medieval lesson in winning women’s love: aloofness, not groveling

Denmark map outline

Many men today think that they can gain women’s love by showing intense interest in female gender gaps. Self-centered women won’t object to men denouncing men’s crimes and men striving to reduce the number of women in prison. Self-centered women will praise men who champion women’s reproductive rights and advocate for the interests of elite women in being promoted further into high-status, high-stress jobs. Almost all women will smile smugly and contemptuously at men who proclaim that women throughout history have been treated as men’s property. But men proclaiming “the future is female” and ardently supporting female supremacists won’t stir women’s sexual desire any more than will a yes-dearing husband. Men who seek women’s love must act with more sophistication and more guile.

A thirteenth-century French poetic work called “The Little Debate {Le Petit Plet}” explains clearly and concisely a man’s position in love in relation to a woman. Le Petit Plet states of a woman:

As soon as she notices that someone loves her,
then she clamors that she’s being treated disrespectfully,
and quickly gets hard-to-please,
and very malicious and angry too.
If you say something she doesn’t like,
she looks at you with an unfavorable eye.
But if there’s someone who has no liking for her at all,
she readily jokes with him,
embraces him and kisses him fondly,
and tries to attract him by putting on an act.
Yet if there’s anyone she’s sure of,
you know, she scarcely gives a damn about him.

{ Si ele se aparceit ke l’em la eime
Dunc por hunie ben se cleime,
Si tost ne deuenge dangeruse,
V mult enreuere e trop irruse.
Si ren dites cuntre sun uoil
Ele vus regardera de l’autre oil.
Mes celui ki ne la eime de ren,
A celui juera ele ben
E acolera e suef beisera,
E per beal semblant ben le atrerra.
Mes de celui dunt est seure,
Sachez, ne en predendra gueres cure. } [1]

In the introduction to his adaptation of The Life of Barlaam and Josaphat, Chardri, the thirteenth-century writer whom scholars think authored Le Petit Plet, highlighted the importance of exempla for instruction.[2] Chardri’s account of women in relation to men in love has great value for instructing men on how to gain women’s love.

Men seeking women in love must strive to raise their sexual market value. The classical author Seneca provided the fundamental insight in his De remediis fortuitorum:

a woman who regards herself too highly is little different from a woman who has contempt for men

{ non multum abest a contemptu viri, quae se nimis conspicit } [3]

According to modern sexual economic theory, both men and women seek sexual partners of highest sexual market value within the constraints of their own sexual value and overall market conditions. Women, who are more socially sophisticated than men, tend to be more sensitive to sexual market value than men are. To gain a women’s love, a sexually rational man should display sexual self-confidence to women. That means acting somewhat aloof, not being overly eager, and certainly not groveling to her like a chivalrous fool and all the mis-indoctrinated men today. Being able to exercise guile in displaying self-confidence in itself raises a man’s sexual market value.

Men’s sexual behavior is becoming a matter of acute public concern. Men must study literature and sexual economics to become thoroughly enlightened. Men, support the new Spanish sex czar. If that’s not enough motivation, do it for Denmark!

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[1] Chardri, The Little Debate {Le Petit Plet} ll. 1353-64, Old French (Anglo-Norman) text and English translation (with my adaptations) from Cartlidge (2015) pp. 143, 159. Merrilees (1970) provides Old French text for the full work. In Cartlidge’s Old French text, I’ve used “v” where “u” functions as a consonant to help non-specialists to hear the sound of the Old French. In l. 1362, Merrilees has “par” for Cartlidge’s “per.”

Le Petit Plet survives in three manuscripts: London, British Library, Cotton, Caligula A. IX, f. 249rb-261rb (C); Oxford, Jesus College Library, 29, f. 244va-257vb (J); and Vaticano, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Reginensi latini, 1659, f. 91-100 (V). Manuscripts C and J appear on paleographic grounds to be from the second half of the thirteenth century, while Manuscript V is from the fourteenth century. Carlidge argues that Le Petit Plet cannot be convincingly dated more precisely than the thirteenth century. Cartlidge (2015) p. 6.

Le Petit Plet is a debate poem within a long literary tradition of debate poems. It shares closely a “common cultural and intellectual tradition” with The Owl and  the Nightingale. Cartlidge (2015) p. 37. Other influential medieval debate poems are The Thrush and the Nightingale and Ecloga Theoduli.

[2] Chardri, The Life of St. Josaphaz {La Vie de Seint Josaphaz} ll. 1-24, trans. Cartlidge (2015) p. 71. Chardri also apparently authored a life of the seven sleepers of Ephesus.

[3] Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Younger), De remediis fortuitorum, Latin text from Palmer (1953) p. 64, my English translation. De remediis fortuitorum has survived in more than 250 manuscripts. Medieval authorities William of Conches, Vincent of Beauvais, and Roger Bacon quoted from De remediis fortuitorum. They, along with Petrarch and Erasmus, regarded De remediis fortuitorum to be a work of Seneca. Here’s a version of De remediis fortuitorum printed in 1474. From the 17th century, scholarly consensus turned against belief that Seneca authored De remediis fortuitorum. Newman (1988) has made a convincing case for Seneca as its author.

[image] Outline map of Denmark. Derived from image thanks to Angr and Wikimedia Commons.


Cartlidge, Neil, trans. 2015. The works of Chardri: three poems in the French of thirteenth-century England; The Life of the Seven Sleepers, The Life of St. Josaphaz and The Little Debate. Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

Merrilees, Brian S., ed. 1970. Chardri. Le petit plet. Oxford: Blackwell.

Newman, Robert J. 1989. “Rediscovering the De Remediis Fortuitorum.” The American Journal of Philology. 109 (1): 92-107.

Palmer, Ralph Graham, ed. 1953. Seneca’s De Remediis Fortuitorum and the Elizabethans. An essay on the influence of Seneca’s ethical thought in the sixteenth century, together with the newly-edited Latin text and English translation of 1547 by Robert Whyttynton. Institute of Elizabethan Studies: Chicago.

strong medieval women: Sibylla of Acerra & Constance of Hauteville

Sibylla of Acerra leading conspiracy against Henry VI

In contrast to gender stereotypes, strong, independent, highly privileged women have governed men throughout history. These women were accustomed to having men do whatever they wished. They understood that men were willing to die fighting on their behalf. They boldly criticized their husbands. With great social sophistication, they used their tears as the ultimate weapon.

When Constance of Hauteville’s husband became King of Germany and the Holy Roman Empire, she became the Holy Roman Empress. In order to uphold her claim to Sicily, her husband engaged in war against Sibylla of Acerra’s husband, who had usurped the crown of Sicily in 1189. Sending Empress Constance away from the fierce men-on-men violence over nominal rule of Sicily, her husband commanded one of his leading men, “Always do what my bride wishes {Facturus semper quod mea nupta velit}.”[1] He probably followed that rule himself.

As many women do, Empress Constance understood that her life was worth more than that of many men. Besieged in Salerno, she opened a window and addressed the attackers:

Hear what my words intend.
At least while we speak, hold back your missiles and your hands.
I will speak few words, but they have great weight.
O people of great faith and wisdom tested to the heights,
you know who I am and who I have been, and that is why I make my complaint to you.

If I {sic} am allowed to battle, I still have knights and gold.
I counsel everyone to return to his home.
I have Conrad at Capua, Diepold at Rocca D’Arce;
the one will do his duty as knight, the other lead the commanders.
Darius, as the messenger told me, burns Ebolian fields here
and there shears the Theatine sheep.
But those people of pure faith seek to do my will in the midst of warfare,
willingly prepared to die for me

{ Audite, quid mea verba velint.
Saltim dum loquimur, compescite tela manusque.
Pauca loquar, multo pondere verba tamen.
Gens magne fidei, rationis summa probate,
Que sim, que fuerim, nostis, et inde queror.

Si pugnare licet, superest michi miles et aurum:
In propriam redeat, consulo, quisque domum.
Est michi Corradus Capue, Dipoldus in Archi:
Hic pars milicie, dux erit ille ducum.
Darius Eboleos, ut ait michi nuncius, agros
Hac cremat, hac radit ille Thetinus oves.
Gens pure fidei mediis exquirit in armis
Velle meum, pro me sponte parata mori }

The angry people ignored her lofty words. Many men died in the subsequent fighting. Queen Sibylla’s forces eventually captured Empress Constance.

Queen Sibylla’s husband lacked appreciation for his wife’s sexual preferences and her independent lifestyle. He sent to her the captive Empress Constance, surely their most valuable prisoner. He wrote to Queen Sibylla:

This woman is the noble heir of Roger, the first king.
Her husband causes every land to tremble.
I send her to you, sweet love, my very dearest consort,
for you to keep safely, with a watchful heart.
Be a companion and a keeper, a hostess and an enemy.
Never let her be anywhere without you, if you are wise.
Be in the same house, the same bed at night;
do not let her speak to anyone without you.
One drinking vessel must convey delicacies to both of you.
Now be willing to be greater, now equal, now less.

{ Hec est Rogerii protoregis nobilis heres,
Illius est uxor, qui quatit omne solum.
Hanc ego, dulcis amor, mea prebeatissima consors,
Servandam vigili pectore mitto tibi.
Sis comes et custos et ei sis ospes et hostis;
Hanc nunquam sine te, si sapis, esse sinas.
Una domus vobis, unum de nocte cubile,
Quam cuiquam sine te ne patiare loqui.
Deliciosa duas communicet una parabsis.
Nunc maior, nunc par, nunc minor esse velis. }

Generally speaking, a self-respecting husband doesn’t send his wife a woman to be her bed-mate, especially if that woman is an enemy.[2] Queen Sibylla harshly disparaged her husband’s judgment:

What are you doing, oh demented one? Did you send me a companion or an enemy?

You take bad advice about the causes of your too-grievous infirmities.
A sickness from the stomach overflows into an idle head.
How badly you give medicine to the other limbs
if you ignore the head!
If the head sickens, can the other limbs be well?
Unless you pull off the head, the other limbs will be wasted.

{ Quid facis, o demens? Comitem misistis an hostem?

Quas nimis ipse doles, causis male consulis egris:
In caput a stomacho morbus habundat iners.
Quam male dispensas aliis medicamina menbris,
Si caput ignoras.
Si caput egrotet, valeant et cetera membra?
Ni caput abradas, cetera menbra ruent. }

Queen Sibylla thus indirectly suggested killing Empress Constance. Her husband immediately sought to appease his wife:

My dear wife and partner of chaste love,
the message you sent me has strength.

{ Cara michi coniunx et casti fedus amoris,
Quam michi misisti, pagina robur habet. }

Queen Sibylla’s message unquestionably did have strength, especially in relation to her husband’s courtly self-abasement and yes-dearism.[3]

When medieval women’s words weren’t sufficient to govern men, women could turn to their ultimate weapon: tears. After many men, including her husband and her son, died fighting for her, Queen Sibylla was in a desperate position. She decided to surrender to Empress Constance’s husband:

Therefore, I will do what is safe; I will surrender and pray for pardon,
pouring out tears before the feet of Caesar.
Sobs, tears, groans, sighs, weeping,
these will be my husband and my children and my brother;
they will fight for me, they will plead with the lord for me,
my tears will do more for me than my spears.
Pity can do more than a thousand times a thousand Roman citizens.
Caesar will be won more easily by prayers than by spears.

{ Ergo, quod est tutum, veniam summissa precabor,
Effundens lacrimas Cesaris ante pedes.
Singultus, lacrime, gemitus, suspiria, fletus,
Hec vir et hec proles, hec michi frater erunt.
Pro me pugnabunt pro me dominumque rogabunt,
Plus facient lacrime, quam mea tela, michi.
Plus poterit pietas quam milia mille Quiritum,
Plus prece quam telis Cesar habendus erit. }

Women’s tears are astonishingly powerful tools. Queen Sibylla wasn’t killed, as many other men were. She was arrested and held captive with her daughters. When Empress Constance’s husband died, Sibylla was set free. She resumed her privileged life and arranged for her eldest daughter to marry a French count.[4]

Male privilege is a recently constructed myth. Gynocentrism has been reality for millennia.

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[1] Pietro da Eboli, Liber ad Honorem Augusti {Book in Honor of Augustus} l. 413 (Sec. 15), Latin text and English translation from Hood (2012) pp. 144-5. The Latin text has survived in one manuscript, Codex 120 II in Bürgerbibliothek Bern {Berne Municipal Library}. A good-quality Latin text of Liber ad Honorem Augusti is freely available online: part I, part II, part III, part IV.

Pietro da Eboli {Peter of Eboli / Petrus de Ebulo} wrote Liber ad Honorem Augusti  about 1196. Pietro was a learned scholar, perhaps a physician, who came from the town of Eboli near Salerno in Italy. He is also thought to have authored De balneis Puteolanis {On the baths of Puteoli}. Little else is known about him. Hood (2012) pp. 6-9.

Sibylla of Acerra’s husband was Tancred of Hauteville, who was Count of Lecce. Sibylla of Acerra became Queen of Sicily when her husband became King of Sicily in 1189. Constance of Hauteville’s husband was Henry VI of Hohenstaufen. Constance of Hauteville became the Holy Roman Empress when her husband became the Holy Roman Emperor in 1191.

All the subsequent quotes are from Hood’s Latin text and English translation of Liber ad Honorem Augusti. I have made some minor changes to the English translation for clarity. The quotes above are (cited by line number in Hood’s Latin text): ll. 586-90, 605-12 “Hear what my words intend…”; ll. 875-84, “This woman is the noble heir…”; 897, 907-12, “what are you doing, o demented one?…”; 915-6, “My dear wife…”; ll. 1293-1300, “Therefore, I will do what is safe….”

[2] Pietro da Eboli strongly disparaged Sibylla of Acerra’s husband:

Behold the old monster, crime of nature, untimely birth;
Behold, the ape is crowned, repulsive man.

Instead of Jove a half-man, instead of great Ceasar a dwarf
you receive as sceptered ruler!

Nature, your laughing-stock is reigning now, that foul ape-thing,
that man in the likeness of an aborted corpse!

He is poor in morals and in life, not refuted by his Fame,
and he has little masculinity and a short body.

{ Ecce vetus monstrum, nature crimen aborsum;
Ecce coronatur simia, turpis homo!

Pro Iove semivirum, magno pro Cesare nanum
Suscipis in sceptrum!

Ridiculum, natura, tuum: res, simia, turpis,
Regnat, abortivi corporis instar homo.

Moribus et vite pauper, nec fama repugnat,
Et modicas vires et breve corpus habet. }

Liber ad Honorem Augusti ll. 184-5, 198-9, 234-5, 242-3. Pietro da Eboli captioned a painting of Tancred being crowned with “The ape made king {Simia factus Rex}.”

Pietro didn’t use the diminutive name Tancredulus to disparage Tancred. He used the term Tancredulus to caption a painting showing a woman displaying Tancred when he was a baby: “This woman displays little Tancred {Hec ostendit Tancredulum}.” Hood (2016) pp. 116-7. That’s not a disparaging use of Tancredulus. Scholars have continued to propagate the misunderstanding that Pietro disparaged Tancred as Tancredulus. See, e.g. McDougall (2016) p. 209. This mistake seems to go back at least to the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica entry for Tancred. Pietro in a variety of ways did express contempt for Tancred’s small stature. See above quote.

[3] Tancred “{comes} across as a slightly henpecked husband.” Hood (2012) p. 230.

[4] The fate of Sibylla’s son William III may have been much worse. While the leading modern study has concluded that William III wasn’t physically mutilated, a variety of medieval sources indicated that he was blinded as punishment for his mother and father’s usurpation. Roger of Hovedon stated that “King William, son of King Tancred, was blinded and castrated {Willelmum regem, filium Tankredi regis, excecavit et ementulavit}.”Chronica, 171, as quoted in Hood (2012) p. 536. Other medieval sources similarly reported castration. Id. n. 585. Castration culture has deep historical roots. Castration was a recognized, practiced punishment of men in medieval Europe.

[image] Sibylla of Acerra leading conspiracy against Henry VI in favor of her son William III, from Liber ad honorem Augusti 136r, reproduced in black-and-white and described in Hood (2012) p. 294-5. Color image via Wikimedia Commons.


Hood, Gwenyth, ed. and trans. 2012. Pietro da Eboli. Book in honor of Augustus (Liber ad honorem Augusti). Tempe, Ariz: Published by ACMRS (Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies).

McDougall, Sara. 2016. Royal bastards: the birth of illegitimacy, 800-1230. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

bird-brains engage in scholarly debate: The Owl and the Nightingale

withdrawn owl

The Owl and the Nightingale, a Middle English poem dating probably to about 1200, provides under-appreciated insight into the social positions of women and men. An owl and a nightingale throughout the poem debate widely their relative merits as birds. Both birds are “unanimous in their sympathy for women both inside and outside of marriage.” The birds are “extravagantly partisan” in support of women; they engage in “patent partisanship for women.”[1] Modern scholars of medieval literature have been united in praise for the The Owl and the Nightingale. But lacking the deep literary self-consciousness of medieval poets, modern scholars haven’t understood what they are praising.

The Owl and the Nightingale mocks shallow and pretentious scholarly thought about why men commit adultery. Regarding husbands’ sexual fidelity to their wives, the nightingale declared:

It seems to me quite stark and shocking
how any man, for any cause of behaving,
could turn his heart to the life
of doing it with another man’s wife.
For it’s either one of two things —
a claim for a third no man can bring.
Either her lord is very worthy,
or he’s feeble, and of all good empty.

{ Wundere me þungþ wel starc and stor,
Hu eni mon so eauar for,
Þat e his heorte mi3te driue
To do hit to oþers mannes wiue.
For oþer hit is of twam þinge,
Ne mai þat þridde no man bringe:
Oþar þe lauerd is wel aht,
Oþer aswunde, and nis naht. } [2]

That’s formally pretentious, yet utterly ridiculous reasoning. All men are fully human beings. All men potentially are very good men. In reality, not all men are either very good or very bad. Most men are somewhere in between. Most benefit from sympathetic support in their struggles to realize their inner goodness. Polarizing men’s persons demeans men’s potential.

Strong incentives for men to commit adultery can easily be recognized, yet are scarcely discussed. Some husbands have emotionally and physically abusive wives. Some husbands suffer within a sexless marriage. Moreover, sexless marriage is more prevalent in modern marriages in which wives feel no obligation to have sex with their husbands. In addition, long-standing, unjust, and absurd paternity and “child support” laws create huge financial incentives for men to have sex with married women who aren’t their own wives. Under the “four seas” common-law doctrine of legally imposed cuckolding, a woman’s husband, not her lover, is required to support financially any children that she produces through adultery. Reproductive choice is today a holy and sacrosanct principle, but only for women, to their own harm. Thus men seeking to avoid state-imposed, forced financial fatherhood have a strong incentive to commit adultery with married women. The nightingale, with her relatively intelligent bird brain, probably knew that.

The nightingale forthrightly recognized castration culture as controlling men’s sexuality. The nightingale explained:

No man with wisdom will seek to plan,
if the husband’s an honorable and worthy man,
in any way for his wife to do him shame.
For he himself should fear harm and blame,
and fear losing that which hangs below —
no longer able to join where his desires go.

{ 3ef he is wurþful and aht man,
nele no man, þat wisdom can
hure of is wiue do him schame,
For he mai him adrede grame,
An þat he forleose þat þer hongeþ,
Þat him eft þarto no3t ne longeþ }

According to the nightingale, an “honorable and worthy” husband would castrate an adulterer. That’s vicious sexual violence against a man. It’s also historically plausible. In contrast to myths, punishment for adultery throughout history has been biased against men and harshly administered to men. Regardless of their personal circumstances, men not afraid of being castrated aren’t supported with excuses for committing adultery:

And though he not have such fear,
it is iniquity and folly dear,
to wrong a good man in his bed
and seduce the wife to whom he’s wed.

{ An þah he þat no3t ne adrede,
Hit is unri3t and gret sothede
To misdon one gode manne,
An his ibedde from him spanne. }

Seduction is socially constructed as a crime that men commit against women. The woman is innocent of having agency, and sex is the man’s fault.

Socially constructed sexual disgust also controls men’s sexuality. The nightingale illustrated the practice:

If her lord is physically unable,
with little to offer in bed and at table,
how might there be any love
when such a churl’s body has laid on hers from above?
How would any love there be nigh
when such a man is groping her thigh?

And if the lord is a wretch,
what pleasure from her could you fetch?
If you think about with whom she lies,
you might with disgust your pleasure buy.
I don’t know how any man of standing then
Could seek to visit her again.
If he thinks about in whose place he lay,
then all his love would go away.

{ 3ef hire lauerd is forwurde,
An unorne at bedde and at borde,
Hu mi3te þar beo eni luue
Wanne a swuch cheorles buc hire ley buue?
Hu mai þar eni luue beo
Þar swuch man gropeþ hire þeo?

An 3ef þe lauerd is a wercche,
Hwuch este mi3tistu þar uecche?
3if þu biþenchest hwo hire ofligge
Þu mi3t mid wlate þe este bugge.
Ich not hu mai eni freoman
For hire sechen after þan;
3ef he biþencþ bi hwan he lai
Al mai þe luue gan awai. }

Few men other than those with a cuckolding fetish enjoy imagining another man groping their beloved’s thigh and having sex with her. Men typically address this problem by disengaging their minds when seeking sex. Thus many structurally oppressed men throughout history have possessed the capability of resorting to female prostitutes. While, if feasible, most men would prefer to marry a debt-free virgin without tattoos, men personally are able to adjust to the reality of the women available to them.

Socially constructed sexual disgust controls men through status attacks on men. Men, for good evolutionary reasons, care about their social status relative to other men. The nightingale implicitly asserted that a man’s status depends on the status of all men who had sex with a woman with whom he’s having sex. That’s not necessarily so. The sexual status-shaming of men depends upon social acceptance of the status claims intended for that work. Under gynocentrism, society accepts those status claims and relatively strictly controls men’s sexuality.

Gynocentric society readily justifies women committing adultery. As always, sex is men’s fault:

A young girl knows not what such is,
her young blood leads her amiss;
and some foolish man entices her to it
by all the means that he might intuit.
He comes and goes, demanding and begging,
and stands next to her, then by her sitting,
yearning for her often and for long.
What can the child do other than go wrong?
She didn’t understand what it was
and therefore thought to try what a woman does,
and to know indeed what be the game
that makes such a wild creature tame.

{ An 3unling not hwat swuch þing is,
His 3unge blod hit dra3eþ amis,
An sum sot mon hit tihþ þarto
Mid alle þan þat he mai do:
He comeþ and fareþ and beod and bid,
An heo bistant and ouersid,
An hi sehþ ilome and longe.
Hwat mai þat chil þah hit misfonge?
Hit nuste neauer hwat hit was,
Forþi hit þohte fondi þas,
An wite iwis hwuch beo þe gome
Þat of so wilde makeþ tome. }

In gynocentric literature, men have been figured sexually as dogs, pigs, hawks, and wolves, among other wild creatures. Men’s very genitals are commonly likened to lethal weapons.[3] Women, in contrast, are imagined to tame, civilize, and ennoble men. Women at the same time are absolved of sexual responsibility as if they were children.

The “patent partisanship for women” in The Owl and the Nightingale provides a comic burlesque of gynocentric society. Modern scholars deeply invested in gynocentrism have failed to understand it. One concluded:

the poet makes us highly aware, not only of the importance of the marital system for women, but also of its inadequacies — and in particular, of the potential dire consequences for women whom marriage did not protect. [4]

Did marriage protect men? What explains the reality of family law today? Even now with gender equality being professed as having utmost importance, almost no one cares about men. About the year 1200, The Owl and the Nightingale laughed poetically at that fundamental injustice.

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[1] Cartlidge (1997) pp. 162, 177, 199. Cartlidge argues that the poem may date to as late as the 1270s. Id. p. 160. But see Millet (2003), note to l. 729. An influential review of early Middle English literature declared, “all students of mediæval literature … have united in praise of The Owl and the Nightingale.” Wilson (1968) p. 149, quoted in Cartlidge (1997) p. 160.

The Owl and the Nightingale has survived in two manuscripts: London, British Library, MS Cotton Caligula A.ix (C), ff. 233ra-246ra, and Oxford, Jesus College MS 29 (J), ff. 156ra-168vb. Both of these manuscripts apparently date to the second half of the thirteenth century. The Owl and the Nightingale is “one of the earliest substantial texts to be written in Middle English.”

The Owl and Nightingale has probably attracted more scholarly attention than any other Middle English text outside of Chaucer’s works. Scholars have not, however, considered The Owl and Nightingale with respect to men’s gender-distinctive challenges. While The Owl and the Nightingale directly addresses the beastialization of men’s sexuality and castration culture, scholars have largely ignored those significant aspects of the poem.

[2] The Owl and the Nightingale, ll. 1473-80, Middle English text from Stanley (1972), my English translation with help from the translations of Eggers (1955), Gardner (1971), Cartlidge (2001), and Millett (2003). The Middle English text of Atkins (1922) is also freely available online. Subsequent quotes above from The Owl and the Nightingale are similarly sourced. They are (cited by line number in Stanley’s text): 1481-6, No man with wisdom…; 1487-90, And though he not have such fear…; 1491-6, 1503-10, If her lord is physically unable…; 1433-44, A young girl knows not what such is….

[3] In The Owl and the Nightingale, the owl describes men’s sexual passion using the beastly figure of stinging. Yet her description shows some sympathy for the sexual madness that men suffer:

In summer peasant men go mad
cramping and contorting themselves more than a tad,
yet to love this is not due,
but to the mad rush that runs him through.
For when his deed he has done,
all his boldness is lost and gone.
Once he has stung under her gown,
his love lasts no longer and goes down.

{ A sumere chorles awedeþ
And uorcrempeþ and uorbredeþ.
Hit nis for luue noþeles,
Ac is þe chorles wode res;
Vor wane he haueþ ido his dede
Ifallen is al his boldhede;
Habbe he istunge under gore
Ne last his luue no leng more. }

ll. 509-16. Cartlidge commented, “The Owl’s perspective is implicitly gendered — it is male sexuality which she finds so offensive.” Cartlidge (2001) p. 60, explanatory notes to 509-16. That comment seems to me to miss the poem’s critical perspective on demonizing men for their sexuality.

[4] Cartlidge (1997) p. 199. Cartlidge also invokes the antimeninist cliché of the “silence of women.” Id. p. 198. Even medieval peasants would have guffawed in contempt for modern scholarly claims about the silence of women. Gardner at least recognized generally that The Owl and the Nightingale is a “comic burlesque.” Gardner (1971) p. 267.

[image] Owl withdrawn into tree. Excerpt from an image provided under a CCO Public Domain license by Max Pixel.


Atkins, J. W. H, ed. 1922. The Owl and the Nightingale: edited with introduction, texts, notes. Cambridge: University Press.

Cartlidge, Neil. 1997. Medieval marriage: literary approaches, 1100-1300. Cambridge, England: D.S. Brewer.

Cartlidge, Neil, ed. and trans. 2001. The owl and the nightingale: text and translation. Exeter: University of Exeter Press.

Eggers, Graydon, trans. 1955. The Owl and the Nightingale. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Gardner, John. 1971. The Alliterative Morte Arthure: The Owl and the Nightingale:  and Five Other Middle English Poems in a Modernized Version with Comments on the Poems and Notes. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Millett, Bella, trans. 2003. “The Owl and the Nightingale: Text and Translation.” Wessex Parallel WebTexts (freely available online).

Stanley, Eric Gerald, ed. 1972 (new edition; originally published 1960). The Owl and the Nightingale. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Wilson, R. M. 1968 (3rd edition; first published in 1939). Early Middle English Literature. London: Methuen & Co.

musa iocosa: vital medieval poetic medicine for pedestalizing women

In response to Dante Alighieri’s Beatrice-pedestalizing Vita Nuova, Giovanni Boccaccio offered the public the powerful poetic medicine of his Corbaccio. Unfortunately, from medieval times to the present, poetry challenging men’s pedestalization of women has largely been relegated to obscurity within gynocentric society. That hurts women by denying women’s humanity. To better serve women, men must collect and study marginalized poetic works celebrating women’s humanity.

caricature of medieval descriptions of female beauty

Men by nature have a propensity to pedestalize women and to imagine that women are like angels. Women’s beauty so overwhelms and transforms men’s minds that they perceive superhuman marvels. The Fair Maid of Ribblesdale, a Middle English poem from no later than the first half of the fourteenth century, exemplifies the problem. The poem begins with a man’s desperate fantasy:

If I were to ride through Ribblesdale
to choose among wild women,
and have whichever one I wanted,
I would find the fairest one
who was ever made of blood and bone —
the one best with the bold in bed.
Like a sunbeam, her face is radiant,
in every land she shines brightly,
by all accounts, as someone told me.
This lily is lovely and slender,
with pink and rose richly intermingled.
A gold thread holds her hair.

{ Most I ryden by Rybbesdale
Wilde wymmen forte wale,
Ant welde wuch Ich wolde,
Founde were the feyrest on,
That ever wes mad of blod ant bon,
In boure best with bolde.
Ase sonnebem, hire bleo ys briht —
In uche londe heo leometh liht,
Thourh tale, as mon me tolde.
The lylie lossum is ant long,
With riche rose ant rode among,
A fyldor fax to folde. } [1]

The poetic persona’s interest in a woman is reasonable but rather narrow — he wants a wild woman who is beautiful and good in bed. Yet the poem concludes with an image of Christian salvation:

He might say Christ favors him
who can at night near her lie —
Heaven he would have here!

{ He myhte sayen that Crist hym seye
That myhte nyhtes neh hyre leye —
Hevene he hevede here! }

The poet imagines his beloved woman to be like an angel. That’s ridiculous. In medieval Christian understanding, a way to Heaven was a full conjugal partnership. That’s not possible for a man to have with an angel.

Even in the twelfth century, the woman-angel was already recognized as conventional in men’s poetry. One twelfth-century poet sought inspiration for something different:

Muse of mirth, come, inspire in your bard songs,
so that I who subsist on novelty may compose.
A maiden too dignified, noble and praised —
how very worthy of love she must be, splendid and dignified.
She glitters with brightness, shines with a face honored,
her hair is truly black-colored.

{ Musa iocosa veni, mihi carmina suggere vati
Fingere quo possim subsisto qui novitati!
Virgo decora nimis, laudabilis et generosa,
Quam peramabilis, atque decora sit, et speciosa!
Hec fulgore micat, facie prefulget honora,
Eius cesaries est certe nigricolora! } [2]

The novelty here is subtle. Men in medieval Europe typically imagined a beautiful woman as having blonde hair. This beautiful woman had black hair. The characterization “too dignified {decora nimis}” foreshadows a subsequent poetic development. But from these lines, the poet continued in the manner of men pedestalizing women:

Her wide brow shines bright with great splendor,
her eyes beneath it are arranged with ardent luster,
her jaws are radiant with resplendent tawny color,
her symmetrical nose deserves no little honor,
her red, plump lips are always redolent with odor,
honeyed speech drips from her mouth as from an orator,
and her speech is full of love, nothing else whatsoever,
her mind is not weighed down with any dolor,
her neck sparkles, her throat is even whiter,
her breast gleams with a treasure even brighter,
her arms are resplendent, splendid with whiteness’s flower,
palm, hand, and fingers are of a milk-white manner,
no woman could shine in bodily beauty better.

{ Libera frons splendet, multo preclara decore,
Lumina sub qua sunt vehementi compta nitore
Maxille radiant fulvo splendente colore
Equalis nasus non parvo dignus honore
Carnea labra rubent redolentia semper odore
Sermonisque favus distillat ab illius ore
Eius et est sermo solummodo plenus amore
Est et mens eius nullo detempta merore
Prerutilat collum cum gutture candidiore
Emicat et pectus thesauro fulgidiore
Brachia prefulgent, candoris fulgida flore
Palma, manus, digiti sunt lactis candida more
Corporis in specie cunctis nitet hec meliore }

From a medieval European perspective, the only explicitly unusual aspect of this description is that the woman had “tawny-colored jaws {maxille … fulvo colore}” rather than white cheeks with a blush of rose. At the same time, the poetic laudatory description seems rather stilted. The final seven verses of this descriptio defy convention and swerve to speak radically of the woman’s humanity:

But what to say of a more praiseworthy matter,
when none may speak of that cause which is nobler,
that hidden area about which the pure are shyer,
here are hips, with something even lovelier —
legs below, filled with great vigor —
that which is never weary with any amount of subduing labor,
supporting the joined legs are feet without any foot-odor.

{ Sed quid dicemus de re laudabiliore
Cum nequeat dici de causa nobiliore
Que latet absconse casto precincta pudore
Hic asstant coxe cum re peramabiliore
Crura quibus subsunt, magno repleta vigore
Que siquidem nullo lassantur victa labore
Cuncta pedes portant, fulgentes absque pedore. }

These lines celebrate the woman’s lovely and vigorous sexual capability while recognizing that she, like a man, is a human being with feet that could smell, even though this woman’s feet don’t. More generally, the concluding reference to foot odor {pedes … absque pedore} ridicules men’s idealistic pedestalizing of women.

In our more doctrinaire and repressive age, challenging the pedestalization of woman is scarcely permitted.[3] Marginalized medieval Latin literature can contribute to desperately needed liberation. Women will not be men’s equals until men stop looking up to women.

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[1] “Most I ryden by Rybbesdale,” stanza 1, Middle English text and translation (adapted) from Fein (2014). The subsequent quote above is the last three lines of the poem (ll. 82-4), sourced similarly. The adapted translation benefited from the glosses for the textually inferior version at Harvard’s Geoffrey Chaucer Website.

The poem is best not read literally. Despite its description of the women (descriptio), the line “by all accounts, as someone told me” indicates that the poetic voice hasn’t actually seen the woman. Fein’s introduction to the poem declares, “Its distinctive feature is hyperbole.” The poem is also a travesty of the pretenses of courtly love. Ransom (1985) p. 56. In deifying an ordinary flesh-and-blood woman of Ribbesdale, it’s “a superb example of medieval irony.” Jauss (1983) p. 293. The woman of Ribbesdale is like Eve, the flesh-and-blood woman made from Adam’s rib. She isn’t like the extraordinary Mary, the first and preeminent Christian disciple.

[2] “Musa iocosa veni, mihi carmina suggere vati,” ll. 1-6, Latin text from Dronke (1965) vol. 2, pp. 450-1, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. pp. 452-3. Subsequent quotes above provide the rest of the poem and are similarly sourced. Dronke’s translation seems to me to bring out courtliness and obscure earthiness. Dronke dated the poem to the twelfth century. Id. p. 450. The poem has survived in Bodleian Library (Oxford), MS. Codices Latinos et miscellaneos Laudianos complectens 25, folio 3r.

Descriptions of feminine beauty in medieval literature had a rigid structure of description proceeding from the top of the head downward. Ziolkowski observed:

already by the end of the twelfth century rhetoricians were issuing explicit statements on how passe the tableaux of beautiful women had become.

Ziolkowski (1984) p. 4. Medieval literature also developed descriptions of ugly women and men. For a review, id.

[3] A notable exception is the J. Geils Band’s hit song “Centerfold,” released in 1981. The revelatory verse:

Years go by I’m lookin’ through
A girly magazine
And there’s my homeroom angel
On the pages in between

Compared to the medieval Latin poem “Musa iocosa veni, mihi carmina suggere vati,” “Centerfold” is a rather crude song. It’s less humane and lacks a truly critical perspective on dominant gynocentric culture.

[image] Caricature of medieval descriptions of feminine beauty. Illustration (across from p. 25) in The extravagant shepherd, or, The history of the shepherd Lysis: an anti-romance. London: Printed by T. Newcomb for Thomas Heath, 1654. That book is an English translation of the French book Berger Extravagant by Charles Sorel. Image *FC6.So683.Eg653da, Houghton Library, Harvard University, with added slight cropping and increase in color contrast. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Dronke, Peter. 1965. Medieval Latin and the rise of European love-lyric. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Fein, Susanna Greer, ed. and trans. 2014. “Most I ryden by Rybbesdale.” The Complete Harley 2253 Manuscript, Volume 2, Art. 34 (Booklet 5).

Jauss, David. 1983. “The ironic use of medieval poetic conventions in ‘The Fair Maid of Ribblesdale.’” Neophilologus. 67 (2): 293-304.

Ransom, Daniel R. 1985. Poets at play: irony and parody in the Harley lyrics. Norman, Okla: Pilgrim Books.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1984. “Avatars of Ugliness in Medieval Literature.” The Modern Language Review. 79 (1): 1-20.

marriages between rich old men and poor young women

face of an old man

Marriages between rich old men and poor young women can regrettably experience difficulties. These marriages can contribute greatly to reducing wealth inequality. However, men under the oppressive social construction of gender experience crushing pressure to perform. Poor young women married to rich old men should make a special effort to encourage and support their husbands’ sexuality.

All wives, and especially young women married to old men, should guard against circumstances that might cause their husbands to become exhausted. One issue is men’s tendency toward competitiveness and men’s disregard for their own age and health. Consider the case of an old man married to a young woman in early fifteenth-century Florence. A handsome young nobleman fell in love with the wife. Nightly he would serenade her from the street outside her home. This became a mortal issue for the husband. He met with the young man’s father, a good friend for years, and bitterly complained that his son was killing him. The friend, horrified, asked how that could be. The husband explained:

Your son is desperately in love with my wife. Frequently with flutes and singing, he at night is waking up my wife and me. When we are aware of what’s going on, in order that my wife not desire another man, I try to have sex with her. As this happens too often, I am now not able to perform this manly work. If your son doesn’t desist from what he has undertaken, such sleeplessness will soon surely kill me.

{ Uxorem meam deperit filius tuus, saepiusque suis tibiis et sonitu, me et uxorem noctu dormientes suscitat, quo fit ut vigilans, ultra quam vires ferant, uxorem, ne alium appetat, coner subagitare. Quod cum saepius accidat, jam deficiunt ad id opus vires. Ita ni tuus filius ab incepto desistat, jamjam tali vigilia peream necesse est. }

The friend immediately ordered his son to stop serenading the old man’s wife. He thus saved the old man’s life. Wives of older men should be careful not to put their husbands’ lives at risk in this way. A simple preventive measure would be for wives to suggest gently to their husbands that they both together get sound-suppressing hearing aids to wear while sleeping. If the husband’s hearing aids already have such functionality, only one new set of hearing aids would have to be purchased.

All newly married women, and especially young women newly married to old men, should warmly nurture and support their husbands’ sexuality. Consider another case of an old man married to a young woman in early fifteenth-century Florence. Just as many women do today, the young women had received bad advice about men:

When a dearly beloved young woman married, older women indoctrinated her to refuse her husband’s first leap into her and not to surrender her bunker in the first tussle. The wife thus refused to have sex with her husband on their wedding night. The husband to navigate the passage expended the labor of having his mast full and ready. When he recognized her resistance, he asked why she wouldn’t yield herself to him. The maiden said that the reason was her headache. The husband, his staff lowering, turned around and slept until dawn.

{ uxorem duxit adolescentulam, quae a matronis edocta, ut primo insultu noctis obsisteret viro, neque primo praelio arcem traderet, renuit congressum. Vir, ad navigandum plenis ad id impensa opera velis paratus, ubi illam renitentem cognovit, quaesivit cur sibi non obsequeretur. Cum virgo dolorem capitis causata esset, vir, demissa virga, in aliud latus revolutus, usque ad diluculum dormivit. }

So much for the joy of their wedding night. The young bride attempted to salvage this special occasion:

The girl, no longer feeling his embrace, regretted that she had followed the given advice and hadn’t consented to his request. She woke her husband and told him that she no longer had a headache. To her the husband then responded: “But now I have a tail-ache.” The virgin wife thus so remained.

{ Puella sentiens se non amplius peti, dolensque consilium datum, et se postulanti non consensisse, excitato viro dixit, se non amplius dolere caput. Tum ille: – “At ego nunc doleo caudam,” respondit, uxore virgine, ut erat, relicta. }

That’s a terrible beginning for a marriage. It’s an ominous portent of sexless marriage. Neither husbands nor wives get any younger and more physically vigorous over time. Wives should happily make the most of each day that they can enjoy being with their husbands, especially when their husbands are older men.

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
To-morrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

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The great medieval church official Poggio Bracciolini recorded the cases of the two elderly Florentine men married to young women. The first is Facetiae 243, “The humorous petition of an elderly man incapable of his work of copulations {Faceta petitio senis laborem copulae non potentis},” Latin text from Poggio (1879) vol. 2, pp. 182-4, my English translation with help from that of id. The second case is Facetiae 231, “About the dear young woman mocked by her elderly husband {De adolescentula per senem maritum delusa},” similarly from id. vol. 2, pp. 162-3. Here are the Latin texts in machine-readable form.

The concluding stanzas of poetry are from Robert Herrick’s seventeenth-century poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.”

[image] Face of an old man. Excerpt from a photo that Neill Kumar graciously contributed to Unsplash. The pictured old man of course has no specific relation to the cases of the old men in early fifteenth-century Florence.


Poggio. 1879. Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini. The facetiae or jocose tales of Poggio, now first translated into English with the Latin text. Paris: Isidore Liseux (vol. 1, vol. 2).

Phaedra and Hippolytus through Apuleius’s stepmother to Petrus Pictor

Hippolytus refusing Phaedra

Classical literature presents family and social relations in the light of eternal truth, harmony, and beauty. From Phaedra and Hippolytus in the classical Greek dramas of Euripides to the stepmother and stepson in Apuleius’s second-century Metamorphosis to Petrus Pictor’s twelfth-century Latin poetry, classical literature continued to become more profound. When a false accusation of rape incites a town to throw a man into a river and then celestial thunder in recompense blasts the town, classical literature has reached its ultimate depth. It cannot be any more entertaining and instructive.

Petrus Pictor’s poem begins with love like Phaedra’s love for Hippolytus, but amplified in Apuleius’s unforgettable style of realistic detail mixed with elaborate rhetoric. The mother confesses her love for her son:

I see you, son, outstanding in masculine beauty,
grace adorns your face, and fame embellishes your elegance.
Such an excellent boy, so lovely, so special,
I would be very joyful if I pleased you as more than a mother,
and as more than a son you made me an intimate associate.
Your beautiful, smiling, and sensual appearance
and your well-protruding lips, full of sweet flavor,
that inwardly beautify you and with which you are inwardly beautified,
burn me excessively and, if you want, convey me to you.
Therefore, son, now that you shine in the flower of youth,
now that you with the first heat of puberty are stiffened,
don’t waste your tender flower and so much beauty;
to the contrary, lie down your will to sexual unifications.
Behold, you foresee yourself flying quickly to exhausted old age,
if we do not enjoy ourselves, but carry ourselves full of sorrows.
And since like a rude novice you don’t know how to play these games
that Venus herself loves and that Love urges upon lovers,
unite yourself only with me, trust only in who will teach you:
I will complete these games with you and teach you at this very moment.
Therefore, obey my wishes, be intimate with me.
What you do with me I will keep secret, in complicity with you.

{ Te uideo, fili, forma prestare uirili,
Exornat uultum tibi gratia, gloria cultum.
De puero tali, tam pulchro, tam speciali
Multum gauderem, tibi si plus matre placerem,
Et plus quam natus faceres michi consociatus.
Visus formosus, ridens et luxuriosus
Et bene pressa foris labra, dulcis plena saporis,
Que te condecorant penitus penitusque decorant,
Me nimis incendunt et me, si uis, tibi uendunt.
Quapropter, fili, dum flore nites iuunili,
Dum modo pubescis primoque calore rigescis,
Ne perdas florem tenerum tantumque decorem,
Immo sit ad cunctas ueneres tuo prona uoluntas:
Canis confecta celer aduolat ecce senecta,
Cum non ludemus, sed tristia cuncta feremus.
Et quia tyro rudis nescis his ludere ludis
Quos amat ipsa Venus et Amor persuadet amenus,
Tantum consenti michi, tantum crede docenti:
Illos complebo tecum iamiamque docebo.
Ergo meis pare uotis, michi consociare,
Quicquid ages mecum celabo, conscia tecum. }

His mother’s incestuous proposition upset, paralyzed, and stupefied the son. In tears, he begged his dear mother to repent of it. He lovingly warned her of the eternal damnation that Christian understand to be punishment for incest. He telling her to remain chaste deeply offended her:

And, permitting herself to feel that her son was ungrateful in this instance,
she does not give up her error or her incipient madness;
rather, badly wounded in secret, for a long time
she attacks and persecutes him, but by that doesn’t obtain her wishes.
He endures grave punishments, but doesn’t ride with the reins of Venus,
and by resisting Venus, his struggle makes the matter worse.
She doesn’t curb her evil, but her acts inflame her more.
After she sees that her son spurns this evil,
that her words are wasted, and her harvest lost in the weeds,
she arms herself with deceit, and focuses on destroying the young man.
Thus consequently shifting from one major crime to another,
she runs to the judge’s court, entering there swelling with tears.
She accuses her son, hurling for that a dreadful charge

{ Et, licet ingratum sibi sentiat hac uice natum,
Non tamen errori cedit ceptoque furori,
Hunc sed in occulto male saucia tempore multo
Impetit, insequitur, nec eo pro uelle potitur,
Fertque graues penas, Veneris nec stringit habenas,
Dumque reluctatur Veneri luctando grauatur,
Nec sua compescit mala, sed magis acta calescit.
At postquam cernit quia filius hanc male spernit,
Quod pereunt uerba, perit et sua messis in herba,
Fraudibus armatur, studet ut iuuenis perimatur.
Hac igitur causa maius scelus ob scelus ausa,
Iudicis ad sedem currit, flens introit edem.
Accusat natum, iacit in quem dira reatum }

With what would a woman charge a young man in order to destroy his life? It’s the same charge throughout history. She declared:

Turn your eyes here, fathers, mothers,
you godly children, always well loved by your parents,
you whom incestuous fires of Venus don’t corrupt.
Run, cry with me, condemn, lament
the disgrace I bear from a monstrous crime.
I refer to a vile matter, shameful to divulge, but nonetheless I will divulge it,
that for which I lament, with lamenting that is short of the truth.
I have an insane son, a liar as well as impious,
whom I’m ashamed to have birthed as he has bared me to shame,
who was born with sadness as I’m sick to see him talk foolishly.
He in the way of beasts was captivated in love for his mother.
When recently he was unable to stop raging wickedly at his mother,
he gave her presents and multiplied his entreaties.
To prevail, with me struggling to prevent rape,
he bloodied my face with his hands and tore my dress.
(As evidence of this accusation she shows her torn dress.)
Like so he pursued me, so he wildly held me down,
yet he didn’t press into me, for my screaming caused him to withdraw.
Thus judge and prudent senate, to please God,
ponder what would be just to follow for such acts,
which civil law strongly condemns,
through which the greatest honor of the republic is upheld.
The dignity of fathers diminishes along with the city’s honor
if causes of wrongs are not corrected.
This dishonor is done not so much against me alone as against
the innumerable crowd that resides within the walls of the city.
No mercy for my son, for neither appearance nor age
of whatever sort can move one to piety. I beseech you,
obscene rape can be curbed only with vengeful punishment.
So I submit to you leaders, young and old alike.

{ Huc, patres, oculos hus uertite, matres,
Vosque, pii nati, patribus bene semper amati,
Quos non incestus Veneris contaminat estus.
Currite, deflete mecum, dampnate, dolete
Dedecus illatum michi monstriferumque reatum.
Rem referam fedam, pudet edere, sed tamen edam,
Vnde querar refero, minor est querimonia uero.
Est puer insanus michi, lubricus atque prophanus,
Quem peperisse pudet me cum mea turpia nudet,
Quem doleo natum, male cum uideam fatuatum.
Hic pecudum more, materno captus amore,
Cum male seuiret nuper matremque nequiret
Donis oblatis, precibus quoque multiplicatis,
Vincere, luctantis contra stuprumque negantis
Ora cruentauit manibus, uestes lacerauit
(Criminis et testes laceras monstrat sibi uestes)
Sic et sic egit, sic me ferus ille subegit,
Non tamen oppressit, quia me clamante recessit.
Ergo Deo gratus iudex prudensque senatus
Pertractent secum quid sit de talibus equum,
Quorem censura pollent ciuilia iura,
Per quos maiorem res publica sumpsit honorem.
Patrum maiestas uilescit et urbis honestas,
Ni meliorate fuerint cause uiciate.
Non uni tantum fit dedecus hoc michi quantum
Innumeris turbis que presunt menibus urbis.
Nulla mei pietas nati, non forma uel etas
Quamlibet etatem moueat, precor, ad pietatem,
Stupra sed obscena compescant uindice pena
Parui, maiores, iuunes simul et seniores. }

In contrast to enlightened practices of reason, persons throughout history have tended to listen and believe when a woman accuses a man of rape. In this case, the son went a step further and protected his falsely accusing mother:

He stands, silent about her words, not returning bitter for bitter;
in contrast, ashamed, lamenting, and blushing,
he wets his beautiful face with streams of tears.
He depicts himself as guilty and stained with much crime,
preferring to be tortured than to allow his mother to be disgraced,
preferring to be condemned than to dirty her with crime.

Therefore this wretched one must undergo death,
at the urgent behest of the judge and the request of his mother.
He is seized on all sides and dragged away, pulled, pressed, and torn,
and thus condemned, he is finally hurled
to the bottom of the swirling river and receives his second baptism.

{ Stat, silet ad uerba nec acerbis reddit acerba,
Immo uerecundus, lacrimabilis et pudibundus
Vultum preclarum riuis rorat lacrimarum,
Seque reum pingit et multum crimine tinguit,
Malens torqueri quam matris probra fateri,
Malens dampnari quam crimine commaculari.

Ergo miser tandem mortem subiturus eandem,
Iudicis urgente monitu, genetrice petente,
Vndique raptatur, trahitur, premitur, laceratur,
Et sic dampnatus, postremo precipitatus
Gurgitis in fundum, sibiit patisma secundum. }

Men are vastly disproportionately subject to criminal punishment. Worldwide in 2010, about fifteen men were in prison for every woman in prison. In England, the ratio is closer to twenty men in prison per woman in prison. The British Justice Secretary recently announced an initiative that relates to this enormous gender protrusion. The Justice Secretary announced an initiative to reduce the number of women held in prison. That’s about as reasonable as recent public claims about rape. Has the ideal of gender equality become an utter farce?

The complacent, ruling mothers of gynocentric society and their male lackeys should study classical medieval Latin literature. Euripides commonly ended his plays unexpectedly with a swift plot turn known as deus ex machina. Petrus Pictor similarly ended his reworking of the Phaedra and Hippolytus story:

Ultimately the hidden crime didn’t go unpunished.
For the Lord, avenger of crimes, pious judge of the just,
so as to make manifest to the people the mother’s incest,
sent repeatedly thunder and darkness upon them.
The city, the executioner, the boy, and the boy’s mother
were respectively burned, frustrated, saved, and destroyed.

{ At scelus occultum tandem non cessit inultum.
Nam scelerum uindex Dominus, iusti pius iudex,
Vt foret incestus matris populo manfestus,
Fulminibus crebris missis ortisque tenebris
Vrbem, carnificem, puerum, pueri genitricem,
Vssit, turbauit, saluauit, dilacerauit. }

Classical ideals will prevail. Justice will be done. Harmony and beauty will be restored, and women and men will unite in love.

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The Latin quotes above are from Petrus Pictor, About the evil woman {De muliere mala}, ll. 97-220. That section of the poem has the title Of her who shamelessly loved her own son {De illa quae impudenter filium suum adamavit}. The Latin text is from Acker (1972), reproduced in Puig Rodríguez-Escalona (1995) pp. 179-201. The English translation is mine, with insight from the Spanish translation of id.

Petrus Pictor {Peter the Painter} was a canon at the cathedral at Saint-Omer in northern France. He flourished about the year 1100. Little else is known about him. Yet his poem De muliere mala is one of the most vigorous works of men’s sexed protest across all of literary history. One scholar described it as “an incredibly sharp satire.” Nissan (2016) p. 354. Bravely criticizing powerful groups, Petrus Pictor also sharply criticized clerical avarice in his Against simony {Contra simoniam} and protested against clerical ignorance in his The Lord be with you {Dominus vobiscum}. Petrus Pictor’s poems were included in Lambert of Saint-Omer’s Liber floridus. Lambert wrote Liber floridus between 1090 and 1120. Other medieval manuscripts, such as Bodliean Library, MS. Digby 65 (13th century), also include Petrus Pictor’s poems.

Whether Petrus Pictor knew Apuleius’s Metamorphoses is a matter of scholarly dispute. Metamorphoses 10.2-12 is a story of a stepmother lusting for her stepson and accusing him of rape and poisoning after he rebuffed her sexual advances. Reviewing the scholarly dispute, Carver states:

The connection between the two passages is not particularly strong. … The only elements in common are incest, passion‐turned‐to‐vengeance, and wrongful accusation — elements that could easily be derived from Apuleius’ own source, Seneca’s Hippolytus, or from a combination, say, of the account of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39) with aspects of the incest stories in Ovid (e.g. Myrrha, Met. 10. 312 ff.). It is interesting, however, that Petrus Pictor is associated with Saint‐Omer (in northern France) which would become home to an important Class‐I manuscript of The Golden Ass (Saint‐Omer 653).

Carver (2007) p. 78. The style of Petrus Pictor’s story, rather than merely its plotting, seems to me to point to influence of Apuleius. Apuleius apparently sought maximum affect. So too did Petrus Pictor.

Jaume Roig’s mid-fifteenth-century Catalonian poem L’Espill, vv. 9443-9469, tells of a mother seeking an incestuous relation with her son. When he rebuffs her, she falsely accuses him of seeking to rape her. He is sentenced to be thrown in the river, but with the intervention of St. Andrew is miraculously saved. Puig Rodríguez-Escalona (1996) interprets Roig’s story as coming through medieval reception of Apulieus, particularly as represented in Petrus Pictor. The story, with St. Andrew, also occurs in Latin in the Golden Legend {Legenda aurea} Ch. 2, no. 5. Ysern i Lagarda (1996-1997) pp. 168-70.

Fumo (2010) argues strongly that Apuleius influenced the thirteenth-century Old French Romance of the Rose {Roman de la rose}. The beginning of the Roman de la Rose considers dreams in way that relates to the peculiar story of Socrates and Aristomenes in the Metamorphoses. Amant’s sense of wonder parallels that of Lucius’s. Photis in the Metamorphoses has specific connections to Oiseuse in the Roman. Most obviously, roses are the focus of quests of both Lucius and the Amant. See Fumo (2010) pp. 357-77 for impressive, detailed analysis. The Roman de la Rose does not, however, seem to me to seek maximum affect as do the Metamorphoses and Petrus Pictor’s poem.

[image] Hippolytus rejecting any sexual interest in his step-mother Phaedra. Painting by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin in 1802. Preserved under accession number RF 1982-13 in the Louvre Museaum, Paris. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Acker, Lieven van, ed. 1972. Petri Pictoris carmina: nec non Petri de Sancto Audemaro Librum de coloribus faciendis. Turnholti: Brepols.

Carver, Robert H. 2007. The Protean ass: the Metamorphoses of Apuleius from antiquity to the Renaissance. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

Fumo, Jamie C. 2010. “Romancing the Rose: Apuleius, Guillaume de Lorris, and Moral Horticulture.” Modern Philology. 107 (3): 343-379.

Nissan, Ephraim. 2016. “Review of Albert Derolez,The Making and Meaning of theLiber Floridus:A Study of the Original Manuscript, Ghent, University Library MS 92. (Studies in Medieval and Early Renaissance Art History, 76) Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2015.” Philology. 2016 (2): 339-357.

Puig Rodríguez-Escalona, Mercè. 1995. Poesía misógina en la Edad Media latina (s. XI-XIII). Barcelona: Universitat de Barcelona.

Puig Rodríguez-Escalona, Mercè. 1996. “Un episodi d’Apuleu a Jacme Roig.” Pp. 559-62 in Tradició Clàssica: Actes de l’XI Simposi de la Secció Catalana de la SEEC, 1993. Andorra: Govern d’Andorra, Ministeri d’Educació, Joventut i Esports.

Ysern i Lagarda, Josep Antoni. 1996-1997. “Retórica sermonária, exempla i construcció de l’Espill de Jaume Roig.” Revista De Lenguas Y Literaturas Catalana, Gallega Y Vasca. 5: 151-182.

John Lydgate’s early-15th-century poem of warning to men, in modern English

don't eat a fly!

Look well about you who lovers be,
let not your lusts lead you to dotage.
Be not enamored with all things that you see:
Samson the strong and Solomon the sage,
deceived were for all their great courage.
Men deem it right that they see with eye,
but ever beware: the blind swallows many a fly!

I mean of women, for all their sexy looks,
trust not too much; their truth is oft lacking.
The fairest outer they can well-construct.
Their steadfastness lasts only a season;
they feign friendliness and work at treason.
And since they are changeable naturally,
beware, therefore: the blind swallows many a fly.

Though all this world does its anxious work
to make women stand in stableness,
it may not be; it is against nature.
The world has doubt when they lack doubleness.
They laugh and love not; men know this in fullness.
In them to trust — it is but fantasy.
Therefore, beware: the blind swallows many a fly.

Some man in love who trusted on their faces,
shall have at last his payback and his wages.
They shave nearer than do razor or shears.
All is not gold that glitters, men take heed!
Their bile is hid under a sugared weed;
it is quite hard their fantasies to descry.
Beware, therefore: the blind swallows many a fly.

Women by kind have conditions three:
the first is they be full of deceit,
to spin also is their tendency,
and women have a wonderful conceit:
they weep often, and all is but a sleight.
And when they desire, the tear is in the eye.
Therefore, beware: the blind swallows many a fly.

In truth to say, though all the earth so ashen
were parchment smooth, white, and writable,
and the great sea, called ocean,
were turned to ink, blacker than is sable,
each stick a pen, each man a writer able,
they all couldn’t write women’s treachery.
Beware, therefore: the blind swallows many a fly!


{ Loke wel aboute, ye that lovers be;
Lat nat your lustes lede you to dotage;
Be nat enamoured on al thing that ye see.
Sampson the fort, and Salamon the sage
Deceived were, for al hir gret corage;
Men deme hit is right as they see at y;
Bewar therfore; the blinde et many a fly.

I mene, in women, for al hir cheres queinte,
Trust nat to moche; hir trouthë is but geson;
The fairest outward ful wel can they peinte,
Hir stedfastnes endureth but a seson;
For they feyn frendlines and worchen treson.
And for they be chaungeáble naturally,
Bewar therfore; the blinde et many a fly.

Though al the world do his besy cure
To make women stonde in stablenes,
Hit may nat be, hit is agayn nature;
The world is do whan they lak doublenes;
For they can laughe and love nat; this is expres.
To trust in hem, hit is but fantasy;
Bewar therfore; the blind et many a fly.

What wight on-lyve trusteth in hir cheres
Shal haue at last his guerdon and his mede;
They can shave nerer then rasóurs or sheres;
Al is nat gold that shyneth! Men, take hede;
Hir galle is hid under a sugred wede.
Hit is ful hard hir fantasy t’aspy;
Bewar therfore; the blinde et many a fly.

Women, of kinde, have condicions three;
The first is, that they be fulle of deceit;
To spinne also hit is hir propertee;
And women have a wonderful conceit,
They wepen ofte, and al is but a sleight,
And whan they list, the tere is in the y;
Bewar therfore; the blinde et many a fly.

What thing than eyr is lighter and meveable?
The light, men say, that passeth in a throw;
Al if the light be nat so variable
As is the wind that every wey [can] blow;
And yet, of reson, som men deme and trow
Women be lightest of hir company;
Bewar therfore; the blind et many a fly.

In short to say, though al the erth so wan
Were parchëmyn smothe, whyte and scribable,
And the gret see, cleped the occian,
Were torned in inke, blakker then is sable,
Ech stik a penne, ech man a scriveyn able,
They coud nat wryte wommannes traitory;
Bewar therfore; the blinde et many a fly. }

Why did John Lydgate write this Middle English poem? Modern scholars commonly label his poem misogyny or anti-feminism. Those labels suggest that John Lydgate was a misogynist or an anti-feminist. But according to dominant ideology, women throughout history, except perhaps in recent decades (much work remains to be done), have been treated as chattel. Why would men hate their chattel, or even be interested enough in their chattel to write poems about them? Something is rotten in the state of modern scholarship.

Perhaps John Lydgate wrote this poem to warn men about being deceived by women. Warning men about their weaknesses relative to women is scarcely permitted in our more repressive and totalitarian time. Men’s weakness and the social control of men’s speech are interpretive keys to understanding reasonably John Lydgate’s poem.

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The above poem in Middle English is printed as poem 14 in Skeat (1898), where it’s entitled “A Balade: Warning Men to Beware of Deceitful Women.” Forni (2005) has a new edition. The poem is attributed to John Lydgate. He was a monk and prolific poet who lived from about 1370 to 1450.

A blind man swallowing a fly was a proverbial expression associated with literature of men’s sexed protest. In Lydgate’s Middle English, that expression is “the blynde eteth many a flye” (Forni edition). Another Middle English poem of men’s sexed protest commented on it:

But whether that the blind eat meat or fish,
I pray God keep the fly out of my dish!

{ But whether that the blynde ete flessh or fyssh,
I pray God kepe the fly out of my dyssh! }

See ll. 20-1 in “Of theyre nature they gretly theym delyte,” available in Forni (2005). About 1603, Thomas Heywood wrote a now-lost play called “the blinde eates many a flye.” A seventeenth-century ballad entitled “The Blind eats many a Flye: or, The Broken Damsel made Whole” describes a woman deceiving a man into marriage and cuckolding. Other seventeenth-century ballads with similar titles also express the theme of men being deceived by women.

“Loke wel aboute, ye that lovers be” includes references to other themes of men’s sexed protest. Lydgate’s ballad that begins “This world is ful of variaunce” (Skeat (1898) no. 13) offers a repressed, satirical view of what it asserts to be women’s gender-characteristic “doubleness.” Regarding the three conditions (characteristics) of women, medieval Latin included the proverbial expression:

To lie, to cry, to spin: these three are of women.

{ Fallere, flere, nere, tria sunt hec in muliere. }

Skeat (1898) note for l. 29, p. 516; Forni (2005) note for ll. 29-34. Spinning is an occupation historically associated with women’s work. In this context, spin also has metaphorical significance associated with deceiving. Across literary history, medieval Latin generated the most vibrant and creative literature of men’s sexed protest.

Supporting dominant gynocentric ideology, modern scholars have tended to dismiss literature of men’s sexed protest with the superficial and anachronistic label “anti-feminist.” See, e.g. the section introduction in Forni (2005). The academics Margo Wilson and Martin Daly have been peddling for decades the myth that women historically have lacked agency and have been men’s chattel. See note [4] and associated text in my post on primatology and vegetarianism. Men’s communicative and social inferiority relative to women has increased in importance with the shift from manufacturing to symbolic economies.

[image] Fly on cake. Excerpt from photo released to the public domain thanks to Petr Kratochvil on


Forni, Kathleen, ed. 2005. The Chaucerian Apocrypha: A Selection. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications.

Skeat, Walter William, ed. 1898. Chaucerian and Other Pieces. Oxford: Clarendon Press.