imprisonment at least in part goes to men’s human nature. This song concludes with recognizing that this man, like the many men vastly disproportionately imprisoned, “bears so heavy a burden {soustenir si grevain fes}.” At least this man only metaphorically lost his heart, rather than being killed and having his penis and heart eaten, as happened to Ignaure. Anne Azéma performed this song with appropriate poignancy.

[7] Bloch (1991) p. 124. In Bloch’s line of thinking, the men-abasing sexual feudalism of courtly love expresses misogyny.

[8] Newman (2013) pp. 178-81. In this interpretation, acts of the wives that have pious analogues, e.g. confession and fasting, represent piety. Acts of the wives that don’t have pious analogues, e.g. adultery and planning to kill Ignaure, are parodies of piety. That’s a tendentious pattern of interpretation.

[9] Heneveld (2018) p. 412.

[10] Newman (2013) pp. 172-3. On “a hermeneutics of  both/and” more generally, id. pp. 7-13. Looking at the Wife of Bath’s Prologue from the perspectives of feminism and misogyny surely isn’t what “sic et non {yes and no}” meant to Peter Abelard.

[image] Venus worshipped by six men, all legendary lovers: Achilles, Tristan, Lancelot, Samson, Paris and Troilus. Decorated birth tray (desco da parto), made c. 1400. Ascribed to variously to Master of Charles of Durazzo, Master Taking of Tarento, and Francesco de Michele. Preserved as item R.F.2089 in the Musée du Louvre (Paris). Via Wikimedia Commons.

On “and/both” interpretation of this depiction, Newman (2013) pp. 8-10. This birth tray suggests to me gyno-idolatry. A particular woman enjoying six men lovers, or a particular man relishing twelve women lovers, seems to me understandable in both sacred and secular ways. Such understanding seems to me less socially significant than understanding the structural oppressions of gynocentrism.


Bloch, R. Howard. 1991. Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Burgess, Glyn S., and Leslie C. Brook, ed. and trans. 2010. The Old French Lays of Ignaure, Oiselet and Armours. Gallica 18. Cambridge: Brewer.

Gaunt, Simon. 1989. Troubadours and Irony. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Heneveld, Amy. 2018. “Eating your lover’s otherness: The narrative theme of the Eaten Heart in the Lai d’Ignaure.” Cahiers de recherches médiévales et humanistes / Journal of Medieval and Humanistic Studies. 36 (2): 393-412.

Newman, Barbara. 2013. Medieval Crossover: reading the secular against the sacred. The Conway Lectures in Medieval Studies. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press. (Blake Gutt’s review, Ryan McDermott’s review, Karl F. Morrison’s review, Galina Zelenina’s review)

O’Sullivan, Daniel E. 2005. Marian Devotion in Thirteenth-Century French Lyric. University of Toronto Press.

Sasková, Silvie. 2009. The Structural Arrangement of the Old French Narrative Lays. Ph.D. Thesis. University of Canterbury (Christchurch, New Zealand). School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics.

Singer, Samuel. 1999. Thesaurus Proverbiorum Medii Aevi, Bd. 8, Linke – Niere Lexikon der Sprichwörter des Romanisch-Germanischen Mittelalters. Berlin: De Gruyter.