Abelard rejected gender injustice in planctus on Dinah and Shechem

massacre of the men of Shechem

As a result of his consensual sexual affair and marriage to Heloise in twelfth-century France, Peter Abelard was castrated. Heloise suffered no punitive violence. She in fact declared herself “wholly innocent” in their affair. The gender injustice of Abelard’s castration seems to have motivated him to provide in his Planctus a critical perspective on what has been wrongly called “the rape of Dinah.”

The biblical story of the massacre of men at Shechem (“the rape of Dinah”) exemplifies deeply rooted gender bias against men. Careful scholarly analysis of the biblical text points to a specific problem:

The widespread opinion that the verb ‘innâ in the Pi’el {story of the massacre at Shechem} refers to “rape” or “sexual abuse” is not acceptable. It suffers from a lack of analysis of all the biblical material and of the distribution of ‘innâ with a female object in the Hebrew Bible. … ‘innâ in Gen. xxxiv 2 does not describe Shechem’s rape or sexual abuse of Dinah, but evaluates Shechem’s previously described actions (“take” and “sleep with”) as a debasement of Dinah from a social-juridical point of view. [1]

Interpreting a man having sex with a virgin woman as debasing her — “deflowering” her — is a social construction that Ausonius trenchantly parodied in the fourth century.  Anti-men bias goes further in the gynocentric tendency to criminalize men’s heterosexuality. Moreover, men’s lives are socially devalued relative to women’s lives. Violence against men is normalized as merely violence and commonly passes without particular notice. That has occurred in the historical reception of the biblical story of the massacre of men at Shechem.

A perceptive philosopher and a highly skilled poet, Peter Abelard wrote an astonishing planctus concerning the massacre of men at Shechem. Abelard entitled it The Lament of Dinah, the Daughter of Jacob {Planctus Dine filie Iacob}. He wrote this poem in the voice of Dinah. That’s a poetic choice consistent with gynocentrism. The poem begins with a conventional lament demonizing the heterosexuality of an unnamed man:

Descendant of Abraham, daughter of Israel,
bright with the blood of the patriarchs:
of an uncircumcised man I was made the plunder,
of an unclean man the prey;
the greatest stain upon a holy race,
mocked as the sport of an enemy people.

{ Abrahe proples, Israel nata,
patriarchum sanguine clara:
incircumcisi uiri rapina,
hominis spurci facta sum preda;
generis sancti macula summa,
plebis aduerse ludis illusa. } [2]

This beginning is thematically similar to women’s incitement of their tribal men to kill men of another tribe (tahrid) in classical Arabic poetry. Yet the concluding Latin phrase ludis illusa emphasizes sport and play. Sports are social constructions typically at considerable distance from mundane reality. The following verse is a jarring refrain:

Woe to wretched me, by myself betrayed!

{ Ve michi misere, per memet prodite! }

Abelard gives Dinah astonishing self-consciousness.[3] Abelard’s Dinah recognizes that femininity was both the reason for Shechem’s desire for her and the basis for the gynocentrism that motivated the massacre of the men at Shechem. Femininity betrays itself in hostility to men’s heterosexuality.

In the subsequent stanza, Abelard’s Dinah underscores her own culpability. She declares:

What did it aid me to behold the foreign women?
How evilly am I known, wanting to know them!
Woe to wretched me, by myself betrayed!

{ Quid alienigenas iuuabat me cornere?
Quam male sum cognita, uolens has cognoscere.
Ve michi misere, per memet prodite! }

Within the tribal societies of the time, the young woman Dinah going by herself to mingle with foreign women would be regarded as outrageously promiscuous behavior. Abelard adds an allusion to female same-sex desire with Dinah wanting to “know” the foreign woman.[4] Planctus Dine filie Iacob doesn’t directly refer to the concluding complaint of Simeon and Levi:

Should our sister be treated like a whore?

{ הכזונה יעשה את־אחותנו } [5]

Abelard’s implicit response within the logic of intention would be that if Dinah acts like a whore, men should treat her like a whore. Men typically don’t want to marry a whore. Within the biblical text, Prince Shechem wanted to marry Dinah. Despite her behavior, he didn’t treat her like a whore in ordinary understanding apart from gynocentric idolization of women. Abelard’s Dinah rejects gynocentric idolization of herself.

Abelard’s Dinah even more daringly expresses sympathy for Shechem in the context of him being persecuted for sexually desiring her. In order for Shechem to be allowed to marry Dinah, Jacob’s sons, speaking on behalf of their father, required Shechem and all the men of his tribe to mutilate their genitals (be circumcised). At the infatuated Shechem’s urging, his men mutilated their genitals. Then, with all the men of Shechem in pain from having mutilated their genitals, Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi attacked the city of Shechem. They killed all the men and took all the women captive. Dinah humanely lamented:

Shechem, born to the ruin of your race,
made an everlasting disgrace for our descendants.
Woe to wretched you, by yourself destroyed!

In vain did circumcision make you a Jewish proselyte,
for you couldn’t remove the foreskin of shame.
Woe to wretched you, by yourself destroyed!

{ Sichem, in exicium nate tui generis,
nostris in obprobrium perpes facte posteris.
Ve tibe misero, per temet perdito!

Frustra circumcisio fecit te proselitum,
non ualens infamie tollere prepucium.
Ve tibi misero, per temet perdito! } [6]

Dinah places in parallel her feminine self and Shechem’s masculine self. His masculine desire for the feminine Dinah was natural. It was something that could be predicted from his birth. Yet gynocentric persecution of men’s heterosexual desire was also a structure at Shechem’s birth. In the clash between men’s natural heterosexual desire and gynocentric persecution of men, the latter disastrously prevailed. Thus Shechem was killed and his tribe ruined. To underscore the disaster, Abelard recast the biblical story to give Dinah and Shechem children (“our descendants”). Their descendants received the social curse of everlasting disgrace.

Dinah lamented that Shechem was persecuted as a man even as he sought to change his social identity. So that he could marry Dinah, Shechem sought to become a Jew. So that he could marry Dinah, Shechem mutilated his own genitals and had the men of his tribe do likewise. A man can remove the foreskin of his penis or cut off his testicles. But he individually is powerless to remove the shame and persecution that gynocentric society imposes on men’s heterosexuality.[7] Woe to wretched men, socially set up to be shamed and destroyed by their own heterosexuality.

Dinah compassionately gives reasons by which Shechem should have been treated with mercy. Genesis’s account of the massacre of men at Shechem describes Shechem’s soul being drawn to Dinah. It declares that he loved her, longed for her, and spoke tenderly to her. Yet Dinah’s thoughts and feelings aren’t reported. Planctus Dine filie Iacob reciprocally doesn’t report Shechem’s feelings.[8] Abelard’s Dinah establishes the formal poetic reciprocity lacking in the Genesis account:

Forced to seize me,
seized by my beauty,
before no judge of any kind
would you have been deprived of mercy

The incitement of love,
satisfaction for the crime:
in any sentence these are
a mitigation of the crime.

{ Coactus me rapere,
mea raptus spetie,
quouis expers uenie
non fuisses iudice.

Amoris impulsio,
culpe satisfactio:
quouis sunt iudicio
culpe diminutio. }

Both of these stanzas have the same semantic structure: two verses of reciprocal action, followed by two verses arguing for mitigation of the wrong. Both stanzas present a juridical framework as if a crime had been committed. The Vulgate was the dominant text of the Bible in medieval Europe. Misrepresenting the Hebrew, the Vulgate declared that Shechem “seized the girl and lay with her by force {rapuit et dormivit cum illa vi opprimens virginem}.” That’s rape. Rape and false accusations of rape were regarded as serious crimes in the ancient and medieval world. Abelard seems to have sensed the falseness of the Vulgate’s representation of what Shechem did with Dinah.[9] Abelard’s Dinah questions gynocentric persecution of a reciprocal heterosexual love affair satisfactorily ending in marriage.

Abelard’s Dinah directly challenges the men who are the penal administrators of gynocentric persecution of men. Like the father Jacob, gynocentrism is an absent authority. The penal administrators are the brothers Simeon and Levi:

You did not think rightly, my brothers Simeon and Levi,
in this deed both too cruel and too dutiful:
in your punishment you make the innocent equal with the guilty,
and truly you dishonor our father, cursed be for this!

A man light-hearted and youthful, less wise,
ought to have borne from the wise lesser punishment.

The wrath of my brothers should have been softened by the honor
he did them: a prince of the land, leading forth a foreign bride.

{ Non sic, fratres, censuistis, Symeon et Leui,
in eodem facto nimis crudeles et pii:
innocentes coequastis in pena nocenti,
quin et patrem perturbastis, ob hoc execrandi!

Leuis etas iuuenilis minusque discreta
ferre minus a discretis debuit in pena.

Ira featrum ex honore fuit lenienda
quem his fecit: princeps terre, ducta peregrina. } [10]

Perhaps Abelard understood that Shechem was innocent of raping Dinah. In any case, the other men of Shechem’s city were innocent of any wrong. Jewish law reveres justice and mercy. Simeon and Levi, brothers of Dinah, sons of Jacob, acted with neither justice nor mercy. They were “too dutiful” to non-Jewish gynocentric imperatives. They thus dishonored their father Jacob and deserved to be cursed.

Abelard’s Planctus Dine filie Iacob ends in despair. Dinah laments:

Woe to me, woe to you, young man to be pitied,
in the general massacre of your great race you fall.

{ Vi michi, ue tibi, miserande iuuenis:
in stragem communem gentis tante concidis. } [11]

Scholars have debated at length whether the post-castration Abelard sought to remasculinize himself rhetorically. Scholars have debated at length whether being castrated served Abelard’s desired identity.[12] Those are narrow, self-interested concerns. The lament of Abelard’s Dinah extends to all of humane civilization. Drawing upon his own horrific experience, Abelard sought to warn all women and men about gynocentric persecution of men’s sexuality. Listen to him!

Simeon and Levi slaughter men of Shechem

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[1] Wolde (2002) pp. 543-4. Similarly, Joseph (2016). The biblical story is Genesis 34. Shechem is also commonly spelled Sechem and Sichem. Dinah similarly is also common spelled Dina. On ancient and medieval interpretations of the massacre of men at Shechem, Thibodeau (1990). On recent interpretations, Musija (2014). Musija refuses to “rule out” that Shechem raped Dinah:

even if it is difficult according to Genesis 34 to conclude that Dinah was really raped, it is quite clear that Shechem has done something to Dinah very evil in the eyes of the narrator. … it seems to me that it is more likely that Shechem, a young man, seduced Dinah, a girl under age and had a sexual relationship with her. Because such act is today considered as something very bad, even culpable, I suppose that it was at least so wrongful at ancient time. That can be the reason why Jacob’s sons were so eager to punish Shechem but not Dinah. … according to the text it is not appropriate to imply so convincingly either that Dinah was raped, or that Dinah was not raped. According to the text it is clear that Shechem has done something very bad to Dinah in the eyes of the narrator. In my opinion, the text speaks about seduction of a girl under age, but rape also remains one of the possibilities.

Musija (2014) pp. 6-7 (internal note omitted). That’s vicious rhetoric. One can’t rule out the possibility that Musija or any other person is a rapist. That’s not a fair basis for suggesting that a person is a rapist, even if another person believes that she has “done something very evil.” The gender injustice of vicious rhetoric is magnified when grotesquely misleading claims about men raping women are disseminated in widely read media, when men are vastly disproportionately represented among persons under criminal justice control, and when incarceration of men is at extraordinarily high levels.

[2] Peter Abeland, Planctus Dine filie Iacob ll. 1-6, Latin text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Ruys (2014) pp. 245-6, 257-8. For illusa, Ruys translated “abused.” Mocked is closer to the Latin root meaning and seems to me more appropriate in context.

Abelard’s Planctus is a quite unusual work in literary history. Ruys (2014) pp. 61-2. All six Planctus that Abelard wrote are preserved in only one manuscript, Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica, Reg. Latin. 288, dated to the late twelfth century. Abelard apparently wrote the Planctus in the mid-1130s. Id. pp. 8, 65.

All subsequent quotes from the Planctus are sourced as above and are, with the exception of one stanza, in the order of the poem’s lines. Paul Zumthor’s Latin text and French translation (1992) of the Planctus is freely available online.

[3] Ruys finds it perplexing that Dinah would declare that she was betrayed by herself. She also finds Abelard’s Dinah to be “strident and unconvincing in terms of a lament in the feminine voice.” Ruys (2014) pp. 82, 71. Sweeney, in contrast, states:

Abelard’s Dinah is far more real than the Dinah of scripture; we are touched by her suffering and edified by the insight borne of that suffering. Her significance is not just as a cog in the wheel of providence or as an allegorical figure embodying some virtue or vice to Abelard; nonetheless, his focus on imagining her concrete individuality, paradoxically, manages to increase her ethical and religious significance rather than the contrary.

Sweeney (2016) p. 110. Thibodeau similarly appreciates the personal depth of Abelard’s Dinah. Abelard depicts her consciousness “with its full depth of reflection and its full range of emotion.” Abelard’s Planctus represents “the searing personal anguish of Dinah in the face of Shechem’s downfall and death”; Abelard’s Dinah displays “very human suffering.” Thibodeau (1990) pp. 241-2. Part of the problem is that scholars today seem unable to fathom medieval women’s loving concern for men.

[4] E.g Genesis 4:1, in the Vulgate, “Adam vero cognovit Havam uxorem suam {And Adam knew his wife Eve}.” Similarly, Genesis 19:8, “habeo duas filias quae necdum cognoverunt virum {I have two daughters who have never known a man}.”

[5] Genesis 34:31. Ruys comments:

This defense clearly recalls what Abelard has described as Fulbert’s justification for commissioning his castration, namely, the belief that Abelard had used and then put aside his niece to the lasting shame of the family. Not surprisingly, in a lament in which Sechem is intended to appear undeserving of his fate, this consideration has to be excised.

Ruys (2014) p. 82. Ruys apparently assumes that Shechem actually did treat Dinah as a whore, and Abelard similarly treated Heloise. I think neither are true. Abelard’s Dinah seems to me to make a compelling critique of the claim that Shechem treated her as a whore.

[6] I’ve inserted “Jewish,” which isn’t in the Latin, in front of “proselyte” for clarity. Ruys has for the subsequent verse, “incapable of removing the foreskin of shame.” Above I’ve rephrased that line to clarifying that being a proselyte isn’t related to being incapable of removing the shame of being falsely charged with raping Dinah.

[7] According to Ruys:

Abelard has Dinah enunciate in the Planctus Dine a doctrinal discussion of the Old Testament covenant of circumcision and its efficacy. Her lament revealed the failure of circumcision as a means of salvation, as she regretted that in Sechem’s case, it proved ineffective in preventing his death

Ruys (214) pp. 85. That seems to me a cramped and wooden reading of Planctus Dine filie Iacob. Woe to wretched men, so badly understood.

[8] Ruys argues that Abelard elides Shechem’s love for Dinah because “mutual love plays no part in the lament that Abelard’s Dinah speaks.” Ruys (2014) p. 81. Abelard’s Planctus seems to me best understood as an addition to the biblical account. Its reciprocity works as part of an over-all poetic form that includes Genesis 34 and Abelard’s Planctus.

[9] Abelard may have known Hebrew or had access to teaching from a learned Jew. Thibodeau (1990) pp. 245-7. Abelard thus may have had access to a more accurate translation of Genesis 34 than the Vulgate provides. From another perspective, Abelard might have meant the juridical framework in Dinah’s exoneration of Shechem to be interpreted ironically. That’s more plausible than Abelard using irony in the ending of his Planctus Israel super Sanson. Cf. Dronke (1970) pp. 137-45.

[10] In the first line quoted above, for sic Ruys translated “so.” I’ve changed that to “rightly.” The latter word brings in a broader interpretative context that’s helpful for understanding the line.

For the second stanza quoted above, Ruys translates:

An age light and youthful, less wise,
ought to have borne less punishment from the wise.

“Leuis etas iuuenilis” seems to me not an abstract reference to “an age,” but a specific reference to “a man” (Shechem). The Latin lines end in “wise” and “punishment.” I think that’s a significant poetic structure. I’ve preserved it above.

[11] Ruys translation has “youth to be pitied.” The Latin text more specifically refers to one young man (Shechem). Thus above I’ve used “young man.” Ruys’ translates strages as “slaughter.” Animals are slaughtered for their meat. I’ve used the word “massacre” to emphasize that men are human beings.

Dronke perceptively interpreted Planctus Dine filie Iacob, but didn’t quite go far enough:

The almost identical refrain, sung first for herself {Dinah} and then for him {Shechem}, reinforces the bond between them. Through this she reveals to herself her true feelings for him, feelings that begin in pity but reach out into love. They express themselves first in anger: his fate is unjust — the fault was small, the punishment far too great. Her own brothers are hateful, their righteousness having been only a pretext for their base cruelty. Then her thoughts move to love: if a true impulse of love was there, as she knows it was, can even the violation of a young girl be judged a grievous fault? Her brothers talked of family honour — was it not an honour too that he, a prince, should have wanted her so much as not only to possess her but to ask his kindred’s leave “to marry an alien”? Suddenly, with this thought, her love and admiration for him blossom so much that her final words extend this love and admiration to his whole people (gens tanta), to those whom her family had taught her to regard as “the enemy race” (plebs adversa).

Dronke (1970) pp. 114-5. Shechem’s “whole people” and “the enemy race” are Abelard’s astonishingly insightful metaphors for men as gynocentrism represents men to women.

[12] Irvine (1997) argues that Abelard “engaged in a project of remasculinization” for himself. Wheeler (1997), reversing her claims about remasculinization, argues that despite being punitively castrated, Abelard remained as oppressive as men have always been. Abelard was no vicious, jealous eunuch of the sort so prevalent under castration culture. Abelard sought to overturn castration culture for the benefit of all women and men. In her analysis, Ruys concludes that Planctus Dine reflects the voice of Abelard, “a man with particular axes to grind and some things he would rather hide.” Ruys (2014) p. 83. In reality, much scholarly study of Abelard in recent decades has borne axes to grind and things to hide.

Ferroul (1997) rightly points out the castration of Abelard probably meant excising only his testicles. If Abelard’s penis had also been cut off, he probably would have died from complications associated with urination and infection. Men who have their testicles excised in adulthood remain capable of engaging in erection labor. Moreover, in having sex of reproductive type, such men don’t risk contributing to a pregnancy. Ferroul goes on to argue:

His blissful castration enabled Abelard to become what he really wanted to be: a paragon of a Christian and the greatest of philosophers

Ferroul (1997) p. 144. That’s absurd. Like other forms of male genital mutilation, castration hurts men. Some men who aren’t castrated become malicious gynocentric apparachiki. Despite his castration, Abelard was no despicable eunuch. Even as a castrated man, he was an admirable Christian, a great philosopher, and an under-appreciated advocate for gender justice.

Irvine (1997), Wheeler (1997), and Ferroul (1997) were all published in a book entitled Becoming Male in the Middle Ages. That book and its contents should be understood with respect to a peculiar social construction of scholarly merit in the humanities. Willful ignorance of biology and non-empirical beliefs about the population evolution of reproducing organisms contribute to prestige within that peculiar social construction of scholarly merit. Of course, men who act like eunuchs can choose to act like men in their middle ages or even as old men.

[images] (1) The massacre of the men of Shechem. Copper engraving (excerpt) made by Caspar Luyken in the Netherlands about 1700, perhaps for his Historiae celebriores Veteris Testamenti Iconibus representatae. Preserved in Phillip Medhurst Picture Torah 172, via Wikimedia Commons. (2) The massacre of the men of Shechem. Image in book by Flavius Josephus, published in 1704. Via Pitts Theology Library. (3) The massacre of the men of Shechem. Image in book by Nicolas Fontaine, L’histoire dv Vieux et dv Nouveau Testament : representée avec des figvres & des explications édifiantes, tirées des SS. PP. pour regler les moeurs dans toute sorte de conditions, published in Paris in 1670. Via Pitts Theology Library.


Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, and Bonnie Wheeler, eds. 1997. Becoming Male in the Middle Ages. New York: Garland Publishing.

Dronke, Peter. 1970. Poetic Individuality in the Middle Ages: New departures in poetry 1000-1150. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Ferroul, Yves. 1997. “Abelard’s Blissful Castration.” Pp. 129-150 in Cohen & Wheeler (1997).

Irvine, Martin. 1997. “Abelard and (Re)Writing the Male Body: Castration, Identity, and Remasculinization.” Pp. 87-106 in Cohen & Wheeler (1997).

Joseph, Alison L. 2016. “Understanding Genesis 34:2: ‘Innâ.” Vetus Testamentum. 66 (4): 663-668.

Musija, Zlatko. 2014. “The Function and Meaning of Genesis 34 — The Story of Dinah in its Context.” In Bruinsma, Reinder, ed. Faith in search of depth and relevancy: festschrift in honour of Dr Bertil Wiklander. St. Albans, UK: Trans-European Division of Seventh-day Adventists.

Ruys, Juanita Feros. 2014. The Repentant Abelard: family, gender and ethics in Peter Abelard’s Carmen ad Astralabium and Planctus. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmsillan.

Sweeney, Eileen. 2016. “Abelard’s Christian Socratism.” Pp. 101-121 in Bequette, John P., ed. A Companion to Medieval Christian Humanism: essays on principal thinkers. Leiden: Brill.

Thibodeau, Lucille Claire. 1990. The relation of Peter Abelard’s Planctus Dinae to biblical sources and exegetic tradition: a historical and textual study. Ph.D. Thesis. Harvard University.

Wheeler, Bonnie. 1997. “Origenary Fantasies: Abelard’s Castration and Confession.” Pp. 107-128 in Cohen & Wheeler (1997).

Wolde, Ellen van. 2002. “Does innâ denote rape?: a semantic analysis of a controversial word.” Vetus Testamentum. 52 (4): 528-544.

Simeon and Levi slaughter men of Shechem

hateful castration culture: castrated Abelard disparaged & demeaned

castration of Saturn

Today, castration culture tends to treat men made into eunuchs as honorary women. Even if those men don’t have all the legal privileges that women have, they don’t bear the stigma of acting masculine. What man wouldn’t sit with his legs tightly crossed and his testicles brutally squeezed to avoid the crime of manspreading? The testicular harm is better than a man adding himself to the massive number of men incarcerated.[1] Castration culture was less finely honed and wielded in medieval Europe. In fact, Peter Abelard in twelfth-century France was disparaged and demeaned even as a castrated man.

Before he was castrated, Peter Abelard reportedly had strong, independent sexuality that challenged the historical repression of men’s sexuality. Fulk, a monk heading a monastic community at Deuil, near Paris, stated that Abelard allowed single women and whores to exploit him:

with regard to what was, as they say, your downfall, namely the love of single women, and the traps of their lust, with which they capture their whore-hounds, it seems better for me to remain silent rather than to say something not in keeping with our order or the rule of our religious life. … How much this small part of your body, which you have lost by the judgment and favor of omnipotent God, had injured you and did not cease injuring you as long as it remained, the diminution of your wealth teaches better than my words can show. In truth, whatever you were able to acquire by teaching in selling your knowledge, with the exception of food and what was needed for necessities, you did not cease to sink (as I have learned by report) into the maw of consuming fornication. The avaricious rapacity of whores took everything from you. No age has ever heard of a whore who wished to take pity on another or who spared available property of men seeking sex with them.

{ quod sic te, ut aiunt, pracipitem dedit, singularum scilicet feminarum amorem, et laqueos libidinis earum, quibus suos capiunt scortatores, melius mihi videor praeterire, quam aliquid dicere quod ordini nostro et regulae nostrae religionis non concordet. … Haec corporis particula, quam omnipotentis Dei judicio, et beneficio perdidisti, quantum tibi nocuerat, ac nocere, quandiu permansit, non desistebat, melius tuarum diminutio rerum, quam mea possit monstrare oratio, docet. Quidquid vere scientiae tuae venditione perorando praeter quotidianum victum et usum necessarium, sicut relatione didici, acquirere poteras in voraginem fornicariae consumptionis domergere non cessabas. Avara meretricum rapacitas cuncta tibi rapuerat. Nulla audierunt saecula meretricem velle alteri misereri, vel pepercisse rebus appetitorum, quas quoquo modo auferre potuerant. } [2]

Just as many thought leaders advise men today, Fulk told Abelard that he was better off castrated:

You should also consider it a great advantage that, no longer a suspect person, you may be received with the utmost safety as a guest by every host. The husband shall not fear from you his wife’s violation or the shattering of his marriage bed. With the utmost decency you shall you pass through the ranks of matrons without any violations. The choirs of virgins radiant in the flower of their youth – they who can usually kindle even old men to the heat of lust with their motions (even though old men are already deprived of the heat of the flesh) – you shall gaze upon safely and sinless, since you do not fear their walk and their traps. … And after the fluctuations of this most fragile fragility of men’s sexuality, the great gift of God in this situation to my mind is that just as you shall certainly not feel the nocturnal illusions of erotic dreams, so it is certain that, even if the will should be there, no effect will follow. A wife’s soft words and the touch of bodies, without which one cannot serve a wife, and the extraordinary care of children (by which you are less pleasing to God) – none of these shall hold you back. How great a good do you think it is that you have been removed from the dangers of sinning and settled in the safety of not sinning? Now you shall proudly be able to avoid the lion-like ferocity that whores show to those coming to them for the first time, the trickery of their snake-like deception, and the incontinence of their captivating luxury. You will know what I am talking about from experience better than I am able to explain in words.

{ Hoc quoque magni existimare debes, quod nulli suspectus, ab omni hospite hospes tutissime recipiaris. Maritus uxoris violationem ex te, vel lectuli concussionem minime formidabit. Decentissime ornatarum turmas matronarum inviolabiliter pertransibis. Virginum choros flore juventutis splendentium, quae etiam senes jam calore carnis destitutos suis motibus in fervorem libidinis inflammare consueverunt, non timens earum incessus et laqueos, securus et sine peccato miraberis. … Et omnino post hos hujus fragilissimae fragilitatis fluxus, quod magnum Dei gratiae munus in hoc ordine aestimo, nocturnas somniorum illusiones te minime sentire ita certum est, sicut certum est quoniam voluntatem, si forte aderit, nullus sequetur effectus. Blanditiae uxoris corporumque contactus, sine quo uxor haberi non potest, ac liberorum cura singularis, quominus Deo placeas minime retardabunt. Quam magnum aestimas bonum, peccandi periculis te subtrahi, et in non peccandi securitate constitui? Leoninam itaque meretricum ferociam, quam primum ad se introeuntibus ostendunt, serpentinae deceptionis astutiam, captivae earum luxuriae incontinentiam poteris vitare superbus. Quod loquor melius de reliquo rerum experientia es cogniturus, quam verbis valeam explicare. }

According to Fulk’s taunting words, the castrated Abelard could now avoid a first-time encounter with whores, the circumstances of which Abelard already knew from experience. Fulk offered to Abelard as instructive examples men who “rejoice in lacking genitals {gaudent genitalibus caruisse}.” What’s sorely lacking in Fulk’s letter is the heart-felt compassion and pity truly owed to a castrated man.

Abelard’s former teacher Roscelin of Compeigne treated him even worse. Growing beyond his teacher Roscelin, Abelard became a teacher who taught his students not just grammar, rhetoric, logic, philosophy, theology, and dialectics, but also love — the most important subject. Roscelin viciously disparaged Abelard for helping Heloise learn about love:

Not sparing the virgin entrusted to you whom you should have protected as entrusted to you and taught as a disciple, you were whipped up by a spirit of unrestrained debauchery and taught her not to argue, but to fornicate.

{ commissae tibi virgini non parcens, quam conservare ut commissam, docere ut discipulam debueras, effreno luxuriae spiritu agitatus non argumentaris, sed eam fornicari docuisti } [3]

Who enjoys arguing? Sexual love warms human lives. Without it, humanity would have long ago ceased to exist. Nothing is more important to teach than love. Anticipating modern, comprehensive criminalization of men seducing women, Roscelin found Abelard guilty of many crimes for having consensual sex with Heloise. Roscelin declared castration divine justice for Abelard’s crimes:

In one deed you are guilty of many crimes, namely of betrayal and fornication. You are a most foul destroyer of virginal modesty. But the God of vengeance, the Lord God of vengeance, has acted freely. He has deprived you of that part by which you have sinned.

{ in uno facto multorum criminum, proditionis scilicet et fornicationis reus, et virginei pudoris violator spurcissimus. Sed Deus ultionum, Dominus Deus ultionum, libere egit, qui ea qua tantum parte peccaveras te privavit. }

Today major media mendaciously report that nearly a quarter of men have raped women. God is not so fraudulent. The God of vengeance that Roscelin invokes is an incomplete representation of God. That God is also just and merciful. Gynocentric ideology in action, not God, castrated Abelard.[4]

Roscelin disparaged Abelard with the sort of pseudo-sophistication and sarcasm now prevalent in elite discourse. Writing before laws prohibited referring to a person by the wrong name or wrong-gender pronoun, Roscelin challenged Abelard identifying himself as Peter:

I’m unable to find a name by which I can consider you. Yet, to be sure, you are lying that you can be called ‘Peter’ from conventional usage. I’m certain that a noun of masculine gender, if it falls away from its own gender, will refuse to signify its usual thing. For proper nouns usually lose their significance when the things signified fall back from their own completion. A house is not called a house but an incomplete house when its walls and roof are removed. Therefore since the part that makes a man has been removed, you are to be called not ‘Peter’ but ‘incomplete Peter.’ It suits this heap of incomplete human disgrace that in the seal by which he seals his stinking letters he himself forms an image having two heads, one a man and the other a woman. This being the case, and he does not blush to honor her in such a conjunction of heads, who can doubt how much he still burns with love for her? I have decided to say many true and obvious things against your attack, but since I am writing against an incomplete man, I will leave the letter I began incomplete.

{ quo nomine te censeam, reperire non valeo. Sed forte Petrum te appellari posse ex consuetudine mentieris. Certus sum autem, quod masculini generis nomen, si a suo genere deciderit, rem solitam significare recusabit. Solent enim nomina propria significationem amittere, cum eorum significata contigerit a sua perfectione recedere. Neque enim ablato tecto vel pariete domus, sed imperfecta domus vocabitur. Sublata igitur parte, quae hominem facit, non Petrus, sed imperfectus Petrus appellandus es. Ad huius imperfecti hominis ignominiae cumulum vero pertinet, quod in sigillo, quo foetidas illas litteras sigillavit, imaginem duo capita habentem, unum viri, alterum mulieris, ipse formavit. Unde quis dubitet, quanto adhuc in eam ardeat amore qui tali eam capitum coniunctione non erubuit honorare? Plura quidem in tuam contumeliam vera ac manifesta dictare decreveram, sed quia contra hominem imperfectum ago, opus quod coeperam imperfectum relinquo. } [5]

As Roscelin suggested, Abelard’s seal probably indicated his continuing, burning love for Heloise:

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
As a seal upon your arm;
For love is as strong as death,
passion as fierce as the grave;
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
A raging flame. [6]

{ שימני כחותם על־לבך כחותם על־זרועך כי־עזה כמות
אהבה קשה כשאול קנאה רשפיה רשפי אש שלהבתיה }

After he was brutally castrated, Peter Abelard continued to identify as a man. He also continued to love Heloise. Peter wasn’t an “incomplete man.” He was a man whom hateful gynocentric ideology had horribly wounded. Many men today are similarly wounded. These men deserve respect, compassion, and justice.

In France late in the thirteenth century, the brilliant Jean de Meun in Le Roman de la Rose {The Romance of the Rose} had a figure appropriately called Genius explain the terrible harm of castration. Genius spoke with justified moral outrage that extends to broader concerns of men’s sexed protest and gender injustices:

But certainly, if we tell the truth, anyone who castrates a worthy man does him a very great shame and injury. Even though I may say nothing about his great shame and discomfort, anyone who takes away a man’s testicles robs him at least, without a doubt, of the love of his sweetheart, no matter how closely she was bound to him. Or if he is married, as he might be, his affairs will go so badly that he will lose the love of his loyal wife, no matter how good-natured she was. It is a great sin to castrate a man. Anyone who castrates a man robs him not just of his testicles, and his sweetheart whom he holds very dear and whose fair face he will never see, and his wife. These are the least he loses. He robs him especially of the boldness in human ways, the boldness that should exist in valiant men. We are certain that castrated men are perverse and malicious cowards because they have the ways of women. Certainly no eunuch has any bravery whatsoever in him, unless perhaps in doing some vice, something very malicious. All women are very bold at doing deeds of great devilishness. Eunuchs resemble them in this respect. In particular, the castrator, even though he may not be a murderer or a thief or have committed any mortal sin, at least he has sinned to the extent of doing Nature a great wrong in stealing the means of procreating. No one, no matter how well he has thought about it, could excuse him for it. At least I couldn’t, for if I think about it and tell the truth, I could wear out my tongue before I could excuse the castrator for such a sin, such a wrong as he has committed toward Nature.

{ Mes certes, qui le voir an conte,
mout fet a prodome grant honte
et grant domage qui l’escoille;
car qui des coillons le despoille,
ja soit ce neïs que je tese
sa grant honte et sa grant mesese,
au mains, de ce ne dout je mie,
li tost il l’amour de s’amie,
ja si bien n’iert a lui lïez ;
ou s’il est, espoir, marïez,
puis que si mal va ses afferes,
pert il, ja tant n’iert deboneres,
l’amour de sa leal moillier.
Granz pechiez est d’ome escoillier.
Anseurquetout cil qui l’escoille
ne li tost pas, san plus, la coille
ne s’amie que tant a chiere,
don ja mes n’avra bele chiere,
ne sa moillier, car c’est du mains,
mes hardemant et meurs humains
qui doivent estre en vaillanz homes;
car escoillié, certain an somes,
sunt couart, pervers et chenins,
por ce qu’il ont meurs femenins.
Nus escoilliez certainemant
n’a point en sai de hardemant,
se n’est, espoir, en aucun vice,
por fere aucune grant malice,
car a fere granz deablies
sunt toutes fames trop hardies:
escoilliez en ce les resamblent,
por ce que leur meurs s’entresemblent.
Anseurquetout li escoillierres,
tout ne soit il murtriers ne lierres
ne n’ait fet nul mortel pechié,
au mains a il de tant pechié
qu’il a fet grant tort a Nature
de lui tolir s’angendreüre.
Nus escuser ne l’an savroit,
ja si bien pansé n’i avroit,
au meins gié; car, se g’i pensoie
et la verité recensoie,
ainz porroie ma langue user
que l’escoilleür escuser d
e tel pechié, de tel forfet,
tant a ver Nature forfet. } [7]

Even if you care nothing for men’s lives, you should oppose castration, because castration is war on women.[8]

A world-wide day of mourning and remembrance for castrated men would serve social justice much more than Dicks Out for Harambe. Our modern educational institutions now do little more than perpetuate ignorance and bigotry. Most students don’t study medieval Latin literature, and they know nothing of Peter Abelard. The few students who study medieval Latin literature might be taught that Abelard’s masculinity was bad, and that after being castrated he sought to remasculinize himself, which is also bad.[9] Not surprisingly, most men today lack the courage and strength to thrust against gynocentrism. Women must take responsiblity for leading the struggle against castration culture and gynocentrism.

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[1] As Silverman unwittingly recognized, “Our dominant fiction … urges both the male and female subject … to deny all knowledge of male {sic} castration … {as subsequently negotiated in many words}.” Silverman (1992) p. 42. Others have recognized the ubiquity of castration culture:

Far from originating in twentieth-century culture, the castration crisis is a cultural constant in the West, negotiated and renegotiated in each era, particularly by reference to ancient mythic representations of castration.

Desmond & Sheingorn (2003) p. 57. Castration culture is easly recognized in much modern scholarship. The physic reality of male genitals is sorely lacking. While many men have written, men’s writers are scarcely known; the masculine pen is painfully absent.

[2] Fulk, Prior of Deuil, Letter to Peter Abelard, Latin text from Patrologia Latina via Heloïsa und Abaelard, English trans. North (1998) (adapted slightly). Fulk (also known as Fulco) wrote this letter in 1117 or 1118. All subsequent quotes from Fulk’s letter are similarly sourced. The Latin text of Patrologia Latina’s collection of letters of Abelard and Heloise are available here.

[3] Roscelin of Compiegne, Letter to Abelard {Epistola ad Abaelardum} Latin text from Patrologia Latina 178:369BC, via Heloïsa und Abaelard, English trans. (adapted slightly) from Mews (2005) p. 59. Roscelin wrote this letter about 1120 in response to Abelard making a written attack on him for heresy. The subsequent quote above is similarly from id.

[4] Abelard understood his castration to be against God’s law. Murphy (2004). Roscelin taunted Abelard with the threat of further “divine” punishment:

But you should intensely fear that divine justice will make what happened to your penis also happen to your tongue. You used to prick with your penis promiscuously, and you were deservedly deprived of it due to your indecency. Similarly, your tongue, with which you now sting, may too be taken away from you.

{ Sed valde tibi divina metuenda est justitia, ne, sicut cauda qua prius, dum poteras, indifferenter pungebas, merito tuae immunditiae tibi ablata est, ita et lingua, qua modo pungis, auferatur. }

Roscelin further developed his insinuation that the castrated Abelard had shifted to cunnilingus. Immediately after writing that God has “deprived you of that part by which you have sinned {parte peccaveras te privavit},” Roscelin wrote:

For it was from this part that the rich man buried in Hell burned all the more the more he sinned, when he demanded that his tongue be cooled with a drop of water.

{ Ea enim de parte dives in inferno sepultus qua plus peccaverat plus ardebat, cum linguam suam gutta aquae refrigerari poscebat. }

Roscelin thus insinuates that Abelard desires to get his tongue wet with a woman. Cunnilingus was an activity of concern in medieval men’s sexed protest. For both the above quotes from Roscelin’s letter to Abelard, the Latin text is from Patrologia Latina, with my English translations.

[5] Roscelin of Compiegne, Letter to Abelard, Latin text and English translation (adapted insubstantially) from Irvine (1997) pp. 91-2.

[6] Song of Solomon 8:6. On metaphorical use of seals, Fulton Brown (2005) Ch. 5. In his Tractatus de unitate et trinitate divina, Abelard analogized the Trinity to bronze, a seal of bronze, and the impression in wax made by the bronze seal. Abelard, Theologia scholarium 2.463.1653-60. Church officials condemned that theological metaphor as heretically denying the unity of the Trinity.

[7] Guillaume Lorris & Jean de Meun, Le Roman de la Rose {The Romance of the Rose} ll. 20037-94, Old French text from Lecoy (1970), English trans. (adapted slightly) from Dahlberg (1995) pp. 329-30. Here’s an alternate Old French text.

[8] Fulk highlighted women’s lamenting about Abelard’s castration:

How shall I relate the lament of single women who, upon hearing the news, streaked their faces with tears, in the way that women do, for the sake of you, their knight whom they had lost, just as if each had discovered that her husband or lover had been killed in battle?

{ Quid singularum feminarum referam planctum, quae sic, hoc audito, lacrymis, more femineo, ora rigarunt, propter te militem suum, quem amiserant, ac si singulae virum suum aut amicum sorte belli reperissent exstinctum? }

Fulk, Letter to Peter Abelard.

[9] E.g. Wheeler (1997), Irvine (1997). Like men’s lifespan shortfall relative to women’s lifespan, castration culture tends not to be taken seriously. Consider a poem probably written about 1130:

Two jewels, Gaul, adorned you once:
Mathias the consul and Peter the philosopher,
one the glory of knighthood, the other light of the clergy.
A single cut removed from you both jewels.
Envious fate took away both these exalted men’s genitals.
Unlike cause made them alike in wound.
The consul was condemned by a just charge of adultery.
The philosopher fell by supreme betrayal.

{ Ornavere due te quondam, Gallia, gemme:
Mathias consul philosophusque Petrus.
Milicie decus hic, cleri lux extitit ille.
Plaga tibi gemmas abstulit una duas,
Invida sors summos privat genitalibus ambo,
Dispar causa pares vulnere fecit eos,
Consul adulterii damnatur crimine iusto,
Philosophus summa prodicione ruit. }

Latin text and English translation (adapted) from Dronke (1992) pp. 281, 263. Full Latin available via Heloïsa und Abaelard. The above poem refers to the castration of Peter Abelard and Mathias the consul. Mathias was probably Mathias, Count of Nantes and son of Duke Hoel. Both Mathias and Abelard were from the same region of Gaul. Duke Hoel was overlord of Abelard’s family. Id. p. 264. As these two castrations suggest, castration was more prevalent in ancient and medieval Europe than is commonly recognized. Nonetheless, the poet plays with verbal similarities between cutting off (both) testicles from a man, and castrating two men.

Like many scholars have, a leading medieval scholar of the twentieth century made castration culture into justification for pathologizing men. Discussing an eleventh-century French pilgrim’s reported self-castration, this scholar declared:

The idea of emasculation was linked to horror of women … men were terrified of women.

Duby (1983) p. 147. That’s abstract psychologizing and despicable victim-blaming. Medieval men loved women. Medieval men also had reason to fear women, just as men do today. Gynocentric society today, following medieval gynocentrism, teaches that men are morally defective and that masculinity is “toxic.” That’s the most relevant ideological link to emasculation.

[image] Castration of Saturn. In the middle on the far left, Venus emerges from an additional instance of Saturn’s genitals. Illumination from manuscript instance of Guillaume de Lorris & Jean de Meun, Roman de la Rose. Color-enhanced excerpt from folio 41r. Probably made about 1403 in the region of Paris. Preserved as Biblioteca Històrica València, MS 387.


Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, and Bonnie Wheeler, eds. 1997. Becoming Male in the Middle Ages. New York: Garland Publishing.

Dahlberg, Charles, trans. 1995. Guillaume de Lorris & Jean de Meun. The Romance of the Rose. 3rd ed. Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Desmond, Marilynn, and Pamela Sheingorn. 2003. Myth, Montage, and Visuality in Late Medieval Manuscript Culture: Christine de Pizan’s Epistre Othea. Ann Arbor, Mich: University of Michigan Press.

Dronke, Peter. 1992. Intellectuals and poets in Medieval Europe. Roma: Edizioni di storia e letteratura. Ch. 9 (pp. 247-294) reprints Dronke, Peter. 1976. Abelard and Heloise in Medieval testimonies: the twenty-six W.P. Ker Memorial Lecture delivered in the University of Glasgow 29th October, 1976. Glasgow: University of Glasgow Press.

Duby, Georges. 1983. The Knight, the Lady, and the Priest: the making of modern marriage in medieval France. New York: Pantheon Books.

Fulton Brown, Rachel. 2005. From Judgment to Passion: devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800-1200. New York: Columbia University Press.

Irvine, Martin. 1997. “Abelard and (Re)Writing the Male Body: Castration, Identity, and Remasculinization.” Pp. 87-106 in Cohen & Wheeler (1997).

Lecoy, Félix, ed. 1970. Guillaume de Lorris & Jean de Meun. Le roman de la rose. Paris: Librairie Honoré Champion (online: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4).

Mews, Constant J. 2005. Abelard and Heloise. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (review by Linda M. Rouillard)

Murphy, Sean Eisen. 2004. “The letter of the law: Abelard, Moses, and the problem with being a eunuch.” Journal of Medieval History. 30 (2): 161-185.

North, W.L., trans. 1998. “Fulk, Prior of Deuil: Letter to Peter Abelard, (Epistola XIV).” From the edition in Patrologia Latina 178, cols.371-376, with omissions in the Migne text from text edited by Damien van den Eynde, O.F.M., “Détails biographiques sur Pierre Abélard,” Antonianum 38 (1963): 217-223 at 219. Online in the Internet Medieval Source Book, Fordham University.

Silverman, Kaja. 1992. Male Subjectivity at the Margins. New York: Routledge.

Wheeler, Bonnie. 1997. “Origenary Fantasies: Abelard’s Castration and Confession.” Pp. 107-128 in Cohen & Wheeler (1997).

wife calling husband home in the shadow of Corpus Juris Civilis

Tree of Affinity in Gratian's Decretum

Scholars in twelfth-century Bologna recovered for western Europe the Corpus Juris Civilis. That’s the body of Roman law systematically compiled under the sixth-century Roman Emperor Justinian. Study of the Corpus Juris Civilis in medieval Bologna established the field of jurisprudence — “the practical science of giving wise interpretation to the laws and making a just application of them to all cases.”[1] In the shadow of Corpus Juris Civilis and jurisprudence was medieval love literature addressing the problem of a wife with a long-absent husband.  Working at the heart of Roman law’s revival at the University of Bologna early in the thirteenth century, the brilliantly transgressive scholar Boncompagno recognized that law and jurisprudence are a poor substitute for heartfelt love.

Marriage has long been a matter of legal concern. Marriage under Roman law was an extensively elaborated contractual arrangement that required the consent of both parties. Roman marital law informed the medieval Christian doctrine of marriage as a conjugal partnership of equals requiring consent for validity. Roman family law had considerably less anti-men bias than modern family law. Yet men in ancient Rome with good reason were reluctant to marry. Even before Christians proclaimed that Jesus enacted the law of God’s love written on human hearts, perceptive persons surely recognized that law affects love.[2]

medieval law in action

In Bologna, Boncompagno set out model cases of women with absent husbands. Among a series of hypotheticals he proposed:

Suppose that another woman has a husband or lover who has gone off into a remote region and isn’t concerned to return.

{ Pone quod aliqua virum vel amicum habeat qui abiit in regionem longinquam nec reverti procurat } [3]

A wife might take legal action against a husband who failed to return to her. Boncompagno, however, offered a more excellent way. He set out a model love-letter for the wife to send to her husband to call him back to her:

Waiting, I have awaited my desire, the other half of my body, the light of my eyes, my first joy and lover. And now, after five years, I still remain alone, believing that with my corporal eyes I would see him without whom I see nothing nor would be able to see, unless by his presence he brought clear light to me. The dove returned to Noah through the window, bearing a branch of green olive as a token of gladness. I pray that my dearest one return, that he give life to her who, because of him, dies and yet is unable to die. If he doesn’t return I shall be like a turtle-dove who has lost her husband. In her fashion I have always loved and exceedingly desire to love. For she, having lost her mate, doesn’t sit upon a verdant branch. She sits upon a dry one and constantly laments with piteous voice. She disturbs the clear water when she desires to drink and expects no consolation but death. Thus shall I live and thus shall I die if I am unable to possess your ardently desired presence.

{ Expectans expectavi desiderium meum, alteram mei corporis partem, oculorum meorum lumen, primum dilectum et amicum; et iam lapso quinquennio, solivaga permansi credens illum videre corporeis oculis sine quo nichil video nec videre potero, nisi michi sue presentie contulerit claritatem. Rediit ad Noe columba per fenestram, ramum virentis olive in signum letitie reportans. Revertatur, queso, dilectissimus meus ut illam faciat vivere que pro illo moritur nec mori potest; alioquin faciam sicut turtur que suum perdit maritum, ad instar cuius amavi semper et amare peropto. Illa quidem postea non sedet in ramo viridi, sed gemit in sicco voce flebili iugiter et aquam claram turbat cum appetit bibere, nullumque nisi mortis prestolatur solatium. Sic ego vivam sicque moriar, si vestra desiderabili non potero presentia potiri. }

What husband wouldn’t be moved by such a letter from his wife? Such a wife offers a husband much more than merely getting him a beer while he is watching college basketball on television. This model love-letter apparently drew upon Aristophanes’s description of wholeness in love in Plato’s Symposium and allegorical understanding of light and seeing in Plato’s Republic and his Phaedrus.[4] The model love-letter may have drawn upon well-developed Arabic love literature coming into Europe through southern Italy or Iberia. In any case, the love-letter is a model of passionate learning.

In ancient and medieval times, women delighted in having sex with men. Another of Boncompagno’s model letters for a woman to call back her lover draws upon the image of the mourning turtle-dove, but it also asserts the power of the woman’s imagination:

Sitting on a dry branch branch like a turtle-dove, I mourn incessantly, troubling the water I drink with my tears. Talking to myself in a tearful voice, I draw grievous sighs, for I know not where he is, he whom my soul loves, or rather he whose body is joined to my soul. Surely it is he who holds the keys to my life, he without whom I think life to be death. And when he is away I do not exist, yet as long as I exist he cannot be away, for I have caught him through my will and ineffable longing and keep him secretly locked in my memory.

{ Sedens more turturis in ramusculo sicco gemo assidue turbans potum cum bibo et mecum voce flebili colloquens traho suspiria dolorosa, quia scire non possum ubi sit quem diligit anima mea, jmmo illum cuius corpori anima est unita. Ille nimirum est qui tenet vite mee claves sine quo vivere mori esse puto, quia spiritus est amoris qui praecordia mea vivificando regirat et cum deest non sum et donec sum deesse non potest, quia per voluntatem et ineffabile desiderium illum apprehendi et in memoriali meo secretius teneo circumclusum } [5]

The woman goes on to imagine appreciatively and humanely her lover’s masculine sexual gifts:

As some specific cure, I press him like a bundle of myrrh between my breasts, with arms of most desiring love. … Whenever I lie in deep sleep, he enters through the door of my bedroom, puts his left hand under my head, and his right hand delightfully touches my riding-place and bosom, and with pressing lips he sweetly kisses me. He carries me off in his arms into a blossoming orchard in which rivulets gently flow. In this same garden nightingales and various kinds of birds sing sweet melodies, and all kinds of perfumes fill the air. And there, with embraces and our favorite conversations, we enjoy one another for a long time in this utterly desirable paradise.

{  ipsum velut mirre fasciculum sub quodam speciali remedio inter ubera mea brachiis peroptabilis dilectionis astringo. … quia semper cum sopori sum dedita, intrat per hostia thalami, ponit levam sub capite meo, dextra suavius tangit renes et pectus et comprensis labellis me dulcius osculatur. Transfert me super ulnas in pomerium florigerum in quo suavis est rivulorum decursus et in eodem philomene ac diversa genera volucrum dulciter modulantur. Sunt ibidem omnia genera coloramentorum sicque amplexibus et colloquiis peroptatis diutius ad invicem fruimur in tam desiderabili Paradiso. }

Men delight in pleasing women. Men appreciate appreciation for their masculine sexual labor. That’s fundamental masculine nature. But there’s more to this letter than a woman displaying her delightful memories of her absent lover. With this letter she seeks to call her lover back to her. She subtly does that by reminding him of his sexual experience with her, which was probably as delightful for him as it was for her. She then rhetorically challenges him:

This ineffable joy visits me every time I sleep. Why then should I want to call him back, since he does not cease visiting me in so delectable a manner, particularly since I know that without me he cannot live or die?

{ Et istud inenarrabile michi gaudium in omni sopore occurrit; cur ergo illum revocare optarem ex quo tam desiderabiliter non desinit visitare, praesertim cum sciam quod sine me vivere non poterit neque mori. }

She asserts her value to him (“without me he cannot live or die”), yet declares that he can do no more for her. A self-confident, masculine man would thrill to the challenge of doing more indeed for her in bed. He would return home.

Scholars studying the Corpus Juris Civilis and developing jurisprudence of marital law overshadowed love literature in medieval Bologna. Consider Boncompagno’s model letter “From a beautiful wife who is calling back her husband, who is sweating at literary studies {De uxore formosa que revocat maritum litterarum studio insudantem}.”[6] The description of the wife as “beautiful” and the husband as “sweating at literary studies” together ironically suggest that the husband’s study concerns love literature or Arthurian romance. The wife, in contrast, has been observing the study of jurisprudence prominent in early-thirteenth-century Bologna. Her attention to law will dominate his interest in literature, but not to the benefit of love.

In the letter of the beautiful wife calling back her husband from his study of literature, fault-finding, belittling, and legal threats replace expressing love. Her letter is short and vicious:

For more than two years you have lingered at the university, flagrantly breaking the promise you made. You seem not to remember that I am a woman and young. Every day I begin lamenting that neither rain nor dew descends upon my farm-land, and if only your finger doesn’t care for its wedding ring, I wish that it would dry up! Since you have neglected to return without delay, I know you must be reading in another’s Codex. I intend to study a little in the Digest.

{ Ultra biennium promissionis federe penitus violato fecisti moram in scolis, nec quod sim femina et iuvenis recordaris. Unde cotidie ingemisco quoniam super meum agrum ros vel pluvia non descendit, sed utinam arescat digitus qui potiri coniugali annulo non procurat. Sed scio quod legis in Codice alieno, unde si mora postposita non redieris, studere disposui aliquantulum in Digesto. }

Prior to recent decades, young women were thought to benefit from having sex with men. Rain and dew are associated with fertility and germination. Ovid’s Amores 2.15 closely associated a finger and ring with heterosexual intercourse. This letter’s reference to the husband’s finger drying up emphasizes the finger’s metaphorical function. The wife is threatening to curse her husband with the epic disaster of men’s impotence. These literary allusions would have been obvious to medieval readers. “Codex,” in contrast, functions in a rather unusual metaphor. In ancient and medieval literature, references to a young woman’s vagina typically praise that organ as having the beauty of a rose. Codex here apparently figures a woman’s vagina as having an external linear structure similar to the pages of a book. The wife is insinuating that her husband is sticking his nose into another woman’s vagina. Her response is to study her legal recourse according to the writing of Roman jurists compiled in the Digest of the Corpus Juris Civilis.[7] That was an unloving development that accompanied pioneering medieval study of the Corpus Juris Civilis in Bologna.

Family law today is a mockery of any reasonable standard of jurisprudence. Unfortunately, the failure that developed from the new study of Roman law in medieval Bologna goes further than bad law. Bad law tends to drive out good love. In early-thirteenth-century Bologna, Boncompagno wrote letters for women to call back their lovers with beautiful and moving expressions of love. An alternative that Boncompagno himself recognized is for the wife to threaten her husband with legal action under marital law, i.e. divorce. Within circumstances of oppressive gynocentrism and rape-culture culture, expressing love for men is scarcely conceivable today as a feasible solution to serious problems.

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[1] Definition from Bouvier’s Law Dictionary, quoted in Pennington (2007) p. 44. The standard account of Roman law’s rebirth in medieval Bologna credits the eleventh-century scholar Pepo, followed by Irnerius, and then the “Four Doctors of Bologna”: Bulgarus, Martinus, Hugo, and Jacobus. On that account, which is based largely on the commentaries of thirteenth-century jurist Odofredus Denari, Pennington (2017). On the development of Roman law and its reception in medieval Europe, Atzeri (2017), Donahue (2018), Mather (2002) and McSweeney & Spike (2015). For a accessible guide to the Corpus Juris Civilis, Dingledy (2016). The great twelfth-century canonist Gratian, author of the Decretum, was also from Bologna.

American law schools today have astonishingly low intellectual standards. Study of law at the medieval University of Bologna shows that development of human reason is possible:

The medieval revival of ancient Roman law led to a vast improvement in the legal systems of Western Europe. What had been rather primitive bodies of law were transformed into modern and comprehensive systems, enlightened in their moral foundations and sophisticated in their practical details. In large part, this transformation was due to the skill with which medieval lawyers made careful and critical studies of ideas borrowed from legal history, comparative law, and philosophy. This skill was achieved by means of the curricular structure and teaching methods of the medieval law schools.

Mather (2002) p. 361.

[2] Jeremiah 31:31-34, Hebrews 8:8-13, 2 Corinthians 3:1-3.

[3] Boncompagno da Sign, Rota veneris {Wheel of Venus} 10.1, Latin text from Core (2015) p. 33, English translation from Purkart (1975) p. 84 (adapted to follow the Latin more closely). For a historical study of love letters as a literary genre, Navarro Gala (2012).

The subsequent quote from the corresponding letter in Rota veneris is sourced similarly. Purkart, following Baethgen’s Latin text, notes echoes in that letter of the Vulgate text for Psalms 40:1 and 38:11 in the modern Psalms numbering. On Noah and the dove, Genesis 10:11.

[4] The love-letter naturally doesn’t include allusions to the marriage and death of Socrates.

[5] Boncompagno da Signa, Rhetorica antiqua 1.24.10, “Of a woman who seeks to call back her lover {De muliere que amicum suum revocare intendit}” (also included in the Strassburg incunabulum of Boncompagno’s Rota veneris), Latin text from Core (2015) p. 61 (see also Basso (2015) pp. 178-9), English translation from Purkart (1975) pp. 89-90 (adapted slightly). The subsequent two quotes are from this letter and are similarly sourced. Dronke (1965) vol. 1, pp. 251-3 provides an alternate English translation, and id. vol. 2, p. 483-4, an alternate Latin text.

In twelfth-century France, Peter Abelard lovingly warned his son Astralabe against being absent at night from a wife:

If your wife doesn’t sleep with you, she will be downcast

{ Si non dormierit tecum, tristabitur uxor }

Carmen ad Astralabium 191, Latin text and English trans. from Ruys (2014).

In the subsequent quote, the Latin text sub quodam speciali remedio is contentious with respect to speciali. Dronke, transcribing MS Paris. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Lat. 8654. fol. 22r, has sub quodam spei remedio. Dronke (1965) vol. 2, p. 484. Basso, transcribing MS München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cod. lat. Mon. 23499, has sub quodam speciali remedio, and notes that MS Bibl. Apost. Vaticana, Arch. Cap. S. Pietro H 13 and MS Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Lat. 7732 have spei rather than speciali. Basso (2015) p. 179. Core has speciei with no textual note. Core (2015) p. 61. Purkart, translating the Strassburg incunabulum, reads spei. Purkart (1975) p. 89. I judge Basso to be the most authoritative, and thus follow her Latin text and provide the corresponding English translation.

[6] Boncompagno da Signa, Rhetorica antiqua 1.24.4, Latin text from Basso (2015) p. 175, my English translation, benefiting from that of Dronke (1965) vol. 2, p. 483, which also supplies an alternate Latin text. The meaning of literary studies can be more clearly understood in the previous letter, Rhetorica antiqua 1.24.3, which mockingly refers to Arthurian romance. Boncompagno read his Rhetorica antiqua publicly in Bologna in 1215.

[7] Navarro Gala interprets the wife to be threatening her husband with adultery. Navarro Gala (2012) p. 175. That interpretation doesn’t recognize the enormously important development of legal scholarship in twelfth-century Bologna.

[images] (1) Tree of Affinity (marriage). Illumination (excerpt) for Gratian’s Decretum, according to Bartholomew of Brescia, Glossa ordinaria, made in France or England, 1300-1310. From University of Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 262, fol. 71v. Until the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, medieval law forbid marriage within seven degrees of consanguinity (relationship by blood) and affinity (relationship by marriage). (2) Cardinal acting as judge in administering medieval law. From Novella in Decretales, illumination by Nicolò di Giacomo di Nascimbene, made in Bologna about 1355 to 1365. From University of Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 331, fol. 1r.


Atzeri, Lorena. 2017. “Roman Law and Reception.” In European History Online (EGO), published by the Leibniz Institute of European History (IEG), Mainz 2017-11-20.

Basso, Martina. 2015. Il 1 Libro del Boncompagnus di Boncompagno da Signa: Edizione Critica e Glossario. Ph.D. Thesis. Università degli Studi di Padova (Italy).

Core, Luca. 2015. La Rota Veneris di Boncompagno da Signa. Edizione critica. Ph.D. Thesis. Università degli Studi di Padova (Italy).

Dingledy, Frederick W. 2016. “The Corpus Juris Civilis: A guide to its history and use.” Legal Reference Services Quarterly. 35 (4): 231-255.

Donahue, Charles Jr. 2018. Legal History: Continental Legal History. Lecture and Class Outlines and Assignment Links. Harvard Law School, Course 2165, and Harvard University, Medieval Studies 119. Spring, 2018.

Dronke, Peter. 1965. Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Mather, Henry. 2002. “The Medieval Revival of Roman Law: Implications for Contemporary Legal Education.” The Catholic Lawyer. 41 (4): 323- 362.

McSweeney, Thomas J. and Michèle K. Spike. 2015. “The Significance of the Corpus Juris Civilis: Matilda of Canossa and the Revival of Roman Law.” Pp. 20-29 in Spike, Michèle K, ed. Matilda of Canossa & the origins of the Renaissance: an exhibition in honor of the 900th anniversary of her death. Williamsburg, VA: Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary.

Navarro Gala, M. Josefa. 2012. Retórica de la carta amatoria: de los orígenes a su manifestación en la prosa sentimental del siglo xv. ADDI (Universidad del Pais Vasco/Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea, Spain).

Pennington, Kenneth. 2007. ‘The “Big Bang”: Roman Law in the Early Twelfth-Century.’ Rivista Internazionale di Diritto Comune. 18: 43-70. (typescript version)

Pennington, Kenneth. 2017. “Odofredus and Irnerius.” Rivista Internazionale di Diritto Comune. 28: 11-27.

Purkart, Josef. 1975. Rota veneris: facsimile reproduction of the Strasburg incunabulum. With English translation and notes. Delmar, N.Y.: Schola’s Facs. & Reprint.

Ruys, Juanita Feros. 2014. The Repentant Abelard: family, gender and ethics in Peter Abelard’s Carmen ad Astralabium and Planctus. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmsillan.

the devil’s misandry: “cut off your penis and kill yourself”

Attis castrating himself

In northern France in the eleventh century, a young man and woman began living together without the legal bond of matrimony. That was then commonly considered a sin. The man resolved to go on a pilgrimage by himself to the Church of Saint James of Compostela in northwestern Spain. He went with “pious intention {piae intentionis}.”

The pilgrim couldn’t leave behind his desire for the woman. He brought with him her sash. He “abused it to remind him of her {eo pro ejus recordatione abutitur}.” In other words, he masturbated with it.

The Devil disguised as a vision of Saint James appeared to the pilgrim. The devil said to him:

I am James to whom you are hurrying, but you’re carrying with you something that greatly dishonors my honor. Until now you have wallowed in a pigsty of all-consuming fornication, meaning that you merely want to appear penitent. You proclaim you are making your way to my presence, as if it were the first fruit of conversion, but you are still bound up in the sash of that nasty little slut of yours.

{ Ego sum Jacobus, ad quem properas, sed rem meae dignitati tecum indignissimam portas. Cum enim in totius fornicationis volutabro hactenus jacueris, modo poenitens vis videri, et quasi aliquem boni initii praetendens fructum, ad meam te tendere praesentiam profiteris, cum adhuc illius obscoenae mulierculae tuae balteo accingaris. }

The man confessed his wrong:

I know, lord, that in the past and even now have I have done works of the most shameful kind. Tell me, please, what advice you give to one journeying toward your mercy.

{ Scio, domine, quondam me et nunc etiam flagitiosissime operatum. Dic, quaeso, quid ad tuam clementiam proficiscenti consilii dabis. }

The devil disguised as Saint James responded:

If you wish to make the fruits of your penance equal to the disgraceful acts you have committed, that member which is the source of your sin — your penis — cut it off in accordance with your faith in me and God. Then as for your life, which you have lived so poorly, take that away as well by slitting your throat.

{ Si vis dignos pro perpetratis turpitudinibus fructus poenitudinis facere, membrum illud under peccasti, veretrum scilicet, pro mea et Dei fidelitate tibi abscinde, et postmodum ipsam vitam, quam male duxisti, tibi pariter desecto gutture, adime. }

Then the devil disappeared. The man was deeply troubled.

Believing that the devil was the most holy Saint James, the man made haste to obey his command. The man with misplaced faith destroyed himself: “he first cut off his penis, then plunged a knife in his throat {mentulam sibi primo praecidit, deinde cultrum gutturi immergit}.” His companions were asleep. They were awakened “by his dying shriek and the gurgle of gushing blood {cum stridorem morientis et crepitum sanguinis prorumpentis}.” His companions couldn’t understand what had happened. Many today similarly don’t understand.

While “toxic masculinity” is a modern misandristic slogan, castration culture is deeply rooted in human civilization. Castration culture uses false pretenses to instruct men to cut off their penises and die. Reject that devilish voice. Reject castration culture and misandry. Live and celebrate the wonderfully human masculinity of men!

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The above story ends in partial resurrection. Not understanding that the pilgrim had committed suicide (a sin), that man’s companions celebrated a funeral mass for him. After the Apostle Saint James implored the Virgin Mary, she interceded on the pilgrim’s behalf. God responded by resurrecting the dead pilgrim and healing the wound in his throat. God apparently intended for him to return to the world and denounce the misandristic devil of castration culture. Nonetheless, his penis wasn’t resurrected:

The shearing off of his lustful organ left only a little perforation, so to speak, for urination.

{ abrasa tentigo pertulusum, ut sic dicam, ad urinas residuum habuit. }

The story of the pilgrim who castrated himself and committed suicide is from Guibert of Nogent, Monodiae {Songs of Self} 3.19. Guibert reported hearing the story from Geoffrey II of Semur-en-Brionnais, who entered the monastery at Cluny about 1088. Geoffrey had been a feudal lord. He was the nephew of Abbot Hugh of Cluny.

A version of the pilgim story exists in “About the miracle of he who killed himself {De miraculo illius qui seipsum occidit},” Carmen 2 from works of Guaiferius of Salerno, an eleventh-century monk of Monte Cassino. Guaiferius’s poem doesn’t include the self-castration. A later account, apparently an elaboration of Guibert’s account, has the partially resurrected pilgrim travel about the countryside. He shows off his lack of a penis and his peforation for urination. McAlhany & Rubenstein (2011) p. 275, n. 105. That perhaps functions as bodily evidence of the truthfulness of the story. It also serves as a graphic warning to men.

Underscoring suspicion of men’s sexuality, Guibert reported demonic intercourse:

Demons vying for the love of women, and also having intercourse with them, are amply attested in every place, and I would say more if I were not ashamed to.

{ Daemonia autem mulierum amores, et ipsos etiam concubitus affectantia ubique affatim celebrantur, et nisi puderet, a nobis plurima dicerentur. }

Guibert, Monodiae 3.19. In Monodiae 1.13, Guibert describes the devil laying on top of Guibert’s mother in bed and thus apparently attempting to have intercourse with her,

Guibert, who lived from about 1060 to 1125, became the abbot at the monastery of Nogent-sous-Coucy in northern France. He had considerable classical learning. Guibert studied under the great philosopher and theologian Anselm of Bec.

Guibert completed his Monodiae in 1115. It apparently attracted little attention in the Middle Ages. No medieval manuscripts of it are known, nor do other works reference it. Guibert’s Monodiae has survived in full in only a seventeenth-century transcription, Paris BnF Baluze MS 42.

All the English quotes here of Guibert’s Monodiae are from McAlhany & Rubenstein 2011), with minor adaptations. Archambault (1996) provides an alternate translation. The translation of C.C. Swinton Bland (1925) is online, but it isn’t reliable stylistically or substantively. The best current Latin critical edition is Labande (1981). The earlier critical edition of Bourgin (1907) is available online. “Labande occasionally improves upon the excellent Bourgin Latin edition.” Archambault (1996) p. xxxvi. I’ve used the Bourgin Latin text since it’s consistent with the English translation and is more readily available.

[image] Attis castrates himself. Minerva and Cybele are lying in bed behind him. Illumination in Augustine, La Cité de Dieu (Vol. I), translated from the Latin by Raoul de Presles. Folio 43r in manuscript made in Paris c. 1475. The illuminator is known as Maïtre François. Preserved as Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague, MS. MMW 10 A 11.


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.

Labande, Edmond René, ed. and trans. (French). 1981. Guibert of Nogent. Autobiographie. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

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. (review by Scott G. Bruce, review by Bruce L. Venarde)

now-unspeakable wrong: resisting cuckolding in medieval Europe

Husband disposing of child in monastery

With cuckolding of men institutionalized in paternity law, many men today passively accept being cuckolded. What is a man to do? Medieval literature describes pathetically stupid cuckolds. Yet even vigorous and shrewd men during the relatively enlightened medieval period had difficulty resisting cuckolding.

In France in the 1130s, the great philosopher Peter Abelard counseled his son Astralabe about the complexities of cuckolding. A husband guarding his wife cannot overturn the ontology of chastity and sinfulness:

Avoid guarding an unchaste woman, and similarly for a chaste one;
surely for the latter that isn’t needed, and it isn’t possible for the former.
What does the guardianship of an unchaste woman achieve? You cannot be made to believe that she who remains no less sinful is pure.
Virtue surely must be thought a matter of the mind, not of the body;
no one is made good by force, but rather thus more sinful.

{ Incestam ut castam pariter seruare caueto,
quipe hec non debet sicut et illa nequit.
Quid facit inceste custodia? Nonne pudicam
sic fieri credes que mala non minus est?
Virtus quipe animi non corporis esse putanda est;
nemo ui bonus est sed malus inde magis. } [1]

A false accusation can make a truthful woman realize truth:

With whom you accuse her, you compel a woman to love,
and often you manufacture a true charge from a false one.

{ De quo culpasti mulierem cogis amare
et uerum falso crimine sepe struis. }

For a woman who cares nothing for truth or her sexual reputation, a false accusation merely provides her with an idea for action:

she who in no way truly fears injuries to her reputation
is impelled from a false accusation to a true crime.

{que uero fame nequaquam damna ueretur
de falso uerum crimine crimen agit. }

Just as men refuse to recognize the reality of gynocentrism, they don’t want to hear that they’re being cuckolded:

I don’t want you to teach a husband about the sin of his beloved wife;
what is known, rather than what was done, weighs him down:
no one willingly gives ear to his own disgrace;
he will want neither you nor anyone else to know such things.

{ Nolo uirum doceas uxoris crimen amate;
quod sciri pocius quam fieri grauat hunc:
oprobriis aurem propriis dat nemo libenter;
nec te nec quemquam talia scire uolet. } [2]

Even in the relatively enlightened medieval period, men were allowed to enjoy blissful ignorance for as long as time and paternity law allowed.

Ordinary men in the ancient world sometimes harshly punished men who cuckolded them. For example, in the first-century Roman Empire, Glyco’s steward was caught in the act of having sex with Glyco’s wife. Glyco in response condemned his steward to the beasts in the gladiators’ arena. Glyco apparently didn’t punish his wife. The clothes dealer Echion recounted:

A wooden-nickel man like that Glyco goes throwing his steward to the beasts. He might as well expose himself to them. What sin did that steward commit, when he was forced to push his dick in? That piss-pot of a wife deserves to be tossed by a bull. But if you can’t beat the donkey, beat the saddle.

{ Glyco autem, sestertiarius homo, dispensatorem ad bestias dedit. Hoc est se ipsum traducere. Quid servus peccavit, qui coactus est facere? Magis illa matella digna fuit quam taurus iactaret. Sed qui asinum non potest, stratum caedit. } [3]

Expressing gynocentric ideology internalized even among freed Roman slaves, Echion blamed the father of Glyco’s wife for her infidelity:

How could Glyco ever have thought that the stinkweed that Hermogenes sowed would turn out decent? That guy Hermogenes is so greedy he could cut the claws off a hawk in flight. An apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, yea, vipers like him don’t hatch lengths of rope.

{ Quid autem Glyco putabat Hermogenis filicem unquam bonum exitum facturam? Ille milvo volanti poterat ungues resecare; colubra restem non parit. }

Glyco putting his steward to death for cuckolding him did little to repair the injury to him:

It’s Glyco, poor Glyco, who has paid the price. As long as he lives, he’ll be branded. Only death will wipe away his shame.

{ Glyco, Glyco dedit suas; itaque quamdiu vixerit, habebit stigmam, nec illam nisi Orcus delebit. } [4]

Men are highly vulnerable to women hurting them. That goes as deep as the biological reality of gender inequality in parental knowledge. Women know for certain who their biological children are. Men, without modern DNA testing, are always at risk of being cuckolded.

Even the great twelfth-century philosopher Peter Abelard couldn’t offer his son Astralabe definitive wisdom to resolve the problem of men being cuckolded. A well-known medieval proverb advised men: “if you can’t be chaste, at least be careful {si non caste, tamen caute}.” Today with tyrannical criminalization of men expressing sexual interest in women, grotesquely unjust laws such as the “four seas” paternity doctrine and acute anti-men discrimination in child-custody and child-support rulings, men must be more careful in relating to women than they were in relatively humane ancient and medieval times.

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[1] Peter Abelard, Poem for Astralabe {Carmen ad Astralabium} ll. 193-8, Latin text and English translation (adapted) from Ruys (2014). Here’s an online Latin text (inferior to Ruys’s), with some discussion of the manuscripts. All subsequent quotes from Carmen ad Astralabium are similarly sourced.

Abelard underscores his ontological point by repeating it:

You strive in vain to guard an unchaste woman or a chaste woman:
the first you cannot guard, and for the other, you know there is no need.

{ Incestam ut castam frustra seruare laboras:
non potes hanc, illam non opus esse scias. }

Carmen ad Astralabium ll. 673-4. Similar insight goes back to Ovid:

Guarding a pretty girl, you brute, gets nowhere;
A girl’s good morals are the guard you need.
A girl who doesn’t since she mustn’t, does it;
A girl who’s chaste unforced is chaste indeed.
The body you may guard — the mind is guilty;
No means of guarding a girl’s thoughts from sin.
Nor can you guard the body, all doors bolted;
Bolt as you will, a lover lurks within.

{ Dure vir, inposito tenerae custode puellae
nil agis; ingenio est quaeque tuenda suo.
siqua metu dempto casta est, ea denique casta est;
quae, quia non liceat, non facit, illa facit!
ut iam servaris bene corpus, adultera mens est;
nec custodiri, ne velit, ulla potest.
nec corpus servare potes, licet omnia claudas;
omnibus exclusis intus adulter erit. }

Ovid, Amores 3.4.1-8, Latin text from the Latin Library, English trans. from Melville (2008). Ruys (2014) notes this literary antecedent to the advice in Carmen ad Astralabium.

The subsequent three quotes above are from Carmen ad Astralabium (cited by line numbers): 671-2 (With whom you accuse her…), 205-6 (She who in no way truly fears…), 181-4 (I don’t want you to teach a husband…).

[2] Ovid, the great medieval authority on love, also taught about husbands’ unwillingness to hear about being cuckolded:

No husband ever welcomes accusations,
Believe me; no one’s pleased to hear the bad.
If he’s lukewarm, your scandal won’t disturb him,
Or, should he love, your service makes him sad.
A lapse is hard to prove, though clear as daylight;
The girl’s safe in her biased judge’s eye.
He’ll not trust what he’s seen, if she denies it;
He’ll blame his sight and give himself the lie.

{ crede mihi, nulli sunt crimina grata marito,
nec quemquam, quamvis audiat, illa iuvant.
seu tepet, indicium securas prodis ad aures;
sive amat, officio fit miser ille tuo.
Culpa nec ex facili quamvis manifesta probatur;
iudicis illa sui tuta favore venit.
viderit ipse licet, credet tamen ille neganti
damnabitque oculos et sibi verba dabit. }

Ovid, Amores 2.2.50-8, Latin text from the Latin Library, English translation from Melville (2008). Ruys (2014) notes this literary antecedent to the advice in Carmen ad Astralabium.

[3] Petronius, Satyricon 45, Latin text from Heseltine & Rouse (1913), English translation from Walsh (1996), adapted with the benefit Heseltine & Rouse (2013) and the notes of Schmeling (2011). All subsequent quotes from the Satyricon are similarly sourced and are from this section of the text. As a slave, Trimalchio himself cuckolded his master and was sent off to the countryside for that offense. Satyricon 69.3 and 75.11.

[4] Abelard wrote, “a woman is swiftly sullied through innuendo {uilescit mulier suspicione cito}.” Carmen ad Astralabium l. 680. Ruys notes, “Abelard speaks bluntly of social realities here.” Ruys (2014) p. 182, notes to ll. 203-6.

Speaking bluntly about the social realities of men’s lives is less common. Throughout history, men have been punished more harshly for adultery than women have been. Just as men have been socially punished for having domestic violence committed against them, men have been socially punished for being cuckolded. The latter was the fate of Glyco.

[image] Man making a large payment to an abbot to place a young boy in his monastery. A husband might take such action with respect to a child that resulted from him being cuckolded. The text concerns simony, and begins, “A certain man having a son offers him {Quidam habens filium obtulit eum}….” Decorated initial Q on folio 63 in a manuscript of Gratian’s Decretals made in the 1170s, probably in northern France. Held in J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig XIV 2.


Heseltine, Michael and W. H. D. Rouse, trans., revised by E. H. Warmington. 1913. Petronius Arbiter, Seneca. Satyricon. Apocolocyntosis. Loeb Classical Library 15. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Melville, A. D., trans. 2008. Ovid. The Love Poems. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ruys, Juanita Feros. 2014. The Repentant Abelard: family, gender and ethics in Peter Abelard’s Carmen ad Astralabium and Planctus. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmsillan.

Schmeling, Gareth L. 2011. A Commentary on the Satyrica of Petronius. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walsh, Patrick G, trans. 1996. Petronius Arbiter. The Satyricon. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Boncompagno of Signa used ars dictaminis to debunk courtly love

restraining order form
In relatively enlightened medieval Europe, both children and adults were intellectually capable of quickly distinguishing between girls and boys in common practice. Neither children nor adults were compelled as a matter of public education to affirm elaborate, contradictory doctrine about the arbitrariness of gender (“the social construction of gender”) and the essential importance of gender identity, as determined by whatever a person declares at a given time under prevailing administrative rules about making and changing gender declarations enforced by laws against persons refusing to recognize the validity of such essential gender declarations. Medieval European culture wasn’t, however, a perfect model of rationality. The most damaging medieval failure of reason was the still-celebrated, twelfth-century elaboration of oppressive, unfruitful doctrines of courtly love. Boncompagno of Signa, a well-educated twelfth-century rhetor at the University of Bologna, sought to dispel medieval ignorance and irrationality with eloquent Latin and stunning performances. Writing authoritative forms for the art of letter-writing (ars dictaminis), Boncompagno ridiculed men-abasing doctrines of courtly love.

About 1195, the University of Bologna received a letter apparently from a learned scholar who had just arrived from Bavaria. This scholar described his intellectual qualifications and announced a sophisticated demonstration:

I have lived ten full years among the Arabs and Persians, and I applied myself extensively to both astronomy and to all the magical arts known in parts of Arabia and at Toledo. I went beyond the Sauromatas and the Glaciales, among whom I read Uranech, who used to make a deaf asp able to hear by smoke and incantations and who changed all snakes into flies. I also read the Fantasticum of Ramafitonus, who clarified much in Solomon’s Astrolabe by Almicatarath. I read Faunes and Almuchamir, which are the special books of the magical faculty. From Zenzalimach, I learned to understand dog barks and bird calls, up to the sparrow and cardinal. I know how to work marvels by images. But such should not be revealed in public, since one who divulges mystical things diminishes their majesty, and those things brought forth to the crowd cannot remain secrets.

Nevertheless, because they might seem impossible to the ignorant, I shall reveal them to you. Today, around noon or a little bit after, because the sun will then begin to be at its hottest, you shall come to St. Ambrose’s square. There I will first change an ass into a lion. When it reverts to an ass, it will appear horned just like a goat. Then it will assume feathers like an eagle and it will fly through the air for those of you watching. Nevertheless, it will remain an ass at the end. Snakes will plow the shore there with a fox, monkeys will foretell the future, and their tricks will be laughably memorable. All should take care not to dare cover their heads, but should turn their faces to the sun, since otherwise none can possibly see the secret marvels.

{ In partibus Arabie ac Tolleti tam in astronomia quam in omnibus magicis operibus operam exhibui diuturnam, quia per decem annorum spatium sum inter Arabes et Satrapas conversatus, ivi ultra Sauromatas et Glaciales, apud quos legi Uranech, qui aspidem surdam fumigavi et incantionibus faciebat audire, et serpentes omnes convertebat in muscas. Legi etiam fantasticum Ramafitoni, qui per Almicatarath multa distinxit in astrolabio Salomonis, transcurri Faunes et Almuchamir, qui sunt precipui libri magice facultatis. Intelligo per Çençalimach latratus canum et voces avium, usque ad passerem et cardellum. Item novi mirabilia per ymagines operari, sed non sunt quelibet in publico revelanda, quoniam qui vulgat mistica minuit maiestatem et que producuntur in turbam, non possunt manere secreta.

Verumtamen, quia ignorantibus impossibilia huiusmodi esse videntur, ideo vobis intimo, quatinus hodie circa vel parum ultra meridiem, quia tunc sol esse incipiet in suo fervore, ad plateam sancti Ambrosii veniatis, ubi transmutari prius faciam asinum in leonem, et cum in asinum revertetur, sicut yrcocervus apparebit cornutus et tunc assumet pennas, ut aquila et vobis videntibus per aera volitabit, verumtamen in fine asinus remanebit. Serpentes quidem arabunt ibi litus cum vulpe, vaticinabuntur scimie de futuris, que ludi facient memoriam derisivam. Provideat etiam quilibet, ne sibi caput operire presumat, sed vertat nudam faciem contra solem, quoniam aliter nemo posset videre mirabilia secretorum. } [1]

This letter created a sensation in the university-dominated Bologna:

What was heard from this letter became a rumor that spread throughout the city. Teachers and scholars of the university, young men and young women, old persons and young persons, filled the streets and housetops before the appointed hour. They came and stood for a long time, expecting the impossible to happen.

{ Auditis quidem litteris fuit rumor per civitatem diffusus et ita magistrorum et scolarium universitas, iuvenes et virgines, senes cum iunioribus preoccupaverunt ante horam statutam plateam et tecta domorum, venerunt et steterunt diutius, effectus impossibiles prestolantes. }

What most untaught persons know was taught to the learned:

Finally they {teachers and scholars of the university of Bologna} left burning with shame, publicly professing that they are similar to donkeys, because they believed that donkeys could fly.

{ Demum intollerabili calore atque pudore affecti recesserunt, publice profitendo se consimiles fuisse asinis, ex eo quod asinum volare credebant. }

Boncompagno himself had fabricated the letter from the internationally learned scholar from Bavaria. Boncompagno evidently sought to teach the relatively enlightened twelfth-century Bolognese university community just how stupid they could be.

Even this important lesson from Boncompagno isn’t appreciated today. A leading twentieth-century scholar of medieval Latin poetry and courtly love rated Boncompagno as “perhaps the greatest of the teachers of rhetoric.”[2] Yet a leading twentieth-century scholar of medieval rhetoric disparaged Boncompagno’s “bizarre claims,” called him a “dictaminal buffoon,” and declared:

he is virtually without influence, and he is best viewed as a biographical curiosity … Boncompagno seems to have made no lasting impact either on his own university or on Europe at large. [3]

At least medieval intellectuals knew better. The great early-fifteenth-century church official Poggio Bracciolini recorded an exemplum that closely parallels Boncompagno’s fake-flyer performance. According to Poggio, this exemplum had been passed down among church officials. Boncompagno’s lesson evidently had considerable influence across at least two hundred years of medieval intellectual life.[4] Boncompagno’s lack of influence today is the fault of today’s academic scholars working under oppressive conditions of ignorance and bigotry.

Boncompagno similarly debunked men-abasing doctrines of courtly love in his Rota veneris {Wheel of Venus}. That work is a “curious mixture of ars amandi {art of love}, ars dictandi {art of prose writing}, and rhetorical theory.” The Rota veneris is the “greatest letter-writing instruction on the art of love {summa dictaminis de arte amandi}.”[5] It’s an ingenious re-working of ars dictaminis.

restraining order form guns
By the twelfth century, ars dictaminis was a well-established field that provided students with technical instruction and forms for composing mundane letters. Letters were commonly specified as having five parts. For example, here’s a specification for a business letter:

some form of address in a salutation (“Worshipful master, I greet you well”); notification (“May it please you to know”); exposition (“the wool was shipped”); disposition (“and I want my money”); and valediction (“May God keep you well, at least until my bill is paid”). [6]

For students, an important form to learn was the letter to parents asking for money. A well-attested theme for study and imitation was this:

an impoverished scholar living in Paris sends a letter to his mother so that she will provide him with what is necessary

{ scolaris parisius pauperrime viuens litteras matri sue dirigat, ut in necessariis sibi prouideat } [7]

The letter deploys framing guilt-tripping and threatening proverbs and a central, direct request for material help:

Here’s the form for the greeting {SALUTATION}: “To his dearest mother B., from the humble Parisian scholar J. with greetings and filial love.”

STARTING POINT: “A boy’s mother who doesn’t alleviate her son’s poverty doesn’t show him that he is her son.”

STORY: “Know that, in the course of two months, I have spent my money on necessary expenditures.”

PETITION: “Please therefore send to me necessities, with pity and without delay.”

CONCLUSION: “What you fail to do when you have no experience of begging will be returned to you when you do.”

{ Hoc modo salutet {SALUTATIO}: “Karissime matri sue B., J. humilis scolaris parisius salutem et filialem dileccionem.”

EXORDIUM: “Pueri matrem se non exhibet que filii sui non subleuat egestatem.”

NARRATIO: “Sciatis quod numos meos, transactis duobus mensibus, in usus necessarios expendi.”

PETICIO: “Michi igitur compaciens, necessaria dirigere non differatis.”

CONCLUSIO: “Quod nisi feceritis, mendicare nesciens, ad propria remeabo.” }

A student today might text her mother “send $ pls”. That’s because ars dictaminis is scarcely known today even among scholars of medieval literature.

restraining order form - children
Boncompagno’s Rota veneris is much different from the once well-known business of ars dictaminis. After a literary recasting of Lady Philosophy’s concern for Boethius, Rota veneris begins conventionally with instruction on salutations. Boncompagno’s critical perspective on men-abasing courtly love appears when he presents this salutation:

To his sweetest friend G., crowned with beauty and elegance of manners, I. sends as many greetings and assurances of service as there are stars resplendent in the heavens, as there are leaves upon trees, and as there are sands which ring the ocean’s shore.

{ Amice dulcissime G., forma et morum elegantia redimite, I. tot salutes et servitia, quot in celo fulgent sidera, quot in arboribus folia et quot arene circa maris littora. } [8]

This sort of extravagant promise of serving a woman is characteristic of courtly love. Boncompagno disparaged it as a “rustic and ridiculous salutation {rusticana et ridiculosa salutatio}.” In fact, it shows no true learning about men seducing women and gender equality. Immediately after citing this salutation, Boncompagno bluntly communicated his sophisticated understanding of truth:

And remember: nearly all women wish to be praised constantly for their beauty, even if they happen to be ugly.

{ Et nota, quod fere omnes mulieres appetunt semper de pulcritudine commendari, etiam si fuerint deformes. }

Boncompagno turned his back on the pretty, futile poetry of courtly love. Rather than kissing women’s feet, he told ugly truth.

While the salutations in Rota veneris promise love service, Boncompagno didn’t put men in a position of servitude to women. Completely contrary to doctrines of courtly love, Boncompagno endorsed gender symmetry:

From these salutations you will be able to extrapolate all the ways by which men can greet their girlfriends and women their boyfriends, once you have learned to turn these expressions around and change what needs to be changed. Nor is any change necessary, other than to alter adjectives to suit the sex so that, where you have used the feminine gender for women, you shall substitute the masculine gender for men.

{ Ex hiis autem salutationibus poteris trahere omnes modos salutandi amicas pro amicis et amicos pro amasiis, si volvere sciveris et mutare mutanda. Nec est aliud necessarium in mutatione, nisi ut permutes adiectiva per sexus et, ubi posuisti femininum genus pro mulieribus, ponas masculinum pro viris. }

After setting out and discussing the salutatio, Rota veneris skips the exordium and moves right to the narratio. Instruction on the story (body) of the letter moves rapidly to a distinction between a letter ante factum (before having had sex with the woman) and a letter post factum (after having had sex with the woman).

Without instruction on any of the three other conventional parts of a letter in ars dictaminis, Rota veneris sets out bodies of sample letters in which a man seeks to seduce a woman. The woman devises a trick with a falcon:

Yet not wishing to spurn your prayers completely, so that you not be driven to the noose of desperation, I would advise you that, on Sunday, when the lords and ladies go to visit the shrine of the Lord, you release a falcon within my garden. Immediately thereafter, running away from the household servants, demand your bird back. I, then, shall see to it that it is denied you. The maidservants will say to you, “Away! What you seek does not belong to you.” Then indeed, in the midst of this very altercation, I shall have you summoned, and thus you will be able to reveal to me the secrets of your heart.

{ Nolens tamen preces tuas ex toto contempnere ne in desparationis laqueum traharis, consulo ut in die festo, cum domini et matrone templum dominicum visitant, prohicias infra meum pomerium falconem et subito postea currens a familiaribus domus tuam repetas avem. Ego vero illam tibi faciam denegari, diceturque tibi ab ancillis: “Recede, non enim tuum est, quod queris.” Ad istam siquidem contemptionem te vocari faciam, sicque michi tui cordis archana poteris aperire. }

The falcon (in Old French, faucon, which also carries the meaning “false cunt”) figures in medieval stories of deception and sexual intrigue. According to Rota veneris, the woman moves with this letter to the situation post factum (after first sexual intercourse). That’s not how courtly love plays out.

Apparently to insure that readers understood Boncompagno’s commitment to realism and incarnated humanity in love, a version of Rota veneris published about 1475 appended to the ars dictimanis marital advice to men and women. The appended texts comes from Boncompagno’s Rhetorica antiqua. Boncompagno shrewdly advised men to marry a wealthy woman:

Everybody is to be appropriately advised to take as his wife a woman from whom he can gain money and not care about nobility or eminent family stock, for money makes a person’s nobility. He who has money will grow abundant with riches, become noble and famous. Thus don’t postpone taking a wealthy wife, whether she be ugly or disgusting, yes, even if she were the oldest of hags and all her teeth had already fallen out of her mouth, so only her fluid and foaming gums remained.

{ Cuilibet est propensius consulendum ut talem recipiat in uxorem de qua pecuniam possit habere nec est curandum de nobilitate vel prosapia generosa, quoniam peccunia facit hominem generosum et qui habet denarios cui affluentur nobilis efficitur et famosus; unde uxorem peccuniosam recipere non postponas quantucumque turpis fuerit vel deformis, et etiam si esset vetustissima vetularum et cui iam omnes dentes cecidissent ex ore et sole remansissent gingive cum saliva fluida et spumosa. } [9]

Boncompagno advised women rather differently:

O unprecedented madness! O womanly folly! How could you listen, much less entertain the idea that you ought to tie yourself to a man who is already consumed by old age and feebleness, whose eyes already are suffering from dimness of vision? But even more abominably, he incessantly produces tears which drop by drop end up in his wine when he drinks, and his saliva remains in the goblet. When he eats, he hawks, belches, and wipes mucus from his nose and rubs it on the tablecloth. Furthermore, when he goes to bed, he sleeps, snores, farts, and emits the filthiest scoops of gas. Then, if he is aroused from his sleep, he coughs, spits, sighs, complains, and groans. His rod hangs down as if a lead pipe were on top of his ponderous penis. This is the man who will kiss you with the kiss of his mouth that has no teeth. But he will offer you slavering kisses with his decayed gums.

{ O vesania inaudita! O stultitia muliebris! Quomodo potuisti audire nedum intelligere quia tali viro copulari debeas qui iam senecta et senio est consumptus! Cuius oculi iam caligant imo — quod est abominabilius — assidue producunt lacrimas que guttatim cadunt in vinum dum potat et in sipho reliquitur de saliva; dum comedit screat, eruttat et mucilagines emungit de naso quem tergit sepe ad mantile. Praeterea cum vadit ad lectum dormit, stertit, pedit et fetidissimas trullas emittit. Porro cum excitatur a sompno tusit, spuit, suspirat, conqueritur, ingemiscit et virga eius velut plumbi fistula iacet super mentulam ponderosam. Hic osculabitur vos osculo oris sui, qui caret dentibus, sed cum gingivis marcidis praebebit tibi oscula salivosa. }

These two pieces of marital advice, like courtly love, are highly gender asymmetric. Yet courtly love in poems and stories completely lacks the vivid bodily realism of these two pieces of marital advice. Moreover, this marital advice parodies women’s interest in wealthy, successful (old) men and men’s interest in young, fertile (impecunious) women. Boncompagno recognized that courtly love is ridiculous and irrational.

While courtly love abases men relative to women, Boncompagno associated men’s sexuality with sacred figures and acts. He recognized that priests and clerics have special potency in their masculine sexuality. He urged women to marry them:

You shall be the daughters of Jerusalem if you take a priest or a cleric for a husband. You shall be deified in the temple of the Lord, for you shall bring forth a son who will be born from consecrated semen. Thus you shall be called a priestess or priest when with your husband you press oil out of the horn of the altar. In that way you will be blessed among wives.

{ Eris de filiabus Ierusalem si sacerdotem uel clericum receperis in maritum, et deificaberis in templo Domini, cum filium paries qui nascetur de semine consecrato. Unde sacerdotissa uocaberis uel sacerdos, quando cum uiro tuo oleum de cornu altaris exprimes et ita beata eris inter coniugatas. } [10]

Pressing oil out of the horn of the altar is a wonderful image of men’s erection labor and ejaculation. Historically, the penis has had an image problem. Boncompagno, however, associated men’s penises with the strength of God, God’s comforting presence, and God’s capacity to provide light:

A certain man who had sex with a nun said: “I did not defile the divine bed, but because the Lord had delighted me through His work, I was eager to raise his horn.” Also, a nun could say to her lover: “Your rod and your staff, they are a comfort to me.” Also women could say to their lovers: “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.”

{ Quidam qui cognoverat monialem dixit: “Non violavi thorum divinum, sed quia me in sua fatura Dominus delectavit, cornu eius studui exaltare.” Item posset monialis dicere amatori: “Virga tua et baculus tuus, ipsa me consolata sunt.” Item possent dicere suis amatoribus mulieres: “Date nobis de oleo vestro, quia nostre lampades extinguuntur.” } [11]

Men’s sexuality should be regarded as a sacred gift to women. Men and women together can work to raise an incarnate horn to God. A man’s sexuality offers the blessing of new life as numerous as the stars in the sky and sand on the seashore.[12]

Jesus and the wise and foolish virgins

Boncompagno of Signa is a shining light of medieval rationality that our benighted age of ignorance and bigotry desperately needs. The University of Bologna was arguably the most prestigious university in twelfth-century Europe. Boncompagno himself drew upon classical culture in which Cicero declaimed the value of pissing on learned hypocrites. In the past hundred years, elite scholars have celebrated at length courtly love as a moral ideal. Elite scholars with respect to many other subjects have similarly proclaimed that donkeys can fly. Let us join together and chant: Boncompagno of Signa, pity us and come to our aid!

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Boncompagno of Signa, Rhetorica antiqua (also known as Boncompagnus) 1.18.14, Latin text from Basso (2015) and English translation (adapted slightly) from Wight (1998b) (which also provides a Latin text and notes). The subsequent two quotes are similarly from Rhetorica antiqua 1.18.15. This story is recounted in Waddell (1927) pp. 153-4. Boncompagno read his Rhetorica antiqua publicly at Bologna in 1215 and then at Padua about 1225. Tunberg (1986) p. 300, n. 4. For a brief, accessible presentation of Boncompagno’s life and work, Sedgwick (1913) pp. 231-42.

Boncompagno similarly fabricated a letter from a fictitious eminent French orator named Robertus. That orator promised to come to Bologna on a given day to debate Boncompagno about ars dictaminis. Both disparaged each other’s learning. A crowd assembled in the cathedral to see the debate. Robertus failed to appear. Boncompagno at the end revealed that he had fooled the city with a fake letter. See Rhetoria antiqua 1.18.1-5, discussed in Sedgwick (1913) pp. 233-4 and Purkart (1975) pp. 21-3.

Salimbene de Adam in his Cronica described Boncompagno as the “greatest trickster”:

Boncompagno the Florentine was a great teacher of grammar in the city of Bologna, and he wrote books on the art of letter-writing. In the way of the Florentines he was the greatest trickster

{ Boncompagnus Florentinus, qui magnus magister in gramatica in civitate Bononie fuit et libros de dictamine scripsit. Hic cum more Florentinorum trufator maximus esset }

Salimbene, Cronica, Latin text from Holder-Egger (1905) p. 77, English translation (adapted) from Baird, Baglivi & Kane (1986) p. 54. Salimbene, who had contempt for the Dominican Brother John of Vicenza, recorded a similar fake-flyer performance by Boncompagno:

this Master Boncompagno, seeing that Brother John presented himself as a miracle-worker, wanted to present himself likewise. Boncompagno predicted to the Bolognese that, before their very eyes, they would see him fly. What can one say? News of his claim soon spread throughout Bologna. And so on the appointed day the entire city congregates, man and woman, young and old, at the foot of the mountain called Santa Maria in Monte. Boncompagno constructed for himself two wings and stood at the peak of the mountain looking down on them. After they had been gazing at each other for a long time, he shouted down to them audaciously, “Go with divine blessing, and let it suffice that you have looked upon the face of Boncompagno.” They all departed, knowing that he had made a mockery of them.

{ Item iste magister Boncompagnus videns, quod frater Iohannes intromittebat se de miraculis faciendis, voluit et ipse se intromittere et predixit Bononiensibus, quod videntibus eis volare volebat. Quid plura? Divulgatum est per Bononiam. Venit dies statuta, congregata est tota civitas a viro usque ad mulierem, a puero usque ad senem, ad radicem montis qui appellatur Sancta Maria in Monte. Fecerat sibi duas alas et stabat in cacumine montis aspiciens eos. Cumque se diu mutuo aspexissent, protulit istud verbum: “Ite cum benedictione divina, et sufficiat vobis vidisse facium Boncompagni.” Et recesserunt cognoscentes se derisos. }

Salimbene, Cronica, Latin text from Holder-Egger (1905) p. 78, English translation (adapted) from Baird, Baglivi & Kane (1986) p. 55. Cf. Exodus 33:20-3, Isaiah 6:5.

Despite Boncompagno’s obvious importance to modern culture, scholarly work on Boncompagno is sparse. The Arlima entry for Boncompagno shows nothing for most of his works. Boncompagno’s Rhetorica antiqua and Rhetorica novissima apparently haven’t even yet been fully published. Steven M. Wight by far has made the largest contribution to study of Boncompagno. Yet Wight’s massive, generous, and important work (see Wight (1998a)) languishes on the Wayback Machine and other obscure sites. Currently among the best general studies of Boncompagno are Tunberg (1986) and Witt (1986).

Scholars have disparaged Boncompagno for asserting that Cicero isn’t worth reading. E.g. Murphy (1974) p. 254. Boncompagno declared:

This book is the prologue of my Rhetoric, although I have not imitated Cicero in rhetoric. For I do not recall that I have ever lectured on Cicero … Nevertheless I have never corrupted Cicero’s Rhetoric, nor have I dissuaded those wishing to imitate it.

{ Est preterea liber iste mee rethorice prologus, licet in rethorica Tullium non fuerim imitatus. Nunquam enim memini me Tullium legisse … Verumtamen nunquam Tullii depravavi Rethoricam nec eam imitari volentibus dissuasi. }

Boncompagno, Palma 1.2, Latin text and English translation from Wight (1998a). Boncompagno certainly read Jerome and knew of Jerome’s nightmare that God called him a Ciceronian rather than a Christian. That’s the context within which Boncompagno should be appreciated for asserting that he isn’t a Ciceronian.

[2] Dronke (1965) vol. 1, p. 251.

[3] Murphy (1974) p. 253. The reference to “bizarre claims” is from id., while “dictaminal buffoon” is from id. p. 362.

[4] Boncompagno was the first master in ars dictaminis at the University of Bologna. By 1205, Boncompagno’s rivals had created the rumor that he getting his knowledge from the “intercession of unclean spirits {suffragio spirituum inmundorum}.” Purkart (1975) p. 15. Boto da Vigevano’s Liber florum, written in 1234, declared of Boncompagno: “his fame now fills the expanse of heaven and earth {fama iam replevit spacium orbis terre}.” Id. p. 11.  In his Cronica written in the 1280s, Salimbene described Boncompagno as a “great teacher of grammar {magnus magister in gramatica}.” See note [1] above. The manuscript tradition of Boncompagno’s works indicates that he was influential. Core (2105) p. 41. Boncompagno’s Rhetorica Antiqua 4.5 apparently influenced the sixth canto of Dante’s Purgatorio. Raccagni (2013) pp. 599-600. That church officials would pass down a sensational story about Boncompagno is plausible.

[5] Purkart (1975) p. 28. The previous short quote is from id. p. 7.

[6] Adapted from the Wikipedia entry for ars dictaminis. For more on medieval letter-writing and ars dictiminis, Haskins (1898), Murphy (1974) pp. 194-268, and Cornelius (2010).

[7] Libellus de arte dictandi rhetorice (Cambridge University Library MS Dd.9.38, fols. 115ra-121ra), attributed to Peter of Blois, excerpt from section 20, Latin text from Camargo (1984) p. 36, my English translation. The subsequent quote is similarly from id. A similar letter exists in Floribus rhetoricis (British Library MS Add. 18382), a work written early in the 1180s. Id.

[8] Boncompagno da Sign, Rota veneris {Wheel of Venus} 2.3, Latin text from Core (2015), English translation from Purkart (1975) (adapted to follow the Latin more closely). All subsequent quotes from Rota veneris are similarly sourced, unless otherwise noted. Wight (1998c) provides a good Latin text with helpful notes. Rota veneris survives in nine manuscripts, the earliest dating to the end of the thirteenth century. Core (2015) pp. 41-7.

[9] Boncompagno da Sign, Rhetorica antiqua (also known as Boncompagnus) 6.2.22. included in Ch. 8 of the Strasburg incunabulum of Rota veneris, Latin text from Core (2015), English translation (adapted) from Purkart (1975). Preceding this advice is rubricated lead-in text: “Advice to take a woman on account of her abundant riches {Suasio pro muliere propter habundantiam divitiarum}.”

The subsequent quote is similarly from Rhetorica antiqua 6.2.34 and chapter 8 of the Strasburg incunabulum of Rota veneris. It has rubricated lead-in text: “Advice against taking a man on account of his old age {Dissuasio contra virum propter senectutem}.”

The Strasburg incunubulum of Rota veneris is dated 1473-1474.  It has the title Tractatus amoris carnalis subsequitur rota veneris nuncupatus per Boncompagnum editus sociorum annuens precibus {Treatise about Carnal Love, Called the Wheel of Venus, Published by Boncompagno as a Concession to his Colleagues’ Pleas}. Instances are held in the Huntington Library and in the Bayerische StaatsBibliothek. With admirable regard for promoting culture and knowledge for all, the Bayerische StaatsBibliothek has made a digital version of its instance freely available worldwide. Ocaña & Blecua (2005) notes that both pieces of marital advice aren’t in surviving manuscript versions of Rota veneris.

[10] Boncompagno da Signa, Rhetorica antiqua 6.2.14, Latin text and English translation (adapted to follow Latin more closely) from Purkart (1978) p. 328. Cf. Isaiah 4, Song of Solomon 2:7, Luke 1:42. The section heading is: “Advice so that priests and clerks would be received in their manliness {Suasio, ut recipiatur sacerdos vel clericus in virum}.”

[11] Boncompagno da Signa, Rhetorica novissima 9.2.18, Latin text and English translation (adapted to follow Latin more closely) from Purkart (1978) p. 329. Cf. Psalm 23:4, Matthew 25:1-13. This section carries the heading: “How good is transmuted into bad {Quomodo bona transumantur in mala}.” See Wight (1998d) Section 9. Whether the heading is original to Boncompagno isn’t clear. I suspect that it isn’t. Purkart declared of this passage:

he {Boncompagno} managed to discover not only a set of useful and appropriate sexual metaphors, but whole passages in the Scriptures which could be used in his rhetoric of carnal love … Boncompagno did not reserve his horny wit only for ecclesiastics.

Id pp. 339-30. Purkart refers to Boncompagno as turning “Holy Writ into horny wit.” Id. p. 325. Boncompagno’s purpose seems to me more serious in the context of historically entrenched disparagement of men’s sexuality. For a recent example of that symbolic-structural bias with respect to Troilus and Rota veneris, Newman (2014). Boncompagno is best regarded as a forefather of the critical insight that led to ostentatio genitalium.

Guérin reads Rota veneris as a playfully exercise in representation. Guérin (2016). His interpretation takes seriously Boncompagno’s declaration:

I want all and everyone to know that, to me, words have always been more pleasing than deeds, for in such matters it is more glorious to live in hope than in its fulfillment, according to the pronouncement of the most serene Capuan.

{ Unum tamen volo universos et singulos scire quod plus michi semper placuerunt verba quam facta quoniam gloriosius est in talibus vivere in spe quam in re, secundum sententiam serenissime Capuane. }

Rota veneris 15.3. That statement occurs in the context of Boncompagno defending himself against charges of “lasciviousness {lascivia}.” That’s a standard charge against those who appreciate love in the flesh. The Capuan’s pronouncement that “it is more glorious to live in hope than in its fulfillment” is a standard sentiment of courtly love. No source has been located indicating such a pronouncement of the Capuan (Cumaean Sibyl). Parkart (1975) p. 106, n. 98. That reference is probably Boncompagno’s fictitious construction. Just prior to the sentence above, Boncompagno claimed that he wrote Rota veneris “for the sake of courtliness {quam feceram causa urbanitatis}.” Purkart notes, “Unlike Andreas Capellanus, Boncompagno makes it easy for the reader to accept the irony of this statement.” Purkart (1975) p. 106, n. 97. Rota veneris concerns writing letters to achieve love in the flesh. Rota veneris parodies courtly love. Boncompagno’s declaration that “words have always been more pleasing than deeds” is best read as a playful exercise in mis-representation.

Jacques de Vitry issued an exemplum sternly warning about a cleric who had “mixed the language of spiritual love with that of carnal and foul love {verbum spiritualis amoris carnali et immundo amori coaptauerat}.” Purkart (1978) p. 331 for Latin text and English translation. For about two thousand years, the incarnation of Jesus has been contentious and difficult to appreciate fully even among Christians. For related discussion, see my post on ancient Latin Christian hymns, my post on the medieval poem Si linguis angelicis and Huot (1997) Ch. 2.

[12] The Strasburg incunabulum of Rota veneris includes from Boncompagno’s Rhetorica antiqua 1.24.10 a poignant letter from a woman dreaming of her absent lover. She declares, “Sitting like a turtle-dove on a dry branch, I moan incessantly {Sedens more turturis in ramusculo sicco, gemo assidue}.” The letter has the heading “Of a woman who seeks to call back her lover {De muliere que amicum suum revocare intendit}.” Latin text from Core (2015) and Basso (2015), my English translation. Dronke (1965) vol. 1, pp. 251-3 provides an English translation and an interpretation focused on “spiritual love {spiritus amoris}.” Id. vol. 2, p. 483-4 provides an alternate Latin text.

A love-letter inserted into a fifteenth-century manuscript of Rota veneris underscores Boncompagno’s concern for incarnated love. The letter is similar to Boncompagno’s letter “Of a woman who seeks to call back her lover {De muliere que amicum suum revocare intendit}.” In accordance with the gynocentric imperative, the letter elaborates on the importance of masculine sexuality to women:

In your wisdom you should indeed know what is the condition of women and that young women require conjugal intercourse.

{ Per sapientiam namque vestram intelligere deberetis que sit conditio feminarum et quod requirit in iuvenibus copula coniugalis. }

From MS Roma, Biblioteca Angelica, 505, fol. 12v, Latin text from Purkart (1984) p. 50, my English translation. In an associated spurious love letter, the woman’s lover promises her that he will return to her and make up for the time lost in bed with her. Id. p. 53.

[images] (1) Modern ars dictiminis: selected excerpts from temporary restraining order form for the state of California. (2) The Parable of Wise and Foolish Virgins (unfinished). Painting by Peter von Cornelius, made between 1813 and 1816. Preserved as inv. no. M 4011 in the Museum Kunstpalast (Düsseldorf, Germany). Via Wikimedia Commons.


Baird, Joseph L., Giuseppe Baglivi, and John Robert Kane. 1986. The Chronicle of Salimbene de Adam. Binghamton, N.Y.: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies.

Baethgen, Friedrich, ed. 1927. Boncompagno da Signa. Rota veneris: ein Liebesbriefsteller des 13. Jahrhunderts. Texte zur Kulturgeschichte des Mittelalters 29. Rome: W. Regenberg.

Basso, Martina. 2015. Il 1 Libro del Boncompagnus di Boncompagno da Signa: Edizione Critica e Glossario. Ph.D. Thesis. Università degli Studi di Padova (Italy).

Camargo, Martin. 1984. “The Libellus de arte dictandi rhetorice Attributed to Peter of Blois.” Speculum. 59 (1): 16-41.

Core, Luca. 2015. La Rota Veneris di Boncompagno da Signa. Edizione critica. Ph.D. Thesis. Università degli Studi di Padova (Italy).

Cornelius, Ian. 2010. “The Rhetoric of Advancement: Ars dictaminis, Cursus, and Clerical Careerism in Late Medieval England.” New Medieval Literatures. 12: 289-330.

Dronke, Peter. 1965. Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Guérin, Philippe. 2016. “La voie rhétorique vers le corps: narratio, descriptio, gestus et transumptio dans la Rota Veneris de Boncompagno da Signa.” Arzanà 18 (online).

Haskins, Charles H. 1898. “The Life of Medieval Students as Illustrated by Their Letters.” The American Historical Review. 3 (2): 203-229.

Holder-Egger, Oswald. 1905-1913. Cronica Fratris Salimbene de Adam. Monumenta Germaniae Historica 32. Hannoverae et Lipsiae: Impr. bibliopolii Hahniani.

Huot, Sylvia. 1997. Allegorical Play in the Old French Motet: the sacred and the profane in thirteenth-century polyphony. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Murphy, James J. 1974. Rhetoric in the Middle Ages: a history of rhetorical theory from Saint Augustine to the Renaissance. Berkeley: Univ. of Calif. Press.

Newman, Jonathan M. 2014. “Dictators of Venus: Clerical Love Letters and Female Subjection in Troilus and Criseyde and the Rota Veneris.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer. 36 (1): 103-138.

Ocaña, Antonio Cortijo and Luisa Blecua, trans. 2005. Boncompagno da Signa. La rueda del amor {Rota veneris}. Madrid: Gredos.

Purkart, Josef. 1975. Rota veneris: facsimile reproduction of the Strasburg incunabulum. With English translation and notes. Delmar, N.Y.: Schola’s Facs. & Reprint.

Purkart, Josef. 1978. “Boncompagno of Signa and the Rhetoric of Love.” Pp. 319-331 in Murphy, James Jerome, ed. Medieval Eloquence: studies in the theory and practice of medieval rhetoric. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Purkart, Josef. 1984. “Spurious Love Letters in the Manuscripts of Boncompagno’s Rota veneris.” Manuscripta. 28 (1): 45-55.

Raccagni, Gianluca. 2013. “Reintroducing the emperor and repositioning the city republics in the ‘republican’ thought of the rhetorician Boncompagno da Signa.” Historical Research. 86 (234): 579-600.

Sedgwick, Henry Dwight. 1913. Italy in the thirteenth century. Vol. 1. London: Constable & Co.

Tunberg, Terence O. 1986. “What is Boncompagno’s ‘Newest Rhetoric’?” Traditio. 42: 299-334.

Waddell, Helen. 1927. The Wandering Scholars. London: Constable.

Wight, Steven M., ed. 1998a. Boncompagno da Signa. Medieval diplomatic and the “ars dictandi”. Scrineum (online): Universita degli Studi di Pavia.

Wight, Steven M., ed. 1998b. Boncompagno da Signa. Boncompagnus {Rhetorica antiqua}. Scrineum (online): Universita degli Studi di Pavia.

Wight, Steven M., ed. 1998c. Boncompagno da Signa. Rota Veneris Boncompagni. Scrineum (online): Universita degli Studi di Pavia. Based on Baethgen (1927).

Wight, Steven M., ed. 1998d. Boncompagno da Signa. Rhetorica novisima. Scrineum (online): Universita degli Studi di Pavia.

Witt, Ronald G. 1986. “Boncompagno and the Defense of Rhetoric.” The Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies. 16 (1): 1-31.

rule of marital common property: husband partly owns wife’s fart

Palace of Justice in Paris

At suppertime in medieval France, Hubert heard a noise after his wife Jehannette had bent over to pick up a pile of sheets. He suspiciously inquired about that noise.

She claimed to know nothing. Then he detected a foul smell. His suspicion confirmed, he accused her of farting. She said that she didn’t do it. Then she turned on him with the hoary proverb: “The one who smelt it, dealt it {Qui premier l’a sentu, l’a faict}.”

The couple became embroiled in a bitter dispute. Hubert insisted that she farted, she dealt it, and he smelled it. Jehannette denied it. She called him a liar. She announced that she would take her husband to family court immediately and make him eat his words if she had to die doing it. Jehannette was a strong, independent woman — the sort of woman that girls today are taught to idealize.

A lawyer quickly appeared to work both sides of the dispute. Wife Jehannette told the lawyer the facts of the case:

I’m picking up a bundle of sheets,
my husband’s rushing me for eats,
I bent down a bit too low,
and something escaped from me, I know,
just so, so help me God!

{ En chargeant ung fardeau de draps,
Mon mary si fort me hasta,
Je me baissay ung peu trop bas.
Adone quelque chose m’eschapa,
Se Dieu me garde de peril! }

Jehannette accused her husband of putting her in that position. He was thus charged with “cruel and unusual punishment {peine extraordinaire}.” Husband Hubert stated his defense:

Sir, the truth, truly to tell,
my wife, she farted next to me,
so long, so loud, so lustily
that my own asshole quakes with fear
to recall that fart in her own rear.
Now, sir, I want my house kept free
of filth and smells — clean it should be.
I want repair for all the harm
she’s done to my home and its charm.
That’s all I have to say.

{ Sire, il est vray que ma femme
Fist vramy ung pet {three syllables missing}
Auprès de moy, dont j’euz si peur
Que encores le cul me hallette.
Et moy, qui veulx ma maison nette,
Sans y souffrir aulcune ordure,
Je vueil qu’elle repare l’injure
Qu’elle m’a faict en ma maison.
Voyla tout. }

Wife Jehannette countered that it was her husband who farted. She appealed to the lawyer to defend her in court and promised to pay him well. The husband promised to pay the lawyer even more than his wife would pay him. Seizing the opportunity to bill both wife and husband as clients, the lawyer happily took them before the family court judge.

The judge inquired into the underlying theory of the case. The lawyer explained:

Hubert believes and has no doubt
that he’s one substance, all throughout,
with his wife, that the two are one.
But balks, when all is said and done,
at sharing in her farts and piss.

{ Hubert n’a nulle doubtance
Que ce n’est que une mesme substance
De eulx deux; il entend bien cecy.
Mais si elle a peté ou vecy,
D’y avoir part il s’i oppose. }

Under the English common-law doctrine of coverture, the husband and wife are one, and the husband is responsible for his wife’s crimes and for his wife’s debts. But this case, heard according to medieval French civil law, concerned the meaning of marital common property. The judge declared:

The husband must know in his heart
that each bit of her he has in part;
for when he took her as his wife,
he took all of her, and for life.

{ Puis que c’est une mesme chose,
Hubert doit entendre et sçavoir
Qu’en tout il doit sa part avoir.
Quant il la print, il la print toute. }

Under questioning, Hubert stated that he didn’t take in marriage his wife’s asshole. Yet his wife countered that on their wedding night he had anal intercourse with her. The husband responded that it was dark, and he had made a mistake. He never did that during the day. None of these facts mattered to the judge. He ruled:

Now, since the alleged fart indeed
came from the asshole that belongs
to you, sir, with its rights and wrongs,
whate’er it brews must be your cup,
whate’er it cooks must be your sup.
Put up with it, is what I say,
and that’s my sentence.

Whatever goods you bring
and have between you, as God wills,
you share and share alike. In ills
and blessings all the same.

If she should piss or poop, or should
some gust of wind that’s not so good
escape from her, why wouldn’t you
share in its perfume, through and through?
You can’t make us assembled here
think otherwise! It’s writ, it’s clear:
whatever proceeds from that hole —
though left untouched by hand or pole —
as it wafts up to mouth or nose,
and bests the foulest wind that blows —
both married parties must endure.
Abide ye, roses and manure —
that is the way my conscience lies.

{ Puis que le cul qui fit le pet
Est vostre, il fault que l’ayez faict;
Cela est tout cler et notoire.
Ce qu’il brasse, il le fault boire;
Et si fault pour en fin de procès,
Que de l’avoir fait congnoissés.
C’est ma sentence.

Des biens que Dieu vous a espars,
Chascun en doibt avoir sa part.

Et si elle a vecy ou peté,
Ou que du cul luy soyt sorty
Ung peu de vent, vous, son mary,
Nous voulez-vous cy faire accroire
Que vostre part n’en debvez boyre,
Soyt en secret ou en commun?
S’il est sorty du cul de l’ung,
Quoy que le pied ou main n’y touche,
S’il entre au nez ou à la bouche
De l’autre, par ma conscience,
Prendre le fault en patience. }

As any family lawyer knows, how far the judge will go to favor the woman is difficult to know. This judge didn’t rule that the wife had farted and that she had lied about it. He ruled that marital farts are marital common property. Yet he didn’t go so far as to imprison the husband on the charge that he had forced his wife to pick up a pile of sheets. This judge thus didn’t exacerbate the massive gender protrusion among person incarcerated — about fifteen men per woman among incarcerated persons.

The judge in this medieval French farce about farting was humane and wise.  If more judges followed his example, women and men would have better lives together.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


The above story and quotes are from the anonymous medieval French play Farce nouvelle et fort joyeuse du pect a quatre personnaiges {The new and very amusing farce of the fart for four actors}, also known as La farce du pet {The farce of the fart}, or Le Pet {The Fart}. This farce of 300 octosyllabic verses is thought to have been written about 1476. In that year it was performed for the French King Louis XI and King René of Provence. Those two rules, like husband and wife in La farce du pet, were engaged in a bitter dispute. La farce du pet was first published between 1532 and 1547. Its author was probably a member of the Court of the Basoche, a Parisian guild of law clerks. Here’s some bibliography for La farce du pet.

Medieval French farces, along with fabliaux, witness to medieval freedom of speech. Examples include the Old French farce Le Cuvier {The Washtub} and the treatment of domestic violence in fabliaux and farces. Enders described the cultural context of the medieval French farces:

It was perfectly acceptable to pontificate publicly about assholes, farts, piss, shit, and sodomy, so long as no one took the name of the Lord in vain: “Golly gee whillikers, husband, why did you fuck me up the ass?”

Id. p. 33. That description draws upon conventional medieval stereotypes. In reality, persons in medieval Europe had more freedom to take the Lord’s name in vain than persons today have to call feminists mendacious hate-mongers. In related work, Alfie (2013) provides with acute anti-men bias an analysis of women’s farting in thirteen-century poems of Rustico Filippi.

The English quotes above are adapted from the translation of King (2011). I’ve adapted the quotes from King’s translation to follow the French source more closely and to be easier for non-specialists to read. Enders (2011) pp. 65-85 is an alternate, more colloquial prose “adapted translation” (id. p. 33) that in overall sense follows the French text more close. The quoted French text is from Tissier (1996) pp. 21-63, simplified to not indicate editorial insertions. Viollet-le-Duc (1854), pp. 94-110, provides a quite good French text freely available online.

The quotes above are, cited by verse numbers in Tissier’s edition: 18 (Qui premier l’a sentu, l’a faict), 109-13 (En chargeant ung fardeau de draps…), 117 (peine extraordinaire), 126-34 (Sire, il est vray que ma femme…), 198-202 (Hubert n’a nulle doubtance…), 203-6 (Puis que c’est une mesme chose), 2-35-41, 245-6, 254-64 (Puis que le cul qui fit le pet…).

[image] Palace of Justice in Paris, view from the Cour du Mai. Source image thanks to Nitot and Wikimedia Commons.


Alfie, Fabian. 2013. “Of Incontinence and Incontinentia: Women’s Flatulence in Rustico Filippi.” Pp. 71-84 in Hawkes, David, and Richard Newhauser, eds. The Book of Nature and Humanity in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers.

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

King, Sharon D. 2011. “The Fart: An Anonymous 15th-century French Farce.” Pp. 93–114 in Sturges, Robert Stuart, ed. Law and sovereignty in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Turnhout: Brepols.

Tissier, André. 1996. Recueil de Farces (1450-1550). Vol. 10. 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. Vol 1. Paris: Jannet.

Abelard’s advice to his son Astralabe & Trimalchio’s Fortunata

Adam, Samson, yes, David and Solomon —
a woman deceived them all. Who now would be safe?

{ Adam, Samsonem, si David, si Salomonem
femina decepit, quis modo tutus erit? } [1]

Fortunata dancing the cordax

With loving concern, fathers bravely counsel their sons about women. Peter Abelard, the husband of the great twelfth-century woman philosopher and religious leader Heloise of the Paraclete, wrote a long and frank poem of advice to their son Astralabe. Yet the life of the wealthy, first-century Roman merchant and estate owner Gaius Pompeius Trimalchio Maecenatianus shows difficulties in implementing Abelard’s advice to his son Astralabe.

Abelard warned Astralabe about marrying a wealthy woman. Marrying a wealthy woman is typically advantageous to a man. A husband’s oppressive gender burden of working to earn money for his wife and children typically becomes less weighty if the husband has a wealthy wife. If his wife is wealthy enough, or enough of a career woman, a husband might even get the opportunity to withdraw from the workforce and enjoy being at home full-time. Nonetheless, Abelard declared to his son Astralabe:

If anyone seeks wealth rather than good character in a wife,
if she commits adultery, he has no cause to complain,
especially if she continues to possess those things he seeks in her
and which were the reason for his marriage.
A noble and rich woman trusts in these things
and so, always puffed up, sets in motion frequent disputes.

{ Siquis opes plusquam mores in coniuge querat,
si mecabitur hec, non habet ille queri,
precipue si possidet has quas querit in illa
et que coniugii causa fuere sui.
Nobilis et diues mulier confidit in istis
unde tumens semper iurgia crebra mouet. } [2]

Having a wife prone to arguing makes for an unpleasant marriage. Being cuckolded makes the situation much worse. Abelard had no doubt about that fact. He told Astralabe:

An adulterous wife is a greater tormentor than all others;
death itself is less of a suffering for any good man.

{ Tormentum cunctis est uxor adultera maius;
mors ista minor est passio cuique bono. }

Men might aspire to marry a woman who’s both wealthy and has good character. Alas, usually men cannot have it all.

No gyno-idolator, Abelard understood that women are fully human beings and that women thus cannot have a perfect character. Men must make trade-offs even with respect to women’s character. Abelard bluntly advised his son Astralabe:

A humble prostitute is more pleasing than a proud chaste woman,
and the latter more often throws her own home into confusion.
The former defiles the house which the latter more often sets alight:
flame can harm a house more than filth.
A serpent is milder than the wrath of a gossiping wife;
he who retains such a one harbors a serpent at his breast.
A gossiping woman is far worse than a whore:
the latter can please some people, the former pleases no one.
A gossiping wife is the greatest firebrand to a house:
any fire will be less damaging than a flame of this kind.

{ Gracior est meretrix humilis quam casta superba
perturbatque domum sepius ista suam;
polluit illa domum quam incendit sepius ista:
sorde magis domui flamma nocere potest.
Mitior est anguis linguose coniugis ira;
qui tenet hanc, eius non caret angue sinus.
Deterior longe lingosa est femina scorto:
hec aliquis, nullis illa placere potest;
est linguosa domus incendia maxima coniunx;
hac leuior flamma quilibet ignis erit.
Cum modicum membrum sit lingua est maximus ignis,
nec tot per gladium quot periere per hanc. }

Men typically enjoy having sex with their wives. Taking a humble prostitute as a wife would probable ensure a husband devoted attention to his sexual fulfillment. With respect to a proud, chaste wife, Christians have long recognized pride as a more deadly sin than lust. Incessant talking, particularly about sensitive personal matters, is associated with pride in seeking continual attention to self. Moreover, a wife who divulges her husband’s secrets can destroy his life and their home. While it might seem strange to some, Abelard’s preference for a humble prostitute over a proud, chaste woman for a wife has good reason.

Gaius Pompeius Trimalchio Maecenatianus, or Trimalchio for short, married a girl with a bad sexual reputation. His wife Fortunata was a former “chorus-girl {ambubaia}” of slave status. Trimalchio declared: “Believe me, nobody dances a lewd Greek dance better than she can {Credite mihi, cordacem nemo melius ducit}.” Trimalchio’s talkative friend Hermeros characterized Fortunata as a “whore-wolf {lupatria}.” At a dinner party at Fortunata and Trimalchio’s luxurious home, Hermeros exclaimed:

And what was she only a short time ago? You will pardon my saying this, good sir, but you wouldn’t have been willing to receive bread from her hand.

{ Et modo, modo quid fuit? Ignoscet mihi genius tuus, noluisses de manu illius panem accipere. } [3]

Fortunata wasn’t a proud, chaste woman. She wasn’t noble and rich. She wasn’t the sort of woman that most father’s would want for a son’s wife. But as Abelard reasonably advised Astralabe, a man could make a far worse choice for a wife.

When Trimalchio became rich, Fortunata unfortunately became a domineering wife with a nasty tongue. Hermeros explained:

she has gone sky-high, and Trimalchio thinks the world of her. In short, at noon, mid-day, if she tells him that it’s dark, he’ll believe it. He’s so enormously rich that he doesn’t know himself what he’s got, but this whore-wolf has a plan for everything, even where you wouldn’t think so. Yup, she’s temperate, sober, and prudent, but she has a nasty tongue and she’s a real extorter in their bed. Who she likes, he likes. Who she dislikes, he dislikes.

{ in caelum abiit et Trimalchionis topanta est. Ad summam, mero meridie si dixerit illi tenebras esse, credet. Ipse nescit quid habeat, adeo saplutus est; sed haec lupatria providet omnia, et ubi non putes. Est sicca, sobria, bonorum consiliorum: tantum auri vides. Est tamen malae linguae, pica pulvinaris. Quem amat, amat; quem non amat, non amat. }

Not surprisingly, Trimalchio intended to make Fortunata his heir. Abelard had warned his son Astralabe:

Whichever species of bird is trained to seize prey,
however capable it is in this, a woman is stronger,
nor does anyone seize human souls like a woman:
she is strong in this, more so than any enemy.

{ Quecumque est auium species consueta rapinis,
quo plus possit in hoc, femina forcior est,
nec rapit humanas animas ut femina quisquam:
fortis in hoc est hec quolibet hoste magis. } [4]

Perhaps Trimalchio never had the benefit of a father’s advice. In any case, he became another subordinate husband within men’s structural subordination under gynocentrism.

Fortunata’s power and control made Trimalcio fearful. At the dinner party Trimalchio began a lewd dance:

he would have come out into the middle of the room if Fortunata had not whispered in his ear. I suppose she told him that such low fooling was beneath his dignity. But never was anyone so variable: at one moment he was afraid of Fortunata, and then he would return to his natural self.

{ prodisset in medium, nisi Fortunata ad aurem accessisset; credo, dixerit non decere gravitatem eius tam humiles ineptias. Nihil autem tam inaequale erat; nam modo Fortunatam verebatur, modo ad naturam suam revertebatur. } [5]

Fortunata insisted on her ownership of Trimalchio’s affections. She responded with verbal abuse to Trimalchio’s mildly independent sexuality:

A young man, not bad looking, came in among the fresh waiters. Trimalchio took him and began to kiss him warmly. So Fortunata, to assert firmly her conjugal rights under law, began to abuse Trimalchio. She called him a dirty disgrace for not curbing his lust. At last she even hurled out, “Dog!

{ nam cum puer non inspeciosus inter novos intrasset ministros, invasit eum Trimalchio et osculari diutius coepit. Itaque Fortunata, ut ex aequo ius firmum approbaret, male dicere Trimalchioni coepit et purgamentum dedecusque praedicare, qui non contineret libidinem suam. Ultimo etiam adiecit: “canis.” } [6]

Abelard warned his son Astralabe:

Lest the Delilah who sleeps with you is able to seduce you
with her blandishments, take care to be vigilant:
it is not safe to sleep next to a serpent;
a woman surpasses a snake in wickedness.

{ Ne te blandiciis seducere Dalida possit
que tecum dormit, sit tibi cura uigil:
non est uicino tutum dormire colubro;
anguem transcendit femina nequicia. } [7]

Like a battered wife engaging in self-defense, Trimalchio threw a cup at Fortunata’s face. He also vigorously defended himself with words and other symbolic acts:

What’s this? This chorus-girl remembers nothing. I rescued her from the slave auction and made her a free person among free persons. Yet she puffs herself up like a frog and is too proud to spit for luck. She’s a tree stump, not a woman. But if you were born in a slum you can’t sleep in a palace. As I hope to keep my guardian spirit’s favor, I’ll bring that brutal, rebellious woman under home governance. And I, a foolish man, could have married into ten million bucks. You known that I’m not lying. Agatho, the perfumer-seller next door, took me aside and said, ‘I urge you not to let your family line die out.’ But I, being good, didn’t wish to seem fickle, and so with her I’ve stuck an axe into my own leg. All right, I’ll make you want to dig me up with your fingernails. But so you understand right now Fortunata what you have done to yourself: Habinnas, don’t put any statue of her on my tomb, or she’ll be nagging me even when I am dead. And to show that I can do her a bad turn, I’ll not even allow her to kiss me when I’m lying dead on my funeral bier. … That boy’s surely worthy of my eyes. But Fortunata will not have it. Is that how you see it, my high-stepping chorus-girl? I advise you to chew what you have bitten off, you she-hawk, and not make me show teeth, my little dear. Otherwise, your skull will experience my temper. You know me: once I’ve set my course, it’s fixed with a six-inch nail.

{ Quid enim, inquit, ambubaia non meminit se? de machina illam sustuli, hominem inter homines feci. At inflat se tanquam rana, et in sinum suum non spuit, codex, non mulier. Sed hic, qui in pergula natus est, aedes non somniatur. Ita genium meum propitium habeam, curabo domata sit Cassandra caligaria. Et ego, homo dipundiarius, sestertium centies accipere potui. Scis tu me non mentiri. Agatho unguentarius here proxime seduxit me et: ‘Suadeo, inquit, non patiaris genus tuum interire.’ At ego dum bonatus ago et nolo videri levis, ipse mihi asciam in crus impegi. Recte, curabo me unguibus quaeras. Et, ut depraesentiarum intelligas quid tibi feceris: Habinna, nolo statuam eius in monumento meo ponas, ne mortuus quidem lites habeam. Immo, ut sciat me posse malum dare, nolo me mortuum basiet. … Non est dignus quem in oculis feram? Sed Fortunata vetat. Ita tibi videtur, fulcipedia? Suadeo, bonum tuum concoquas, milva, et me non facias ringentem, amasiuncula: alioquin experieris cerebrum meum. Nosti me: quod semel destinavi, clavo tabulari fixum est. }

In retrospect, Trimalchio seemed to have wished that he had married a wealthy woman who would have tolerated his affairs with young men. She might have produced children for him through her affairs with other men.

Women and men change throughout their lives, including after marriage. A man who marries a humble prostitute isn’t assured of enjoying a humble prostitute as his wife for the rest of his life. She could become a proud, nasty-tongued wealthy woman who insists on a sexless marriage. Abelard’s advice to his son Astralabe, like any father’s advice to his son, cannot remake the world into a safe place.[8]

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[1] This proverb occurs in many medieval Latin manuscripts in a variety of variants. For a brief review, Dronke (1970) pp. 124-8, which cites the proverb in Walther, Proverbia nos. 519ff, 5026a. The English translation is mine.

Pre-modern literature of men’s sexed protest also commonly points to the biblical figures Uriah, cuckolded by his wife Bathsheba and sent to his death; Naboth, murdered by Jezebel; and Joseph, falsely accused of rape by Potiphar’s wife. Among non-biblical figures of warning to men in this literature are Hippolytus, falsely accused of rape by his step-mother Phaedra; Cinyras, who committed suicide after his daughter tricked him into having sex with her; Scylla and Charybdis, who seek to cause men’s deaths at sea; Nisos, King of Magara, betrayed by his daughter Scylla; and King Minos of Crete, cuckolded by his wife Pasiphaë with a bull.

[2] Peter Abelard, Poem for Astralabe {Carmen ad Astralabium} ll. 1025-30, Latin text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Ruys (2014). Here’s an online Latin text (inferior to Ruys’s), with some discussion of the manuscripts. All subsequent quotes from Carmen ad Astralabium are similarly sourced. The subsequent two from Carmen ad Astralabium are: 773-4 (An adulterous wife…), 227-36 (A humble prostitute…).

[3] Petronius, Satyricon 37, Latin text from Heseltine & Rouse (1913), my English translation adapted from id. and Walsh (1996). All subsequent quotes from the Satyricon are similarly sourced. Allinson (1930), which is nicely linked to a Latin text, is a translation freely available online, as is Heseltine’s text (alternate presentation).

With respect to the earlier short quotations in the paragraph above, Trimalchio described his wife Fortunata as a former “chorus-girl {ambubaia}” of slave status in Satyricon 74. He described her skill in dancing the “cordax” (a lewd Greek dance) in Satyricon 52. On the character of that dance, see the relevant commentary in Schmeling (2014). Hermeros called Fortunatus a “lupatria” in Satyricon 37:

The term lupatria combines the Latin word lupa and the Greek suffix -tria. Lupa is the term for both a she-wolf and a prostitute; the suffix -tria is associated with “female purveyors of sex”. In this way, the suffix becomes redundant since lupa and -tria both hold the same meaning, thus emphasizing Petronius’ characterization of Fortunata as a particularly low class kind of whore.

Nicoulin (n.d.) p. 3, internal footnotes omitted.

The subsequent quote above is similarly from Satyricon 37. The sentence “Quem amat, amat; quem non amat, non amat.” is typically translated similar to “What she likes, she likes; what she doesn’t like, she doesn’t like.” I follow the insightful analysis of Nicoulin (n.d.) pp. 6-7 in suggesting the alternate translation above. I use the non-grammatical accusative “who” to be consistent with the poor quality Latin of the freemen at Trimalchio’s dinner.

The phrase “pica pulvinaris,” which I translate above as “she’s a real extorter in their bed” means literally “magpie on the couch”:

Magpies eat most anything which is perhaps why this phrase is often interpreted as “she henpecks him in bed”. This interpretation suggests that Fortunata is the dominant partner and that she constantly criticizes and nags Trimalchio. Not only does Fortunata pester Trimalchio into doing her will, but she also supposedly uses her sexuality to manipulate him into agreeing with whatever she tells him. Pica pulvinaris recalls the same connotations as lupatria. Both phrases suggest that Fortunata is a predator; in this specific example, she is attacking Trimlachio by sitting on his shoulder and picking at his every move.

Nicoulin (n.d.) p. 6, internal footnotes omitted.

[4] Abelard, Carmen ad Astralabium ll. 217-20. Trimalchio declares Fortunata his heir in Satyricon 71.

[5] Petronius, Satyricon 52. Fortunata’s behavior toward Trimalchio is similar to Hera’s behavior toward Zeus: “Both wives aspire to exercise control over their husbands and households.” Ypsilanti (2010) p. 234.

[6] Petronius, Satyricon 74. The subsequent quote from the Satyricon is from section 75.

Older scholarship concerning Fortunata hasn’t unequivocally praised her and hasn’t forcefully condemned Trimalchio for not striving to increase his wife’s power. Consider such anti-feminist analysis:

Fortunata, then, is a woman who tries unsuccessfully to behave like a member of polite society. Jealous and domineering, she certainly is not as likeable as her husband. However, one must give her credit for the efficiency with which she runs her household. Without his shrewd and thrifty wife to help him, Trimalchio would not have become so prosperous.

Brown (1956) p. 41. Responding to such imbalanced analysis, scholars in recent decades have intensified their work in support of dominant gynocentric ideology. Fortunata is thus praised as the now-canonical woman hero — the strong-willed woman:

Fortunata appears to be an intelligent, socially aware, fiscally responsible (only so much as she appears to keep a ledger), and strong-willed woman.

McGlin (2012). The weak-willed Trimalchio lamentably prevents Fortunata from fully expressing her strong will.

Men have good reason to fear women’s power under gynocentrism. Recent scholarship argues that Trimalchio feared Fortunata’s power and control over him:

Trimalchio sabotages her {Fortunata} in order to deliberately downplay her independence. … The text reveals Fortunata exploring her new role as a materfamilias, but also constructs her as a figure of considerable power who ultimately seems to threaten Trimalchio. … Trimalchio offhandedly refers to Fortunata’s jewellery as her compedes or shackles, his casual comment is truer than he realizes. His fear of her power, as symbolized in her jewellery, keeps her trapped in the cage he constructs to restrain her.

Gloyn (2012) pp. 260, 280. The gold jewelry that men force women to wear oppresses women. So too do men’s deaths, which deprive women of persons to work for them and accept their abuse.

[7] Abelard, Carmen ad Astralabium ll. 549-52. Ruys notes:

Dalida: in a usage that may be unique, Abelard appears to use the name “Delilah” as a noun encompassing all sexually active women, with the suggestion that such women are both seductive and treacherous.

Ruys (2014) p. 208.

[8] Carmen ad Astralabium doesn’t pretend to offer a simple recipe for a successful life. Abelard’s advice to Astralabe is far more complex and intricate than instruction in many other didactic texts. Ruys (2014) pp. 30-2. Like the Satyricon, Carmen ad Astralabium offers a critical perspective on teaching and learning.

[image] Fortunata dancing the cordax. From Firebaugh (1922) p. 154.


Allinson, Alfred R, trans. 1930. Petronius Arbiter. The Satyricon. New York: Panurge Press.

Brown, Carl. E. 1956. Character-portrayal in the Cena Trimalchionis of Petronius. M.A. Thesis, McGill University.

Dronke, Peter. 1970. Poetic Individuality in the Middle Ages: New departures in poetry 1000-1150. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Firebaugh, W.C., trans. 1922. The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter. A Complete and Unexpurgated Translation, in Which are Incorporated the Forgeries of Nodot and Marchena, and the Readings Introduced Into the Text By De Salas, together with explanatory notes, arranged and translated by W.C. Firebaugh. Published for private circulation only by Boni & Liveright, New York.

Gloyn, Liz. 2012. “She’s only a Bird in a Gilded Cage: Freedwomen at Trimalchio’s Dinner Party.” The Classical Quarterly. 62 (1): 260-280.

Heseltine, Michael and W. H. D. Rouse, trans., revised by E. H. Warmington. 1913. Petronius Arbiter, Seneca. Satyricon. Apocolocyntosis. Loeb Classical Library 15. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McGlin, Mike. 2012. “Trimalchio’s wife … omg what a lupatria!” Online post dated Sept. 11 at Roman Novel.

Nicoulin, Morgan. n.d. “Characterization of Fortunata in Chapter 37.” Undergraduate Paper in Classics, Kaufman’s Latin. Transylvania University.

Ruys, Juanita Feros. 2014. The Repentant Abelard: family, gender and ethics in Peter Abelard’s Carmen ad Astralabium and Planctus. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmsillan.

Schmeling, Gareth L. 2011. A Commentary on the Satyrica of Petronius. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walsh, Patrick G, trans. 1996. Petronius Arbiter. The Satyricon. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Ypsilanti, Maria. 2010. “Trimalchio and Fortunata as Zeus and Hera: Quarrel in the Cena and Iliad 1.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology. 105: 221-237.