misdirected chivalry in Guillelma de Rosers & Lanfranc Cigala’s tenso

chivalry: Guillaume IX d'Aquitaine on horse

The traditional understanding of chivalry centered on a man sexually serving his wife or some other attractive woman with great generosity and dedication. However, an oppressive, men-degrading understanding of chivalrous treatment of women gained influence in twelfth-century France. That effect is clearly apparent in a thirteenth-century debate poem (tenso) between the trobairitz Guillelma de Rosers and the man trobairitz (troubadour) Lanfranc Cigala. They considered a case concerning the proper direction for chivalry. Guillelma prevailed in their debate. She asserted the traditional understanding of chivalry, but at the same time disparaged men and figured men’s sexual service to women as an assault on women.

The traditional understanding of chivalry expresses the relative importance of women’s and men’s needs. In the late-eighth-century Arabic text Bilauhar and Budasaf, a powerful warrior-hero had a beautiful wife. One day an enemy attacked their village. In their traditional gender role as persons who fight and die to defend women and children, the men of the village prepared to confront the enemy. They called on the hero to join with them. Unlike Achilles, enraged and sulking on the Trojan shore because his mistress had been taken from him, this hero had with him his beautiful wife. She wanted to have sex. The hero turned to have sex with his wife before helping the men of the village fight off an enemy force. In the traditional understanding of chivalry, men’s sexual service to their wives is more important than men helping their fellow men in battle.[1]

Guillelma de Rosers and Lanfranc Cigala’s tenso presents a similar case. Men needed help from other men:

Lady Guillelma, a band of weary knights
abroad in the dark, in most dismal weather,
wished aloud in their own tongues that they might
find shelter. Two lovers happened to over-
hear while on their way to their ladies who
lived close to there; one of them turned back to
help the knights, the other went to his lady.
Which of the two behaved most fittingly?

{ Na Guilielma, maint cavalier arratge
anan de nueg per mal temps qe fazia
si plaignian d’alberc en lur lengatge.
Auziron dui bar qe per drudaria
se’n anavan vas lur donas non len.
L’us se’n tornet per servir sella gen,
l’autre·s n’anet vas sa domna corren.
Qals d’aqels dos fes miels zo qe·il taignia? }

In the traditional understanding of chivalry, men’s love for women outweighs men’s concern for other men. At the same time, women recognized men’s love for them, appreciated men’s love for them, and were grateful for men’s love.

In response to Lanfranc’s statement of the case to be debated, Guillelma affirmed gynocentrically the traditional understanding of chivalry. She responded:

Friend Lanfranc, I think that he did best
who continued on to see his lady.
The other also did well. However, his
loved one couldn’t observe in the same way
what the other could see with her own eyes,
that her man had keep his promise to her.
I like a man better who does what he says,
than another whose heart changes his way.

{ Amics Lafranc, miels complic son viatge,
al mieu semblan, sel qi tenc vas s’amia;
e l’autre fes ben, mas son fin coratge
non poc tam be saber si donz a tria
con cil qe·l vic devant sos oils presen,
q’atendut l’a sos cavaliers coven;
q’eu pres truep mais qi zo qe diz aten,
qe qi en als son coratge cambia. }

Women are socially positioned as judges of men’s worth. Meeting him in person, a lady could judge her lover through direct observation. In Guillelma’s thinking, men helping other men has no value in itself. The lady would like to see her lover helping desperate men because that would affirm to her that her man was better than those other men. Within this gynocentric ideology, a man’s good works are worth nothing unless a woman observes him doing them.

Lanfranc himself valued men’s lives, but credited the woman for that result. He responded:

Pardon, lady, but that brave knightly man
who saved the rest from death and harm was moved
by affection: there will never appear
a chivalry that doesn’t spring from love.
Thus in my opinion, a hundredfold
she ought to thank him, as though she had beheld
the deed in person, for out of love for her
that knight saved them from what might have occurred.

{ Domna, si·us plaz, tot qan fes d’agradatge
lo cavalliers qe per sa galiardia
garda·ls autres de mort e de dampnatge,
li mouc d’amor, qar ges de cortezia
non ha nuls hom si d’amor no·il dessen;
per q’el si donz deu grazir per un cen
qar desliuret, per s’amor, de turmen
tanz cavalier qe se vista l’avia. }

Today, to hearty applause, men commonly proclaim that they owe all their worldly success to their wives. Love for the lady accordingly saved the men’s lives.

Guillelma vehemently rejected the worth of saving men’s lives. She responded:

Lanfranc, you never spoke more foolishly
than you did in what you said just now,
for as you know well, his deed was heinous.
Since loving service guided his doing,
why not go to serve his lady first?
He would have seen her gratitude and joy,
and he would have served her in many good
places with his love, not lacking as a man-toy.

{ Lafranc, ja mais non razones muzatge
tan gran co fes cel qe non tenc sa via,
qe, sapchatz be, mout i fes gran ultratge:
pueis bel-servirs tan de cor li movia,
qar non servic si donz premeiramen?
Et agra·n grat de leis e jauzimen,
pueis, per s’amor, pogra servir soven
e maintz bos luecs qe faillir no·il podia. }

Women must be served first, even if men are dying. When a ship is sinking, women must be saved first. Dominant myths to the contrary, social life has long been gynocentric. The traditional understanding of chivalry reflects that reality.

trobairitz La comtesa de Dia

The medieval intensification of chivalric gynocentrism centered on devaluing and disparaging men’s sexuality. Lanfranc connected gynocentrism to sexual abuse of men:

Lady, forgive me for uttering foolishness,
I see that my suspicions all were true.
You, jealous, cannot be content unless
all your lovers’ pilgrimages lead to you.
But when you train a horse to joust, you should
guide it with care, bearing in mind what’s good
for it. You drive your lovers so hard that they
are left debilitated, and you enraged.

{ Domna, perdon vos qier s’ieu dic folatge,
qu’oi mais vei zo qe de donas crezia:
qe no vos platz q’autre pelegrinatge
fassan li drut mas ves vos tota via.
Pero cavals c’om vol qi baürt gen
deu hom menar ab mesur’et ab sen;
mas car los drutz cochatz tan malamen
lur faill poders, don vos sobra feunia. }

Men deserve humane working conditions and adequate compensation for their erection labor. Women should love men with care for men and concern for what’s good for men. Instead, men are being raped and being falsely accused of rape with almost no public concern. The horror of rape-culture culture arose from the intensification of gynocentrism.

Lanfranc, I say that on that very day
that knight should have changed his way;
for a woman who has high forefathers,
who is beautiful and noble, should have power
to command her men’s generous service,
even when her lover is away! But each man practices
excuses because, as I know, his hardness
goes lacking when he is most required.

{ Lafranc, eu dic qe son malvatz usatge
degra laissar en aqel meteis dia
le cavalliers qe domna d’aut paratge
bella e pros deu aver en bailia,
q’en son alberc servis hom largamen
ja el no·i fos; mas chascus razon pren
qar sai qe ha tan de recrezemen
q’al maior ops poders li failliria. }

Men are human. Not all men are sexual superheroes. Men’s sexual limitations, and even their failings, should be accepted sympathetically. Women, like men, should feel entitled to sexual fulfillment as human beings in a humane society. But no woman should feel entitled to command sexual service from servant men of her household, even if her lover is away. Men should be respected as fully human beings, not treated as sexual servants that women employ at their whim.

Men must insist that women respect them. Lanfranc instead surrendered himself to Guillelma:

Lady, I have hardness and ardor,
but not against you ladies, who in bed conquer.
As I was with words foolish to have contended,
so I prefer you to encompass me if you can.

{ Domna, poder ai eu et ardimen
non contra vos, qe·us venzes en jazen,
per q’eu sui fols car ab vos pris conten;
mas vencut voil qe m’aiatz, con qe sia. }

Despite Lanfranc’s abject surrender, Guillelma in response echoed the historically entrenched disparagement of men’s sexuality as a violent attack:

Lanfranc, I give you my promise and consent,
for I feel within myself such heart and boldness
that with such cunning ladies use in defense
I will defend myself against the boldest of men.

{ Lafranc, aitan vos autrei e·us consen
qe tant mi sen de cor e d’ardimen
c’ab aital gien con domna si defen
mi defendri’al plus ardit qe sia. }

Unionality, a theory that meninists have recently developed, asserts that one plus one is more than two. Unions produce a surplus of benefit. Historically, penises have been represented very negatively, while vaginas have been represented highly positively. That structural gender disparity supports a division of union surplus that greatly disfavors men. Not surprisingly, Guillelma here figures men’s sexuality as a negative force to be repelled. At the same time, the repetitions of the syllable “con” in the last two stanzas underscore that “gien con” could be translated not only as “with such cunning,” but also as “with the prettiest cunt.”[3] Thus to the traditional understanding of chivalry the trobairitz Guillelma adds gender ideology that works to deprive men of an equal share in union surplus.

Trobairitz (including men trobairitz) singing in Provençal courts in the twelfth and thirteenth century significantly changed the meaning of chivalry and love in subsequent European and world history. The enormity of that cultural development has scarcely been recognized. For men to achieve gender equality with women, trobairitz chivalry must be decisively rejected.

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[1] Arabic literature significantly influenced trobairitz song. Examples of such Arabic literature are Nazhun’s muwashshah, udhri love poetry, and love laments such as that of ibn al-Rumi. On Arabic literature’s influence on the trobairitz more generally, Sanaullah (2010).

[2] Guillelma de Rosers and Lanfranc Cigala, “Na Guilielma, maint cavalier arratge,” stanza 1. In this and the subsequent stanzas cited seriatim from that tenso (more precisely categorized as a partimen), the Occitan text is from Harvey, Paterson & Radaelli (2010) v. 2, pp. 902-12, and the English translation is my adaption drawing on the translations of Bruckner, Shepard & White (1995) pp. 74-7, Kehew (2005) pp. 302-5, Paden & Paden (2007) pp. 192-3, and Harvey, Paterson & Radaelli (2010) v. 2, pp. 902-12. Here’s a less authoritative Occitan text.

Lanfranc Cigala served as a judge from 1235 to 1257 in Genoa. Paden & Paden (2007) p. 192. Born of a prominent Genoese family, Lanfranc was a Genoese ambassador to Provence in 1241. Thirty-two of Lanfranc’s poems have survived. Bruckner, Shepard & White (1995) pp. 171-2.

Guilhelma apparently was from Rogier in Provence in southeastern France. Rogier was probably Rougiers, which is in the department of Var. Paden & Paden (2007) p. 192. Guilhelma apparently made a long visit to Genoa. Kehew (2005) p. 300.

Emphasizing the continuing significance of trobairitz chivalry, Guillelma de Rosers’s name is typically listed before Lanfranc Cigala’s, even though in the tenso Lanfranc speaks before Guillelma. Paden & Paden (2007), however, admirable heads the poem “Lanfranc Cigala and Guilhelma de Rosers.” As is apparent, the spelling of Guilielma varies.

[3] Paden & Paden (2007) p. 193, n. 2. Modern scholars who don’t understand gender in their own contemporary societies have superficially analyzed trobairitz wordplay:

The Provençal tenso develops as a series of responses to a statement of love. The genre depicts adversarial male and female personae who dispute various aspects of love. Invariably the woman is in a position of resisting the man’s onslaught. The tenso between Guillelma de Rosers and Lanfranc Cigala exemplifies this dynamic … Guillelma and Lanfranc’s tenso dramatizes the formidable power of a prevailing symbolic language.

Solterer (1995) p. 7.

[images] (1) Chivalry: man trobairitz Guillaume IX d’Aquitaine on his horse. Illuminated initial from Recueil des poésies des troubadours, contenant leurs vies. Manuscript made in the thirteenth century. Preserved as Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF). Département des manuscrits. Français 854, folio 142v. (2) (2) trobairitz La Comtesa de Dia gestures with her hand. Illuminated initial, from id. BnF Français 854, folio 141r.


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

Harvey, Ruth, Linda M. Paterson, and Anna Radaelli. 2010. The Troubadour Tensos and Partimens: a critical edition. Cambridge: Brewer.

Kehew, Robert, ed. 2005. Lark in the Morning: the Verses of the Troubadours: a bilingual edition. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.

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

Sanaullah, Muhammad. 2010. “Symbolic Islamo-European Encounter in Prosody: Muwashshaḥāt, Azjāl and the Catalan Troubadours.” Islamic Studies. 49 (3): 357-400.

Solterer, Helen. 1995. The Master and Minerva: disputing women in French medieval culture. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

“good night, sweet mom”: words at my mom’s celebration of life

Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love,
where there is offense, let me bring pardon,
where there is discord, let me bring union,
where there is error, let me bring truth,
where there is doubt, let me bring faith,
where there is despair, let me bring hope,
where there is darkness, let me bring light.

O Master, let me seek not so much as
to be consoled, as to console,
to be understood, as to understand,
to be loved, as to truly love,

for it is in giving that we receive,
in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and in dying that we are born to eternal life.

These are words that my mom wove into a watercolor quilt that now hangs above a bed in which my dad sleeps.

st. francis prayer quilt

My mom was fond of platitudes. She once said to me: “What have I always taught you?” I responded: “Moderation, you’ve always taught me moderation, moderation, moderation, moderation, be moderate, moderate, moderate, extremely moderate!” She laughed. My mom had a generous heart.

She was amazingly and immoderately happy, upbeat and joyful in ordinary details of life. She liked to ask me what I made for dinner, what the weather was like in DC, and how things were going at work. My mom loved gardening and walking through woods and mountains. She seemed to feel a connection to nature like that of St. Francis of Assisi. He prayed with Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind, Sister Mother Earth:

Praise be to you, my Lord,
through our Sister Mother Earth
who feeds us, and governs us, and produces for us
varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

My mom was one with Sister Mother Earth.

On his deathbed, St. Francis is thought to have prayed:

Praise be to you, my Lord,
through our Sister Bodily Death
from whom no living person can escape.

As a young child, I remember lying in bed, thinking that everyone will die. I figured out that meant that my mom would die. And I cried.

When she was in the hospital in the few days before she died, among my mom’s last words to me were “goodnight sweetie.”

Good night, sweet mom. I have your hand-sewn purple robe that you always wore in the morning. Whether I’m asleep or awake, I will always hear your loving voice.

mom's purple morning robe

sumptuary laws & circumcision: gender in protest effectiveness

In heavy grief, in heavy dismay,
and in dreadful pain I weep and sigh.
When I gaze at myself my heart all but cracks,
and I nearly go blind when I look at my clothes —
rich and noble,
trimmed with fine gold,
worked with silver —
or look at my crown.
May the Pope in Rome
send him to the fire
who untrims our clothes.

{ Ab greu cossire et ab greu marrimen
planh e sospire et ab perilhos turmen,
can me remire ab pauc lo cor no.m fen,
ni mos huelhs vire que gart mon vestimens
que son ricx e onratz
e ab aur fi frezatz
e d’argen mealhatz,
ni regart ma corona;
l’apostoli de Roma
volgra fezes cremar
qui nos fay desfrezar. } [1]

Quest for the Holy Foreskin documentary

A National Geographic special documentary, The Quest for the Holy Foreskin, apparently aspired to rival the famous Afghan cover girl issue. They included all the best claims: a New York Times writer, Jesus, the Holy Foreskin that “according to some” was the real Holy Grail, a “mysterious crime,” and “unraveling a Vatican conspiracy.”[2] What more could a documentary put on to become a popular sensation? Why else would anyone care about untrimming of a man’s penis?

The body of Christ has long been central to celebrating Jesus and to Christian self-understanding. The Gospels tell of Jesus giving bread to his disciples and saying, “This is my body.” Christians from no later than the Apostolic Father Ignatius of Antioch, writing about 110 GC, regarded the Eucharist as being “the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.” In addition, the Apostle Paul referred to Christian believers living their lives on earth as the body of Christ.[3] Christians for nearly two millennia have easily found the body of Christ. A “quest” to find the body of Christ would be regarded as ignorant and ridiculous to most Christians in the Middle Ages.

The body of Christ isn’t equivalent to Jesus’s foreskin. Writing in the twelfth century, Guibert of Nogent complained about dubious claims to possess relics of Jesus’s flesh:

certain people in my region claim to possess a tooth belonging to our Savior, a tooth which he would have lost naturally when he was nine years old. Still others claim to have his umbilical cord, cut off at birth, or the Lord’s foreskin from his circumcision, about which the great Origen says, “Some, it is said, did not blush to write books about the circumcision of the Lord.” Passing therefore over the later two relics, we will focus on the first one, because its closeness to us presses us forward. That one dismissed, the others then will be clearly emptied of significance, too.

{ dentem Salvatoris, quem novennis forsitan exigente natura emisisse potuerit, quidam in vicinia nostra se habere contendunt. Nec desunt alii qui umbilici superfluum quod nuper natis abscinditur, sunt qui circumcisi praeputium ipsius Domini habere se asserunt, de quo magnus Origenes, “Fuere, ait, quidam qui de ipsa Domini circumcisione non erubuerunt libros scribere.” Duobus ergo sequentibus omissis, primo capitulo quod nos propinquius urget haereamus. Hoc enim abrogato, liquidius exinanientur et caetera. } [4]

Even in the twelfth century Guibert was aware of castration culture, which he regarded as the work of the devil.[5] But Guibert couldn’t specifically know the power of National Geographic to promote ignorance, bigotry, and superstition in the twenty-first century.

The National Geographic documentary The Quest for the Holy Foreskin offers no enlightenment about circumcision. Is cutting off an infant boy’s foreskin a barbaric custom, like killing all the men of a city and taking the women and children as captives to be incorporated into the conquering tribe? Roughly 80% of men in the U.S. have been circumcised, yet only a tiny share of them were circumcised because their parents truly believed that God required them to mutilate the genitals of their baby boy.[6] Do most person today actually believe that the male penis is naturally defective? National Geographic didn’t consider whether the extent of circumcision today is a crime and a conspiracy. National Geographic considered crime and conspiracy only in its quest for the “Holy Foreskin.”[7]

I will not obey this custom,
this law they’ve just made

Whenever our lord the King may come,
from him all merit comes,
let pity move him to hear our outcry
against the offense brought on by his stewards,
who have torn from our clothing
its chains
and its buttons.
See that our persons
are no longer shamed:
pray, have them restored
to us, high, honored King

Let us, lord goldsmiths and jewelers,
and ladies and girls who are of their trade,
ask the Pope in a message
to excommunicate council and councilmen,
and the friars minor,
who are greatly to blame for this,
the preachers
and penitentials
who show their ill will in it,
and other regulars
accustomed to preach it.

{ Sesta costuma ni sest establimen
non tenra gaire, c’an fag novelamen

Coras que vengua lo rey nostre senhor
que es semensa de pretz e de valor,
per merce.l prenda c’auia nostra clamor
de la offensa que fan li sieu rendador,
que.ls vestirs an naffratz
e desencadenatz
e dezenbotonatz,
per que nostras personas
ne van pus vergonhozas
prec que sian tornatz
per vos, franc rey onratz.

Senhors dauraires e los dauriveliers,
donas e donzelas que es de lur mestiers,
a l’apostoli mandem cum messatgier
que escumenie cosselhs e cosselhiers
e los fraires menors
en son en grans blasmors
e los prezicadors
e selh de penedensa
ne son en malvolensa
e li autre reglar
c’o solon prezicar. }

circumcision of Christ

Objective science has failed to bring circumcision under the reign of good reason. In 2013, a well-reasoned, scholarly presentation of the ethics of infant male circumcision attracted a lengthy comment by a person sporting a Ph.D. after his name and decorating his comment with eight appended scientific references.  This comment described the original presentation as a “propaganda piece for the anti-circumcision lobby.” That extraordinary claim was aptly rebutted in subsequent comments. Digging further, one finds that a leading scholar of circumcision apparently lacks scientific objectivity. Even worse, the World Health Organization is rife with misinformation and conflicts of interest relating to infant male circumcision. Scientific study of infant male circumcision appears to be an intellectual debacle like scientific study of domestic violence and scientific study of rape.[8]

Medieval reason can resolve the circumcision controversy that modern science has created. Medieval thinkers keenly understood that greed for money and prideful pretense of knowledge make medicine dangerous for prospective patients. Most medieval thinkers were in awe of the beauty and harmony of God’s work of creation. Medieval Jews believed that God commanded infant male circumcision, but others, including Christians and Muslims, didn’t believe that. Why cause a baby boy intense pain to his penis by mutilating his natural body? If you weren’t a medieval Jew, no good reason existed for infant male circumcision. The quality of reason has only gotten worse since the Middle Ages. No good reason exists for persons other than those living in the tradition of medieval Jews to have their baby boys circumcised.

I grieve for my white blouse
embroidered with silk,
jonquil, vermilion and black mixed together,
white, blue, gold and silver.
Alas! I dare not put it on;
my heart feels like breaking.

{ De ma camiza blanc’ai tal pessamen
que era cozida de seda ricamen,
groga e vermelha e negra eyssamen,
blanca e blava, ab aur et ab argen.
Lassa! Non l’aus vestir;
lo cor me vol partir. }

Women for millennia have protested against sumptuary laws constraining their fancy dress. Those protests have been highly effective. Female genital mutilation has similarly generated much more effective protest than has male genital mutilation. Like denying men any reproductive rights, denying men the choice to wear their natural foreskin on their penises is of relatively little social concern. For the relatively few persons today who seek truth and strive to understand objective reality, the social responses to sumptuary laws and circumcision are further evidence of gynocentrism.

circumcision knife

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[1] “Ab greu cossire et ab greu marrimen,” Occitan text and English translation from Bruckner, Shepard & White (1995) pp. 102-5. Subsequent quotes from Occitan are from this troubadour song and are similarly sourced. Here’s an online Occitan text with some minor textual variations.

“Ab greu cossire et ab greu marrimen” was written in southern France (Provençal) in the thirteenth century. Musical notation for it hasn’t survived. However, here’s a sung version with music based on musical notation that has survived with other troubadour songs.

Troubadour songs helped to create a new understanding of chivalry and intensified men’s gender subordination to women. Literary critics who don’t even understand gender in their own society today have benightedly interpreted “Ab greu cossire et ab greu marrimen” as expressing a “problematic” shift in the hierarchy of gender power:

Critics of the trobairitz corpus have amply demonstrated how the hierarchy of sexual and linguistic power figured in the troubadour canso shifts significantly, and problematically, when women poets move into the subject position and begin to sing.

Burns (2002) p. 60.

[2] The Quest for the Holy Foreskin was broadcast on National Geographic International in December, 2013. This documentary stars David Farley and is based on his book, Farley (2009). Here’s its teaser video and the publicity blurb containing the phrases noted above.

[3] On consecrated bread as Jesus’s body, Matthew 26:26, Mark 14:22, Luke 22:19, 1 Corinthians 11:25. On the Eucharist as the flesh of Jesus, Ignatius of Antioch to the Smyrnaeans 6.2. On Christian believers as the body of Christ, 1 Corinthians 12:12, 27; Ephesians 4:11-16.

Jesus’s foreskin, called the “holy manliness {sanctus virtus},” was a relatively minor medieval relic. The sanctus virtus was a much less important medieval relic than was the girdle of the Holy Virgin Mary. Marian shrines were by far the most prevalent locations of medieval Christian pilgrimage and popular devotion. However, Jesus as a fully masculine man with a penis was deeply appreciated in the Middle Ages. Cf. Mattelaer (2007), Jacobs (2012) pp. ix-x.

[4] Guibert of Nogent, On the relics of the saints {De pignoribus sanctorum} 2.1, Latin text from Patrologia Latina 156, 629B, English translation (modified to follow the Latin more closely) from McAlhany & Rubenstein (2011) p. 219. The quote from Origen has been preserved only in Pamphilus, Apologia pro Origene 113. Jacobs (2012) pp. 191-2. Cf. McAlhany & Rubenstein (2011) p. 327, n. 1, which states that the quote is “likely an example of Guibert working from a characteristically faulty memory.”

The tooth of Christ was close to Guibert geographically and institutionally:

A monastery in Soissons, Saint-Médard, about ten miles from Nogent, claimed to possess among its relics a baby tooth of Christ. Saint-Médard was an ancient church, especially in comparison with Nogent. Founded in the mid-sixth century, it had occasionally played a prominent role in the political and cultural life of France — notably in 833 when Louis the Pious, the son of Charlemagne, was imprisoned there after being deposed by his children. It {the monastery Saint-Médard} was certainly far more important and wealthier than Nogent. For such a venerable institution to make such a patently absurd claim astonished Guibert. The refutation of the monks of Soissons, correspondingly, inspired some of his most caustic rhetoric. On reading the work {De pignoribus sanctorum} it is easy to imagine the author trembling with rage as he searches for the right word to describe his adversaries, until finally settling again on some variation of “stupid.”

McAlhany & Rubenstein (2011) p. xvii.

In the middle of the thirteenth century, the Italian author and church leader Jacobus de Voragine wrote:

What about the flesh removed by the Lord’s circumcision? It is said that an angel carried it to Charlemagne, and that he enshrined it at Aix-la-Chapelle in the church of the Blessed Mary and later transferred it to Charroux, but we are told that it is now in Rome in the church called Sancta Sanctorum, where there is the following inscription:
“Here are the circumcised flesh of Christ and his bright sandals,
here too is preserved a precious cutting of his umbilicus.”
For that reason a station takes place at this church on this day. But if all this is true, it is certainly to be wondered at. Since the flesh belongs to the true human nature, we believe that when Christ rose, the flesh went back to its glorified place.

{ De carne autem circumcisionis domini dicitur quod angelus eam Karolo Magno attulit et ipse eam Aquisgrani in ecclesiam Sancte Marie honorifice collocauit. Karolus uero illam postea fertur Carosium transtulisse, nunc autem dicitur esse Rome in ecclesia que dicitur Sancta Sanctorum. Vnde et ibidem scriptum legitur:
Circumcisa caro Christi sandalia clara
Atque umbilici uiget hic precisio cara.
Vnde et ea die fit statio in Sancta Sanctorum. Sed si hoc uerum est, ualde utique mirabile est; cum enim caro ipsa sit de ueritate humane nature, credimus quod resurgente Christo rediit ad locum suum glorificatum. }

Golden Legend {Legenda aurea} 13, “About the circumcision of the Lord {De circumcisione Domini},” Latin text from Corpus Corporum, English translation (modified to follow the Latin more closely) from Ryan & Duffy (2012) p. 77. Jacobus goes on to condemn superstitious practices of pagans and Gentiles. Jacobus evident sought to associate seeking the foreskin of Christ with superstitious, non-Christian practices.

Jacobus de Voragine compiled biographies (lives) of saints. Writing about a century and a half earlier, Guibert sharply criticized such work:

About other saints there exist writings worse than doggerel, unfit for the ears of swineherds. Because many attribute the greatest of antiquity to their saints, they seek in modern times to have their biographies written down. I myself have frequently been asked to do so, but given that things right before my eyes can be deceptive, how could I speak truly about something no one has ever seen? If I were to repeat what I have heard said (and I have not only been asked to speak in praise of some extremely ignoble people, but even to extol them before the public), then I, if I were to say the things asked of me,, and they, who were encouraging me to say such things — all of us would deserve public censure.

{ Porro sunt quaedam de aliquibus scripta, quae multo deteriora neniis ne subulcorum quidem essent auribus inferenda. Certe cum plures sanctis suis summas antiquitates attribuant, moderno tempore eorum scribi vitas expostulant. Quod a me profecto saepe petitum est. Ego autem in his quae obtutibus subiacent, fallor; et de iis quae nemo unquam viderit, quid veri profiteor? Si dicerem quae dici audivi, et etiam sum rogatus ut super laude horum tam ignobilium dicerem, quin etiam ad populum declamarem; et ego, si quaesita dicerem, et illi, qui talia suggerebant dicere, publico pariter cauterio digni essent. }

Guibert, De pignoribus sanctorum 1.3.1, Latin text from Patrologia Latina 156, 624B, English translation from McAlhany & Rubenstein (2011) p. 210. Jacobus apparently had lower intellectual standards than Guibert. But even Jacobus wasn’t willing to take seriously the sanctus virtus / “Holy Foreskin.”

[5] Paul of Tarsus associated circumcision with castration:

Listen! I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. … For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but only faith working through love. … I wish those who are troubling you would castrate themselves!

{ ἴδε ἐγὼ Παῦλος λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι ἐὰν περιτέμνησθε Χριστὸς ὑμᾶς οὐδὲν ὠφελήσει μαρτύρομαι δὲ πάλιν παντὶ ἀνθρώπῳ περιτεμνομένῳ ὅτι ὀφειλέτης ἐστὶν ὅλον τὸν νόμον ποιῆσαι … ἐν γὰρ Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ οὔτε περιτομή τι ἰσχύει οὔτε ἀκροβυστία ἀλλὰ πίστις δι᾽ ἀγάπης ἐνεργουμένη … ὄφελον καὶ ἀποκόψονται οἱ ἀναστατοῦντες ὑμᾶς }

Galatians 5:2-3, 6, 12. Both circumcision and castration culture are more prevalent in the U.S. today than they were in Paul’s time.

[6] On gender bias in ancient warfare, see e.g. Deuteronomy 20:13-4, Numbers 31:17-8. Here’s some analysis of gender bias in modern warfare. Introcaso et at. (2013) estimates U.S. circumcision prevalence as 80.5% for men in the U.S. about 2007. Morris et al. (2016) provides estimates across countries world-wide. Evidence exists to question Morris’s scientific credibility. The prevalence of circumcision across newly born males in the U.S. in 2009 was 54.5%. Maeda, Chari & Elixhauser (2012) Fig. 1.

[7] In a Quest for the Holy Foreskin “Ask me Anything” beginning in January, 2014, David Farley briefly addressed circumcision:

This is a pretty divisive issue. To be honest, I don’t have a terribly strong opinion one way or the other. I’ve gotten a few angry emails from anti-circumcision people who think that by writing a book about Jesus’ foreskin, I have fallen squarely in the pro circumcision camp.

Slavery was also a divisive issue in the mid-nineteenth-century U.S. It was also an important issue. Farley worked on his quest for the “Holy Foreskin” for at least eight years (see his 2006 Slate article). Thinking seriously about the ethics of infant male circumcision would have been an appropriate part of his many years of work on the “Holy Foreskin.” Farley, who was born into a Catholic family, stated that he is circumcised and that he doesn’t care. Men should care more about their penises.

The leading scholarly work on circumcision in early Christianity highlights contemporary scholastic irrationality:

The accumulated details contribute to a single argument throughout this book: that early Christian discourses of boundaries, differences, and distinctions consistently and paradoxically worked to erase boundaries, confound difference, and problematize distinction. That is, early Christian identity emerged out of simultaneous making, and unmaking, of difference.

Jacobs (2012) p. 14. Here “yes” and “no” become merely a mush of problematized discourse, simultaneously making and unmaking students’ minds.

[8] The American Psychological Association’s 2019 “Guidelines for Psychological Practice for Boys and Men” shows another elite intellectual institution propagating ignorance and bigotry. International organizations have similarly addressed gender differences in life expectancy. These are horrifying examples of bad reason and failure of enlightenment.

[images] (1) Title image for National Geographic documentary The Quest for the Holy Foreskin (2013) (2) The circumcision of Christ. Oil painting after Hendrik Goltzius. Probably early seventeenth century. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY. (3) Circumcision knife, Europe, 1775-1785. Credit: Science Museum, London. CC BY.


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

Burns, E. Jane. 2002. Courtly Love Undressed: reading through clothes in medieval French culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Farley, David. 2009. An Irreverent Curiosity: in search of the church’s strangest relic in Italy’s oddest town. New York, N.Y.: Gotham Books.

Introcaso CE, F Xu, PH Kilmarx, A Zaidi, and LE Markowitz. 2013. “Prevalence of circumcision among men and boys aged 14 to 59 years in the United States, National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys 2005-2010.” Sexually Transmitted Diseases. 40 (7): 521-5.

Jacobs, Andrew S. 2012. Christ Circumcised: a study in early Christian history and difference. Philadelphia: University of Pensylvania Press.

Maeda, Jared Lane, Ramya Chari, Anne Elixhauser. Circumcisions Performed in U.S. Community Hospitals, 2009.  Statistical Brief #126. 2012 Feb. In: Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project (HCUP) Statistical Briefs [Internet]. Rockville (MD): Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (US).

Mattelaer, Johan J., Robert A. Schipper, and Sakti Das. 2007. “The Circumcision of Jesus Christ.” The Journal of Urology. 178 (1): 31-4.

McAlhany, Joseph, and Jay Rubenstein, trans. 2011. Guibert of Nogent. Monodies and the Relics of Saints: the autobiography and a manifesto of a French monk from the time of the crusades. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Morris, Brian J, Richard G Wamai, Esther B Henebeng, Aaron AR Tobian, Jeffrey D Klausner, Joya Banerjee, and Catherine A Hankins. 2016. “Estimation of country-specific and global prevalence of male circumcision.” Population Health Metrics. 14 (1): 1-13.

Ryan, William Granger, trans. and Eamon Duffy, intro. 2012. Jacobus de Voragine. The Golden Legend: readings on the saints. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

sacredness of sex highlighted in Guibert’s medieval metamorphoses

Dr. Faustus

Hebrew scripture fundamentally teaches that God blesses with more life. In covenants with his chosen people, God promised to make their descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore.[1] Sex generates descendants. In Jewish, Christian, and Islamic understanding, sex is not only good, but also sacred. Consistent with that understanding, the abbot Guibert of Nogent in his twelfth-century autobiography represented the sacredness of sex in bizarre metamorphoses.

According to Guibert, a monk at a famous monastery learned about some non-Christian medicine. He then became interested in the evil arts {malae artes} of the devil. In mentioning that the monk lived at a famous monastery, Guibert probably meant to signal that the monk’s motive was pride. Like Dr. Faustus centuries later, medieval monks sought to excel in learning. This monk probably sought to learn the evil arts of the devil in order to become more illustrious than renowned monks of his monastery.

The monk met with the devil. He requested of the devil to be made a fellow authority {auctor} in the devil’s learning {doctrinae}:

Abominable ruler that he is, the devil replied that this could not be done in any way unless the monk repudiated Christianity and offered him a sacrifice. The monk asked what the sacrifice should be. “What is most delectable in a man,” the devil responded. “What is that?” “You will make to me a libation of your sperm,” the devil said, “When you have poured it out for me, you will taste it first, as those offering a sacrifice are obliged to do.”

{ Refert praeses ille nefandus neutiquam hoc fieri, nisi Christianitate negata sibi sacrificium deferatur. Interrogat ille quod. “Quod delectabilius est in homine.” “Quid illud?” “Sperma libabis,” ait, “tuum; quod cum mihi profuderis, inde quod sacrificantibus est debitum praegustabis.” } [2]

Men’s sperm is essential for realizing the fundamental blessing of Hebrew scripture. Men’s sperm should be understood as very good. While the devil described a man’s sperm as the most delightful part of him, the devil incorporated the monk’s sperm into a bizarre metamorphosis of the Christian mass and its promise of eternal life. Guibert commented:

What a crime! What a shameful act! And this was demanded from a priest! And to your priestly order and to your blessed host your ancient enemy does this as a vile sacrilege, Lord. Do not be silent, nor restrain your vengeance, God. What can I speak? With what words can I speak? He did what was requested, that wretched one, whom you had — O would that it were only for a time — deserted. With this horrible libation came the abandonment of his profession of faith.

{ Proh scelus! proh pudor! Et is a quo haec exigebantur erat presbyter! Et haec ad tui ordinis et tuae benedictae hostiae sacrilegam ignominiam fecit tuus antiquus hostis, Domine. Ne sileas, neque compescaris a vindicta, Deus. Quid dicam? Quomodo dicam? Fecit quod petebatur infoelix, quem tu, o utinam ad tempus! deserueras. Fit itaque cum horribili libamento super fidei relegatione professio. }

More than four hundred years before the Faust legend developed in Germany and Christopher Marlowe wrote The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Guibert described a monk’s foolish deal with the devil. Guibert’s devil is more daring than Marlowe’s Mephistophilis, a mere purveyor of learning. Guibert’s devil brought into the bargain sex and the matter of Hebrew scripture’s fundamental blessing.

With his keen appreciation for men’s disadvantaged social position, Guibert told more. After his sperm libation for the devil, the monk began having a sexual affair with a nun. One day the monk and his woman-lover were sitting together in his cell. They saw the monk’s cellmate returning. The woman despaired that when she left, his cellmate would see her. The monk, a newly trained sorcerer {novus incantator}, said to her confidently:

“Go,” he said, “straight toward him, and look neither right nor left, and don’t be afraid.”

{ “Vade,” ait, “in occursum venientis, nusquam dextra levaque respiciens, nil verearis.” }

This the woman did. Meanwhile, using incantations that he had learned from the devil, the monk transformed his woman-lover into an enormous dog. The monk’s cellmate saw only this giant dog leaving the cell. When his cellmate asked about it, the monk said that it was a neighbor’s dog. At an allegorical level, this story challenges disparagement of men for having dog-like sexuality. Men’s sexuality is no more dog-like than is woman’s. Perhaps Guibert understood Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis better than most modern scholars have.

After his deal with the devil, the monk’s life didn’t go well from either a godly perspective or his own. After living without God {sine Deo} long enough, the monk became gravely ill. Willingly or unwillingly, he confessed all that he had done. A church leader then defrocked him. The monk nonetheless harbored the belief that one day he would be made a bishop. He died a few years later, never having been made a bishop. He thus became “an ex-priest in eternity {in aeternum expresbyter}.”[3]

In recounting a metamorphosis of the Christian mass into sperm libation and a metamorphosis of a woman into a giant dog, Guibert of Nogent wasn’t just narrating demons, sacrileges, and bodies changed into new forms. In his own conflicted way, he was grappling with the goodness of men’s sexuality. To many persons, Dr. Faustus’s deal with the devil is now banal and meaninglessly abstract. Yet in our age of rape-culture culture, childless women and men might at night raise their eyes to the stars above and ponder whether they have made a deal with the devil.

*  *  *  *  *

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[1] Genesis 13:16, 15:5, 22:17, 26:4, Exodus 32:13, 1 Chronicles 27:23.

[2] Guibert of Nogent, Monodiae {Songs of Self} 1.26, Latin text from Bourgin (1907), my English translation benefiting from those of McAlhany & Rubenstein (2011) and Archambault (1996). All story details and quotes are from Monodiae 1.26 and are similarly sourced.

The ancient Greco-Roman understanding of libation included tasting. In the Christian mass, the priest offers wine as a sacrifice that becomes the blood of Christ. The priest then first drinks a small amount of it and in turn invites the congregation to do the same.

[3] Cf. Hebrews 7:17, “You are a priest in eternity in the order of Melchizedek {Vulgate: tu es sacerdos in aeternum secundum ordinem Melchisedech}.” The church leader who defrocked the monk-priest was Anselm of Bec, who later became Archbishop of Canterbury. No case record for this case has survived in Anselm’s papers.

[image] Dr. Faust. Oil on canvas painting by Jean-Paul Laurens, c. 1900. Preserved in Rio Grande do Sul Museum of Art (Porto Alegre, Brazil). Via Wikimedia Commons.


Archambault, Paul J., trans. 1996. A Monk’s Confession: the memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Bourgin, George, ed. 1907. Guibert of Nogent. Histoire de sa vie: 1053-1124. Paris: Picard.

McAlhany, Joseph, and Jay Rubenstein, trans. 2011. Guibert of Nogent. Monodies and the Relics of Saints: the autobiography and a manifesto of a French monk from the time of the crusades. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

self-divided, Guibert of Nogent lacked his mother’s ideological purity

Like Dhuoda’s ninth-century Liber manualis, Guibert of Nogent’s twelfth-century Monodiae intimately concerns a mother-son relationship. Liber manualis is an artifact of Dhuoda’s presence, a book that she bequeathed to her son in her absence. Guibert’s mother, in contrast, was with Guibert in his everyday life and guided him in person. Both Dhuoda and Guibert’s mother had an ideological purity like today’s earnest reader of the New York Times. In a way nearly unimaginable today, Guibert recognized his impurity and trusted in God’s mercy.

Illumination beginning Guibert's commentary on Amos

Guibert’s mother was closest to him in his ladder of hope for salvation. She was his biological mother in the model of Mary, the Mother of the Church. Guibert declared to God:

To be born from this woman, who to speak as I believe and hope, was the best in truth, was what you granted me, the worst of all her children. I was her last child in two understandings: my brothers, who offered better hopes, have died, but I, living a life in all ways prompting despair, have survived. It was as if, after Jesus, the mother of Jesus, and his saints, she was the reason that I, still in the midst of these evils, held on to the hope for salvation promised to all. Indeed, I know, and to disbelieve would be sacrilege, that as lovingly as she treated me, as openly as she tended to me while she was in this world — for mothers are more affectionate for their last-born children — now in the presence of God she cares for me no less. From the earliest age she was filled with the fire of God in Zion. Not even when she slept, to say nothing of when she was awake, did she cease to care for me in her soul. Now she is overcome by death, the joints of her flesh broken. But I know that in Jerusalem the fire of her love for me burns beyond what can be said, especially since there she is filled with God, nor is she unaware of the miseries that torment me. She is happy, but the farther from the warnings so often she repeated to me, the farther from the her habits and from her footsteps she thinks I have strayed, the more she groans for me when I stumble. Lord God and Father, you know how and of how much evil I am — you gave me my origin from this woman, who is not falsely, but truly good. You offered me hope in her merits, a hope I would in no way presume to possess if I did not find under your grace at least temporary relief from fear of my sin.

{ Ex hac, inquam, uti credo et spero, verissima mihi omnium quos genuit ipsa, deterrimo tribuisti nasci. Proles ejus bifariam postrema fui; decedentibus enim sub spe meliore germanis, ego vita omnimodis desperatione supersum. In his adhuc mihi agenti malis, ut ejus merito, post Jesum et, Jesu matrem sanctosque ejus, spes salvationis universa resedit. Scio nempe, nec discredere fas est, ut sicut me in saeculo posita carius habuit, clarius coluit (erga enim extreme natos matres affectuosius agunt), magis Deo praesens non negligit. Ignis plena Dei ea a juventute fuerat in Sion, cum ne dormiendo quidem, nedum vigilando, solicitudo mei in ejus animo cessabat. At nunc morte sibi obita, interstitio carnis abrupto, scio in Hierusalem potentius quam dici queat fervere caminum, praesertim cum illic Deo plena, meas in quibus volvor miserias non ignoret, et tanto mihi oberranti, licet felix, ingemat, quanto a suis quae totiens ingeminabat, monitis, moribus atque vestigiis me exorbitare considerat. Pater et Domine Deus, qui ex hac, non fallaciter sed vere bona, mihi qualiter et quantum nosti malo originem tribuisti, spem quoque in ejus mihi merito praebuisti, quam tamen nullatenus habere praesumerem, nisi ad te, ex mei timore peccati, aliquantisper sub tua gratia respirarem. } [1]

The delivery of Guibert from his mother’s womb was painful and precarious. She was expected to die. To save her life, the family vowed to dedicate the newly born child to the Mother of God. Her life was saved. Thus Guibert was set on the life path of a cleric dedicated to the Mother of God. When Guibert strayed into sin, which was frequent, his mother reminded him of the pains he had caused her in his birth. She acted then as if she were groaning to have him born again to God.[2] She did all she could to ensure Guibert’s salvation according to Christian understanding.

Guibert’s mother was beautiful, chaste, and pious. When Guibert’s parents were adolescent newlyweds, a wicked stepmother cast a spell on his father so that he was unable to have sex with his bride for seven years. She remained faithful to her husband through seven years of sexless marriage until the wicked spell was penetrated. Before that happy resolution, her husband at the urging of friends tested his potency extra-maritally. His infidelity engendered a child who died before being baptized. Guibert’s father himself died about eight months after Guibert was born. Fearing that her husband was suffering in Purgatory for his sexual sin, Guibert’s mother adopted an orphan child who cried incessantly. Guibert’s mother bore the burden of that crying orphan out of loving concern for her dead husband’s soul. She also had masses said for him, regularly gave alms to the poor, attended the daily offices of the church, including the night office, and wore a hair shirt next to her skin day and night. She spoke lovingly of her dead husband despite their marital difficulties.

When Guibert was twelve, his mother left him to live a monastic life with another woman in a small house next to the church of the monastery at Fly. Guibert felt emotionally neglected from the ensuing loss of contact with his mother, but he understood and supported her choice:

Although she knew I would suddenly become an orphan and that I had no resources to fall back on — we had, in fact, numerous relatives and in-laws, but none of them would carefully tend to the needs of a boy at that tender age. Even though I had no need of food or clothing, still, a lack of the guidance and discipline necessary for that vulnerable age, care that only women can provide, often troubled me. Even though she knew I would be condemned to such neglect, her fear and her love of you, God, hardened her heart … No wonder if she felt as if her own limbs were being torn from her body! She began in fact to believe — or rather she heard it from others — that she was utterly wicked and cruel. She had barred from her soul, and sent away without any support, a child such as this, so deserving of affection. That at least is what people said, because not only our relatives, but also people outside the family, adored me. And you, good God, holy God, in your sweetness, in your charity, you miraculously hardened her heart, surely the most loyal heart in the world, so that it wouldn’t be loyal to its own detriment. Softening of her heart would have caused her soul harm. She would have put me before her own salvation and would have neglected God because of me and because of care for the things of the world.

{ cum sciret me prorsus orphanum, et nullam omnino habere sub qua niterer opem (parentum enim et affinium multiplex erat copia, at vero nullus, qui puerulo in omnibus tenerrimo pro indigentiis aetatulae sollicite curam ferret: victualium enim ac indumentorum etsi esset nulla necessitas, earum tamen providentiarum, quae illius aevi impotentiae conveniunt, quae sine foeminis administrari non possunt, me saepius vexabat inopia), cum ergo me sciret his addictum incuriis, timore et amore tuo, Deus, sua obdurante praecordia … Nimirum plane si veluti ab ejus corpore membra propria viderentur abrumpi, cum impiissimam et crudelem se profecto cognosceret, immo audiret vocari, quae tantam sobolem, tanto, ut ferebatur, affectu dignam (multum enim non modo a nostratibus, sed etiam ab exteris excolebar) ita ab animo exclusisset, subsidiique inopem dimisisset. Et tu, Deus bone, Deus pie, tua dulcedine, tua caritate jecur illud certe in saeculo piissimum, ne esset contra se pium, mirabiliter indurueras: contra se nempe mollesceret, si, nos suae saluti praeferens, Dei negligens pro nobis, mundana curaret. }

Guibert become a monk in the monastery at Fly. With his mother living in house next to the church at Fly, he could interact with her throughout much of his adult life.[3] Even through her leaving him as a child hurt him personally, Guibert regarded his mother as having admirable Christian ideological purity and strength,

Guibert lacked his mother’s Christian ideological purity and strength. He perceived that “my soul, titillated with worldly life, itched with desires and lusts {animam in concupiscentiis pro suo modulo et cupiditatibus prurientem saecularis vita titillaret}. ” Guibert had none of his mother’s firmness of resolve:

I have in serving you {God} no firmness, no constancy. Whenever it seemed that I had performed some proper work, my ambivalent intention reshaped it into something less and insignificant.

{ Nihil in te solidum, nil constans habui; si quid in evidentia visus sum exhibuisse operis, intentio multomultotiens reddidit minus recta pertenue. }

Guibert lamented his “inveterate zeal for depravity {inveterata pravitatum studia}” and his “great persistence in self-defilement {perseverantissimae impuritates}.”[4]

Guibert regarded his mother as God’s servant, like a priest and a prophet. Guibert’s mother preached to him:

God, you know how many warnings, how many prayers she daily poured into my ears, that I listen not to words of corruption. Whenever she had time alone free from family cares, she would teach me how and for what I should pray to you. You alone know how great were the pains she bore to prevent my unhealthy soul from ruining the healthy beginnings, the brilliant and distinguished youth, which you had given me.

{ Deus, tu scis quanta monita, quantas auribus meis preces quotidie instillabat, ne corruptionis cujuspiam verba susciperem. Docebat, quotiens a curis familiaribus solitudo vacabat, quomodo et super quibus te orare deberem. Tu nosti solus quantis angoribus parturibat, ne initia florentissimae ac spectabilis, quam tu dederas, aetatulae animus male sanus sana perverteret. }

God communicated Guibert’s failings to his mother through her dreams:

whenever my unstable conscience shifted from one state to another, sane or insane, by your judgement, Lord, an image of it then came to her in a vision. It is said that dreams come from many cares, which is certainly true, yet her cares did not arise from inner heat sparked by greed, but rather were born of sincere striving after inner goodness. She was quite an astute and discriminating interpreter of visions, and thus whenever a troubling one touched her most pious mind, whenever she understood that a disturbance in her dream was an omen, she would summon me and examine my studies, reviewing what I was doing alone with myself, how I was spending my time in private. I always obeyed her, and could in no way withhold the understanding that I shared with her. My soul seemed attached to her dreams. Everything in them that I recognized, I readily confessed to her. When she warned me to correct my ways, with a sincere desire I promised to do so immediately.

{ in quemcunque statum sanum utique vel insanum conscientia labilis vertebatur, visionem ejusdem species non sine tuo, Domine, judicio sequebatur. At quoniam multas curas prohibentur sequi somnia, et verum indubie constat, hae tamen curae non avaritiae aestibus citabantur, sed ex vera interni boni aemulatione creabantur. Mox igitur, ut piissimam ejus mentem visio importuna tangebat, et sicut erat in talibus exolvendis admodum subtilis et perspicax, — mox, ut id incommodi suo sibi somnio portensum intellexerat, accito me, super meo studio, quid agerem, quid tractarem apud me secretius rogitabat. Cui, cum sic morem gererem, ut ei meam nullatenus unanimitatem negarem, omnia illa quae secundum tenores quae audieram somniorum, in quae lentescere meus animus videbatur, alacri confessione prodebam, et, cum de correctione moneret, veris profecto statim affectibus id spondebam. }

In hearing his confessions and guiding him to amendment, Guibert’s mother effectively acted as a priest for Guibert. She also served as a prophet for him:

You also know, Lord, how with her inner sight she spoke of the good and bad that would happen to me if I were promoted to any kind of position. Even today I experience these things, and they do not pass unnoticed by me or by others. She also foresaw in numerous visions, where I appeared along with others, what would happen to me long afterward. Some of these events I regard without a doubt as occurring or as having already occurred, while some of the rest I expect no less to occur, but I have deliberately refrained from adding them here. God, what warnings she gave me to keep lusts away from my mind, assuring me in no uncertain terms of misfortunes (which I have since experienced) that were sure to come. She was always lamenting the immorality of youth, and she restrained my mind as it wandered along various paths of thought.

{ Tu etiam, Domine, nosti quo interiori oculo et bona et mala, si uspiam promoverer, mihi eventura loquebatur, quae hodieque experior nec me nec alios latent. Visionibus quoque quamplurimis, sub mea et aliorum specie, longis post futura temporibus praevidebat; quorum aliqua indubie fieri contemplor, et facta, nec minus residua quaedam fienda praestolor, quibus tamen attexendis supersedendum ex industria reor. Deus, quibus illa monitis cupiditates a mente arcere monebat! adversitatum infortunia, quae expertus sum, certissime pollicens, lubricam semper suspirare juventam, per varios cogitationum ambitus animos froenare vagantes }

But Guibert’s mother didn’t foresee Guibert’s actions and perceive him to the depth of his soul in the way that he did:

Good Lord, good God, if she had foreseen the heaps of filth in which I would bury the handsome appearance that you had given me, which with you had decorated me at her request, what would she have said? What would she have done? How she would have groaned beyond any consolation! … If her purest of eyes had penetrated to the recesses of my soul and seen there what’s utterly offensive to the pure of sight, it would be a wonder if she had not died at once.

{ bone Domine, bone Deus, si tunc praesciret quanto sordium cumulo obliteraturus eram bonas illas donorum tuorum superficies, quibus me, illa impetrante, ornaveras, quid dictura? quid actura? quam irremediabiles gemitus emissura! … Plane si penetralia animi mei mundis adeo indigna conspectibus mundissimus ejus oculus irrupisset, miror si ilico exanimis non fuisset. }

Guibert conflated his mother and God. He also conflated his mother and the mother of God — “O Lady, mother of the heavenly realm {o Domine, coelestis Mater imperii}.”[5] Men tend to imagine women as god-like beings. Guibert apparently ridiculed gyno-idolatry. But his mother was different.

Guibert recognized his impurity and trusted in God’s mercy. Guibert wrote of a dream he had and his hope:

One night I dreamed that I was in a church dedicated to your name {the name of the “heavenly Lady {coelestis Domina}”}, and it seemed to me that I was carried to the roof of the basilica by two demons. Then they fled, leaving me unharmed within the walls of that same church. I often recall this vision as I reflect upon my incorrigibility. While I keep committing the same sins, or rather add worse sins to ones that were the worst, I run back to you, most pious Mother. I do this not because I mistakenly rely on too great a hope or little faith in someone, but only to escape being lost in desperation. Although I always fail, that is because weakness drives me, not because pride hardens me. I never lose hope of amending my ways.

{ nocte quadam per visum in ecclesia tui nominis eram, et videbatur mihi, quod a duobus ab ipsa auferebar daemonibus, cumque ad basilicae me fastigium extulissent, aufugerunt, et intactum intra ejusdem septa ecclesiae dimiserunt. Haec multotiens, dum meam intueor incorrigibilitatem, reminiscor, et eadem peccata saepius repeto, immo pessimis pejora superfero, ad te, Piissima, pro evitando solum desperationis periculo, non nimiae spei aut alicujus parvae fiduciae abusione recurro. Etsi enim semper ex impulsu fragilitatis, non superbiae obstinatione delinquo, spem tamen nullatenus correctionis amitto. }

Guibert understood himself to be divided, with his fidelity to Christian ethics existing above his sordid inclinations:

I am always sinning and always returning to you from amid my sin. When I flee from piety or desert it, does piety lose any of its essence? Will piety choked by many offenses become something different? … You know that I do not sin because I know you are merciful. I am confident in stating that you are said to be merciful because if someone asks for forgiveness, you are there. I do not abuse you in your mercy every time I succumb to my compulsion to sin. It would be an abuse and truly sacrilegious if I always found pleasure in excessive sinning because it is so easy to return to you after sinning. Indeed, I do sin, but when I have recovered my rationality, I am ashamed to have yeilded to my heart’s desires. My spirit, entirely against its will, beds itself in baskets full of manure.

{ Semper ergo peccans, et inter peccandum semper ad te rediens, an pii fugax, piumve deserens, cum ad pietatem recurrero, perdet pietas quod est, et etiam, offensione multiplici obruta, invenietur insolens? … Tu scis quia non ideo pecco, quod te misericordem sentio, sed secure profiteor te ideo misericordem dici, quod sis veniam postulantibus praesto. Non te miserante abutor, quotiens per peccandi necessitatem peccare compellor; verum profana nimis esset abusio, si, quia perfacilis post peccatum ad te est reditus, semper me peccandi delectet excessus. Pecco siquidem, sed, ratione recepta, in affectum cordis transisse me poenitet, tamque stercorosis cophinis mens graviter invita succumbit. }

Guibert knew without illusions the divisions within himself. Self-conscious of the risks of rationalizing his wrongs, he had pure and unshakeable faith in God’s mercy.[6]

To retain a communicative identity distinctive from machines, humans must communicate with creativity, complexity, and self-consciousness. Recent advances in artificial intelligence and natural language processing enable massive-scale production of machine-generated texts that are indistinguishable from most news articles and social-media posts made today. Guibert of Nogent, writing in the twelfth century about his mother and himself, left a record of a distinctively human consciousness. Every real, flesh-and-blood human should aspire to nothing less.

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[1] Guibert of Nogent, Monodiae {Songs of Self} 1.3, Latin text from Bourgin (1907), English trans. mainly from McAlhany & Rubenstein (2011), with the benefit of Archambault (1996), and modified to follow the Latin more closely in some instances. Monodiae, Book 1, contains Guibert’s autobiography. Like Augustine’s Confessions, Guibert began his Monodiae with a confession to God: “I confess to your greatness, God {Confiteor amplitudini tuae, Deus}…”

All subsequent quotes from Guibert’s Monodiae are similarly sourced. The ones above are from Monodiae 1.14 (Although she knew I would suddenly become an orphan…), 1.16 (my soul, titillated…), 1.3 (I have in serving you no firmness, no constancy…), 1.1 (inveterate zeal for depravity; great persistence in self-defilement), 1.12 (God, you know how many warnings…), 1.16 (whenever my unstable conscience…), 1.19 (You also know, Lord, how with her inner sight…), 1.12 (Good Lord, good God…), 1.16 (O Lady, mother of the heavenly realm; One night I dreamed…), 1.1. (I am always sinning…).

[2] John 3:3-5, 1 Peter 1:3, Romans 8:22-3.

[3] Suffering from fellow monks’ envy for his learning, Guibert sought at one point to go to leave the abbey of Fly, called Saint-Germer, and go to another monastery. But his mother, with the force of interpreting her dream, dissuaded Guibert from leaving. Monodiae 1.16.

[4] Speaking of himself and other men, Guibert observed: “in us the disobendience of concupiscence reigns, calling us against our wills to indecent movement {in nobis concupiscentialis inobedientia regnat, quae etiam nolentes ad motus nos indecoros invitat}.” Guibert of Nogent, Moral Commentary on Genesis {Moralia in Genesim} 1.1, Latin text from Migne (1880) col. 33, English translation adapted from Benton (1970) p. 14. Guibert subsequently elaborated further on men’s difficulties with erections:

Certain people ask why we clothe the genitals so carefully, since we cover no other parts of the body with such attention. Not only do we hide them, but we also scarcely permit the places near them, including the navel and the thighs, to be seen. Why is this? When my finger, my eyes, or my lips move, they move at my direction, by my will. Since they act docilely under my authority, they cause me no shame. But those parts we are considering are driven against the rules of reason by a certain liberty toward unrestrained action. It is as if there were a separate law in our genitals, as St. Paul puts it, fighting against the law of our mind and leading us captive in the law of sin that is in our genitals. Therefore, quite properly we blush, since whether we like it or not, we appear to be shamefully erected out of passionate desire.

{ Quaeritur proinde a quibusdam quid causae sit, quod tantopere ea membra velamus, cum nullas corporis nostri partes ea intentione tegamus. Non enim ea sola celamus, sed etiam propinqua eis loca, uti sunt umbilicus et crura videri vix patimur. Quare hoc? Cum moventur digilus meus, oculi moi, labia mea, meo nutu, mea voluntate moventur; et quia placide sub meo agunt imperio, nullum mihi pudorem incutiunt. At quia partes, de quibus agimus, contra jura tolius rationis effreni quadam libertate feruntur, et quasi quaedam diversa lex est, juxta Aposlolum, in membris nostris repugnans legi mentis nostrae, et captivos nos ducens in lege peccali, quae est in membris nostris; idcirco juste erubescimus, quia velimus, nolimus, turpiter haec erigi ex desiderii passione videmus. }

Guibert of Nogent, Study on the Incarnation against the Jews {Tractatus de Incarnatione contra Judaeos} 1.5, Latin text from Migne (1880) col. 496, English translated (modified for clarity) from Benton (1970) pp. 13-4. Guibert refers in this passage to Romans 7:23.

In contrast to men’s unwilled erections, both men and women could engaged in willful sin. Guibert told of a monk “irrestibily drawn to abnormal vices, from which no form of human supervision could restrain him {viciis enormibus, a quibus custodia humana abstineri non poterat, irretractabiliter deditus}.” Recognizing that women are no less sinful than men, Guibert also told of a nun who “allowed herself to fall under some fithy sins, and no kind of admonishment could compel her to confess {sub peccatis aliquibus foedis sese receperat, nec quocunque monitu ad confitendum cogi potuerat}.” Monodiae 1.24.

[5] Guibert moved seamless between speaking about his mother and about the mother of the heavenly realm or God. Guibert spoke of God knowing his mind (and his mother’s mind) and of confessing to God. See, e.g. Monodiae 1.17, 1.19. To Guibert, the church was “the mother church {mater ecclesia}.” Monodiae 3.16.

[6] Archambault perceptively observed:

Guibert shares with some of the greatest ecclesiastical writers of his age an intense preoccupation with the sinfulness of his soul. … Like Augustine’s, Guibert’s belief in the corruption of the soul is matched by his overwhelming confidence in Christ’s infinite mercy. … There is something moving about his recurring confidence, his spiraling emergence from the depths of despair, his ultimate victory over the forces that might have crushed such a fragile but sensitive psyche.

Archambault (1996) pp. xxiv-xx. Unlike Augustine of Hippo in his Confessions {Confessiones}, Guibert described the sinfulness of his soul within extensive details of his relationship with his mother, whom Guibert regarded as not having a sinful soul. That makes Guibert sense of his conflicted self distinctive and particularly interesting.

Non-meninist literary critics have failed to understand adequately women in relation to men. They have anachronistically disparaged Guibert’s mother:

Guibert’s mother was a domineering person with puritanical {sic} ideas about sex; it seems reasonable to consider that she was responsible for her husband’s impotence during the early years of her marriage.

Benton (1970) p. 26. Blaming Guibert’s mother for her husband’s impotence isn’t reasonable. It’s an ideological projection. Guibert’s mother is best regarded as Guibert regarded her. She was in his view an ideological pure and strong Christian woman.

[[image] Prologue page for Guibert’s moral interpretation (tropology) for the biblical Book of Amos in his on Tropologies in Hosea, Jeremiah, and Amos {Tropologiae in Osee, Jermiam, et Amos}. Illumination from folio 100r, MS Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, lat. 2502.


Archambault, Paul J., trans. 1996. A Monk’s Confession: the memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Benton, John F., trans. 1970. Self and Society in Medieval France: the memoirs of Abbot Guibert of Nogent. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Bourgin, George, ed. 1907. Guibert of Nogent. Histoire de sa vie: 1053-1124. Paris: Picard.

McAlhany, Joseph, and Jay Rubenstein, trans. 2011. Guibert of Nogent. Monodies and the Relics of Saints: the autobiography and a manifesto of a French monk from the time of the crusades. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Migne, Jacques-Paul. 1880. The Venerble Guibert, Abbot of St. Mary of Nogent, Collected Works {Venerabilis Guibert, Abbatis S. Mariae de Novigento, Opera omnia}. Patrologiae cursus completus: Series latina (Patrologiae latina). Vol. 156. Garnier Fratres: Paris.

caution for learning Latin: the case of Maistre Mimin Estudiant

medieval university

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

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

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

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

When asked to speak French, Mimin himself responded:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To put it quite lightly,
sometimes without even trying.

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

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

Bien legerement
Aucunesfois, sans riens celer. }

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

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

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

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

head cage (brank or bridle)

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

male & female gaze: following Perseus against horror of Medusa

gazing on Andromeda

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

modern head of Medusa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Macdonald (1996) p. 11.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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