Psellos supported gender equality in eleventh-century Byzantium

Byazantine Empress Theodora (d. 548)

Achieving gender equality today is vital for ensuring that every woman and man reaches her full potential. Yet gender equality has long been of acute concern. In eleventh-century Byzantium, the highly influential political counselor and intellectual Michael Psellos identified as a woman.[1] With his keen understanding of gender advantage, Psellos also strongly advocated for gender equality.

Psellos credited his mother with his advocacy for gender equality. Probably many years after she died and at a time when he was in serious political difficulties, Psellos wrote and disseminated a long and influential encomium for his mother Theodote. In this encomium, Psellos declared of his mother:

She became an ornament to her kind and a paragon of virtue for those who came afterwards. She passed judgment from both sides on the feminine and the masculine and did not give one gender the advantage, leaving the other with an inferior lot — that would be a sign of a thoughtless arbiter and a careless arbitration — but granted equal measure to both. And if the two genders differ in the tenor of their bodies, nevertheless they possess reason equally and indistinguishably [2]

Theodote was socially recognized as a model for proper behavior: “an ornament to her kind and a paragon of virtue for those who came afterwards.”  Her son’s parenthetical comment, “that would be a sign of a thoughtless arbiter and a careless arbitration,” indicates his own strong support for gender equality. A subtle rhetorician, Theodote’s son implied a troubling question. In the Byzantium of his time, did most women (and men) follow Theodote’s example in supporting gender equality?

Theodote herself sought to obscure her position of superiority. Her son described her as dominating all others:

{she} showed herself to be more resilient than the other portion of our species, prevailing over all men and women, over the latter by her incomparability and over the former by her superiority. … That which in others is added to the awkwardness and roughness of character, I mean being inaccessible or difficult to approach, and which discourages one from drawing near, that was given to her by the superiority of her own virtue. In short, it was not only the majority of people who feared her and held her in awe, but also her own parents, and this even in the depths of their old age, as though they were paying their respects to a superior nature which they revered and regarded as a living law. … if they did something wrong and it escaped their notice, they took care lest she discover the event.

Like many women through the ages, Theodote was a strong, independent woman who dominated the persons around her, including her father. Most historians, who have been men, haven’t acknowledged such dominance.

Theodote dominated her husband under the contrived appearance of being subordinate to him. Theodote’s son described his mother’s husband, whose name isn’t known, as a simple, mild, easy-going man. To understand his relationship to Theodote, one must perceptively interpret her son’s doubled descriptions:

To my father she was not only a helpmate and an aide, in accordance with divine decree, but also a prime agent and discoverer of the most noble things.

In other words, she told him what to do and thus ennobled him.

She arranged for my father to be dedicated to God {sent to a monastery} before her, yet again granting him precedence even in matters concerning the other life.

In other words, she sent her husband to a monastery to get him out of her life.

Now in the case of my father, whose family could trace its descent from consuls and patrikioi {highest patricians}, matters were not arranged in so fitting a manner. If one were to place him and my mother on one side of the scales and the rest of his family on the other, he would win by far thanks to the weight of my mother, but in other respects he would fall short of them.

As always, all the credit for a man’s life belongs to his wife. Theodote’s son described her as explicitly acting to obscure her superiority and dominance in relation to her husband:

on account of the equability of his soul everyone felt confident in approaching and speaking to him {Theodote’s husband} and not a single person feared to do so. Only my mother, on account of the sublimity of her virtue, did not associate and converse with him on an equal level, but as though she were inferior to him. It was only in this respect that she maintained an incongruity between them and did not speak to him in a manner according to his nature, since she did not seek to conform to his character, but rather to the ancient commandment. [3]

Theodote, not surprisingly, only reluctantly had sex with her husband. More generally, make-believe about gender equality has caused enormous harm. Many today do not recognize the wide range of injustices associated with the actual social and political subordination of men to women.

Actual, fundamental political power occasionally becomes visible. Michael Psellos’s Chronographia states:

The {Byzantine} empire passed to the two sisters {Zoe and Theodora} and then, for the first time in our generation, one saw the woman’s quarters transformed into an imperial council chamber. One saw both the civilian and military factions agree under the supervision of the empresses {Zoe and Theodora} and obeying them more than if a strong man were seated before them and had given strict orders. [4]

With women as the sole rulers of the Byzantine Empire, women’s rule at the political pinnacle of society was no longer obscured behind men. The empresses Zoe and Theodora soon resolved to choose a man to serve as emperor for them. That formal change signified little to the knowing. Michael Psellos owed his long political prominence to his close association with powerful women of the Byzantine royal women’s quarters.[5] He advocated for gender equality with a keen sense for women’s actual power.

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[1] Sewter insightfully observed:

The two predominating passions of Psellus’s life were to get on in the world and to promote scholarship and learning.

Sewter (1953) Introduction, pp. 2-3.

[2] Michael Psellos, Encomium for his mother 25(b), from Greek trans. Kaldellis (2006) p. 96. Subsequent quotes from the Encomium are from id.:  7(b), p. 64 ({she} showed herself…); 8(c), p. 66 (That which in others…); 9(a), p. 67 (To my father she was not only…); 16(d), p. 80 (She arranged for my father…); 4(b), p. 57 (Now in the case of my father…); 9(d), p. 68 (on account of the equability of his soul…). On Theodote’s husband being simple, mild, and easy-going, 9(a)-(d), pp. 67-8.

Psellos described his mother’s parents as having a gender-egalitarian marriage:

Each of her parents had known only the other; through one another, as though they were most familiar examples, they regulated their lives toward the good, at the same time shaping and being shaped, being archetypes to one another and models for emulation. What is even more marvelous is that they receive what they give and straightway give what they receive.

Encomium 2(a), trans. id. p. 53.

[3] “Ancient commandment” refers to Ephesians 5:22-4, which should be interpreted in its biblical and experiential context.

[4] Michael Psellos, Chronographia 6.1, relevant text from Greek trans. Lauritzen (2007) p. 252. Id. also provides the Greek text. Sewter (1953), p. 113, is a less accurate translation. Zoe and her sister Theodora became empresses in 1042.

[5] Lauritzen (2007). Herrin (2001) provides a popular history of the careers of three Byzantine empresses between 780 and 856: Irene, Euphrosyne, and Theodora. Id. provides persuasive evidence of gynocentric domination through to the present.

[image] Mosaic depicting Byzantine Empress Theodora (reigned 527-548 GC). In the Basilica of San Vitale (built A.D. 547), Italy. Photo thanks to Petar Milošević and Wikimedia Commons.


Herrin, Judith. 2001. Women in purple: rulers of Medieval Byzantium. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Kaldellis, Anthony, ed. and trans. 2006. Mothers and sons, fathers and daughters: the Byzantine family of Michael Psellos. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Lauritzen, Frederick. 2007. “A Courtier in the Women’s Quarters: The Rise and Fall of Psellos.” Byzantion; Revue Internationale Des Études Byzantines. 77: 251-266.

Sewter, E. R. A., trans. 1953. The Chronographia of Michael Psellus. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

grateful cuckold: emperor accepted cuckolding for foot massage in bed

John III Doukas Vatatzes, Emperor of Nicaea

Men today endure institutionalized cuckolding through paternity establishment proceedings that systematically employ undue influence, mis-representation, and mis-service. Historically, some couples have responded to social support for cuckolding by establishing home-based cuckolding businesses. Other men have sought consolation in other ways. After his wife Empress Zoe fell in love with a charming young man named Michael, Byzantine Emperor Romanos III arranged for Michael to have official access to the imperial bedroom in exchange for Michael giving him foot massages in bed.

With his outstanding masculine beauty, Michael enchanted the Empress Zoe at first sight. Michael was:

a finely proportioned young man, with the fair bloom of youth in his face, as fresh as a flower, clear-eyed, and in very truth red-cheeked. [1]

Michael’s brother was a eunuch who had risen to high royal office. Through his eunuch-brother’s scheming, Michael appeared before the Emperor and Empress. The Empress Zoe was immediately smitten with him:

Her eyes burning with a fire as dazzling as the young man’s beauty, she at once fell victim to his charm, and from some mystic union between them she conceived a love for him. … Zoe could neither regard the young man with philosophic detachment, nor control her desires. Consequently, though in the past she had more than once shown her dislike for the eunuch, she now approached him frequently. Her conversations would begin with reference to some extraneous matter, and then, as if by way of digression, she would end with some remark about his brother. Let him be bold, she said, and visit her whenever he wished.

Like many men, Michael was slow to perceive romantic intrigue:

The young man, so far knowing nothing of the empress’s secret, supposed the invitation was due to her kindness of heart, and he accepted it, although in a modest and timorous fashion. This bashful reserve, however, only made him the more dazzling. His face, suffused with blushes, shone with a glorious colour. She eased his fear, smiling gently upon him and forgetting her usual grim arrogance. She hinted at love, tried to encourage him, and when she proceeded to give her beloved manifest opportunities to make love on his part, he set himself to answer her desire, not with any real confidence at first

Zoe was fifty-four years old, three decades older than Michael. Men tend to prefer young, beautiful, warmly receptive women. Yet Zoe offered Michael intimate access to great political power. He ultimately acted in love to serve his political interests:

Suddenly he threw his arms about her, kissing her and touching her hand and neck, as his brother had taught him he should do. She clung to him all the closer. Her kisses became more passionate, she truly loving him, he in no way desiring her (for she was past the age for love), but thinking in his heart of the glory that power would bring him. For this he was prepared to dare anything, and bear it with patience. [2]

He went on to have sex with her frequently. Lacking other good opportunities for advancement, many men will have sex with an old woman if she in return will greatly advance their careers.

Empress Zoe

Zoe and Michael’s affair became widely known in the Byzantine palace. They made little effort to conceal it. Zoe dressed Michael in royal finery. Moreover, several courtiers discovered them sleeping together. Michael Psellos, a contemporary who later wrote a history of Byzantine emperors, observed:

That she should adorn him, as if he were some statue, cover him with gold, make him resplendent with rings and garments of woven gold cloth, I do not regard as anything remarkable, for what would an empress not provide for her beloved?

In private, Zoe went even further in her devotion to the young man:

she, unknown to the world, sometimes went so far as to seat him, turn by turn with herself, on the imperial throne, to put in his hand a sceptre; and on one occasion even deemed him worthy of a crown. Thereupon she would throw her arms about him all over again, calling him her “idol,” “the delight of her eyes,” “the flower of beauty,” “the comfort of her soul.”

Zoe not only was cuckolding her husband, she also was contemplating killing him and establishing her lover as the new emperor.

Emperor Romanos willfully disregarded the serious implications of his wife’s behavior. Everyone in the palace knew what was going on. Romanos, however, had extraordinarily weak perception of reality and a strong will not to believe:

Romanos was so completely blind. However, when the flash of the lightning and the roar of the thunder did eventually play round his eyes and deafen his ears, when he himself saw some things going on and heard of others, even then, as if he preferred to be blind and deaf, he closed his eyes again and refused to listen.

Romanos eventually faced his marital situation. He sought to make the best of it:

many a time when he was sleeping with the empress and she, clothed in some garment of purple, was waiting for him to lie down on their couch, he would call for Michael, bidding him come alone, and order him to touch and massage his feet. In fact, he made him servant of the bedchamber, and in order that the young man might do this office, deliberately abandoned his wife to him. [3]

Confronted with being cuckolded, no less than a Byzantine emperor acquiesced in exchange merely for foot massages in bed.

Subsequent events were personally and politically disastrous. Zoe apparently poisoned her husband, the Byzantine Emperor Romanos III. She then installed her lover Michael as the new Byzantine emperor. Shortly thereafter, Michael began to fear her and hate her. He ceased having sex with her and essentially imposed house arrest on her. As for the Byzantine Empire, “what had taken place was, in reality, the beginning of mighty disasters in the future.”[4]

If not to preserve their own dignity, men for the sake of their country should not accept foot massages in bed in exchange for being cuckolded.

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[1] Michael Psellos, Chronographia 3.18, excerpt, from Greek trans. Sewter (1953) p. 49. Subsequent quotes are from id. 3.18-21, id. pp. 49-51.

[2] On Zoe and Michael’s ages, Garland (1996) pp. 23-4. Smythe disparaged Michael’s sexual preference:

This is a clear statement of misogynistic, if not patriarchal, attitudes.
Because of her age, Zoë is assumed to be “past it”.

Smythe (1992) p. 137. Disparagement of men’s heterosexuality can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. Claims of misogyny have developed much more recently to buttress the myth of patriarchy.

[3] The twelfth-century Byzantine historian John Zonaras suggests that Michael took such opportunities to massage Zoe’s feet as well. Garland (1996) p. 24. With free access to the imperial bedchamber, Michael could also freely have more extensively carnal relations with Zoe.

[4] Chronographia 4.24, trans Sewter (1953) p. 68. This quote expresses a general theme of the Chronographia. Michael became the Byzantine emperor known as Michael IV the Paphlagonian.

[images] (1) John III Doukas Vatatzes, Emperor of Nicaea (1222–1254), which had been part of Byzantium. Illumination from 15th-century manuscript of the history of John Zonaras, Mutinensis gr.122, f.294r, Biblioteca Estense Universitaria, Modena. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons. (2) Zoe, detail of The Empress Zoe mosaics (11th-century) in Hagia Sophia (Istanbul, Turkey). Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Garland, Lynda. 1996. “‘How Different, How Very Different from the Home Life of Our Own Dear Queen,’ Sexual Morality at the Late Byzantine Court with Especial Reference to the 11th and 12th Centuries.” Byzantine Studies / Études Byzantines 1–2: 1–62.

Sewter, E. R. A., trans. 1953. The Chronographia of Michael Psellus. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Smythe, Dion Clive. 1992. “Byzantine perceptions of the outsider in the eleventh and twelfth centuries: a method.” Ph.D. Thesis, University of St. Andrews, Scotland.

Erec testing Enide: the ultimate reverse shit-test

rhinoceras drawing

“Do I look fat?”

“No, no, you don’t look fat. You’re just b..b…beautiful!”

“You always say that. Tell me the truth.”

Now what do you say? Most men have faced these sort of tests. Experts in the applied literary art of seduction call these tests “shit-tests.” A woman throws crap at a man to test his manliness. Many men today handle the crap clumsily and earn women’s contempt.

Men typically don’t shit-test women. If a woman continually, annoyingly nags a rough, crude, unlearned man — a man who hasn’t studied medieval literature — he might turn to her, look her straight in the eyes, and say, “Shut the fuck up.” He would then slowly and deliberately turn back to cleaning and lubricating his power tools. Most men, especially today, aren’t like that.

To learn how to handle shit-tests with sophistication and success, men should read closely and ponder deeply Chrétien de Troyes’s medieval masterpiece Erec et Enide. Colossal misunderstanding of Chrétien de Troyes’s romances across centuries has promoted the love-destroying, men-abasing ideology of courtly love. Erec et Enide, truly understood, is an astonishing twelfth-century challenge to social currents then sweeping away the traditional, humane understanding of chivalry. Chided for his dedication to traditional chivalry after marrying Enide, Erec constructed a brilliantly sophisticated shit-test for Enide. Passing through the ordeal of this shit-test gained for them enduring, true love.

After their large, lavish wedding, Erec and Enide settled into a life of conjugal love. Erec as a husband stopped serving in wars and participating in sports. He even stopped watching sports. Erec focused on loving his wife:

All he wanted was his wife,
Who’d become both lover and friend.
Every waking moment
Went into hugging and kissing,
He needed nothing else. [1]

Erec’s men friends lamented that he no longer served in the army with them, nor spent much time with them in other activities. Some said that Erec had gotten lazy. Bitters spinsters spread rumors that Erec was fighting with Enide rather than engaging in violence against foreign men-enemies. In short, society disparaged Erec for his dedication to traditional chivalry.

Enide was upset about her husband’s loss of social status. She wanted him to be honored and respected as he was before they married. Erec’s husbandly dedication to having sex with her caused her to lose sleep:

In bed, where they’d taken great pleasure,
Wrapped in each other’s arms,
Their lips together, lovers
Sharing and delighting in love,
Erec slept; she did not,
Remembering words she’d heard
Spoken, up and down
The land, about her lord.
And the memory made her weep
in spite of herself. She could
Not stop. Indeed, those words
So weighed on her mind that, as luck
Would have it, her lips murmured
A few, intending no harm
And certainly not what happened.

Enide’s tears and words awakened Erec. He said to her:

My love, my dear, my sweet,
Tell me what’s caused these tears.
What’s made you so angry? So sad?
I need to know, my beloved.
So tell me, my sweet, tell me,
Don’t keep such sorrow secret.

Enide denied everything. She claimed that Erec had dreamed that she was crying and speaking of him lacking interest in engaging in violence against men. Erec refused to accept his wife’s lying:

Now you’re feeding me lies.
I know you’re lying. I can hear it,
And you’ll be terribly sorry,
Later, unless you admit it.

Enide confessed that she had lied. Then she told him the truth:

Everyone — blonde, brunet,
And redhead — declares you’ve damaged
Your name by laying down
Your arms. Your reputation,
Your name, have tumbled to the ground.
Last year, all year, they all
Were saying no one knew
A better knight, or a braver;
No one alive was your equal.
Now you’re a joke: young
And old, short and tall,
Call you a coward, a traitor.
Was it possible not to be pained,
Hearing my lord despised?

Erec not exposing himself to serious risk of bodily harm hurt Enide greatly:

Their words pressed on my heart —
And all the more because
They laid the blame on me:
That was deeply painful,
Everyone saying I
Was the only cause, I
Had taken you captive, I
Had stolen your strength away
And left you thinking of nothing
But me.

What does it matter if others disparage him for giving up violence against men and turning to vigorously loving his wife? They’re vicious, jealous idiots. Let them fight their own battles and wallow in their lovelessness. They should be ignored.[2]

Enide, however, viewed the matter according to ideology that has oppressed men throughout the ages. Men must seek and retain social status in gynocentric, men-killing society. Enide instructed Erec:

Consider, now,
How best to efface this slander
And restore your good name, for I’ve heard
Terrible things said
And never dared to tell you.
Often, remembering those words,
I could barely keep from crying.

When a woman cries, weak men will do whatever she wants them to do. Erec was a smart, savvy man, righteously pissed off at his wife’s ridiculous status-seeking. He prepared for her a complex, arduous shit-test — a shit-test far greater than all the shit-tests that all the women throughout the ages have flung at their men.

Erec resolved to set off on a long journey. He gave Enide the choice to come with him, or not, as she wished. She chose to go with him. Erec dressed in full armor and gathered his weapons, but refused his fellow knights’ pleas to accompany him to lessen the danger. He told Enide to put on her best dress and mount her finest horse. Enide, pale and weeping and worried about what was to come, dallied in getting dressed. Through a servant, Erec sent her a stern message:

Tell her I’ve waited too long;
She’s had enough time to get dressed.
Tell her to come and mount
Her horse. I’m waiting.

When Enide was finally ready, they departed on a dangerous journey.

Erec gave Enide puzzling instructions. He told her to ride out in front of him in the middle of the road. Doing that, she was sure to attract the attention of brigands and enemy knights. Yet Erec told her:

Be careful,
Whatever you see, say
not a word. Speak
To me only if
And when I speak to you.

What if she saw some danger approaching? How could she say nothing? That could mean death for her and him!

Three armed knights who lived by robbing saw them. The robbers sought their horses and their expensive furnishings. One, particularly eager for plunder, charged forward:

Seeing the thieves, Enide
Was seized with terrible fear:
“My God!” she thought. “Should I speak?
They’ll kill or capture my lord,
They being three and he
Alone. It isn’t fair
For a single knight to fight three
At once. And that one’s attacking,
Although my lord can’t see him.
Lord! Can I sit and say nothing?
Am I such an utter coward?
No, I can’t do it,
I have to warn him, that can’t
Be wrong.”

Enide thus warned her husband of their immediate, mortal peril. Erec harshly criticized his wife for her words:

“What?” said Erec. “What?
Do you think so little of me?
How bold you’ve become, breaking
My prohibition, defying
The command I solemnly gave you.
Well, I’ll pardon you once —
But let it happen again
And there’ll be no pardon. I warn you.”

Erec then turned and drove his spear into the attacking knight and killed him. Erec killed the second man and wounded the third after chasing after him. He then returned to his wife:

And {he} warned her, fiercely, not
To disobey him, but hold
Her tongue, speaking no word
Whatever without his permission.

That is a terrifying shit-test. How could Enide pass it?

A little while later, five knights attacked Enide and Erec. Erec pretended not to see them coming. Enide was perplexed and scared:

Misery! What can I do?
What can I say? My lord
Has warned me not to make him
Angry by speaking a single
Word, no matter what.
And yet, if they kill my lord
There’ll be no one and nothing to help me,
I’ll be as good as dead.

For Enide, the issue ultimately was all about her. She continued in her thoughts:

Oh God! My lord sees nothing.
Why are you waiting, idiot?
Why worry about that promise?
It’s been so long since I said
A thing! And surely these men
Mean to do him harm.
Lord, how can I tell him?
He’ll kill me. Then let him kill me!
How can I keep from telling him?

Medieval literature of men’s sexed protest tells of men’s concerns about women failing to keep secrets. Five knights attacking Enide and Erec was no secret. Enide, in mortal danger, couldn’t resist speaking of it:

So she said, softly, “My lord!”
“What? What do you want?”
“Have mercy, my lord! It’s just
That five bold men have ridden
Out of the forest, and they frighten me.
I’ve watched them coming and I’m sure
They propose to pick a fight
With you. Four have hung back,
And the fifth one’s coming toward you
As fast as his horse can carry him.
He’ll be here any minute.
And those four who stayed behind
Are still so very close;
They could all help if they had to.”

In response, Erec criticized his wife Enide. He even told her that he hated her:

You’ve done wrong,
Breaking once again
The silence I laid upon you.
I’ve always known you thought me
Worth remarkably little.
You’ll win no thanks from me,
Giving such warnings. Listen,
and understand: I hate you.

He continued:

I’ve told you before, and I tell you
Once more. I’ll pardon you
Again, but next time watch out.
Stop looking at me: it makes you
Act like a fool, because
I loathe the words you speak.

Erec calmly killed four of the attacking men and left the fifth face down in the dirt. He then angrily told his wife to “hold her tongue or live to regret it.”

This sort of shit-testing played out two more times, but the final battle was different. A dwarf knight gravely injured Erec in a brutal, drawn-out man-to-man battle. Before she went with Erec on their journey, Enide lamented:

What a fool
I am! Life was too good,
I had whatever I wanted.
Ah me! What made me so bold
That I spoke such insane words?
My God! Could my husband be too much
In love? Yes. He is.
So now he’ll send me away!
But not seeing my lord,
Who loved me better than anyone
Else in the world, will be
The worst pain of all.
The best man ever
Born was so caught up
With me that he cared for no one
Else. Nothing was missing —
A happiness more than complete —
Until pride welled up, and pushed me,
And I said such intemperate things.
My pride’s become my punishment,
One I deserve. Suffering
Allows you to understand pleasure.

Now Erec, his body lacerated and bleeding, was suffering terribly. He was nearly dead. Enide then understood:

I’ve killed my lord. My own
Folly has killed him. He’d still
Be alive — but stupid, arrogant
Fool that I am, I spoke
The fatal words that spurred him
To make this journey. No one’s
Ever been hurt by a wise
Silence, but words do enormous
Damage: and oh, I’ve proved this
Over and over again.

Enide’s words dominate Chrétien de Troyes’s romance Erec et Enide. She has eight interior monologues. Erec has none.[3]

Words mean nothing compared to the marital love of traditional chivalry. Erec shit-tested his wife with words that starkly forbid imperatives of love. Enide repeatedly ignored those words. She could do likewise to words of those who belittled Erec for devotedly loving his wife rather than spending time with war and sports. Erec, in turn, could ignore any of his wife’s words of concern about social status. Both Enide and Erec were awakened to the enlightened wisdom of traditional chivalry. Just as for Menelaus and Helen, all that ultimately mattered was being in bed together.

Chrétien, believing
Men should think, and learn,
And use their tongues well,
And teach others, has found
This lovely tale of adventure,
Beautifully put together,
Proving beyond a doubt
That no one granted wisdom
And grace by the mercy of God
Should ever refuse to share it.

“Go ahead, eat a big bowel of ice cream, you need it!”

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[1] Chrétien de Troyes, Erec et Enide ll. 2437-41, from Old French trans. Raffel (1997) p. 77. The line numbers are for Raffel’s translation. Those line numbers are close to the line numbers of the Old French text.

Subsequent quotes from Erec et Enide are: ll. 2474-88, p. 79 (In bed…); ll. 2513-18, p. 80 (My love, my dear…); ll. 2534-7, p. 80 (Now you’re feeding me lies…); ll. 2542-55, p. 81 (Everyone…); ll. 2556-65, p. 81 (Their words…); ll. 2565-71, pp. 81-2 (Consider, now…); ll. 2665-8, p. 85 (Tell her I’ve waited…);  ll. 2765-69, p. 88 (Be careful…); ll. 2826-39, p. 90 (Seeing the thieves…); ll. 2844-51, p. 90 (“What?” said Erec…); ll. 2912-15, p. 92 (And {he} warned her…);  ll. 2959-66, p. 94 (Misery! What can I do?…); ll. 2967-75, p. 94 (Oh god!…); ll. 2976-89, pp. 94-5 (So she said…);  ll. 2990-97, p. 95 (You’ve done me wrong…); ll. 2998-3003, p. 95 (I’ve told you before…); ll. 3072-3 (to hold / Her tongue…); ll. 2588-2608, pp. 82-3 (What a fool…); ll. 4598-4607, p. 145 (I’ve killed my lord…); ll. 9-18 (Chrétien, believing…). On Erec giving Enide the choice as to whether to accompany him on the journey, l. 2691, p. 85.

The last three lines of the final quote in the Old French are:

que cil ne fet mie savoir
qui s’escïence n’abandone
tant con Dex la grasce l’an done.

l. 16-8, from Roques (1955). In Raffel’s translation of these lines, I’ve replaced “use it” with “share it” for better fidelity to the Old French.

W. W. Comfort’s English translation (1914) of Erec et Enide is freely available online.

[2] On the eve of the massive, brutal slaughter of men in World War I, Professor Sheldon at Harvard pondered, “Why Does Chrétien’s Erec Treat Enide so Harshly?” Sheldon (1914). As the men-killing horrors of World War I drew near to an end, Professor Ogle at the University of Vermont discerned that the motive for Erec and Enide’s ordeal was Erec’s “sloth.” But Erec overcame his sloth and achieved a “moral awakening”:

Erec and Enide love each as deeply as before, but this love is now no selfish passion making him recreant to his knightly honor, but rather an incentive to brave, unselfish deeds, deeds that may lead to death. … the value of the episode dealing with the life of Erec and Enide in the castle of Penevric, which, as I have noted is a replica of their life in Erec’s own home, and of the Joie de la Cour; taken together these furnish concrete evidence that the moral awakening of the hero is a real awakening, that his love, although as great as before, no longer brings sloth, but acts as an incentive to high endeavor and makes him willing to face deadly peril for the sake of knightly glory.

Ogle (1918) pp. 6, 20. So much for the men-killing battlefields of the Great War. Now let us all praise the Spartan mothers! Professor Nitze at the University of Chicago responded quickly and harshly to Ogle’s claims. Nitze strongly denied that he interpreted Erec et Enide to imply that Erec challenged women’s rule. He emphasize that Enide was innocent of any wrong. She was only “the innocent {emphasis added} cause of her husband’s fall from grace.” Nitze (1919) p. 27. Women prostitutes were similarly innocent of any wrong-doing in pioneering, nineteenth-century social science. None of these early twentieth-century interpretations of Erec et Enide shows any awareness of the traditional, humane understanding of chivalry.

[3] Adhering to the orientation of their early-twentieth-century forefathers, more recent interpretations of Erec et Enide have remained resolutely gynocentric while adding more overt hostility toward men. Ramey declared:

Rather than continuing to insist upon recovering Chrétien as courtly romance writer, it would be instructive to admit the possibility that Chrétien’s work is misogynistic and to focus instead on the economic and social implications of his writing.

Ramey (1993) p. 378. Misogyny is a concept constructed to buttress the myth of patriarchy. In fact, Chrétien de Troyes shows keen appreciation for economic and social reality and the injustices of gender-based domination:

The episode of the Joie de la Cour illustrates in no uncertain terms the disaster which comes from women in power over men. … Chrétien’s response to female power is incontrovertible and entirely negative.

Id. pp. 385-6. Nonetheless, Chrétien’s romances have been widely interpreted to support men’s self-abasement to women under courtly love ideology.

Much recent literary scholarship merely recycles utterly conventional and wholly tedious anti-meninist assertions. E.g. Burrell (1997) on the male gaze and women’s silence. Such scholarship apparently led professors at the University of Michigan to approve a 111-page (body text, double spaced) Ph.D. thesis filled with mind-numbing proposals and claims:

I want to investigate whether it is possible to locate Enide’s agency (and pleasure) in her gaze even though, as Stanbury argues, her gaze is one that is inhibited by her status as a female character within a gendered narrative structure. … This dissertation builds upon the work of feminist medievalists as well as other literary and cultural scholars to argue that sight, and objects that are seen, articulate love relationships between characters in medieval romance, and that seeing is also frequently a locus of resistance to gender norms the texts both establish and refuse to accept.

Human (2010) pp. 15, 19.

[image] Rhinoceros that Sultan Muzafar of Kamboja in India gave to King Emanuel I of Portugal. Drawing by Albrecht Dürer, 1515. British Museum, #SL,5218.161, via Web Gallery of Art and Wikimedia Commons.


Burrell, Margaret. 1997. “The Specular Heroine: Self-Creation Versus Silence in Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne and Erec et Enide.” Parergon. 15 (1): 83-99.

Human, Julie L. 2010. Looking Back: Medieval French Romance and the Dynamics of Seeing. Ph.D. Thesis. Romance Languages and Literatures, University of Michigan.

Nitze, William Albert. 1919. “Erec’s Treatment of Enide.” Romanic Review. 10(1): 26-37.

Ogle, M. B. (Marbury Bladen). 1918. “The Sloth of Erec.” Romanic Review. 9(1): 1-20.

Raffel, Burton, trans. 1997. Chrétien de Troyes. Erec and Enide. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Ramey, Lynn Tarte. 1993. “Representations of women in Chrétien’s Erec et Enide: courtly literature or misogyny?” Romanic Review. 377-386.

Roques, Mario. 1955. Chrétien de Troyes. Les Romans … éd. d’après la copie de Guiot (Bibl. nat. r. 794). 1, 1. Paris: H. Champion.

Sheldon, E. S. (Edward Stevens). 1914. “Why Does Chrétien’s Erec Treat Enide so Harshly?” Romanic Review 5(2): 115-126.

De pulice: women can sleep either with fleas or with men

Flea Hunt by Gerard van Honthorst

Criminalization of men desiring women undermines men’s self-confidence and contaminates their love with fear. These effects are starkly apparent in comparing Ovid’s Amores (Loves) 2.15 to a twelfth-century recasting of it, De pulice (The Flea). Women who love men must strive to understand and counter the unsympathetic social construction of men.

Ovid’s Amores 2.15 reveals a man’s thoughts about his gift of a precious ring to a woman whom he loves. Ovid, a master of the art of love, surely knew that men need not actually give women expensive gifts in order to enjoy love with them. Yet many men throughout history have felt the need to pay for sex. Emphasizing the commodification of men’s love, Ovid’s lover closely identifies his inanimate gift with the gift of his own masculine sexuality:

Go, little ring, whose worth will prove
Nothing except the giver’s love.
Circle my fair one’s finger, be
A pleasing gift to her from me.
I hope she’ll welcome you and over
Her knuckle slip you, from her lover,
And straightaway you’ll neatly hug
Her finger, fitting just as snug
As she fits me.

{ Anule, formosae digitum vincture puellae,
In quo censendum nil nisi dantis amor,
Munus eas gratum! te laeta mente receptum
Protinus articulis induat illa suis;
Tam bene convenias, quam mecum convenit illi,
Et digitum iusto commodus orbe teras. } [1]

This poem reverses the gender of sexual figures (ring, finger). It thus insightfully indicates that commodification of men’s sexuality implies commodification of women’s sexuality. Gynocentric society punishes men in relation to women continually more severely in seeking to end commodification of women’s sexuality. That’s self-defeating folly.

Second-personal fear in love is caring. Ovid’s man imagines reciprocal, second-personal fears:

I’d not embarrass you, my dear —
No weight your finger wouldn’t wear.
Wear me when your bath is warm,
Don’t fear the stone may come to harm,
Though, seeing you naked, I’d expect
My loving member to rise erect.
Vain fantasies! Go on your way,
You little gift of mine, and may
My darling realize with you
I give her love that’s firm and true.

{ Non ego dedecori tibi sum, mea vita, futurus,
Quodve tener digitus ferre recuset, onus.
Me gere, cum calidis perfundes imbribus artus,
Damnaque sub gemmam fer pereuntis aquae—
Sed, puto, te nuda mea membra libidine surgent,
Et peragam partes anulus ille viri.
Inrita quid voveo? parvum proficiscere munus;
Illa datam tecum sentiat esse fidem. } [2]

With their ardent love, he fears harm to her reputation (embarrassing her). He in turn imagines her fearing that their ardent love might damage his penis (finger) and testicles (stones). In our age of tyrannical college sex police and sexless marriages, Ovid’s Amores 2.15 provides critical imagination for humane loving.

Learned medieval Latin poets recognized the vital importance of Ovid’s loving imagination. With the oppressive, men-degrading ideology of courtly love gaining strength in the twelfth century, men were increasingly positioned as women’s servant-defenders. De pulice begins with the white-knight good man comically striving to defend a young woman from a flea:

O puny flea, yet a bitter plague harmful to girls,
With what song shall I act against your deeds, fierce one?
You lacerate a tender body, hard one, with your bite,
Which fills your skin with blood from her skin,
You cause her body to send forth darkening stains,
Her smooth members with stains become moistened.
And when you fasten your sharp prow into her side,
The maiden is compelled to arise from her heavy sleep;
While you wander along her curves, you can penetrate other members,
You go wherever you please: nothing to you, savage one, is concealed.
Oh, it pains me to tell: when the girl reclines spread out,
You pluck at her thigh and go up into her open shanks.
Sometimes you even dare to go through her loving member
And arouse the pleasures born in those places.

{ Parue pulex, sed amara lues inimica puellis,
Carmine quo fungar in tua facta, ferox?
Tu laceras corpus tenerum, durissime, morsu,
Cuius cum fuerit plena cruore cutis,
Emittis maculas de corpore fuscas,
Leuia membra quibus conmaculata rigent.
Cumque tuum lateri rostrum defigis acutum,
Cogitur e somno surgere virgo graui;
Perque sinus erras, tibi peruia cetera membra,
Is quocumque placet: nil tibi, seue, latet.
A piget et dicam: cum strata puella recumbit,
Tu femur auellis cruraque aperta subis.
Ausus es interdum per membra libidinis ire
Et turbare locis gaudia nata suis. } [3]

While the narrator serves his gynocentric function in attacking the flea’s masculine sexuality, he cannot suppress the sense of sexual pleasure. A young woman’s hymen might bleed during her first vaginal intercourse. The poem metaphorically associates that natural effect with the staining of sin, but also with the natural moistening of female sexual arousal. The violent imagery of a hard, sharp tool that penetrates and lacerates contrasts with Christian jubilation in arising from the heavy sleep of death:

Arise, shine, for your light has come
And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

Awake, you who sleep,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.

Arise, my love, my fair one, and come,
For now the winder is past, the rain is over and gone.
Flowers appear on the earth, the time for singing has come,
And the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.

{ Surge, inluminare, quia venit lumen tuum
et gloria Domini super te orta est.

Surge qui dormis,
et exsurge a mortuis,
et inluminabit tibi Christus.

Surge, propera amica mea, formosa mea, et veni.
Iam enim hiemps transiit, imber abiit et recessit.
Flores apparuerunt in terra, tempus putationis advenit,
Vox turturis audita est in terra nostra. } [4]

The Latin phrase used for the woman’s genitals (membra libidinis) refers to that phrase in Amores 2.15.25. There it refers to a penis becoming erect in the context of loving concern for men’s sexuality. In the medieval Latin poem, the flea is ironically attacked for providing the young woman with sexual pleasure.

the flea: your enemy

In the medieval Latin poem, the white-knight good man recognizes his perversity in acting as the young woman’s servant-defender. Claims that men are pigs or men are dogs have long circulated in gynocentric society, along with more profound and less appreciated figuring of men as donkeys. In this poem, the man turns to pray to be a flea:

May I die, if now I don’t desire to become my own enemy
So that the way to my prayers might become more readily passable.
If nature allowed me to be turned into you,
And granted the power to return to my natal form,
Or if I could be changed by any songs,
My prayers by songs would transform me into a flea,
Or by potions, if potions are able to do more.
I would wish to alter the laws of my nature.
What songs conferred upon Medea or potions upon Circe,
those acts have been made sufficiently well-known.

{ Dispeream, nisi iam cupiam fieri meus hostis,
Promptior ut fieret ad mea vota via.
Si sineret natura mihi, quod verterer in te
Et, quod sum natus, posse redire daret,
Vel si carminibus possem mutarier ullis,
Carminibus fierem ad mea vota pulex,
Aut medicaminibus, si plus medicamina possunt,
Vellem nature iura nouare mee.
Carmina Medee vel quid medicamina Circes
Contulerunt, res est notificata satis. }

Medea and Circe are females who loved men. Songs (incantations) and potions helped them personally in their quests for love. Men have been historically under-represented among persons expert in these love resources. With the institutional church often failing to provide for men’s welfare, the narrating man, probably a cleric, proposed to change the laws of his nature and direct his prayers to act through songs and potions. The erotic Song of Songs (Canticum Canticorum) was sufficiently well-known to medieval clerics. Yet the narrator, in his desperation, looked to non-Christian love resources.

The laws that must be transformed are not laws of nature, but laws of gynocentric society. These laws keep men in fear. Even if men had access to the spell-binding songs and potions of Medea and Circe, men would still face sex-based criminalization. Fleas have more liberty than men. The narrator explicitly recognized the threat of him, as a man, being shackled:

By these means transformed, if so being transformed could be,
I would cling to the edge of the maiden’s nightgown.
From there moving over the thighs and under the clothing of the girl,
I would go quickly and stealthily to the places I chose,
Just as I desired, not harming her at all with having lain down,
Until I turned from a flea back into a man.
But if by chance the girl, terrified by these monstrous omens,
Forced her servants to shackle me,
Either excited by my entreaties she would yield,
Or else I would soon turn from a man back into a flea.

{ His ego mutatus, si sic mutabilis essem,
Hererem tunice margine virginee.
Inde means per crura mee sub veste puelle
Ad loca que vellem me cito subriperem,
Sicut et optarem, nil ledens ipse cubarem,
Donec de pulice rursus homo fierem.
Sed si forte nouis virgo perterrita monstris
Exigeret famulos ad mea vincla suos,
Aut temptata meis precibus subcumberet illa,
Aut mox ex homine verterer in pulicem. }

Men escape being shackled for their sexuality by turning into fleas. Fleas act with force that gynocentric society cannot suppress:

Once changed back and pouring out humble beseechings
I would induce all the gods to fulfill my prayers
Until I held, by entreaties or by force, all the goods I longed for,
And then she would prefer nothing to having me as her companion.

{ Rursus mutatus fundens humilisque precatus
Afferrem cunctos in mea vota deos,
Dum bona, vel precibus vel vi, sperata tenerem
Et iam nil mallet quam sibi me socium. }

The ending is pathetic. Being changed back suggests that the man would be shackled and turn back into a flea. But only men make prayers to gods and entreaties to girls. Having received sexual pleasure from a man or a flea, the girl would be satisfied with either as a bed companion.

You have before you fleas and men. Choose men!

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Ovid, Amores 2.15.1-6, from Latin trans. Melville (2008) p. 48. This poem is commonly known as “The Ring.” The Latin text is freely available online in the Latin Library. Likewise available is A. S. Kline’s fine English translation.

[2] Amores 2.15.21-8, trans. Melville (2008) p. 48. Mevillle translated mea membra libidine as “that virile ring.” Libidine is the ablative singular of libīdō (“with lust”). I’ve replaced “that virile ring” with “my loving member” to better capture, in my view, the contextual relations of membra libidine and its connection to a nearly identical phrase in De pulice. McKeown observed:

Mea membra (“my limbs”) is not just politely coy but also an outstanding example of the curious convention in Latin poetry of using the plural when the singular is intended.

McKeown (2010) p. 195.

The final line Melville translated as “I give her love that’s staunch and true.” I’ve replaced “staunch” with “firm” to better represent the erotic allusions of the poem.

[3] De pulice vv. 1-14, Latin text from Lenz (1962) p. 313 (a critical edition of the poem). In its theme of bodies transformed, De pulice is also similar to Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

I’ve adapted the above English translation of De pulice from that of Ziolkowski (1993) App. 19, pp. 289-90. My adaption follows the Latin phrase structure more closely, makes translation changes within the semantic range of the Latin words to reflect better my understanding of the poem, and adds lineation to make reference to the Latin text easier. Subsequent quotations above from De pulice provide the full text of the poem in serial order, with the English translation and Latin text likewise sourced.

Underscoring the importance of the issues De pulice addresses, the poem has survived in at least fifty-six manuscripts. Lenz (1962) pp. 304-311. De pulice may have influenced John Donne’s The Flea. Donne’s poem begins:

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do.

[4] Ephesians 5:14, Isaiah 60:1, Song of Songs 2:10b-12. The Latin translation is Jerome’s fourth-century translation that formed the standard Vulgate bible of the European Middle Ages.

[image] (1) The Flea Hunt, detail. Oil on canvas painting by Gerard van Honthorst, 1621. Held in Dayton Art Institute, OH. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.

A catalogue note for another version of The Flea Hunt by van Honthorst observes:

From antiquity, the flea has been used as a symbol for sex owing to its proclivity to sucking blood from its targets. Writers as early as Aristotle, Pliny and Ovid, and continuing on to Honthorst’s contemporaries John Donne, Peter Woodhouse and Christopher Marlowe, all wrote on the intimate and intense associations of the flea with sex. Honthorst eliminates any subtle innuendo here as he depicts the procuress helping the smiling, half naked woman search for fleas on her clothing, all lit by Honthorst’s quintessential candlelight.

From Sotheby’s auction entry for The Flea Hunt.

(2) U.S. Army poster (detail), made during World War II (note Japanese caricature for the face of the flea). From the U.S. National Museum of Health and Medicine, Otis Historical Archives, Reeve Photograph Collection 088266. Illustration by Cpl. Charles W. Brannon, Pfc. Andrew M. Hube (?). Thanks to the Otis Historical Archives flickr feed.


Lenz, Friedrich Walter. 1962. Maia: Rivista di litterature classiches. N.S. 14: 299-333.

McKeown, J. C. 2010. A cabinet of Roman curiosities strange tales and surprising facts from the world’s greatest empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Melville, A. D., trans. 2008. Ovid. The love poems. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1993. Talking animals: medieval Latin beast poetry, 750-1150. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Psellos’s funeral Encomium: the great mother is dead

Sylvia Plath stamp

In eleventh-century Constantinople, the leading intellectual Michael Psellos wrote an encomium for his dead mother. At the literal and interpretive center of Psellos’s Encomium is the story of a prostitute. It’s an allegory for the deathly effects of socially devaluing men’s heterosexuality. Under gynocentrism, one must praise the great mother. In his inner wisdom, Psellos came to bury the gynocentrism that so many honorable scholars have championed. “Father, father, you savior, I’m through.”

Michael Psellos’s sister befriended a prostitute. Many men, including noble men, paid this women for having sex with her. Men paying for sex indicates the extent to which Byzantine society wasn’t adequately providing men with sexual fulfillment. Acting to further men’s sexual disadvantage relative to women, Psellos’s sister sought to make this woman unavailable to men at any price. Psellos recounted:

My sister censured her often, reproaching her licentiousness and condemning her obscene behavior, and finally ordered her to go and live far away. [1]

The woman, who persisted in prostitution, responded:

But if I renounce prostitution, where then will I obtain the necessities of life?

A central ideological tenet of gynocentrism is that women work as prostitutes, or get married, only because they lack any other good alternatives for gaining the necessities of life. Acknowledging that women delight in having sex with men undermines women’s high price to men. With deep irony, Psellos recalled his sister’s response to the prostitute’s mendacious claim:

Replying abruptly and without hesitation, that girl so ardent in her love for the good or, rather, so philosophical in nature, swore awful oaths that she would furnish her not only with necessities but also with superfluous luxuries. This persuaded her and the two were reconciled: the one no longer showed herself even to the eyes of men and entirely renounced her former haunts and habits, while the other shared with her all those things of which she had need: shelter, cloths, food, and, if she desired it, even luxury. Then she gave thanks that she had rescued from poverty a soul that had become a victim of the beast. [2]

Acclaim for saving women from having sex with men spurred the development of modern social science and remains a cherished goal of today’s college sex police. Learned, rhetorically savvy, and worldly, Psellos undoubtedly understood what his sister was doing.

Psellos’s sister’s approach to prostitution engendered delusion. Did working as a prostitute entitle a woman to live in luxury? Few could believe that:

many women of the family became jealous and blamed “the savioress” for preferring an outsider {the prostitute} over her own kin. [3]

Psellos’s sister paid no attention to such criticism. She also didn’t pay attention to the behavior of the woman she had saved from prostitution. She probably enjoyed thinking about her actions in abstract morality, independent of the real living conditions of those nearest to her and the real personality of the person she sought to save.

Psellos’s sister was pregnant when she sought to reform the prostitute. After some time, she went into difficult labor to deliver the child. A midwife helped her to manage her contractions and applied lubricant to her vagina (perhaps she had a narrow vagina). The apparently reformed prostitute assisted greatly in the delivery chamber. Psello’s sister appreciated her more than the midwife. That aroused the midwife’s envy. She said:

It’s her fault your labor is difficult. For it is not permitted for pregnant women to help those in labor. This is the law of the woman’s chamber. [4]

Psello’s sister was astonished. “And which one of you here is pregnant?” she uncomprehendingly asked. The midwife pointed to the apparently reformed prostitute, pulled up her frock, and exposed her swelling belly. The apparently reformed prostitute had secretly reverted to prostitution. She evidently wasn’t prostituting herself to obtain necessities of life or even luxuries. She probably enjoyed having sex with men.

Psellos’s sister lacked humane integrity. She was suffering intensely on the way to what normally would be a joyous conclusion to a pregnancy. Yet she responded swiftly and decisively to the revelation that the apparently reformed prostitute was pregnant:

At that point my sister came close to breathing her last and, forgetting all about her labor-pains, let her soul be torn apart by unspeakable pains upon this revelation. But she did not thereby deviate from the noble precept and ordered that woman to flee immediately to the ends of the earth. [5]

The text doesn’t clearly specify which woman (“that woman”) Psellos’s sister ordered to flee.[6] The context makes clear that Psellos’s sister strongly opposed women engaging in prostitution. Moreover, the prostitute that Psellos’s sister befriended and supported in turn deceived her. Psellos’s sister understandably would be furious with that woman’s action. At the same time, exposing out of envy a friend’s deception while one is amid physical and emotional turmoil is despicable. Psellos’s sister understandably would be furious with her midwife. She ordered only one of those woman to leave immediately and forever. Psellos’s sister acted as a harsh, arbitrary, merciless woman.

The desire of Psellos’s sister to save a woman from men produced her death. When she attempted to reform the woman prostitute, Psellos’s sister was in “the prime beauty of her youth.” Yet soon after these events she died:

a terrible sickness had infected my sister’s internal organs and her liver quickly began to fester within and then became swollen. Her entire body was consumed by inner fire and her nature finally succumbed, given way before the more powerful forces. While the wasting disease had not yet exhausted her strength, she died with her body still in full bloom and good condition. [7]

Her sickness was a common sickness under gynocentrism. She had contempt for men’s sexuality. She didn’t appreciate the joy that men and women give to each other with their incarnated beings.

Michael Psellos himself appreciated bodily beauty and human sexuality. Describing a beautiful girl, Psellos explained:

It was not possible for one gazing upon her to be devoid of enchantment, as the surpassing extent of her beauty drove the pleasure deep down into one. [8]

Driving pleasure deep down into a person might be imagined as men’s sexual work. But Psellos, with an astute sense of gender reciprocity, figured the girl as the pleasure driver. At the same time, he forthrightly recognized men’s distinctive sexual vulnerability:

Her thighs widened out on either side, inferior in no way to the statue of Aphrodite of Knidos, with which, the myths say, a certain man fell in love and embraced sexually, so taken was he by the beauty of the statue. As for her legs and the harmony of her knees, the former were adorned by smoothness, the latter provided perfect dexterity in movement. Nor were her ankles devoid of grace, for those too were white and, like a flash of lightening, struck the man who saw them and knocked him out. [9]

Women’s natural beauty is enough to bring men to their knees. Psellos observed that the prostitute whom his sister attempted to reform “would paint herself up in the manner of the courtesans and enchant the many with her artificial beauty.”[10] That description shouldn’t be interpreted literally to disparage female bodily beauty or even artificial beauty. Psellos himself delighted in gazing upon an adorned woman, and he figured his rhetoric as adornment:

I once saw a bride in her bridal chamber, stunning and brilliantly adorned with cosmetic beauty. On the first day, she was adorned with a purple garment, a golden band, a shoulder-strap blooming in manifold ornamentation, and a breast-band made of shiny magnetic metal. After gazing at her for a while I became filled with her visible beauties. Yet on the second day, she changed her adornment and put on a golden embroidered garment and thus captured me again. She did the same on the third and the fourth day. Her beauty was irresistible.

Caesar, I too have discursive earrings and intelligible necklaces, ornaments for my neck and chest.  If you are satisfied with gold, I will lay naked some part made of shiny magnetic metal. If you are filled with that too, I have sapphires, hyacinths, or other stones, in varieties of both colour and power. As it seems, neither will you ever quench your desire nor will I ever lack beauty and display. [11]

Psellos appreciated men’s desire for beautiful women. Women prostitutes were prevalent in twelfth-century Constantinople.[12] Psellos almost surely didn’t oppose women offering to men sex for money. In seeking advancement in Byzantine gynocentric society, he also was politically astute enough not to advocate for gender equality in sexual opportunity, nor to speak out about the need to improve men’s sexual welfare.

Psellos almost surely didn’t intend for sophisticated readers to interpret literally his story of his sister befriending a prostitute. He wrote in his Chronographia:

Scattered all over the city {Constantinople} was a vast multitude of harlots, and without attempting to turn them from their trade by argument — that class of woman is deaf anyway to all advice that would save them, — without even trying to curb their activities by force, lest he should earn the reputation of violence, he {Byzantine Emperor Michael IV Paphlagon} built in the Queen of Cities {Constantinople} a place of refuge to house them, an edifice of enormous size and very great beauty. Then, in the stentorian notes of the public herald, he issued a proclamation: all women who trafficked in their beauty, provided they were willing to renounce their trade and live in luxury were to find sanctuary in this building: they were to change their own clothes for the habit of nuns, and all fear of poverty would be banished from their lives for ever, for all things, unsown, without labour of hands, would spring forth for their use. Thereupon a great swarm of prostitutes descended upon this refuge, relying on the emperor’s proclamation, and changed both their garments and their manner of life, a youthful band enrolled in the service of God, as soldiers of virtue. [13]

Did Michael IV Paphlagon actually follow the prostitute-reforming path of Psellos’s sister? Unlike the latter, an emperor’s proclamation and a new building in Constantinople would have been widely known. Psellos most probably fabricated the story of his sister’s action in parallel to the official act of Michael IV. In describing the latter’s act, Psellos commented parenthetically “that class of woman {prostitutes} is deaf anyway to all advice that would save them” and then described the women in their new refuge as “soldiers of virtue.” That characterization seems intended to be understood ironically.[14] Its irony provides Psellos’s inner view of his sister’s attempt to reform a prostitute through providing her with a luxurious life.

The death of Psellos’s sister is the death of his great mother. Psellos claimed that Nature modeled his sister “on the image of my mother.” Moreover, just before recounting the brief story of his sister befriending the prostitute, Psellos declared at length the identity of his mother and his sister:

she {Psellos’s sister} grew up to resemble her mother, just as though she had detached those two aspects away from her, namely body and soul, and preserved the similarity in both respects. Hence she prevailed over every other woman in these respects, except of course her mother. For she was in no way different from her and thus victory was attainable for each through the other. When my mother seemed to prevail, my sister would carry off the victory, wereas when my sister was seen to be better than the others, it was my mother who received the beauty-prize. To such a degree were they similar that the only difference between them was a numerical one. For if someone happened to see only one of them, he could be led astray into thinking that it was the other, whereas if he saw both, he would not immediately be able to discern their exact relationship. So profound and complete was the similarity between them! [15]

Foreshadowing his sister giving birth and dying in the bloom of her youth, Psellos further added:

For it was in the bloom of life that my mother had given birth to her and thus was only a few years older. Hence, she did not differ from her offspring in the bloom of beauty and as a result they were differentiated from each other in no way.

Psellos described his sister during her birth labor summarily expelling a woman from her life as action adhering to “the noble precept.” That ironically characterized precept is a metonym for his mother’s death-dealing Christian asceticism.

Reflecting women’s dominance in holding custody of children and in educating children, Psellos’s mother determined his education. She told him that she had a dream in which appeared a revered church father — one of the three Holy Hierarchs — the early fifth-century Archbishop of Constantinople John Chrysostom. Chrysostom instructed her to fill her son with learning. He told her that he would be her son’s tutor and instructor. Psellos claimed that he learned from someone other than his mother that she had another dream. In that dream, an unnamed woman-spirit instructed her to fill her son with the knowledge of literature. The unnamed woman-spirit plausibly was Lady Philosophy.[16] Psellos would have imagined her teaching him much like Lady Philosophy taught Boethius. Lady Philosophy offered the philosophy of a woman lover. The dream that Psellos didn’t hear from his mother is the telling dream of his life.

Psellos’s mother herself sought not to have sex with her husband. Psellos explained:

she desired to be separated from the world and to draw near to God, but it was not possible for her to act in this way since her husband was still alive and he also believed that a divorce from her was equivalent to an apostasy from God. … She prayed, both day and night, for the most part in secret and undetected, that she might attain the monastic life and seek the state that is devoid of passions. [17]

A wife seeking to be devoid of passions doesn’t make for a passionate marital relationship. To make matters worse, she sought to make herself look repulsive in the eyes of most men:

For she had long loved the rags made of woven hair and the belt of the solitary and this was for her the chief object of meditation and philosophy: to cut her hair to the very root, make her body rough, her knees hard with calluses, to harden her fingers, and to live purely in the presence of the pure God. [18]

Psellos’s mother apparently starved herself to death in her spiritual quest. Her pure God is a different God from the Jesus who ate with government bureaucrats and sinners and who spit into mud and dabbed the mud onto a man’s eyes to cure him of blindness.[19] Psellos’s mother lacked the wisdom of a young woman like the prostitute that Psellos’s sister befriended.

Beneath his strategic self-representations, Michael Psellos didn’t actually worship the god of his great mother. He despised the unworldly monastic life that his mother sought for herself and him:

the rod is heavy: {we are} not to touch anything, nor grumble, nor attend a theatron, nor view a hunt, nor accompany the javelin-throwers and archers, but remain at home — or, rather, not at home, but somewhere else — and kneel, and callus the knees, and turn our fingers to stone…. Summer fruit is sweet, but you shall not taste it; the draught of the spring is pleasant, but you shall not drink it; the meadow is in full flower, but you shall not approach it; the theatron is a pleasant pastime, but you shall not view it; hunting is delightful, but you shall not see the leaping hares and the pursuing dog, nor anything that enchants your soul. I fear that those who make the laws will take the earth from us, and forbid us to breathe the air. [20]

Those who make the laws have almost always been a few elite men. Just as Mary controlled Jesus’s attention at the cross, elite men legislators make laws to serve women. Men’s bodies are seized under law to fight wars, men are required under law to work to work to provide money to women and children, and opportunities for men to get together in men-only groups are severely restricted.

Psellos’s mother’s death-dealing Christian asceticism is a metonym for gynocentric oppression of men. In Psellos’s Encomium for his mother, the great mother devalues men’s humanity. Psellos shrewdly treated this effect with apophasis:

Now whatever my relatives wished for me when I was born, for instance that I would never cry, not even in the most pressing demands of nature; that I would never accept another woman’s breast but only that of my mother; and that I would recognize her as my mother through intuition and not habit, as well as all the other things about which there is no need to say anything, these, then, I leave to the women’s chambers. [21]

The inner meaning of Psellos’s Encomium for his mother is linked to gynocentrism, just as is his rhetorical strategy of irony, indirection, and allusion.[22] Psellos’s great mother died. Apparently forced into a monastery as a result of political tensions some years after her death, Psellos then issued his Encomium for his mother.[23] That action testifies to living under gynocentrism.

No irrational, childish jingle, Psellos’s funeral encomium for the great mother was a sophisticated perlocutionary act. In its inner wisdom, the Encomium urged that gynocentrism be buried and men be allowed to live successfully as fully masculine men. The intent of Psellos’s perlocutionary act sadly hasn’t been realized to this day.[24]

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Read more:


[1] Michael Psellos, Encomium for his mother 14(a), from Greek trans. Kaldellis (2006a) p. 74. The subsequent quote is from id.

Walker has provided an alternate English translation. Both Walker’s and Kaldellis’s translations are based on Ugo Criscuolo’s 1989 critical edition of the Greek text. Walker observed of the Encomium:

Another feature of the text, which I already have suggested, is its studied use of ambiguity, or of statements than can be taken in multiple or opposite senses, which often cannot be rendered in translation. … I do not think this or any translation of Psellos’ Encomium of His Mother can be absolutely definitive, given its complexities and subtleties. I offer mine, then, as one way of reading the text, one that I hope rhetoricians in particular will find useful, while I look forward to the day when there will be additional and better translations

Walker (2005) pp. 243-4. The translations above I’ve chosen to be most accessible to a non-specialist reader and most faithful to the context in the Encomium as I understand it.

Psellos’s work deserves much more attention than it has received. Kaldellis rightly declared:

Psellos deserves to be brought to the forefront of medieval and European intellectual history, where, despite long neglect he rightfully belongs. … Court orator, professor of philosophy, historian, advisor to the emperors of eleventh-century Byzantium, Michael Psellos is still one of the best kept secrets in European history.

Kaldellis (2006b) pp. 228, 233.

[2] Id. However, for the final sentence I’ve used the translation from Walker (2005) p. 264. Kaldellis’s translation for that sentence is:

She now rejoiced for having saved a soul from being devoured by the wicked beast.

At the end of the above sentence Kaldellis (2006a) p. 74, n. 80 has “Cf. Ezekiel 34:8.” That biblical verse concerns sheep becoming the prey of wild animals because they have no shepherd. The context in the Encomium seems to me to be more weighted toward worldly concerns (provisions for worldly living). Moreover, men’s heterosexuality has historically been figured as beast-like, particularly wolfish. The translation “being devoured by the wicked beast” is more negatively moralized than “become a victim of the beast.” Anti-men bias in criminalizing seduction in the U.S. and other countries is currently prevalent. That could easily color a translation of an ambiguous twelfth-century Byzantine literary text. I thus have more confidence in the less moralized translation.

[3] Encomium 14(b), adapted from Kaldellis’s and Walker’s translations. Kaldellis’s translation:

she aroused jealousy in many women of the family who accused her, the savior, of preferring a stranger over her own kin.

Kaldellis (2006a) p. 74. Walker’s translation:

several women of her family became jealous and blamed “the savioress” for preferring an outsider to members of the household.

Walker (2005) p. 74. Psellos’s sister’s role seems to me to be best marked with Walker’s quoted, explicitly gendered term. My adaption attempts to convey best the apparent sense of jealousy within a non-nuclear household.

[4] Encomium 14(d), trans. Kaldellis (2005) p. 75. Walker’s translation uses more emotional, punchy language. Kaldellis’s translation seems to me more plausible in context. The subsequent short quote is from id.

[5] Encomium 14(d), trans. Kaldellis (2005) p. 75. For “deviate from the noble precept,” Walker has “deprived of the nobler gain.” Kaldellis’s translation seems to me to bring out a plausible irony.

[6] Walker (2005) p. 201, n. 122.

[7] Encomium 15(a), trans. Kaldellis (2005) pp. 75-6. I’ve slightly modified the last sentence to make it clearer, yet consistent with the sense of Walker’s translation. The phrase “in the prime beauty of her youth” is from 14(d), trans. id. p. 75.

[8] Michael Psellos, Funeral Oration for his daughter Styliane, who died before the age of mariage 6, trans. Kaldellis (2006a) p. 120.

[9] Funeral Oration for his daughter Styliane 26, trans. Kaldellis (2006a) p. 126. Papaioannou commented:

Psellos’ detailed description of Styliane’s bodily beauty, which interests us, is the longest such description in Psellos’ funerary texts and comparable Byzantine writing. … What is clear is that the rhetor Psellos is willing to explore and appropriate the valency of bodily female appearance to its maximum. He eroticizes the presentation of his own daughter’s virginal body — the intimacy of kinship, we should note, allowed such liberty according to Byzantine rhetorical convention — and, at the same time, he displays his own rhetorical skill, exhibiting his ekphrastic discourse as the perfect mirror of his daughter’s body.

Papaioannou (2013) pp. 220-1.

[10] Encomium 14(a), trans. Kaldellis (2006a) p. 74. The Greek translated as “in the manner of courtesans” is ἔζη ἑταιρικῶς (“was living hetaira-like”). Walker (2005) p. 201, n. 117. A hetaira normally had a long-term relationship with her sex customers.

[11] Psellos, Letter 7, trans. Papaioannou (2011) p. 48. To make the translation more accessible, I’ve replaced the unusual English term “electron” with “shiny magnetic metal.”

Psellos’s also had a sense of his own physical beauty. He regarded himself as less beautiful than his sister. Encomium 13(a), with Kaldellis and Walker’s translations of the relevant text differing significantly. Kaldellis (2006a) p. 72, Walker (2005) p. 262. In Constantinople nearly a century later, Theodore Prodromos in his novel Rhodanthe and Dosikles audaciously asserted the men and women have equal intrinsic bodily beauty.

[12] Garland stated:

prostitution, too, was simply a fact of life in the capital. Seldom mentioned in our sources, it was clearly accepted as a normal social phenomenon in Constantinople and doubtless provided a large proportion of the female company that amused Andronikos I and Isaac II in their revels.

Garland (1996) p. 20. Byzantine emperors commonly had mistresses:

of the twenty-one Byzantine emperors who ruled between 976 and 1204, only eight are not assigned mistresses or described as voluptuaries in the sources … two, Manuel and Andronikos, had illegitimate children specifically named and documented in the sources … of the seven members of the Palaiologue dynasty between 1259 and 1425 who ruled as sole emperor, all are instanced as having mistresses or illegitimate children, and, in general, both, and similar claims can be made for the Laskarid and Epirote dynasties during the period of the Latin empire (1204-1261).

Id. p. 47. Royal women, of course, also participated in extra-marital affairs. Id. p. 48.

Papaioannou declared, “Christian constraints imposed strict economies on narrative expressions of bodily eros from late antiquity onwards.” Papaioannou (2011) p. 43. That’s ridiculous. The best remedy for such misunderstanding is reading Boccaccio.

[13] Michael Psellos, Chronographia 4.36, from Greek trans. Sewter (1953) pp. 73-4. Sewter’s translation “contains many mistakes, and occasionally even directly contradicts the meaning of the original.” Kaldellis (1999) p. 22. But the important aspects of the quoted passage are correctly translated. Id. p. 88.

The dating of the Encomium relative to the Chronographia isn’t well established. Psellos indicated that his history would finish with the end of the reign of Iaac Komnenos in 1059. Chronographia 7.51, trans. Sewter (1953) p. 234. Other evidence indicates that he wrote the Chronographia through to that point before 1063. Kaldellis (1999) p. 11. Along with Ugo Criscuolo, the editor of the critical edition, Kaldellis dated the Encomium to 1054-1055. He dated the relevant section of the Chronographia to “about a decade after the Encomium.” Kaldellis (2006a) p. 31, Kaldellis (2006b) pp. 224-5,  Kaldellis (2007) p. 195. Walker, however, suggested that the Encomium may have been written some time between 1059 and 1064. Walker (2005) p. 49, 64-6. The exact chronological relation doesn’t matter to the above analysis.

As in generally the case, regulation of sexuality in Byzantium emphasized the welfare of women relative to men. For example, the Latin Emperor Baldwin I (1204-5) enacted regular proclamations of sexual regulation:

twice a week in the evening he had a herald proclaim that no one who slept within the palace was to have sexual intercourse with any woman who was not his legal wife.

Choniates, Annals, from Greek trans. Magoulias (1984) p. 328, cited in Garland (1996) p. 7. Under this proclamation, women were free to sleep with men who were not their husbands.

[14] Kaldellis interpreted that comment as sarcastic:

This “army” was exempt from fighting battles. Their new “virtue” was really “luxury” provided by the State.

Kaldellis (1999), p. 88.

[15] Encomium 13(b), trans. Kaldellis (2006a) p. 73. The subsequent quote is from id. On Nature modeling his sister on the image of her mother, 4(c) trans. id. p. 58.

[16] The relevant text is Encomium 5. Regarding the identity of the indistinctly seen woman, Walker stated:

A reasonable guess is “Lady Rhetoric” or “Lady Philosophy (both were fused in Psellos’ rhetorical-philosophical ideal), or perhaps the “spirit” of classical paideia

Walker (2004), p. 78. Kaldellis characterized Walker’s suggestion as plausible. Kaldellis (2006a) p. 61, n. 45.

[17] Encomium 11(b), trans. Kaldellis (2006a) p. 70. The subsequent quote is from id.

[18] Encomium 11(b), trans. Kaldellis (2006a) p. 70. Men tend to find relatively attractive women with long hair. In the Acts of Paul and Thecla, Paul counseled Thecla not to cut her hair. Apuleius, Golden Ass 2.8 makes extravagant claims about the importance of a woman’s long hair to her beauty.

[19] On Psellos’s mother starving herself, Encomium 21-22. Walker commented, “it sounds like anorexia.” Walker (2004) p. 88. Anorexia is much more common today. Anorexia today, however, is typically associated with anxiety about worldly perceptions of one’s body and frustration about one’s scope of personal agency.

On Jesus’s behavior, Matthew 9:10, Mark 2:13-7, John 9:1-7.

[20] Michael Psellos, Letter 242, trans. Walker (2004) p. 71.

[21] Encomium 5(a), trans. Kaldellis (2006a) p. 59. Most scholars today are even more cautious in talking about gynocentrism.

[22] These rhetorical tactics are enumerated in Walker (2005) p. 240 and analyzed extensively in Walker (2004). Kaldellis (1999) analyzed Psellos’s Chronographia with similar understanding of his rhetoric. Neither recognized gynocentrism in Byzantium or in the modern U.S. and other countries. For extensive study of the ancient practice of figured speech, Howell (2016).

[23] On Psellos’s situation at the time of his writing the Encomium, Walker (2004) pp. 64-75, Kaldellis (2006a) pp. 31-6. Walker stated:

It is clear that Psellos’ encomium is not {literally} a funeral oration, and has been composed well after the events described. He describes Theodota’s funeral as an event in the past, and describes her parents as having been present and still quite vigorous at the time (24), while elsewhere describing them as having passed away (2). Their passing would have been sometime (years?) after Theodota’s death and funeral, and sometime (years?) before the composition of the encomium.

Walker (2004) p. 65. Walker guesses that Psellos’s mother Theodota died “sometime in the 1040s or early 1050s.” Id. Kaldellis stated that Psellos’s  mother’s death probably wasn’t recent relative to the Encominum. Kaldellis (2006a) p. 35. The Encomium “was probably written long after her death.” Kaldellis (2007) p. 196.

[24] Kaldellis observed that Psellos’s Encomium “ought to have been intensively and extensively studied,” but it hasn’t been. Kaldellis (2006b) pp. 227-8. In the little study that has occurred, scholars haven’t recognized its sophisticated treatment of gynocentrism. That’s the feature of the Encomium most relevant to life today in high-income, democratic countries.

Walker, in his extended treatment of the Encomium, only superficially addressed the central story of Psellos’s sister befriending the prostitute. With respect to that story, Walker concluded:

The structure of Psellos’ narrative makes it seem that her death {Psellos’s sister’s death} resulted not simply from the medical complications of childbirth, but also and perhaps more fundamentally from a broken heart. The episode is presented, in short, as a bittersweet, tragic tale of the consequences of Christian “philosophy” not balanced by the practical, worldly phronêsis of secular knowledge and experience; and, as such, it is a prelude to what will happen to Psellos’ parents.

Walker (2005) p. 84. Walker treated the story only in its locally interconnected surface narrative, ignored the distinctive identification of sister and mother, overlooked the negative characterization of all three women in the story, and didn’t recognized the story’s position in the global figurative problem of the Encomium and Byzantine gynocentrism.

[image] Sylvia Plath postage stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service. Works of U.S. government agencies are generally in the public domain in the U.S. The stamp incorporates a photograph of Sylvia Plath made by Rollie McKenna in 1959. That source photograph is held in the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography. Plath is a highly acclaimed and influential poet. Among her most famous works is a poem entitled “Daddy.”


Garland, Lynda. 1996. “‘How Different, How Very Different from the Home Life of Our Own Dear Queen,’ Sexual Morality at the Late Byzantine Court with Especial Reference to the 11th and 12th Centuries.” Byzantine Studies / Études Byzantines 1–2: 1–62.

Howell, Justin P. 2016. The Pharisees and Figured Speech in Luke-Acts. Ph.D. Thesis. Faculty of the Divinity School. University of Chicago.

Kaldellis, Anthony. 1999. The Argument of Psellos’ Chronographia. Leiden: Brill.

Kaldellis, Anthony, ed. and trans. 2006a. Mothers and sons, fathers and daughters: the Byzantine family of Michael Psellos. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Kaldellis, Anthony. 2006b. “Thoughts on the Future of Psellos-Studies, with Attention to his Mother’s Encomium.” Ch. 11 (pp. 217-233) in Barber, Charles, and David Jenkins, eds. Reading Michael Psellos. Leiden: Brill.

Kaldellis, Anthony. 2007. Hellenism in Byzantium: the transformations of Greek identity and the reception of the classical tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Magoulias, Harry J. trans. 1984. Nicetas Choniates. O city of Byzantium: annals of Niketas Choniatēs. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Papaioannou, Stratis. 2011. “Michael Psellos on friendship and love: erotic discourse in eleventh-century Constantinople.” Early Medieval Europe. 19(1): 43-61.

Papaioannou, Stratis. 2013. Michael Psellos: rhetoric and authorship in Byzantium. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sewter, E. R. A., trans. 1953. The Chronographia of Michael Psellus. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Walker, Jeffrey. 2004. “These Things I Have Not Betrayed: Michael Psellos’ Encomium of His Mother as a Defense of Rhetoric.” Rhetorica. 22 (1): 49-101.

Walker, Jeffrey. 2005. “Michael Psellos: the Encomium of his Mother.” Advances in the History of Rhetoric. 8(1): 239-313.

donkeys, penis size, and farting: their significance to men

donkey with large penis

Most men are keenly interested in penis size and farting. Greek literature from Athenian comedy of the fifth-century BGC to the second-century GC Onos tale suggests that women prefer larger penises.[1] Given their love for women and their deeply rooted concern to please women, men’s interest in penis size is completely understandable. But what about farting?

The fourteenth-century Byzantine poem An Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds strongly associates donkeys with large penises and farting. The poem refers to the representative donkey as being “of giant dick and balls.” The ox in the poem proclaimed, “I have a mighty dick, both long and fiery.” The donkey moved quickly in response:

The donkey, having heard the ox’s boast
of how his dick is long and fiery hot,
let fly a little fart and brayed a bit.
Then, heralded by blasts of breaking wind,
in he ran. As he stood on center stage,
he pricked his ears up and addressed the ox:

“You lie, long-winded fool, and boast too much:
it’s me that has a dick thick as a cudgel,
long, robust, plump, and headed with a nostril!
Not only is it bigger than your own,
but it surpasses any animal’s.
And when it’s stirred by lust and kindled somewhat,
its head becomes just like a Western saucer! [2]

Being “heralded by blasts of breaking wind” clearly marks the donkey’s entrance. Farting frequently and mightily is as distinctive to the donkey as is his large penis.

A unique fable embedded within An Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds links joyfully farting with donkeys’ oppressive workloads. According to the fable, donkeys petitioned the king of the world for relief from their burdensome share of household work. The king granted relief in a written mandate given to a donkey envoy. The donkey envoy joyfully rushed to bring the good news to his donkey brothers:

he brayed with boundless joy and called them out,
running and farting merrily on the way:
“Rejoice, O donkeys! Be ye of good cheer!
For I have brought the mandate of the king
that they should load us lightly to relieve us,
forbidding extra loading altogether.”
And just as he was braying out these words,
letting fly farts and overcome with joy,
as he was gulping down amidst his braying,
the donkey swallowed down the royal mandate,
reaching the other donkeys empty-handed.

With the donkey envoy having eaten the king’s mandate, donkeys faced being beasts of burden forevermore. To this day, they desperately search their excrement for the lost mandate for their humane treatment.[3]

Men’s interest in farting signifies their bewilderment. Has farting — an explosive, rebellious bodily function — kept men overburdened with work just like donkeys? Does farting help a man to develop a penis like that of a donkey? But what’s the virtue in being hung like a donkey if men’s work with their penises is undervalued? Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey not overburdened with baggage. Why don’t Christians honor men and donkeys more?[4] The men legislators who have passed so many anti-men laws — are they eunuchs who don’t fart? Men naturally fart and wonder.

Under gynocentrism, associating men with donkeys is much less common than asserting that men are dogs or men are pigs. Most men, of course, don’t have a donkey-sized penis. Yet Octavian after his victory in the Battle of Actium erected a victory monument that associated his penis with a donkey. Solomon and Marcolf, a medieval Latin masterpiece of men’s sexed protest, celebrates the work of donkeys and reverberates with farting. More understanding of men and donkeys and their penises and farting might be the most promising path forward toward treating men humanely.

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[1] On penis size in Aristophanes’s fifth-century Athenian comedies, see note [3] in my post on Asinarius.

[2] An Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds ll. 646-55, from Greek trans. Nicholas & Baloglou (2003) p. 195. The previous two short quotes are from l. 82, p. 165 (of giant dick and balls), l. 671, p. 195 (I have a might dick…). The subsequent quote is ll. 710-20, p. 199 (he brayed with boundless joy…). The horse calls the donkey a ψωλογομάριν (l. 665, p. 195). That’s literally ψωλο-γομάριν, meaning dick-(little beast of burden), or dick-donkey. Id p. 342. Nicholas & Baloglou translate that word in context as “Dick-O-Matic.”

Underscoring  the long history of disparaging men’s penises, in early-twentieth-century rural Greece an ox penis (βοïδóπουτσα) was used as a whip. The word βοïδóπουτσα became the term for a riot police club by the late twentieth century. In twentieth-century Brazil, the ox penis was used as a torture implement. Id. p. 337.

Quadrupeds describes animals other than donkeys as farting. The rat declares that the cat will get beaten and “start farting farts like walnuts rattling!” l. 171, p. 169. The dog said of the fox, “you swell up, fart early, and fart often!” l. 246, p. 173. Nonetheless, the farting of the donkey is more prominent in the text than the farting of these other animals.

Quadrupeds seems to have been written about 1364, probably in Constantinople or Thessalonica. Its author was most plausibly a man from “the lower echelons of the Byzantine literati.” Quadrupeds has survived in five manuscripts. The earliest manuscript (Constantinopolitan (C): Graecus Seraglio 35) was written in 1461. Id. pp. 60-71, 97-8; the quoted phrase is from p. 68.

Quadrupeds is a work of beast flytings, with pairs of beasts being members of the opposing sides carnivores and herbivores. Beast flytings also also exist in medieval Latin poetry. For a review of the Latin beast flytings, Ziolkowski (2003) Ch. 5. This type of beast poetry has been largely overlooked. Id. p. 132.

[3] A close parallel to the fable of the donkey swallowing the king’s mandate for relief exists in a folk story from the village of Pera in Cyprus. The Aesopic fable “Zeus and the Donkeys” (Perry 185 / Gibbs 568) is more loosely related. Nicholas & Baloglou (2003) pp. 40-2. Quadrupeds probably got the tale from the ancient source for the folk tale. It’s unlikely that Quadrupeds influenced oral stories. Id pp. 56-60.

[4] The Christian Gospels indicate that Jesus entered Jerusalem on a young donkey not overburdened with baggage. On Jesus not carrying heavy baggage, Mark 6:8, Matthew 10:9-10, Luke 9:3. See also Matthew 6:25-6.  John 12.14-5 states that Jesus entered Jerusalem on a young donkey (ὀνάριον). That animal was the colt (πῶλος) of a donkey (ὄνος). Mark 11:7 and Luke 19:35 simply describe the animal as a colt (πῶλος). Matthew 21:2-7 has created difficulties for interpretation. According to it, Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey (ὄνος) and her (αὐτῆς) colt (πῶλος). Matthew representing the donkey as the female parent of the (male) colt is best understood as signifying the sense of epochal change in Zechariah 9:9, meaning the overthrow of gynocentrism. In part due to lack of appreciation for donkeys, men, and medieval literature, gynocentrism unfortunately has endured.

In the medieval Latin poem “Disce, leo {Learn, lion},” a donkey described his extensive bookish learning and chided a lion:

Don’t look down on me, you who are proud with your puffed-out neck,
for the Lord of Heaven mounted upon the back of a donkey,
He who trod down the savage lion with His own heel.

{Non me dispicias tumida cervice supervus,
Nam dominus celi dorsum conscendit aselli,
Qui propria sevum calce calcavit leonem.}

Latin and English trans. Ziolowski (1993) pp. 137-8. I’ve lineated Ziolkowski’s English translation and used “donkey” rather than “ass” for asellus to be consistent in terms. “Learn, lion” offers a deeply subversive allegorical interpretation of Zechariah 9:9 and the meaning of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. That allegorical understanding probably wasn’t limited to learned clerics writing in Latin. Byzantium was a Christian society in which Jesus’s association with a donkey would be generally recognized.

A donkey’s commendable Christian charity appears in the twelfth-century Latin “Testamentum asini {The Testament of the Ass}.” The donkey’s bequests conclude thus:

to widows, my erect penis
together with my testicles.

{priapumque viduis
una cum testiculis.}

ll. 42-3, Latin text from Novati (1883) pp. 79-81, English trans. in Ziolkowski (1993) p. 299. I’ve adapted the above translation from Ziolkowski’s.

[image] Donkey with a penis. The donkey is disputing with an ox. Illumination from manuscript An Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds, Constantinopolitan Graecus Seraglio 35 (folio 53v). This manuscript was written in 1461 in Venetian Negroponte (Euboea). Nicholas & Baloglou (2003) p. 98. According to the expert and influential legal understanding of Wikimedia Commons, this image is in the public domain in the U.S.


Nicholas, Nick, and George Baloglou, ed. and trans. 2003. An entertaining tale of quadrupeds. New York: Columbia University Press.

Novati, Francesco, ed. 1883. Carmina Medii Aevi. Firenze: Alla Libreria Dante.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1993. Talking animals: medieval Latin beast poetry, 750-1150. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

women’s nature allows Amazons & other women to die like men in battle

Amazons fighting Greeks in Trojan War

Gynocentric societies throughout history have controlled men’s bodies and forced them into the horrors of war. A leading twelfth-century Byzantine intellectual expressed poetically the gynocentric sense of males being intended from birth to bleed in battle:

The newborn baby is of the male gender; male, O earth and sun! Did you see him right away as he slid out, full of blood and tainted by gore as if coming from war and battle? [1]

Overcoming gynocentrism and achieving gender equality in military service requires recognizing that men aren’t naturally destined to labor to provide goods for women and children and to fight and die in wars. According to a declamation of the sixth-century public speaker Choricius of Gaza, the Trojan king Priam long ago affirmed that women’s nature is no obstacle to Amazons and other women dying in battle just like men.

Examples from non-human animals make clear that females can be fearsome fighters. According to Choricius of Gaza, King Priam directed to an unbeliever the example of bitches:

Have you never observed the bitches among the guard dogs? Have you not noticed that they do not stay at home to breed and feed the cubs, but go out with the males in the pack? [2]

The Byzantine epic Digenis Akritis, which shows extraordinary critical awareness of women’s privileges under gynocentrism, described the hero Digenis’s encounter with a family of bears. The bear family consisted of a mamma bear, a papa bear, and their two cubs. Gynocentric society grants men respect for engaging in violent, dangerous acts. Digenis thus attacked the family of bears:

The female stood her ground and did battle for her cubs,
but he {Digenis} was quick and went for her
yet did not close up quickly to strike her with his stick,
but as he got near, he locked her in his arms
and tightened his grasp and promptly throttled her.
When her mate saw this, he turned round
and ran a mile away in flight from Digenis. [3]

The mamma bear died fighting for her husband and children. Human women are fully capable of doing likewise.

Achieving gender equality in military service and other lines of work requires only that women be trained like men. King Priam explained:

I agree that women are weaker than men, but this is a matter of training, not of nature. If we {men} were skilled by nature in war, why should we have expected our sons from childhood to engage in bodily exercise, to go out with the hounds, and to practice tracking and using arms and bows and learning all the other skills? Where nature is dominant, there is no need for labor; god needs no labor to be immortal, because it is his nature, and no man tries to be a god, because it is not in his nature. Similarly, you would not see either men or women exercising, if nature sufficed for the men and forbade the women even to wish to do so. The activities of war are so far from being natural to human beings that a person who possesses one of the skills required does not thereby have the other kinds of expertise at his disposal; among all the multitude of the Trojans and of our enemies it would be hard to find a single man who was both infantryman and archer and was well trained as a horseman. What is there surprising if practice has taught women {Amazons} to fight? [4]

Today elementary school teachers — who shape the future generation — are nearly all women. Yet, with proper training, men could succeed as elementary school teachers and in other, relatively safe, women-dominated occupations. Women could be trained to work in the dangerous occupations that for long have been mainly filled with men:

If men give up their arms and take to working wool, you will soon see them doing women’s work. How many men do you think understand weaving, how many are embroiders of clothes? They say that Achilles’s mother dressed him as a girl and made him do what girls do. So, just as experience teaches us {men} women’s work, what is there to prevent women practicing something that we do? … If you asked the Amazons to weave you a tunic, they would say, “Sir, you deceive yourself; do you not see that we carry arms? It is not our way to do this sort of work.” [5]

An ignorant one groused, just as some do today, that achieving gender equality in military service would destroy the armed forces: “success does not follow a womanized rabble.”[6] Intellectual authorities from Plato to present-day thought leaders affirm that biology isn’t destiny. Compared to women, men aren’t naturally destined to suffer more violence and have shorter lifespans. With proper training, women could relieve men of much of men’s burden of fighting and dying.

While King Priam believed that Amazon warriors could help save Troy, he deeply felt the effects of daughters not being treated like sons. Priam’s son Hector was killed in the Trojan War, and Hector’s body was then abused. Priam wept when he recalled his son Hector. Priam explained:

I do not go much among the fighting men, since I am old and cannot bear to see my sons torn limb from limb [7]

Bravely facing reality is the first step toward gender equality. Sons are not born inevitably to be torn limb from limb in military service.

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[1] From Michael Psellos, To Konstantinos, nephew of the patriach Michael Keroularios, when his son Romanos was born (written 1063-1065?), Letter S 157, from Greek trans. Stratis Papaioannou, in Kaldellis (2006) p. 173.

In another letter, Psellos similarly figured a new-born son as a man bleeding from combat wounds:

Indeed, did I even wait to see the newborn baby? No, O sacred one. I both embraced him and filled him with kisses and I almost stained my lips with blood, as if I had clasped a bravest warrior made red by blood returning from battle.

From Psellos, To Ioannes Doukas (written 1063-1065?), Letter S 72, from Greek trans. Papaioannou, in Kaldellis (2006) p. 172.

[2] Choricius of Gaza, Declamation 2.25, trans. D. A. Russell in Penella (2009) p. 78. The context of Priam’s declamation:

After Hector’s death, Achilles, having fallen in love with Polyxena, sends an embassy to the Trojans, promising alliance in return for the marriage. The Trojans deliberate; Polydamas recommends acceptance, Priam opposes.

Choricius, Declamation 1 {by Polydamas}, Theme, trans. Russell in id. p. 61. Polydamas disparaged the Amazons’ ability to help the Trojans and men’s ability to do work that women did:

We know that when a man tried to do some woman’s work, the product, generally speaking, is poor and clumsy. But if we allow that it is not normal for us to spin wool, are we to grant that they {women} can learn the experience of arms to a high standard? I do not at all agree with you here; the Amazons are indeed better than their sex, but they are nonetheless women.

Declamation 1.14-5, trans. id. p. 64.

[3] Digenis Akritis, Escorial version ll. 766-72, from Greek trans. Jeffreys (1998) p. 297.

[4] Choricius, Declamation 2.15-9, trans. D. A. Russell, in Penella (2009) p. 77. Emphasizing women’s fighting spirit, Priam also observed, “women are all contentious by nature.” Id. 2.79, trans. id. p. 85.

[5] Choricius, Declamation 2.19-20, trans. id.

[6] Choricius, Declamation 3.33 (the Lydians), trans. Simon Swain in Penella (2009) p. 92. The Persian king Cyrus, seeking to subdue the Lydian men’s independent initiatives and aggressiveness, ordered them to wear women’s clothes and sing and play music. Cyrus latter sought to recruit the Lydian men into his army. Pleading their acquired womanly ways, the Lydian men argued against their joining Cyrus’s army. The Lydian men further argued to Cyrus:

If it’s numbers you want and numbers you call protection, then it’s time to arm our women, to refuse our boys leave to reach their fighting age, and to drag from their homes those burdened with age — even if they have to stand bent over their sticks.

Id. 3.35.

[7] Choricius, Declamation 2.27, trans. D. A. Russell, in Penella (2009) p. 77.

[image] Amazons fighting against the Greeks in the Trojan War. At the center, Achilles holds the dying Penthesilea. Panel of a marble sarcophagus, Roman artwork, 3rd century GC. Item Inv 933 in Vatican Museums, Museo Pio-Clementino, Octagon Hall, Hermes Cabinet. Photo thanks to Marie-Lan Nguyen (2009) and Wikimedia Commons.


Jeffreys, Elizabeth, ed. and trans. 1998. Digenis Akritis: the Grottaferrata and Escorial versions. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Kaldellis, Anthony, ed. and trans. 2006. Mothers and sons, fathers and daughters: the Byzantine family of Michael Psellos. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Penella, Robert J., ed. 2009. Rhetorical exercises from late antiquity: a translation of Choricius of Gaza’s Preliminary talks and declamations. Cambridge: Cambridge Cambridge University Press.

John Italos & Michael Psellos: masculine troubles in Byzantium

Michael Psellos teaching Byzantine Emperor Michael VII Doukas

For passionate, intimate relationships, most women prefer smart, savvy, vigorously masculine men. The twelfth-century woman intellectual and princess Anna Komnene complained about Byzantine men before her father began his reforming reign as Emperor, under the direction of his mother, in 1081:

men for the most part lived luxuriously and amused themselves, and due to their effeminacy they busied themselves with quail-hunting and other more disgraceful pastimes, and treated letters, and in fact any training in the arts, as a secondary consideration. [1]

John Italos and Michael Psellos lived in gynocentric Byzantine society among the men that Anna Komnene disparaged. Each struggled in his own way to escape gynocentric oppression and live a humane, fulfilling life. Their representations in the deeply perceptive Byzantine satire Timarion indicate how each fared.

From a young age, John Italos was formed in the male gender role that controls men’s bodies, devalues men’s lives, and shortens men’s lifespans. Italos’s father was an Italian mercenary who hired himself out to the Sicilians. Italos himself received a military education as a boy and lived among soldiers. When a Byzantine general defeated the Sicilians, Italos and his father fled to Lombardy.[2]

Italos eventually joined the winning side as a scholar in Constantinople. He attended Michael Psellos’s lectures and succeeded him as holder of the official Byzantine title Chief of Philosophers sometime after 1054. Italos retained a martial personality in scholarly battles. Anna Komnene noted:

he was most unrefined, and subject to violent temper; and this fierce temper annulled and obliterated the credit he gained from his learning. For in arguments this man used fists as well as words and he did not allow his interlocutor simply to lose himself in embarrassment nor was he satisfied with sewing up his opponent’s mouth and condemning him to silence, but forthwith his hand flew out to tear his beard and hair, and insult quickly followed insult, in fact the man could not be restrained in the use of his hands and tongue. [3]

Being refined and rhetorically savvy (social credit) differs from philosophic merit. Anna Kommene added:

The only unphilosophic trait he {John Italos} had was that after the blow his anger left him, tears and evident remorse followed.

Crying is a potent feminine social tactic. Remorseful tears are associated with the Christian understanding of forgiveness. Forgiveness in ancient Greek literature, in contrast, involved making excuses and abasing oneself to mitigate the need for the aggrieved other to regain status through retaliatory action.[4] John Italos didn’t follow the ancient Greek “philosophic” practice of repudiating hurtful acts. Drawing upon his extensive learning in dialectic, Italos counter-balanced the masculine philosophic practice of aggressive argument with the feminine, Christian practice of remorseful crying.[5]

Tacking between masculine and feminine practices didn’t enable Italos to earn enduring acclaim in gynocentric intellectual life. In the Byzantine Hell of the Timarion, Italos attempted to sit next to Pythagoras. The latter was calmly and unemotionally debating matters with Parmenides, Melissus, Anaxagoras, Thales and other eminent pre-Socratic thinkers. That’s how men engaged in thoughtful discussion before Socrates invented philosophy. Pythagoras rebuked Italos:

You filthy rat, you who have put on the mantle of the Galilaeans {Christians} which they call divine and heavenly, meaning baptism, where do you get the nerve to join us, men who spent their lives in epistemology and syllogistic thought? Either take off that strange robe or take yourself off right away from our company. [6]

The intellectual integrity of the pre-Socratics forbade admittance of turncoats like Italos to their circle.

Italos next tried to emulate Diogenes. A Cynic philosopher, Diogenes would pace back and forth and, with his fierce and combative Socratic style, would attempt to provoke arguments. Italos stepped up to confront Diogenes with forceful discussion. The discussion turned into a dog-fight:

To show his contempt for his opponent’s brand of offensiveness, he {Diogenes} snorted and howled like a dog that is always barking. That provoked John {Italos}, who was also an amateur of Cynic dogma, to start howling in his turn. This all ended in a wrestling match. The Italian got hold of Diogenes in the shoulder with his teeth, but Diogenes countered by fastening his onto his rival’s throat and probably would have throttled him, had not Cato the Roman, who didn’t care much for philosophers, extricated John from Diogenes’ mouth.

Diogenes then spit abusive words at Italos:

You dirty rat … where do you get the nerve to treat me as an inferior, you of all people, whom the Byzantines treated as scum and who was hated by all the Galilaeans {Christians}? By the Cynic philosophy of which sect I am the leader, if you dare to say as much as one more word to me, you will get a second painful death and burial.

With maternal solicitude, Cato took John by the hand and led him away. When they came upon the sophistic-rhetoricians, the latter jumped up and pelted Italos with stones. They shouted:

Get him out of here, Cato. An imbecile who failed grammar in life, a laughingstock when he tried to write speeches — he doesn’t belong here.

Italos responded to this series of intellectual debacles with a Protean Christian prayer to pagan learning:

Aristotle, Aristotle, O syllogism, O sophism, where are you now that I need you? If only you had been here to help me, I could have wiped the floor with these idiot philosophers and this pig-dealing bag of wind, Diogenes. [7]

Italos never rested his soul in a bedrock sense of his own true nature. That meant trouble for a man in gynocentric Byzantine society.

Recognizing a more propitious path to compassion and privilege under gynocentrism, Michael Psellos identified as fully feminine. In a letter to a prominent figure in the Byzantine royal court, Psellos explained:

with regard to nature I am feminine. … I am not a Scythian in my soul, neither was I born “of oak nor of stone,” but I am by nature a delicate shoot and I am softened with respect to natural emotions. [8]

Meeting childhood friends late in life, Psellos nearly cried with delight from physical intimacy with them:

One after another, they kissed me all over, rubbed themselves against my feet, smiled pleasant smiles, and wondered how, instead of the blond hair of my youth, my head has turned silver. They almost brought me to tears. For my soul is indeed simply feminine and easily moved toward compassion. [9]

Psellos (Ψελλός) comes from the Greek verb “to lisp” (ψελλίζειν). The Timarion suggests that Michael Psellos lisped:

The Byzantine Sophist {Michael Psellos} made the announcement without any hesitation, although he whispered {lowly lisped} most of it, being unable to force out the words clearly through the crookedness of his lips. [10]

In any case, Psellos went as far as to identify with the nipples of women:

I am similar to the nipple of women (do not cast blame upon my example, for this is not a negligible work of nature). How do nipples posses the milk that flows from them? The quality and quantity of milk does not reside in the female body, but rather when the mouths of nursling babies press the breasts and squeeze the frontal muscle, it is they that render wet the moisture spread deep inside and turn it into a stream. … The whole thing seems like the digging of wells. … this is also how I squeeze out my words like fountains, spurred by the well-diggers of my letters. If you dig me, I become watery; if not, I simply freeze up. [11]

Psellos, who had a close relationship with Psellos’s mother, wrote a lengthy ecomium for her. That oration effectively canonized her.[12] Byzantium never developed an authoritative apparatus for administering and enforcing men’s choices of what pronouns should be used in referring to them. If Psellos could have registered pronoun choices with an all-powerful Byzantine bureaucracy, Psellos probably wouldn’t have chosen he/him.

While deploying gendered pronouns without rhetorical artifice, the Timarion represented Psellos as an acclaimed intellectual. In Byzantine Hell, philosophers graciously greeted Psellos. Sophists, providing greater honor, treated Psellos as a revered teacher:

They {the sophists} rose as one man in his honor and gave him an enthusiastic welcome. He got the option of sitting  down  in the middle of their circle if he wanted to relax, or towering over them all in the chair that they offered him as the reward for the gracefulness of his eloquence, the charm and clarity of his diction, his affability, his gift of instant extemporization, his natural skill in every literary genre. They kept hailing him as “Sun King” [13]

As a socially favored person, one doesn’t have to perform impressively. In the Timarion, Psellos read out bureaucratic boilerplate for a court’s judgment.[14] The implications are straight-forward. An ordinary bureaucrat will be honored as a master rhetorician if he identifies as fully feminine.

Psellos’s way serves men under gynocentrism today. A leading scholar of Psellos’s work explained:

Psellos was effectively at the process of rearranging the discursive field of gender in order to set his female nature and feminine performance at the epicenter of attention. He appropriated femininity, that is, in order to amplify readerly desire and redirect it upon himself. [15]

According to today’s discursive values, Psello’s enacted “a splendid combination of self-effacement by means of his impersonation of a female voice and self-proclamation with the staging of an ineluctable self.” Many men in scholarly writings and postings on Facebook pursue a similar strategy. The life of John Italos indicates difficulties in performing the masculine aggression against men that is at the center of women’s desire for men. Yet figures such as the Byzantine renegade Andronikos I and the extraordinarily self-conscious Digenis Akritis provide men with insight into more humanely and successfully living as masculine men in gynocentric society.

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Read more:


[1] Anna Komnene, Alexiad Bk. 5, Ch. 8, from Atticizing Greek trans. Dawes (1928). Scholars of that time were “gloomy men of uncouth habits.” Id.

[2] Biographical facts about Italos are from the Alexiad, Bk. 5, Ch. 8; the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (ed. Kazhdan), subject heading John Italus; and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, topic heading Byzantine Philosophy, section 1.3.

John Italos (Ἰωάννης ὁ Ἰταλός) is more consistently transliterated as Ioannes Italos. His name is commonly rendered in English as John Italus. I’ve used the form John Italos rather than Ioannes Italos to make the text more easily readable for non-specialists.

[3] Alexiad, Bk. 5, Ch. 8, trans. Dawes (1928). The subsequent quote is from id. Italos gave learned lectures on the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, and the neo-Platonists Proclus, Porphyry and Iamblichus. Trizio (2013) analyzes a specimen of his scholarship.

Italos was charged with paganism and heresy in 1076 and again 1082. He avoided punishment in 1076. In 1082, he was condemned and eleven chapters of anathema against him were added to the Syndikon of Orthodoxy. Italos’s intellectual views were common in Byzantine intellectual circles. Prosecution of Italos seems to have been politically motivated. Clucas (1981).

[4] On the ancient idea of forgiveness, Konstan (2010).

[5] Michael Psellos used the the term unphilosophic {ἀφιλοσόφως} in a more general sense of unemotional:

I want to philosophize about everything, both words and things. Yet my character betrays me, as it is disposed in a nonphilosphical {ἀφιλοσόφως} manner toward the natural affections (or perhaps this is philosophical too, for the other type of man is Skythian). Thus (how might one say it) I become excited about newborn babies, especially if they are dearest and of dearest parents, and when I am faced with their delights and charms.

Psellos, To Konstantinos, nephew of the patriarch Michael Keroularios, when his son Romanos was born {written after 1063- 1065?}, Letter S 157, from Greek trans. Stratis Papaioannou in Kaldellis (2006) p. 173. The Byzantines viewed Skythians (Scythians) as heartless barbarians.

[6] Timarion 43, from Greek trans. Baldwin (1984) p. 72. The subsequent four quotes are from Timarion 44, trans. id. pp. 73-4. I’ve made some non-substantial changes to Baldwin’s translation to make it more accessible to the general reader.

[7] Cf. Psalm 22:1, Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34, John 11:21,32.

Jaworska-Wołoszyn has made one of the most perceptive comments in the scholarly literature about Italos:

Probably the unflattering opinion about Italos was also determined by the fact that he did not have a caring and devoted mother nearby, whereas  his master Psellos managed to ascend to the heights owing to his mother’s help.

Jaworska-Wołoszyn (2014) p. 288. In bonobo society, a mother’s support for her adult son is crucial to his welfare and promotes a peaceful, egalitarian society generally.

[8] Psellos, To the Same {Ioannes Doukas, written 1063-1065?}, from Greek trans. Papaioannou (2013) p. 208 (with Greek text). Papaioannou’s translation in Kaldellis (2006) pp. 172-3 is substantially identical.

Psellos understood the superior position of the female sex. He wrote to his grandson:

The emperor and empress quarreled over who would sponsor you, and the female sex won.

Psellos, To his grandson, who was still an infant, from Greek trans. Anthony Kaldellis in id. p. 165.

[9] Psellos, To an anonymous friend who was a judge in the administrative theme of Philadelphia in Asia Minor, Letter S 180, from Greek trans. Papaioannou (2013) p. 207 (with Greek text).

[10] Timarion 41, trans. Baldwin (1984) p. 71. The Greek word translated as “whispered” is a form of the Greek verb hypopsellizon. Id. p. 127, n. 224. That word, along with other evidence in the Timarion, is the basis for identifying Psellos with the Timarion’s references to the “Byzantine Sophist” (which Baldwin translated more loosely as the “Byzantine Professor”). Psellos may have been an acquired personal epithet rather than an inherited family name.

[11] Psellos, To Konstantinos, nephew of the patriarch Keroularios, Letter S 117, trans. Papaioannou (2013) p. 229 (with Greek text).

[12] Psellos, Encomium for his mother, available in English translation in Kaldellis (2006) pp. 51-109. Psellos’s mother was named Theodote (Theodota). The Encomium is styled as:

a funeral oration being addressed to relatives and others who wish to know about the saintly qualities of his mother {Theodote}. … the Encomium effectively canonizes Psellos’ mother.

Id. p. 33. Theodote became a devout, ascetic Christian. Psellos formed her to his ideal of intellectual motherhood:

Theodote stands in this final image as the divine source, or an embodiment of that source, from which Psellos has received the life that he will not betray: the life of logos as embodied in the classical secular-humanist paideia, and in the rhetorical, political, philosophical, and pedagogical career of a “Byzantine sophist.”

Walker (2004) p. 99.

Psellos’s Encomium for his mother, not surprisingly, was a highly successful Byzantine work. The Encomium was “studied and admired by later generations of Byzantine writers.” Kaldellis (2006) p. 29. Gregorios Pardos, bishop of Corinth early in the twelfth century, stated:

Above all the consummately excellent speeches that we know, the four best are these: Demosthenes’ On the Crown, the Panathenaic Speech of {Aelios} Aristeides, the Theologian’s {Gregory of Nazianzos’} epitaphios for Basil the Great, and Psellos’ {epitaphios} for his mother.

From Greek trans. Walker (2004) p. 53.

[13] Timarion 45, trans. Baldwin (1984) p. 74.

[14] Timarion 41 gives the entire text of what Psellos read to the public assembly:

It has been resolved by this most worshipful college of great physicians, not forgetting the divine Aesculapius, that Nyktion and Oxybas, in so much as they have transgressed against the laws of the dead, shall be removed forthwith from their office of conductors of souls, and that Timarion shall be restored to life and live in his own body. In due time, when he has completed his allotted span, and has had the holy rituals performed over him, then and only then shall he be brought back to Hades by the legally apppointed conductors of the dead.

Trans. Baldwin (1984). That’s the sort of bureaucratese that ordinary Byzantine bureaucrats regularly produced.

[15] Papaioannou (2013) p. 231. The subsequent quote is from id.

[image] Michael Psellos (on left) teaching Byzantine Emperor Michael VII Doukas (on right). Codex 234, f. 245a, Mount Athos, Pantokrator Monastery. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Baldwin, Barry, trans. and commentary. 1984. Timarion. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Clucas, Lowell. 1981. The trial of John Italos and the crisis of intellectual values in Byzantium in the eleventh century. München: Institut für Byzantinistik, Neugriechische Philologie und Byzantinische Kunstgeschichte der Universität.

Dawes, Elizabeth A. S., trans. 1928. The Alexiad of Princess Anna Comnena: being the history of the reign of her father, Alexius I, Emperor of the Romans, 1081 – 1118 A.D. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Jaworska-Wołoszyn, Magdalena. 2014. “John Italos Seen by Anna Komnene.” Peitho: Examina antiqua. 5: 279-294.

Kaldellis, Anthony, ed. and trans. 2006. Mothers and sons, fathers and daughters: the Byzantine family of Michael Psellos. Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press.

Konstan, David. 2010. Before forgiveness: the origins of a moral idea. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Papaioannou, Stratis. 2013. Michael Psellos: rhetoric and authorship in Byzantium. Cambridge: Cambridge University press.

Trizio, Michele. 2013. “Escaping through the Homeric Gates: John Italos’ Neoplatonic Exegesis of Odyssey 19.562-567 Between Synesius and Proclus.” Documenti e studi sulla tradizione filosofica medievale. 24: 69-83.

Walker, Jeffrey. 2004. “These Things I Have Not Betrayed: Michael Psellos’ Encomium of His Mother as a Defense of Rhetoric.” Rhetorica. 22 (1): 49-101.